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RBF Software Octamed Soundstudio

Tracker/Sequencer Software
Published May 1997

The release of this tracker is welcome news for Amiga users, but it's also a glimpse of things to come on the PC platform. Amiga expert Paul Overaa puts the package through its paces.

The Amiga's music scene has been more than a little the worse for wear for some time, and this is hardly surprising when you consider the troubles that the platform has had over the last few years. First released in 1986, the Commodore Amiga was seen not just as a state‑of‑the‑art games machine, but also as a computer for serious use, including music applications. It was, for example, the first home computer to have a useable multitasking operating system (something that the majority of PC users didn't get until almost ten years later, when Windows 95 arrived) and its price made it a natural successor to contemporary offerings like the Atari ST.

The Amiga truly had the potential to do great things, but in 1994, Commodore went into liquidation. A year later, Amiga Technologies, the company which arose from the Commodore bankruptcy ashes, was bought by PC manufacturer Escom. The rest is history — one year after that Escom themselves bit the bullet, leaving the Amiga pretty much back where it was during the 1994 fiasco — ie. still awaiting a buyer to secure its future. Of course, during this time there's been little in the way of new music software for the platform, but of late, the Amiga has received a fairly substantial boost. The event that has triggered things is the appearance of a music package called OctaMED Soundstudio. Being brutally concise, the OctaMED Soundstudio is a sequencer program primarily designed to record and play back short sections of digital audio; in other words, it's a package for creating songs built out of sound samples. But strictly speaking, OctaMED Soundstudio is not a sequencer as most SOS readers will understand the term; instead, it's something called a 'tracker'.

Trackers have been common since the earliest days of the Amiga, having come about originally because games programmers needed a fast and convenient way of creating music for games and demos. One of the earliest utilities to appear was called SoundTracker, but within a few years, other clones had appeared, although all suffered from the same drawbacks as far as general use was concerned. Being essentially coders' tools, these tracker sequencers, or trackers, as they came to be known, adopted programmer‑style conventions for creating music sequences; song descriptions were built around crude lists showing the times at which various samples were to be played. Though editing facilities were far from ideal, the tracker method of composing rapidly became established in Amiga circles. So too did the term 'tracker module' for the disk files used to store the output from these tracker programs (in effect, the tracker equivalent of the files produced by conventional sequencers).

It was during this time that a Finnish programmer, Teijo Kinnunen, produced his public domain tracker, called MED. This allowed users to select and load sound samples of instruments and both create and edit an arrangement's track event lists with relative ease. Over the course of a few years, MED went from strength to strength and, as eight sound channel facilities were incorporated, a commercial version (OctaMED) was released in association with an Amiga software house called RBF Software. Eventually, the program became OctaMED Pro, with new MIDI facilities, and by the time version 6 of this program appeared, it simply beat its Amiga‑based competition hands down. Users could employ conventional MIDI keyboards to enter riffs, and notes were then recorded in the tracker event lists in much the same way that events are added to sequences using a conventional MIDI sequencer. What's more, MIDI files could be imported and used as the basis for compositions, and song modules could be exported in either tracker or MIDI file form. Development on the program was unaffected by the Amiga's troubles; even as OctaMED Pro v6 appeared early in 1995, work had started on the all‑encompassing OctaMED Soundstudio package.

Introducing Octamed Soundstudio

As in earlier versions of the program, OctaMED Soundstudio songs are made up of a series of small sections of music, called blocks, whose contents are displayed as events in a main 'Track Editor' window. OctaMED Soundstudio stores no default instruments in memory, so before you can start work on an arrangement, you have to first use the Load Instruments menu option to bring in some sampled sounds from disk. The program can handle 8SVX, AIFF, MAUD, WAV and raw (digitised data only) sample formats, and there are byte‑swapping (see the 'Amiga Jargon Buster' box) raw sample conversion options for 16‑bit samples. These options are vital if, for instance, you use samples that have been grabbed and stored using a PC. A sample editor is also built into the program, and in terms of editing, anything which could be done with OctaMED Pro can be achieved more easily from OctaMED Soundstudio. But despite having its roots in previous OctaMED versions, OctaMED Soundstudio is not simply an enhanced version of OctaMED — underneath the surface, some major changes have occurred, with perhaps the most exciting feature of the new package being the digital mixing options, which allow you to use many more sounds in a composition than was possible with OctaMED Pro.

Mixing By Numbers?

OctaMED Soundstudio is able to calculate the digital data that represents the chosen sound sample mix, either storing the resulting waveform as a single sample, or using the data in real time. This new approach actually permits up to 64 sample source channels to be used even when tracker modules are played back using the Amiga's limited internal sounds (standard Amigas only have hardware support for four audio channels). What happens is that Soundstudio looks at all the sample data that needs to be played at each point in a song arrangement, and then mixes it down into a form suitable for the currently chosen output device. If, for example, you're just playing back using an Amiga's internal sounds, Soundstudio will create composite sample data, and feed this to each of the four internal hardware sound channels.

The exact real‑time performance you can expect here depends on the kind of Amiga you're using, whether you have an Amiga accelerator card and so on, but there's no doubt that even on a standard A1200, the most popular Amiga machine, the results to be had with the OctaMED Soundstudio package are impressive compared to those from OctaMED Pro! The new mixing arrangements are of equal benefit to those Amiga users who have a third‑party 16‑bit soundcard fitted to their machines. Already, several menu‑selectable soundcard options are available from within OctaMED Soundstudio, including output support for Maestix, Delfina, and Macro Systems' popular 16‑bit Toccata board.

The original OctaMED actually used a sort of sample mixing process to enable the playback of up to eight sound samples simultaneously. However, these earlier sound manipulation routines were tightly tied to the four‑channel audio hardware used by the Amiga, which was rather restrictive. Because Soundstudio's output device handling is now more flexible, it has been easy to add additional output options, and it is in fact now possible to store a complete song module (or parts of it) on disk as a digitised sample, in either 8‑bit or 16‑bit form: you simply use the program's Settings menu to divert the program's output from your internal sounds or soundcard to disk.

This is a big plus for the package, and a real boon for hard‑done‑by Amiga musicians, many of whom still have to cope with just the four 8‑bit internal sound channels available on their standard machines. It's now possible, for example, to create a multiple‑sample drum track, store a few bars of it on disk as a combined digital sample, and then re‑load that sample, using just a single channel, for use in some other song module you're creating. This helps keep the remaining channels free for more important instruments.

A special Smoothing option is available when digitally recording to disk, and this performs some mathematical magic on the digital output to filter out unwanted frequencies. Although no details are given on how this function works, it seems to perform some standard filter calculations to reduce noise and eliminate excessive differences between close points in each area of the waveform. All the end user really needs to know is that, although Smoothing slows the mixing process down a little, it produces improved overall sound quality in most cases.

There have been other digital improvements too — standard effects like echo and cross echo (where an echo is panned across the stereo image) are now available. There are also some useful built‑in chord options which allow you to generate samples of particular chord inversions from any specified sample (making it easy to add string section tracks to an arrangement, for example, by creating an appropriate series of chords from a single‑note string synth sample).

Other Improvements

The notation editor that originally appeared in version 5 of OctaMED but which, for technical reasons, did not appear in OctaMED v6, is now back in enhanced form. Don't get too excited, though — the aim has not been to provide comprehensive and professional score entry, and, even with the latest enhancements, the facilities are very basic. OctaMED Soundstudio is very definitely still a tracker‑based sequencer, and the notation editor really only exists to offer a different way of displaying and entering notes!

Another facility provided with OctaMED Soundstudio is less visible but still important. The Amiga is unusual in computer terms, in that much of the work that would normally be carried out by a main processor is actually performed by some custom‑designed Commodore chips, such as handling the graphics display and retrieving sound samples from memory. The snag is that only parts of the Amiga's memory are accessible to these custom chips, and the amount of this so‑called 'chip' memory is limited. OctaMED Soundstudio can, where appropriate, load samples into the machine's non‑chip memory, and then transparently copy them into chip memory as required. You'd think this might slow things down a bit but, surprisingly, the buffering process turns out to be very fast.

Other improvements? There's a window which allows you to carry out search and replace operations on notes, instrument numbers, commands and so on, and an instrument list window for easy viewing and selecting of samples representing Soundstudio instruments. There's also a greatly improved ARexx interface, which can be used to write macro scripts so that (for example) editing functions can be automated. Soundstudio can now also load modules created on two different PC sequencers: ScreamTracker v3 and FastTracker v1.0 (not all ScreamTracker effects are supported, but most modules play well enough).

There are many smaller improvements to be found in OctaMED Soundstudio compared to its predecessor OctaMED Pro. A song annotation window allows you to attach copyright notices, author name, text and so on to compositions, and default directories for loading songs, instruments and executing ARexx scripts can be set and saved. There's also a menu item for opening AmigaDOS shells (an MSDOS‑style command line window, for those non‑Amiga owners out there) on the OctaMED screen for quick command line jobs. The list goes on and on!

The Bottom Line

With its sample editing/mixing and chord creation facilities, OctaMED Soundstudio is aimed at any Amiga owner interested in music, not just those who are interested in tracker‑style sequencing. The program certainly lives up to all the 'pre‑release' hype — in fact, OctaMED Soundstudio is quite simply the best music tracker that has ever appeared, or is ever likely to appear, on the Amiga. There is no competition worth mentioning!

Octamed Soundstudio — The PC Future

For 18 months, everyone has been asking the same question: why, with the Amiga having a rough time, was so much work being put into this program, such as removing the dependence on the Amiga's sound hardware arrangements, and providing more MIDI support, score style notation, and better sample editing with provisions for handling 8‑bit and 16‑bit samples in a variety of different machine formats? The answer is that, whilst Amiga users are clearly not being forgotten about (as this latest release shows), there is now a PC version of OctaMED Soundstudio under development.

Release of the full package on the Windows platform is still some time away, but during this time, the same approach will be used on the PC as was originally used on the Amiga. Already a freely distributable version of OctaMED Soundstudio's module player has been released, and this will be followed by preliminary versions of OctaMED Soundstudio itself. Chances are that the associated file formats will also be made public to encourage other software houses to use Soundstudio‑style tracking and so on. Nothing will be released commercially until the PC version has been thoroughly tested, but when this does finally happen, chances are that PC users will get something that'll blow the socks off existing PC trackers.

Whether the forthcoming PC version will make its mark on the more general PC music front, say in the area of sample editing and mixing, is less certain. I've already been told that more emphasis will be placed on OctaMED Soundstudio's MIDI facilities with the new version, but whether this means that the PC version will eventually end up as a combined sample workstation‑cum‑conventional MIDI sequencer is hard to tell. One thing's for certain — music software on the PC is already at a far higher standard than has ever been available for the Amiga. Admittedly this, to some extent, is due to the fact that the task of software development is actually easier on the PC (because far more support is provided by the Windows environment itself).

On the other hand, competition is undoubtedly stronger in the PC world and it is correspondingly more difficult for new products to gain footholds. All we can really do on this score is wait and see. If you have Internet access, you'll be able to view this progress for yourself by visiting the OctaMED web site (see the address details at the end of this review).

Amiga Jargon Buster

    An Amiga hardware card add‑on that provides increased performance by adding a faster processor.
    The Amiga's disk operating system.
    This is the Amiga version of the Rexx programming/batch‑control language. It also allows Amiga programs to talk to each other, and be controlled, in a standardised way.
    Just an area of memory where data (for example digital audio) is kept until needed.
    IBM‑compatible PCs store the pairs of 8‑bit numbers that make up 16‑bit sample data in the reverse order to that used on the Amiga, Atari and Apple Mac, so the values have to be physically swapped before samples created on a PC can be used on these other machines.


  • Excellent value for money.
  • Built‑in digital mixing facilities.


  • Amiga platform still going through difficult times due to first


Undoubtedly the best sample editing/tracker program ever to appear for the Amiga.