A roundup of all the available music software including Island Logic, Greengate and MusiCal.
Back in our November issue, we took a look at all the electro hardware which has been making the musician's life easier (or more difficult if you're in a band with an over-demanding keyboard player) over the last couple of years. The subject of computers was touched upon, but in many ways IM has avoided discussing the little black boxes, for a good variety of reasons. Firstly, they're not very Rock'n' Roll, secondly, they can represent an investment of heart stopping proportions, and thirdly, they require a good deal of specialist knowledge to use.
Well, that was the theory, but in practice none of these is quite true today. It's only in the last year or so — as computer interfaces to the very wonderful MIDI standard have become easily available — that the average musician (as opposed to balding middle-aged Apple users with a degree in Physics, Electronics and the Acoustic Properties of Latvian Folk Music) could hope to join the computer music revolution, but the time is certainly here. Your humble author admits to having been an unbeliever for many moons, but has now taken the plunge with two systems — a sequencing/composing system based on the Commodore 64 computer, and a sound sampling system based on the Apple. Middle age and hairloss will now undoubtedly set in.
You do not have to buy a computer, but you may find one useful if you spend any length of time being a one person band. This could be because you are a one person band, or because you do demos for your band before presenting songs to them, or because you have a solo piece to play within a set and only the brain of a computer can keep track of all the megafast runs and sound changes (we know you've managed up to now, but times are changing). There are alternatives to computers, most of them coming from Roland and similar companies in the form of sequencers and composers dedicated to just that one function — such as the MC4, MC202, MSQ700 and MSQ100. To be strictly honest with you, the MSQ700 has similar sequence/composing capabilities to most of the currently available computer package, but if you already have a computer it's cheaper to buy some music software than to buy an MSQ700.
So what is this software stuff we keep hearing about? Quite simply, it's the set of commands you load into your computer to tell it how to go about a specific job. You can write your own software in the computer's language if you're very clever and have 16 man-years spare every weekend, or you can buy other people's software on cassette, disc or microdrive tape. Without software, a computer is just a clump of unresponsive circuits; unfortunate events such as disconnection from the mains or extreme incompetence on the part of the operator can cause a computer to forget its current bit of software. This is no fun on stage, and is one of the major reasons why computers still tend to be confined to the studio.
Looking at the applications of computers to music consists of investigating the computers themselves — what sort of applications could the hardware potentially have? — and then looking at what additional hardware and software is available on the market to exploit it. If there's no software for a particular computer — say you've got an Atari and want to do multichannel polyphonic MIDI composing — you'll have to write some, which is a very specialised task. Easier to sell the thing and buy a Commodore 64, Spectrum or BBC for which there's lots of music software just itching to be loaded.
In our survey of computer music applications then, we'll look at each computer individually and then at the range of software available for it. The software we'll examine is largely divided into three types. The first group uses the built-in sound facilities of the computer (the BBC and Commodore have decent built-in sound — the Spectrum has almost none). The second group of software relays instructions from the computer via a MIDI interface (an optional hardware add-on) to any MIDI-equipped synths or other instruments. The third group takes advantage of any specialised functions the computer may have, such as the ability to hold a sample of a real sound in memory (again this will involve the addition of a good deal of costly hardware, as there's no computer currently on the market which can store sound as soon as you take it out of the cardboard box). The order in which the computers are dealt with is a vague (very vague) reflection of their cost-to-applications ratio — in other words, how much they'll set you back and how many musical uses you'll find for them.
At the moment the Commodore C64 is the best bet for the aspiring computer musician. Costs are £189 for a computer, £40 for a special cassette player to load software (it's not very happy with a Tandy "Tinnysound 2"), £199 for a disc drive to load disc-based software and save/retrieve information faster, and £189 for a printer should you want to get into music transcription eventually (ie when somebody's got a decent package out). The C64 is easy to use, you can type on it (this article was word processed on one — that's why thern's on speling mistooks in it) and it's chunky compared to some other computers (the reservations about stage use still apply though). There are lots of software packages for it in all three categories.
SIEL market an interface for the C64 which allows it to address all MIDI equipment. The interface is a small blue box bristling with DIN sockets which will set you back £99. The software packages for it are many and varied, with cost depending on their complexity. There's a multitrack composer which works entirely from the computer keyboard in a simple number/letter programming language, so you'll never have to touch another set of black and white keys again. The package allows you to enter six monophonic lines which can play back simultaneously, giving quite complex compositions. Each line or channel can be assigned to a different MIDI channel (confusing innit?) of which there are 16, so basically you could play six different sound on six different synthesizers set to different MIDI input channels. Alternatively, you could use the Sequential Circuits Six-Traks, the only budget synth capable of playing six different sounds at once, and so build up quite complex and lengthy compositions on a single synthesizer. This package is ideal for composing, particularly for the keyboard-shy or those used to an MC4, but doesn't really do much for the "see-my-fingers-fly" school of synthesizer players.
For this type of human being there's a live sequencer program which gives 16 tracks of polyphonic recording in real time. You can chain sequences into a complete song and transpose various parts, also changing the speed at will. The sequences don't actually loop — SIEL have gone for capacity rather than flexibility, so you've got lots of notes to play with but can only play them through once each time you call up a sequence.
As previously mentioned (probably to the point of numbness), the concept of a live sequencer seems optimistic because only a fool ora very brave man would take a home computer anywhere near the unstable, smoky, dark and beer-stained environment which is the stage setting for the Rock 'n' Roll youth of today. Better to call it a Studio Live Sequencer, eh lads?
Next up is the SIEL Expander Editor, launched for the Spectrum with the intention of converting it to C64 use in the fairly early stages. This one's a bit specialised, intended to add the advantage of fast and easy editing to the SIEL Expander synth, which displays a notable lack of keyboard, joystick, modulation wheels and knobs of all kinds. It's a wonderful unit though, with powerful sounds, velocity sensitivity and assignable MIDI channels, so it's ideal as an expander unit for a DX7 or other synth (adding the power of a touch-responsive analogue keyboard to the precision of a digital one). The computer package simulates a set of controls on the screen and lets you alter one synth parameter at a time; thus giving your budget Expander all the flexibility of the Opera 6/DK 600 synth.
SIEL are developing new packages all the time and generally put them out in versions for the BBC, C64 and Spectrum if memory size allows. Some of the RMS software discussed below runs on the SIEL interface — some of its doesn't. It's a no-win situation, as they say in the Journal of Nuclear Warfare (available at all good newsagents).
The RMS interface looks identical to the SIEL except in colour, but the two aren't entirely compatible. This is a shame — on the whole RMS (Rosetti Music Software) have more interesting programs, but they're often very expensive.The 12-Channel studio, for instance, costs £99 on disc for the C64.
This is one of the best MIDI/computer package yet written, allowing you to record polyphonically in real time, bounce and merge tracks and play back with variable MIDI channel assignment. The icing on the cake is that the 12-Channel Composer also lists out all the MIDI events you've played and allows you to edit them, so you could play a blinding solo with one bum note in it and then carefully replace the bum note with a decent one. Much better than that old-fashioned recording tape nonsense! Capacity is sufficient to compose lengthy songs and you can sync to a drum machine and dump songs to disc. This one really could become the centre of a MIDI studio, and because you can make so much music play automatically it can save you tape tracks as well — perhaps making that wallet-disabling move from four to eight-track that you've been contemplating completely unnecessary.
RMS also do a version of the SIEL monophonic Composer entitled RMS20C (£49.95), and a very useful package called Master Keyboard. This allows you to define sets of split points and memory presets on a single keyboard for the control of several others, so you could have only one main keyboard on stage with your and several other synths or expanders hidden away in the background — a great space-saver in the studio too. For instance, you could define a patch which had an octave of strings at the bottom of your keyboard, followed by an octave of brass, two octaves of special effects (a few notes for each noise) and an octave of a solo sound at the top. Remember that you need additional synths somewhere to play all the sounds, but at least that somewhere no longer has to be looming over your head in a huge stack of metal ready to collapse and pin you to the stage.
RMS also have help for DX7 owners in the form of a Sound Editor and a Library package. The Sound Editor displays all the DX7's 147 parameters on screen in a graphical form and lets you see changes being made as well as hearing them. This is an enormous advantage if you've been struggling to make up your own sounds on the DX and giving up simply because you can't keep track of where you were. If you really have given up, the Library program will give you some new sounds and also allow you to store vast numbers of your own attempts — much better than hunting around the shops for those nasty expensive RAM cartridges.
EMR developed a MIDI interface for the BBC micro sometime ago and have now completed one for the C64. It hasn't been reviewed yet, perhaps because the BBC interface was widely panned on its release both from the hardware and software angles. Still, BBC interfaces are of necessity much more complex than C64 interfaces, and there's less to go wrong on the Commodore. Presumably the first software packages are as for the BBC — a six-track monophonic com poser with notes entered from the computer keyboard, followed by a polyphonic composer with realtime entry but a smaller memory capacity. Despite distribution by Rose Morris, the EMR gear hasn't really caught on yet, but time alone will tell.
Sequential have an interface specially for the C64, the Model 64, which has the advantage of built-in software (firmware) which you don't have to re-load every time you want to compose something. It's quite a versatile package too, with real-time entry, autocorrect, transpose and chaining from a selection of eight sequences. SCI are now speaking of selling the Model 64 without firmware and providing a wider selection of software — already there are special packages for keyboard split and programming on the SCI Six-Traks. However, this could be a mistake, since the firmware approach is attractive to musicians flirting with stage use since a bloody great click on the power line may well wipe your sequences, but it can't wipe your software, making it possible to reload from disc in a matter of seconds rather than minutes. At least Sequential are doing something imaginative with C64, and have several releases which belong in the Commodore Sounds section below due at Frankfurt in February. One of these is a smart mini-keyboard which lets you play the Commodore's built-in sounds.
There are many programs making use of the C64's built-in sound chip, some barely above the level of games and some of genuine musical use. The advantages of these packages is that they're cheap (no more hardware to buy) and that it's pretty easy to plumb your C64 into a hi-fi for a decent sound output. The computer itself has a little chip called SID (Sound Interface Device, nurk — although there is another chip onboard called VIC so perhaps he's SID's brother). SID is effectively a three-voice synthesizer, so you can only play three-note polyphonically, but often this is enough to do really creative things.
The first type of package for the SID chip is the synthesizer package, which puts up a screen display similar to a commercial synthesizer's and lets you make up sounds and tunes. Sounds are pretty hard to define on the C64 without the help of this type of package, and at around £15 they represent an essential purchase for any musically-inclined Commodore owner. Examples include Ultisynth from Quicksilva, Music Composer from Commodore, Multisound from Romik, Music Master from Supersoft, Studio 64 from Entech, Note Pro 2 from ELI, Musicomp from Computer Alliance, and the very versatile MusiCalc from Waveform. Check in your local computer shop for stocks and details of these packages.
One recent addition to the range has been Commodore's Music Maker, which in addition to a software package includes a little clip-on music keyboard which fits over the top row of keys on the computer. The software assigns a different musical note to each of these keys and a way you go — playing screaming Jan Hammer licks on the computer itself. Actually the sounds aren't quite that good — they're pretty similar to the common-or-garden Casio at their best — but it's good to know that for £29.95 you can convert your C64 into a three-voice synthesizer which you can actually play with your own two fingers (or three fingers — or however many you use).
What else can you do with the C64? Autographies have a full-size music keyboard for it, the Microsound 64 at £149, but what everybody's waiting for is their monophonic sound sampling option. This has been a long time a-comin' despite heavy advertising, and remains a bit of an unknown quantity in terms of performance and quality. Passport have a C64 MIDI interface with at least two interesting programs, a composer and a music transcriber, both based on their successful software for the Soundchaser computer music system. The supply situation seems uncertain though, but Syco Systems are the UK dealers.
For the musically inane, we heartily recommend 'Dancing Feats' by Arctic, which for under £10 lets you play silly tunes with a joystick over a loopy computer-generated backing of music and flashing lights. Just the thing to help you unwind after a hard day in the studio.
The BBC backlash has definitely started, with the delight of discovering its flexible language and fast disc system giving way to sheer hatred of its small memory and excessive cost. The computer's about £499, disc drives are £200 or so, but any standard cassette player will do to load tape-based music software.
There aren't too many music add-ons about for the BBC yet, but most companies are converting their existing C64 and Spectrum software and hardware to it. Many SIEL and RMS programs will eventually be available for the BBC. EMR have the interface and two composer packages already mentioned, and London RockShop have an expensive but devastatingly versatile multi-channel MIDI hardware/software composer system called UMI-1B for the machine, which at £495 calls for more detailed explanation than can be given here.
The sound chip on the BBC is only slightly inferior to that on the C64, but there's much less on the market to take advantage of it partly because the BBC has no US market penetration (despite the fact that you can now get off on probation for it). What there is includes the Bugbyte Music Synthesizer and the Quicksilva Music Processor. Most impressive of all is Island Logic's The Music System, which has superb graphics and independent synthesizer, sequencer, recorder and linkup "pages" displayed on the screen. At £24.95 for the disc version it's the one software package all BBC owners should look at, although of course it's limited to the three voices of the computer itself (with some improvements courtesy of the very imaginative software).
On the hardware side, Acorn (the manufacturers of the BBC) have just introduced the Acorn Music 500, an anonymous-looking box (in fact it's a disc drive casing) for £199 which offers 16 voices, stereo output and a music programming language (called AMPLE) which gives massive versatility coupled with relative ease of use. The sounds have been independently described as "superb", and can be assumed to be way in advance of Casio-style computer sounds — probably more like the expensive Alpha Syntauri system for the Apple — of which we now speak.
There's probably more music hardware and software about for the Apple than for any of the piddly little home computers we've dealt with so far. The problem is that an Apple setup can be expensive — around £1,200 for a new model, disc drive, monitor, disc controller card and so on — and music hardware and software costs reflect this. For many years people have been saying that the Apple's out of date, but companies continue to bring out new options for it and musicians continue to do wonderful things with it.
Undoubtedly the brightest star in the Apple firmament at the moment is Greengate's DS3 sampling system, described (not by them) as a "mini-Fairlight". What the system offers you is four-note polyphonic samples played from the computer keyboard or an optional music keyboard, complex sequencing, sample editing and reversal and lots more, for a total cost of £517 (plus a 64K Apple, disc controller card and at least one disc drive, monitor and so on). It is possible to get reliable second-hand Apple gear cheap — I got my Apple Europlus outfit for £540.
Greengate are constantly adding to the software of the DS3 system, and the next additions are looping of samples for long sustain (at present the total sample is two seconds divided between four sounds, which is more than it sounds), keyboard multisplit with transposition, possibly a MIDI interface and longer sampling at a lower (or possibly the same) frequency response.
There have been rumours of a cheap polyphonic sampling keyboard (such as the Mirage in the USA) but until one actually appears, the DS3 is the best game in town. It's certainly worth getting hold of an Apple just to be able to use it, but once you've done so you'll probably find all sorts of other uses for the thing. Accounting and word processing are just two of them.
What else can you run on an Apple? For a start, there's the Alpha Syntauri system, which uses additional voice cards to give an impressive selection of composing, sound editing and even monophonic sampling capabilities. Syntauri have just gone bust and been bought out though, so the future's a little uncertain. Then there's the Soundchaser, a versatile enough system but one which doesn't appeal to all the pundits due to a few limitations both in the software and in the quality of the voice hardware. Perhaps the best aspect of Soundchaser is the composition and music scoring developed by Passport, but as previously mentioned these can also be run on the much cheaper C64 with MIDI synths.
Computer Music Studios deals with the alpha system, but also bring in LEMIsoftware from Italy which has been developed in conjunction with SCI as a set of complex composition and sound creation packages for prophets and other MIDI synths. Their reputation's very good.
Roland have the MPU-401 "intelligent" MIDI interface at £180 which runs on the Apple among others, but there's a dearth of software until other companies take advantage of Roland's generosity in revealing the protocols needed to write for the system. Roland's own composer package for the system is highly thought of however.
There's virtually no built-in sound capability on the Spectrum apart from a rather sad Beep, so there's no serious music software which doesn't involve some hardware additions as well. However, the Spectrum has the advantage of cheapness, so you can afford to spend a little more on the hardware.
The SIEL and RMS MIDI interfaces are compatible with the Spectrum, and each company has several simple programs — arpeggiators, very basic real-time sequencers and so on — which run on the computer. The main limitation is the need to use tape for loading, so there's no point writing a very complex program or one which stores vast numbers of notes. A good introduction to the use of a computer in musical applications though — but remember, the Spectrum's particularly prone to those mains clicks, so invest in a click suppressor plug before your next masterpiece disappears up its own screen status.
There are also Spectrum MIDI interfaces by XRI (£108) and by EMR. The XRI system has several pieces of software including a DX7 Editor, a multi-channel polyphonic composer and a realtime sequencer. Oddly enough, there are also several very ambitious hardware add-ons for the humble Spectrum, such as Ricoll's Sound Sampler and the Datel Sound Sampler. Both monophonic, these can give surprisingly good results. The Ricoll also acts as a digital delay and the Datel has Reverse Sound option and a 1,000 note sequencer built in. Both these systems are just coming onto the market at the time of writing.
Lastly but not leastly, a mention for the CX5, the first dedicated Music Computer. It's an MSX machine, part of the new standard which will undoubtedly sweep through the home micro market in the coming months, and it incorporates an FM synth cartridge similar in spec to a DX9. This DX9's multi-timbral though, so using Yamaha's composer software you can write long pieces with several different monophonic voices playing simultaneously, dump them to disc (if you can get hold of an MSX-compatible disc drive), even incorporate music in games and graphic displays.
The sound quality of the CX5 obviously puts all other computers to shame — it's like owning a Spectrum, a DX9 and a MIDI interface but cheaper and better. You can also run MSX software on the thing, but there's not much about yet except for games. Hopefully there'll be some music software soon, and Yamaha say they're working with various software houses to develop some.
The CX5's potential really needs a whole article to itself, and it'll be interesting to see how many of the other computer/music manufacturers fall by the wayside as a result of its introduction. Cost is around £550.
There's a lot you can do with computers when you've taken the plunge, but it is that initial plunge which causes many to falter. Of course there's an initial investment, but a Spectrum system doesn't cost much more than a guitar (a hell of a lot less than a vintage one) and will give you a good idea as to whether you want to continue in computer music. The most important thing to realise is that YOU DON'T HAVE TO KNOW THE FIRST THING ABOUT COMPUTERS TO OPERATE ANY OF THESE SYSTEMS. As long as you can plug the thing in and load the software, the screen displays and the software handbook will do the rest for you (as long as they're well-written, that is). The mysterious inner workings of the computer are kept hidden from us, thank God, by people who know all about them and realise how horrifying they are for normal mortal humans.
After the five computers we've discussed you get into the realm of IBM PC's (good for the Roland interface and a couple of others but horrendously expensive) and the limbo of Ataris, Texas computers and others for which little or no music software exists (there is a good "singing" speech synthesizer for the Texas T1994/A though). If you have one of these and intend to do some musical experiments, you could be in for a lot of heartache. Sell it and get one of the five machines mentioned above and save yourself a lot of effort.
Lastly, remember that you do not have to buy a computer.
There are stacks of good musical instruments about which have got an arpeggiator, a sampling function, multichannel composing capability and so on. It's just that if you choose your computer well you can have all these at a fraction of the cost, although you may well be confined to studio use due to the failing of computer power supplies to cope with large quantities of spit and beer (although if your studio's like that too you're in trouble either way).
If you're going out to buy, the rules are these — the Spectrum or Spectrum Plus for economy; the Commodore 64 or portable SX64 for versatility; the BBC for professionalism; the CX5 for ground-breakers; the Apple for solidity and high-tech applications; the IBM PC for keeping your local loanshark happy.
And if you can successfully live with a computer for six weeks without flinging it against the wall in frustration even once, we'll bet that you'll stick with one for life.
Feature by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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