Author Topic: pc in music (dec 1995 article)  (Read 2009 times)

Offline chrisNova777

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pc in music (dec 1995 article)
« on: July 29, 2017, 07:12:13 AM »

A Windows multimedia (MPC) based hard-disk recording system needs at least a DX4 or Pentium PC to get more than two tracks

The last decade has seen a revolution in the use of personal computers in all aspects of society. The impact of any kind of computing on people's daily life a decade ago was almost invariably behind the scenes and at work; the home was a blissful haven from the chattering of dot-matrix printers, the chugging of floppy disk drives and the whine of VDUs. Today the personal computer has insinuated itself into all aspects of our daily lives, to the point where Microsoft can cheerfully spend millions of dollars hyping up an operating system upgrade to the general public. And, of course, these technological developments have also changed the way we make music.

Today's big three personal computers for music, the PC, Apple Mac and the Atari ST, don't get a mention in either the editorial or the adverts of the first ever issue of SOS. This is not to say that SOS ignored the use of computers in music, since a BBC Model B sequencing package -- the UMI-2B -- received a major review. This undoubtedly reflected the relative expense of the American computer systems at the time.

When SOS first hit the news stands in late 1985, the IBM PC had been around for four years, while the PC-AT and the Apple Mac had been available for about a year. The Atari ST was the new kid on the block, and was meant to steal the Macintosh's growing market by being cheaper and faster. In terms of music support, the PC was actually doing quite well, at least in North America. In fact, one of the first professional sequencers available on any platform -- Sequencer Plus from Octave Plateau (who later merged with Voyetra) -- was developed on, and for, the PC.

The way we use computers today in the business of making music mirrors how the 'state of the art' has developed. Computer technology now allows us to approach our music making in a variety of ways that were only available to professional studios a mere decade ago. The development of the IBM PC and its clones as arguably the most popular personal computing platform has driven this change to a great extent. By reducing prices and making the technology do more, the PC has given the competing platforms something to strive for, and generally 'improved the breed' of all personal computers. But computers are complicated beasts, and the PC -- possibly due to its very adaptability -- is especially so.

Putting together a music system using a PC means making decisions that ST or Mac users wouldn't need to make until they needed a far more advanced system. The glittering prize is that the PC musician has far greater range of possible music system configurations. The 'wooden spoon' is that he/she can get lost amongst the poor documentation, misleading sales pitches and disingenuous specifications -- lies, damn lies, and statistics. There's nothing inherently difficult about the process -- it's just a matter of getting the right information.

The PC is designed to have an 'open' architecture, which means that there's a lot of competition in the marketplace, and you're not tied to a particular vendor. These factors make the PC a very flexible and relatively cheap computer to use for music applications, since fairly small companies can address specialised niche markets -- such as MIDI interface cards, hard disk recording, and so on. The downside of the PC's flexibility is that you need to have more of an idea what's going on under the bonnet to choose the PC most suitable for your needs.


The PC is actually a family of computers, which started in 1981 with the introduction of the original IBM PC. This machine was based around an Intel 8088 microprocessor running at 4.77MHz and was designed to compete with the business computers of the time, namely 8-bit CP/M computers with 64Kbytes of RAM running at 4MHz. Much to IBM's chagrin, the design was hijacked by other computer manufacturers, who produced PC 'clones' which were not only cheaper, but usually better than the IBM original.

Since then, Intel have produced a series of processors derived from the original 8086 chip, but progressively faster and using larger data word sizes. In 1984 IBM introduced the PC-AT (PC-Advanced Technology), which is the basis of the Industry Standard Architecture (or ISA) used by most of today's PCs. The current head of the Intel family is the Pentium, a 32-bit processor running at 60 or 66MHz. Incidentally, the only reason it's not called a 80586 is that Intel are not able to register a number as a trademark.


One of the most confusing aspects of the PC is the number of different ways of looking at the RAM -- again, historical reasons are responsible for the confusion. The original PC had a fairly conventional design for its memory map: its program memory started from zero, with the operating system placed at the top of the available RAM. Since part of the operating system was stored in ROM, which was placed at the top of the memory map (just below the 1Mb mark), this left 640Kb of usable RAM. Time and technology moved on, but the massive popularity of the PC and the requirement that old DOS software should still be able to run has meant that this basic memory map is still used. In the days before Windows, two competing systems -- expanded and extended memory -- were developed to allow DOS programs to use the memory above the 1Mb mark. In Windows you shouldn't need to worry about the type of memory being used, since Windows provides memory management for its applications. So the three types of memory are:

• Conventional memory.
• Upper memory blocks (UMBs).
• Extended and/or expanded memory.

The conventional memory is the 640Kb of RAM that can be used directly by DOS programs, the upper memory blocks are chunks of free RAM located between the top of DOS memory and the 1Mb point, and expanded and extended memory is located above the 1Mb point and is used by DOS programs. (DOS 6 provides a nifty utility called MEMMAKER that will automatically optimise your PC's configuration for the RAM you have installed.) It's worth noting that a PC's memory figure includes the 640K and the UMBs, so that a 4Mb PC will only have around 3Mb of extended memory.


The PC has three major areas of use in the musical arena: notation, MIDI sequencing, and digital recording. While software can address more than one of these areas, the requirements for each are somewhat different.

In some ways, the production of musical scores is the most obvious use of the PC in music. Most scoring programs also add MIDI auditioning and import/export functions so that you can audition what's on the page and transfer the music to and from the real world. However, requirements of a listenable performance and a good-looking page are entirely different, so beware of applications that purport to offer both. There are some good combined notation and sequencing packages around, but they tend to be pretty expensive.

Since all decent notation packages on the PC run under Windows, you need at least a 486 PC, the faster the better. This is because the scoring application needs to format and display a lot of graphics, and a faster machine will reduce the amount of time spent waiting for the screen to update. If you plan to use the scores in other DTP packages, you need to check that you can produce the finished score as a Postscript file, since this is the only reliable way to transfer the images.

If you want to make music rather than produce a musical score, one of the simplest ways to produce high quality sound with the PC is to use it to control a MIDI synthesizer. This method of making music is attractive for a number of reasons, the major one being that there is a wealth of different sound generation technologies available at quite a reasonable price. It also makes sense to use a dedicated sound synthesizer, as the amount of work the computer needs to do to produce reasonable sound quality prevents it from doing anything much else. Of course, the synthesizer doesn't have to be external to the PC -- a growing number of PC expansion card-based synthesizers is becoming available.

The processing requirements of a MIDI-only system are really quite modest in terms of the amount of data involved, and for a DOS-based system, a 286 or fairly modest 386 is really all you need. However, under Windows, the operating system can slow things down somewhat, so you should really consider at least a 486SX/33 to get reasonable performance. One of the major advantages of using a Windows sequencer is the range of sophisticated MIDI cards that can be handled. Some modern synthesizer modules can even be directly interfaced to the PC via the serial port.

The most exciting recent application for the PC is directly recording digital audio onto the PC's hard disk. There are two basic routes for this:
- Use the facilities built directly into Windows as part of the MPC (Multimedia PC) standard;
- Use dedicated add-on audio hardware.

The second option will give superior facilities and performance, but at greater cost. The only advantage of going the MPC route is that you can incrementally 'scale-up' your system as your requirements increase, and prices come down.


A Windows MPC soundcard comprises three basic elements:

• A sampler section for recording/playback of sound;

• A computer-controlled mixer, for combining audio from various sources;

• An internal music synthesizer.

Most soundcards also have a joystick port, the capability of adding a MIDI port and quite often a CD-ROM interface.

Traditionally, the synth section found on most of the 'standard' (or games-derived) soundcards was based on a Yamaha design known as the OPL3 chipset. This technology is based on FM synthesis, which now sounds rather dated. Quite a number of recent soundcards have augmented FM (or replaced it) with a wavetable syntheziser, which uses instrument samples stored in ROM (Read Only Memory) or RAM (Random Access Memory). Currently the better soundcards for music use wavetable synthesis, but the quality of the sound depends on both the amount of memory and the quality of the audio data recorded onto them. The cheaper wavetable cards skimp on both. While ROM-based wavetable cards are fine for reproducing music that has been designed for MPC or General MIDI (GM) players, if you want to get more creative, you really need a RAM-based card. These cards allow you to design your own sounds (often based on Windows .WAV files) using software supplied with the cards.

The future seems to be with DSP-based synthesis: Wave Guide, a type of physical modelling from Media Vision and Yamaha, creates a software model of an instrument; and its sound output is a side effect of the calculations, so you design the instrument rather than the sound it makes. Both wavetable and Wave Guide technology is available on daughter boards that can be added onto an existing soundcard fitted with a 'Wave Blaster'-style connector, so it may be possible to improve your soundcard's MIDI sounds. For serious musical use, check out cards from Turtle Beach, Roland and the new daughter board from Yamaha.


The PC has changed a lot since it was introduced in 1981, and in the process has become the most popular computer ever made. A couple of years ago, Microsoft were saying that there were over 30 million Windows users, and since it has been estimated that there is a four-to-one piracy rate, this means that the figure could have been as high as 120 million. As for the future of the PC, the Intel architecture shows no sign of running out of steam, so there's probably a new processor just around the corner to handle those applications which need even more power than is available today. So there's life in the old workhorse yet.


• SX & DX
There are a number of terms which refer to the PC's processor, the most common being SX/DX. When Intel introduced the 32-bit 80386, they produced a variant called the 80386 SX which only used a 16-bit data path. This simply meant that 32-bit values needed two memory reads by the processor, thus making the PC run slower than one using a full 386. The full version is usually referred to as a DX, but I don't think this is an 'official' Intel designation. Confusingly, when it comes to the 80486 processor, the SX and DX suffixes mean something entirely different: a DX processor has a built-in maths co-processor, while the SX has none.

You might also come across clock doubling (DX2) or tripling (DX4), and Overdrive sockets with 486 PCs. Clock doubling (and tripling) means that the Processor runs at twice (or three times) the speed of its associated 'external' circuitry, theoretically giving you improved performance without needing very fast memory. So a 66MHz DX2 PC is a machine running at 33MHz with a processor playing in double time, and a 100MHz DX4 is playing triple time. In my opinion, speeding up the processor clock is a bit of a con, since you don't get full advantage of the higher clock speed -- under most conditions you should get better performance out of a 50MHz DX than a 66MHz DX2 PC.

The inclusion of an Overdrive socket on a 486-based PC means that you should be able to upgrade to a cut-down Pentium processor -- the P24T. There are two versions currently available, with processor clock speeds of 63MHz and 83MHz respectively. The upgrade won't give you a fully-featured Pentium system, but Overdrive does give you the option of improving the performance of a 486DX PC without replacing the motherboard. Be aware that to take full advantage of the Pentium local bus architecture your PC needs to be PCI bus-compliant, and you may find that you'll get better performance on older 486s by getting a 486DX4 instead.

An important part of the PC's motherboard is the expansion buss, a set of connectors that allow you to plug in additional controller cards, interfaces, etc. The original PC had 8-bit slots, while the PC-AT increased this to 16-bit, maintaining compatibility with the original 8-bit cards. This PC-AT buss design is now more commonly referred to as the ISA buss. The ISA buss usually transfers data at around 5Mb per second, and can act as a bottleneck in the performance of the PC. To get around this, some PCs are fitted with the VESA local buss (VL-buss), which allows graphics adapters and network cards to take full advantage of the PC's speed.

Another contender in the PC buss stakes is the PCI buss from Intel, which not only cures the speed problem but will give compatibility with the Apple PowerPC. Support for music cards is more or less limited to ISA, though Roland do a PCI-based soundcard designed for notebook PCs.

Most desktop PCs have between three and eight standard ISA slots, and it's important to check how many of these are taken up with basic service cards; a PC with five slots looks less attractive if three of them are taken up by the disk controller, VGA and serial/printer port.

Perhaps the most important component of the PC after the motherboard is the hard disk sub-system. Most PCs are supplied with AT-buss or IDE drives, which allow you to install up to two drives. The IDE drive provides very cost-effective mass storage. Most of the smaller desktop PCs have the disk controller built onto the motherboard, but tower and larger desktops tend to have a separate IDE card. An alternative to IDE is SCSI for your main hard disk, especially attractive if you want to buy a SCSI CD-ROM drive. SCSI drives are traditionally more expensive than their IDE equivalents but the price differential is becoming less significant as SCSI becomes more popular.



There are any number of soundcards available for the PC that conform to the MPC audio standard. However, there's a lot of confusion about, so I thought I'd try to give a concise definition of what the various bits do, and what software you can use to get a sound out of your PC. Without further ado, here's my pocket guide to how you can make music on your PC (depending on what's loaded into the back...)

Hardware: OPL3 FM-based synth.

Software: MIDI sequencer.

Production Tips: There's not a lot you can do with this except make semi-musical noises. Ideal if you want your music to sound as though it's been created on a Stylophone.

Hardware: ROM-based wavetable synth.

Software: MIDI sequencer.

Production Tips: Useful for producing orchestrations or demos using 'standard' instruments.

Hardware: RAM-based wavetable synth.

Software: MIDI sequencer, sample editor.

Production Tips: This type of card can be used for creating personalised sounds. You can also sample short segments of music and use the sequencer to loop the sample, for breakbeats, etc.

Hardware: 8-bit digital audio replay.

Software: MOD file editor and player.

Production Tips: An MOD file uses short samples to produce the sound, transposing them on-the-fly to give the tune. Some of these are very impressive but the editing interface is usually pretty primitive -- more suited to a train spotter than a musician.

Hardware: 16-bit digital audio replay.

Software: Hard disk recording.

Production Tips: Use your hard disk as a sound storage medium, effectively turning your PC into a tape recorder. The number of tracks will depend on the power of your PC/soundcard combination (some cards have independent processing power) and the software, unless you use specialist HD recording hardware. With a Pentium you could expect to get up to eight tracks. To record multiple tracks successfully, your soundcard needs to be able to record and play back simultaneously, though some software allows you to use two soundcards.

Hardware: External MIDI instruments

Software: MIDI sequencer, synth voice editors, sample editors.

Production Tips: Use your PC to control a MIDI studio. As well as making music, you can use the system to design synth and sampler sounds, downloading the sounds to the external modules via MIDI or SCSI.

Hardware: Dedicated hard disk recorder

Software: Proprietary software supplied with hardware.

Production Tips: Use your PC as a high-spec digital multitrack recorder. The use of additional hardware gets around any PC data throughput limitations. The facilities offered are limited only by the hardware chosen, and your budget. These systems invariably require that you buy dedicated disk storage for your audio data.



Which processor you should look for depends on your budget and what you want to do. Most MIDI applications don't require a great deal of processing power, and if you're looking for a cheap second-hand system or have an old 286, you can get satisfactory performance using a DOS-based application such as Voyetra's Sequencer Plus. Using Windows immediately ups the necessary requirements to a fast 386SX or 386(DX) PC due to the extra load on the processor.

A Windows multimedia (MPC) based hard-disk recording system needs at least a DX4 or Pentium PC to get more than two tracks (unless you choose to add a DSP-enhanced system like Soundscape or SADiE.) These systems reduce the PC's load by giving the audio processing to a dedicated Digital Signal Processor. So the first rule in choosing a PC is to determine how much processor power your system will require. Here's a run-down on the processors you'll come across and what they can be used for.


8088 16/8 Forget it!
8086 16Turbo (8Mhz or better) PC can be used for simple DOS MIDI system.
80286 16 Basis of PC-AT, useful for DOS-based MIDI systems.
80386SX 32/16 Sometimes referred to as a '286 that works properly'; can be used for basic Windows MIDI systems.
80386(DX) 32 Windows MIDI and hard disk recording systems.
80486SX 32 Current 'entry level' for new PC's, suitable for just about any music application.
80486DX 32 Same as an SX, except it has a built-in maths co-processor, suitable for heavy CAD applications and Cubase Windows.
DX2 & DX4 These variants of the 486 up the processing power by doubling (DX2) or tripling (DX4) the clock speed on the CPU chip. Any external memory or I/O accesses are performed at the lower clock speed, degrading the performance.
Pentium Suitable for any application.