One of the most powerful arguments for buying an Atari ST is perhaps the least obvious. People concentrate so much on computer-speak aspects like processor speed, amount of RAM, screen size and other technical terms that they lose sight of the real reason that you use a computer in the first place: the software.
Software is what really matters. It doesn't matter how good the computer is — if it hasn't got the software then it isn't worth having. For many musicians, their ST is nothing other than a platform on which they run Notator or Cubase — they often know very little outside of the programs. But what programs! Carefully honed and optimised as the result of years of user feedback at the leading edge of hi-tech music, these are powerful tools for making music — and the fact that they run on a computer designed for playing games is neither here nor there.
If software is what matters, then the Atari ST has a second, almost equally important feature, which again is often overlooked. Most of the serious music software development for the ST happens in Europe. You may have noticed the media pushing home the message that the EC is a larger trading block than the United States, but does it actually matter? Actually it does, and more than you might think. Many people in the States seem to have a very America-centric view of the world — the International MIDI Association is USA through and through, with the active members mostly living and working on The West Coast. Huge time differences and enormous distances make contacting those people on the edge of a continent hard work from Europe. In contrast, most of the EC is only a few hours and a few hundred miles apart — and the phone bills are lower.
There's more to it than that, though. No matter how responsive a distant software company is, I still get a better feeling when the writers of a program are in the same country (or trading block) as I am. They seem to be more helpful, and more immediately accessible. Exchanging faxes with someone who is permanently out-of-sync is fine at first, but ultimately frustrating. Is this just me, struck down with some sort of rabid Maastrict flu? Or is it something else?
I contacted one software company about a minor but niggling problem and was told that there was no problem. Later they admitted there actually was a problem, but gave no indication about when it would be fixed, if ever.
Another software company I spoke to recently said that they had already created a new version of their program which implemented exactly what I was looking for, and they took great pains to make sure that I got the updated version from their distributor.
A very powerful and sophisticated piece of software from one company is no longer supported, despite being a uniquely intuitive product that received rave reviews.
The programmer of one piece of software was embarrassed that there could be a problem with such an obvious aspect of his work, and a fixed copy arrived a few days later, with a request for me to beta-test his next product.
OK, quiz time. Can you guess where the examples come from? USA. UK. USA. EC. Curious isn't it? Are we really stuck on the wrong side of the pond? With the EC being Atari's strongest market, I don't think that they would think so. The Falcon was even designed in Europe (provided you believe the Eurovision Song Contest organisers — Israel is stretching my idea of the borders of Europe slightly). Nevertheless, the Falcon's origins seem to reflect Atari's EC market.
One final thought, and perhaps the most interesting and important. If you compare the sizes of the un-named companies that I mentioned above, you find that the EC-local ones are small, 1 or 2-man bands, whilst those from the other side of the world are big enough to afford the luxury of advertising and distributing worldwide. The two EC companies are very local, perhaps too local. To test this, I tried contacting some large EC-based software houses, and found that they had the same intransigent, 'couldn't care less' attitude, unless I managed to talk my way into speaking to an actual programmer.
So, it seems that the problem has nothing to do with Americans (thank goodness for that; some of my best friends are Americans!) — and instead it has everything to do with size of company. It seems that you get rapid and friendly responses from a small company, and these are easy to find locally because they advertise locally — of course, I wouldn't know how to go about finding a very small company in the States, and they are extremely unlikely to ever advertise anywhere where I might see the advert!
Moral: don't go looking for morals too quickly.
With the release of the Falcon, Atari have succeeded in making many of the alternative computers look somewhat over-priced. Where a PC or a Mac needs a plug-in card to record and play back 16-bit digital audio, the Falcon already has the capability on board. The same applies to signal processing, vital for manipulating samples or direct-to-disk recording, where the built-in DSP means that the Falcon again has the edge on the competition. This may well swing many musicians into upgrading their ST for a Falcon, but will it have any effect on the other computers? Is the Falcon a multi-media platform waiting to hit the mass market?
With total sales worth almost two billion pounds in 1991, the PC-compatible and Mac computer market is big. Assuming the average value of the computers is around £2,000, then you get sales of around a million in one year. Nintendo and Sega also sold millions of units last year, and Commodore have over three million Amigas busily playing games in houses up and down the country. In contrast. Atari have sold fewer than one million STs in total since the launch eight years ago. So Atari are a small player in a big market, but then the music market is also small. Unless something unexpected happens, such as Nintendo or Sega releasing a music and/or multi-media cartridge, then you can expect the Falcon to become very, very popular with musicians, but it is unlikely to make any real impression on the large corporate buyers who keep IBM, Compaq and Apple in business. The Falcon may well be just what the music business (and multimedia world) wants, but it looks like everyone else is just going to continue paying over the odds to get the same facilities. Atari fans may now smile benevolently for everyone else, whilst at the same time wondering if Atari can survive with such a small market — they apparently lost almost $40m (US) between April and June this year, with a turnover down by 50%.
One area where text is really the wrong medium to describe something is graphics programs. Disk S223 in the SOS Software pages is almost impossible to describe — calling it an "ST pattern generator" plays down its capabilities somewhat. So when I got a phonecall the other day asking exactly what it did do, I could only promise to show some sample results (minus the dynamic colour cycling, of course): There now. Pretty, eh? And even better on an ST screen! They are also free from copyright, and so are excellent for album covers... (That's enough advertising — Ed.)
Feature by Martin Russ
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