Music Maestro Please

... two music programs reviewed by Phil Brown



Issue 13

Jan/Feb 85

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Playing music on a computer is no substitute to learning or playing an instrument but computer music can be fun and, if you find the right program, can be educational. I will take a look here at two of the lesser known music programs for the Atari. POKEY PLAYER is more suited to the user who just wants to add some music to his programs without learning too much about music whilst ADVANCED MUSIC SYSTEM II will also cater for the more serious music enthusiast.

POKEY PLAYER: The program is named after the IC in Atari computers which generates sound and enables the user to program the computer to play music using three `voices'. The documentation is quite comprehensive, and certainly adequate insofar as using the facilities of the program are concerned. One needs to know some basics about written music to be able to program a computer to play it, however `user-friendly' the program is, and the documentation with POKEY PLAYER attempts to introduce music to a beginner in the subject. It does a fair job with respect to the program. From a purely musical point of view however, it is full of mistakes and misleading suggestions at least with regard to accepted musical education in England. I don't know if there is a different system in the U.S.A but I would doubt it. So, if you are new to music, take POKEY PLAYER's documentation as a rough guide only to music theory.

The disk contains a full directory of data, mostly demonstration tunes, but also an Editor, Compiler, Merge program and a Player. Three of these are BASIC programs, the Compiler is a binary file. There is also another program for advanced users.

Booting up the disk with BASIC installed loads and runs the Player, listing all the tunes available and asking for one's choice. There is a wide selection of styles, classical or modern, which show off the capabilities of the
program and the computer. Some of the lively tunes and the baroque style of Bach and Handel come across very well, but the slower melodies tend to emphasise the raw square wave sound used by the computer.

Now, what about typing in some music? One enters the Editor program. This is a very clever program, using a custom display list, redefined characters and Player Missile Graphics. The perfect choice of colours and graphic detail give this a totally professional feel and the use of the joystick to enter notes is convenient and very easy to learn. Having the notes displayed on bass or treble staves, on a graphic keyboard and by name is very helpful to ensure that the correct note goes in. I found it quick to enter notes straight off of sheet music but there is a problem in checking the entry as there is no facility to listen to the notes just entered. One hears the pitches as they are stored but not in succession or time. The joystick is moved up or down to select a parameter - rests, pitches, note values or ties and from side to side to raise or lower the value of a note. Pressing the joystick button enters a note. The keyboard is also used to delete/insert, load/ save, label and move measures and set tempo and sound quality.

I found the error checking and editing of entered tunes a major drawback with the program. One has to enter three voices before the program can play a tune, even if it means entering nothing but rests! (An easy way around this is to save the first tune as. V1, duplicate this twice using DOS and rename the additional two files using. V2 and. V3. Ed.) If the tune is playing too slowly for example, one has to reload the Editor program, then reload each of the three voices in turn, adjust the tempo on each and then save all three again. Next reload the Compiler (from DOS) and compile the three voices into one, then load the Player to hear the tune again. If it is still not right .... well you need patience! The editing of incorrect notes/tempos is so involved as to be an unacceptable time consumer for me and I suspect will be an aggravation to other users.

To end on a positive note, the music files are very compact, shown by a full disk directory but not a full disk, so if an application requires compact music files then one will have to perfect the art of entering music note by note without mistakes! There are 50 tunes on the disk so even if you do find entering your own tunes difficult there is plenty to listen to!

Editors note: One of the biggest advantages of POKEY PLAYER not covered in the manual, is that the tunes can be added very easily to your own BASIC programs and played whilst the program is busy doing other things. In a later issue I hope to present a program that will allow you to take any of the
tunes from the disk and add them to your own programs to be played whilst your program is running.

ADVANCED MUSIC SYSTEM II: The documentation begins "It is oriented towards those familiar with music notation and basic musical terms". There is no instruction on how to read music but there are plenty of books available for the beginner in music. I think it is much better to get a book specifically to learn music theory and then tackle music programming. If you are interested enough to want to use your Atari as a player, you will probably have a desire to learn about the theory of music or will have a basic knowledge from school.

Although this is an advanced music system, the instructions are very clear in showing one how to use the program, giving plenty of examples. The system handles 4 voices over 5 octaves and is so efficient that it can play as fast as 2100 notes a second! Envelope control gives 3 levels of note decay, one can change the speed using a joystick while the music is playing, recording sync is provided for multi-tracking and the editor is fantastic! The system supports key signature, time signature (up to 32/32!), whole notes through to 64th notes (semibreve to hemidemisemiquaver!) and odd note durations such as double dotted notes, triplets, septuplets and beyond. The editor performs 'musical syntax' check on note entry and, importantly, on whole measure (bar) entry. As soon as you have entered any notes you can press P to hear what they sound like, at whatever speed you choose. A very helpful feature when the notes are fresh in mind.

The program is autoboot disk, also available on cassette, written in machine language with several demo pieces, all well known classical pieces, each showing off a different capability, from Flight of the Bumblebee through Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor to a Chopin Piano piece. As each piece of music is played there is a 51/z octave keyboard on the screen and one can see all the notes moving highlighted by a different colour for each voice - very impressive.

After booting the disk, the user is presented with a menu of functions available, including DOS functions. The most important is the Editor. Choice of this presents another screen where music can be typed in and edited. All entry is via the keyboard and it took me a while to get used to this, especially the American terms for notes such as halfnote, quarternote, eighthnote meaning, respectively, a minim, crotchet and quaver. It would probably help to draw a diagram of all notes with their English and American equivalents if you felt at all unsure. Also, since the octave of the pitch has to be specified by a number (1 - 6), it would help to draw up a diagram showing bass and treble cleffs and the places where the octaves change number. There is a prompt at the bottom of the screen to remind one of the note entry format which is NOTE / OCTAVE / DURATION / ENVELOPE / VOLUME.

These parameters all remain constant except the NOTE, so if the music has several notes of the same length, you only have to type the note letter (A - G). Facilities are there to repeat notes and phrases and delete notes or whole bars. I found it slow going at first, thinking of note names and values, then typing each one in, but after 2 or 3 sessions I became quicker and the last piece I typed in (one of Bach's Gavottes for 2 voices) took only two hours from start to finish - and that was on my 400 using my two finger typing technique!
It is very good practice using this program to enter music because it makes one follow correct musical convention. For example, you are not allowed on to the next bar until the present one is full. Anyone studying for music theory exams will appreciate the possibilities, such as entering ornaments, which AMS II handles a treat If you would like to hear a quintuplet of quavers played against 4 quavers, AMS II can do it! My fingers boggle at the screen watching Chopin's music being played!

Whatever program one uses to play music on the Atari, the end result will depend on how well the programmer understands the composition of music Altering the dynamics of each voice and the envelope of each note will make a big difference to the final sound and an efficient editor is vital to allow one to experiment with different ideas. With AMS II it is so easy to alter the tempo with a joystick and so get the right feel of the piece. This can be done for any number of bars and any combination of voices.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS: As with all computer programs it is sometimes asked "What is the point of it?" or "What use is it?". Apart from any amusement value, is there any point in playing music on a computer when one can buy pre-recorded music?

I have already mentioned the educational value of AMS II and this could be very important to some individuals. The actual sound isn't very good and the Atari does not have perfect pitch. The Atari can only generate raw square waves with these programs and this tends to be a bit harsh and uninteresting, even through a good hi-fi system, although to be fair, the varying envelopes and dynamics available do help. I recently patched the output of the Atari through my electronic organ, adding reverb, rotating loudspeaker, wah-wah etc. and the results were encouraging. There are interesting possibilities here. The ultimate would be to interface the Atari with the keyboard contacts so it could play the organ. This is done with other computers (e.g. the MIDI interface) so it must be possible with the Atari.

One can use music programs to generate parts of scores to play along with. This is a good discipline as Atari keeps perfect time and I can recommend this as a practical use.

One can type in difficult phrases to hear how they should sound. Music purists may not approve but I find it very helpful especially with some parts of Bach's music.

As a church organist I can look forward to the future with some trepidation and see my replacement being an Atari with a disk full of hymns, a disk of wedding music and a disk of funeral misic with the Minister having a joystick in the lecturn to increase the speed on cold days!

POKEY PLAYER is available from PAGE 6 price 6.95 and requires a 48k disk system.

ADVANCED MUSIC SYSTEM II is available from LOTSABYTES, 15445 Ventura Blvd, Suite 10G, Sherman Oaks, CA 91413, U.S.A. price $14.95 plus 15% shipping.