When is a Computer? (Part 1)
In fact, when is it a musical instrument? We start making sense of the silicon chip.
That's right, when? At what point does a micro stop being a bucket of chips and become a musical instrument? Programmer Andy Honeybone begins the long job of putting computers in their place — without using the word Cobol once.
It would be a foolish man who would deny the benefits of the computer, but sadly the days of rooms full of valves are long gone and in their place we have small wedge-shaped boxes which can be cut into plectrums when their usefulness has passed.
The aura of the computer fortunately remains and serves to allay any enquiries as to items out of stock at your local discount warehouse. Ten years ago, you could be assured of a round of "oohs" and "aahs" and accommodating company for the evening if you announced at a party that you were a computer programmer.
Times change and such inclinations are nowadays best kept discreet. This turnaround has largely been brought by the advent of the home microcomputer.
It's hard to imagine that something costing less than £100 could cause so much social change (excepting the Frizbee). Parents are told they are inadequate because they cannot help their child load his 16k "Squash The Purple Fluorescent Arachnids" machine code educational program and are at a total loss as to why a blue leech explodes when CONTROL G is pressed.
Girlfriends lose their men for days on end and puzzle over the meaning of the last message received — "just got a syntax error in line 4020 darling, be with you in a sec". Psychiatrists believe that children exposed to computer game playing can't cope with "real life situations" and in conversation, should they be losing an argument, they will try to find the reset button on their opponent.
The computer, being inanimate, is blameless. It is purely a solution in search of a problem and coincidentally a time sponge.
The attraction of the micro could be identified as transcendental hang-gliding for the lethargic. In the privacy of your own lean-to, you can pit your wits against some very high-technology and while away many an hour enjoyably re-inventing the wheel.
And what of the musician and the micro? First, define musician. The various home computer manufacturers have been quick to realise that providing sound is a fairly cheap way to add to the features list of their products. Is someone who programs a string of BEEP commands to produce the "Bells Of St. Marys" a musician?
Are we being very "Lo-tech" to insist that a musician is someone who can contort his digits around a B7 chord on a guitar fretboard? Must music comprise chromatically defined pitches superimposed over a rhythmic pulse? It would not be very forward thinking to even suppose that any of these questions had a correct answer.
It would be my guess that micros with built-in sound generation are aimed more at those who like to hear the "Death March" played on the demise of a baddie rather than those with aspirations to be surrounded by Fairlights and dry ice in the cathedral of their choice.
Micro is a word much abused. Stemming from the Greek for "is that it?", micro doubles as a shortened form for both microprocessor and microcomputer. The all essential difference between the two is that the first refers to what the tabloids love to call "the chip", and the second is a fully assembled box with screen and keyboard to allow communication.
And so we unwittingly stumble on another case of definition of terms. Having been unable to come to any decision as to what a musician was, we now are uncertain which meaning of micro is changing the face of music and turning the world on its ear.
Not such a problem really, the microprocessor is responsible for affordable polyphonic synths and the home microcomputer will be responsible for compositional, notational and timbral revolutions when and if the software becomes available. Software is what is needed to make a microcomputer perform a required task.
Although a computer has the potential to print gas bills or become a sequencer, it will do neither without the relevant software. This is a program written in a language the computer understands. If you are smart you will buy the software. If you don't like sunshine and meeting people and if you think you know all there is to know about music then you can try to write your own.
Perhaps it's a little smug to advise this line of action because not only is available software a bit thin on the ground but also the chances of it being suitable for your particular micro are somewhat slim. So far in these early days, the Apple has emerged favourite with those from foreign shores out east.
This is because the Japanese have all but made a national sport out of copying these machines and "Apple compatible" micros abound. In Britain we can proudly claim to have more choice in home micros than any other country and while this is great for enterprise, it's not such good news for software vendors.
Standardisation is very necessary to prevent the consumer from becoming a "piggy in the middle", and the announcement of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a great step forward — even if not aimed directly at Joe Public. Recently a standard has been drawn up for rock-bottom low-cost home micros to enable the Japanese to enter this market from which they have been notably absent.
The idea is that if everyone uses the same microprocessor and video chip etc, then shared software costs will give the punter the cheapest possible micro with the widest choice of bought-in programs and still make enough profit to be worthwhile.
The peripherals trap has cost many people a lot of money. A peripheral is something which didn't come in the box when you rushed home from Rumbelows with your long awaited micro. Floppy disc drives and printers are two notoriously expensive add-ons each costing about four times more than the micro.
The musician has the additional complication in that his most sought after peripheral will be a polyphonic synthesizer. It's perhaps better to think of the microcomputer as a peripheral to the polysynth. This line of thought may soothe the troubled wallet and banish those ideas of giving up electronic music and becoming a Salsa clarinetist.
Being in at the beginning is never an enviable position. When parting with large sums of cash, it would be nice to be reassured that your "must have it" item will not be joining the ranks of four-channel sound, flared trousers and LED watches within six months. When gazing at that Synclavier just remember that Karlheinz Stockhausen started with only a few sine wave oscillators. Putting dried peas in your shoes may also take your mind off such things.
Faced with the knowledge that micros are here to stay, the musician can choose from several levels of involvement. First there's the wrecker who can be seen tipping iron filings and blowing smoke into the disc drive of an unguarded Emulator, or, perhaps swapping a data cassette for "Sing-a-long-a-Max vol 8". Wobbly ZX81 RAM packs are nothing to this man who wouldn't think twice about using an Oric as an ashtray.
Then there are those who are well into it and just so as everyone else knows it they write songs called "GOSUB 3000", "Boolean Operator" and the like. They can be heard in pubs discussing the alternate register set of the Z80 and how a friend of a friend of theirs met Dolly Parton in Laskys. Who are we to judge these people? They do no harm and just as long as Compu-glam never takes off we're all safe to snigger.
Those who decide the sensible (and therefore dull, you may accuse) approach is never to delve deeper than the front panel are a breed of great integrity. Because most household name virtuosi are among them, they shall be considered no further.
Finally we come to plain, honest regular folks who, to quote Frank Zappa, may wear the occasional python boot. This is by far the largest group and although finances may restrict their involvement to the cerebral, they are keen for the knowledge that an algorithm is not a North African dance and PROMs need not be a season of Henry Wood concerts.
As prices tumble, drum machines become common place, polyphonic synths become affordable and sampling instruments become a reality. No one wants to fall too far behind the technologies which will be the tools of tomorrow.
Feature by Andy Honeybone
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