Brian Heywood explains what a busy month his PCs have had, and takes another look at the PC's potential for multimedia.
I've had a busy time this month, with four projects that would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the aid of my trusty PCs. The last of the four involved the synchronisation of an ageing Tascam 38 multitrack to no less than three PCs using both SMPTE and MIDI Timecode (MTC). While I won't go into the details of the work (at least, not here), it is interesting to note that the common feature of these projects was that they were all entirely different! This statement might sound a bit paradoxical, but it does highlight the biggest advantage that the computer‑based musician/producer has over one who uses dedicated hardware — flexibility.
By its very nature, the computer is a general‑purpose tool, adaptable by the application of suitable software to a number of different tasks. These might be as prosaic as running a word processor and a spreadsheet, or as complex as using a high‑powered digital editing suite. The point is that using a personal computer doesn't limit your options, it expands them. As digital audio becomes more common (and affordable) in the computer environment, this will become ever more the case. So, in the morning, you might be mastering for CD, and in the afternoon you may be generating some sequences for the track‑laying session you have scheduled for the next day. Need to remove noise from a track? No problem — just go out and buy a 'de‑noising' software package, and do it in the digital domain.
While this is a very 'rosy' view, the basic principle is true, and applies to any computer you may have, not just the PC. Oh well, enough philosophising, down to business...
The Master Keyboard Question
One of the most frequently‑asked 'computer music' questions I am confronted with is how to go about finding a cheap MIDI keyboard for note input into soundcard‑equipped PCs, and in past columns, I have mentioned a few with full‑size keys. However, there are certain circumstances where you can't use a normal‑sized keyboard — either due to space or budget constraints. Recently, I've come across a couple of keyboards that use the 'mini' keys much loved by the budget end of the home keyboard market, and these keyboards may be suitable for anyone with limited space and/or credit card facilities! Both keyboards connect to the PC via MIDI, so you'll need an external MIDI connection to use them.
- YAMAHA CBX‑K1
From Yamaha comes the CBX‑K1, a compact 37‑key MIDI keyboard with a comprehensive MIDI spec. The keyboard allows you to generate almost any kind of MIDI data, so you can not only enter the notes, but also nuances of a real performance, like pitch bend or modulation. The keyboard features two control wheels, one which can generate a number of MIDI controllers (for example volume, modulation and stereo pan), and the other for pitch bend. The range of the keys can be shifted up and down by four octaves, allowing almost any MIDI note to be generated.
As the keyboard uses 'mini' keys, it's not really suitable for learning to play the piano, but the keys are velocity‑sensitive, so you can 'play‑in' dynamics. The CBX‑K1 is a very neat solution for getting a musical performance into your PC when you have limited space available. The recommended retail price is just under £130, but you might find a better deal if you shop around. To get more information about the diminutive keyboard, call Yamaha's information line on 01908 369269.
- TERRATEC MIDI MASTER
Developed by UK company Evolution, the MIDI Master dispenses with the controller wheels present on the CBX‑K1, but gives you an extra octave of keys, and a sustain pedal input — something the Yamaha keyboard lacks. The keyboard is not velocity‑sensitive, but it does allow you to set the 'default' velocity of the notes generated using the keypad on the front panel, which can also be used to send MIDI program and bank change messages. There are even a couple of demo sequences built in, so you can test that the MIDI connection is working. The package also contains a free copy of Evolution's Procyon Windows‑based MIDI sequencer.
One interesting non‑MIDI feature is the MIDI Master's built‑in 3W stereo amplifier and speakers, which allow you to plug the output of your sound module or PC soundcard into the unit. Like the CBX‑K1, the unit can be powered from either an external power supply or internal batteries — so it could be used with a portable PC, provided the latter is fitted with a MIDI port. The MIDI Master can even be used live on stage if desired, as it comes with fittings for a strap. The Terratec unit is cheaper than the Yamaha, weighing in at just under £100. For more details, contact the Keyboard Company on 01582 476105.
Last month, I mentioned Creative Labs' RT300 capture card; since then I've been playing around with another card, made by the German company SPEA. The Showtime Plus video card does just about everything that you might need in the video line of work; it acts as a graphics accelerator and MPEG1 decoder, as well as being able to overlay live video onto the screen and re‑scale .AVI files. Interestingly enough, it also has an audio capability, being able to replay 16‑bit digital audio, but only when replaying MPEG files (at least at the moment). The card is supplied with a set of MCI drivers and an application called Media Station that allows you to create .AVI files from either the card's composite video or S‑Video inputs. You can also replay .AVI and various types of MPEG file, including VideoCD.
In some ways, Showtime's all‑in‑one approach is quite attractive — it means you don't end up filling your PC's expansion slots with various specialised cards, as the Showtime Plus can provide the equivalent functions of a graphic accelerator, a video overlay card, an MPEG1 decoder and a video capture card, all from one expansion slot. Obviously, you lose out on some of the advanced features that you'd expect to find on a dedicated card like the RT300; for example, you are limited to the software compressors that Video for Windows provides. However, the SPEA card is a very compact solution to a number of video‑based tasks that you might come across when authoring for multimedia.
This card also serves to illustrate the current 'state of the art' as far as computer‑based video is concerned. The relative 'youth' of the technology means that software support is a bit patchy. For example, the .AVI driver supplied with the card doesn't support sound replay, either via the Showtime's own audio hardware or using an MPC soundcard. I found this annoying, as it meant that I lost a capability that I had previously had; namely the ability to hear the soundtrack of an .AVI file. So if you want a completely stable video system, it might be better to wait until the technology matures a bit.
Cyberspace Corner: MIDI On The Net
In past PC Notes columns, I've talked about commercially available MIDI files, but the Internet is also quite a good source of both original music and arrangements of pieces in the public domain. On CIX, for example, the route66 conference has a topic called 'midifiles' which acts as a clearing house for computer musicians that fancy displaying their compositional or arranging skills. There are also World Wide Web sites that have MIDI files or other application‑specific sequencer files available, though it can be a bit of a pain to find them. One FTP site that has a lot of MIDI files (as well as other information specific to the Gravis UltraSound soundcard) can be accessed via the World Wide Web using the following address:
Following on from Panicos Georghiades' article in last month's SOS, I thought I'd add something on the subject of the Tropez soundcard. One of the problems with getting a soundcard for creating multimedia sound is that you have to be able to address the many different requirements that your potential audience is likely to use, and this is especially true for the MIDI element of the sound. For instance, you need to be able to hear what your music will sound like with a good General MIDI sound set, as well as the OPL3 synthesizers found on a lot of SoundBlaster‑compatible soundcards. The inclusion of the OPL3 synth is useful, as it allows MIDI file developers to test any compositions with both the Basic and Extended MPC sound standards. On the digital audio side, you need to have high‑quality analogue‑to‑digital converters, so that your samples can achieve that elusive CD quality. Finally, the ability to create your own sampled instruments using a RAM‑based wavetable synth is extremely useful, both for general music applications and for creative multimedia sound.
The Tropez satisfies all these criteria, as well as adding an IDE CD‑ROM interface and games ports (for those rare idle moments in one's busy schedule...). As Turtle Beach came into the soundcard market from the professional audio world, you'd expect the quality to be pretty good, although it is dependent to a certain extent on the quality of your PC's power supply. The Tropez's CD‑ROM interface is of the enhanced IDE type (AT‑API), allowing you to take advantage of the low prices of these units. For external MIDI, there is not one, but two MPU401‑compatible MIDI interfaces, as long as you buy the optional cable set. The card comes bundled with the usual cast of supporting software, including a CD‑ROM full of games, and a multimedia magazine.
As Panicos mentioned in his article, the important Tropez‑specific applications are Wave SE and WavePatch. The first is a program for editing samples (including loop points) in preparation for downloading to the SampleStore. WavePatch then allows you to take the samples you've created using Wave SE and configure them so that they combine to create a sampled instrument.
The Tropez is priced at just under £250 — for more information, contact Et Cetera Distribution on 01706 228039.