What is computer music? Who are the computer musicians? Paul Ashford tells us what's going on in the Yamaha camp to further an admirable cause.
Well, what's going on, slowly and surely, is the beginning of a generation of music machines that can derive everything they do from procedures involving the simple on/off principle of computer technology — digital logic.
Computers, as an abundance of TV popularisation never tires of pointing out, consist of large quantities of switches any of which can be in one of two states — high or low. Information can be codified in this way just as language can be codified in the dots and dashes of Morse. The pitch and wave information of music can be created as numerical electrical signals which when converted back to analogue and fed to a loudspeaker, will be decoded into sound.
Computer music, then, has to do with creating sounds according to the principles crudely outlined above. Sometimes it's done almost as crudely — then you get the vapid squawks associated with cheap computers. In more advanced systems, sound is synthesized either by building up wave shapes or taking harmonically dominant noise and filtering sections out of it. When several sources interact, complex signals can be achieved. In yet other products, the circuitry is designed to sample (copy) input sounds. And associated circuitry can determine lengths of sounds and spaces between them to give the potential for a full composition.
It has been comparatively easy for computer technology to invade and encroach upon the art of making music. However up until now this has largely been at the level of ICs or 'chips'. It wasn't so much that computers were designed to make music, as that the components that were put into computers were also put into electronic instruments. The conventional microcomputer field and the electronic instrument field developed in parallel, but largely independently of one another. As Ray Hammond, author of 'The Musician and the Micro' put it, an electronic musical instrument is a computer with the versatility taken out.
Some of the potential in the field was not immediately realised because instruments and conventional computers parted company so soon. Another result was that computer music tended to be associated with the massive investment of multi-keyboard rigs such as Jean-Michel Jarre or Hans Zimmer. By rights, computers ought to have made electronic music cheap; but at least initially, they didn't. Moreover the entire area became split between the important professional keyboard players at one extreme and people with rather limited 'easy-play' auto-keyboards at the other. Conventional hardware-based instruments dominated the market and the owners of conventional computers continued to burp and squawk through tiny speakers, unaware of the immense world of creative potential that the new technology was capable of giving them.
Enter now the Yamaha Musical Instruments division and some of the most significant advances ever made in computer music. The most notable of these advances, which were announced at a conference in Hamburg immediately prior to the Frankfurt world musical instrument fair, was the first ever music computer.
Yamaha's CX-5 Music Computer, priced at £569 (including keyboard and FM sound module), bridges the gap between the 'dedicated' (ie one-application) circuitry of digital musical instruments, and the undedicated (Jack of all trades and master of none, particularly music) circuitry of home micros. It resembles one of the better 32K computers in its general configuration, fairly conventional in size and shape with a standard alphanumeric keyboard. It uses the MSX Microsoft system which is to become the Japanese standard. Programming is in BASIC and by the time the Yamaha is available in volume on the English market there should be an adequate range of games, word-processor, graphics and business programs to suit it. It is compatible with the usual accessories having ports for printer, joysticks etc. The machine is designed so that it could in fact be sold as a computer without it's 'voice', which comprises a module fixed into a large cavity in the computer's casing. But it seems unlikely the computer and the voicing module will ever be treated as other than a single unit, unless you can use the voice module with other MSX computers; an exciting prospect which Yamaha are neither confirming nor denying at the moment.
It is the voice module that makes the Yamaha Music Computer something really special. Most, if not all, home micros have some sort of means of making a pitched sound. Add a little sophistication and you can have three-part harmony, and a computer like the BBC will also allow you to alter the sound in some degree and change the envelopes of the note.
With a lot of time and effort, a few special effects, a reasonable multitrack system and considerable ingenuity, you can make creative music on an ordinary computer. But if you want languid strings, punchy leads, the richness and depth of a synthesizer — no way. For this the Yamaha Music Computer fills the gap.
The voice module is based on the DX-9 synthesizer, and has a similar range of sound capabilities. It is eight-note polyphonic rather and has a time-sharing facility enabling a different sound to be assigned to each voice so that you can have eight different instruments playing simultaneously. The programming of sounds is on similar principles to the DX-9, but with the music software package (supplied as standard) the entire programming system is displaced graphically on a screen. In practice this means that programming your own sounds is far simpler on the computer than it is on the synthesizer — a good concession to people coming to computer music from the computer side rather than as a musician. For those familiar with the programming of the DX-9, the CX-5 has four operators and eight algorithms. For those who are not, suffice it to say this computer is a full-function synthesizer with the wide spectrum of sounds and the special aptitude for catching the nuances of the more tricky solo voices that one associates with the DX range. A concession to the 'home' market is an auto-accompaniment system which gives preset bass, chord, and rhythm patterns.
The Yamaha computer is by itself a major advance in computer music. The computer people will like it because it has the potential of a really rewarding musical instrument, and the musicians will like it because it's part of a MIDI-based system that will interface with most new synthesizers, sequencers and other MIDI-equipped products.
Along with the CX-5, Yamaha announced an entire new generation of MIDI-linked electromusic lines. Apart from the undoubted virtues of these products individually, they completely integrate Yamaha products with lines from rival manufacturers — gone are the days of splendid isolation.
Like all computers the CX-5 can be used as a sequencer, but one of Yamaha's most important new products is a separate 8-channel polyphonic sequencer called the QX-1. The QX-1 will handle 80,000 sound signals, which should be enough for a typical stage set or album recording at least. You can input a sequence directly through the typewriter style keyboard (which is not alphanumeric, but specially laid out to suit the special requirements of music notation and commands). Alternatively the unit can be programmed from an external MIDI keyboard. Editing, correcting, punching in and out are simple operations and sections can be repeated and 'chained' to make best use of the memory. A convenient feature is the 'data track' section with twin rows of eight buttons to put any track into either 'play' or 'record' for building harmonies using multitrack techniques.
Using an eight-channel sequencer like the QX-1 to full capacity would require eight MIDI keyboards, since any channel can control one. Yamaha admit that not too many people possess eight MIDI keyboards and certainly it would be uneconomic to buy them simply to use with the sequencer. Cue for the T8PR Modular Sound Generator system. This is another important development. "What...", Yamaha engineers seem to have said to themselves, "... if we take the sound generation system of an FM keyboard and stick it in a 19" rack mounted module?" And that is precisely what they've done, quite consciously, they're introducing a concept of 'separates' into electronic music analogous to the way the hi-fi people introduced the same concept to domestic audio.
Significantly, Yamaha are not alone in thinking like this because other companies, notably Roland, are doing the same thing.
As both companies use MIDI this co-operation can only benefit musicians.
Anyway, a single T8PR FM sound module is in effect a keyboard-less DX-7, and eight of them tandemed in a rack have to be heard to be believed. Also new, and MIDI-equipped and obviously part of the same generation as the products just mentioned is the RX-11 Digital Rhythm Machine priced £749. The RX-11 has sixteen digitally recorded instrument sounds and there's a less expensive version called the RX-15 with twelve. Fifty rhythms can be programmed plus fifty rhythms on ROM, and there are ten mixable outputs which tends to be convenient if you want to record all the drums on one track of a tape machine. Data can be panned left or right. The Yamaha RX-11 can be programmed in step or real time or even played in real time off its own keyboard or through an external MIDI instrument.
Computers, sequencers, drum machines, and finally, amongst a whole array of other new products less directly related to computer music, Yamaha have the first ever MIDI-linked digital delay line. This means that the delay line's ability to sample vocal and other sounds should link in with a purely electronic composition. Shades of Laurie Anderson, here. Anyway the delay line, which will retail for around £650, is designed to complement the R-1000 Reverb and offers sixteen programmable memories, delay to 1023ms, and frequency response to 16kHz. Combined with the other new products, it gives a pretty formidable line-up and considering it was only a year ago that the DX-7 and DX-9 synthesizers were voted by consensus as being a hard act to follow, it is commendable that instead of updating or replacing lines, Yamaha have opted to expand outwards into a new and thoroughly impressive range which complements the DX synths using the universal MIDI interface. Computer music, either from the point of view of the accomplished musician expanding his horizons or the computer hobbyist developing his talents, is at last gathering momentum.
News by Paul Ashford
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