Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 4 NO. 5 / DECEMBER 1989


Alpha System's Beat Box


Beat Box's main screen follows the layout used by many drum-machine
programs-a grid of beats moving from left to right with the different
sound choices along the left side. It's priced at $29.95, a steal for its
performance level.

Beat Box uses the standard "key word"
copy protection.

Beat Box supports all current commercial cartridges: Alpha System's
own DigiSound, Michtron's St-Replay and the Navarone digitizer. Beat
Box Sound output can be routed either to the monitor speaker or a
sound digitizer cartridge.

I'm forever pushing a program to do more than its author ever intended and that's the case with Beat Box from Alpha Systems. On the surface the program is a simple sound sequencer, using sounds sampled into the ST Sound files are loaded into memory and played using a set of "patterns" very much like a standard drum machine. What's amazing is that the program plays four sounds simultaneously.

First Impressions
The Beat Box package includes a program disk and one of the strangest manuals I've ever read (too much hip lingo for my tastes). When I first booted the program and heard the words "Beat Box" burst out of my monitor speaker, I knew I was in for some fun. Dutifully following the manual's recommendation, I loaded a demo song to hear what the program could produce. What a shock! Pouring out of the speaker came a very impressive sequence of samples that would do justice on anyone's recording. I could tell that during much of the tune four sounds were played at once-very impressive.

Beat Box Sound output can be routed either to the monitor speaker or a sound digitizer cartridge for improved fidelity. Beat Box supports all current commercial cartridges: Alpha System's own DigiSound, MichTron's ST-Replay and the Navarone digitizer. Even with all four sounds at once, playback sound quality is superb. Beat Box accepts sample data files in any of the preceding file formats as well (or you can use the Babel program from the July 1989 issue of START to convert sample files from other formats).

Once your sounds are loaded, it's time to work on your tune. The main screen follows the layout used by many drum-machine programs: a grid of beats moving from left to right with the different sound choices along the left side. Simply click on the sample name to hear what it sounds like. To build a pattern, move the cursor into the grid and click on one of the squares, corresponding to a sixteenth note.

I had a blast arranging different beats using the thirty or so samples that come with Beat Box. Since I do a lot of drum-machine programming, I knew exactly what to do. Novices may need a little time to get used to programming drum patterns in "step mode." The volume of each sound in the pattern can be changed by using the box with the arrows. Any sample can be deleted from memory or just muted. This last feature makes it easy to use the same pattern and just unmute parts as a tune builds. The tempo of the song or pattern can be set with the option of using 4/4 or 3/4 time.

Beat Box assigns letter names to each pattern and uses the box below the pattern grid to select which grid is currently active in the editing area. To add another pattern, just choose its letter name and start laying down the new beats. When all your patterns are written, you then arrange them into a play sequence to make a song.

Below the pattern letter grid is a line of text representing your song. Letters can be added, inserted or removed as easily as a word processor. When you click on "Play Song," Beat Box plays your patterns in the order listed. This is a limited but very straightforward approach.

Playback sound quality is superb.

A Few Gripes
As much as I like Beat Box, several things bother me about the program. First of all, Alpha Systems uses the standard "key word" copy protection, in which you must look up a word in the manual to get the program running. I consider this a nuisance and, for a program having only a 30-page manual, a big waste of time. But then again, I realize how pirate-conscious Atari software developers are and they no doubt see this form of copy protection as an unfortunate but necessary preventive measure.

As to the program itself, I found that when you repeat sounds on the grid, they tend to overlap. Retriggering a sample will not cut off the previous one. However, samples are cut off at the end of a bar, which produces an annoying audible click from time to time-it would be better to have the samples play as long as possible rather than truncate them. Attempting to have more than four sounds play simultaneously produces an error flag at the offending grid location. If samples were cut off to prevent overlapping, this would happen less often.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about Beat Box is that for a program that simulates a drum machine, there are very few drum samples included and those consisted mostly of burps and electronic sounds. I would have liked Beat Box to include the sounds of a complete drum kit, cymbals and all. This would be much more in line with the program's basic premise.

Not a Toy
In their marketing strategy Alpha Systems appears to think of Beat Box as a toy, an impression you get from the "cute" manual and lack of more professional features. Yet a toy it is not! I could think of a lot of ways this program could make it into professional studios if it had a few more features. The first thing I would like to see added is a MIDI clock SO that sequences could be synched to other MIDI devices and a MIDI clock IN would he preferable. The program also should allow time signatures besides 4/4 and 3/4 and other note durations besides sixteenths. Why not include a separate song edit screen? Patterns could then have longer names and, therefore, you could have more than 26 defined, including repeats, ritards and other musical dynamics.

For now, Beat Box is great for backup tapes for rappers and instrumentalists. It's also a great programmable metronome for budding superstars to practice their timings. For drummers who don't already have a drum machine, Beat Box is a must. Nothing is better than picking out a lick from a book and hearing it played by the machine. Even better, the tempo can be changed so that you can play along comfortably until you nail it at full speed.

For the price, Beat Box is a great value for both musicians and non-musicians. And it has an even greater potential that I hope Alpha Systems will someday develop.

Dave Edwards is a MIDI consultant, professional drummer and managing editor of The MIDI Insider, The MIDI Power User's Newsource


Beat Box, $29.95. Alpha Systems, 1012 Skyland Drive, Macedonia, OH 44056, (216) 467-5665.