Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 88 / SEPTEMBER 1987 / PAGE 75

IBM Personal Computing

Donald B. Trivette

Creating A Blues Symphony

The introduction of the IBM Personal System/2 received so much ballyhoo that it overshadowed another announcement on the same day—the IBM Music Feature.

The Music Feature is a professional-quality music synthesizer contained on a full-length expansion card that fits in the IBM PC, XT, AT, and PS/2 Model 30; it does not fit in the PCjr, the IBM Portable, or the Convertible. It may or may not work with IBM compatibles—although my best guess is that it will. On the back of the card are three RCA-type plugs and a D-shell connector which provide input and output to the music card.

Two of the RCA-plugs are for input to a home stereo amplifier—left and right audio outputs—and the third is for headphones. The D-shell plug accommodates a short cable connected to a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) adapter box, which is part of the Music Feature. Into the MIDI box (MIDI in, out, and through) you may plug a keyboard or other musical apparatus. A typical home installation might have two cables (left and right channel) running from the PC's Music Feature to the input jacks on your stereo, and a keyboard such as the Yamaha DX-100 attached to the MIDI adapter box.

Once all the hardware is connected—it takes about 10 minutes—you have an FM synthesis of up to 336 instrumental sounds in any musical style from jazz to classical, with as many as eight instruments or voices playing at one time. If eight instruments aren't enough, you can install two IBM Music Feature boards in the PC and have up to 16 voices. But you won't get nary a whistle if you don't buy some software, because even at $495 the IBM Music Feature is softwareless.

Fortunately, there are already dozens of products on the market that work with the Music Feature—and there are more on the way. However, you must be careful if you're installing the system on IBM's PS/2 Model 30, as I did. That machine has only the new 3½-inch disk drive, and most music programs are currently available only in the 5¼-inch format. I tried to transfer some of the better programs through a floppy-disk equipped PC to the Model 30 via a modem connection, but their copy-protection scheme prevented me from using them.

Playing The Blues

The only software I was able to test was Yamaha's PlayRec—which is the 1-2-3 of music software—and it made me wish I knew more about notes, keys, and beat. The manual says you can create music by playing a chord on the keyboard, and PlayRec will create an entire accompaniment played by up to five separate instruments. Since I'm not particularly musical, I had to rely on some prerecorded songs thoughtfully sent to me by a musically inclined IBMer. I was able to load and play them without difficulty. The 3½-inch disk can hold up to an hour of music; a floppy can store about 35 minutes.

The PlayRec screen is divided into four parts: Master Block Window, Instrument Window, Play/Record Window, and a graphics keyboard across the bottom. When I loaded a prerecorded blues piece, the Instrument Window indicated that it was played with five instruments: Upright Bass, Piano, Hard Brass, Jazz Organ, and New Electric Piano. Moving the cursor to highlight any one of these instruments, and pressing Enter, caused a list of 336 other instruments to appear on the screen. Then, by moving the cursor though the list, I could hear how the music sounded with each instrument.

I spent hours "improving" the blues piece until it was completely unrecognizable—and quite awful. Imagine blues played with Whistle, Marimba, Tom Tom, Concert Organ, and Thunder Storm. Yes, sound effects are included. Chris the Surfer, my equally musically-ignorant neighbor, composed a symphony with Martian noises, ghost sounds, a race car, and Maui's thundering surf.

Of course IBM and Yamaha didn't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars developing this equipment so we could play with funny noises. The PlayRec program allows serious musicians to compose, record, edit, and modify musical scores. The Play/Record Window has the controls to simulate a 16-track digital tape deck; different parts can be recorded on different tracks. The individual instrument sounds can be modified to have as much variety and volume as those in a concert hall.

An Instrument Control Window allows you to set octave range for each instrument; a pan control lets you direct sound to left, right, or both channels; the portamento adjustment determines how smoothly one note slides into another; and the bend parameter gives you the ability to bend an instrument's pitch in response to a message from the keyboard. This window also controls over a dozen other parameters—like vibrato/tremolo, poly/mono modes, detune, and range.

PlayRec is wonderfully instructional. Students can see notes as they are played, and make modifications to existing music. If I hadn't had to return the DX-100 keyboard that Yamaha lent me, I believe I eventually might have learned to play a bit. As it is, I'll have to be satisfied with knowing Lotus 1-2-3.