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Atari Falcon 030

As well as being an SOS contributor since the early days, Paul Wiffen is the manager of a music store specialising in hard disk recording. Eighteen months ago he previewed the Falcon030 for SOS, and now, after a year on the market, he assesses the impact it has had and examines some of the rumours which are floating around.

In my current position as manager of a retail store selling Falcon packages (as well as numerous packages for other computer platforms), there are many people who would say that I shouldn't be allowed to talk in the editorial pages of this magazine. As one of the few music retailers with numerous satisfied customers using Falcons productively, I would maintain that I am in a unique position to tell it like it is. Indeed, anyone who has followed our advertising over the months since I took over at the Digital Village will have seen that I have been attempting to do this (despite protests from my MD that we should not be paying to disseminate information!).

Atari VS Apple VS PC

The two things I hear often from customers are "Surely Macs are much more suitable for music/audio?", and "Isn't the PC now the most cost‑effective option?" Like all generalisations, there is a germ of truth in both of these assumptions. Unfortunately, people with an axe to grind have chosen to denigrate Atari as a platform. Many of the hardy souls who have eventually found their way to us at Barnet say they have had to put up with a stream of abuse heaped upon the Falcon when making preliminary enquiries with other dealers.

Let us briefly examine the things that are cited about the Mac and PC and see if they hold water in comparison to the Falcon.

1: Cost effectiveness. It is incontestable that the power/price ratio has recently improved dramatically for both PCs and Macintoshes. The LC range made a real difference to the cost of MIDI sequencing on the Mac (although power‑hungry applications can make them look very slow, and the state‑of‑the‑art machines that Macsnobs insist on still cost an arm and a leg). 486 DX2s running at 50MHz being sold direct or via mail order jump at you from the pages of newspaper and colour supplements, let alone the specialist computer press, all in cut‑throat competition. However, you need this sort of power when using Windows to equal the sort of performance that a humble 8MHz 68000 Atari gives you. In addition to this, the fact that the Atari operating system is on EPROM and that all Atari applications can still be loaded from one floppy disk, which can then be replaced with another floppy for saving data to, means that you can use an Atari perfectly well without a hard drive (something Mac and PC users had to abandon shortly before the Flood because their entire lives were being taken up with disk‑swapping). This means that a MIDI sequencing system on the Atari is far cheaper than on any other platform. For the educational side of the Music Village empire, I recently conducted some experiments to provide equivalents to the ST for MIDI sequencing on Mac and PC (because STs are getting very thin on the ground). Using Cubase as a sort of benchmark, I found that you need at least a 68030‑based Mac running at 25MHz with 4Meg of RAM, a hard drive and a basic MIDI interface (well over a grand's worth). On the PC platform, you need at least a 386 SX running at 33MHz with 4Meg of RAM, Windows, a hard drive and a basic MIDI interface (little change from a grand!). In the end the closest equivalent price‑wise to the ST price‑wise, at £500, was... a 1Meg Falcon (also a 68030 machine but only clocked at 16MHz), improving drastically on the ST's performance, and still needing no hard drive! To sum up, the overhead used by the Mac's operating system means you have to go to a more powerful processor and double the clock speed. And the situation with PCs is worse; you have to get a more powerful Intel processor just so that Bill Gates' shower can suck all the power out of it with their top‑heavy operating system, balanced precariously on top of MS‑DOS... and all this before you do a note of MIDI sequencing! The worst example of this I can imagine is the new Power PCs from Apple, where you are paying through the nose for state‑of‑the‑art hardware to run plodding everyday applications on a balancing act of multiple operating systems — like using a Formula One racing car as a town runabout. It will overheat, stall, and get you into all sorts of sticky situations! If you're that desparate to run Windows applications, Compo do a 386 processor board for the Falcon which runs very quickly as it uses the 68030 as a co‑processor.

2: Suitability for music. Ataris are still the only computers supplied with MIDI as standard built into the architecture and operating system of the machine. True, you can now buy very cheap interfaces for both Mac and PC, but for my money there is no substitute for a plumbed‑in first interface, even if you need to add extra MIDI Ins and Outs later. I have seen my PC expert at the Digital Village waste an hour trying to install a MIDI interface on a PC, fighting first with the business of fitting the hardware in crowded slots and then sorting out IRQ or address conflicts in the driver. I was amused to read in a Cubase for Windows review that it took even an old hand on the PC a couple of hours to get things properly installed, when a simple double‑click on the Atari is all you need to do to run Cubase from the floppy. Even on the Mac you have to go through an install routine, because things have to be placed in the system folder.

Before we go any further, I should just explain that I do own several Macs; this article is being written on one. I think Macs are absolutely fantastic and almost as much of a breakthrough as the original hype claimed (for those of you who remember the Ridley Scott ad). They are superb for word processing, databases, DTP, photo retouching, everything... except music! The amount of hardware you need to do anything useful is too much — firstly because the user interface is so much more refined than the Atari that you need so much more processing power to ensure that screen redraws and so on are not at the expense of accurate MIDI replay.

3: Suitability for Audio. Things get even worse when you add audio into the Macintosh equation: the cheapest board you can buy for four tracks of hard disk recording costs more than the most expensive Falcon (which does eight tracks out of the box). What's more, because of the way internal audio boards tend to work on the Mac, they use both the DSP chip on the board and the main processor to move audio to and from the hard drive. So not only do the hardware add‑ons increase the cost, but you need a Macintosh with a much more powerful processor (more money still!). You also find that the involvement of the main processor slows down the data transfer rate that can be achieved. Mac owners will often tell you that optical drives are too slow for hard disk recording. They are almost correct: actually most Macintoshes are too slow to record audio to optical drives. I can show you an 8MHz 68000 ST recording stereo to an optical drive, and the Akai DD1000 manages to double that performance.

The way the Falcon works increases the number of linear 44.1kHz tracks that can be recorded to one disk to eight. Firstly, direct memory access (DMA) allows audio data to be transferred to and from hard disk without being slowed by passing through the main CPU (also leaving that much more CPU time for MIDI processing and screen redraws). Secondly, the use of the newer SCSI II protocol (whilst 100% compatible with older SCSI devices) increases the potential data transfer rate so that eight audio tracks is well within the capability of programs like Cubase Audio and Logic Audio. On the Mac, the only way for such programs to do eight tracks is with an external device like Session 8 (which, at £3,500, talks direct to its own hard drive via SCSI II), or the even more expensive option of two Pro Tools units (four tracks each on two drives).

Manufacturers & Musicians

A recent article in the American Keyboard magazine had some very revealing comments from an official Apple spokesperson. Apparently, musicians just don't represent a large enough percentage of Apple users (and never have!) for the company to bear them in mind when new machines are being designed. As far as the PC is concerned, where do you look for the manufacturer taking the musician's needs into consideration? To IBM who started the ball rolling all those years ago? I can't see the power dressers in their red ties and blue shirts feeling anything but revulsion at the thought of musos — in the unlikely event of musos entering their thoughts at all. Or the hundreds of far eastern companies making the boards for IBM clones? Or the thousands of cottage industry operations configuring their own brand clones? Even less likely!!! Can you look to Microsoft, maybe, whose quest for world domination started with office applications and now encompasses the lowest common denominator demands of multimedia? I think not. They are certainly the only people with any control left over the direction of the PC platform. How high do you think the musician (pro, semi‑pro or amateur) figures on their list of priorities?

The same is definitely not true at Atari. From the earliest days of the ST, Atari have always kept the musician foremost in their mind with the standard MIDI interface. I still remember someone coming into Argent's when the ST was first released, complaining that it didn't work, because when he plugged his DX7 into it, nothing happened. I eventually established that he wasn't running any MIDI software, but was just expecting the ST to play along simply because it had a MIDI In. There has never been any danger of this happening with the Mac or PC because they have never come with a built‑in MIDI interface. Indeed many buyers of state‑of‑the‑art Mac models have found themselves without MIDI capability because of bugs or hardware inconsistencies in their design. This has never happened to the buyer of a new Atari.

The Falcon was even more deliberately targeted at music and audio professionals. Not only was a major portion of the market research that led to the Falcon in the field of music, and more specifically audio, there was also a great deal of consultation with developers in this field to make sure that the hardware was what the industry needed. The ability to have eight independent channels of digital audio simultaneously within a computer is totally unique and could only have come from listening to musicians and the people developing for them — it's certainly completely over the top for multimedia applications. To then be able to use the audio industry standard Motorola DSP chip to mix these tracks down and add effects (as opposed to the AT&T device in the Mac AVs), is further evidence that Atari are putting the needs of musicians above those of the multimedia users. As a result of this far‑sighted decision, DSP algorithms for the Falcon's 56000 family chip can be down‑loaded from bulletin boards and other PD sources. Indeed, when Atari were spec'ing out the Falcon, most of these capabilities were probably projections of developer and user needs for the future rather than direct translations of capabilities requested. How many musicians or developers would have dared to ask for 8‑channel operation from one disk drive and real‑time DSP operation over two years ago? Such capabilities are still state‑of‑the‑art for stand‑alone systems today!

Atari's constant attention to the needs of the musician (present, or even future, as with the release of the Falcon) at the design stage is completely unique in the computer industry, and I feel should be rewarded by press recognition, developer support and, ultimately, consumer purchasing. Atari are still the only company that the MI press can talk to directly, even if their attention has now been somewhat distracted by the massive potential of the video games market with the Jaguar. The last time I managed to have a sensible conversation with anyone at Apple about musical applications was five years ago! Who would I call if I wanted to talk about such things on PCs?

Problems & Rumours Of Problems

This does not mean that everything has been totally rosy in the launch and subsequent supply of Falcons. Some of the third‑party hardware developed for the ST and TT will not work with the Falcon. Changes to the connections on the Falcon's cartridge port (originally introduced with the TT) mean that otherwise compatible software will not run because the dongle cannot be seen. Steinberg's Midex and Midex Plus hardware expanders have been among the more severe casualties of this and can only be made to work with a great deal of internal tinkering to their hardware. This is not at all reliable and is not to be recommended. The problem is best circumvented by taking advantage of their Falcon AudioPak bundle, which gives you a great break on the cost of the SMP II synchroniser/MIDI expander when purchased at the same time as Cubase Audio (the Falcon CPU is being worked too hard to reliably drive the Midex hardware, whereas the SMP II has its own processor for SMPTE conversion and MIDI generation).

Emagic's solution to the similar problems on the Unitor II interface was to make Log 3, the hardware key for their new Logic program, mirror the ST cartridge port so that Unitor could be plugged into it (it also gives you three additional MIDI Outs).

Audio Quality Considerations

Many people are put off by the Falcon's audio connectivity and/or input/output level compatibility. "Why on earth did they put those stereo mini‑jacks on there?" or "Why mic input/headphone output levels?" are the two most common complaints I hear, and I consider both of them to be unreasonable. Stereo mini‑jacks are standard on Macs, PCs and many other computers, and many of the complainers use them quite happily on their Walkmen and/or portable DAT recorders. As long as you avoid all‑in‑one adaptors and stick to cables with the correct connectors at each end, you will never suffer any quality loss unless you are working in a studio which has all balanced XLR connectivity, in which case, stop whinging and start saving for a couple of Yamaha CBX‑D5s; don't plan on using a Ferrari to tow a caravan and then complain about problems hitching them together!

The mic input level of the Falcon does require care; if you reduce the output level of your source so that it doesn't distort this input, chances are you will have a terrible signal‑to‑noise ratio from your source. You should get some mic/line attenuators (from somewhere like Tandy) or better still, the handy little MixIT from Intrinsic Technology, which allows you to keep up to four line sources connected, switch them between left and right, alter their levels and then make the necessary attenuation for a mic level input. More recent Falcons come with a line‑level input, which is fine for CD players, etc, but then means you have to have a mixer to boost a mic signal before you can feed it into the Falcon. The headphone level output is less problematic; just make sure you keep the input gain on the mixer channels down or put a pad in.

Less easy to get around than the mic/headphone levels is the output bass boost. Of course, as this is only on the output (to make the internal speaker sound better), using a digital interface to take the sound out (via the D/As of a DAT machine or similar) will bypass the problem (and the level problems in the previous paragraph). But if you want to be sure that what you are monitoring is accurate, or if the analogue output of the Falcon is your only choice for monitoring/mixing, you can change a few resistors and capacitors internally to flatten the bass response (or, better still, have them done by an authorised Atari dealer, which will not void your warranty). These are detailed in the Cubase Audio manual (Appendix 1, p24) but for those of you who don't have this, they are reproduced in the box elsewhere in this article ('Removing the Falcon's Output Bass Boost').

It is easy to see how these few small problems have led to the problems some dealers have experienced, and when added to their vested interests in other platforms, has translated into the message they are now giving out, namely that the Falcon is cr*p (they are not moderating their language, so why should I?). However, with a small amount of work, the Falcon can form the heart of an extremely powerful MIDI/Digital Audio system which costs less than half of any equivalent on any other platform.

Expansion Devices

There are, of course, features of other systems which cannot be duplicated in software alone: multiple outputs, effects send/returns, digital interfacing, etc. But such is the power of the central audio engine within the Falcon and most importantly, the DSP connector on the back, that all these things can be added with a minimum of external hardware. Numerous SPDIF digital interfaces for the Falcon are already on the market — the FDI (or equivalent) from Steinberg, Digitape and AudioMaster (all the same hardware designed by Sound Pool) in Germany, and the SPDEdit in the UK (which comes bundled with DAT editing software). All of these interfaces have SPDIF in both co‑axial and optical formats. E‑magic's AudioFace, which may or may not ship bundled with the imminent Logic Audio for the Falcon, will feature AES/EBU interfacing as well as co‑axial SPDIF. Most recently, Steinberg have announced the FA‑8 output expander, which runs each of the Falcon's eight internal digital audio channels out through D/A conversion to individual outputs for external mixing (although I think you would be hard pressed to equal Cubase Audio's 3‑band parametric EQ for each channel on a hardware mixer).

The Digital Domain, manufacturers of the SPDEdit, have also announced an Alesis multi‑channel digital interface for later in the year, which will allow you to send and receive eight channels in one go to ADATs or Quadrasynths. This will allow you to edit ADAT tapes in the same way as you currently can with DAT, and also use the A/D and D/A converters of the ADAT for higher quality recording/8‑output monitoring.

To Boldly Go...

All these currently‑shipping and recently‑announced interfaces mean that the Falcon has the potential to equal the performance of systems on other platforms. But Steinberg's latest announcement for the Falcon (at Frankfurt) gives a performance which other platforms cannot even approach. By using 2:1 data compression, Cubase Audio 16 will be able to play back 16 tracks simultaneously. Theoretically, of course, data compression does mean some compromise in audio quality, but in practise most data compressions I have heard (and I have only heard this from a distance in a public demo) give no noticeable loss when used on individual instrument/vocal tracks (as opposed to a final stereo mix, where data compression can be more of a compromise). Whilst I reserve judgement on whether it will be usable for absolutely everything, the ability to expand to 16 tracks for a small upgrade charge (plus possibly a second hard drive) has to be yet another plus for a Falcon system.

Logic Audio, too, is also only weeks away (if it hasn't already shipped by the time you read this), and whilst it restricts itself to eight tracks, it promises advances in quantising, re‑grooving and transcribing audio as notation which have only been available until now on an expensive Mac system.

Steinberg are also adapting Avalon, their sample editing/transfer software to run on the Falcon, but have announced an even more unique application in AudioSpector, a professional standard audio analyser comprising a real‑time Level Meter, Frequency Domain Analyser, a Phase Correlator and even a Test‑Tone Generator. These developments reflect the fact that the Falcon's potential for musical applications is expanding in numerous directions (without mentioning the capabilities of its DSP in video processing, Kodak Photo CD, and high speed games).

It would be a shame if this computer, which is probably the closest we will ever get to a custom design for musicians, was not to have the major impact it could have on the musician's working situation, creativity and, most importantly, bank balance, simply because of a few teething problems and exaggerated rumours. If you think a Mac or PC will suit you better, then buy one. But buy it for that reason, not because you've heard some bad things about the Falcon. If that's the reason you're hesitating, you owe it to yourself to get the facts and a proper demonstration. For my money, the Falcon is the best deal in digital audio available right now or for some time to come!

"You can now buy very cheap interfaces for both Mac and PC, but for my money there is no substitute for
a plumbed‑in first interface.""If you think a Mac or PC will suit you better, then buy one. But buy it for that reason, not because you've heard some bad things about the Falcon.""The ability to have
eight independent channels of digital audio simultaneously within a computer is totally unique and could only have come from listening to musicians and the people developing for them."

Teething Troubles

Some of the first Falcons to ship were plagued by crackling in the audio circuitry. However, as little audio software was available, it was particularly difficult for this to be picked up at the quality‑control stage by Atari themselves, their international subsidiaries, or the dealers who were buying from them. Some bad feeling was created with early software suppliers because they held responsible for the crackling, as it didn't happen until their software was run. Eventually, the problem was traced by Atari to a problem with the SDMA circuitry, which can now be easily fixed by Atari themselves, and no longer occurs with later Falcons. If you find yourself with one of these early Falcons (shipped before May last year), you should contact Atari directly to get the problem fixed, as your dealer warranty will almost certainly have expired.

Of greater concern to the potential Falcon purchaser today is the timing problem with Cubase Audio, which exhibits itself as random 'bombing' or 'auto‑quitting' to the desktop, independently of any particular operation by the user. Particularly severe cases may result in crashing or quitting every couple of minutes, but borderline examples may only produce this symptom every few hours or even days. In all cases, it can be diagnosed by the completely random nature of the crash/quit, unlinked to any particular operation or even happening while the program is up but not in use!

Repeated crashes during recording or playback operations are much more likely to be caused by incompatibilities with the hard drive. SCSI is unfortunately not like MIDI, in that any SCSI device is not guaranteed to work with any other. You should make sure that you either buy your SCSI II drive from someone who is able to test it with the Falcon or if not, will guarantee to take it back if you can't get it working. This will probably preclude the incredibly cheap direct sales companies in PC and Mac magazines who have probably never heard of either the Falcon or recording audio to hard drive — but saving a few hundred quid will be a false economy if you end up having to sell the drive on as second‑hand, and buy another drive which does work. If you choose to source your drive independently from your Falcon and Audio program, be prepared to spend in time and energy what you save in cash to get things up and running. If you regard your time as at all valuable, you may find it more sensible to buy a complete system from someone who will guarantee the suitability of the entire system. Otherwise you may find yourself being bounced backwards and forwards between different suppliers, none of whom will take responsibility for mismatches (Rule One of most individual device suppliers: "It's the other guy's fault" or "The buck doesn't stop here!").

Removing The Falcon's Output Bass Boost

  • Change C58 and C59 from 100pF to 1000pF.
  • Change R123 and R130 from 10K to 15K.
  • Change R59 and R68 from 100K to 4.7K.
  • Change C95 and C90 from 0.033yF to 1K Resistors.

Note that if your computer is still under warranty, doing this mod yourself may invalidate it.