Desktop Video for Atari XL/XE
Astounding Virtuoso Art/Music AnimatorReviewed by Charles Cherry
Virtuoso Software's Desktop Performance Studio ($49.95) is the most original application for Atari XL/XE computers since Print Shop. (It does not run on 800/400 models, even those with memory upgrades.) Virtuoso's Desktop Performance Studio, which most people will probably just call "Virtuoso," propels the 8-bit Atari into the exciting new world of desktop video, which I think will be the hottest topic in computing for the next couple of years. It will replace desktop publishing as the glamour application for our post-literate generation.
Desktop video is the production of computer images that are comparable to a movie or television show. Usually this implies animation and sometimes sound. The computer, often coupled with a VCR or camcorder, offers creative potential previously unavailable. The problem has been in controlling the vast amount of information needed for this type of work. You used to need assembly language programming skills to make it work, and even then it was extremely difficult.
Virtuoso changes all that. Now any Atari user can design complex animated music videos and make them work. The amount of control over your computer which Virtuoso provides is truly astounding. Earlier programs such as the Arcade Machine, Movie Maker and Colourspace all offered interesting approaches, but none ever put it all together the way Virtuoso does.
Editing screen in Virtuoso Desktop Performance Studio
Animation screens made by Virtuoso Desktop Performance Studio
The design and construction process in Virtuoso is modular and very logical, also very powerful. You build your show in layers. Virtuoso has its own special vocabulary. Every basic element is viewed as a "shape"-whether it's a text message, graphic design, or musical phrase. Animation techniques are the tools for activating these shapes.
Rotation, scale (size) and path (movement route) can be applied to graphics. Shift (tranposition), volume and envelope are music manipulations. Design your various shapes and save them in their respective libraries. Then design and save the animations.
The shapes are independent from the animations. Any musical phrase can be assigned to any envelope. Duplicates of the same object can simultaneously follow different paths across the screen. Particularly effective combinations of shapes and animations can be saved as objects. Any and all shapes, animations, and objects-in any combination or arrangement-can be used anywhere in the show, or even in a different show.
An independent linker lets you preset intricate relationships controlled by the music or its animations. For example, the rotation of a graphic shape could be controlled by the volume of a music passage.
After you've got all the elements, you plug them into a master timeline to create your show. The authors claim this is so simple that you can do it as a live performance in real time. Perhaps-with lots of practice.
Actually, I found Virtuoso's possibilities overwhelming and the many selections in the main menu somewhat intimidating. Hopefully, experience will turn that bewildering array into a screenful of old friends. I'm just glad all that power will be there when I'm ready for it.
You do all your creating with elegant (and comprehensive) menus using the keyboard, a joystick, or a graphics tablet. The graphics tablet works best, and Virtuso supports them all-Suncom's Animation Station, KoalaPad, and Atari Touch Tablet. Of course no user interface will please everyone, and I have a few gripes about this one. I wish it was easier to move around the timeline and I wish the CLEAR command was protected from accidental erasure. But, overall, the menus are very effective.
Virtuoso uses the Atari's memory very efficiently and the performances can be surprisingly long. After you have the libraries of elements, using them requires very little memory. Simple animations can run more than 90 minutes-which is quite incredible. Editors for creating the various elements are loaded into memory only when needed. This keeps the basic program small. In a 130XE the editors are loaded from the RAMdisk and are available immediately. With the 64K Atari XL/XE computers, you must wait a moment for them to load from disk. XL memory upgrades that are fully compatible with the 130XE should be able to run Virtuoso at 128K RAM level.
MUSIC & GRAPHICS
The music is the most completely realized part of Virtuoso-appropriate, considering that the program began its three-year development strictly as a music editor. It is expected that you will write short phrases which can later be strung together in various patterns-just as you do with a drum machine. But you can write long pieces if you wish. The envelope editor gives you synthsizer-like control over the sound, and Virtuoso can play all four of the Atari's voices simultaneously. Very complex music and a variety of instrumental types are possible. My only quibble is that you are limited to music-there's no way to create sound effects.
Virtuoso's graphics capabilities are also very impressive, especially if you understand the limitations of the 64K Atari computer. It's fun to draw shapes, then watch them spin and fly around the screen. And it's easy
Shapes have some limits and want to be simple geometric figures. You can draw more organic shapes, but it slows down the movement. Nevertheless, this is easily the most powerful animator ever available for the Atari. And I suspect that once some talented artists have a shot at it, the limitations will be less visible.
TEXT & ONLINE
By comparison to Virtuoso's high-powered music and graphics, the text capability is pretty limited. Text can be only one size, Graphics 0. Text "regions" must extend all the way across the screen and cannot contain any graphics. Custom character sets are not available, including the Atari built-in international set. Text cannot scroll vertically Still, it's better to have even this crude level of text editor than no text possibilities at all.
To me, the most surprising (and puzzling) part of Virtuoso is its reasonably complete and useful built-in modem program. This online software has dial directories and macros and could compete as a standalone product. However, since Virtuoso shows can be transferred with any modem program, it seems an unnecessary bonus that might better have been exchanged for additional desktop video features.
But I suppose that built-in telecommunications does make it easier for groups of people to develop shows jointly, or exchange libraries, etc. Online Virtuoso would really come into its own with two people working side by side-perhaps one might develop music while the other develops graphics. They could effortlessly pass stuff back and forth through a null modem. Unfortunately l200baud is the fastest rate Virtuoso supports, so it could be just as fast to hand the disks to each other.
In any case, the telecom features don't hinder the performance of the rest of the package, and I guess I should applaud the publisher's determination to make Virtuoso a product that does not require any additional supporting software.
As befits a product which opens a whole new field of computer endeavor, Virtusonics Corp. is supporting Virtuoso fully There is an entire CompuServe data library and message base dedicated to it. (After you log on, type GO ATARI8 and then at the next prompt type dl13.) Virtusonics also spends time on GEnie. And the company recently opened their own 24-hour bulletin board, Virtuoso Think Tank, at (212) 865-2596.
On any of these online resources you can get your questions answered by the authors or other users. And you can upload your latest masterpiece or download someone else's. After you obtain other shows, you can use and modify the libraries-which should quickly lead to marvelously complex and beautiful Virtuoso productions via these merged efforts.
There is also a public domain player, available on CompuServe and from users groups, which allows Atarians without Virtuoso to see the performances. Curiously this player was not included with the program package.
(This month's Antic Disk contains the 194-sector Virtuoso player program plus four exclusive 52-sector shows from the software's co-author This demonstrator will run on a standard Atari 800 as well as on the XL/XE models-ANTIC ED)
DESKTOP VIDEO ON VCR
Although most of these performances will live only in Atari computers, they can reach much larger audiences through video cassettes. Any Virtuoso show can be recorded in any video format. The Atari produces the best video signal of any 8-bit computer and has been used in many professional applications. Atari even supports the new YC standard for Super VHS. If you have access to more sophisticated video equipment, a Virtuoso show can be mixed with material from other sources. The only limit is your imagination.
Hooking up an Atari computer to a video cassette recorder (VCR) is easy Connect the television cable from the Atari to the VCR antenna input for passable results. But using the VCR's direct video and audio inputs works much better. See this story's sidebar for more detailed instructions on Atari-VCR connections.
There's really no way to do full justice to Virtuoso in a magazine review. I encourage you to get the public domain player and check out some available performances. The early shows are simple, but even these demonstrate the potential of the system.
If you are an Atari-using artist or musician, you really should invest $49.95 in Virtuoso to experience the creative worlds it opens up. Like all rich artistic media, Virtuoso can be learned in a few hours, but it will take months to master the software's capabilities and years to fully explore its vast possibilities.
DESKTOP PERFORMANCE STUDIO
123 Duke Ellington Blvd.
New York, NY 10025
$49.95, 64K disk (XLIXE only)
CIRCLE 289 ON READER SERVICE CARD
Longtime Antic contributor Charles Cherry squeezed in this important review while writing rush documentation for the OSS-designed ADOS operating system which will be shipped with Atari's new double-capacity. triple-fast XF551 disk drive.