The Best of British
Britain's booming hi-tech music industry.
Patriotism is not something we at E&MM feel particularly strongly about, regarding it more as a necessary evil than something around which whole lives should be based, but recent events in this fair isle of ours have given some cause for a bit of national trumpet-blowing.
Despite (because of?) the efforts of the present Government, Britain's industry is still not essentially competitive when compared to those of several of its European neighbours, let alone America and Japan. Yet in the field of music technology, the country seems to be getting its act well and truly together.
Admittedly, the synthesiser world has seen Britain play a comparatively small part in the development story. Most of the pioneering work was done by the Americans, who then left it to the Japanese to bring the requisite technology down to a price most musicians could afford, while the UK added its twopenny-worth (some would say rather more) in the shape of the EMS synthesisers, the EDP Wasp, and its immediate successor, the OSCar monosynth.
We've also managed - in the shape of Dave Simmons' electronic drums - to come up with an entirely new concept in music hardware that's revolutionised the way rock percussion is performed and recorded, while Bill Aitken and his SynthAxe team seem to be on the verge of a major British breakthrough. In general, however, Britain has lacked (and continues to lack) the research and production know-how - not to mention the finances - necessary to become a world force in the manufacture of electronic musical instruments.
But if that is the case, what we do seem to be particularly good at is taking hardware from outside sources and developing it further to enhance its capabilities. Sycologic's MX1 extension board for the Yamaha DX7 is a fine example, as are the rapidly-growing numbers of add-on systems for home computers, becoming more ingenious by the day.
Take Greengate's DS3 sampling system reviewed last month. For only £200, it transforms the expensive and frankly ageing Apple IIe home micro into a powerful sampling machine of surprising quality. Truth be told, I was none too impressed by a couple of initial demonstrations of the system, but now Mainframe - the band behind the DS3's development - have released an excellent 12-inch EP that was recorded with the sampler as the only sound source (see On Record, elsewhere in this issue). It's a mighty impressive piece of work.
This issue sees a review of another sampling add-on - this time for Sinclair Spectrum - whose current and future software plans look as though they could almost turn it into the (very) poor man's Fairlight. Like the Greengate, Ricol Electronics' Action Replay is cheap, easy-to-use, and quite significantly, as yet unmatched by any other product from Japan, America, or indeed anywhere else in the world.
Talk of home computers leads us inevitably onto the subject of MIDI, to the numerous British software companies that are springing up as if from nowhere, and to Powertran's extraordinary MIDI Controlled Sampler, whose circuits are published in full in this month's E&MM. The non-technically-minded amongst you will probably flinch at the thought of so many editorial pages being devoted to circuit diagrams, but we feel the MCS1 to be of sufficient technological significance to justify the space. And next month, the machine's innermost workings will be revealed...
On reflection, it's perhaps not surprising that Britain as a nation is playing such an important role in the development of music technology. On the one hand, our pop music charts were the first to embrace synthesiser music in any quantity, while more recently, our consumer population has taken to the home computer like no other public in the world. And if that sort of enthusiasm for things hi-tech can be maintained, it won't be long before we are challenging the likes of Japan, Italy and the US for supremacy in the music hardware stakes.
So to all those budding researchers, designers and software writers out there, keep it up!
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