Hidden away in a small box in the TSC adverts in SOS over the last few months has been an invitation to an Opcode Vision Clinic. As part of a 'World Tour' by four Opcode specialists, London, Geneva, Milan and Oslo were getting the benefit of a major 'post-Frankfurt' presence of Opcode people in Europe. Always eager to meet fellow sequencer users, I RSVP'd by 'phone and registered my interest -- and got a 'limited number' seat in the 2pm session. Saturday the 26th of March came, and I set off for London, leaving plenty of time for British Rail and the Tube to try their worst.
A bad idea. When trains run annoyingly smoothly and efficiently, you arrive at just after 11am for something which happens later in the afternoon -- and then you have no choice but to plough on and try to look cool. "Hi!" I said to a somewhat astonished David Karlsen at TSC's hi-tech offices off the Edgeware Road. "You're, er... three hours early!", he said, quizzically. My coolness rating was now looking distinctly poor.
After a leisurely lunch in a sunny Hyde Park, I returned to TSC at about 1:30, which is where I compounded my earlier error: "Am I early?", I enquired of the TSC person who answered the door. "Nah, there was one guy who turned up this morning!", he giggled. And I'm afraid I could not resist saying "Really!", and shaking my head sagely...
Keith Borman from Opcode Systems was ebulient and friendly, even in the face of a reserved silence from the assembling musicians as he tried to get some response from us before the clinic started. First item on the agenda was a few words from David Karlsen on the new releases from Apple Computer: the Power Macs. Keith then told us that Opcode had concentrated mainly on the States up until now, but that from now on they were also going to spend more time promoting their products in Europe. He then demonstrated some of the obvious, neat, useful and less well-known features of Opcode's flagship sequencer, and going by his liberal use of keyboard short-cuts, he was very familiar with using the program. When a Director of Sales knows the product this well, I begin to believe Opcode's claim about virtually all its staff being musicians. This was enhanced when Keith revealed that the sequencer he had actually been using was a beta test version of Studio Vision 2.0 (apparently due for full release sometime near the end of April), and then added a vocal line (and harmony) to the music he had prepared. Being shut up in a small, hot, stuffy room with ten other musos, and with someone singing their heart out, is quite an experience. He even had to prompt us for applause!
So who was there? The range was broad: Paul 'Wix' Wickens, keyboard player with Paul McCartney's band; some of Simply Red; the Studio Manager of the Music School at the University of Huddersfield; Paul Ireson, ex-editor of SOS; Kendal Wrightson, ex of this very column; Mike Collins, the session programmer/digital audio editor, and some 'ordinary' musicians too! I got in the way, asked difficult questions, and offered opinions as usual.
Unlike many clinics, this one ended with questions on what we had learned -- and the suppliers of the correct answers got an Opcode T-shirt! I also saw several people buying Vision as a result of the session, and TSC's David Karlsen said that the event had been so successful that they would be having an enhanced one later on in the year, probably in September. A grand day out, as Wallace and Gromit might say, as they polish their Oscar!
Europe's CeBIT computer show was held in Hannover, and made the enormous annual music exhibition in Frankfurt (held at almost the same time in March) look small, which is not easy. CeBIT is huge and overpowering, which might be the words Apple would like to apply to their new computer range at its launch in Europe. The show was the location for Apple's mid-March launch of the Power Macintosh range -- the first Macs to use the PowerPC processor chip. Three models were announced; UK dealers should have stocks by the time you read this. Comparative advertising is not welcomed in Germany, so the many 'Intel Pentium versus Motorola PowerPC' demos at CeBIT reportedly did not last beyond the first day. Even so, running two programs side by side and comparing speeds is always a matter of personal interpretation, although if one computer consistently finishes a task first you might start to form an opinion... The Mac magazines currently have figures detailing comparisons with 486 and Pentium processors, if you need lots of detail.
The war has just begun. Current PC magazines have, so far, been remarkably quiet in their coverage of PowerPC computers in general, whereas the latest Mac magazines have double page spreads from Intel, which remind Mac users that they now have the opportunity to change to a Pentium processor. Apple's TV and press adverts have been suggesting that the future never turns out as you expect, and given that the Pentium has been around for a year or so, the Power Mac's combination of speed, compatibility and price begin to look very attractive. Apple, IBM and Motorola are very confident about the success of the PowerPC chip, and it does look as if a worthy rival to Intel's domination of the personal computer has finally appeared.
Ah, but... Any change from one processor to another has casualties. The Mac II series of computers used the 68020 and 68030 chips instead of the 68000, and this caused a few hiccups while the programmers learned about the idiosyncracies of the new chips. The recommended 'rules' on buying seem to be:
Wait for the second or third release of the software. eg: 7.1, or 2.0.2.
Wait for six months or so after new hardware comes out.
Of course, if you aren't a serious professional musician with an album to record, then you may want to rush out now and purchase a brand new hi-tech hardware/software item, but you do run the risk of having to wait for things to settle down. As long as you know that there may be initial 'teething problems', and that these are almost always sorted out (look at the initial scepticism about the Atari Falcon, which has now settled into a much more mature and stable product than a year or so ago). Of course, a 'half-way' house approach may be the best; Apple and some third-party companies now make plug-in PowerPC cards which can turn many existing Macs into Power Macs, and which offer you the flexibility of a relatively low-cost upgrade with the fall-back option of retaining your current Mac.
During his two hour Vision clinic, Keith ably showed some of the more powerful features of the sequencer. Here's how he produced almost instant 'wallpaper' music with minimal effort.
Open a generated sequence, and record a couple of bass notes an octave or fifth apart into the Note Track -- almost any bass sound will do here. Add some block chords rooted or harmonically related to the bass notes from another sound source (An electronic piano sound is probably cliched enough). Then add in some bass, snare and hi-hat hits from a drum machine. The timing of these events is not that important -- the only things that really matter are: the pitch; what events happen at the same time; and the relative numbers of each type of event. I have quantised everything to quarter notes, so that I get a sequenced feel, and I have deliberately placed some events (bass and drums, bass and chords...) on the same beat, so that they always occur together -- if you want separate events, then you just put each event onto a separate beat.
Start out with approximately the same numbers of each type, and then fine tune the feel by editing the numbers of each type. One good method to try out is to generate a couple of bars in the style of someone, and then let the generated sequence produce more music 'in the same vein' from that -- that way you automatically get the correct balance of the numbers of each type of event.
You now use the generated sequence controls to play the sequence you have created, but looped in random order -- you might like to set up a suitable rhythm track too. The result is the pitches and sounds that you entered, but replayed in a different (and ever-changing) order. For a few minutes of learning effort, you have now mastered an almost unlimited source of background music snippets. You can extend this idea considerably by recording a sequence which links up several generated sequences.
Figures commissioned by Apple, from an independent study group, apparently show that a PowerPC 601 chip running at 60MHz is more powerful than current 486 and Pentium computers running at 66 MHz. Some of this is because of the faster mathematics processor in the PowerPC, but there are also a few other fundamental differences underpinning the two chips:
A Pentium processor uses about twice the power of a PowerPC chip, which means that it needs a larger heat-sink, and is more dependent on a hefty fan to try and keep it cool. High power means that portable Pentium PCs are going to eat batteries very quickly and will act as small fan heaters.
The Pentium processor is much more complex (mainly because it has to retain compatibility with pre-existing 80n86 processors), and this makes it very large, difficult to produce in quantity, and therefore expensive. In contrast, PowerPC chips are small and easy to make in large quantities, which makes them cheaper. Pentium chips can cost anything from $500 upwards, whilst a PowerPC chip can be $100 or less.
What exactly is all this Power Mac fuss? Well, having used several members of Motorola's 6800 series of microprocessor chips, Apple have now decided to move to a new type of processor by co-developing one with IBM and Motorola. The PowerPC is a RISC processor, which refers to its Reduced Instruction Set Computer construction. The idea is that instead of having lots of different commands which carry out complex instructions, you have a small number of very simple tasks. In this case, simpler = lots faster, and in fact, RISC processors tend to run considerably faster than conventional processors. So, although you need more steps to achieve the same result, because the steps happen so much faster, the overall effect is better speed performance.
The first processor in the PowerPC range is the 601, with a low-power (notepad and portables) version, the 603, due out later this year. Further chips in the series will arrive as time goes by, and they will offer increasing amounts of power and speed. Apple Power Macs are still Macintoshes -- they look just like the current Quadras and use the same peripherals, plug-in cards and can even use the same software, but there's more...
In computer terms, power often equals versatility. Power Macs run fast enough to allow you to run normal PC software like MS-DOS or Windows by using a piece of software which makes the Power Mac appear to be a PC. Apple have also reworked the Macintosh Operating System so that it will work on a PowerPC. The result is a computer which has the potential to run Macintosh, DOS, Windows and even UNIX programs. For Macintosh users, Power Macs should run their existing software more or less as normal, although a comparably priced Power Mac should be slightly faster than its equivalent ordinary Macintosh. But in the future, as software programmers convert their programs so that they are specifically designed to run on the PowerPC, then things will speed up considerably. These so-called 'native' applications will run several times faster than on a non-PowerPC Macintosh.