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G-VOX Bridge; Voyetra

PC Notes
Published September 1994

The Windows music software scene is thriving. Brian Heywood reflects on its effects on the rest of the music software market, and examines some new arrivals in more detail...

It's been over two years since I first wrote about Windows 3.1 (June '92, to be exact). At that time, I spoke of the integration of MIDI and digital audio into the operating system and of the benefits of this to the music software author. Well, since then the Windows music scene has boomed, and is by the far the most active platform in terms of new software and hardware releases. There are certainly more soundcards around now than you can shake a stick at, and innovative new music packages such as the Lyrrus G‑Vox and Howling Dog's Power Chords have really put some zing into the tired old music software world. Although some might say that this activity is just the PC catching up with its neighbours — Apple and Atari — I feel that the advent of a completely new software environment (Windows 3.1) has benefited all computer‑using musicians.

The reason for this is that the massive increase in potential users of Windows 3.1 music software has radically increased the options of computer musicians at every level. More money in the marketplace means that specialised — or even plain 'off the wall' — applications are more likely to get written. More competition means that established companies can't rest on their laurels without being left behind. Successful applications will undoubtedly get converted (or 'ported') to other popular personal computer platforms, thus increasing the musical armoury of all hi‑tech musicians. Finally, increased volume of hardware sales brings down prices for everyone; just consider how the price of CD‑ROM drives has dropped since Windows MPC became popular.

What Is Going On Here!

So you would have thought that, after two years, music software vendors would get their Windows act together. It seems strange to me that the technical support hotlines of supposedly professional sequencing packages such as Steinberg's Cubase and Passport's Master Tracks Pro still recommend that you run these packages in 'standard' mode. In case you're wondering what this all means, 'standard' (or 286) mode allows you to run Windows 3.1 on older PCs that don't support the Intel 386 'protected' processor mode, or PCs that don't have enough RAM to multi‑task efficiently (ie. less than 1Mb of RAM). Even curiouser is their suggestion to run Windows for Workgroups 3.11 (which doesn't support 'standard' mode) in an obscure debugging mode (ie. start Windows using WIN/D:T).

When the new version of Windows (code‑named Chicago) hits the streets early next year, it is very unlikely that it will support 'standard' mode at all. This will presumably leave existing users faced with the choice of sticking with an obsolescent version of Windows or buying a new sequencer that can take full advantage of the operating system. To be fair to Steinberg, Cubase does work reliably on the more powerful processors such as the 486. But it does seem strange that similar applications — for instance Cubase and CakeWalk for Windows — doing more or less the same task can have such differing requirements in terms of processor power. C'mon guys — get your act together.

Voyetra Enter The Fray

After having been the first on the market with a professional sequencer in 1984 with their Sequencer Plus software for DOS, Voyetra have finally entered the Windows market with a MIDI sequencing application. Luke Meri of Voyetra describes MIDI Orchestrator as a subset of Sequencer Plus for Windows (or SpW) which is due to be released early next year. The MIDI Orchestrator is obviously priced as an entry‑level product at £99 (including VAT) and shows signs of its antecedents in the layout of the arrange and 'piano roll' edit windows, but adds a number of new features, such as score and event list editors, as well as a comprehensive MIDI mixer window. MIDI Orchestrator can also print out either the entire score or individual parts and appears to have at least some facilities for placing markings, although it doesn't appear to be able to produce fully 'professional'‑looking sheet music.

Existing Sequencer Plus owners may be pleased to know that the MIDI Orchestrator software can read their existing sequencer data files, as well as standard MIDI files. Although the new software doesn't support either external MIDI synchronisation or Sequencer Plus's excellent MIDI transforms, users of the DOS version of Sequencer Plus may find it useful to buy the package to 'test the water'. With any luck, Voyetra will continue their current upgrade policy, where you get a discount when you upgrade to the full version. MIDI Orchestrator was launched at the British Music Fair at the end of July, so should be available in the shops by the time you read this. To find out who your local stockist is call Arbiter Pro MIDI on 071 379 5607.

The Gold Standard

On the hardware bargain front, Turnkey have just managed to get a load of Goldstar GSC‑X21 General MIDI (GM) soundcards and are selling them off for just under £100 (including VAT). The GSC‑X21 is essentially a wavetable synthesiser on a PC expansion card and appears to music software (or Windows 3.1) as a Roland MPU‑401 compatible MIDI interface — rather like the SCC‑1 card. The card's sounds are ROM‑based, and there are four different drum kits as well as the usual GM sound set. As well as being a MIDI 16‑voice multitimbral synthesiser with 32‑note polyphony, the card can be used as a MIDI interface using the supplied cable. Goldstar are probably best known for their computer products but recently have been making inroads into the home keyboard market, so it's not surprising that they should produce a product that combines both technologies. Turnkey are also offering a 14‑day, money back guarantee when you buy the card. To find out if they have any left, call them on 071 379 5148 or fax them on 071 379 0093.

More On The G‑Vox Bridge

In last month's column, I briefly mentioned the release of the Lyrrus G‑Vox Windows driver, which is called The Bridge. This driver allows you to use the G‑Vox guitar pickup with any software that fully implements the Windows MIDI API (Application Programming Interface). As I mentioned, I've been using the G‑Vox with Power Chords, but since then I've also used it with CakeWalk for Windows with excellent results. Like most guitar synthesizers, you have to make sure you play pretty accurately, but the system has the advantage that the notes don't suffer from the pitch‑dependent delays that you get with performance guitar MIDI systems. The driver allows you to set up each string to use a different MIDI channel, patch and even note transposition, and you can select whether the G‑Vox sends velocity information or not. Future versions of the driver will also handle pitch‑bend and 'pull‑offs' as well, which the current version just ignores.

The complete Bridge package costs £410 (including VAT) and consists of the G‑Vox pickup, Power Chords and MIDIsoft Recording Studio softwarek, as well as the Windows driver. Existing G‑Vox users can upgrade to the Windows software for £81. If you want more information, contact Kim Boulton at Optech on 0252 714340.

Algorithmic Composition News

I've been playing with an early beta version of a new piece of software from the Buckinghamshire based company SSEYO. Koan is a rule‑based stochastic compositional system that allows you a great deal of control over its musical output, while still allowing random elements to give enough variation to make each iteration of a sequence sound fresh. The demo files all have a very ambient or new age music feel, so bands like The Orb may need to watch their backs, lest they be replaced by a computer. The software actually comes as two products: Koan Pro, which is an authoring system, and Koan Plus, which is a player that can take the 'native' Koan data files and play them back complete with the random elements. SSEYO also plan to licence the product to multimedia developers so that they can incorporate the Koan technology into their products. You can also 'record' Koan's output into a MIDI file so that you could use the computer‑generated music as the basis of an original work. The software is due to be released in September and will be available through Optech.

More Computer Aided Music

A more basic approach to computer‑assisted composition is a product called Melody Maestro from Blue Ribbon Soundworks. Derived from their auto‑accompaniment technology (as found in SuperJam), this program acts as an intelligent arranger, taking your melody ideas and then allowing you to interactively develop an arrangement. The melodies can be entered via MIDI, with your mouse, or even from an audio source (say, using the supplied microphone) attached to your Windows MPC soundcard. If you are really stuck for inspiration you can even get the software to generate the melody for you as well — I suppose it's no different to sampling someone else's music. Music Maestro then generates the accompaniment according to the style you've selected, including drum fills and various embellishments. While probably not as much use as a purely creative tool as Koan, Music Maestro looks like it could be useful for quickly 'roughing out' an arrangement or writing in unfamiliar styles — say Country & Western. Priced at £69, the software won't burn a hole in the bank balance. For more information, contact Mark Balogh on 0706 228039.

This Month's Hint: Clip MIDI

Anyone who's worked with graphics programs will have come across the term 'Clip Art', a catalogue of pre‑defined images or small graphics that you can buy to incorporate into your publications or modify for use as the basis of an original drawing. Well, I've always thought that this concept could be applied to MIDI‑based music, so if you wanted a particular guitar lick or brass stab you could just take a small section of pre‑defined MIDI data and then modify it for your own purposes. It seems that I'm not the only person to think of this; one or two companies have recently released just such products, including Heavenly Music MIDI Software, who have released a collection of MIDI files called Bytes 'n' Pieces, containing over 90 files and hundreds of MIDI odds and sods, including drum and percussion patterns, basslines, rhythm and lead guitar lines, sax and flute solos, harp glisses, timpani rolls, grooves, human shakers, tambourines and cow bells and a whole lot more. These MIDI fragments are programmed by session players with a background in production, arrangement, engineering and jingle writing, and the ones I've heard seem pretty useful. So if you want a floppy disk full of session players, all you need is £24.95 (including VAT). Heavenly Music now take credit card orders by phone and can be contacted on 0255 434217.

Cyberspace Corner

Don't forget that the special offers for CIX and PAN membership are still active, so if you want to go on‑line 'on the cheap' then refer back to PC Notes in the July and August issues of SOS for details. Next month I will be showing you how to connect straight into the InterNet and access the World‑Wide‑Web, an interactive 'hyper‑text' Cyberspace browser.