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The Musical Micro

Article from International Musician & Recording World, March 1985

Budget digital sampling at the flick of a switch or two

Mainframe model the Greengate


Last month we looked at computers as sequencers, in December we looked at top-of-the-line sound sampling computers. This month we're looking at sound sampling again, but from a slightly different (and cheaper) angle. Normally in journalism you can't get away with looking at the same thing twice, because people notice. But you could almost get away with doing the same article every month on computers in music, because the field's developing so fast that a new item appears on the market every few weeks. A considered opinion on the best computer to buy, the best software package or the best hardware accessory could be completely outdated almost before it's left the factory, and this can be (to say the least) upsetting if you've invested in a major music computer system.

This is particularly so in the case of sound sampling. The general feeling at the moment is that people who've invested £8,000 in an Emulator or similar polyphonic sampling keyboard may be feeling a little silly in the very near future. Not that there's anything the matter with the Emulator — it's just the sort of product that's most vulnerable to what we doctors call Redundantitis Digitalis, or replacement by computer.

The average home computer is well suited to performing the tasks undertaken by the Emulator, which are basically to look at an incoming sound, reduce it to streams of numbers, stove the numbers on floppy disks, and reconstitute the numbers at different rates to produce polyphonic sounds under the control of a keyboard. A home computer has the inputs to look at incoming sounds (the analogue input of the Sinclair Spectrum, the User Port of the Commodore 64, the rear panel slots of the Apple), the hardware to store them (floppy disk drives are available for almost all home computers), and the ability to handle the number-crunching necessary to reproduce sounds at a variety of speeds.

Key problem

What home computers don't generally have is a music keyboard or other method for directly playing music on them, although it is possible to arrange some of the computer's keys in a rough imitation of a musical layout (which is okay if you can play blinding solos on a typewriter). For most of us, the main objection to using a computer as a sampler is the cost of adding a music keyboard — if this is possible at all.

As we've hinted, sampling for home computers is a growth industry, and several systems are bound to turn up at the Frankfurt Music Fair in February '85. The ones on the immediate horizon, however, include the Greengate DS3 (four-note polyphonic sampling for the Apple, around £260 plus another £250 for a keyboard); the Autographies Microsound 64 (monophonic sampling for the Commodore 64, around £360 including keyboard); the Ricoll Sound Sampler (monophonic sampling for the Spectrum around £200); and the Datel DSS (monophonic sampling for the Spectrum at £49.95).

Working backwards, the Datel unit is the cheapest, using eight-bit sampling and extensive filtering to provide reasonable sound quality. It comes complete with several software routines which allow you to sample a sound, play it forwards or backwards at different pitches, sequence up to 1,000 notes and play ascending scales of sampled notes. The Datel also acts as a digital delay with variable echo length and repeat, but it's hardly of studio quality. A good deal of Eq and very careful use can allow the Datel to be used as a musical instrument, but its main drawback is that it doesn't interface to any kind of keyboard — notes are played on the Spectrum's keyboard, which is pretty spongy to say the least.

The Ricoll unit has experienced some production problems, but promises to be of slightly higher quality than the Datel. Like the Datel, it can act as a digital delay as well as a monophonic sampling unit, and also has software provided to act as a harmoniser, phaser-flangerand reverb. Unlike the Datel, the Ricoll has Trigger and Control Voltage inputs which can be made compatible with most monophonic synthesizers (Roland, Korg, Moog etc) to order.

Microsound 64 — delayed in production

The Microsound 64's sampling option has also been delayed somewhat in production, although the keyboard unit has been selling successfully. It's a full-sized four-octave keyboard which plays the Commodore 64's three built-in synthesizer voices, and which comes supplied with software packages for sound creation, sequencing and composition. The quality of the sounds can be roughly compared to those of an average Casio (although not one of the fabulous new ones such as the CZ-101 Cosmo).

The sampling capability is claimed to be two seconds monophonically, with keyboard split facility and modulation effects such as vibrato and filter wow provided by the computer's built-in sound chip. Approximate costs are £129 for the keyboard and another £229 for the sampling unit.

Green goddess

Top of the heap at the moment is the Greengate DS3, which runs on the Apple computer and so will set you back more than the other three systems put together. Judging by sales so far, the system's worth it though: it offers four-note polyphonic sampling with a total time approaching two seconds, a powerful real-time polyphonic sequencer, multiple keyboard splitting, digital drum machine functions, a library of factory sounds including drums, guitars, basses, breaking glass and all the sampling clichés (even a car starting and a barking dog), all for a total cost of around £1,250. The cost breaks down something like this: Apple computer £585, voice cards and software £250, keyboard £265, disk drive £150. You don't have to have the keyboard — there's a keyboard layout on the computer's keys for the drum machine functions — and you could pick up a second-hand Apple for as little as £290 and so end up with an impressive system much more cheaply.

The good thing about the Greengate is that it's an expanding system with three free software updates included in the price. The first of these is already released — it gives you multiple keyboard split with any sound at any pitch on any notes of the keyboard, together with longer sampling time if desired at lower frequency response. Future developments include a MIDI interface (although the system already syncs to tape reliably), a looping function for more conventional keyboard playing techniques, the option of very long samples using expansion memory and much more.

Having enthused about the possibilities of computerised sound sampling, the disadvantages are obvious. You can't take a Sinclair Spectrum monitor, tape recorder and a sea of connecting leads on stage and load a new sample for every song. You can't record the full grandeur of a Bechstein piano with a 0.8 second sampling time.

Having said that, the Greengate system is claimed to be stage-proof (electropoppers Mainframe who it was designed for intend to use it live), has professional frequency response (around 15kHz, rather better than the Emulator 1) and shows little sign of being undercut by any stand-alone keyboard. There's talk in the US of a polyphonic sampling keyboard from Ensoniq called the Mirage at a mere $1,700, but at the moment that's all it is — just talk.

For the moment at least, the home computer has the stage in the field of digital sound sampling. Watch this space for further developments.

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The Complete Phil Collins

Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Mar 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


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> The King's on his throne but...

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