Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 4, NO. 2 / JUNE 1985

Play it Again, Atari

They laughed when I sat down at the 800 XL..

by NAT FRIEDLAND, Antic Editor

Okay, I confess. Before I settled on writing I was a committed would-be musician. As a kid and teenager I must have spent hundreds of hours teaching myself piano, rhythm guitar and chromatic harmonica. I played first trombone in the high school band, thus becoming automatically eligible for a music scholarship to state teachers college if I had wished to go.
   It was relatively easy for me to pick up the rudiments of playing different instruments. But there would always come a time-much too soon-when I ran into the upper limits of my musical coordination. I could never seem to really master any instrument.
   I used to daydream about some kind of future electronic musical instrument coming along that would automate things the things I couldn't get my fingers to do and let me express my musical ideas without being an instrumental whiz. Little did I know those instruments would become a reality-even an affordable reality-in less than two decades.
   Recently my musical frustrations have been much more localized. It seemed as if all the good musical software and plug-in computer piano-keys from companies like Sequential Circuits or Passport were being made only for the Apple II or the Commodore 64.

However, in 1985 all this has changed. Some truly phenomenal new musical peripherals for our favorite personal computer are about to make the Atari the new champion of computer-assisted musicmaking.
   In this article you will read about:

  • A new kind of "music generator" software that lets you compose and improvise in real-time at the Atari keyboard. The four-voice sound is tracked by colorful geometric graphics. Press a couple of Atari keys and you'll feel like the next Brian Eno.
  • A software and "black-box" product that lets your Atari emulate an advanced 16-track digital recording studio.
  • A remarkably powerful new MIDI synthesizer that sells for no more than what an Atari disk drive used to cost.

At a music studio in Queens, New York last year you'd find three kids at a time sitting in front of Atari computers and listening on earphones while geometric patterns of color flashed across the video screen. These kids were taking two-hour lessons in creating music on the Virtuoso sound generator and when the sessions were over their parents often had to drag them away from the machines.
   Virtuoso is such a unique new approach to musicmaking that it's not easy to describe. It's one of the closest things in the real world to the multi-arts competitions that Herman Hesse wrote about in his classic literary fantasy The Bead Game. In that book, Hesse wrote about chess-like contests where one player's move might be a theme from a symphony and the opponent's countermove could be a line of a poem or a section of a painting...
   Virtuoso gives you a user-friendly method of tapping the extremely fast and powerful changes that a computer can control in every aspect of music performance. It bypasses the limits of traditional musical notation and uses an almost self-explanatory color graphic display that delivers mathematical insights into the structure of music.

You'd enter a musical pattern into Virtuoso from the Atari keyboard, or call up one from about 480 that could be stored on a single disk. The pattern would start sounding and the lines of colors would trace it visually. At this point you could start creating all sorts of changes in the pattern-which you would hear and see immediately.
   As the pattern was playing, you could change its speed, rhythm, pitch, tone, volume, key scale, etc. You could enter new patterns any time. There's even a Future mode where you can enter changes before they are due to be played. The effect of controlling so much musical power so effortlessly feels something like conducting an orchestra at the same time as you are composing the music that it plays.
   In technical terms, Virtuoso is a sound generator that produces four voices from the POKEY chip. You can make instant real-time changes in the voices in any of six parameters. Four computers running Virtuoso can be linked together to have up to 16 independent channels controlled by one Atari.
   As a sound editor, Virtuoso can synchronize multiple voices with 1/60 of a second accuracy and tune them within 10 steps of intonation. Any musical passage can be moved anywhere, saved, and replayed in any key and in virtually any rhythm.

This groundbreaking product is a collaboration between former Julliard Music Professor Joseph Lyons and Frank Schwartz, a highly experienced programmer and electronics designer Originally, Virtuoso was financed by Warner Leisure Software, who naturally wanted it for the Atari and in cartridge form.
   After Warner Software shut its doors last year, Schwartz and Lyons obtained new funding and are hoping to have Virtuoso on the market by August. At this point, Virtuoso is to be on disk, available for either the Atari or Commodore 64, and priced at about $50.
   Not only that, a $150 MIDI interface for Virtuoso is also being readied for August release. Virtuoso will therefore be usable as a visual language for MIDI controllers-not only for music, but also for lighting and sound effects, lasers, etc. Once again, shades of Hesse's The Bead Game.
   Lyons and Schwartz are as enthusiastic about the Casio CZ-101 synthesizer as Antic is, and Virtuoso will definitely run on this outstanding electronic instrument-which will provide even greater power, versatility, sound quality and handling ease than the Atari POKEY chip.
   PLEASE NOTE that Virtuoso is a product that is still under development and has not yet been released at this writing. Antic will print more news of Virtuoso as soon as it becomes available, so please do not phone or write us asking where to get it yet.
   How does Antic know that Virtuoso is for real? There are two reasons. 1. We have heard (and seen)Joe Lyons play four-part Bach Fugues on it. 2. Antic has a first-generation Virtuoso cartridge that Frank Schwartz gave us.
   Our prototype Virtuoso cartridge is packed solid with microchips and actually a plug-in board. Its music generating functions are 100% in working order, but figuring out how to play it from only the skimpy documentation notes is not too easy. At present you'd need Lyons standing over your shoulder to explain things, the way he does in his studio lessons.
   Thats why the final development work is concentrated on making Virtuoso even friendlier to operate. There will be icon menus, an inexpensive membrane keyboard for musical input (if you're not using a MIDI instrument), and six levels of complexity that will gradually take you from beginner to expert status.

MIDITRACK II has been wowing them at computer shows and musical instrument shows since last fall. It's available at various professional-music stores around the country or by mail from the manufacturer for $349. (Detailed manufacturer information will be found at the end of the article.)
   Interestingly, your Atari will be the least expensive component of this music system. Bob Moore of Hybrid Arts, makers of MIDITRACK II, gives a slightly surprising reason why the Atari was chosen to drive the system. "The Atari is the sturdiest of the inexpensive lightweight computers," he said. "We believed it would have the best chance to survive a long professional road tour."
   MIDITRACK II disk software and the included MIDIMATE interface box work with any Atari that has 48K memory. The Atari itself does not produce any sounds with its POKEY chip here. It simply acts as the controller for up to 16 channels of information transmitted by MIDI instruments.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It's a set of electronic standards-just as ASCII, RS-232 and Parallel Centronics are standards- that allows electronic musical instruments to coordinate and exchange digitally encoded sound information.
   Moore, who was primarily a Hollywood studio musician before coming up with the idea for MIDITRACK II, said, "If you've already got an Atari and disk drive, it should cost you no more than $3,000 to have a fully professional digital recording setup. (To just have fun with your Atari music system, you could get away with $500 or less. More on this later.)
   What you need for a fully professional system is a main synthesizer, a drum machine, and probably a second synthesizer to give you a bit more variety of sounds. The second synthesizer doesn't even need to have a keyboard because you can play it from the main synthesizer.
   At the other extreme, you could theoretically daisychain huge gangs of MIDIMATEs and electronic instruments. You could mix 16 completed tracks onto a single track, make 15 new tracks and mix everything down to track 2, and then repeat the process. You could run a symphony orchestra of synthesizers from a single Atari, even a stadium filled with synthesizers..
   Normally the way you'd operate a MIDITRACK II system is something like this: First you'd set up a drum pattern and record it on track 1. Next you'd adjust your synthesizer to sound like a bass and play an accompaniment onto track 2. With your "rhythm section" in place you could then start layering all sorts of interesting synthesized sounds on top to make melodies and harmonies in the rest of the available tracks.
Figure 1

Once you were finished, you would have a fully edited arrangement for MIDI instruments which you could then record on tape for combination with vocals or non-MIDI instruments. The length of the music you could save would depend somewhat on how many notes were in the piece. The limit per file is 3,000 sequenced notes.
   By the way, usually you can simultaneously call up more than one track from a single MIDI instrument. Many synthesizers could give you as much as 8 simultaneous tracks.
   On the whole, the MIDITRACK II documentation is excellent. Once you have plugged everything in, the manual suggests that you simply press your Atari spacebar, play something on your synthesizer, and then press the spacebar again. That's all it takes for a recording and playback!
   One of our testers kept losing his music at first, every time he tried to save a track. But once he figured out that this was caused by holding down the Inverse Video key too long during the save command, there were no problems.
   MIDITRACK II is designed to operate like a professional multitrack tape recorder. So it contains all the features you would normally expect to find in a recording studio. All 16 tracks are independent unless you mix them together. You can synchronize tracks or change the speed of the entire recording. You can over-dub or transpose tracks. You can automatically locate any spot on the recording. You can "punch in" anywhere to record difficult passages one note at at time.
   MIDITRACK II even supports the advanced technique of quantization, or autocorrect. For example, if your timing was a bit uneven when you were trying to play that flashy bass part you could set the notes to automatically come out on the beat.

Most Atari owners who buy MIDITRACK II will probably decide to use the new Casio CZ-10l synthesizer as their primary keyboard. That's because the CZ-l0l sells for about one-fourth the price of any comparable synthesizer! It lists for $499 but has been on sale at Macy's for as low as $300.
   The instruments that Bob Moore brought along to demonstrate MIDITRACK LI were the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer which has a list price of $1,995 and the Yamaha RXII drum machine which lists for $895. Both of these instruments are very popular with professional musicians and are not considered unusually high-priced in comparison to the competition.
   At the time, Moore told Antic that a new low-priced but powerful synthesizer from Casio was due to be released shortly and it would apparently be at least somewhat comparable with the DX7. Well, the CZ-l01 was shown at the Consumer Electronics Show and Casio kindly let us have one to use with our MIDITRACK II.

We swiftly discovered that the CZ-101 is considerably more than merely a stripped-down version of the DX7. In fact, this Casio could almost be considered the Atari ST of sythesizers- it delivers far more "power without the price" than anything else in its class. Despite the Casio brandname we are talking about a real synthesizer here, not an "electronic music-maker" with one-key chords and preset drum-bass patterns. (It doesn't have a built-in speaker either.)
Figure 2
   In many ways the CZ-101 is even more versatile than earlier, more costly synthesizers. A review in the March, 1985 issue of "Keyboard," the top magazine for electronic keyboard players, concludes, "The CZ-101 makes good use of the latest digital technology. Its attractive features include seven excellent envelope generators, good-sounding waveforms, and several doubling modes for building up complex timbres. As an inexpensive and versatile MIDI slave module, it could be a very effective addition to almost any stack."
   Upon translation from synthesizer jargon, what this means is that the CZ-101's strongest point is its wide-ranging capability of creating and manipulating synthesized sounds. It has more waveforms, envelopes, oscillators and more ways to combine these soundmaking elements than most previous synthesizers.
   In this instrument you'll find a full assortment of standard high-end synthesizer features such as pitch-bend wheel, ring modulator, portamento, octave shift, detune control, phase distortion sound generator.

The CZ-l0l starts you off with 32 factory-preset sounds-flute, electric piano, violins, organ, etc.-that range from okay to pretty good. You can reprogram 16 of these sound "patches" to hold your own sound creations (you can bring back the factory patches anytime). Also there's a slot for additional 16-patch programmable cartridges.
   People who play piano by ear and can only play in one key (usually either all white notes or all black notes) will deeply appreciate the transpose button that will instantly shift you into even the most complex key (four flats, five sharps, etc.).
   The CZ- 101 has 49 keys of standard "mini-keyboard" size. Purists may insist that only full-size keys will do, but personally I enjoy the feeling of spanning left-hand tenths as effortlessly as I would reach octaves on a full-size keyboard.
Figure 3

The CZ-10l works in combination with MIDITRACK II remarkably effectively. You don't need to be a musical genius to record and playback flashy multitrack compositions featuring your own synthesized sounds almost as soon as you've got your system cabled together.
   And you can dramatically change the synthesizer voicings during playback and hear your new sounds in real time. Or if you tinker with the playback of the demonstration songs provided with MLDITRACK II you can try out sounds as unique as a Mozart Sonata being played on a vibraphone or jazz organ.
   So tune up your Atari and unlock your creativity. With MIDITRACK II, the Casio CZ-l01 and Virtuoso, you might very well be world's next musical genius!


Hybrid Arts
P.O. Box 480845
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(818) 508-7443
$349-48K disk

Casio, Inc.
15 Gardner Road
Fairfield, NJ 07006
(201) 575-7400
$499 (Suggested list)

Enhanced Technology Associates
125 W. Duke Ellington Blvd.
New York, NY 10025
$50-48K disk
$150-MIDI interface
(Available August 1985 or later)