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The Musical Micro

Rag Bags and Hotch Potch

Article from International Musician & Recording World, August 1986

Another grab-bag of micro-goodies from IM&RW's computer hack (or is that hacker?) Tony Mills

Would you give two bits for a sampler?

A ragbag and a hotchpotch this month, but no apologies given, because there are some good things in both of them.

First out of the hotchpotch (we'll get the ragbag open later) are some bits of good news for owners of Atari eight-bit micros such as the 130XE and 800. It's now possible to obtain the American Hybrid Arts packages in the UK (more details next month) and these MIDI compositional packages do amazing things with the relatively simple 130XE. The trouble is that the computer, interface and software are usually sold as a complete package in the States, which is no good if you already have the micro. So, more news on this one as we have it.

One UK company already doing something for the Atari is Digicom, who are marketing a MIDI interface and compositional software suitable for all the eight-bit machines (as distinct from the newer ST series). The interface and software are firmly aimed at the budget Casio CZ-101 (which Digicom can supply), but are suitable for any MIDI equipment. Digicom's package comes complete with interface, cables, software and MIDI tutor.

From 2-Bit Systems comes the Replay Sampler, which doesn't even need to be present while you're playing its sampled sounds back. Again, the package works on any eight-bit Atari (with 48k memory); software is on tape or disk and the unit consists of a small cartridge with a minijack lead for sample input. The sound comes out of the TV monitor's speaker, which means there's a danger of it being well crappy (as we say in technical circles), but at least the system's cheap.

Since the Replay cartridge is only needed for sampling and not for playback, its sampled sounds can be incorporated into a BASIC or machine code program using routines supplied, so any games writers out there can now use sampled sound effects. Samples can be saved on to the Atari data recorder or disk, and you can reload, mix, repeat and merge samples.

Two basic expansion packages are available as software on tape or disk for £4.95 the pair. 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 to cassette.

Digisynth allows you to play sampled sounds from the computer's keyboard and comes with two electric guitar sounds and a selection of other effects to get you started.

At £39.95 the Replay system is tremendous value for money and the sampled sounds (with a maximum sampling rate of 21 kHz) are of reasonably good quality. The system's limited by the lack of a separate audio output and synchronisation facilities, but for less than £40 it's a bargain. It's available from 2-Bit Systems by mail order (cheques and POs payable to 2-Bit Systems).

On to the good old Commodore 64 now, for a program which is totally lacking in any creative musical possibilities whatsoever, but which is nevertheless good fun. Tubular Bells from Media Matters starts with an attractive title page and with only the slightest encouragement proceeds to play the whole score of that well-known Mike Oldfield album. The music is accompanied by abstract graphics which can be stepped to different modes by the user, and it's also possible to skip along to the next section of the score by hitting the space bar.

You may be interested to hear how well the programmers have condensed Oldfield's 48-track epic into the three rather ordinary voices of the C64's SID sound chip. Well, technically it's quite good, but artistically it could have been better. If you want any modulation effects such as vibrato on the 64 you have to use one or more of your three oscillators to achieve it, leaving you with only one or two spare. Tubular Bells chooses to use all three voices most of the time, despite the fact that there are plenty of sparse passages which would have been best realised with just one or two sounds plus some heavy filter, vibrato or pulse width modulation effects.

On top of that, some of the imitative sounds are much too inaccurate — the opening piano/glock being much too organ-like, for instance — and a few cop-outs spoil some of the most challenging passages. Still, worth hearing if you've the least interest in music programming or in the C64 in particular.

Even wackier is the DataHits cassette created by Mupados for WH Smith. On one side there's a simple C64 database for listing your albums, songs (groupies?) or whatever, while on the other side there's an audio tape featuring a C64 combined with digital drum machines and effects to perform music from best-selling computer games. Included are Rambo, Never-Ending Story, Ghostbusters, Crazy Comets and Hypersports (Chariots of Fire). Price is £4.99, and the music is listenable.

Hey! Let's go up-up-up-market with Sound Designer from Digidesign, which runs on the ever-so-wonderful (and expensive) Apple Macintosh. In case you've been wondering, it's now all confirmed; if you have both Emulator II and Prophet 2000 versions of the software, it is possible to transfer sample files from one machine to the other, although some editing work may be necessary to make them fit.

Sound Designer displays all aspects of the relevant machine's sampling functions on the Mac screen and allows you to alter, merge and multisplit samples much more quickly and imaginatively than on the keyboard alone. Hopefully an Ensoniq Mirage version will turn up soon, followed by Atari 520ST versions of the software. That really would be something to lookout for; Sound Designer is available from Rod Argent's keyboards now.

Rick Wakeman grapples with the new technology

One interesting aspect of Sound Designer is that it's prolonging the studio life of the Macintosh, so sequencing packages such as those from Southworth (Total Music) and Mark of The Unicorn have a better-than-average chance of success. But the cheaper Atari 520ST and 1040ST micros could take the Mac's place if the software writers would only get a move on; Steinberg's 24-Channel Atari composer is due in as we write, so hopefully we'll examine it in detail next month. Word is that it really kicks arse (?!).

On to the budget market again for a quick mention of the fact that Commodore have relaunched the C64 music packages which were so successful last Christmas. The Complete Music System is £330 and includes Commodore 64 computer, but if you already have the micro, the Music Expansion System is only £150. Both systems include the Sound Expander (an FM synth cartridge with backing rhythms, polyphonic sounds and accompaniment facilities); a five-octave music keyboard; and the Sound Studio software package which allows you to compose music on-screen.

And in closing, an unusual application for the humble Commodore VIC-20 micro. Synchronous Technologies have taken it and disembowelled it for their SMPL system, a 'budget' SMPTE synchronisation unit ideal for small studios.

SMPL can connect two tape machines for added multitrack capabilities, or a tape machine and a video machine (even domestic VHS) for picture-video synchronisation. A Song Pointer generating sequencer such as C-Lab on the Commodore 64 will also sync to SMPL via a Roland SBX-80 SMPTE box, and so on. SMPL even provides MIDI and drum machine pulses if desired.

The VIC-20 (with a few knobs removed) becomes the remote control for the SMPL system while the main interface sits in a 19" rack. The computer's on-screen display (the software is in the interface) lists the present time in SMPTE units (at 25 frames per second, just like in the movies) plus a Cue time, Auto Record In and Out points, Tempo, Tape Status, Mode, and so on. The opening page, Rehearse, simply allows you to set the cue, punch in and punch out points without actually going into record mode, while subsequent pages allow you to drop in exactly on the cue as set, and so on.

SMPL can step along synth patches, start auto fade-outs or fade-ins, start and stop drum machines and synchronise recorders including the TASCAM Series 40 or 50 recorders and almost any other machine from a cassette deck to a U-matic video recorder from Fostex, Otari, JVC, Sony, Panasonic and others.

SMPL usually locks up all connected machines within a couple of seconds. The VIC-20 is a little bulky to use on the lap and suffers from having the power, video and interface leads all projecting from the back, but SMPL is a great problem-solver, whether your problem involves tape machine synchronisation, video synchronisation, or synth-to-tape synchronisation, via SMPTE. Price is £1,495 + VAT including cables.

SMPL: Audio Services, (Contact Details). Thanks to Harry Davenport and The Green Room 24-track (Contact Details) for SMPL demo facilities.
Digicom Software: Digicom, (Contact Details)
Replay Sampler: 2-Bit Systems, (Contact Details).
Tubular Bells: Media Matters, (Contact Details)
Datahits: Mupados, (Contact Details).

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Aug 1986



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