Activision Music Studio (CBM 64)
Music software for the CBM 64
The Music Studio software is Activision's first major break from the games market; consequently it promises to add a fresh and lively lease of life to the already swarming Commodore 64 music software emporium.
The Music Studio is available in either cassette or disk format; however, as the disk costs only a few more pounds than the cassette I used the disk.
Having only a single joystick as your means of control, the Music Control would appear to be a limited novelty - not so, as a flick through the 40-page manual reveals. Among its long list of features, this program enables the experienced or inexperienced musician to compose, edit and store music and lyrics, play them back and print out sheet music of your original compositions, including lyrics.
It also enables you to create and store your own sound library of instruments and sound effects, which can be used to play back your compositions; and the program also has a mode which is designed for "improvised composing", called the 'Paintbox', which 'paints' the notes onto two staves.
The Music Studio has three main screens: the Music Editor, the Sound Engineering Screen, and the Music Paintbox.
The Music Editor is the mode for creating and editing your compositions. It has all the parameters necessary for music notation, which are selected and controlled from one joystick.
In the top half of the screen are the two staves on which to write your music, and on the screen's bottom half are the different function boxes. To select the different functions, there is an on-screen pointer (actually supposed to be a conductor's baton), controlled by the joystick. By moving this baton around the screen to the function you wish to select, and then pressing the joystick's button, that function will then be selected. If, for example, it is an actual note sign that you have selected, the joystick will then guide that note up the screen onto the two staves. When you have positioned the note in the desired position on the stave, you then press the joystick's button once again in order to 'fix' the note to its correct pitch on the stave.
This is how the score is built up on the screen, and life is made a lot easier by the 64 actually playing the notes as you move the note sign up and down the staves.
As the Commodore's infamous sound generator - the SID chip, is of a three note polyphonic design; Activision's Music Studio can also play or write a maximum of three notes at a time. The actual audio output can be chosen from any of the preset 15 voices that the Music Studio has in its library, or can be played by any instruments that you could program yourself from the 'Sound Engineering' screen.
The Sound Engineering screen is not dissimilar to a VDU display of a typical synth's sound parameters - it has the mandatory ADSR, Waveform select (Triangle, Pulse wave, Sine Wave and White Noise), Filter (High Pass, Low Pass and Band Pass), as well as Sync (synchronising the voices) and Ring Modulation!
All these parameters are again accessed in the same way as on the Music Editor screen - 'pick up' parameters, press the Joystick button, and then increment parameters up or down from the joystick.
The third screen is the Music Paintbox, and this is a free-form method of composing which does not use standard musical notation - notes are 'painted' on to the stave in the form of coloured rectangles of varying size. The size of the rectangle indicates the duration of the note, and the note's colour determines which instrument plays it.
No matter how many different parameters you are offered on a Commodore 64 computer program, there will always be the limiting factor of the tonal restrictions of the SID chip itself. Never-the-less, Activision's Music Studio certainly pushes the SID chip's tonal range to its limit.
The two most noticeable aspects of the Music Studio which separate it from any other CBM64 program I have yet come across, is firstly its very efficient usage of the joystick for complete control of every feature; and the second is the quality of the graphics. The Music Studio's graphics are superb. An enormous amount of time must have been spent in order to achieve graphics of this calibre - certainly on par with the best MSX computers (reputable for the quality of their graphics.
When in the Music Editor mode, there are symbols which depict different modes: a dustbin ("Trash Can") to exit the current mode, and animated door-key to change key (sharps, flats and naturals), a caricature of a human ear will, when selected, switch on the audio output, and all kinds of animated marker pens, spilt ink wells, etc., depict the different modes for the Music Paintbox.
Other features that the Music Studio offers are printing of finished scores, dumping of the compositions or instrument voicings to cassette or disk, and even a few pages of elementary music tutorial can be found in the back of the manual.
One feature that I was not able to try out, was the use of the Music Studio with a MIDI interface. Although not mentioned in the instructions manual,the Activision team in the USA have indicated that the program will transmit its compositions via selected MIDI interfaces to a MIDI compatible instrument. At the time of writing, they had only tried a single MIDI interface which is at present only available Stateside, and have no information yet as to which interfaces are compatible in the UK.
Activision's Music Studio is undoubtedly a clever piece of software. Full control of all functions from a single joystick is a very fast, easy and practical means for controlling the Music Studio; and this, in addition to its superb graphics, extensive features and very low price, entitles Activision's Music Studio to receive full marks.
Price: £14.99 (cassette) £19.99 (disk)
Review by Curtis Schwartz
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