One of the advantages of being editor of an ST magazine is being able to keep up to date with all new software and hardware. Contrary to popular belief, we don't get 'free samples' but do get the chance to work with products in anger. A couple of recent reviews made me question why we seem to get frustrated when working with processor‑intensive programs.
If you use Cubase or Notator, you must have noticed that the bar counter appears to stop for a moment every now and then. This is because the screen updating takes second place to the actual processing of data — and so it should! The alternative would be a perfect screen and audible glitches; for an example of this, just send a fair amount of MIDI data to one of the multitimbral Roland D‑ or U‑series synths and work with the display at the same time. You'll clearly hear the audio stumbling and falling over.
One of my columnists came up with a possible reason for our disenchantment; we cannot tolerate a computer system that carries out functions slower than we, as human beings, can. Consider writing a letter to a friend: if you want to see the previous page you simply turn over and check it, a process that takes less than a second. If you want to see the previous page on a word processed document, you generally have to select an option from a menu and wait while the computer carries out that function and then redraws the screen, a procedure that can take several seconds. Take a similar example of scrolling through the List Editor on Cubase; a standard 8MHz ST carries this out in a ponderous manner. But is there a solution?
Some very inefficient operating system code is responsible for the ST's lack of screen redraw speed. The way around this is to use a software solution, in the form of a screen accelerator that simply by‑passes the offending code and substitutes some effective machine code in its place. Various such programs have existed in the past, including Turbo ST and QuickST, but only two programs are currently available: NVDI and Warp9.
Both of these products offer more than sheer screen speed. Warp9 includes the facility to replace the screen font and use a background desktop picture instead of the boring old Atari grey 'n' green backgrounds. It also incorporates a mouse accelerator and a screen saver that causes the screen to fade out after a certain length of inactivity, so preventing any damage to the tube. Its downside is poor performance in colour and a lack of compatibility with Atari's multi‑tasking system, MultiTOS. If you work with a sequencer, chances are that you're using a high resolution mono monitor, in which case the colour performance won't affect you.
NVDI has grown from being a generally incompatible screen accelerator to the best in the business. Included in the package is an installer that ensures the various files are placed in the correct places and, again, there is more on offer than just screen speed. NVDI includes a replacement for GDOS, the Atari system program that deals with font handling, an alternative screen font (the ubiquitous Mac‑style Monaco font) and a simple mouse accelerator, all of which can be turned on or off from a desk accessory.
With NVDI, the screen speed is dramatically improved, irrespective of the monitor or number of colours on screen. Pure text redraws nearly ten times faster and scrolls at almost three times the speed. Allowing for the fact that very few programs display pure text on‑screen, you can expect text and graphics redraws to improve four‑fold. Taking the earlier example of a word processor, the time taken by the computer to sort out what to display is still the same, but the speed in then bringing up the text on screen is dramatically improved. Similarly, the List Editor in Cubase scrolls much faster. If you have a pre‑STe machine, you'll really notice the difference, as such computers lack the blitter chip which goes some way to speeding up the ST's graphics.
To give you an idea of the improvement, my Falcon (a 16MHz 68030‑based computer) with NVDI installed can scroll text much faster than my Mac with its 50MHz 68030. And the only way to improve the Mac situation is to purchase a faster processor, which costs a damn sight more than the £50 that NVDI will set you back!
Some sequencer processes take time to carry out, and the finger‑tapping wait has nothing to do with screen redraws. For instance, what happens when you merge together two tracks? The processor has to calculate where to place the mixed bundle of MIDI events and requires 'thinking' time to carry this out. The ratio of processing time to screen redraw is then heavily weighted in favour of the former. If you have ever merged 16 tracks down to a single track for saving as a Format 0 MIDI File, you'll appreciate just how long such an operation can take.
A far more processor‑intensive operation is the merging of two digital audio tracks on the Falcon. If you're lucky enough to own Cubase Audio and have tried this operation, you'll realise that you can happily go and make a cup of tea, safe in the knowledge that you won't miss anything!
No matter how good a screen accelerator is, it can't make the computer process data any faster. True acceleration requires a faster processor, and until recently you had to pay an arm and a leg for such a board on the ST. But this has changed with the advent of the T Boards, a pair of hardware add‑ons that use 28MHz and 36MHz 68000 microprocessors respectively. Installation is a bit awkward, as the old ST processor has to be removed and replaced with the special socket into which the T Board connects; the easiest way to accomplish this is to snip out the old 68000 and then desolder the remaining legs.
Tests have shown that the 28MHz T Board is three times as powerful as the standard ST version, which means that it can carry out processor‑intensive tasks far more quickly. NVDI is still an important addition — a new processor does not replace the ineffectual system code — and the UK distributors are currently bundling the two products together.
As always, there is a downside. Neither Notator nor Creator work with a T Board, and while a small switch can be installed to switch back to 8MHz mode, the point of having an accelerator is somewhat negated if your main program won't run with it! Secondly, only the STF, STFM and Mega STe are catered for; there isn't a T Board yet for the standard STe.
What is the point of having an accelerator? The obvious answer is to save time. Fine — so here's a suggestion of what to do with those extra few hours acquired each week. Sit down in front of your sequencer, turn off the metronome, click on the Record icon and play. It doesn't matter whether you're a keyboard player, a guitar synthesist or a MIDI drum exponent — just play. Let the mood take you; float away in a truly creative state for as long as you like. Unless you can do this, you run the very real risk of forgetting why you became involved with computers, sequencers and MIDI in the first place. After all, you are a musician aren't you?
- Warp9: £29.95 from the ST Club (0625 455250).
- NVDI: £49.95 from System Solutions (081 693 3355).
- T Board: 28MHz — £199.95; 36MHz — £299.95 from System Solutions (081 693 3355).