You are here

Macro Systems Toccata 16-bit Sampling System

Amiga Notes
Published January 1994

Paul Austin looks at a sound and vision system which brings true multimedia closer than ever before.

In this instalment of Amiga Notes I was hoping to bring you an exclusive review of the very latest 16‑bit sampling system from Germany, namely Toccata. Unfortunately, although the hardware has arrived the accompanying manual hasn't — or at least not in English. As a result, you'll have to tune in next month as Toccata takes the stage alongside WaveTools — yet another new 16‑bit card which boasts the added power of an optional DSP and an 8‑track hard disk recording system.

However, to compensate for the lack of a full Toccata review, I can still explain its potential as a link between the two worlds of audio and video. Although often treated as completely separate, both disciplines are moving ever closer together courtesy of CD‑based audio visual systems such as CD‑I from Philips and Commodore's FMV (full motion video), which is due to arrive on the CD32 any day now.

Thanks to such systems, and others that will no doubt follow, sound and vision will in time become amalgamated into the rapidly developing world of 'multimedia' entertainment. As a consequence, a simple means of connecting the two fields is becoming ever more important, and that's where Toccata could really make its mark. As a result, the system offers all the usual sample edit and playback options you'd expect from a 16‑bit sampling system as well as one very special addition...

As you may be aware, the Amiga has many methods of importing and processing video but few, if any, can also handle audio at the same time. Now that's all about to change thanks to Toccata. When combined with the elements list below, Toccata can automatically add 16‑bit digital audio to sequentially grabbed 24‑bit video, thereby bringing true 'broadcast quality' multimedia within reach of any Amiga owner.

As you'll discover later on, Macro Systems — the creators of Toccata and VLab — have developed a unique method of importing live video, and now thanks to Toccata the same is true of any accompanying audio. Better still, the system doesn't require expensive VCRs, timecode, or even much of your own valuable time...

Grabbing Video

As far as grabbing live video on the Amiga is concerned, VLab has been the product to beat for well over a year now. One of the reasons for this plug‑in card's newfound success is its support for Y/C or S‑VHS. At the forefront of VLab Y/C's success is its interleaved frame recording (IFR). With the assistance of IFR, Vlab Y/C brings the Amiga its first frame‑by‑frame digital video recorder. Courtesy of some truly amazing coding, IFR allows you to capture every frame of a video sequence without the need for timecode of any kind.

To initiate the process you simply set up the video tape just prior to the sequence you want to capture, press Play on the VCR, then open the IFR window and instruct the software to choose a key frame. When an appropriate frame is found, the software asks you to select a starting point. Once chosen you hit Start. The program will then ask you to rewind the tape prior to the key frame. However, thanks to the AirLink programmable infra red control system all the manual labour can be taken out of the process, allowing you to leave the VLab Y/C, Toccata and AirLink combination to do all the hard work for you.

Like the original VLab, and indeed Toccata, VLab Y/C comes on a hard card‑style board, offering two composite video inputs plus a single Y/C. All three can be toggled via the software, providing the ideal setup for the professional.

Aside from pure grabbing power, the most important aspect of any video capture system is its interface. In this particular area VLab does extremely well. The control program can appear in two forms, either as a full‑screen interface or as a dormant pull‑down menu on the Workbench screen. Of course, VLab Y/C isn't simply restricted to sequential images and is in fact ideal for individual frame grabbing; these can then be used as still promo graphics, video sleeve artwork or whatever.

Actually capturing single images is unbelievably simple — you merely sit back, watching a miniature on‑screen preview and waiting for the optimum moment to click on the control panel, at which point the full‑screen 24‑bit image is captured simultaneously and displayed in the mode of your choice.

A particularly pleasant aspect of this additional panel is the option to switch between capturing the complete interlace image or merely a single field. The beauty of this is that when you're dealing with high‑speed images, sacrificing a field within the interlace video signal is often well worth the loss of clarity to avoid the dreaded interlace flicker.

The actual importation process can also have a variety of filters made available to produce the optimum image. As you've probably surmised, I'm as impressed with the combination of hardware and software, as I'm sure you will be with the images it provides.

Sequential Selection

In addition to single grabs or IFR sequences, stop‑frame animation is also available. With the assistance of the omnipresent pull‑downs, you can access the sequential grabbing option; this allows you to grab a maximum of 255 frames from the live motion video source using a predefined time interval between grabs.

VLab grabs images in its own proprietary format, namely YUV, but it is possible to grab complete 24‑bit sequences and then convert these into the format of your choice. As far as I am aware, VLab is the only independent grabber to offer such power. Obviously 24‑bit frame grabbing is very memory intensive, so investment in a large amount of extra RAM and a sizeable hard disk is essential. This constant demand for RAM and the need for a fairly powerful machine is the system's only flaw, especially during a sequential grab. During testing I employed the services of a GVP 030 combo card with 16Mb on‑board — as you've probably guessed, a desktop style Amiga is essential. Although I never ran out of RAM, there was a very significant slowing down of additional software, even when the image buffers were empty. To be fair, the program itself remained faultless, but I'd say it's not a particularly good idea to employ the system in the midst of a busy multitasking environment.


Although briefly mentioned above AirLink is the third part of the audio/video equation which, when combined with VLab Y/C and Toccata, brings total automation to the entire audio graphic system.

As mentioned, IFR gives VLab Y/C the unique ability to grab unlimited sequential 24‑bit frames from live video. However, the real beauty is that any VCR can be used for the job and there's no need for timecode on the tape itself; the software quite literally remembers which frames have been grabbed and then attempts to grab the remainder on a subsequent pass over the tape. The only problem is the heavy dependence on user time, as the software demands constant rewinding of the tape ready for the next pass. However, thanks to AirLink, hours spent at the controls of a VCR are a thing of the past.

AirLink makes extensive use of the ARexx compatibility of both VLab Y/C and Toccata to achieve complete automation. However, AirLink's control potential doesn't stop with its association with VLab and Toccata. In fact, this ingenious infra‑red system has been a product in its own right for quite some time and can turn its invisible talents to literally anything that ships with a handset — whether that be a sampler, tape transport, CD player, VCR or whatever else.

No matter which application you apply AirLink to, the basic setup procedure remains the same. First you install the hardware — this takes the form of a cable connected to a small infra‑red transmitter/ receiver, the other end of which slots into the Amiga's free joystick port. Once installed, you simply run the AirLink software, which provides numerous examples along with the essential 'sampler' program. As the name suggests, this allows you to programme AirLink to emulate any infra‑red remote controller.

In order to control a device you simply design a graphic representation of a remote control panel, using the paint package of your choice. The AirLink software then allows you to add button areas to the graphic, appending the appropriate remote control command on to each. These graphic remotes can then be saved to disk, complete with hotkey combinations, and recalled when required. Actually, programming AirLink is very simple; you just activate the sampler program, record the signals from the original remote you wish to replace, and then append the appropriate signal to the button in question.

Automated MIDI

AirLink can be put to work on any system that uses infra‑red, and as a result it has developed quite an affinity with MIDI, especially in relation to Bars & Pipes Professional — courtesy of its extensive ARexx support. However, before you plan controlling an entire studio from the comfort of a master MIDI keyboard, it's worth remembering that the AirLink commands temporarily halt all multitasking, and as such its use during live performance can be limited.

However it's not all bad news; if you have a second Amiga, for example, this can be used to receive MIDI information from the machine running your sequencer and then in turn send the commands to the necessary remotes. This means there's no pause during playback. Even assuming you're working with one Amiga, the performance potential of AirLink is still pretty impressive. For example, it's possible to issue AirLink commands in relation to specific MIDI data, so at the beginning of a song you could hit a key to play a CD or tape deck, activate video equipment, initiate a light show or just about anything else.

All that's required is a little setting up work beforehand — and, of course, any setup can be saved and used as many times as you want. In short, the sky's the limit; if it's got a remote, AirLink can control it, whether it be via mouse or MIDI. And because each remote has a unique signal, you can control as much infra‑red controlled equipment as you like. Simply point the transmitter in the right direction and you're off.

Remember: don't miss next month's Amiga Notes as Sound On Sound brings you an exclusive review of two brand new 16‑bit Amiga sampling systems, Toccata and WaveTools.

All products mentioned in this article are available from Amiga Centre Scotland on 0896 87583.