Our in-house Musical Maestro, JON BATES, casts an eye back over the equipment we’ve been looking at in TECH NICHE this year and comes up with a few recommendations on how to choose, use (and fuse) it!
Judging from several conversations I had about a year ago with people in so-called ‘key positions’ in the computer and music trade, 1986 should have been the year when quantum leaps were made in home music/micro technology. Well, it didn’t quite happen with the big bang a few folks expected, but just wait and see. Mr Kidd waxed lyrical in November about MIDI, and how an easily ‘accessible creative concept’ for music, and sound on your Spectrum gets closer and closer, and of course he is right.
But where does that leave us now? What do we, as ordinary but highly informed people on the leading edge of this technology do? How shall we get ready to greet this new wave?
When considering the music modules and keyboards on offer there is a lot to bear in mind. Let me attempt to lay down some guidelines on what to look for in equipment and supporting peripheral devices. Just for good measure, I’ve prepared a jolly festive list of terms and what they mean — just in case you’d forgotten or are the type who gets phased by eager music-shop salespersons!
As you may have spotted. I have wittered on about MIDI in TECH NICHE for rather a long while now. Any music interface or music keyboard now must have this facility if it is going to be taken seriously.
Otherwise it can very quickly become redundant as it cannot become part of a larger expanding system. Japanese companies like Roland and Yamaha have brought out some very smart MIDI processors and control stations in recent months. These enable the user to doddle about with MIDI data streams ad infinitum, and re route and reprocess the original information. Now to me, as a computer bonehead, this seems wonderful, but I’m quite sure that to a bespoke Spectrum programmer this is real trivial stuff.
So Ou est les progams de MIDI avec tout les facilities? Dans mon pipe dream if I know anything. One of the biggest problems in the whole field of music and micros is that there is a large cultural gap between computer types and music bods. And very rarely do the twain meet. If I put my musician’s hat on fair and square, quite a high percentage of programs have real glaring errors that make them musically a non-starter — sort of muso-unfriendly. To a micro user with an interest in music the same program could at first appear wonderful. Of course the reverse is equally true in that micro buffs can comprehend data streams, commands and all the associated terminology quite easily. To many musicians this is all Morris Dancing, and gets in the way of actually playing. Someday soon there will be a union of the two camps.
There are several MIDI interfaces about for the Spectrum nowadays. As many as we could lay our hands on have been reviewed in TECH NICHE over the past months. So far, they have all been mutually incompatible — in other words the software from one interface won’t run on another. This may make financial sense in the short term, but eventually it will strangle some companies who may be very good in one department, but lose out to a larger company with a wider but less spectacular range of software.
By way of a quick guideline the good old faithful XRI Systems Micon interface is still quite good value for money, with several back-up editor and sequencer packages now available, although the Step-Time is slow to use and leaves a bit to be desired graphically. The EMR is also quite good on the real-time side, although a bit pricey and with some funny quirks that can cause the program to crash, freeze and generally be quite ill. The interface also supports voiced editing software. The 10 system last month was very comprehensive as a real-time recorder and note editor, but although follow-up software has been promised, none has as yet been seen at CRASH.
As regards an overall music utility, my money so far is on the RAM/Flare Music Machine, although it will be interesting to see how Cheetah shape up next year — their MIDI interface is almost ready for release. I have a feeling that there is going to be more than a little competition between them. Neither of these companies offer synthesizer editing software as yet.
Obviously, the great thing about MIDI is the ability to hook the Spectrum to synths and tone modules — the latter being the guts of the synth without the keyboard. Now it so happens that the way things are in the synth market, there is not much enthusiasm for the user creating new sounds. This is for two reasons. Digital synths are more awkward to program because they use numbers and lack the old ‘hands on’ feel with real controls. The second is that the synths only have a 17 (or so) character LCD display in which the user has to ‘window’ about 70 peripherals to create each sound — even more in some cases. What is more, some peripherals will affect each other. So an interface that supports software to edit the sound of your synth on screen is well worth bearing in mind. If you’re confused let me take an example. The most popular synth in the world (so we are told) is the Yamaha DX7. This is indeed a faberoonie instrument and it comes with two ROMS containing 64 voices apiece. And you hear these more than any other sounds because DX’s are absolute piglets to program. To make matters more depressing, you can only dump the voices you have created in two ways. One is via MIDI to a storage device or you can invest around £60 in a Yamaha RAM.
With an interface, software and Spectrum the task is actually fun. The XRI and EMR interfaces will both support editing and voice-dump software so your library of sounds can be created on screen and them dumped to Microdrive or cassette for cheap and easy storage. The same goes for drum machines which are often not too easy to program. The Casio range of CZ synths suffers with the same heartaches and they have even less storage space available. A Casio editor and voice dump with an additional 90 voices is available from XRI to make life a little better, though. The Casio CZ101 is a reasonable buy at £295, and it has the ability to talk in four voices at once as well as being able to produce some pretty neat sounds.
It’s sad to say that the British market is sadly thin and sparse compared with that of America. Because of the proliferation of certain micros and the greater market over there, the USA enjoys a wide variety of editing software and hardware, together with many other clever devices and compositional aids.
One further thought is that if you are not particularly bothered about playing from a synth keyboard you could just buy a tone module. Some of these can be programmed from Spectrums, some simply can’t, or rather there is not a sufficient market to support the development cost of the software. Most synth manufacturers make expander modules, but check to see if the one you want can be programmed from your interface. If you are really fanatical, XRI Systems claim to make up software tailored to your needs — but expect to pay a reasonable fee for it.
MIDI is still in its infancy but expect to see a far greater variety of utilities for synths and micros in the near future. The MIDI specifications offer a lot more than we have seen so far, including automated detuning and retuning, stereo panning, reverb and echo, multi-tasking from a single command, filtering, altering commands and theoretically, all this can be done even with only one keyboard and suitable software and hardware. Just as this issue was about to go to press, more news from Cheetah arrived — they’re about to launch a ‘slave’ keyboard that can be linked to the Spectrum via their MINI (not MIDI) interface, which allows the musician to edit and create computer generated sounds. It’s a polyphonic unit with MIDI out, a five octave range and pitch bend facility. All this for a basic price of £99.95 and an extra £29.95 if you want the MINI interface. With luck, I should be able to take a closer look at Cheetah’s MK5 keyboard next issue...
The slick way to do it is to have one of the 4-track cassette machines which give you plenty of scope to overdub. However this could be beyond the budget of a lot of people, so the thing to do is to get the sequencer to take as many tracks as the program will allow. When it’s all edited up and in good order, record it directly into your cassette. Try to avoid recording with a microphone at this stage as it will induce more noise, unless of course you are singing as well. Don’t unless you are really desperate, use your data recorder as an audio recorder — these usually have a frequency response known only to British Telecom phones.
Go for the best tape you can afford, not old data tapes. If your machine will take chrome tapes then use them — they have a very low level of background hiss and take a lot of stick in the volume department. Always check your sound levels so that at its loudest your piece just about gets into the recording level meter’s maximum. LED’s are better than VU meters which are a bit slow on the fast, loud sounds that often come from computer-generated music. Keep all audio leads away from transformers, TV’s and other sources of hum like fridges, microwaves and fluorescent lights. Check your leads every now and again to make sure they are not broken or mutilated.
All recordings benefit from a little reverb. It gives them a more lifelike sound rather than a bone-dry hard sound. If you can hook up a second Spectrum with sampler you could use the reverb option on the second system. Beware, most of them are noisy and don’t give a true reverb effect. It could be down to borrowing a dedicated unit which will probably do the job more efficiently and with less noise. The real McCoy is a MIDI-interfaced Digital reverb unit which can be linked up to your sequencer and told what to do and when, all in real time on playback.
One other point as the Christmas tree lights fuse themselves and yourself out of existence — most recording gear and amplifiers can survive very nicely thank you on a 2 amp fuse. Have a look on the back of the gear and you will see the power marked somewhere in watts. Divide this by the number of volts on supply and presto, the amperage rating.
So my synth, which by the way is pretty hefty, consumes 110 watts, supplied at 240 volts which means that it only uses 0.45 of an ampere. Most 13 amp plugs come complete with 13 amp fuses, so should something go amiss it would take over 26 times the fuse rating I should have before a 13 amp would blow. Get the idea? It’s not very well protected. (Neither are Sinclair transformers — they have no fuse in them at all! Read your User Guide).
Well there are several. Owing to the limitations of the sampling rate, which in turn is limited by the amount of memory you have to play with, the sampling — the rate at which it listens to the sound and chops it up into bytes — is slow by the standards laid down by dedicated samplers. Therefore the reproduction can be marred, especially at higher frequencies. This means that lots of thought should go into the design of the internal filtering, chips and thingies that remove the hiss and smooth the sound out.
As yet Spectrum-based samplers still suffer with background hiss. So far, no-one has got the ‘Loop’ facility quite right. A true ‘Loop’ should be seamless. You should be able to hold down the key and the sound should go on endlessly and smoothly. Sadly this is not the case, and it does rather render the micro sampler into the novelty category as yet — reducing looped choir and string effects into a chorus of machine guns. I stress ‘as yet’ because the soft and hardware houses are beavering away to correct this.
I do wonder, though to what extent they actually carry out market research. Also, I wonder how hard they look at dedicated sequencers and samplers from a user and end-product point of view to see how their own programs can best be presented. The actual mechanics of the hard and software may well be fine, but in some cases the user is left stranded with a lack of finesse in the facilities, as in the Datel Sampler reviewed by yours truly in this month’s TECH NICHE.
Having got your sampler, what are you going to do with it? As per the guidelines, go for one that can be incorporated as part of a sequencer system, preferably MIDI. This means that your sampled sound can become part of a creative piece of work and you can build a whole vista of new sounds into a composition. The great thing is that it does not rely on manual dexterity — just a pair of ears and a fertile imagination.
Sampling the actual sound. First step. Throw away the 30p microphone that comes with the sampler and beg or borrow a superior one. With care, samplers should accept a direct input from a line source — the line out socket from a tape or record deck. The Music Machine took umbrage at this and reproduced a loud nasty hum rather than the sound desired — the Datel actually has a separate line input channel.
After you’ve giggled your way through sampled raspberries, flatulence, Frank Brunospeak and Mickey Mousespeak, you may get more adventurous. All sorts of sounds can be used — at different pitches the sound changes completely. You could try sampling home-made sounds — blowing across bottles, tapping glasses, saucepans, tins or slamming doors, twanging rubber bands and so on or use any musical instrument that is lying about. Sound effects records can be borrowed from the local library and clips from records can be pressed into service, Here a little bit of care is needed as it is really better to get a note that is one pitch for the duration of the sample. With patience it is possible to isolate different instruments and voices, so that files of choirs and orchestral sounds can be built up. The cheeky approach is to either sample sounds from another dedicated sampler or to pinch one of the audio cassettes that accompany low budget samplers. Again you are only hindered by the limits of your own imagination.