Brian Heywood considers what 1996 will bring the PC‑based musician, and decides it will be the year of the DAM...
This year looks like it's going to be the year of the integrated Digital Audio/MIDI (DAM) sequencing application for the PC. While hard disk recording on the PC has been around for a while, the direct integration of audio into mainstream sequencers has taken a little longer than for the other main music computing platforms.
It's not particularly clear why this should be the case, since the PC has had a pretty active sequencing scene. Maybe it's because the great bulk of PC‑based sequencing packages have only been around since Windows 3.1 superseded DOS as the PC's most popular operating environment.
Of course, PC 'power users' have been able to use hybrid systems — a sequencing program synchronised to a hard disk recording application — thanks to Windows' ability to multi‑task applications. But the ability to have both MIDI and digital audio data 'under one roof', does simplify both the creative process and the archiving of the data once you've completed a project.
Musicator Goes Audio
Arbiter has announced the audio version of this sequencer that supports 16 independent mono or stereo audio tracks, using one or more standard MPC soundcards. The software allows the user to manipulate MIDI and audio data side by side in all of the edit views — notation, overview, mixer and so on. Musicator Audio can take advantage of multiple soundcards, and allows you to record multiple audio tracks.
The mixer section handles both MIDI and audio data, giving fully automated and real‑time control over the volume and pan of both MIDI and audio tracks. Audio tracks can be 'non‑destructively' edited, giving control of crossfades, track gain and mixdown. There are also 'fit to time' and sample rate conversion functions. The audio can be either recorded or imported from standard Windows WAV files.
Other features of Musicator include standard music notation, piano‑roll editing, a measure/track overview, an automated instrument mixer, drum mixer with individual pans, and tuning, reverb, volume and effects controllers. There are also MIDI controller windows, with graphical editing of aftertouch, pitch bend, tempo, modulation and so forth. The number of open windows is limited only by screen size. Musicator Audio retails for £299.95 (inc. VAT) and is distributed by Arbiter (0181 202 1199).
While Musicator Audio is a purely MPC‑based hard disk recording solution, a number of DAM systems will be released in the next couple of months that also support 'third party' (or dedicated) hard disk recording hardware. Cubase Audio from Steinberg is already available on the Falcon, and the Apple Mac version should be released soon: it will support both the Yamaha CBXD5 and Digidesign Session 8 hardware, and should retail for around £799.
Both Cakewalk Pro Audio and Logic Audio are fairly imminent, with the former supporting both the Digidesign Session 8 hardware and the Soundscape SSHDR1 as well as Windows MPC soundcards. I understand that Logic Audio will also be supporting the Soundscape hardware and Windows soundcards. I imagine that both these products will be released at this year's NAMM show.
Taking Care Of Business
Anyhow.... while we're waiting for these rather interesting developments, I'd like to catch up on some non‑musical bits and pieces that may be of interest to the PC‑based musician.
I had a look at Creative's new Phone Blaster expansion card at one of last year's computer shows. The card is designed to give your PC all the facilities required of a connection to the telephone network (or PSTN — Public Switch Telephone Network) by a small office. So as well as a fax modem, you get a speaker phone, voice mail, remote access, pager notification of new messages and music on hold (from either CD, WAV or MIDI sources)... though I'm not too sure that last point is a good idea.
The basic idea is that you can afford to have all the features bundled with a digital PABX in your home office, as long as you don't mind leaving your PC permanently switched on. One thing that did surprise me though, was the fact that you can't use Phone Blaster with Creative's ShareVision videophone system — so much for the integrated approach to multimedia. For more details about Creative products, call their information line on 01245 265265.
I first came across Illuminatus on CIX when it was at version 2. It fulfils all the basic requirements of multimedia production without requiring that you spend an unreasonable amount of time learning how to use the software. It has a simple 'point and click' user interface, and can handle most of the basic media types (AVI, animation, sound, and so on). You can produce 'stand‑alone' applications, both as an executable image (say for running off floppy or CD‑ROM) as well as a set of installable diskettes. The original version had a number of rough edges, but the package was so usable (and affordable) that it has become my first choice whenever I need to develop any kind of multimedia application or presentation.
The new version adds a lot of new features, but probably the most important from my point of view is the elimination of 'palette clashes' between images, when producing 256‑colour publications. Palette clash, incidentally, is a nasty little image artefact caused when two images with different colour palettes are displayed at the same time. Since Windows can only use one palette at a time, one of the images is displayed with the wrong colours, which usually looks pretty naff. You can get around this problem using a package like Paint Shop Pro, but it tends to be time‑consuming.
Other new features include: greatly improved speed and stability, more screen and colour resolutions (800x600, 1024x768 in up to 16.7 million colours), pop‑up windows (frames), graphical buttons, more special effects (fades and zooms with timing control), search and text functions, transparency control for graphics, and the addition of MPEG and PhotoCD support.
The recommended retail price is £149.95, but there are also upgrade and educational prices available. Digital Workshop have also put together a super pack including Paint Shop Pro, Media Centre and Video Toolbox — call 01295 258335 for further details. I shall be looking at this package in greater detail in a future column.
While we're on the subject of the big 'M'... One of the most important components of a multimedia application or presentation is the inclusion of high‑quality graphics. The problem with these is that they take up a lot of disk space. While the price per megabyte of hard disk is plummeting, large files in your presentation can still give you headaches, especially if your delivery format is limited to floppy disk. The interest in distribution of data via the Internet also makes file size a hot topic, since most people still have comparatively slow links to the net.
One British company that has been addressing this problem for a number of years is Iterated Systems. Their 'fractal' compression system uses sophisticated mathematics to get extremely high compression ratios without the unwanted artefacts, such as blocking, that you get with traditional 'lossy' compression algorithms. Iterated claim that their compression format is resolution‑independent, with fast decompression, a wide range of compression ratios, and that it degrades smoothly as the compression ratio increases (ie. as the file size decreases). The only disadvantage of the fractal compression process is that it can take a long time if you don't have a hardware fractal compression card installed in your PC.
More and more multimedia packages are incorporating fractal file support, but it could take a little while for the technology to percolate down to the more affordable end of the market, due to their licensing policy — which is a shame, since this sector of the market is where the process could be of most use. If you want to play around with the format yourself, Iterated produce a modest graphics package called Images Incorporated, which allows you to play around with the compression system, as well as perform various file conversions. The software costs just over £80 (inc VAT). To find out where to get a copy, call Iterated sales department on 01734 880261.
PC Publishing — many of whose books grace the shelves of SOS Bookshop — now have a presence on the World Wide Web, as part of Route66. The company was formed by Philip Chapman in 1988, and has established itself as the foremost UK publisher of readable and authoritative books on music technology. They have a range of books on MIDI, sequencing, sound recording, multimedia, digital audio, MIDI and guitar projects, and electronics, all produced by UK authors and published at affordable prices.
There are currently seven titles available in the on‑line catalogue, but more will be added by the time you read this. Each catalogue entry has a description of the book plus a list of topics covered, and you can order directly off the Web page if you have either a MasterCard or Visa credit card. To find out more, point your web browser at:
If you want to download the screen shots for the items in this column, or link to the Web sites listed in this (and previous columns), point your web browser at the PC Notes area on Route66 at:
If you want to find out how to get access to the Internet, call CIX on 0181 296 9666, or email sales@cix. compulink.co.uk.