This month, Paul Austin holds up both the Amiga and the Atari ST for close scrutiny and explains the Amiga Advantage...
The Commodore Amiga family suffers from a severe image problem. Way back in the mid-'80s, when MIDI was the newest thing and computers with more than a pocket calculator's worth of memory were rare stuff indeed, the Atari ST pulled a stunt which was to elevate it while blighting the poor Amiga for years to come.
What the ST managed to do, more by luck than anything else, was convince musicians that it was the machine for them, largely by virtue of its built-in (albeit somewhat non-standard) MIDI sockets, rather than by any sustained marketing or support in that direction from a typically out-of-touch Atari.
It is often said that software maketh the machine, and once the ball had begun rolling, this was certainly true in the ST's case. Heavyweights such as Cubase, Creator and Notator came in alongside more oblique but equally powerful offerings such as Dr T's flight control-style KCS, and worthy basics such as Gajits' Sequencer One Plus. When buying a piece of equipment for a purpose, rather than as a means in itself, it is natural to look at factors such as convenience and a track record, and by the late '80s the ST could offer both. Game, set... but not quite match.
The Amiga, released slightly later than, and in direct competition with, the ST, never managed to get close to it in terms of sales for music use, and so never built up the software support needed if it were to persuade more musicians to buy it — a classic catch 22. However, whether because you already have one (maybe the children pleaded for an Amiga due to its superior games-playing prowess) or because you've caught wind of the demise of the ST, due to large scale abandonment of it by the games market and the arrival of Atari's own newie, the Falcon, you might be looking to use an Amiga as the basis of your MIDI setup. Should you choose to do this, you'll find it a very different world to that of your average ST user.
Firstly, buy an Amiga 1200 (Commodore's successful and faster new base machine) and you'll find yourself owner of a computer that's very much alive and well, with magazine support, new software of all kinds (not just music — why buy a computer if you don't utilise it to do the odd bit of home accounting, letter writing, even games-playing?) and an expanding user base. You'll be the owner of a machine which can complete complex tasks more quickly (ever multiple cut-and-pasted an intricate hi-hat pattern and sat impatiently as the computer busily makes your 64 copies?) due to its superior 68020 processor as against the ST's 68000; and a computer which can multi-task (meaning you can have, for instance, your synth editor and your sequencer loaded and in memory at the same time, switchable between at the touch of a key).
It is also quite capable of storing samples of its own, which although only 8-bit can, with a bit of judicious tuning, produce quite acceptable results to drop into the mix via the twin phono sockets on the back of the machine.
Straight out of the box, though, you'll be the owner of a machine which can do very little musically, due to the lack of any MIDI sockets. This is easily remedied by spending £20-30 on a MIDI interface, which can often have the necessary hardware for sampling your own sounds built in too (this might otherwise cost you another £20 or £30 when you decided to dabble in the Amiga's would-be S1000 properties).
Many potential users of the machine for music purposes are put off by the apparent lack of decent software. However, while there might not be thousands of packages for the Amiga (how many can you really afford to buy anyway?) there are plenty to supply the most discerning musician.. Leading the field is Blue Ribbon's Bars and Pipes Professional 2, a novel and highly powerful sequencer leaning on the metaphor of MIDI channels being pipes, to which you attach taps, in order to control the 'flow' of effects and other information. There are plenty of tools available to customise the Bars and Pipes Pro environment, and manufacturer support is excellent. With high power users such as Evelyn Glennie opting for a Bars and Pipes/Amiga system, its pedigree is assured, too.
Another notable sequencer is Gajits' Sequencer One Plus, which is a true bare bones package offering extreme ease of use and solid performance — as well as notable after-sales help. Programs like Superjam take care of the currently in-vogue-on-the-ST compositional thing, whereby the computer plays the parts of other musicians in a style of your choice, but ironically it's in this area — so big on the ST — that the Amiga is really pulling through for the committed.
There is no large, saturated commercial sector in the Amiga music market. The lower number of musician owners compared to the ST (the number of general users is far higher) has meant that the likes of Steinberg and C-Lab have concentrated their resources elsewhere. But for the forward-looking, this makes Amiga-based music a breath of fresh air. With the words on everyone's lips being composition and aids to composition, the underlying philosophy seems to be: find new ways of making music and new music will make itself. In other words, mess with the methods by which you write and develop your tunes, and the tunes will, in their very make-up, reflect this fresh approach.
The Amiga has a much more enthusiast-based 'underground', if you like, centring on musicians directly helping each other to achieve their goals by methods other than the commercial. With an ST program available to do just about anything, from full-blown compositional languages to Band-in-a-Box-style efforts designed to allow you to create a pseudo-band to play along with inside your machine, it's got the lot. But it would cost you a hell of a lot of money to get them all, and think of the update fees! In reality, of course, you'd pick and settle on a package or two and leave it at that, thus simultaneously closing the doors on other, maybe more exciting, ways of writing music.
Although apart from competent software for the essentials (synth editing, sequencing, sampling) there's little else on the Amiga, browse through the public domain (PD) pages of Amiga magazines and you'll realise that, with no big commercial umbrella, Amiga users have formed their own network of useful programs, tips, advice, and encouragement in the form of very cheap or free PD software.
The public domain works like this. Authors write software which they release either for free, for a small fee which you pay if you decide after using it that you will continue to do so (shareware) or as licenceware (similar to shareware but run through a central register and costing a bit more, but usually of slightly better quality too). The software is ordered from 'libraries' by post. There are no guarantees with such software, but one-to-one contact with the author is usually possible, and when enthusiasm rather than money is the motivation, you can be sure that a solution to any problems won't be far away.
The software ranges from disk magazines (literally a magazine on floppy disk which you navigate through using the computer and the on-screen menus), to freebie editors and patches, and more (see box). So whether you opted for something slightly different and went for an Amiga as your first choice of music machine (you bold thing, you) or you already have one and are loath to buy an ageing Atari when what you've got is quite capable of the same results, you're lucky enough to own a machine that's powerful and current as well as a lot of fun. Welcome to the club!
Feature by Paul Austin
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