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BMF Show

PC Notes
Published September 1995

BMF Show

Brian Heywood looks back at the BMF show, and considers the various ways of making music on your PC.

I didn't see very much new PC software or hardware at the BMF this month. On the Yamaha stand, Nick Howes was demonstrating the new DB50XG daughter board for MPC soundcards fitted with a WaveBlaster‑style connector. The card sounded pretty good, which is not surprising, since it is basically an Yamaha MU80 [see full review starting page 52 of this issue — Ed]. Apparently, the card will be SysEx‑compatible with various Yamaha synths, so users should have a pretty wide choice of sounds and software to choose from, even without taking the bundled software into account. I also managed to pick up a demo of the new Visual Arranger package, which seems to have an interesting 'object‑oriented' graphical interface.

Roland were also showing their PC products, including an entry‑level sequencer with built‑in support for the GI‑10 Guitar MIDI interface. Priced at around £20, it should shake up the low end of the sequencer market. Also on display was the PCMCIA‑based Sound Canvas card, which allows notebook computer users to have a high‑quality synth attached to their portable PC. As well as containing a GM/GS synth, the card is capable of digital recording and playback of 16‑ or 8‑bit stereo WAV files, and can connect to external MIDI devices via the MCB3 connector box. Certainly worth looking at if you have a notebook PC — contact Roland 01792 702701 for more info. I'll be saying more about the new Yamaha and Roland sequencers when I get my hands on some copies.

Cakewalk For Guitarists

BMF Show

Twelve Tone Systems will be bundling the G‑Vox Bridge MIDI driver (see June '95's PC Notes) with some versions of the popular Cakewalk Windows sequencer. Twelve Tone are obviously trying to tap into the guitar players' market, particularly those who haven't taken too much notice of MIDI yet. While guitarists will still need to buy the G‑Vox hardware separately, I suppose anything that encourages players to move away from the restrictions of a piano‑style keyboard is a good thing.

While we're on the subject of guitar‑based software, PowerChords now has improved support for guitar MIDI controllers such as the Lyrrus G‑Vox and stand‑alone units like the Roland GI‑10. PowerChords now supports multiple MIDI channels (one per string), which makes it a lot easier to enter 'picking patterns' amongst other things. Cakewalk is distributed in the UK by Et Cetera (01706 228039) and PowerChords is available from Koch Media (01252 714340).

Soundcard Notes

There are any number of soundcards available for the IBM PC (or ISA) family of personal computers that conform to the MPC (Multimedia PC) audio standard. However, this has led to much confusion. The table in the 'Sound Of Music' box gives a concise definition of what the various bits of a PC‑based music making setup do, and represents a pocket guide to making music on the PC.

One of the most commonly‑used audio production techniques is to add 'ambience' to the audio output of a sound module or tape track. This usually takes the form of reverb, but echo and 'early reflections' can also be used to simulate the aural environment in which you would normally hear the sound. Lack of this facility can make even a good‑quality soundcard sound 'flat' and lifeless. Obviously, it's simple enough to get an external reverb unit and use it to process the sound before it goes to tape or your amplifier, but using a soundcard with on‑board effects can make your existing effects units go further. If you already have a card that doesn't have any effects, note that Yamaha, Boss and Alesis all produce budget reverb units. Take a look through the classified and free adverts at the back of the magazine — you just might find a bargain!

Finally, one problem that doesn't get a lot of coverage. One of the most powerful ways of using a MPC‑equipped PC is to combine the MIDI and audio facilities to produce a hybrid system that gives you the best of both worlds. With software like Cubasis Audio from Steinberg, you can use MIDI to provide a backing track, and then add a vocal or guitar part using the digital audio recorder. You can do this with virtually any soundcard (unlike pure direct‑to‑disk mentioned in the 'Sound Of Music' box) since you can only record one audio track at any point in the song. This process relies on the MIDI and audio tracks remaining in sync during playback, and this is no problem — provided you only play the music back on the system that it was recorded on. This is because the speed of the digital audio playback is determined by the speed of the crystal on the soundcard, which can vary from card to card. A variation of 0.5% will mean that after a couple of minutes, the audio will be over a second out of sync (two beats at 120bpm). The same thing can happen if you change your soundcard, for example when upgrading. You can reduce the problem by chopping up your audio into smaller chunks, which means that your audio is resynchronised more often, but this only reduces the problem, it doesn't eliminate it. This problem is due to the fact that the MIDI and audio are 'implicitly' synchronised — once they are started, they just play on, with no attempt to remain sync'ed to one another. On professional systems, the audio and MIDI are 'explicitly' synchronised to a common timebase (say SMPTE timecode). The replay software then constantly makes tiny changes to the playback speed to ensure the audio and MIDI remain in sync.

Makin Musik

A few months ago, I mentioned the Turnkey CD‑ROM as a way of navigating the maze of buying PC MIDI software. CD‑Exchange have now brought out a CD‑ROM too, entitled Makin Musik. Available for both PCs and Apple Macs, this is a compendium of software and 'clip audio' that covers a broad range of PC‑based musical applications. The contents fall into three broad categories; demonstration software, utilities, and audio resources. Almost all of the material is freely available from other sources — CD‑Exchange simply compile the material and provide a nifty browser. This helps you select and install the demonstration software, as well as audition the WAV and MIDI files. I feel the browser could usefully have described the MIDI and sample files, and maybe categorised the utilities and demo programs, but at least you can trawl through the data and find what you want.

The CD is useful to anyone seeking a way through the minefield of buying a music software package. The demo software provides the best way of working out what kind of package is best suited to you, and is quite extensive, with packages ranging from Big Noize Software's entry‑level SeqMax to Passport's high‑quality, top‑end scoring package Encore.

For users who are satisified with their current software, there are loads of working utilities, mainly concerned with converting between digital audio file formats and a large number of MIDI, wave and MOD files. Some of the MIDI files are useful, as they not only give you a ready‑made library of material to add to your multimedia productions, but also enable you to get 'inside' the music and find out how it is put together. However, they do tend to be of variable quality.

On the digital audio side, the CD comes with a large amount of WAV data from the Akai sample library. The Akai samples have all been converted into Windows WAV format, and will be of interest to the owners of Turtle Beach Tropez, Gravis UltraSound, and Creative Labs AWE32 soundcards, since there are a large number of multi‑sampled musical instruments on the CD suitable for creating new wavetable programs. Other soundcard users can also take advantage of the sound effects, but could find it a bit of a chore to find the useful sounds, as the data files aren't indexed in any way.

The CD is available direct from CD‑Exchange (01603 261060), and costs £24.99 (including VAT and postage).

Cyberspace Corner

Leyton Buzzard‑based Evolution — probably best‑known for their Samplitude and Procyon music software — now have a set of pages on the World Wide Web. The pages give information about the company's various PC and computer music products, including demo software for downloading and a 'Boogaloo' bargain basement (don't get carried away, chaps!). If you want to find out more, point your Web browser at:

The Sound Of Music

OPL3 FM‑based synth (aka SB Pro)MIDI sequencerThere's not a lot you can do with this except make semi‑musical noises. Ideal if you want your music to sound like it has been created on a Stylophone.
ROM‑based wavetable synthMIDI sequencerUseful for producing orchestrations or demos using 'standard' instruments.
RAM‑based wavetable synthMIDI sequencer, sample editorThis type of card can be used for creating personalised sounds to give your music a unique flavour. You can also sample short segments of music and use the sequencer to loop the sample, giving you a breakbeat.
8‑bit digital audio replayMOD file editor and playerA MOD file uses short samples to produce sounds, transposing them on the fly to generate tunes. Some of these are very impressive, but the editing interface for creating them is usually pretty primitive — more suited to a train‑spotter than a musician.
16‑bit digital audio replay</p>


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Direct‑to‑disk recording (D2D)Use your hard disk as a sound storage medium, and effectively turn your PC into a tape recorder. The number of tracks will depend on the power of your PC/soundcard combination (some cards have independent processing power) and the software you use, unless you use specialist HD recording hardware like the Session 8 or Soundscape SSDHR1. With a Pentium, you could expect to get up to 8 tracks. To record multiple successfully, your soundcard needs to be able to record and playback simultaneously. Some software allows you to use two soundcards.
External MIDIMIDI sequencer, synth voice editors, sample editorsWith this setup, you can use your PC to run a MIDI studio, acting as a control centre and network hub. As well as making music, you can use the system to design synth and sampler sounds, downloading the sounds to external modules via MIDI or SCSI.
Dedicated hard disk recorderProprietary software supplied with hardwareUse your PC as a high‑spec digital multitrack recorder. The use of additional hardware gets around any PC data throughput limitations. The facilities offered are limited only by the hardware chosen — and your budget. These systems invariably require you to buy dedicated disk storage for your audio data.
Laser printerScoring software Create musical scores with quality ranging from a simple lead sheet to a full orchestral score printed to music engraving standards — though again, the quality depends on the price of the software.
SCSI port CD‑ROM and CD‑A, sample editorsUse external 'gold disk' recorder to create your own audio and data CDs from data stored on your PC's hard disk. Also, some external MIDI‑controlled samplers allow you to transfer audio data to and from the PC using the SCSI bus.