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Falcon MkII & C-Lab

Atari Notes
Published May 1995

With Atari no longer manufacturing computers, the mantle for further development has been picked up by C‑Lab. Enter the Falcon Mk II...

The release of the Atari Falcon in early 1993 dispelled one myth for all time: you don't need tens of thousands of pounds worth of kit to get into hard disk recording at a reasonable level. It may have looked like an ST that had been immersed in a mud bath for six months, but the inclusion of a digital signal processor, and in particular one of the Motorola variety, gave the machine a 'feel good factor' of nine and a half. And to think that the addition of the DSP was a last‑minute decision on Atari's part — as late as February 1992, apparently.

However, the launch of the Falcon, or rather lack of it, was a warning sign. No real advertising power was ever put behind the machine — the solitary advert (that nobody could understand) was funded by various third‑party companies. Perhaps Atari already knew that its future lay in the Jaguar games console and, as history will show, this belief was well founded.

Unfortunately, that left MIDI enthusiasts with a rather imperfect product. It was immediately obvious that a number of hardware modifications were essential for the Falcon to function properly in the serious digital audio domain. In the light of these alterations (plus a now‑stable version of TOS), we finally seem to have a viable platform. And then Atari pull out of the computer market...

German Gems

The history of Atari is littered with innovative products requiring third‑party support to sell them. After all, hardware doesn't sell itself: it needs ground‑breaking software. On the hard disk recording side, both Steinberg's Cubase Audio and Emagic's Notator Logic Audio have shown that the Falcon can deliver up to 16 tracks of audio, seamlessly integrated with a vast number of MIDI tracks. On the editing side, a standard cut 'n' paste approach makes the software as easy to use as its MIDI‑only counterpart.

Given the nationality of Steinberg and Emagic, it should come as no surprise to learn that a German company has acquired a licence from Atari to continue developing the Falcon. This licence imposes certain restrictions on the release of a budget machine whilst Atari still has stocks of the current computer. Nevertheless, it's a step in the right direction.

The C‑Lab Falcon Mk II looks exactly the same as Atari's machine, aside from the customised C‑Lab logo. Indeed, the specification is no different, with the same processor and DSP, an identical restricted video capability and no change to the casing and keyboard. Fortunately, C‑Lab have spent time on the innards, making sure that all necessary circuitry changes, such as the removal of the bass boost, have been carried out before a machine arrives at the retailer.

C‑Lab's Falcon is intended to be a music workstation, which has led to one important internal change: the addition of a SCSI card for an internal 2.5‑inch SCSI hard disk. Additionally, the audio board has undergone a radical facelift, with proper line‑level inputs, isolation from interference prior to digitising the signal, and a dynamic anti‑aliasing filter on the output to deliver a higher sampling rate than Atari's original. In fact, C‑Lab apparently used the original board's manufacturer.

The Falcon Mk II is sold complete with the full memory complement of 14.2Mb plus a 514Mb internal SCSI hard disk and the relevant ICD software pre‑installed.

Back To The Future

In a recent interview with Ofir Gal, Technical Editor of Atari World magazine, Burkhard Bergerhoff of C‑Lab commented, "C‑Lab will now work together with Steinberg to ensure reliable operation of Cubase Audio. We are also looking at the possibility of making the Falcon more ST‑compatible, so that devices like the Midex will work with it. We will do everything we can to make the Falcon into the ultimate music workstation".

This is a very important move. While it's impossible to gauge the level of animosity between C‑Lab and Emagic, it's probably fair to say that some residual rivalry remains. Software writers were once working pretty much in the dark with the original Falcon, but now it's being produced specifically for music applications, a better working relationship can be developed between software writers and the hardware manufacturer.

C‑Lab's Falcon is intended to be a music workstation, which has led to one important internal change: the addition of a SCSI card for an internal 2.5‑inch SCSI hard disk.

Steinberg intially had to work very hard at developing Cubase Audio for the Falcon, often having to operate in the dark where hardware problems were concerned. The situation with the Midex MIDI port expander/ SMPTE generator irks many users — while it can function on the Falcon after a circuitry modification, it cannot work with Cubase Audio, due to the critical processor timing required. A satisfactory resolution will almost certainly result in increased Midex sales and may decrease the number on the second‑hand market!

UK Support

It should come as little surprise to find that Paul Wiffen, journalist, Falcon owner and salesman extraordinaire, is involved. He's been instrumental in the setting up of Digital Awareness, a division of Digital Village. In conversation with Ofir, Paul explained, "I was offered the UK distribution because the idea for the C‑Lab Falcon came about through discussions between Burkhard Bergerhoff of C‑Lab and myself. His original plan was to create a PC‑based music and digital audio workstation, but he became disillusioned with the idea because musicians don't really want to worry about AUTOEXEC.BAT files and MIDI drivers. The Falcon had the obvious advantage of being music‑ready, with MIDI ports and built‑in 16‑bit audio. When I demonstrated just how powerful the Falcon was when running Cubase Audio, he called it 'The best‑kept secret in the music industry'!"

"To retain 100% backwards compatibility, we are shipping TOS 4.04 on all machines because it works fine with musical applications. The C‑Lab licence allows any modifications to both hardware and software, and one of the things we are looking at first is how TOS can be improved. We're also looking at adding a second DSP and a separate video card."

Paul has spent several months investigating non‑musical products such as Papyrus and Apex Media. In a discussion at the London Atari Show last December, Paul made it clear that C‑Lab would look to support non‑music Falcon users as well. Let's hope that this leads to the development and manufacture of a Falcon technology‑based machine for the mass market.