Should ST owners upgrade to a Falcon? If so, what to do with your 'spare' ST? Martin Russ offers advice.
Computers do not last forever. It is a sad fact that even the most powerful, state-of-the-art 'must-have' machine of today will look like a dodo in a surprisingly short time — usually, you have just enough time to pay for it and get out of the shop... The last few years have seen the rise and fall of several generations of computers used by musicians: the Sinclair Spectrum; the Commodore C64; various MSX computers including the ill-fated Yamaha CX5; and even the BBC B micro. All popular in their time, with software, magazine articles, demonstrations in music shops etc — and all now a major embarrassment to anyone who still has one. Hidden in the attic, eh?
Unfortunately, old computers do not die. They just become outmoded, collect dust and grime, and lose their sparkle against the latest generation of faster, bigger and better machines. Without pointing a finger at any particular computer, some may be finding themselves about to be outclassed by a glossier newcomer. So what do all the ST owning musicians do with their hard-working friend now that the Falcon is here?
At the risk of sounding crazy, my suggestion is to keep your ST. Think about it. The resale value of an ST is small — if you can sell it, that is. The depreciation of a piece of computer hardware is rapid, and after only a few years it bears no relationship to what you paid for it! What spotty kid with any sense is going to buy one of yesterday's computers when a bit of judicious parental nagging can procure one of the machines that have blanket TV advertising and comprehensive magazine support in the local newsagents? Most musos have not got a spectacularly large collection of computer games, so tempting even a terminally ignorant youngster is unlikely. Selling to other musicians seems a better prospect, only providing that they've spent the last few years in darkest Peru and don't know what a Falcon, Mac or Windows 3.1 are, and that they never read any music magazines.
Of course, to take advantage of all the new screen modes that a Falcon offers you will need a new monitor, and so you have to hike the price up to cover an ageing (non-VGA, non-stereo) monitor, which serves only to make your package less attractive. Trade-ins? You could try, but for the money you would almost certainly be better off hanging on to it. Of course, you could always hang on to the ST in the hope that it will become a collector's item in the next century. MiniMoogs: definitely. Yamaha CS80s: yes. Des O'Connor LPs: probably. Back copies of SOS: perhaps. Atari STs: doubtful? I reckon you are much better off making use of it now rather than disposing of it.
Buying a new computer has lots of advantages. You get a shiny, bright (no dust or grime!) box, with a large, colourful monitor, and it all zips along like a Grand Prix. Software writers will fall over themselves to convert their old programs to the new machine, and will simultaneously forget the older models. You automatically get the latest version of TOS — not the easiest thing to upgrade, unless you happen to work for a computer magazine. I can remember reading avidly about TOS 1.4 in an ST magazine ("available soon") and then waiting for over a year until a 'real world' version finally became available!
So you whip out your credit card and buy a Falcon. But what to do with your ST while you are waiting for the new beast to be delivered?
Well, first off, it already has 100% ST compatibility built in as standard. Anything you've got that refuses to run on the new machine will definitely run on your old ST, and you are already familiar with it, so there's no learning curve to ascend. Of course, you may well find that your favourite program will not be converted to the Falcon, because many software publishers will take the opportunity to release a radically new program which takes full advantage of the Falcon's features.
Secondly, you can use the two computers to do two things at once without any need for the 'coming soon' MultiTOS operating system. Run a sequencer on the Falcon and the ST will be perfectly happy as a SysEx librarian, MIDI File player, auto-accompaniment generator, or any one of a million little tasks that you never got around to while you were always using Cubase or Notator. You can even let a friend play with the ST while you use the Falcon — so there will be no more "can I have a go now?" pleadings.
"What do all the ST owning musicians do with their hard-working friend now that the Falcon is here?
How do you connect the two computers together? A computer is "much the same as any other MIDI device, and so you can use the same patchbay that you always use, but patch your computers into it instead. You may well be used to thinking of the computer as the 'nerve centre' of your MIDI system — but with two computers things become much less specific. You may well find that your attention begins to focus on your master keyboard, which may well be a good thing for your playing. Don't forget that computers are a tool to help you make music, not an end in themselves!
This becomes very apparent when you connect up your MIDI patchbay — you will need to be able to bypass either (or even both) computers, and so simple MIDI switching boxes tend to become inadequate. Depending on the number of MIDI devices you have, you will need a patchbay which uses a crosspoint matrix of switches.
But how big should the matrix be? 8x8 and 16 x 16 are the commonest sizes, although some variants are available for smaller systems. The-easy way to decide how many input and output ports is to count the number of MIDI Outs that you actually use — for SysEx dumps, MIDI clock synchronisation, controllers etc. A patchbay should have at least that number of input ports, so that you can select between the sources of MIDI data. In the case of an Atari ST, you may well need to take into account the many extra add-on boxes which provide additional MIDI Out ports — but only those which give you an extra port and so make another 16 MIDI channels available. Boxes which merely provide additional copies of the main Out can usually be ignored when working out how many inputs you need. Also, try to estimate how much more your system is likely to grow in the future — and make provision for it.
Remember that you always connect a MIDI Out socket to the input of a patchbay — some patchbays label their inputs with 'MIDI Out', because that is what they are connected to; others put 'MIDI In' since they are actually MIDI In sockets. Confusing, isn't it? Calling the sockets on a patchbay 'inputs' and 'outputs' avoids this potential confusion.
Programming a patchbay with more than one computer attached requires a little forethought. Drawing a few diagrams can help you to sort out the important interconnections, and a little effort at doing the documentation now can save hours of work in the future. There are only a few basic possibilities, and once you have these right, then the setting up of individual custom patches is easy.
The Atari ST has been involved in interworking with MIDI patchbays right from the outset, and so the major software packages offer good provision. Generic Librarians like X-Or actively encourage the use of a patchbay, but you will find that the 'Send Program Change Message' features in your sequencer will suddenly become indispensable for setting up your patchbay without having to touch its front panel. The many little Desk Accessories available that can directly transmit Program Change messages can be useful if you want to control patching when your sequencer or librarian aren't running. Patchbays (and effects boxes, too) are often assigned to the higher numbered MIDI channels, typically 11 to 15, since 1 to 9 are often used for instruments, and 10 or 16 assigned to percussion.
Finally, although this column is obviously biased towards suggesting that you retain your ST if you acquire a Falcon, there is nothing to stop you keeping your ST on if you decide to add a Mac or PC. The important thing to remember is that the ST will probably continue to be a useful musical tool even if you do buy a newer computer — why throw away all your investment of time, effort and money?
Feature by Martin Russ
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