Want to get into computing and multimedia but unsure where to start? Ian Waugh guides you through the maze of computers and jargon
Don't you just love being in control? Well, it seems that hi-tech musicians do and these days spend by far the greatest proportion of their time behind computer terminals which offer a degree of control that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.
But for many, the process of buying a computer - either for the first time, or as a replacement for an existing machine - is fraught with difficulties, incomprehensible jargon and unhelpful, partisan attitudes.
Spending money is easy. Spending money wisely isn't - especially if you're looking for a computer which will not only serve your needs as a musician, but will also permit entry - either now or at a later stage - into other areas, particularly the world of multimedia production.
Whilst diplomacy prevents me from coming right out and saying the best computer for music and multimedia is the Apple Mac, what I will say is that no other computer has as good a user interface or as good a range of music and graphic software - or the power to put it all together.
The two latest Macs are aimed squarely at the multimedia market. They're the Quadra 840AV (around £3400 with 8Mb RAM, a 500Mb hard disk and CD drive) and the Centris 660AV (around £2100 with 8Mb RAM, a 230Mb hard disk and a CD drive). Apple has dropped its RRP pricing policy in favour of SRPs (suggested retail price) so any dealer worth their salt is knocking a few hundred quid off.
It's interesting to note that the US price of the 660AV, for example, is $2799 (around £1950) so although the UK consumer is getting tucked up yet again, it isn't by as much as usual!
Both AV models have many options built in which would be expensive extras on any other machine. The 840AV is the fastest Mac so far produced. Both models have video In and Out sockets and can record QuickTime movies from a camcorder. They can also send the Mac's screen image to a video recorder or TV and record and playback audio. A voice recognition system is also included, and they can send faxes and serve as telephone answering machines (Teasmade facilities are not, as yet, included...).
If you can't run to one of these, there's the Quadra 650 at £1550, the Quadra 610 at £1160, the LC 475 at £940 and the LC III at £690 - although personally I'd opt to go more upmarket than the LC III, especially if you want to work with graphics now or in the future. Prices, of course, are guaranteed to change by the time you read this.
Interestingly, Apple are currently standardising on the 68040 processor and although a 68030 machine will still run 99.9% of Mac software, the time may come when it won't.
The main drawback to buying any Mac is Apple's marketing strategy, which guarantees a price cut within six months of its release. In fact, the two AV models had their US launch prices reduced before they even made it to the market!
Many people associate Macs with high prices and this has been true until recently. Apple basically chewed off their own feet by maintaining inflated prices and thus encouraging an elitist image of their products which commanded only a small market share. With a modicum of marketing sense the company could have made some deep incisions into the body of the PC. Ah well...
Some people still think Mac prices are still too high, but at least they run a native operating system - unlike Windows on a PC - so you don't need the mega power of a PC to run applications. And the Mac front end is far superior.
As with most other things in life, if you want performance and ease of use, you've got to pay for it. In spite of everything, a Mac would certainly be my first recommendation as a computer for both music and multimedia applications.
PCs give you the most computing power for the price. But when you run an application in Windows and on top of DOS you'll find you need all the power you can get! As there are more PCs by far in the world than all the other computers put together, prices are keen and software is plentiful.
Although you can pick up a reasonably powerful 386 (the PCs are named after the processor which controls them) for about £700-£800, I'd strongly urge anyone to pay a bit more and get a 486. It's currently the most up-to-date and future-proof PC and we are starting to see some software packages which really don't perform well on a 386, again due to the massive amounts of processing power required to a program on the straight and narrow.
There must be well over 100 companies cobbling together PCs, and trying to decide which machine to buy isn't easy. Even though several systems may have similar specs, the only way to compare them is to run comparative tests. Of course, only computer magazines have the wherewithal to get hold of the machines and do this, so they are your best source of information.
In fact, if you finish this article remembering only one piece of information, let it be this - you must do your homework or get independent expert advice (that is, not from a dealer or high street store) before buying a PC.
486 prices range from £1000 upwards, though you could expect to pay around £1500-£1600 for a powerful top-end machine. Many now have the ability to be upgraded to the Pentium chip (the so-called 586), but while it's always useful to keep your options open, I personally wouldn't pay too much simply for the ability to upgrade.
PCs still have to catch up to the Mac in terms of graphics and multimedia integration, but it won't be long before they do. There are already more budget sound cards than you can wave a MIDI lead at as well as several pro digital recording systems plus video cards and a goodly range of graphics software. Microsoft is about to release the second version of Video for Windows.
When everything's working, PCs are fine but configuring the things, plugging cards into them (sound and video), setting up the system in the first place and even doing general housekeeping tasks is a pig. Make no mistake. I reckon well over 50% of home PC users are not running their computers to their maximum potential.
Still, it seems PCs may yet take over the world; certainly, they are the most future-proof computer system currently around. Although there is the PowerPC to come (see box out).
The Amiga is probably not the first computer you'd think of where music is concerned. It has none of the industry-standard sequencers although Dr T has a range of often numeric music software and there is the rather desirable Bars & Pipes Professional (a review coming up in MT soon). Though Amiga CD-ROMs haven't really caught on, the computer does at least have one direct-to-disk recording system.
Where the Amiga really scores is as one of the major forces in the graphics and animation industry. It's a popular genlocking machine and can lay claim, amongst other things, to being the computer used to generate the piccies for Catchphrase along with many other TV programmes.
To emulate this, however, you'll need a bit more than an Amiga 500; look at the 4000/030 (£1199.99) or the 4000/040 (£2099.99) which come with a built-in 120Mb hard drive (not particularly large for multimedia use), but without a monitor which will set you back another £300-400 for a decent model.
The 4000s really are rather tasty multimedia machines capable of displaying 256,000 on-screen colours from a palette of 16.8 million. There is a wealth of graphics, video and animation software available and to say they are capable of generating impressive productions is like saying Spielberg makes canny movies.
If you can't run to a 4000, there's the Amiga 1200 at £349.99 (monitor and hard drive extra) which has the same colour display capabilities. It currently comes bundled with several programs including games and paint software, but you may need a few upgrades to do any serious multimedia stuff.
At a year old, Atari's Falcon is still relatively new. Although based on the musician's favourite computer, the ST, it is altogether a heavier piece of kit with the ability to display 65,536 colours at once and with a dedicated DSP (Digital Signal Processor) chip which can process data in real time very quickly. Already four direct-to-disk recording programs have appeared using the DSP which require no additional hardware - making the Falcon very attractive for musos on a budget.
It has audio, video, SCSI II plus a variety of other connection sockets allowing it, for example, to accept external video sync for genlocking. It doesn't yet have a standard for CD-ROM support although it is capable of multitasking, and there are already several alternatives to Atari's own multitasking operating system, MultiTOS.
The Falcon to go for is the one with 4Mb of RAM and a 210Mb hard drive (£999, monitor extra). The basic machine has 1Mb of RAM and no hard drive (£499), but you'll need more than this for most serious work. It's worth remembering, too, that many ST music programs won't run on the Falcon and not all are being updated to do so.
Dedicated Falcon software is starting to appear slowly but surely, though this is restricted to music programs at present. The Falcon's multimedia potential is there but has yet to be fully realised. If, however, you want to control external devices such as video players and the like, the Falcon has the sockets.
Having mentioned the Falcon, we can't really ignore the good ol' Atari ST. This is still the most popular music computer in use in the UK, a job it does well and very cheaply, despite looking its age alongside the current generation of machines. Certainly, if you already have an ST there's no reason why you can't use it to run your sequencer and sync it to another computer which would handle the graphics. Current prices are around £200 for a 1040STE.
The final computer on our list is the Acorn Archimedes. An excellent machine, it has been done no service at all by Acorn's marketing strategy which effectively limits its area of interest to education. It's a powerful computer with an excellent GUI - well able to handle graphics, video, sound and CD-ROM. Photo CD software is currently being developed.
Archimedes computers include the A3010 at around £400 but for any sort of serious work you need to look at the A4000/5000 which range from about £1100 upwards.
Arc software includes a range of graphics, 3D drawing and video programs plus a growing number of CD-ROMs. The range of MIDI sequencers is small and most are aimed at the home and educational user rather than the pro, and unfortunately there are no real multimedia packages - not as yet.
The musician and the computer
OK, so you're not into multimedia and want a computer simply to make music. What should you look at?
By virtue of its built-in MIDI interface, the Atari ST became the UK's most popular music computer. And it's still a good choice - it's cheap and it has the widest range of music software of any computer - particularly in ancillary areas such as editors, librarians, composition programs and so on.
But as its popularity continues (alas) to wane, software developers are turning their attention to other computers, so the program you buy now is unlikely to be updated. You are, therefore, buying into a virtually closed system and this needs to be balanced against the money you're saving. Nevertheless, a vast number of musicians continue to make music with an ST and Cubase or Notator.
If you want to get into direct-to-disk recording, Atari's Falcon looks appealing, although serious direct-to-disk software has yet to appear and be tested (...but look out for Cubase Audio). Remember, too, that many ST music programs will not run on the Falcon and not many software developers appear to want to update them to do so.
The Mac has an excellent range of sequencer programs at both pro and budget levels including Cubase, Notator Logic, MasterTracks Pro and Vision. There isn't too much in the way of synth editors and librarians but there are a handful of decent sample editors such as Sound Designer and Alchemy. Mac's are particularly suited to direct-to-disk recording applications, too - although you'll need extra hardware for this - check out Cubase Audio, Session 8 and StudioVision.
As far as the PC is concerned, sequencing software is plentiful and is available to suit most pockets, though it can't really be said to fall into the professional category. At the high end there's Cubase (not without its problems on the PC) and a little further down MasterTracks Pro and Cakewalk. Seqwin is also starting to make a name for itself (see review in this issue) and there's also Cadenza with it built-in SysEx librarian. Note that some Windows music software requires a fairly high-end 486 in order to maintain timing integrity. Of course you could opt for a DOS-based sequencer such as Voyetra which has withstood the test of time and is still, I believe, being used by Stevie Wonder.
Like the Mac, PC synth editors and librarians are rather thin on the ground but there are now some excellent direct-to-disk systems running under Windows which you should be able to use concurrently with a sequencer.
As regards the Amiga and the Archimedes... well, let's just say I can't imagine anyone buying one of these computers specifically for musical purposes, but if you happen to own one already, check out Bars & Pipes (Amiga) and Rapsody and Serenade (Archimedes) if you're in need of a sequencing package.
More Power to the PC
No overview of the current computer market would be complete without mention of the Power PC. A new joint development by Apple, IBM and Motorola, the Power PC promises vastly increased speed and power - well in excess of even high-end Mac Quadra's. The interesting thing is, it will run both Mac and PC software and, if it's done right, could well prove to be the computing platform of the future.
As of writing, hard details are difficult to come by although the machine is due to start shipping in early 1994. In next month's MT we'll be featuring an update containing all the latest PowerPC info. For now, suffice it to say the promise of the PowerPC is too good to ignore; unless you need a computer now, I'd strongly advise you to wait until more information is available. If you must have a new machine immediately, remember that a number of machines in the Mac range have a PowerPC upgrade path.
• User-interface: The point at which the computer and user get together. In the case of a synth this is the buttons, sliders and keys. In the case of a computer it's the keyboard, the mouse and what you see on screen. Some user-interfaces are easier to use than others. See DOS, Windows and GUI.
• Operating system: The part of a computer's software which takes care of the basic day-to-day jobs such as handling files, keeping the monitor display up to date and generally malting sure that all aspects of the system work well together.
Some operating systems are built into ROM, others are loaded when you switch the computer on. Typical operating systems include Atari's GEM (Graphic Environment Manager), MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) used with PCs, and Apple's System 7 which is used with Macs.
• DOS: Disk Operating System. This is the basic PC operating system which not only takes care of disk handling but all other aspects of computer use, too. The most popular is MS-DOS but there are alternatives such as DR-DOS - though all perform the same essential functions. DOS is essentially a CLI (see GUI) which is not the most user-friendly interface (see User-interface) so alternatives such as Windows have appeared (see Windows).
• Windows: This is the most popular graphic front end for PCs. Instead of having to type commands laboriously into a PC at the DOS CLI, Windows lets you control the computer with a mouse by clicking on icons (small pictures) and dragging them around the screen. It's widely acknowledged as being far easier for beginners to learn and virtually all experienced users are now migrating towards Windows, too.
However, Windows runs on top of DOS and when you use an application within Windows you need a lot of processing power to cut through the 'sludge' from the computer's CPU up to the application. A 386 will do the job, sometimes hesitantly, but a 486 is much better (see 386/486 Processors).
• GUI: Graphical User Interface (pronounced 'gooey'). The standard term used to describe a graphical approach to the way a computer interacts with the user. A GUI uses icons (small pictures) of items such as programs and files, and you can control the system by pointing to items with a mouse. It's a far easier system to use than a CLI - Command Line Interface - with which all instructions have to be laboriously - and accurately! - typed in.
• RAM: A very unhelpful acronym standing for Random Access Memory. Its derivation dates back to the origin of computers and if it wasn't already lost in the annals of time would be better forgotten about. It refers to the area of memory in a computer which is used for running software (such as sequencers, wordprocessors and games) and storing data (such as songs, documents and high scores). You can both write data to RAM and read data from it (see also ROM), but it's volatile so when you switch off the computer, all data in RAM is lost. This is why you should save your work to disk regularly.
• ROM: A more sensible acronym standing for Read Only Memory. It's a type of memory which contains fixed data put there by the manufacturer. You can read it but you can't write to it or alter it in any way. In computers it is used to store essential information about how the computer works. It has been adopted by CD ROMs to indicate a medium which can be read from but not written to.
• Multitasking: Strictly, the ability to perform more than one task at the same time - such as playing music and sending a file to a printer. Many systems which claim to be multitasking actually use a system called 'time slicing' during which the processor shares its time between each application. It's a little like the man in the circus who keeps lots of plates spinning on poles by running from one to the other and giving each a spin. The Commodore Amiga is a true multitasking machine.
• 68030/040 processors: The 68030 and 68040, often abbreviated to 030 and 040, are types of microprocessor chips produced by Motorola - the 040 being the more powerful. They are used in Apple Macs and form the heart of the computer, handling all the essential computing processes. They are colloquially known as CPUs or Central Processing Units.
• 386/486 processors: More CPU chips, this time part of the 80x86 family - 80386 and 80486 - used in PCs. Intel designed them, but as you can't copyright a number the company couldn't protect them so other companies have cloned them. Hence the term 'Intel Inside' which you'll see stuck on some PCs, and why Intel has given the 586 chip a name - the Pentium.
• Hard disk: Similar in principle to the humble floppy disk but containing several hard (hence the name) metal platters which allow greater storage capacity and faster data transfer. It's rare to find a PC or Mac hard disk with a capacity less than 40Mb and the current trend is towards disks with a capacity of 200Mb or more. Direct-to-disk recording requires large hard disks capable of fast data transfer speeds.
• Multimedia: Hip, cool-to-the-groove buzz word meaning, simply, the use several types of media in one presentation such as graphics, video clips, text and sound.
• Video CD: A 12" CD usually used to store computer movies. Currently they have a maximum running time of around 90 minutes.
• QuickTime: A piece of Mac software which can show movies in a small window on the Mac screen.
• Video for Windows: Similar to QuickTime but for Windows on the PC.
Multimedia and the computer
Multimedia - what is it? In its present form multimedia combines music, video, still pictures and, perhaps, text into a single medium: the computer program. Throw in a dash of interaction and you have in your hands the future of entertainment and information technology.
And it hasn't come a moment too soon: the record/CD/cassette/Minidisc market has shrunk rapidly in recent years as more and more of the nation's teenagers squander their pocket money on computer games and videos rather than music. Clearly, if music is to excite people rather than simply act as background noise, it has to compete with the many other forms of entertainment that digital technology has brought within reach.
All this may seem a long way off and currently beyond the grasp of your average muso starving in a garret and sending demos to acne-faced A&R boys with a Porsche and an expense account. Not so. The technology now exists through which we can create audio/video productions in the comfort of our own basement flats without it costing an arm or a leg - or the sum total of next year's giros. One only need look at the exploits of someone like David James (MT December '93) to see what's possible with only modest equipment.
The main pre-requisite for any combined audio-visual production is, of course, a computer. And the computer industry hasn't been slow in latching on to multimedia as a way of marketing new machines. Though this has primarily been in connection with business presentations and home entertainment, there can be no doubt that more and more musicians will soon be releasing their own computer-based audio/visual productions. Peter Gabriel's example (see page 44) will be followed in a thousand different ways.
In order to connect your keyboard and synth modules to your computer, you have to equip it with a MIDI interface - unless you have an ST or a Falcon which both have MIDI interfaces built in. It really does make you wonder why no other computer manufacturer thought to do the same. Even Apple's new AV models neglect the magic 5-pin sockets.
Basic MIDI interfaces are available for the Mac, PC and Amiga. Prices range from around £20 (for the Amiga) and £70-80 (for the Mac and the PC) upwards.
Some interfaces have more than one MIDI Out. These may simply be two sockets sharing the same output signal which makes it easy to plug two units into the signal path. Alternatively, they may be separate or individual Outs which will provide you with an additional set of MIDI channels. For this to work, however, the software must support the individual Outs on the interface.
The Mac again scores here as you can connect a MIDI interface to the Printer or Modem port - or both - and most software, even budget stuff, lets you assign a track to either output.
Incidentally, ST users can buy a special MIDI interface (about £30) which plugs into the modem port and provides access to another 16 MIDI channels. But again, the software must be capable of using this.
You can buy more sophisticated interfaces which support both MIDI sync and SMPTE and there are special interfaces with these features for the ST, too.
When buying a PC interface the magic words to look for are MPU-401 compatible - although most interfaces are. If you run under Windows a special interface may need a special Windows driver, although this should be supplied with the interface. Most PC MIDI interfaces come on plug-in cards which you have to fit inside your computer, but external ones are also available which plug into one of the external ports.
With the internal variety you may have to make some technical adjustments to settings such as the IRQ (the Interrupt ReQuest, which is how the PC knows there are things plugged into it). This can be a bit hairy if the setting up instructions aren't detailed enough or assume a degree of competence with PC internals, which is often the case.