Way Down Yonder...
...in New Orleans, Paul Wiffen takes time out to visit the NAMM show, and returns bearing news of the Series III Fairlight, the Emulator SP12 and the OSC Advanced Sound Generator, and more.
...in New Orleans, America's music industry flocked to its exhibition showpiece, the NAMM Music Expo. As ever, the lights, the women and the hyperbole were out in force - but most of all, the halls shimmered to the glow of computer monitors.
Software support was the big news at the New Orleans show, the most important in the American music industry calendar. For there was innovation aplenty in both areas of software development, namely optional upgrades for specific instruments, and more general MIDI-based packages.
In fact, there were so many new music programs on demonstration (some fully debugged, others less so), it's difficult to know exactly where to begin. But begin I shall, with a new Apple IIe package for that most talked-about keyboard, the Ensoniq Mirage. The Mirage's incredibly low price-tag has already brought quality sampling within reach of hundreds of musicians, despite the fact that the months the machine has been in production can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The only problem is that if you're a newcomer to the world of sampling, the Mirage keyboard doesn't give you an awful lot of assistance to help you on your way. It's all very well if you've used something like an Emulator II before, but there must be a fair few Mirage owners who are still a bit baffled by the way their new instrument goes about its business.
Well, a comprehensive new software package called the Visual Editing System should soon change all that. For under £200, you get access to a wide variety of manipulation techniques that are already available on the keyboard itself, but now have the all-important addition of the visual medium. Samples can be displayed in a condensed or magnified format, and edited down to each individual bit using a decimal system, rather than the confusing hexadecimal one used by the display on the keyboard. Using a joystick or Koala Pad, you can change, smooth out or redraw sample sections totally, thereby 'creatively modifying' your sample to your heart's content.
One problem remains, of course, in that the graphics themselves aren't really anything spectacular - useful without being particularly entertaining or innovative. But then, we're talking Apples here, not new-generation 16-bit computers, so that isn't really surprising. Maybe when the engineers at Ensoniq get their hands on an Apple Macintosh or Atari ST, we'll see something truly breathtaking...
Still, in the unlikely event of your falling foul of the system's operational procedures, the package comes complete not only with a user manual of its own, but also with the Mirage Advanced Sampler's Guide, a truly indispensable item in its own right. As if all this isn't enough, the hardware is Passport-compatible, too. Further upmarket, Kurzweil also showed a new software package - designed for them by Southworth Music Systems. With what amounts to a modification of their Total Music package (see this month's Newsdesk), Southworth have developed a MIDI sequencer that interacts at an unusually high level with the Kurzweil 250 digital keyboard, with customised facilities designed to complement the 250's onboard sequencer. Meanwhile, Kurzweil themselves have been busy sawing the 250 in half, with a new MIDI Controller incorporating the grand piano action keyboard and all the 250's MIDI functions, and the Kurzweil Expander housing the machine's sound-generation hardware and software.
Talking of big names and mega-bucks, the Series III Fairlight, a mere snip at £60,000, was on serious demonstration for the first time. And mighty impressive it sounds, too. It should do, of course, because it's 16-bit, but more than that, the Australians are promising a lot in the way of sequencing facilities. For instance, the new CAPS package, successor to the infamous Page R, will give 80 tracks of sequence recording (16 internally and 64 by four MIDI busses) when the software is up and running - but none of this was working at the show.
German hi-tech entrants PPG showed their new Waveterm B, with 16-bit sampling now implemented (and sounding pretty good as well) whilst on the same Europa Technology stand, the newly-improved OSC Advanced Sound Generator was making its first appearance, with a 12" CRT monitor replacing the disappointing LCD screen present on the Frankfurt prototype. Now due this coming Autumn, the ASG boasts scrolling music displays for its built-in sequencer, as well as waveform display and harmonic analyses of sounds. The multitimbral nature of the machine means its 16 internal voices can be assigned to separate MIDI channels and gives you the option of spreading them selectively over different sections of the controlling keyboard, too. The sequencer will be able to control external synths on four MIDI busses, each with 16 channels.
Back on the software front, Italians LEMI were showing DX7 editor and Drumtraks dumper programs for their Apple II interface, but more interestingly, they also have several hardware innovations up their sleeve. These include a MIDI FM transmitter. Nothing to do with Yamaha's tone-generation system, this allows keyboard players the same freedom most guitarists now have on stage, since alone among remote keyboards, it uses radio waves to carry note information, not electric cables. LEMI also have a clever little four-into-one MIDI mixer, which adds together incoming data on four MIDI lines intelligently, and puts it all out on one.
But if this summer's NAMM (there's one each winter as well, but its uncomfortable temporal proximity to Frankfurt lowers its status by comparison with the June affair) proved anything to non-American visitors, it was that the European music software industry is as nought next to the Stateside one. There are thousands of software companies in the US, and a surprisingly large percentage of them now seem to be turning their attention to things musical. Picking your way through the software people at NAMM (and it was by no means a comprehensive turnout) wasn't exactly easy, as an awful lot of America's packages are aimed at doing broadly the same thing.
One exhibitor that did stand out was Syntech, though. As David Ellis mentioned in last month's E&MM, the company have a 16-track, eight-note polyphonic sequencer for the Commodore 64, Apple II and IBM PC that stands out from the crowd by virtue of having more than a decent set of punch-in/punch-out and editing facilities. Let's hope we see it in the UK soon, a sentiment that's also worth feeling for the products of Hybrid Arts, who have a SMPTE recorder and synchroniser program (among many other things) which Jon Anderson is apparently raving about. It runs on Atari, Apple II and CBM64 micros.
Moving to the subject of MIDI controllers, the most inspiring new item was the Voyetra MIDI guitar controller, which plugs directly into any MIDI synth as well as giving a direct signal to a conventional amplifier. No price was available at the show for this country as a distributor has yet to be decided upon, but it should be around two grand.
But as far as this writer is concerned, the star exhibitor at the show can only have been one company - E-mu Systems. First, they had a new hard disk option for the Emulator II, which allows longer sampling times and instantaneous loading (if you remember, the 25-second load time was my principal criticism of the machine when it came under review back in November '84).
Better still is the Drumulator II, now heavily facelifted from the rough prototype we saw at Frankfurt, and given the new title of Emulator SP12 'to reflect its Emulator-like capabilities', according to E-mu. They aren't kidding. The finished machine features user sampling to disk as well as a host of impressive factory sounds (maximum length four seconds at 12-bit resolution), with full tuning, volume and filtering parameters for each sound and on each beat. Its tap buttons are velocity-sensitive, but if that isn't enough, you can program the voices dynamically from any suitably-equipped MIDI keyboard.
The SP12 can also generate and read SMPTE as well as the MIDI clock and Sony digital pointers, which should make it an excellent tool for studio use. UK price has yet to be fixed, but it should come in at well under the price of the Linn 9000. The SP12 is the one to watch.
Show Report by Paul Wiffen
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