The Musical Micro
Of Mice And Micros
Tony Mills, micros which start with the letter 'A', and a lot of software
This month we're going to have a look at micros starting with the letter 'A'. To whit, the Amiga (from Commodore) and the Amstrad (from Amstrad). Two very different machines, one very powerful but almost unobtainable, the other very popular but in many ways very undistinguished. It's a funny old world.
First, then, to the Amiga, Commodore's 'ultimate games machine' or 'ideal graphics computer' which they've made the mistake of selling as a small business machine. At £2,500 it's selling reasonably well in the US but only about 1,000 have been bought in the UK, and you may still need a 110V transformer strapped to the back of it since American models are still common.
The Amiga's been talked about for two years or so, and its awesome graphics and multi-tasking operation system (it can do more than one thing at a time!) make it ideal for musical applications. It's also got a built-in FM-style four-voice stereo sound chip — so why has the first music package for the machine only just been launched?
In the US the Apple Macintosh, Atari 520/1040 and even the IBM PC are well-established as music micros; the ST's in particular are powerful, inexpensive, and MIDI-equipped for direct connection to synthesizers. Can the Amiga compete? We don't know of a MIDI interface for the machine yet, so the package we're looking at — Ariolasoft's Instant Music — is strictly limited to the built-in sound chip.
The sounds are very comparable to the Yamaha CX5 FM music computer, with a certain amount of digital twang and some quite realistic imitations of flute, slap bass and so on. The package doesn't allow you to program new sounds or to alter existing ones except to change their octave up and down, but there area couple of unusual sounds — such as the Electric Guitar chord and the multisplit Drum Kit — which appear to be sampled rather than synthesized. The old rubbish about the Amiga being directly Fairlight-compatible has been trolled out again recently, but in fact these sounds are simply coded in software in the same way that real sounds for Commodore 64 games can be coded in using a Microvox or other sampler.
Instant Music loads in a minute or so after using the Amiga's Kick Start system disk, and uses a single display with various pull-down menus. This main screen shows a variable number of measures of music, with each voice indicated in coloured blocks once you've loaded a piece. There are lots of demos available with styles from Rock, Pop, Jazz and Blues to Folk, Classical and even minimalist styles: the 'Parent Directory' lists the styles and subdirectories list the demo pieces, which include some simple chord progressions to help in your own compositions.
The Amiga, like the Apple MAC and the Atari ST, is operated with a Mouse, a little rollerball which you slide around the table and which allows you to select features on the screen and 'pull down' menus if you want more detail. It's better than doing a lot of typing.
The pull-down menus at the top of the Instant Music screen are as follows:
DRAW: Pitch Guide, Rhythm Guide, Quickdraw Pattern, Scale Ruler
EDIT: Erase Colour, Erase All Colours, Copy Colour, Copy All Colours, Paste Colour, Paste All Colours
SOUND: Library 1, Library 2, Library 3.
JAM: Score Rhythm, Keypad Rhythm, Free Rhythm.
PROJECT: Load, Load New, Save, Save As, Quit.
OPTIONS: Song Size, Sound Menu, Empty Buffer
Let's look at these options in brief.
DRAW allows you to enter notes with the mouse and you can bring up a keyboard at the side of the screen (the Pitch Guide) to help find the correct notes. Quickdraw lets you tie a line between two points in a tune and enters notes along it in approximately the right key and scale for you, which you can then edit to your exact requirements.
The EDIT section itself allows you to erase, copy and exchange 'colours' (colour-coded voices) while LIBRARY calls up the available sounds which you can assign to any of the four voices.
JAM lets you play any of the four voices 'live' with any sound using the mouse (zipping it up and down the screen), or tapping the function and numeric keys to select preset rhythms based on the backing music. Both functions limit the notes and rhythms available so that to some extent you can't play a bum or mistimed note, while the third option, Free, allows you to play any note any time, which gives a more spontaneous but less predictable result.
PROJECT allows you to load and save new songs and sounds while OPTIONS allows you to set the length of the song (up to 64 measures), clear the working memory if you've overloaded it, and create new sound menus.
Around the screen you have mouse-operated controls to change the tempo, decide how many measures are displayed for editing and composition purposes, choose types of chords which can be automatically entered with Quick Draw, switch on Quick Draw and the Mouse Jam facility, start and stop playing, mix the volumes of the four voices and change their pitch up and down one octave.
The Instant Music demos are impressive, but one wonders (as one would) just how long they took to put together with the Mouse or Quick Draw facilities. Why not organise some of the computer's keys as a mini-keyboard, or better still, market a MIDI interface to enter notes from a synth keyboard as an option?
Instant Music offers an odd set of 'play-along' and 'easy composition' features together with quite advanced handling of complex chords and inversions (which the user doesn't have to understand to exploit quite fully) plus note editing and transposition (which is easy but which isn't accompanied by any on-screen display).
It's not easy to create cover versions of existing tunes, but it's not difficult to create something musical, and the end results in sound terms are impressive. Anyone who owns an Amiga will enjoy Instant Music (at £29.95 it's a real steal) but professional musicians would only use it as a scratch pad and would still be out looking for an Amiga MIDI interface and software.
On to the Amstrad CPC series micros which have sold very well as games and word processing machines. Music packages, as on the Commodore 64 and other machines, are divided between those for the built-in three-voice sound chip (which is much less powerful than the Commodore's), those using add-on hardware, and those for MIDI applications.
Software-only products include Minstrel from Kuma Computers (£14.95 cassette, £19.95 disk) and Music Box from The Electric Studio (£9.95 cassette, £16.95 disk), both good starting points for the inexperienced musician. But Rainbird's 'The Music System' or 'Advanced Music System' packages which started life on the BBC then the C64 are far superior, improving the Amstrad's sound by adding modulation generators and other effects in software which aren't there in the hardware.
TMS/AMS runs on the CPC 464/664/6128 models and is available on disk only in the AMS version, which adds a Printer option and a Linker option for longer compositions. Both packages imitate a tape machine with Fast Forward/Rewind and other familiar controls, and the synthesizer page allows you to create and save your own sounds as well as complete compositions. You can upgrade from TMS to the £29.95 AMS for £14 (from cassette) or £10 (from disk).
TMS/AMS is icon-based but some of the icons are so obscure that simple labelling in English would speed things up. There's no MIDI on the Amstrad version (the C64 version has MIDI facilities although the necessary interface still isn't out), but TMS certainly makes the best of what's available on-board.
Music Master from Vanguard Leisure is an entry level music package offering six instrumental sounds for each of the three voices; the cursor keys are used to select which voice(s) are recorded and left playing in the background while you play the third 'live' from the computer keyboard. A 'window' of three octaves out of a total range of eight octaves can be used and you add percussion effects by playing the keypad keys 4-9.
Save to tape or disk is available and the screen's piano keyboard shows which notes are being played at any time; there are no editing or synthesizing facilities but at £12.95 (cassette) or £15.95 (disk) the Music Master package is a good starter's guide to Amstrad composition. Vanguard also market Maestro, a stereo amplifier/headphone/speaker/demo cassette combination which uses the Amstrad's stereo sound output, a great benefit for Music Master and the other on-board sound packages mentioned.
AmDrum before is a good bargain — it's the Amstrad version of SpecDrum, a small cartridge which replays sampled drum sounds and allows you to compose long patterns using them. Available through Boots and manufactured by Cheetah Marketing, AmDrum gives two loading options for different sets of drum sounds, and two alternative kits — Latin Kit and Editor and Electro Kit and Editor are also available at £3.99 and £4.99 respectively. The Editor section of the software allows you to combine sounds from different kits to create your own distinctive combination of drums.
Beats can be entered in real or step time, two sounds can be played simultaneously, and a composer page allows you to chain patterns into very lengthy compositions. Sample quality is on a par with £300 drum machines so the AmDrum comes highly recommended. Incidentally, Cheetah publish a sheet on how to synchronise AmDrum to other musical instruments.
The only MIDI package available for the Amstrad micros at the moment is EMR's MIDITrack Performer, which costs £129.95 for a tape and disk and a MIDI interface and which works with the 464/664/6128 micros. It handles 8 tracks of polyphonic MIDI information entered in real or step time from a synth keyboard and you can bounce down for a total of 29 tracks.
(For more on this product, see this month's Buzz pages — Ed).
Some other Amstrad/MIDI packages are also coming long and we'll look at them as soon as possible.
Feature by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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