When Is A Computer
are today's micros really helping
A year has passed since Andy Honeybone last looked at computers for musicians. Is there something rotten in the state of the art?
The truth is that there were only a handful of personal computers in evidence at the British Music Fair: a clutch of Commodore 64s, an IBM, and a lone BBC. Fortune would have it that between mouthfuls of Cornish pasty I was able to act as a locum for the good Doctor Spliff and hold a clinic on such matters on the OTT stand.
My thanks to those who were brave enough to pour out their troubles to me. Perhaps not surprisingly there was a common theme present in each enquiry. Sadly, there was no easy off-pat solution that could be prescribed. Let me expand. Ah, that's better.
Firstly, it appears that most keyboard players I spoke to are guitarists who need to thicken the sound of their demos. The spin-off is that interest in sequencing is high. Second, high quality digital drum machines appear to be the first purchase of any songwriting team. Thirdly, it seemed to be felt that unless something on a recording was sampled, then that track wouldn't be worth the paper its rejection slip would be printed on.
To embroider on the truth un peu, the basic question was, "Which computer and software package should I buy to give me a 16-track MIDI sequencer, a 20kHz bandwidth sampler (over ten octaves), voice and rhythm programming graphics for all known equipment, as well as word processing and running Magic Mushrooms?"
Personally, I think it's quite an achievement that computer music literacy has advanced to the point where people have become aware that software is a necessary part of the proceedings. Two years ago the computer alone would have been credited with the power.
When confronted with such demands it's tempting to advise you to hang on for a new product just about to hit the shops. A case in point was the Yamaha CX5 music computer which was supposed to be Just The Job. A quick scan through the ads tells us that the real-time sequencer ROM, RX programmer ROM and sound sampling package are "arriving soon" — what better?
The MSX standard, to which the CX5 conforms, was supposed to herald a new era of software compatibility. In the face of Uncle Clive's wonders and fierce price-cutting from Commodore, the MSX machines were ultimately expensive and failed to attain the market share required to interest the software houses. Additionally, the MSX specification was obsolete from birth — proof of that is found by the recent revamping to MSX Plus. But it's unfair to criticise the CX5 directly because it stands out as a serious attempt to deliver the goods.
The darling of the home micros is presently the Atari 520ST with its half megabyte of memory, 68000 16-bit processor, pretty graphics front-end (GEM), and MIDI sockets. No actual software yet to drive the MIDI sockets mind, but they are there. Complete with 3½in disc drive and monitor, the system costs in the region of £800. Which might be better spent on a Casio CZ1000 synth and SZ1 sequencer, or a Yamaha DX21 and some piano lessons.
But I'm forgetting. Your bedrooms are stacked floor to ceiling with MIDI keyboards and drum machines and you're looking for that central cortex to make them buzz into action. Well, the Yamaha QX1 is now comfortably under two and a half grand (by several pounds), and for those with less wealthy patrons there's always the Roland MSQ700 and Yamaha QX7. These are all dedicated sequencers and although they can't play games or process words, they excel at their given task because they're not jacks of all trades.
If you've been following the City pages of the daily papers you'll know that if the home computer market isn't dead then it's certainly smelling funny. Memory size of 128k is the starting point for any new arrival and a 16-bit micro is mandatory. Somehow, I can't see the likes of the Apricot F1e and myriad IBM lookalikes doing much business with their software packages at £200-plus.
Amstrad look interesting but they aren't making too many friends by bringing out new machines before Access have billed you for the previous model. Commodore have shown their C128 model, but it's only a 64 with some bank-switched memory (8-bit processors can only talk to 64k at any one time) and a Z80 processor lurking around to run CP/M (a none-too-convenient operating system) business programs.
Judging a computer on hardware is ridiculous because even a superbly specified beast like the Atari 520ST will be useless without good software. The current fad is for graphic interactive displays which allow you to get the computer to loop the loop with a minimum of typing. Windows, icons, menus and pull-down-screens are all part of an armoury which eats up memory like anything. Add to this a choice of ten display fonts and reprogrammable key assignment and most of the advantage of a powerful processor with masses of memory is cancelled out.
And what of the Morris Minor of computers, the BBC micro? Souped up with just enough extras to make most of the third party goodies incompatible, the price of the B+ has frightened off the high-street chain stores — even spotting a Model B for sale is a rarity in these hard times. We cannot ignore the fact that two digital synthesisers exist for this machine: the Acorn 500 and the Clef CMS. Even as a diehard FORTH programmer, I find the code for the 500 a little daunting. Reviews of the little box have varied from infatuation to revulsion. Perhaps Acorn's demo tape and ATPL's compatible Symphony keyboard will help to sort things out. There is also the generally praised UMI composition program for the Beeb.
Choice in home micros is now down to Commodore 64, 16 and Plus 4, Spectrum + and QL, the Amstrads, Electron, Atari and MSX. Even former Beeb merchants Island Logic have turned to the C64 for their MIDI Music System to gain a wider potential market. Duff though the Commodore is (poor BASIC, slow disc drive) it does have more musical software written for it than any other micro: Siel, Passport, Joreth, Electronic Research, JMS, Microsound and Sequential to name but a few.
From my earlier prognosis, it would appear that you've all got very expensive drum machines anyway, so knowledge of the Syntron C64 drum module (OTT, Aug '85) would only be a source of annoyance, especially as it's cheap and effective.
So let's move right on to sampling for the skint. Assuming you are without a C64, you will need to spend £1000 to buy something like the Microsound 64 Digital Music System complete with computer, disc drive and monitor. Sound quality judgments aside, that's very nearly a DX7, or two thirds of a Mirage. OK, it's a good deal cheaper than a Fairlight, but you do get what you pay for. Sampling requires lots of memory and additional hardware to convert to and from analogue. In honesty, keyboards and video displays only slow things down and are a liability on stage. So why not go for a dedicated system?
Supposing you had a C64 based MIDI sequencer, a C64 sampler, and a C64 drum machine. Although it's stating the obvious, there is a major limitation. Use of one prevents the use of the others. Ha!
In summary, home micros have clouded the issue of professional music making and their potential usefulness has been eroded by the introduction of relatively low cost, stand-alone units much better suited to performing environments.
I chanced upon a product from AlgoRhythm Software for the C64 called Cantus. It's an improvising music program — which allows you to choose harmony, tempo, rhythm, counterpoint, range and tone, colour, and then off it goes. The perfect Christmas present for John 'Jazz is Dead' Morrish.
One Two Training
Feature by Andy Honeybone
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