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How To Become An Atari ST Power User (Part 1)

Hardware

The first part of a short series in which Martin Russ expands, exploits and explores the Atari ST computer.


A Power User is a computer owner who gets the most out of their computer by using a mix of hardware and software add-ons to maximise both the speed and ease of use of the machine. This article aims to short-cut the tedious process of learning for a prospective Power User by revealing everything (well, everything I can think of!) that you need to know in order to turn your ST into a powerful musical workstation — and isn't that why you bought it in the first place?

Making the most of the ST is a big subject, and so the three parts of this short series cover its major aspects: hardware, which we'll look at this month; software; and musical environments. I will also include some hints and tips for getting the most of the computer.

MONITORS



A monochrome (black and white) monitor is essential. The high resolution mode may only have two colours, but the number of dots displayed is twice that of the medium resolution mode, and four times that of low resolution. A black and white display is quite adequate for almost all musical applications, so the 640 by 400 dots (also called picture elements or pixels) display gives you the largest useful area to work with. Look at it this way — you can either fit more on the screen, or view things in more detail. The standard Atari ST SM124 high resolution monitor is relatively cheap at just over £100, gives a crisp 'paper' white picture, and has the correct cable already installed. Cheaper generic 'computer' monitors may have amber or green screens, and you may have to buy an adapter cable to connect them to your ST.

COLOUR



If you want colour, perhaps for playing games in between bouts of sequencing, then buy a monitor switch box (from about £15-25, so shop around) which will let you change over from the high resolution to the colour monitors without swapping cables. Colour monitors like the Atari SC1224 and the Philips CM8833 give excellent picture quality for just over £200 and £250 respectively, whilst the cheaper TV sets with RGB/SCART inputs offer a dual purpose lower quality compromise. The ultimate (almost over the top) monitor type is a Multisync, which will run in all three ST resolutions — but despite the £500 price tag, the ST still resets when you change resolution!

MOUSE



Mouse mats seem like a trivial Power User tool, and yet many people struggle with mice on less than ideal surfaces. A mat serves two purposes: firstly, it provides a relatively smooth and clean surface for the mouse to move about on; and secondly, it forces you to keep an area clear of paper, pens, disks, and other studio junk. The ideal location for the mouse and mouse mat is just to one side of the ST's keyboard unit, generally on the right for right-handed people.

Cleaning the mouse regularly (say once a month) will help to keep the build-up of dust and fluff to a minimum. Just open the sliding plate on the underside, remove the ball, and clean the rollers with tape head isopropanol and Q-tips. Finally blow any dust or fluff away, and then reassemble.

Replacing a mouse with a higher resolution replacement (ie. one in which the cursor moves further for the same physical mouse movement) is useful if you need the space, or if your original Atari mouse expires. £20 should purchase a simple mechanical mouse, whilst twice that will buy a more accurate and reliable optical mouse with fewer moving parts — these do, however, need special mats.

INTERNAL DRIVE



STs made before early 1987 will probably have a 320 Kbyte single-sided disk drive inside. Upgrading from this to a 720 Kbyte double-sided internal drive becomes more important as an increasing number of software releases are on double-sided disks only — it also doubles the capacity of your disks! It's quite easy to fit a replacement drive since you are just swapping one plug-in drive for another (see box: Opening The ST), and it is well worth the cost of £70 or so. Because the disk drives fitted internally have unusual styling, most replacement kits require you to 'modify' the casing of the ST slightly to suit the replacement — performance before aesthetics. Apparently there is no market in slightly used single-sided drives, so I gave mine to a hardware hacker to play with.

SECOND DRIVE



If you have only one double-sided drive, copying disks involves dragging the 'A:' icon to the 'B:' icon and then doing disk swaps. A second floppy drive makes copying files from disk to disk faster and easier, but more importantly it enables you to leave a master disk in one drive and use the other for your working files. This is especially useful for copy-protected software which requires you to have the master disk in a drive for verification purposes. Adding a second drive involves simply plugging it into the socket on the ST's rear panel — no internal modifications are needed.

There are two types of external drives: the cheaper type cost about £60 and take their power from the ST (usually via the joystick port), whilst drives with their own power supply built in cost about £80 and are preferable from a Power User viewpoint since the ST's internal power supply is much better left for supporting things like RAM (see below). It is probably better to shop around for second disk drives — the official Atari SF314 drive is about £20 more than most of the competition.

CLOCK



One of the most annoying things about the ST's design is the way that it forgets the time and date whenever you switch it off or reset it. Typing in the time and date using the Control Panel is awkward — especially given the American format date: month/day/year. This problem can be solved by adding an external clock cartridge or an internal clock circuit board. Both cost about £25 and need a special program that will auto-run when you switch the ST on (or 'boot' it up — mainframe computer talk which has entered into personal computer usage).

Clock cartridges and boards have an onboard clock chip and battery backup, so that the auto-run program will be able to load the correct time into the ST when you power up. Once installed and set up, you will find that the date and time stamps on files are correct — no more endless lists of November 11th! You will also find that the 'Sort By Date' option from the 'View' menu works properly. Having the correct file information makes backing up much easier, and helps you to keep track of when you last worked on something — ever had to search through loads of song files looking for the one that you recorded about three months ago because you can't remember the name under which you saved it?

BOOT DISK



For ST owners with only floppy drives, one of the most useful hardware accessories is a boot disk. This is an ordinary floppy disk which contains the DESKTOP.INF settings file, desk accessories and Auto folder programs you require, and which you can leave in the internal ('A:') drive, also called the 'boot drive'. When you power up the ST, the desktop, the time and date, all the accessories and the Auto programs are loaded as the machine boots up, and you are presented with the same working environment every time. The boot disk should be write protected (and backed up) once you have it set up as you want.

Boot disks can also be used as a natural storage place for the utility programs described below. With a second drive for working disks, and given the awkward placing of the internal drive, I often ignore the internal drive altogether and just use the external drive — I leave the boot disk in the internal drive all the time unless I need to insert a master disk for copy-protection verification.

One floppy drive hardware accessory that costs nothing yet can save you a lot of money is a cautious finger — never eject or insert a disk whilst the drive LED is lit! Wrecking the drive heads can ruin your disk (and its irreplaceable contents) and cost almost as much to repair as a new drive.

HARD DRIVE



The ultimate computer hardware add-on has to be a hard disk drive. Hard disks are rather more than just larger capacity disks — they completely transform the way the computer works, in terms of speed and ease of use. Buying a hard disk is rather like getting an entirely new computer. Programs load much faster, and data files are saved without that tedious floppy drive time delay.

Physically, a hard disk is rather like a super floppy disk, except that it holds lots more information. The magnetic surface is in the form of several rigid plastic plates instead of one sheet of floppy plastic, and these plates revolve much more quickly than a floppy disk, in a sealed clean environment instead of in the dusty open air. Drive capacities from about 10 Mbytes up to several hundreds of Mbytes or more are possible, although for most musical uses between 30 and 60 Mbytes will suffice — large scale sample editing will probably need as large a drive as you can afford. Do not underestimate the amount of storage you will need — 30 Mbytes really is close to the minimum a serious user should contemplate. My 30 Mbyte hard drive, for example, is almost always full.

The other important characteristic of a drive is its access time — how long it takes for the drive mechanism to get to a specific part of the disk and start retrieving information from it. Access times of around 65 milliseconds are slow, whilst 15 milliseconds is fast — contrary to what you might expect, the access time generally decreases for larger hard drives. You should go for a good mix of large size and low access time within your price limit.

Another 'time' feature is also worth looking out for — some hard disks come with clocks built in, so you may not need a clock add-on. As with the second floppy drive, buy hard disks which have their own power supplies rather than those which are powered from the ST.

There are two types of hard drive: fixed and removable. Fixed drives cannot be removed from their casing, whilst removable drives allow you to treat the disk cartridges almost like super-floppies. Removable magnetic drives are about twice as expensive as comparably sized fixed drives, and the blank disk media can be expensive (but a new 45 Mbyte cartridge is still far cheaper than a 45 Mbyte fixed hard disk drive).

Really big removable drives (around 600 Mbytes) will use optical, rather than magnetic, means to store data (optical disks are like CDs in appearance and operation) and can be either WORM (Write Once, Read Many) or Erasable types. Sampler users may find that removable media provide a good way to cope with large sound libraries. The catch with removable media is that the drives tend to be harder to find, more expensive and there are no real standards — each manufacturer's hardware is unique.

Using a hard disk effectively involves subdividing your files into categories - rather like a library. Since the 'C:' hard drive replaces 'A:' as the boot drive in a hard disk system, it is in drive 'C:' that the Auto Folder, utility programs, and desk accessories should be placed. One hard drive can be split (or 'partitioned' in techno-speak) into a number of 'virtual' drives, and these can be used to separate your files: Drive 'D:' could hold your main sequencer and associated files, while drive 'E:' could hold song and MIDI files, and drive 'F:' could be the storage area for your banks of synthesizer patch bulk dumps. The use of folders also becomes much more important when you are using a hard drive.

Hard disks offer lots more storage, but this does not affect the RAM memory inside the computer — you can have 30 or more Mbytes available for files on disk, but programs can still only use the ST's RAM for working memory. This means that although you can store plenty of 400K MIDI files on a hard disk, instead of just one per floppy, you will still only be able to load one at a time into your sequencer — unless you have also expanded the ST's memory, of course.

One of the most important things to bear in mind about hard disks is the value of backing up their contents to floppies so that the data is safe from accidental erasing or disk errors. It can take 42 or more floppies to hold everything on a 30 Mbyte hard disk, so in practice many people only back up the data (song) files and important configuration files, which cuts down the number of disks required.

RAM UPGRADES



Ordinary STs come with either 512 Kbytes or 1 Mbyte of RAM memory, as suggested by the name: 520 ST or 1040 ST. Adding extra RAM does what adding a hard disk cannot — it adds to the working memory which is available to programs. The extra RAM can be used for storing information like sequencer data, so your note capacity will increase. 512 Kbyte STs can be upgraded to 1 Mbyte quite easily for about £70, and further expansion to 2.5 and 4 Mbytes is possible (the full 4 Mbyte upgrade costs just under £300). The 4 Mbyte limit is a function of the ST's design and it is not easy to expand it beyond this.

If you only ever run one program at a time, 1 Mbyte is usually quite enough, and it is only when more than one program has to be loaded that more memory is needed (for more on this, wait for Part 3 of the series).

Expanding the memory of basic STs involves opening the computer (see panel), and patching the RAM circuit board on to the Video Shifter chip using an adapted chip socket, and on to the surface mounted Memory Management Unit (MMU) chip with a special circuit board adapter. All the RAM expansion boards are very similar in design and construction, but note that it tends to be more difficult to install them in older STs. The DIY kits for expanding RAM are supplied with detailed fitting instructions which give step by step information on fitting into all the different ST variations, although sometimes they need a little interpretation.

The more recently introduced STEs and Mega STEs use easily installed SIMMs (Single Inline Memory Modules) which just plug vertically into special sockets. Most of the hardware companies mentioned in the 'Suppliers' panel can supply RAM upgrades.

MIDI PORTS



Figure 1. How to wire your own MIDI splitter lead for the ST's MIDI Out.

The ST comes with two MIDI sockets; one is a standard MIDI In, but the other is a decidedly non-standard combined MIDI Out and Thru which can cause all sorts of problems if you use MIDI cables with anything other than pins 2, 4 and 5 connected. If you do not know how your cables are wired, then the UKMA can supply the MIDITEST 5, a handy gadget which will quickly verify your 5 pin DIN leads for MIDI compatibility — I found a few surprises in my collection and rewired them before they could cause any problems.

In order to use the ST's Out/Thru MIDI socket properly, you need a lead which splits the combined socket into the proper Out and Thru connections. The easiest way to make such a MIDI splitter lead is to cut one end off an ordinary hi-fi 5-pin 180 degree DIN lead and rewire the exposed end to two new plugs.

I do not know of anyone who makes these leads commercially — yet! Watch the Shape Of Things To Come pages in SOS for updates.

OPERATING SYSTEM VERSION



The ST's Operating System is called TOS, and it has undergone a few changes since the original STs, which loaded it from disk. All STs now come with TOS in ROM. Current STs have version 1.4, and STEs have version 1.52 — the difference in version numbers has more to do with hardware differences and enhancements in the STEs than with radically different features. As you might expect, the latest versions have improved facilities in comparison to the older ones — many bugs have been removed, and the file selector dialogue and Desktop scroll bars and Program installation are much better in the latest release.

When the STE was first introduced, there were some problems with the compatibility of certain programs, when programmers had made assumptions about certain unpublished routines. All software now being released is STE-compatible, and it is generally only older public domain software which should cause problems. The need for software updates to cope with changes like this is one of the main reasons why Power Users always register their software.

You can find out how old the version of TOS in your ST is by looking at the Desktop Info option in the ST's 'Desk' menu — the more 'Copyright...' year dates are listed, the more recent is your machine. The oldest STs just refer to 1985, whilst the latest go up to 1989 or 1990. Older versions of TOS can be upgraded to 1.4 for about £50 pounds, and some companies offer versions which can switch between an older version and the latest in case you have some software which only runs on the older ROMs.

LARGE SCREENS



It is possible to add a larger screen to the ST, although this is easiest with the models with separate keyboards: Mega STs and Mega STEs. Having a larger screen area means that you can see more of a sequence, you can spread out overlapping windows to make it easier to use them, and you don't have to scroll windows so much to see all the data — it is very addictive, especially to Power Users. Returning to a smaller screen is a sobering experience.

The simplest screen enhancement is the Autoswitch Overscan from the Atari Workshop, a simple hardware add-on which just tweaks the scanning of the standard monitor to make the available screen area about 20% larger. It is only available for STs, at a cost of about £50. This is a much improved commercial version of a hardware modification which appeared in German ST circles some time ago. There are compatibility problems with programs which do not expect the non-standard screen sizes, but then this applies to all large screens in varying degrees — check before committing yourself.

Moving to a larger screen can involve extra hardware and software, or simply a whole new monitor. Prices vary from £200 for higher resolution monitors to several thousand pounds for 21-inch screen systems. Titan Designs have some interesting options for the serious Power User. Almost all the rest of the competition are German in origin.

ACCELERATORS



The basic ST runs the Motorola 68000 (its CPU chip) at a processor clock frequency of 8MHz, and although 16MHz 68000 boards are available, the actual gain in performance produced by upgrading the processor chip is restricted by the rest of the chips in the ST — figures of between 10% and 30% improvement seem to be typical, despite some manufacturers' claims to the contrary. So for the basic ST it is probably not worth bothering with hardware accelerators for musical applications.

The blitter chip is specially designed to speed up certain graphics operations, and it is available as a menu option on some machines. In general, it does not make as much difference in speed as software accelerators (explained next month), and it can cause compatibility problems. For example, C-Lab's Notator/Creator programs only work with the blitter disabled, and some public domain programs will crash if it is enabled.

The new Mega STE has a 16MHz mode built in, which means that the computer will actually run at about twice the speed of an 8MHz model. Unfortunately, at the moment only a few programs (including Steinberg's Cubase 2.01) can take full advantage of the extra speed to improve performance, but this will change as developers get hold of Mega STEs.

Overall the Mega STE looks like a good contender for the Power User's first choice of Atari computer, with its combination of easy RAM upgrade, speed, ST compatibility and built-in hard drive options — which contrasts with the 32MHz TT's more complex RAM organisation and cartridge port addressing incompatibility. Perhaps we will see special versions of music programs for the TT...

NEXT MONTH



Now that the hardware has been covered, we need some software to exploit the computing power. The next part of the series will look in depth at how you can make the ST easier and faster to use. Stay tuned.

HARDWARE SUPPLIERS

Ladbroke Computing International, (Contact Details)
West Coast Technologies, (Contact Details)
Evesham Micros, (Contact Details)
Protar, (Contact Details)
Gasteiner Technologies, (Contact Details)
Multi Point Media, (Contact Details)

SPECIALIST LARGE SCREEN SUPPLIERS

Atari Workshop, (Contact Details)
Titan Designs, (Contact Details)

OPENING THE ST

The ease with which you can carry out DIY work on the ST depends on your level of competency. Musicians who wire up their own leads, replace noisy pots on amplifiers and fiddle with their hi-fi should have few problems. Any hardware modification or add-on which involves opening up the ST will come with detailed descriptions of exactly what to do, but here are a few pointers regarding the general approach to give you some idea of what is involved. Remember that as with all such DIY work, opening the ST invalidates your guarantee and you do it at your own risk.

I am assuming here that you have an ordinary ST with an internal drive, not the early STs with separate floppy drives and power supplies, or the Mega STs with their separate keyboard — the procedure will be different for these. Find a large clear, clean work area and cover it with newspaper, cloth or a woollen blanket. Find an electrical earth and ground yourself, either with a wrist strap or by frequently touching the ground point. Nylon clothing and running about on carpets do not mix with electronics! Remove rings, medallions, bracelets and other personal jewellery which might get tangled or caught. You will usually need only a few tools:

A small flat bladed screwdriver
A pair of tweezers
A medium pozidrive screwdriver
A pair of flat nose pliers
A storage jar to hold all the loose bits as you remove them.
A static wrist strap and ground lead is recommended

Disconnect all the cables from the ST and remove the disk from the internal drive. Turn the ST over and remove the screws from the square holes (do not remove the screws from the three holes directly underneath the disk drive at this stage). Turn the ST over and ease the top cover off, lifting carefully from the end furthest away from the disk drive — this usually needs some juggling to achieve. Put the top cover and all the screws safely away to one side.

Removing the keyboard involves simply undoing the small push-on connector on the right and lifting the keyboard away. The metal 'cage' should now be visible — it completely encases the ST's major electronics and stops them interfering with other electronic equipment (TVs, radios etc). The power supply cover and disk drive (those three screws!) should be removed next. There may be a small brass pillar instead of a fourth screw for the disk drive — don't lose it! Opening the cage requires a pair of long flat nosed pliers because there are about a dozen twisted tags which need to be straightened out before you can undo the screws. You should now be able to lift the cage away, although the tags may need some minor adjustments. The main board of the ST should now be visible. Most of the upgrades do not require any further disassembly, and just retrace your steps to put it all back together again.

If things do go wrong, don't panic. The suppliers of hardware add-ons usually have technical enquiry telephone numbers and their staff are quite familiar with desperate phone calls from worried owners. If you do need to send your ST away for repair then pack it very carefully (in the original box if possible) and wrap it well with strong brown paper and sticky tape. It is best to send it by an insured method which requires signatures on arrival: use well-known carriers like Securicor or Parcel Force (do not use ordinary parcel post!).


Series - "How To Become An Atari ST Power User"

Read the next part in this series:


All parts in this series:

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2 | Part 3


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Previous Article in this issue

Digitech DSP16

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Roland JX1


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Aug 1991

Topic:

Computing


Series:

How To Become An Atari ST Power User

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2 | Part 3


Gear in this article:

Computer > Atari > ST

Feature by Martin Russ

Previous article in this issue:

> Digitech DSP16

Next article in this issue:

> Roland JX1


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