The Musical Micro
Take It From The Top
Tony Mills with more up and downmarket software
No apologies for starting unashamedly upmarket this month, as we'll be plunging equally far downmarket later. But there's a lot to get through this month, so with no further ado, prevarication, unnecessary verbosity or beating about the bush (sorry)...
Many computer music systems have claimed to be the ultimate compositional device, but Total Music from Southworth has a better claim than most. Designed for the Apple Macintosh, it's now selling well in the UK as well as in the States thanks to the services of Audio FX, who have begun to import the system recently.
Total Music became popular in the US partly because many studios already had a Macintosh on hand, either for accounts or for musical purposes such as Prophet 2000 or Emulator2 editing using the Digidesign Sound Designer software. Having taken up Total Music they found that it's unusually powerful and flexible, and compatible with a score writing program which can turn every nuance of your composition into a dot on a stave — very handy for the session players.
The package comes complete with a MIDI interface and a DX7 sound library program. 99 musical patterns up to 1.000 bars long can be stored and sequences can play separately, simultaneously, or in any order. Total capacity (a 512k Mac is needed) is 50.000 notes.
All the music is entered from a MIDI keyboard, but most of the computer commands are from the Mac's mouse, which means you don't have to do any heavy typing. As you enter notes they're flashed up as shaded sections along the row representing the current MIDI pattern — the heavier the shading, the higher the velocity. The playback mode, with millions of little squares flashing at once, is impressive if not immediately informative.
You can choose to display any sequence as notes on a music stave for complex editing procedures and you can also alter the sequence by punching in and out, auto correction and so on. It's possible to copy and recopy sections, filter out information such as velocity to save memory, and much more. Notes can be entered in step time too. Any combination of keys on the master MIDI keyboard can be assigned to any MIDI channel.
Of course, Total Music is powerful but expensive, and using the Mac is an art form in itself. Also on the powerful but expensive side is SMPL, a computer-based SMPTE synchronisation system now sold in the UK by Audio Services. It's still much cheaper than most SMPTE systems though!
SMPL is based on a modified Commodore VIC-20 computer and features a rack-mounted interface box which takes over control of one or two tape machines or video machines. The SMPLified computer acts as a remote control unit and gives a monitor display which allows you to see what's going on.
SMPTE In/Out, Roland-type Sync and Clock outputs for drum machines running at 24, 48 or 96 pulses per quarter note are available, and the basic display shows SMPTE units, Run Time, Cue, Record In and Out points, Slate ('take number' if you like), Time, Format, Tempo, Tape Status, Mode and Date. You have to record one minute of SMPTE from the computer onto the start of the tape you're using, so the Run Time is always shown as one minute less than the real SMPTE time.
Run time is updated every 30th of a second when the system is past the one minute 'leader' (SMPTE generally runs at 30 'frames' per second) and a Cue value can be entered at any time. SMPL offers search-to-cue, auto drop in and drop out and identification codes for each song or take. The controller also doubles the tape machine's Play/Stop/FF/Rew functions and you can start and stop sequencers and drum machines from an optional interface box and MIDI devices from the rack unit.
SMPL allows you to lock your tape machine to video, or to lock two tape machines together for track multiplication, and is easy to set up and use and relatively cheap at £1495 + VAT.
But let's go downmarket for a change. For a start, did you know that MSX wasn't dead? Nah, mate, it were just pining. Not so much for the fjords as for the shot in the arm that MSXII, the expanded form of the ill-fated micro standard, represents.
Before the UK manufacturers go full tilt for MSXII, it seems they're going to have a final fling with the standard as we know it now.
Toshiba, for instance, have vastly decreased the price of their HX10 computer (to around £99) and for another £99 you can now buy the HX-MU901 Keyboard and FM Synth Module. Based on Yamaha chips, the synth module plays nine-note polyphonically, or plays bass, chords, arpeggios, rhythms and two-note leadlines simultaneously.
Toshiba's composer cartridge for the HX-MU901 allows it to act as a sophisticated home keyboard with split (fixed at the second F# on the pleasant five-octave full-sized keyboard), transpose, tune and many other functions. There are three sensor pads on the keyboard which allows you to stop and start rhythms, enter new chords into programmed backing sequences and play arpeggios or drums manually and change rhythm patterns and presets at a touch.
There are phono audio outputs on the cartridge which is provided with three demo tunes, 65 preset sounds, vibrato and sustain, mixable Poly, Rhythm, Bass and Chord levels and sequence dump to tape or disk. No complex sequence editing, sound creation or external synchronisation, but an inexpensive, simple and playable computer-based FM preset system nevertheless.
Yamaha's own MSX baby, the CX5M, has of course had an update lately with the addition of the SGF-05 Tone Module and new software. It's now possible to use the computer as a multi-timbral MIDI expander and the software features increased MIDI capabilities. For the first time, realtime composition is possible (in a limited form on a sort of auto-composing play-along package, but more is surely to come) and until the company decides whether to go for the CX5MII model or wait for something more powerful, the updated CX5 is a good bet if you can still find one in the shops.
Also on the MSX front is Pioneer's PX-7 machine. No direct connection with music this one, but it does have the advantage of Gen-Lock, a video circuit which allows its output to be superimposed over a still or moving video image. The PX-7 computer module fits into a 19" rack and the keyboard is separate, while the front and back of the module fair bristle with video and audio inputs and outputs. For £299 it gives an incredible opportunity to add your own static or moving captions and graphics to home-made videos complete with sound mixing, wipes and fades in various directions, and an optional graphics tablet for only £99. The Toshiba sound module is compatible with it, and so is the Yamaha if you add a suitable interface lead.
On to the eight-bit Atari micros, whose owners need not feel left out of the computer music revolution. A Milton Keynes company called Digicom are marketing a MIDI interface and compositional software ideally matched to the Casio CZ-101 — which they also sell.
The Atari 400,800, XL and XE computers can be used and Digicom will supply their MIDI interface, cables, software and a MIDI tutor. We haven't seen this package yet but it looks fun.
One package we have seen is the Replay Sampler from 2-Bit Systems. Again for the eight-bit Atari machines (as long as they have 48k of memory), the Replay has software on tape or disk and consists of a small cartridge with a minijack lead for sound input. Sounds come out via the TV monitor, so they're obviously a little limited, and there's no method of synchronising to external units such as by MIDI or CV In. But for £39.95 what do you expect?
A few samples are supplied and any others can be saved to tape or disc. Samples can be reloaded, mixed, repeated and merged, and there are two basic expansion packages — Digidrum comes with eight sampled drum sounds including bass, snare and clap, and allows you to play back up to two sounds at a time. You can program 16-beat patterns and hold up to 30 patterns in memory; patterns can be linked together into a song, and songs can be saved to disk or cassette.
Digisynth allows you to sample sounds and play them back from the computer's keyboard. Two electric guitar sounds and a selection of other effects are provided to get you started. The Replay cartridge doesn't have to be present to play back sounds, so you can incorporate the sampled sounds in your own computer programs such as games. Sample rate is 21 kHz so the frequency response is around what you'd expect from a TV speaker.
The Replay sampler and basic software costs £39.95 and the Digidrum/Digisynth software on tape or disk is £4.95. Both are available by mail order — cheques and POs should be made payable to 2-Bit Systems at the address given below.
For the larger Atari 520ST (the 1040 ST has now been launched too) we've already looked at the MoPro/Treesoft MIDI Recorder. It's a simulated eight-track tape machine which works via the computer's built-in MIDI port and which allows you to record in realtime with a variable count-in, replay at one of seven speeds, offset the start of each pattern by a variable amount, set a MIDI channel for each track and enter a note of what synthesizer was connected and which sound it was playing.
Each track can hold up to 12 hours(!) of music and information can be copied from one track to another. Ghost Tracks can be created with the same notes but different delay and other settings without using up any extra memory, and sections of music can be labelled with a name (such as 'Intro') which allows you to locate them immediately. You can sync to drum machines and other MIDI devices and MoPro plan a MIDI scoring package, a Music Programming Language and a Yamaha DX7 synth editor.
Although MoPro are Dutch, they've now struck a deal with a UK company called SECS. You can obtain the MIDI recorder software from the SECS address given below.
For the Commodore 64 there are new updates to the Microvox Digital Sound Editor. It's a hardware sampling/echo unit costing around £230; it's monophonic and offers 0.8 seconds sampling at an excellent 20 kHz frequency response, or 17.28 seconds at 1 kHz response.
The Microvox casing is half the size of the C64 and the software comes on cartridge or disk. Audio In and Out jack sockets, MIDI In/Out ports, a ribbon cable connector to the 64's cartridge port, and front panel controls for Gain, Mix, Output Level and Repeat complete the lineup.
The basic page display allows you to sample using an Input Gain bar display with adjustable threshold level, sampling rate and compander/filter. The Waveform Editor page displays the sampled sound diagramatically and allows you to edit, loop, invert or fade in or out. You can multi-sample until all the available memory is used, so it's possible to sample a complete drum kit of sounds to be played from the computer's keys, from a MIDI synth or from the software drum sequencer.
Sounds and sequences can be saved to disk and the software also has powerful echo and harmoniser (pitch shift) effects to alter any sounds input via a microphone.
Slightly less seriously and coming soon for the C64, Tubular Bells, a complete rendition of Mike Oldfield's epic instrumental accompanied by psychedelic graphic displays. How the manufacturers, Media Matters, have shared five million overdubs between the three voices of the C64 remains to be seen.
Media Matters, (Contact Details).
SMPL; Audio Services, (Contact Details). Thanks to The Green Room 24-track ((Contact Details)) for SMPL demo facilities.
Digicom, (Contact Details).
MoPro, (Contact Details)
SECS, (Contact Details).
2-Bit Systems, (Contact Details).
Supersoft/Microvox, (Contact Details).
Toshiba UK, (Contact Details).
Yamaha UK, (Contact Details)
Pioneer High Fidelity, (Contact Details).
Feature by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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