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The Musical Micro

How To Save £54,800

Article from International Musician & Recording World, October 1986

Tony Mills makes a meal of the most interesting musical microprocessing around.

If you think about it, the new Fairlight Series III is £55,000 and offers you 16 monophonic sampled voices to play with. A Commodore 64, on the other hand, will cost you around £200 (the more reliable Atari 520 ST has come down to £500 or so) and you can add up to 16 polyphonic synthesizers for well under £1,000 each. Add on a little for MIDI software and an interface and you have a system with anything up to 256 voices which can be analogue, FM or sampled for something between £600 and £20,000. Anybody who still can't see why micro music is a contender now?

One of the good things about the computer-to-MIDI concept is that however basic your computer is, the sounds coming out at the end are the same. For instance, XRI now have several MICON MIDI products for the humble 48k Spectrum and are about to launch an Amstrad 8256 range. There's a Step Time Sequencer using XRI's MIDI Interface (£59.95) to compose music in eight tracks of up to 2,900 steps for a total of 26,200 steps. Notes are entered from the synth keyboard and timings from the computer. Single notes or chords can be entered, sequences can be saved to cassette or microdrive and tracks can be assigned to different MIDI channels on playback.

The package synchronises to MIDI or a clock pulse, but XRI also sell three sync boxes — MIDI-Tape/Tape-MIDI for £55.95, MIDI-DIN Sync/DIN Sync-MIDI for £49.95, and MIDI Tape & DIN Sync/Tape-MIDI & DIN Sync for £65.95, so that should solve all outstanding synchronisation problems.

Other products include a Yamaha DX7/TX7 graphic voice editor (24.95), a Casio CZ synth graphic voice editor (£22.95), a DX7/TX7 voice library with 224 new sounds and tape save (24.95), a Roland Juno 106 Toolkit editor/library (£19.95) and a Database System for patch and song tape save from most synths and drum machines (£22.95).

There's also a new Multi-tracker program which records eight polyphonic tracks in real time and can auto-correct your playing synchronised to a metronome beat, a drum machine, a MIDI unit or a pervious track. Bars can be added, inserted, deleted and repeated to create a complete song and different MIDI channels can be assigned to each track on playback.

A Spectrum Microdrive or the Opus Discovery disk drive can be used to store sequences, which can be over five minutes long. Price is £24.95, with an expanded version coming up for £16 (exchange) or £38.95 for the two programmes bought together.

Anyone using a computer for composition is already likely to have considered buying a Casio CZ101. With eight-note polyphony or four independent monophonic sounds on different MIDI Channels it's a fantastic bargain at around £240, but there are some difficulties in creating your own sounds. Users may have noticed that the scales for amplitude, pitch and wave envelopes are all different, so it's quite difficult to make everything happen at the same time in a new sound.

Julian Skidmore has developed a CZ 'timing package' based on a Casio pocket computer which solves all that. For around £40 he's selling a Casio PB-110 pocket computer with the program already resident in it; there are various options allowing you to calculate the envelope rates from a desired note length, or to calculate timing from two given levels and rate, or work out a rate from two levels and a time (are you still with us? So a question like what settings do I use to make the DCA, DCW and DCO all go from 00 to 50 in 0.3 seconds? can be answered, and entered into the synth in less than a minute (it's DCO Rate 38, time 0.32s, DCW Rate 50, time 0.274s, DCA Rate 51, time 0.309s).

The package comes complete with a basic handbook and Julian hopes to add sections on vibrato and portamento rates and to develop the package for larger micros. It's certainly a handy aid if you're already doing a lot of CZ programming and finding it frustrating, although I would have liked to be able to save the program and use the computer for something else!

Is there anybody out there who hasn't realised yet that there are a few bargains about in CX5 land? Yamaha are making the new SFG-05 tone module available separately for existing owners to update their MIDI facilities, but the X-Series Owners' Club have published a sheet which tells you how to fit the CX5's original tone module or the SFG-05 to a cheaper MSK micro. The Sony and Canon (and any other two-slot models) are ideal, and both are available very cheaply now.

Fitting the synth module involves etching out a connector strip from a piece of blank circuit board. The sheet describes all the materials needed, which come to less than £5 by mail from Maplin Electronics, and the job should take an hour or so. With the new CX5 software available this is a good chance to build a very powerful micro music system, which if the independent companies have their way will soon be capable of sound sampling as well as FM synthesis.

For a copy of the SFG-05 fitting instructions contact Martin Tennant at The Yamaha X-Series Owners' Club.

Now a couple of bits and pieces for the BBC B. Hybrid Technology, who launched the Music 500 synth module a couple of years back, have how announced its successor, the Acorn 5000. It's a software and hardware package which will be available in the form of a software and documentation upgrade for existing 500 owners, and it will increase the compositional abilities of the system quite considerably.

Details of the new package are thin on the ground at the time of writing since it's being officially launched at the Acorn User Show at the end of July, a few weeks in the future as we type. More details as we get them.

MIDI for the MiniMoog

Another BBC accessory is the UMI ConVertor designed as an accessory for The London Rock Shop's UMI-2B sequencer. The ConVertor takes MIDI output signals from the UMI and makes them available in the form of trigger, gate and velocity level to control older analogue synths such as a MiniMoog. The effect is to create a MIDI-controlled MiniMoog with velocity control of loudness or filter setting, which is a truly funky animal. The ConVertor works equally well with a Roland SH-101, Korg MS10 or MS20, Roland SH09 and so on, although you may need a trigger conversion as you do for the MiniMoog's S-Trigger input (about 4p worth of components are involved and any engineer worth his salt should be able to do it).

The unit gives a choice of MIDI channels and velocity scales and can also act as a MIDI channel convertor, which is handy if you're struggling with a Jupiter 6 which only really wants to look at channel 1. The ConVertor should also be suitable for use with other hardware and software sequencers, but the unit we looked at went crazy when a MIDI clock signal was mixed in with the note information, which means that the Roland MSQ700 is out since it gives off MIDI clocks even when stopped. However, computer-based packages which give some control over the clock output, such as Sound Technology's C-Lab on the C64, seem to be okay. It's great to be able to mix golden oldies like the MiniMoog in with more modern MIDI synths!

It's possible that U-Music, the manufacturers of the UMI-2B and ConVertor, will have a few new products soon, since they will shortly become completely independent of The London Rock Shop.

There's some news of the Microvox sampler, an incredible monophonic sampling system for the C64 which supports MIDI inputs and provides waveform editing, disk storage and echo/harmoniser functions. The manufacturers, Supersoft, have released some new samples arranged into five sections: Orchestral and Strings, Wind and Brass Instruments, Guitars and Basses, Drums and Percussion, Keyboards and Miscellaneous. Each section fills both sides of one brightly-coloured disk and there are 123 samples in all including electronic and synthesized sounds as well as the real thing.

The complete library costs £29.95 and is available through two music outlets — Gigsounds in Catford, SE London and JSG Music in Barnsley, Yorkshire — as well as by mail from Supersoft. Credit orders can be placed on (Contact Details) during office hours.

Sampled drum sound for the Amstrad

Cheetah's SpecDrum is one of the most professional sampled drum units for a cheap micro, and the company's latest release is an Amstrad version, the AmDrum.

The unit is suitable for 464, 664 and 6128 micros, and consisted of a small digital-to-analogue convertor cartridge which plays sampled sounds, plus software to arrange them into patterns and songs. The interface costs £34.95 and comes with a kit of eight drum sounds, kick (bass drum to you and me), snare, mid tom, low tom, cowbell, open and closed hi hat and claps. New voices can be loaded from cassette and a Latin kit (£3.99) and Electro kit (£4.99) are already available — an edit facility provided with new kits makes it possible to mix and match sounds from each kit to produce unique combinations.

The AmDrum interface has a decent audio output and several demo songs are provided. Rhythms can be written in step time or in real time and 16 songs up to 64 patterns long can be stored in memory and saved to cassette. The unit synchronises to tape and is available, believe it or not, through larger Boots and Menzies and through computer stores.

The SpecDrum and AmDrum sounds are pretty impressive, about on a par with the Korg DDM 110 drum machine, but the new Electro kit is particularly powerful. At £34.95 the AmDrum is a spectacular bargain.

Finally, a mention that Dr Evelyn Mills of the Arthritis & Rheumatism Council is compiling an audio tape of Computer music for sale in aid of ARC funds. Classical, Jazz, Electronic, Pop or any other styles are acceptable and all contributors will be acknowledged on the tape; Commodore 64 programs can be on program tape or disk while music for other micros should be on audiotape. Anyone who would like more information or who would like to contribute a piece should contact Dr Mills at (Contact Details).

Cheetah Marketing, (Contact Details).
XRI Systems, (Contact Details)
Julian Skidmore, (Contact Details)
Yamaha X-Series Owners' Club, (Contact Details)
Hybrid Technology, (Contact Details).
Supersoft, (Contact Details).

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

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International Musician - Oct 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman



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