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
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 5½
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
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 /
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
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.