The ubiquitous Gary Herman reviews some exciting synthesizer software from Quicksilva
Microcomputers' musical capabilities are finally gaining some recognition within the software houses. In a way, their tardiness has been surprising, since many of the people who write and sell software were once involved in the Rock world. Promotion and merchandising — especially of new games — closely follows the model established by the record industry. Atari, for instance, are owned by the huge entertainment conglomerate Warner Communications — long since a major company on the Rock scene. A talk with the boss of one of Britain's leading games software houses at a recent computer fair unearthed the fact that he'd once been a Rock manager. In other words, music and computers do not just meet on albums by Pete Shelley.
The problem with music software, unfortunately, is that no-one is quite sure what it should be doing or who to aim it at. At one end of the spectrum (sorry!), a number of expensive computer-based synthesizers already exist — the alpha-Syntauri, the Synclavier and the Fairlight, to name the best-known. At the other, there are a group of machines (most notably, the BBC and the Commodore 64, but also including the Oric and the Sord M-5) whose often surprisingly sophisticated musical facilities are still, in the main, consigned to producing 'zaps' and 'bangs' for computer games.
Music tutors represent one approach to closing this gap — and several of these have been produced to help teach children and adults the rudiments of music theory. Another approach has been to see the computer as essentially a compositional aid — used to write music for later transcription to 'real' instruments. And then there has been the software, which takes the computer as a control device to be interfaced to other electronic musical instruments.
The facilities offered by some of the more sophisticated micros suggests the intriguing possibility that they might be used as complete instruments in their own right. As yet, nobody has produced a computer with a built-in music keyboard or other device suitable for real-time performance. But a good quality QWERTY keyboard can be used quite happily within a recording studio; and, if advance publicity from a number of computer companies is to be believed, we can expect a flood of machines with four or more channels and stereo sound outputs to begin in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, the software has begun to arrive already.
MuProc from QuickSilva ('The Game Lords', according to their publicity) is a programme that turns a BBC A or B computer into a synthesizer, four-track recorder and editor — or so the manual says. It should already be obvious, however, that QuickSilva's claims are over-inflated (although at around £8 for the cassette-based programme, the price certainly isn't). MuProc takes about 1½ minutes to load and runs automatically. Once loaded, the screen shows an 'instrument panel' with areas devoted to: selecting one of the BBC's four sound channels (three music and one noise); selecting one of ten preset ADSR envelopes and altering sustain values; setting pitch effects (vibrato, for instance); setting overall volume; adding noise to channel one automatically; and — most interesting of all — setting and operating 'record' and 'edit' facilities.
Despite the jauntily optimistic tone of the programme's manual, with regard to MuProc's '100,000 envelopes' and the synthesis of instrumental sounds and special effects like banjos, pianos, bees, raindrops and bubbles (?) the synthesizer features are unexceptional. This can be most readily gauged by loading the 'music files' (or tunes) on the other side of the program cassette. A Sousa march, the first movement from Bach's Brandenburg concerto and three carols are all included (out of copyright) and, while melodies are recognisable, the arrangements are extremely curious. The Brandenburg, in particular, is a travesty — sounding as though it was being played on an underwater kazoo band. From my experience of using MuProc, I would say that this is unfortunately typical of its preset envelopes. However, it is possible to devise envelopes of your own invention — a special option allows users to enter their own parameters into the BBC's ENVELOPE command.
The recording and editing is another story. I only wish the writer — who doesn't appear to be credited in the manual — had stuck to these features and simplified the synthesis section of the program as much as possible. Combinations of the shift, return and cursor control keys allow the user to 'record', playback and 'wind' or single-step back and forward on an imaginary tape (actually, a section of the computer's memory capable of storing an absolute maximum of about 3,250 notes). The screen display includes a 'tape counter' and it is, of course, possible to 'overdub' by playing along on one channel while an already recorded channel plays back. Individual notes or sequences can be deleted or altered and playback speed and channel frequency can be changed. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem possible to alter the volume on a channel after it has been recorded, thus making 'real' mixing out of the question. Nor is it possible to bounce between channels. However, a little practice should enable the user to make recordings sufficiently precise for most purposes. These can be saved digitally on tape, in the form of data files. A composition of around 10 minutes takes up 1½ minutes' worth of tape in this form. It is also possible to save self-defined envelopes on tape for later loading and use.
MuProc is not an easy programme to use. By choosing to simulate the operation of one or more studio instruments, the writer inevitably had to devise some complicated arrangements for utilising the computer keyboard in real-time. Altering effects often requires the pressing of several keys (sometimes the same key several times) and the result is frequently slow and sometimes unreliable. It might have been better had the programme been menu driven. Once settings had been made within one menu, another menu could have brought in the recording facilities. This is a more logical — if less glamorous — procedure. As it stands, functions are crammed onto the keyboard and all settings have to be made in real-time.
In short, the problems with MuProc arise from its attempt to look like one or more already familiar devices. This, no doubt, was intended to make the software user-friendly. User-friendly it may be, but it is not musician-friendly — after all, a computer is still a computer and not a synthesizer, tape recorder or editing desk. Most musicians are only too happy to learn how to use a computer if they believe it will achieve what they want. There is really no need to try and persuade them that the thing in front of them with a keyboard and a VDU is not a computer. That said, MuProc is certainly worth its price if you already have a BBC computer. It might just enhance the range of your musical expression. At the very least, it will give you a sort of rough note-book on which to try out ideas. It was enjoyable to use, but not to the extent of making you invest in a new computer.
Review by Gary Herman
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