Paul Austin appraises the Amiga's first ever internally fitted MIDI module.
Although the Amiga has always won great praise for its internal sound, the ever increasing popularity of MIDI and, of course, CD, has meant that audio standards are much higher than they used to be — especially for those involved in presentations, video and music.
With the increasing complexity and sophistication of multimedia in general, MIDI support is becoming the norm rather than the exception and it's this window in the market that The One Stop Music Shop (£569.95), the Amiga's first internally-fitted MIDI module, has been designed to exploit.
As you've probably guessed, TOSMS is pretty unique in the world of MIDI modules — rather than connection via a standard MIDI interface, the card slides into a Zorro slot offering stereo RCA outs plus a built-in twin MIDI I/O port at the rear of the card.
All very nice, you might say, but the question for many will no doubt be, why bother? With the huge range of modules and keyboards on the market, what's the big advantage in having an internal version?
Well, for the studio musician the answer is none at all. However, for multimedia exploits, freeing the serial port has some distinct advantages, as indeed it does for DTV which often depends on additional kit connected via the serial port.
Obviously, with the aforesaid port free, existing serial-based production tools are still available, which can then be combined with TOSMS via ARexx, SMPTE or the excellent multimedia options available within the new Bars & Pipes Pro 2 (reviewed SOS June issue), thereby providing links to various 24-bit boards, Scala, genlocks — the list goes on and on...
Once safely installed, complete with connections to an amplifier and preferably a compatible master keyboard, you're in business — assuming you're the owner of either a version of Bars & Pipes, Bars & Pipes Pro or SuperJam.
If you don't happen to have any of the aforementioned software, the hardware can still be used. However, this will require connection of the card's second MIDI connector to a standard MIDI interface, effectively making the Amiga the world's biggest ever PSU!
In short, running TOSMS without Blue Ribbon software means that much of the appeal of the unit is sacrificed, primarily due to the occupied serial and of course the lack of any direct links to the software in the form of default bands, assorted tools and various plug-in accessories.
With the hardware hidden within the bowels of an A1500/2000/3000 or 4000, control obviously has to be software-oriented, and as a consequence the disk accompanying the hardware contains not only assorted utils for managing the card but a complete sound editor designed specifically for the Proteus SoundEngine at the heart of the TOSMS.
In addition to the essential and excellent editor — which I'll return to later — the assorted utils include a Loop-Back option allowing direct control of the module via a mother keyboard. Once active, any channel or patch changes are passed directly to the card, allowing the auditioning of sounds without the need for on-line sequencing software.
In a blatant attempt to capitalise on the card's multimedia potential, a dedicated One-Stop MIDI Player comes as part of the package, allowing any previously recorded song to be loaded, either singly or as part of a complete set, and then played back at the click of a button. No channel changes, no patch selection, just a simple load and play.
As well as a point-and-click interface, the player also boasts full ARexx support, a feature which is ably demonstrated by a demo provided as part of the software support. This ARexx link again illustrates the card's multimedia intentions, allowing any ARexx-compatible software to address the card, loading and playing complete works as part of a wider presentation. An added bonus for the already impressive player is the General MIDI standard adopted by the module.
As mentioned earlier, TOSMS comes complete with its own sound editor which, in my opinion, is one of its biggest attractions, providing the most approachable editing environment available for any MIDI module. As you'd expect from Blue Ribbon, the interface is attractive, intuitive and easy to manipulate, with the main thrust being aimed at the manipulation of the card's primary and secondary sound sources. These two elements are the key to the Emu Proteus SoundEngine, allowing the combination of any two of the 213 sampled waveforms stored within the ROMs at the heart of this award-winning synth.
At its most simplistic, sound generation is simply a matter of selecting two complementary sounds which then combine to produce the new tone. As you can see from the screenshots, each instrument source comes complete with a selection of slider-controlled parameters to adjust the tuning, volume, pan position, starting point and the relative delay of the component sound within the overall sound. In addition, each of the components has its own amplitude envelope providing complete control over the Attack, Hold, Decay and Release of the chosen sound — with any changes being auditioned instantly via a miniature keyboard, with chorus and sound reversal close at hand with a simple click on the appropriate button.
Assuming the new sound is roughly to your taste, the fine tuning can begin, courtesy of the most ingenious element within the editor. In order to simply blend the component instruments within the new sound, adjusting the volume within each instrument window will be more than adequate. However, if a more dramatic combination is required, the editor's crossfade option has to be the next port of call. From here you can define exactly how the two sounds interact, either over time or according to the relative strength of the key depression. For example, at its most simple a crossfade could start with one sound and gradually evolve into the next using the speed and direction of your choice. Alternatively, when combined with the real-time and velocity modulation options, the crossfade can produce a split keyboard or perhaps a sound that uses one tone below a certain velocity level while switching to the second and perhaps more dynamic sound on higher velocities.
"The One Stop Music Shop is a viable and portable solution to the problem of incorporating quality sound into multimedia productions."
Assuming tone generation, mixing and crossfading is complete, we can safely move to the penultimate duet in the editing department, namely the twin LFOs, or Low Frequency Oscillators, that dominate the left side of the main edit window.
In total there are five waveforms available within each LFO, including sawtooth, sine, triangle, square and random, with each LFO applying its particular selection to add old favourites such as vibrato, modulation and tremolo to the rapidly evolving sound. If required, the effects produced by the LFO duet can be combined with other features within the editor, such as real-time and key velocity modulation, to apply the desired feature again over time and according to the strength of key depression. Although rather complex initially, both forms of modulation and their relation to the LFOs do become clearer with a little experimentation.
With the duet chosen and assorted parameters applied you'd think the new sound would be complete, but there's one last twist in the tail. Courtesy of yet another window hidden in the upper right corner of the main window, even more tinkering awaits.
Once opened, the Link option reveals a series of sliders, allowing an additional three existing presets to be appended to the one already being edited. As a result, it's possible to build really big sounds via a multiple preset combination. However, it must be stressed that using multiple presets to build a new voice does have its drawbacks.
Just like the original Proteus, the Amiga variant — like most sound modules — has a maximum 32-note polyphony, which means that no more than 32 voice combinations can be played simultaneously.
As a result, adding up to four presets to a single note means polyphony can suffer quite dramatically, especially if the aforesaid note is played as part of a triad chord, thereby instantly burning 12 of the 32 voices on just one chord and leaving precious few for the rest of the composition.
However this doesn't mean the feature is useless, and in fact if used wisely, with perhaps two or three presets and thoughtful application, any voice — and thereby song — can really improve. In addition, all the component presets can be defined to play between a specific pitch, allowing multiple keyboard splits with up to four voices spread over a single patch location.
On the plus side, the accompanying software is excellent, offering all the utilities and editing options you could ask for. In addition, the card fits seamlessly into the overall Blue Ribbon range, with input and output tools for B&PPro, an accessory version of the editor for on-line editing, a predefined plug-in band for SuperJam v1.1, plus total compatibility with Patchmeister — Blue Ribbon's very own librarian software.
When you add all of the above to the board's obvious multimedia talents and probably one of the best sound-to-noise ratios available from any module, the overall combination seems unbeatable.
However, TOSMS isn't without its faults. Firstly, the preset tones can sound a little dated in relation to the latest stand-alone modules, primarily because the ROMs inside are from the very first generation of the SoundEngine, which is now in its third revision. Although the ROM sounds are a little disappointing, the situation could have been easily resolved by the addition of the one thing that the module lacks more than anything else — a built-in digital reverb. Almost all modern stand-alone modules come with a built-in reverb as standard but, alas, the TOSMS isn't one of them, resulting in a very dry overall sound.
Even with these problems, TOSMS remains a viable and portable solution to the problem of incorporating quality sound into multimedia productions. It's unlikely the card will find its way into the studio, but for those involved in DTV and multimedia in general it's well worth consideration — especially if an external reverb is added to the equation.
Feature by Paul Austin
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!