Datel Sound Sampler
Hardware and Software for Sinclair Spectrum
E&MM new-boy Simon Trask gets his teeth into a Spectrum-based sampling system that retails for no more than £50.
As sound sampling becomes as popular a buzzword in the computer industry as it is in the world of music, a few enterprising companies are setting about designing sampling packages based round home micros. The Datel is one of those packages.
If you're anything more than a half-regular E&MM reader, you'll be aware that sound sampling is at last about to enter into what we hope will be a meaningful relationship with average musicians, whoever they may be. You might also be aware that the home micro industry is also about to come under the spell of sampling, and it's for this reason that the means by which sampling is made available will take various forms - the dedicated sampling keyboard (eg. Ensoniq's new Mirage), the sampling synth expander (eg. the Powertran MCS1), and the computer-based sampling system, like the one reviewed here.
Datel's Digital Sound Sampler is a modest little system based round the 48K Spectrum. It acts as a reasonable introduction to the world of sound sampling, but dreamers who think £50 and one of Sinclair's babies is going to buy them a Fairlight in miniature had better stop reading - now.
The total package comprises the DSS 'black box', a cassette containing four programs, a small microphone, and three A4 pages' worth of 'instructions'. The DSS box plugs into the Spectrum's expansion port (where else?), and has one input that can be mic or line and one output that'll happily drive an external amplifier or hi-fi system. The bad news here is that the Gain and Feedback controls manifest themselves in the form of tiny screws recessed into the DSS casing - the Feedback control is particularly awkward to access. A Line Test function in the first program feeds the input directly to the output so that you can set a suitable level, but the microphone wouldn't do justice to an early Osmonds rehearsal session, let alone a sound sampling system - definitely a candidate for replacement.
This consists of four programs packaged on one cassette, and these are titled Effects, Keys, Sequencer, and Games Speak. None takes more than a minute to load, and all loaded reliably from the review copy. Each program is conceived to run independently of the others, so each one contains its own sample record facility. It's a shame there's no option to save/load a sampled sound which could then be transportable between programs, as this would be an elegant way of building up a library of samples for future playback and manipulation.
So what do these four programs allow you to do, exactly? Well, Effects allows you to manipulate the sound you've just sampled, the facilities available being reverse play, riser (in which the sample is played through an ascending pitch sequence), chop play (in which the sample is played in progressively shorter segments), and echo (with adjustable delay: fiddling with the Feedback control alters the amount of the effect). A further option allows four sounds to be sampled and then played on keys 5, 6, 7 and 8 of the Spectrum keyboard: a possible use for this might be to sample four drum-type sounds which could then be played as a mini drum kit. The play and reverse facilities allow a single sampled sound to be played at various pitches using the 1 - 9 keys on the Spectrum, while the draw facility simply draws a frequency plot on the monitor screen. Single or repeat playback can be set for either riser, chop play or echo, and maximum sample record time is no less than four seconds.
The Keys program presents the user with an on-screen, one-octave keyboard which can then be 'played' using the upper two rows of the Spectrum keyboard. A nine-octave range is possible, though the currently-selected octave can only be changed by returning to a command level. Still, if you really want to say 'Hello' in tones ranging from a foghorn to a chipmunk, now's your chance.
The Sequencer is entirely monophonic, pitch is selectable over a four-octave range, and 16 note durations are possible: the overall tempo of the sequence can be altered from the menu page. Sad to report, the Sequencer is a rather primitive step-time affair with the ability to store up to 1000 notes - though I can't imagine what twisted mind would glean enjoyment from inputting a sequence of that length using a system as tortuous as this one.
Each note is input as note-name followed by octave number, and this in turn is followed by a duration value from one of those specified. One failing that a lot of people are going to find annoying is the fact that the program doesn't allow for flats, and neither does it accept B# or E# (or at least, the review copy didn't). And although the instructions state that a value of 1.5 represents a dotted semiquaver, the program will only accept integer values - most odd. The Compose facility only allows note input to start from the first note, and the Edit facility, such as it is, doesn't allow notes to be added to a sequence, so your magnum opus has to be input in one go. Editing has to begin from note 1 as well, so if all you want to change is note 499, you're going to have to be of a very patient disposition.
Frankly, there's no excuse for such a low-grade program as this, especially when the shortcomings listed above would be so easy to sort out.
The final program, Games Speak, is a utility that enables as many as eight sampled sounds to be incorporated by the user into his or her own programs. Each sound can be up to half a second's duration, or you can dedicate all four seconds of memory time to just one sample, should you so wish. Playback time is of course dependent on playback pitch, as different pitches are created by reading the sample out through the DAC at differing rates (pretty much the standard procedure, this). Datel have provided two sample-manipulating routines, one producing a rising pitch effect and the other a random pitch effect.
Thankfully, full details are given in the accompanying instructions on how to incorporate Games Speak into your own programs, and on how to make use of the sample record and play routines.
I'll be quite candid with you. The sampling is not of a quality that would make you rush to a Portastudio, let alone a professional multitrack facility.
On the software front, only the I/O routines governing sample record and playback are in machine code: the rest of the programs are written entirely in BASIC. None of the programs is protected, and Datel don't seem to mind if you tinker around with the code and make use of their sampling routines: indeed, the nature of the Games Speak program seems to have been formulated for this very purpose.
A number of software bugs manifested themselves in the review copy, though Datel assure me that these will have been corrected by the time you read this. The company have apparently had plenty of feedback from users, and are willing to listen to any suggestions/criticisms they might have, which is always a good sign.
Anyway, it's because most of the code is in BASIC that the user interface side of things is a bit sluggish, a fact which I found irritating after a while. The Keys program is particularly badly off in this respect.
Personally, I'd have preferred all the programs (with the possible exception of Games Speak) to be integrated into one, coded in machine code for speed and compactness, and given a more carefully thought-out set of facilities.
I know this is going to be a disappointment to many of you, but I can't really say in all honesty that the Datel Sound Sampler is suitable for serious musical use. As a package, it's crying out for some decent software to do its hardware justice, but sadly it appears that Datel themselves have no plans for updating this area, so you'll have to make any programming improvements yourself.
Luckily, the system as it stands now should allow plenty of scope for such tailoring, but that's not really the point.
What Datel are planning is a hardware interface that'll allow (initially, at least) the Keys program to be controlled from any Casiotone keyboard. This sounds to me like a pretty shrewd move, since it'll no doubt save a lot of musicians the duplication of keyboard hardware that would have been necessary had the company opted for a self-contained, dedicated chromatic pitch-controller of their own. The interface shouldn't cost more than about £25 when it becomes available within the next month or two, so it should be a neatly viable option.
Commodore owners can also prepare themselves for the arrival of a 64-based version of the system, with some new software written in machine code, that'll also be available in the near future.
Dedicated computer buffs may well find the DSS' particular combination of facilities attractive, but the system simply isn't user-friendly enough to warrant serious consideration by micro-equipped musicians. And unless you're keen to develop things further by writing your own software, there's not much you can do about it.
Further information from Datel Electronics, (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
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