If you're reading this column, the chances are that you already own an Atari computer of some flavour. But maybe your machine is looking and feeling rather old, and you're considering a replacement. Maybe your old one has given up the ghost and is too expensive to repair. Or maybe you've seen one of the current good deals on a new MegaSTe or Falcon. For instance, Compo Software has an abundance of STFM, MegaSTe and Falcon machines up for grabs at the moment. You will also find some retailers with STe packs. But how do you decide which Atari to go for? There are as many flavours as types of ice cream in a tutti-frutti cone: ST, STM, STF, STFM, Mega ST, STe, MegaSTe, Falcon... have I missed any? (OK, yes -- the TT, but this high-end machine is way beyond the average MIDI user, unless you happen to need support for a 20-inch mono monitor for notation work.) All these machines have their merits and weaknesses, and choosing may not be easy. It's explanation time...
Generally, aside from the Falcon and TT, there are few differences between the various Atari computers. The ST, STM, STF and STFM are very similar, all being based on an 8MHz 68000 Motorola processor, with only an internal/external disk drive and a TV modulator making them different: the 'M' means that the computer can be plugged straight into a TV set, and 'F' means that the machine has an internal floppy drive. All four have the same video system, which provides a black and white picture at 640 by 400 pixels on-screen, four colours (black, white and two others) at 640 by 200 pixels, and 16 colours at 320 by 200 pixels. These three modes are referred to as high, medium and low resolutions respectively. The reason for this somewhat inadequate restriction is that only a fixed 32Kb of memory is put aside for the video. Take the high-resolution figures: 640 by 400 pixels gives a total of 256,000 pixels. Each of these requires one bit: divide by eight to give the number of bytes necessary to display the screen... 32,000 bytes, or 32K. A similar process for the other two resolutions will give the same figure (allowing for two and four bits per pixel for four and 16 colours respectively). This is in sharp contrast to, for instance, the latest Macs, which have 2Mb of video RAM, providing 16.7 million colours at a resolution of 832 by 624 pixels!
There is also a restriction to the palette from which the colours can be selected. Only eight shades each of red, green and blue are up for grabs, making a total palette of 512 colours.
While this is bad news for anyone involved with colour graphics, it actually makes little difference to any ST-based sequencing packages. Most of the modern-day high-end offerings, such as Cubase and Notator Logic, will only run in high resolution, and even the likes of Sequencer One and Concerto only support either high or medium resolutions.
A bigger problem is that of memory. While you can run most sequencers in 1Mb of RAM, most of the current powerhouses really need at least 2Mb. Upgrading the memory in a member of this ST family is more awkward than in an STe -- and 4Mb is the absolute limit.
While you can use a hard drive with any ST, all but the Falcon (and MegaSTe internally) require a circuit board to convert from the SCSI standard used on most hard disks to the DMA supported by the ST. The result is a more expensive (and generally slower) hard drive.
The Mega ST is simply a standard ST with its main circuitry in a separate box from the keyboard. These are rarities, but they do have the distinct advantage of having space inside the main casing, and this makes the various upgrades much easier to carry out.
The 'e' in STe stands for 'enhanced', but the STe actually differs from the previous ST range in only a few respects. The palette is increased to 16 shades of red, green and blue -- 4,096 colours in all -- but the video side is exactly the same, which means that there is a limit of 16 colours on-screen at the same time in low resolution.
Other changes include a pair of analogue joystick ports and stereo sound output. The first is of absolutely no use to anyone at all, especially musicians, but the second may interest you if your sequencer supports stereo sample playback (as does Sequencer One Plus and Breakthru).
Upgrading memory in an STe is an easy affair, as the machine uses industry-standard SIMM memory modules that can be simply plugged into the four internal slots. However, the limit is again 4Mb.
Atari probably held back on any major upgrades to the ST because of the impending launch of the MegaSTe. While the memory is again in the form of SIMMs, and there's room inside the main casing for a hard disk, the main difference is the double-speed, 16MHz 68000 processor that makes the machine feel much faster. Any process your sequencer carries out will happen more quickly. True, the video side still has the same restrictions as its predecessors, but if you want to use your computer purely for sequencing, it's worth looking out for one of these at a good price.
While it may share the same casing shape as the ST range, the Falcon is quite different in many respects. For starters, its video is fully programmable, and supports up to 16-bit colour, referred to in Atari parlance as 'true' colour. Unfortunately, the video is still restricted in many ways: there is no separate video RAM, so the memory necessary to display the screen comes from the Falcon's main memory -- you can't even boot up in true colour on a 1Mb machine! Video RAM is also usually faster than main memory, which means that screen redraws are slow when a high number of colours (256 or more) are being displayed. To get the best out of the Falcon's video, you really need an external clock, as provided by the likes of ScreenBlaster or BlowUp030, both sub-£100 add-ons.
The main advantages of the Falcon are its 16MHz 68030 processor, making standard sequencing work very fast, and its 56001 DSP (Digital Signal Processor). The latter has made it possible for both Steinberg and Emagic to offer direct-to-disk versions of Cubase and Notator Logic respectively at a fraction of the price of other computer systems. While the Falcon's A/D and D/A converters may not be of the highest order, they are generally acceptable for everyday audio. If not, there are hardware add-ons that circumvent the problem.
A standard SCSI hard disk can be plugged directly onto a Falcon (with the relevant lead), and there's space inside for a 2.5-inch IDE drive. The memory is no longer restricted to 4Mb, although there are only three permissible configurations: 1, 4 and 14Mb. Additionally, the Falcon uses custom memory boards, making it expensive to upgrade (the trick is to buy a machine with the correct memory configuration from the beginning). Finally, the Falcon also sports a High Density internal disk drive, making it compatible with any 3.5-inch PC disks.
A bugbear of the in-built MIDI ports on all Atari computers is that it's difficult to expand them cheaply. It's essential to have at least one extra MIDI Out if you're using more than just a single multi-timbral sound module. While all other Atari machines offer a standard serial port, to which a cheap extra MIDI Out can be connected (such as ModemMIDI), the Falcon lacks this.
OK, let's assume that you've decided to stick with the Atari platform, and need a new machine. If this is the case, and your main use for the machine is sequencing and the odd begging letter to the bank, look for either a 4Mb STFM or an STe, whose memory can be upgraded easily. If you desire a faster machine, then check out a MegaSTe. The bunch of these currently up for grabs are the last you'll ever see.
If sequencing is only one of the main uses for your computer, and any of the others require colour work, then look carefully at a Falcon. If you intend to use a direct-to-disk sequencing package, or a high-end DTP program such as Calamus SL or DA's Layout, then seriously consider buying a machine with 14Mb of RAM. More to the point, buy the complete digital audio system from one, reputable dealer. Certain hardware modifications need to be carried out on standard Falcons to bring them up to direct-to-disk spec.
Finally, you may have heard that C-Lab is about to start manufacturing Falcons. The first of these will look like the Falcon of old, but will have had all the various modifications carried out as standard. Distribution is through Paul Wiffen at Digital Village (see box at end of article for contact numbers).
Next month, we'll look at the possible upgrades that can turn your current machine into a faster, more responsive beast...
THOSE ATARIS IN FULL
|MACHINE||PROCESSOR||SPEED||MAXIMUM RAM||STANDARD SERIAL PORT?||FLOPPY DRIVE||SCSI HARD DISK?||VIDEO|
|STFM||68000||8MHz||4Mb||YES||DD||NO (converter needed)||standard|
|STe||68000||8MHz||4Mb (SIMMs)||YES||DD||NO (converter needed)||standard|
|MegaSTe||68000||16MHz||4Mb||YES||HD (usually)||YES (internal)||standard|
|Falcon||68030||16MHz||14Mb||NO||HD||YES (external)||fully programmable|
|Key: DD -- Double Density; HD -- High Density.|
Compo Software: 0487 773582.
System Solutions: 081 693 3355.
Digital Village: 081 440 3440.
UKMA (ModemMIDI): 081 368 2245.
Vic Lennard has been an Atari enthusiast since 1987. He runs Club Cubase UK along with Ofir Gal, and is also author of the MIDI Survival Guide, available from the SOS Bookshop. His ageing STF has recently presented him with a bouncing baby STe...