Last month's Ripples screen-shot caused a few ripples of its own. Some people have asked me what a screen from a 'pretty picture' generating program is doing in a hi-tech music magazine. My answer may make you think quite long and hard about the way you view computers...
Ripples uses mathematics to produce patterns. The user types in some numeric values, and these determine exactly what appears on the screen. You probably feel perfectly happy with this use of a computer — after all, it is merely acting as a sort of 'super' paint-brush, in which the user provides the initial values which control what the results look like. The patterns that Ripples produces are approximately midway between the quirkily detailed strangeness of the Mandlebrot set and the boxy, heavily pixellated images that are usually assumed to be computer generated. The important thing to realise is that the complexity that the program produces has an unusual sort of structure: repetitions, but with variations.
You are probably more familiar with something else which has the same sort of varied repeats: music. But you almost certainly feel less comfortable with the concept of a computer producing music from a few 'seed' numbers. It seems that many people think that computer-generated pictures are okay, but making music is still exclusively a 'human' activity. Unfortunately, the output of the Ripples program could be music instead of pictures, and the same sort of complex pseudo-repetitions would be produced. There are lots of other 'fractal/random /automatic/algorithmic' music programs available, and they all have the same effect on people — if they produce pretty pictures then they are viewed as interesting diversions, whereas when they make music it is usually interpreted as 'machine generated garbage, not like real music'. At some point in the process the computer has changed from being a tool for making music, and has instead aroused some sort of animosity.
I am not immune. I programmed Ripples to produce pictures because I actually like attractive colourful screens, and because the programs I have tried which produce musical outputs sound somehow 'wrong' to me. Despite knowing that I should not be biased in this way, my ears are. They listen and say 'No, that's not being produced by a human; it's just not interesting'. The only analogy I can think of is one concerning speech. Apparently one of the major reasons that you can understand someone else speaking at all is because you already have a good idea of how they are producing the speech itself — after all, you can also do it. If you know about a subject, then you view it differently. My artistic talents are somewhat limited, so my eyes make only superficial judgements about the Ripples screens, but my musical ear seems to be much more critical. How would a professional artist view the screenshots?
I have mentioned the excellent monthly ST magazine, ST Applications before, but the PD software club which publishes the magazine (the ST Club) is now becoming increasingly active in software publishing, so this seems like a good time to look at some of what they sell.
ST Applications is written by ST users for ST users — normally a glib advertising phrase, but in this case it really is true. STA (£15 for a full year's subscription) does not have smooth, glossy white paper, or full colour photos, and in fact, it is produced using ordinary DTP programs running on an ST. What is impressive about STA, however, is its technical depth. Where the ST games magazines gloss over anything even remotely technical, STA delves deep inside with no hesitation, exploring the hardware, assembly language programming and any other techie subject you care to mention. It is also a good source of adverts from the small, friendly firms that you never find in the big magazines.
For musical ST users, the most interesting piece of software is probably Warp 9 (£24.95). This is a major update to the QuickSTsoftware accelerator version 3, and it speeds up screen redraws by replacing the slow Atari graphics routines with hand-optimised code. I have been using a similar accelerator for some time and have found few compatibility problems whilst enjoying a remarkable improvement in perceived speed (except of course, in Notator or Cubase, which both provide their own speed-up code). But there's more! You can replace the boring system screen font with any of 72 others, configure the built-in mouse accelerator and even add interesting background pictures. For those people who hate the way that Alert boxes force you to mouse-click, then the F1, F2 and F3 buttons can be used to give keyboard alert control. And it costs less than £25 — less than an upgrade to most professional music software.
Mouse Tricks 2 (£9.95) is for heavy mouse users. It allows you to customise the way that the mouse behaves in many ways: faster and slower, depending on the program; pull-down or pop-up menus; and even wrapping at the edges of the screen. It can even make the screen appear bigger if you have an STE — the screen scrolls sideways to give a virtual 'big' screen.
The only problem is that the ST Club don't accept credit card orders by phone, only written orders with accompanying cheques or postal orders (made out to 'Simple Logic & Co'). Write to: The ST Club, (Contact Details).
Here's a curious phenomenon for you. As the Atari ST has evolved and expanded from its humble 68000, 512k RAM beginnings to its 68030, 14MB RAM current Falcon-ness, the programs that make most use of the new facilities are not the state-of-the-art, expensive, professional sequencers. Instead, the sample playback offered by the STE has become the province of the low-cost 'hobbyist' market, with programs like Concerto, Sequencer One, BreakThru and others providing extra non-MIDI audio tracks to make the most of the computer. The Falcon's formidable colour capability and onboard DSP are unlikely to make any fundamental difference to Cubase or Notator, although the additional raw speed will be useful. But for the games player with a slight interest in music, then the potential for making multi-media movies/videos using the thousands of colours, high quality sample playback and built-in digital effects (audio and video!) is impressive.
It looks increasingly as if the leading edge has shifted from the pro end of the hi-tech business to the consumer end. In times of recession, sales volumes obviously become very important, and selling lots of low cost, mass market-oriented programs has always made more sense than selling only a very few high cost, minority interest programs. You can see this with computers, synthesizers, TV programmes and even music itself. With the popularisation of opera, one of the last bastions of the classical music buff has opened its doors to the common man, producing budget CD titles, 'arena opera', and a huge viewing figures for opera stars' TV appearances.
So, the strange but true conclusion would seem to be: if and when you buy a Falcon, its inherent power will be exploited most effectively by Sonic and Mario meet EMF, and not by CuBaTator 5.
Feature by Martin Russ
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