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Island Logic Music System

software for a melodic BBC

THE WORKS of Beethoven are acknowledged to reflect the ever-improving technology of the piano of his day. Perhaps by chance, Island Logic have used the image of long gone Ludwig to promote their new software package, "The Music System", and although it may be pushing credibility to suppose that this offering will spawn comparable talent, it's more than a cut above the immediate competition.

The Music System is a collection of musical utilities for the BBC 'B' micro. But do not groan at the prospect of dread Beeb micro "bagpipe" timbres, because the sound generation software has really seen some hard work. Essentially, machine code drivers for the Beeb's sound chip have been written to allow modulation, so basics such as vibrato are now possible.

There are five main lumps to the System: a synthesiser control panel, a two-octave (almost) keyboard on the top two rows of the QWERTY keys, an editor to create scores, a printout facility to get hard copy, and finally a song and sound library which contains examples for you to hack at.

The package on disk is complete, but cassette versions are split into two-one containing the synthesiser and keyboard, and the second containing the editor and printout. Both come with the song and sound library. A pre-production disk was sent for review and therefore the practicality of the cassette version could not be assessed.

On shift-break booting the disk, a title page appears with a "hands off" copyright warning. After that The Control Screen appears, which is a masterpiece of computer graphics. The style is very Macintosh with a ruled background and symbols representing various functions (icons) overlayed. Shadows have been drawn in to give a feeling of depth and the "music" on the central stave scrolls very smoothly to give a display which is guaranteed to have people staring over your shoulder.

The icons represent the utilities mentioned above with the addition of a linker which can chain files together like an auto-change record player (those were the days). Bashing the space bar selects each option in turn, the icon changing to reverse video when pointed at. Hitting the return gets you into the function of your choosing via a status page which tabulates file names and other numerical data relating to how much room you have.

The keyboard section displays a proper black and white set of ivories, a set of tape recorder transport controls, a metronome, four "tape position" counters, volume and envelope selectors, and an octave up/down graphic. The scheme of operation is based on a conventional multitrack tape machine with a dash of real-time sequencer thrown in.

One feature of the whole suite of programs is the sensible allocation of functions to computer keys. For example, COPY tells the printer to print, while < and > rewind and fast-forward the software tape recorder. The tape recorder feel is so strong that you even have to press shift-tab (two buttons) to put the thing into record. The red function keys of the Beeb are used to the full and with simplicity so that, for example, f2 = voice 2.

Having recorded one track, you simply 'rewind', select another track, set record, and play along with the metronome and previously recorded tracks. Using computer keys is a pain but if you look at the screen rather than the Beeb (the screen keys display the note name when pressed) a reasonable degree of facility is possible.

The synthesiser section gives you the chance to build your own voices, or "envelopes" as they are known in The Music System. The graphics are again very appealing and give a tremendous confidence that you are dealing with a very high quality product. The problem arises in that it is tricky to come up with meaningful graphics for attack, decay, sustain and release. The people at Island have done a fair job with a selection of arrows, but the icons for modulation seem a bit industrial.

The main voice treatment is frequency modulation in the form of ramps/glissandi and periodic vibrato/X-mod. A metallic edge can be given which is definitely not what we have heard from Beebs in the past. But this is not FM synthesis (nor its price). Having heard the voices with EQ and reverb, the dry sound through the Beeb's internal speaker was a disappointment, and any serious user should fit a DI socket.

The editor is a real treat. Notes are moved up and down the stave by cursor control keys and note lengths are decremented and incremented by tapping on the adjacent Q and W keys. Pressing the space bar turns a note into a rest, and return "glues" it to the stave. Triplets, ties, double flats and double sharps are all possible along with boring old normal accidentals, repeat section, first and second time bars, and so on.

Because you don't have to know what a note is called to enter it, no prior knowledge of music is required to transfer written music to the editor. At the other end of the learning curve, the editor is sophisticated enough not to hinder some musical know-all by vital omissions. The feeling is that the editor is on your side, which is more than can be said for the CX5 equivalent. A horizontal approach to composition is required as The Music System cannot display polyphonic information. Peeking at the other voices is just a question of a few keystrokes but it does require some getting used to.

Once a piece has been entered, transposition is a simple matter of rolling the sensuous cursor bar to the relevant box on the status page and dabbing at the cursor left/right keys to take the piece into any key signature.

Those with access to an Epson RX or FX printer will be able to use the hard copy facility which is quite a gem. Enthusiasm has to be qualified, however, because although print quality is excellent it takes about one minute to print one bar of each of the four voices (they are printed in parallel, sideways-on). A lower resolution mode is supported but with minimal time saving.

Minor grumbles include note tails not being joined, tie markings appearing below the bass stave rather than below the note to which they refer, and all notes below middle C appearing in the bass clef. Although the printer is particularly advanced it just falls short of producing output which could be plonked in front of an unsympathetic musician and played. Snopake, glue and scissors could remedy this situation but pasting-up would be rather time consuming.

At just under 25 quid The Music System is a snip and, most importantly, a lot of fun. The major limitations of the package are nothing to do with Island Logic but are due to the Beeb's three-voice'n'noise sound generator. There is a feeling that someone has bought a work of art only to hang it in the toilet. The most striking fact is that Island Logic have set new standards for home micro software and their policy of intelligent entertainment must be given full support.

ISLAND LOGIC music system software: £24.95

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