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Retro 1984

Another year, another host of hardware to look back on. We take you through the goodies and the baddies that came out during '84, just in case you missed any of them.

As the year of Orwell's nightmare comes to a close, we look back at the products and events that made headlines during music technology's most hectic twelve months ever.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was supposed to be the year of Newspeak and Big Brother, part of a time when the march towards making the human race a more cohesive whole had almost completely eradicated the human being as an individual. Instead, it turned out to be the year when the world's electronic musical instrument manufacturers finally made strides towards standardising certain aspects of their designs, so that an instrument from one part of the world could be used successfully with another from somewhere thousands of miles away.

So in a sense, the hi-tech music scene became a more cohesive whole itself, a process that was accelerated by a growing rift between the hi-tech field and the rest of the musical instrument fraternity. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers alike began to realise that electronic and computer-based instruments required a degree of specialisation that would inevitably divorce them from the traditional 'group gear' arena. E&MM helped this transformation come about by launching a sister magazine, Guitarist, so that guitar players could read a magazine whose editorial was written entirely for them, not for drummers, keyboard players, singers and computer buffs as well.

Yamaha's CX5M. More software to come.

Frankfurt Fiesta

Things started quietly, of course, as musical instrument years always do. The annual pre-Frankfurt lull (during which manufacturers hedge their bets about new products, pending Europe's premier trade fair at the beginning of February) proved more devastating in its bleakness than for some while, but it was for good reason. When Frankfurt eventually came, it was the scene of more hi-tech music debuts than any previous exhibition. Journalists and public were agog with the glut of new design talent on display, and inevitably, some of the smaller exhibits didn't get anything like the coverage they deserved.

Yamaha were clever. They'd already stood the synthesiser world on its head the previous summer when the DX series FM polysynths were foisted upon an unsuspecting music-playing public, and in January 84 they flew a select party of pressmen to their Euro HQ in Hamburg, where the true extent of the company's technological leap forward was revealed.

There was a rack containing the guts of eight DX7s known as the T8PR (this has now become the TX816, and still hasn't reached full production), a MIDI keyboard recorder called QX1, Yamaha's first dedicated drum machines (the RX digitals) and most surprising of all, a music computer by the name of CX5, a machine identical to the new generation of MSX home micros but with a DX9 FM sound chip stuck inside.

Guitar synths agogo. Roland GR700 system

With a line-up as impressive as that, Yamaha were still the centre of attraction at Frankfurt even though they had unveiled all their goodies in advance.

None of the remaining Japanese giants could hope to match Yamaha's endeavours, let alone exceed them. They were far from silent, however. Roland made great play of their GR700 MIDI guitar synth (it looked like bridging the gap between synths and guitars for the first time), while Korg managed to fill an enormous stand full of Poly 800s - the synth had been released a month beforehand.

What was more than a little aggravating - though not in the least surprising - was the length of time it took so many of the new products to reach full production once the show was over. Crumar's Bit One has only just come onto the UK market under the auspices of Chase Musicians, but there was a prototype ready and working (and getting a lot of attention) at Frankfurt, where it was accompanied by a whole host of other slow-to-arrive goodies.

These included Akai's Micro Studio System, Roland's mother MIDI keyboards and their associated voice modules (high price, low spec), the Oberheim Xpander (high price, high spec), a polysynth from organ people Solton called the Project 100 (it still hasn't been seen on these shores, though you can buy it in Europe), Dynacord's complete electronic percussion system, and AHB's bold move into the same market - the Inpulse One.

Simmons, the people who started making electronic drums in the first place, had two new kits in the shape of the SDS7 and SDS8, for rich and poor drummers respectively. Meanwhile, ddrums' novel percussion modules were much in evidence on the E-mu Systems stand, and E-mu themselves were showing the prototype Emulator II, another instrument that took its time getting into series production (though when it did, it was certainly worth the wait). PPG were also showing an update to their computer instrument range in the shape of the Wave 2.3 synth, and further modifications to the Waveterm, Processor Keyboard, and Expansion Voice Unit have since made the company's system rather an attractive proposition. Things weren't going quite so well for Kurzweil and McLeyvier. The former wasn't at Frankfurt at all (though the machine did materialise six months later) pending some more development work, while the latter hasn't been seen since. Shame.

Emulator II. Born to bring samples under musicians' control.

Finally, Sequential Circuits, who at one time produced both the most popular polyphonic (Prophet 5) and monophonic (Pro One) synthesisers, unveiled their Traks Music System. This centred around a MIDI polysynth by the name of SixTrak, which was capable of transmitting each of its six voices along a different MIDI channel and could therefore confidently claim to be the world's cheapest multi-timbral synth, and the Drumtraks, a programmable digital rhythm machine complete with its own MIDI sockets and tunable drum samples: the tuning could be stored in memory, too, so the machine was a pretty hot property when it came to Britain in March.

Thomas Dolby. Making computers make sense.

Vinyl Virtues

As it happens, the month of March was notable more for the quality of its electronic music records than the musical hardware that arrived.

Thomas Dolby showed that dabbling for a year or two with Fairlights and Emulators could result in music that was accessible as well as innovative, though some critics alleged that his album, The Flat Earth, wasn't as interesting musically as its predecessor, The Golden Age of Wireless. That didn't prevent Dolby scoring notable hits both with the LP and its first 45rpm excerpt - 'Hyperactive!' - and his live performances later in the year were some of the most exciting displays of techno-fun we've ever seen.

Another hi-tech luminary, New York's Laurie Anderson, released her second album the same month. Like its predecessor Big Science (from which the unexpected hit 'O Superman' was taken), Mister Heartbreak represented only a small, musical part of a much larger work of performance art. While Dolby's major instrument was the Fairlight, Ms Anderson focused her attention on the Synclavier, producing some fascinating sampled and synthesised sound colours and weaving them into a convincing overall musical picture. Bill Laswell, Phoebe Snow and Peter Gabriel were among the many collaborators who helped in the album's creation, Gabriel co-writing and coproducing the record's most stunning track, 'Excellent Birds'.

The world of commercial pop had witnessed the arrival of solo synth player and singer Howard Jones some six months before, and his first album, Human's Lib, fulfilled the promises made by his earlier singles. Cleverly and inventively produced by Rupert Hine, Jones' album had more than a fair share of good pop songs on which Hine's electronic arrangements could be based.

Two other electronic acts - The Assembly and Blancmange - were on the cover of E&MM March, and although the fruits of Vince Clarke's and Eric Radcliffe's Fairlight-based project have yet to see the light of day, Messrs Arthur and Luscombe succeeded in creating a wonderful collection of electropop miscellany in the form of Mange Tout, released in June. The album was thoughtfully arranged and competently produced, but what continued to set the duo apart was their unfailing sense of humour. More than any other electronics-based act, Blancmange sounded as if they were enjoying making music in 1984.

Oberheim Xpander. Unveiled in February, first sold in July.

MIDI Madness

In May and June, E&MM put the emphasis firmly on MIDI, the digital interface standard that had by this time (everything at Frankfurt had it) been accepted by the entire electronic musical instrument industry. The system got off to a shaky start: most of the synths that came equipped with the interface shortly after its introduction in May 83 (SCI Prophet 600, Roland JX3P, Yamaha DX7) had incomplete or inconsistent software, and things weren't stabilised until the implementation of the MIDI 1.0 Specification the following March.

The first part of our two-month supplement listed that spec in full, as well as mapping out a few of the known incompatibilities between different generations of MIDI gear, and chatting to Culture Club producer Steve Levine on the implications the new standard could have in the world of professional recording.

Guitar synths agogo. SynthAxe

Part Two looked at the technical aspects of the system, and CM editor David Ellis went through the various hardware and software packages that were available to link MIDI instruments to popular home computers, though the list has probably doubled since then. In the event, the second supplement was to some extent overshadowed by the arrival (well, sort of) not only of Roland's MIDI guitar synth but also of the SynthAxe, a British-built design with a more forward-looking approach to pitch and string control that had already received praise (and financial backing) from Fairlight in Australia. The SynthAxe was certainly a striking piece of machinery (it made use of Habitat cybernetic haute couture as opposed to Roland's Dalek hand-luggage chic), but in June was set to cost roughly six times as much as its Japanese counterpart: and that was without any voice-generating hardware.

Software Surplus

August's British Music Fair (with any luck, the last such event to be open only to trade visitors and spread across seven London hotels) saw if anything a shift in emphasis away from hardware and towards computer software. Aside from the odd exciting device such as Korg's neat little digital drum machines, Tama's first excursion into the world of electronic drums, and sundry other items that had already been seen elsewhere, the main attractions were software packages from the likes of Siel, Jellinghaus, EMR and LEMI.

Two things were obvious from the many synth-plus-micro-plus-monitor demonstrations: that MIDI seemed to be the logical choice for anyone wishing to make the link between a micro's computing power and a keyboard's musical capabilities, and that of all the home micros currently on sale in the UK, four in particular (Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC B and Apple) had been singled out as those most worthy - for whatever reason - of the software writers' attentions.

The only other notable trend evident at the BMF was the fitting of MIDI - and other 'professional' features - to keyboards that were primarily domestic in their intended markets. Hence the arrival of instruments such as the Casio CT6000, Yamaha's PS6100 and the Siel MK900 reviewed elsewhere this issue. The idea, of course, was that domestic players blessed with some sort of home micro could get into the world of computer music in as painless a way as possible.

International Inspiration

As summer turned into autumn, the city of Sheffield was threatened by an onslaught of hardcore electronic music fans seeking enlightenment at the 1984 version of UK Electronica, the country's foremost synth music festival. Actually, the 'UK' bit of the title was even less appropriate than it was last year: performers - as well as punters came from as far afield as France, Spain and the USA. Former Tangerine Dreamer Steve Jolliffe (who'd appeared on E&MM's cover back in July) gave perhaps the most stirring performance of the all-day extravaganza, and event organisers INKEYS should be able to look forward to an even more successful Electronica in 1985.

One of the year's better-conceived albums also made its appearance around this time. David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees, seven songs of great beauty and colour but misleading simplicity from the former Japan frontman, didn't exactly set the national charts alight, but the critics - E&MM included - recognised the deftness of its construction and the significance of its musical achievement. Sylvian drew on a wide variety of sources for inspiration, in terms of both cultural influence and musical collaboration: of the various composers and musicians that made an appearance on Brilliant Trees, most were already noted for the catholicity of their recorded output.

Powertran MCS1. MIDI-controlled sampling for less than £500 - if you build it yourself.

British Brains

Nineteen Eighty-Four drew to a close with the arrival of several new musical products that served to highlight this country's growing stature in the field of sound-generating technology. E&MM had already devoted five articles to Clef Products' Programmable Digital Sound Generator add-on for the BBC Micro, and in December we reviewed a similar system, Acorn's Music 500 synthesiser. The 500's unique music production language - AMPLE - looked like it could be a major step forward in improving the ease with which musicians could communicate their wishes to micros: let's hope other designers take the hint.

Powertran's MCS1 MIDI Controlled Sampler could also justifiably claim to be something of a revolutionary device. It offered all the standard DDL effects as well as allowing the user to store any sound and control its pitch from a MIDI keyboard, and we make no apologies for devoting so much editorial space to the machine's design and construction during 1984's closing months.

Another sampling system, Mainframe's Greengate DS3, proved what could be done for a relatively modest financial outlay (£200 if you've already got a suitable keyboard and the requisite Apple IIe micro), though the review we gave it in E&MM October was to some extent overshadowed by a similar appraisal of something Oriental - the Yamaha CX5M computer already mentioned. Still, Mainframe themselves succeeded in making a marvellous (both sonically and creatively) 12" EP, Into Trouble with the Noise of Art, that made much merriment at the expense of 1984's most successful computer musicians, Trevor Horn and his ever-innovative ZTT engineers.

Future Fantasies

So much, then, for Orwell's nightmare. What will 1985 have in store? Well, it seems likely that this year's Frankfurt show might not be quite the technological feast it was in '84, but expect big things, nonetheless from the Japanese giants, several of whom - Akai, Technics, and in a sense, Casio - are new to the pro music arena, and therefore keen to make their intentions clear.

MIDI isn't going to get any faster or more versatile, but since it's unlikely to be replaced by anything substantially better within the next 12 months, the programmers are going to have to work hard to develop software that really gets the best out of the system as it stands now. And at the time of writing, it seems they're ready to do just that.

Music technology's other current pet subject, sound-sampling, has already received a shot in the arm courtesy of the DS3, MCS1 and Emulator II, but there's every indication that 1985 could see the technique's financial accessibility increase even more dramatically. No prizes for guessing it's the Japanese who are poised to take the sampling bull by the horns and make it something everyone can afford to do in the comfort of their own living room.

As for music, that's rather less easy to predict, but judging from what we heard emanating from their studio in Bath at the tail-end of 1984, the new Tears For Fears album should be one to watch.

Previous Article in this issue

Siel MK900

Next article in this issue

A Bunch of Fives

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Jan 1985

Scanned by: Stewart Lawler


Previous article in this issue:

> Siel MK900

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> A Bunch of Fives

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