You are here

Atari & CD-ROM

Atari Notes By Martin Russ
Published January 1994

Martin Russ looks at one aspect of computing that may provide a new outlet for your Atari music‑making.

With all the fuss about CD‑ROM that is currently filling Macintosh and PC computer magazines, you could be forgiven for thinking that they are new. In fact, CD‑ROMs have been around for quite a long while, certainly long enough for Atari to produce a CD‑ROM drive (the Atari OptoFile: CDAR504) which was so far ahead of its time when it was released in 1988, that it seems the world was not really ready for it. Much more tangible is the SCSI socket on a Falcon 030, which allows the connection of hard disks, scanners, and CD‑ROM drives with an ease which somehow seems to take away some of the fun of computing. With Apple pushing CD‑ROM very heavily, and computer peripheral prices continuing their inexorable downward trend, the future looks rosy.

CD‑ROM may mean encyclopaedias and boring reference books at the moment, but this is only because it will take a while for developers to work out how to use all that memory. 600 megabytes is a lot when you consider that many games end up being squashed into only half a meg. The first inklings of 'what happens next' are just starting to appear — and I don't really mean the highly coloured, overly violent games with digitised video. Virtual Valerie and Myst are good examples of the sort of leading‑edge CD‑ROMs that point to the future (both Macintosh‑only at the moment...). Valerie features the somewhat stilted 'interactive erotica' of a cartooned strip‑show, where you use a 'point and click' interface in an intuitive way. Although the cliche‑ridden plot would not tax even a Neighbours scriptwriter, the astonishing thing is the way that a combination of sound, pictures and that mouse pointer can grab your attention. With better animation, better pictures, better sound and a more salubrious topic, movie‑makers might begin to get worried.

Myst takes things a little further along the trail. Calling it an Adventure Game is rather like describing football as 'some men running about on grass'. It delivers beautifully rendered images of an island, whose almost photographic clarity and detail draw you into a series of puzzles and mysteries (yes, the title is a pun — and the island is shrouded in mist). Lots of moving around in a 3D environment, atmospheric sounds and music, masses to explore (like 2,500 pictures and 66 minutes of video) creates a 'world' that draws you into it. This is serious stuff — I can imagine some people who will not want to come back into the real world, after viewing it. Just as with a movie, it is the total experience that makes it work — the storyline, pictures, sounds and music all meld into a completeness that envelops you.

And there is the key. Remember when you bought that album and played it over and over again — hearing new bits each time, and liking it more and more? Well, to fill up CD‑ROMs, developers are going to need talent of a very different type to just raw computer programming — they are going to need artists, musicians, visualisers, and many other skills which have always been thought of as the province of the Arts and not computers. Creativity is going to become a valuable commodity, and the mediocrity of the 'bleep & booster' computer games soundtracks will quickly look as out of date as a ZX81 or a Sinclair Spectrum.

CD‑ROM & Atari

So what have two Macintosh CD‑ROMs got to do with Atari computers? The obvious answer is that Mac emulation on the Falcon 030 (or the ST?) should provide a route to them, but there is a better way...

The way that CD‑ROMs tend to put pictures and sound together is via something very like a sequencer, but with a script instead of a song: "Show picture 143, Play sound 95", etc. The basic data is rather like a MIDI File — you can move it from computer to computer, and all that needs to change is the replay program. The Falcon 030 offers astonishing possibilities for doing just this kind of processing with its on‑board DSP chip, and future models (like a Falcon 040 using a 68040 processor, perhaps?) should continue to offer an alternative to the large players like Apple and IBM. I would be very surprised if ports from other platforms do not happen, or if something like Apple's QuickTime does not appear in an Atari form, even if it is as a spin‑off from a Jaguar application.

The other point about an explosion of CD‑ROMs is that they will need music and background or atmosphere sounds. With anything up to CD quality audio playback, the normal fuzzy musical distraction is not going to fit with high quality pictures. And producing music is where the Atari really shines — the Mac and PC may be making gains in the European music business, but they have a lot of catching up to do in terms of range of products and numbers of users. Computer magazines frequently print interviews with programming houses who boast about their in‑house music facilities — which typically turn out to be little more than a Korg M1 and a Portastudio. Whilst the program delivery medium remains as the floppy disk, the necessary data compression renders most music into a nasty distorted mush; but with CD‑ROMs there is no hiding behind the noise — poor quality audio/music shows up all too clearly.

Atari's Jaguar games console is another intriguing idea. Designed around games playing from the ground upwards, this is not a Falcon without a keyboard. Instead, it is designed to use data from either a memory cartridge or a CD‑ROM to provide the graphics images and sound data for games which exhibit all the hallmarks of being designed by soap‑powder manufacturers: "More colours, more movement, better sound, longer gameplays, etc". These days, maintaining a frantic pace in a shoot‑em‑up requires more than just a repetitive melody and slowly advancing rows of aliens. With similar consoles from Commodore, Silicon Graphics/ Nintendo and Sega, someone is going to have to produce lots of high quality music...

So your next 'album' may not be that at all, but part of the material for inclusion on a CD‑ROM. Trying to achieve the consistency and coherence of an album whilst dealing with several hours of changing game‑play should prove a challenge to any musician. If you have ever dreamed of composing a film score, the fact is that the opportunity may be coming your way much sooner than you thought!

New Challenges

Producing music with the ST has always been a roller‑coaster ride. The original Pro24 had the infamous owner's manual to ruffle the path of using it, whilst Cubase has enough sneaky little features hidden inside to keep most explorers busy for a long, long time. Emagic's Notator Logic breaks new ground again, with a fiercely hi‑tech interface which blurs the boundary between the computer, the music, and your equipment. Adding synchronisation into this rising trend of complexity will make multimedia an even greater challenge.

With CD‑ROMs and other multimedia entertainment, the very concept of sync changes too. If you can have several courses of action at a particular spot, how do you score the music? Is a short period of silence followed by a different piece of music going to work? Or suppose that doing nothing activates a default — because you would then not want the music to stop at all, what happens to the audio? Dealing with atmospheres is much the same, with lots of barely audible noises required as a sort of background mush; but it also needs to be continuous and random enough not to sound looped. Sample editing and digital recording direct to hard disk are not just useful tools in this context — they begin to sound like essentials.

The bottom line to all this is that today's enterprising musicians need not concentrate all their promotion efforts in the direction of record companies. Perhaps buying a few computer magazines and tracking down some software developers could provide that elusive break into a whole new field?