The first published survey of micros for music making.
As with any consumer product, choosing which micro to buy can be pretty tough - especially when faced with all the contradicting reports that are spewed out by computer hacks at nineteen to the dozen. And unlike cars which don't actually mind whether you swear at them in English, Japanese, or Outer Mongolian, micro manufacturers have the infuriating habit of adding their own supposedly definitive dialect of the BASIC language, not to mention variants on operating systems, processor types and speeds, graphical means and motives, disk formatting and filing systems, and so on until you're in a state of utter confusion.
Still, the one big advantage of pursuing musical applications of micros is that there's usually a pretty obvious goal in mind. But working against that is the comparative naivety of manufacturers when it comes to imbuing their offspring with musical talent, and the general consensus appears to be that the average punter isn't interested in anything more than a fairly primitive level of synthesis (with the possible exception of the Commodore 64). All this means that test-driving a micro for its musical roadworthiness may be a pretty frustrating business unless you're also able to take into account the ways and means of improving its basic performance. That, then, is what WHICH MICRO? sets out to do - providing a guide to both the basic musical performance of a wide range of micros as well as what's possible in the way of synthesizer interfacing and commercial hardware add-ons.
Over the next few months, we'll be working our way through a list of 13 micros, ranging from the ZX81 at £45 to the IBM-PC at a minimum of £2000. But to help those at present on the look out for a likely musical helper, we're commencing with the overall results of the survey.
So, without further ado, here's WHICH MICRO? AT A GLANCE...
1 Lowest VAT-inclusive prices as of 22/8/83. The Apple IIe tends to be sold as a package deal with disk drive, 80-column card et al rather than as a micro on its own. With this reality in mind, the actual cost of the Apple IIe would probably be nearer £600. The price quoted for the IBM-PC is for the bare bones single disk drive system.
2 One cross for piezo transducer, two for piezo with option of external output, two for internal speaker, and three for internal speaker with option of external output.
3 GI = General Instruments AY-3-8910, SID = 6581 Sound Interface Device, P = Atari POKEY (sic) chip, and TEX = Texas SN76489. Sound chip used in VIC-20 is unknown.
4 Number of crosses = number of channels. Elsewhere, crosses represent an approximate value judgement of a particular feature; a dash means either that the feature is non-existent or that it makes no effort to justify its existence (e.g. the 'music' section in some manuals). A question mark in parentheses generally implies that the feature is either assumed to exist somewhere on the face of the earth (the 64's keyboard, for instance) or will exist in the not too distant future (eg. goodies for the BBC Micro).
5 Evaluation based on both actual and usable range of frequencies.
6 Well, square waves are better than nothing, so these get a single cross. Anything that allows waveforms to be varied (set types in the case of the Commodore 64, but programmable with the Lynx) automatically gets a score of four!
7 SV = state-variable type and HP = high-pass type. As it's somewhat unclear as to who or what benefits from these filters (for a variety of reasons), marks have been relinquished at this point.
8 Only micro to use a DAC for basic sound, but a low mark all the same because it's only 6-bit.
9 Highly subjective assessment here, but one cross for 6502, 6510, Z80A, or 6502A run at half speed (Apple IIe), two crosses for full-speed 6502A, and three crosses for 6809 or 8088.
10 Crosses reflect range and extent of available software.
11 Nothing to do with the Chinese! In fact, this is Chroma's alternative to the MIDI.
12 Notes have to be stored somewhere unless you're prepared to re-enter them every time you switch the machine off. So, a dash represents virtually impossible-to-use storage (no prizes for guessing what that refers to), a single cross for cassette-based storage, a double cross for a drive of the stringy-thingy, Sir Clive kind, and a treble cross for the more customary floppy disc drive. Some machines are still awaiting their promised drives, but we've been generous and assumed that their gestation period will be less than that of an elephant.
Well, all that's a little subjective, but at least we've made the effort to consider what micros can do musically away from home base, as it were. What's interesting to note is the way a basically poor musical micro like the Apple IIe is able to make it to the top purely on the basis of the formidable number of hardware add-ons that have accumulated around it over the years. At the same time, a much more powerful machine like the IBM-PC does less well than it should because of the dearth of suitable musical hardware. However, that's bound to change for the better as more MIDI-based software appears. At the other end of the scale, new storage options like the microdrive should help considerably in getting cheaper machines of the ZX ilk a profitable slice of the commercial side of synthesizer interfacing.
Still, even at this early stage, there are clear winners and clear losers, so don't be duped into going for a machine that won't support what you want to do with it. Adding up the crosses for each of the 13 suggests the following order of excellence:
1st BBC Micro and Apple IIe
3rd Commodore 64
5th Atari 800
7th Spectrum 48K
8th Lynx 48K
9th Sord M5
However, this doesn't take into account the huge price differences from the ZX end of the survey to the exalted heights of the IBM-PC. Adding a value-for-money factor (a cross added or subtracted for every £100 above or below the average micro price of £230 - that's leaving aside the IBM-PC because it's so expensive) gives a rather different ranking order. So, finally, with great fanfares of square wave trumpets, here's E&MM's Musical Micro Top 10:
1st BBC Micro
2nd Apple IIe
3rd Commodore 64
5th Atari 800
6th Spectrum 48K
7th Lynx 48K
8th Sord M5
10th Dragon 32K
So, if I was bent backwards over a barrel, arms twisted in knots, and made to sign in blood on the dotted line, these would be my recommendations for the computer musician who's seeking a micro:
BEST BUY: BBC Micro Model B
WORTHY HANGER-ON: Apple IIe
COMING UP FAST: Commodore 64
CHEAP & CHEERFUL: Oric-1 and Spectrum 48K