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APRS Multimedia Shows

PC Notes
Published August 1995

Brian Heywood brings you the latest PC soundcard developments, and reports back from the recent APRS and Multimedia shows...

The heat generated by Stephen Bennett's hard disk recording article in SOS's June issue shows some of the pitfalls of basing your technological outlook on anecdotal evidence — it's very easy to say that a piece of equipment is good or bad from the advice of existing users. I once suggested in a jocular article a new disease called 'vendo‑centricity' to explain some computer users' bizarre claims that their chosen platform is silicon heaven.

However, it's not difficult to see why this should be so when any computer system still costs a relatively large amount of money. Few things are more certain to make you feel like an absolute prat than spending a large sum of money on a system and then having to admit, as Stephen did, that "crashes are a regular occurrence".

You may think that I'm being a bit smug, because I've been using a SADiE system for three years and a Soundscape SSHDR1 for six months with nary a crash, but all my chickens came home to roost when I tried to upgrade one of my studio PCs from a trusty (but tardy) 486SX/33 to a racy 486/DX4. Basically, the thing refused to work, and though I did finally track down the problem to a dodgy processor chip, I managed to waste a week of precious time in the exercise.

So, what's the solution? It would be nice to consign all this technological baggage to the nearest skip. But when it comes down to it, the facilities you gain from technology are so useful, that going back to the 'old ways' doesn't really appeal. The best way to protect your sanity is to act like an optimist, but think like a pessimist. By all means, look at what you can get out of the latest gadgets, but expect the worst and you won't be surprised. And once you've got something that works, think very hard before you change it.

Out And About...

It's nice to get out of the studio every now and then and meet old friends (and maybe make new ones) at the various shows that litter the summer months. I dropped in on two shows this month, the Audio Technology and Multimedia shows to see what was new and exciting.

The APRS show — Audio Technology '95 — was a fairly quiet affair this year. The only real excitement was generated by Yamaha, who launched their new 02R ProMix digital mixing system [as reported on page 24 of this issue — Ed]. The only computer interest in this product is the potential use of a personal computer — sadly, only an Apple Mac for the foreseeable future — to archive the ProMix 02R's internal settings via MIDI.

The Multimedia show was also fairly quiet, and most of the interesting new releases were concerned with the use of live video on the PC. For instance, Vine Micros (01843 225714) were showing a budget video editing system which allows you to use your PC as a video edit controller, handling two or three domestic video machines. Vine also previewed a device for 'printing' video to tape from your computer monitor, and announced a new non‑linear video editing system that will retail for less than £1,000.

More Yamaha News

Yamaha's foray into the world of PC soundcards wasn't on display at the APRS show, but their two new cards deserve a closer look. The extremely well‑specified SW20 card has some interesting features, such as a phantom‑powered microphone input and a RAM wavetable, in addition to the OPL4 ROM sounds. Gamers will presumably be content with the 100% games compatibility, but those of a musical bent will no doubt be more interested in Yamaha's reputation for sound quality. Other features include a number of built‑in DSP effects (including reverb, chorus, pitch‑shifting and surround sound) and a programmable DSP, giving the possibility of future software upgrades to add more effects.

If you already have a soundcard which can handle a WaveBlaster‑type daughter board, the DB50XG board provides a cheaper alternative to the SW20 ISA‑based card. Although the former doesn't have the RAM wavetable of the SW20, it does have a comprehensive filter section, and three independent DSPs to allow editing of the onboard sounds — for example, you can apply effects and filtering to individual drums in any one of the 21 internal drum kits.

Both packages will come bundled with software including CakeWalk Express and applications specific to each of the cards. Priced at £149 for the SW20 and £129 for the DB50XG daughter board, these look like extremely competitive products for the PC‑based musician. For more detailed information, call Yamaha's brochure line on 01908 369269.

It is interesting that Yamaha have chosen to enter the soundcard market so soon after the introduction of VL technology into their musical instrument range. I wouldn't be surprised if a little further down the road Yamaha were to release at least one soundcard that uses their VL 'physical modelling' technology to give the first major advance in MPC soundcards since the introduction of wavetables. With any luck, the new Yamaha cards should shake the increasingly boring PC soundcard market.

Ace In The Gravis Pack

While we're on the subject of soundcards, if you've ever fancied having a play with a soundcard that has a RAM‑based wavetable without going to expense of getting a Turtle Beach Maui or SoundBlaster AWE, you might like to consider looking at the new UltraSound ACE from Gravis. The card has been designed to allow you to add RAM‑based wavetable technology to your PC if you already own a perfectly adequate 16‑bit Windows MPC soundcard. Gravis have essentially taken the audio replay sections off their popular UltraSound Max to give an 'output only' soundcard.

You can use the card as a 'stand‑alone' MPC sound card if all you want to do is add 16‑bit digital audio replay and a wavetable‑based MIDI synth to your MPC Windows set‑up. This could be a very attractive option if you already have the facilities for recording high‑quality WAV files (say a hard disk recorder like SADiE, Soundscape or Session 8), or if you just want to be able to play MPC sounds on a PC (say as part of a display system). The fact that the card doesn't have an external MIDI or CD‑ROM interface means that the card should be simpler to install, and less prone to the kind of clashes that you can get in a PC using lots of other expansion cards.

The card comes loaded with 512K of RAM which can be upgraded to 1Mb by the addition of another chip. The digital audio replay is 16‑bit stereo, and allows sample rates up to 48kHz. The card has a single line input and output on the backing plate, which both use the familiar 3.5mm stereo jack connectors, allowing you to 'daisy chain' the card with your existing soundcard. As the ACE only has a line level output, you must either use powered speakers or an amplifier, but this is a positive advantage if you want to use the card in a recording environment, since the audio quality will be improved. The only additional feature I'd like to see is the ability to connect the audio output of an internal CD‑ROM directly onto the card. The RRP of the card is just over £115, but you should be able to find it for less than this if you shop around. For more details about the ACE, contact Koch Media on 01252 714340.

The Jammer

Et Cetera Distribution now have stocks of the new version (2.0) of The JAMMER Professional for Windows, a combined 256‑track sequencer and auto‑accompaniment application that allows you a lot of control over how your music will sound. Unlike Band In A Box (at least the version I have), The JAMMER lets you select and 'freeze' the computer‑generated backing for different sections of the song, allowing you to mix and match styles, and select between the program's efforts for a particular section of the backing tracks. Other advanced features include melody and harmony generators, and advance information suggests that there are over 200 new styles. Both melodies and chord sequences can be imported as MIDI files, and can even be modified by the program to introduce variations into the original material.

When your piece is complete, you can use the application to generate a standard MIDI file, print out a lead sheet with lyrics (ie. a chord chart) or simply play the song using your PC's soundcard or external MIDI devices. The JAMMER can send MIDI clock, so you can even synchronise external MIDI devices to it, or, if you have enough MIDI ports or MIDI Master Plus, you can record the result on another sequencer. To find out more, contact Et Cetera on 01706 228039.

Cyberspace Corner: Real‑Time Audio On The Net

While it's not really a multimedia medium (yet!), the Internet's World Wide Web (WWW) does have the potential to become a 'real‑time' conduit of audio‑visual information. The main problem is the lack of bandwidth — by which I mean the amount of information you can stuff down a wire! For example, a net surfer with a 14.4 Kbaud modem will have a maximum data throughput of around 1.5K per second. Since CD‑quality audio requires around 175K of audio to be transferred per second, you can see that there is quite a shortfall.

Even systems like Cerberus, with clever compression schemes, still can't hope to give anything like real‑time replay, so getting audio from the net is very much a matter of downloading an audio file and then replaying it. This means you have to be pretty sure you want to hear a sound bite before you spend the time (and phone charges) to download it. One company that is working on getting around this problem is Progressive Networks, based in Seattle in the US. Their Real‑audio system allows voice‑quality audio to be played in real‑time using any modem that is capable of a connecting to the WWW at a minimum of 9600 baud.

The quality isn't brilliant on my 14,400 baud Sportster modem, but undoubtedly it will get better as the speed of the modem links improves. If you want to check out the system, you can register to become a beta tester of the Real‑audio player software by pointing your web browser at: