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Computer Musician


What happened when the International MIDI Association talked software, plus more. Newscaster - David Ellis.

This month's round-up of all that's new in the world of computer music.


At long last, some feedback on the two-day MIDIsoft event held back in May in a San Francisco hotel under the banner of the IMA (International MIDI Association). Given that this wasn't a free event ($35 for IMA members, $60 for non-members), the quoted attendance of 219 was pretty good. The major problem with this sort of umbrella event is that everything stands or falls on the support of the manufacturers, and unfortunately, Korg, Kurzweil, Oberheim, and E-mu were as far as the manufacturers' conclave went. And with the exception of Korg, all those names are of companies that have come late (Kurzweil and E-mu) or reluctantly (Oberheim) into the MIDI game.

Anyhow, what transpired from the various question-and-answer sessions over the two days was that (a) most of the attendees were there for serious software purposes, (b) much thought was being devoted to getting around the very obvious limitations of the MIDI standard (parallel ACIAs, use in conjunction with memory-mapped sound generators, and so on), and (c) many felt that they were being cold-shouldered by the manufacturers.

Curiously, most of the timetabled lectures were somewhat detached from the MIDI pure and simple. For instance, Dr Gareth Loy gave a talk on software (running on a sizeable minicomputer) that has been developed at the Computer Audio Research Laboratory at the University of California in San Diego; Robert Barkan of DocuPro suggested how to write decent manuals; Dr Charles Goldfarb spoke on musical databases; and Alan Marrs from Lucas Films discussed the subject of glyphs and icons in the context of constructing film soundtracks with the infamous Audio Signal Processor.

All in all, a lot was said, a good deal was discussed, and plenty of confusion reigned about where things are going to go next. Clearly, an unbiased arbiter of the MIDI standard is needed - and the IMA would seem to be in a good position to offer this role - but how do we go about convincing so many large and powerful manufacturers that we're not just a bunch of jokers out to extract freebies and the like from gullible publicity departments? Very difficult, I'd say. What's more, the situation is complicated by the fact that the big boys - Roland, Yamaha, Sequential Circuits - are planning their own meeting at the forthcoming NAMM convention, and of course, the IMA, haven't been invited along.

Still, you can't put a good man down, and the IMA are scheduling a further convention (MIDIsoft II, logically enough) to take place in Boston in October. Let's hope they get the support they deserve this time. Perhaps the time has come to organise something similar in the UK - even if only to discuss the predilection among British entrepreneurs to pre-announce their MIDI software and then develop it with the cash collected from average over-eager musos.

Yet More MIDI

Well, MIDI software continues to pour onto the marketplace. Pity the poor old consumer who's got to distinguish chalk from cheese. Still, the MIDI Composer that German firm Micro Music have just announced for that stalwart of the MIDI software industry, the Commodore 64, looks a lot more interesting than most. What's more, a good deal of care has been taken to make the display as useful as possible. The package provides both step- and real-time input with 'rapid, interactive note graphics', variable quantisation, freely definable 'n-plets', autolocation, a mix and remix facility (converting mono tracks to poly, and vice versa), two independent sequencers, editing facilities, a 4000-note capacity, and a good deal more besides.

On the hardware front, Micro Music have produced their own interface box (MIDI In, two MIDI Outs, plus the option of syncing) which seems almost too good to be true at a roughly estimated £20. As the software costs DM360 (around £80), this looks to be a very fair deal all in all. Micro Music are looking out for UK distribution, so if anyone's interested, try contacting Lars Hidde of Micro Music at (Contact Details).

Mac Music

At long last, there's some music software for the Apple Macintosh: a program called (very grandly) 'Professional Composer' at a suitably professional price of - wait for it - £429 plus VAT. The claim is that this is the musical equivalent of a word processor, allowing the user to copy and move passages, transpose parts, add lyrics, create piano reductions, and print finished scores.

Sounds great. Or rather, it doesn't actually sound - this is what could be called a dumb composer. And if that price tag doesn't totally phase you out of orbit, details are available from P & P Micro Distributors Ltd, (Contact Details).

Live Wire

As someone who was quite involved with the contemporary dance world for a time, but also suffered at the hands of unsympathetic choreographers and the recalcitrance of the Musicians' Union on the subject of prerecorded tapes, I'm always on the look out for new ways of putting movement back into music, and vice versa.

One good place for investigating alternatives is the International Dance Course, held every year at the University of Surrey with the assistance of the Gulbenkian Foundation. August's course saw an intriguing merging of talents in the shape of musicians/programmers Live Wire (Nic Bourne and Alan Smith) and a Birmingham dance group known as Precision Dance. What Live Wire have done is to develop a set of movement sensors that interface with a BBC Micro to control drum sound modules, synths, and the like from the action of the dancers.

So for instance, they've got pressure pads for rhythm and preset chords, infrared beams for triggering musical events, ultrasound for getting sequences going, and a microwave (low power!) doppler module that allows the dancer to play notes from a sort of pitch ladder by moving underneath the beam.

Aside from dance, of course, what Live Wire are trying to do raises all sorts of intriguing possibilities for real-time interaction with MIDI-encoded scores on micros. Let's face it, the major deficiency of the sequencer - MIDI or otherwise - is the obligation it places on the musician to adopt a 'tape-recorder' mode of working, where once all the notes have been entered, the user's playback interaction is limited to playing another line on top or fiddling with output levels. What's needed are some real-time sensors that can be used to colour and shape the music - much like a conductor and his baton.

Imagine having a couple of Live Wire's Doppler pitch ladders interfacing via MIDI to a synth or two, with the sequencer's operation controlled by MIDI timing events from a tap-dance routine on pressure pads. Definitely food for thought. Clearly, this is an area that's ripe for experimentation, and I'd say Live Wire deserve all the encouragement they can get. They're keen to develop the consultancy side of their work, so make a note of their address: (Contact Details).

Bassyn and Synbad

From the musical point of view, the Research Machines 380Z and 480Z micros are pretty much non-starters. More's the pity, since so many of them are in use in schools courtesy of the Government's micro-educational policy. Still, a computer science lecturer at the North London College by the name of Ian Ferguson has now come up with a cheap monophonic digital synthesiser add-on for these machines. His BASSYN software extends the RML BASIC Version 5.0L to add further instructions for sound synthesis via some extra hardware. This comprises a specially designed DAC and low-pass filter that's been put together by E&MM contributor, Jim Grant, of the London College of Furniture.

The software allows limited Fourier synthesis of waveforms for the first seven harmonics, ADSR envelope specifications, and the ability to play a specified sound with any pitch, volume, or duration. The only hassle with all this is that CALLing a particular sound instruction has the same effect on the Z80 processor as high-resolution graphics - namely that the processor becomes totally pre-occupied with that task and nothing else.

Still, this limitation is only really important if your intention is to use the BASSYN software in a games context, meaning that your eyeballs won't exactly be grabbed by the speed of action. For purely musical applications, its monophonic digital synthesis capability is certainly a step in the right direction, albeit a good few miles away from what's currently being developed around Apples, BBC Micros, et al.

A further avenue is explored in ILECC's accompanying SYNBAD software - that of monophonic sequencing using the touch-sensitive Concept keyboard, though as this is just a flat membrane with assignable key areas, it's hardly akin to the real thing. No firm pricing for the package has been decided as yet, but it's intended that the system will be available from the autumn to ILEA schools and colleges, and for wider distribution shortly thereafter. Other interested parties are invited to contact Ed Carter at ILECC, (Contact Details).

Other plans afoot from the same source are for a very different beast altogether - a high-quality polyphonic digital synth that's designed for portability between different computers, BBC Micro included. Features on the cards include a wide range of synthesis techniques (additive, FM, and sampling) and step-time and real-time polyphonic sequencing. Worth watching out for, I'd say.

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


Electronics & Music Maker - Nov 1984

Computer Musician



News by David Ellis

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