Outpost: Atari; the state of Atari and a musical instrument to make. John J. Anderson; Robert Swirsky.
Well, hello again, Atarians. It may not look like it at first glance, but this is a very special column, and it is a special pleasure to man the Outpost once again this month. For this is the column that might never have been.
At the mere whisper on the Creative Computing SIG on Compuserve that the column might be dropped, we received more than 200 pleas to save the Outpost--an impressive response, indeed. It assured the continuing existence of the column--for at least the time being.
Here is a smidge of hard evidence that we listen to our readers--and that our online forum truly works both ways. Thanks to our SIG members not only for their continuing support, but for their solidarity on the issue.
Out of Intensive Care
Resulting from aggressive price cuts and a new multimillion dollar media campaign, the Atari 800 XL was sold out through the Christmas season. At $119, the 800XL, which was the only micro Atari had left, proved that the home consumer is still interested in low-end computing. The Atari 1050 disk drive was discounted to under $200, with the goal of pricing an entire system, including 1027 letter quality printer and word processing cartridge, at under $600. But Still Critical
Realistically, however, how long can that boost last? Atari has needed to take a giant step into the next generation of hardware--and at a news conference in late November, finally announced its plans. At CES they will debut three new 8-bit machines, compatible with the current 800XL, and including a new equivalent to the 800XL. This new entry will look almost exactly like the older machine, will incorporate a number of design improvements. Another 8-bit machine will be a transportable, and at least one will ship with 128K standard.
Atari will also introduce a 300/1200 baud modem, which connects without need for 850 interface, and a low-cost full-size color printer.
According to Tramiel brother Sam, at least one of a new line of 16-bit Atari machines will also surface at Winter CES, and the first of a line of 32-bit "super-machines" will be previewed at the Hannover Fair in Germany this April. Sam tramiel told Antic that the new 32-bit machine would be built around a National Semiconductor 32032 processor, and would be in fact a "VAX in a box."
All the 16- and 32-bit machines will utilize VLSI custom chips alongside their main processors and run a proprietary DOS. Most significantly, they will run GEM, Graphics Environment Manager, from Digital Research. This OS shell features pull-down menus, sizabel windows, icons, and pointer input device support for mice, et al. Sound familiar? Jack Tramiel has publicly stated that it is his intention to produce a machine capable of outdoing the Macintosh in graphics power and ease of use, and to do it in color for less than the price of a standard Mac.
He has had to attempt this without the benefit of the state-of-the-art Amiga chipset, which had been promised to Atari, and subsequently "unpromised," right about the time he came on board. Atari continues to fight for rights to the chipset in litigation. Loss of the Amiga chipset was a serious blow to Atari, but apparently has not stopped Jack from pursuit of his goal. The Prognosis
Can Atari battle its way back into the consumer fray? Absolutely yes, if what they have to offer is better than what the competition has to offer, costs less, and can be manufactured reliably in quantity. Jack must count on each of these points to succeed.
Atari will never gain a reputation as a serious maker of business machines, and in the past the business market has had a make or break effect on more than one microcomputer. If, in fact, a proprietary operating system implies that MS-DOS compatibility is out, Atari is taking a big gamble indeed.
In the meantime, it is good merely to hear from the small group of powerful men that now command Atari Corporation--to hear them talk about 1985 in terms of billion dollar sales, and so forth. It shows that the confidence of a single man can still influence the industry. And from that perspective, we can only hope for the best. Magical Music
It has been ages since we have run an Atari hardware application--and here's one that is so offbeat it just had to get its moment of glory. Thanks to Robert Swirsky for sending this one in.
When Lee DeForest perfected the first electronic oscillator in 1915, he had no idea that he would provoke a revolution in musical production. It was his oscillator--a device that could produce audio tones--that was incorporated in the early electronic musical instruments. Of course, in modern electronic instruments, the tones are produced by a microprocessor that essentially serves as a clock to pulse a speaker at varying intervals and amplitudes.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, digital computers were certainly not available. Analog methods were used to produce electronic music. One common device was a "slider" control arranged to vary the pitch of the oscillator; another was an analog keyboard. Computerized Theremin
Not satisfied with these methods of controlling an audio oscillator, the Russian scientist Leon Theremin devised his own instrument which he called, without any modesty whatsoever, the Theremin.
The original Theremin consisted of an oscillator connected to a radio antenna. By varying the distance of your hands from the antenna, you could control the pitch of the oscillator. Moving your hands above the antenna would raise the pitch and bringing them closer would lower it.
The Theremin is all but dead today. There was a time, however, when the devices were frequently used: during the era of the early science fiction movies. The Theremin was the device used to create the "tuning the radio" noises that the mad scientist inevitably used to communicate with other worlds. If you have ever seen an old SF movie, you have probably heard one.
It is a shame to see a musical instrument die. Therefore, I had decided to resurrect the instrument in a modern form more appropriate for todays' era: the computerized Theremin. This turned out to be much simpler than I had imagined, allowing for one major change in the original design. In place of the antenna I substituted a cadmium sulfide (CdS) photoelectric cell. The CdS cell is a device that changes its electrical resistance according to the amount of light falling on it. By using your hands to create shadows on the photocell, the pitch of the Theremin can be changed. The Details
The interface circuit is very simple. I used two CdS cells (available from electronic parts suppliers) connected in series. Using dual cells provides a greater range of resistances and more control of the instrument. The cells are mounted on a board an inch apart and connected to the Atari Player 1 controller jack with a nine pin D connector. (See Figure 1).
Software for the Theremin couldn't be simpler. It consists of two program statements: 10 SOUND 0,PADDLE(0),10,10 20 GOTO 10
Of course, the software could be changed to provide a number of special effects, but these would make the instrument perform differently, so it could not be classified as a Theremin. I'm sure Leon Theremin wouldn't want to see his concept distorated and his name besmirched.
Incidentally, there are other uses for a photocell controller. With the controller, your Atari has the ability to detect light, and can be used, for instance, in security applications. Perhaps it would make an interesting game controller: there are no moving parts to wear out. While this controller acts as PADDLE(0) from Basic, other CdS cells (up to seven more) can be hooked up and accessed with Atari Basic commands PADDLE (1) through PADDLE(8).
The computerized Theremin is probably one of the easiest musical devices to simulate on a computer. It is also simple to play--just move your hands to allow varying amounts of light to reach the photocell. I used mine as one of the voices in a composition "Fugue for Three Ataris" which was performed before an enthusiastic audience at Hofstra University.