Music is one area where the Spectrum - particularly since the 128K - is beginning to shine.
Now. after Cheetah's Spectrum sampler comes another potentially very exciting music peripheral - Ram Electronics' Music Machine.
Music Machine is a very sophisticated, yet low-cost (£49.95), hardware and software device which lets you sample and edit sounds and musical notes, store them, and play them back.
Its pedigree is interesting, too. The Music Machine has been developed by a group of ex-Sinclair employees - calling themselves Flare - and much of the development work on Music Machine was apparently originally intended for use in Sinclair's abortive Amiga-bashing Spectrum compatible - the Loki.
The Music Machine, like the Specdrum, has circuitry to play digitally recorded sounds into an amplifier.
Unlike the Specdrum, it also has the wherewithal to record sounds, and can be linked to external synthesisers or other music machines. This is due to the inclusion of a full MIDI interface. MIDI is a standard adopted by synthesiser manufacturers, much the same as RS232 for computers but a lot faster and easier to use. It allows any synth to drive any other synth, sequencer or drum machine similarly endowed. It's proved very popular, and few professional electronic musical products of the last couple of years lack the facility.
Before launching into the review, it should be made clear that the hardware and software tested were preproduction, and thus prone to a bug or two. This has meant that I couldn't test a couple of features. Ram assured me that everything will be hunky-dory at launch.
Setting up the Music Machine is painless. It plugs into the Spectrum like any other peripheral, and it has a headphone socket, so you don't have to bother with amplifiers if you don't want to. The software comes on cassette, but has a Transfer to Microdrive function. On powering up and loading the software, you're confronted with the main menu: various options, each selected by a single keypress. Also shown is the list of sound samples currently in the machine (up to eight at once), and the amount of free space in milliseconds. This free space indicator is visible on most options, so you can fine-tune the space given to each sample.
Sampling is the name given to the process of recording a sound into Ram. It's as simple as using a tape recorder: place the microphone (included with the MM) near the sound, set the level by twiddling a knob on the box, and press a button. Level setting is made easy by a on-screen meter, and the sampling facilities, so you're limited to purely natural noises. By moving a pair of pointers, you can select any portion of your recording. This serves two functions, firstly you can get just the drum sound (say) from a bit of music, and you liberate the rest of the memory which was taken up with unwanted bits of the sample.
Memory is a problem with the Music Machine. For various reasons, only the top 32K of a 48K Spectrum's memory con be used to hold sample data. Even though the software leaves as much of that 32K free as possible, that's still only enough for around a second of sound. Dividing that amongst eight samples is not a lot. It's not quite as bad as it seems, though. For a start, drum sounds are almost always only about a tenth of a second long, so there's enough there to get a very useful kit (a set of drum samples comes with the software, by the way). The software takes great pains to liberate any unused space, and dynamically allocates any it finds to the sample you're currently working on. You can have just one sample of a second in length, or three of 200 milliseconds and one of 400, or whatever you fancy. But it's still not a lot.
Once you've got your sample (or samples), there are three or four things you can do. It all depends on whether you want to treat the sounds as drums or music. If you want to lay down some riddim, then the Music Machine allows you to play up to three different sample at once, and arrange them in bars and into tunes.
Like this, it acts very much as a Specdrum, but the facilities for composition are rather easier to use.
If you're feeling melodic, then you can arrange notes on a stave with a strange sort of quasi-musical notation, and build up a tune that way. In this mode, you're limited to one sample, but you can play it at two different pitches simultaneously. And if you're into live performances, you can either turn the Spectrum into a piano keyboard (one octave, with shifts up and down an octave on the Caps and Symbol Shift keys) and play a sample on that, or turn a few keys in a drumpad and pat it with your fingers just like a drum kit.
There are troubles with these live play options: the Q key, which is used to Quit from the option, is adjacent to the keyboard/drum kit section, and is very easy to press by accident, and there's a buzz on the sound when using the piano keyboard. When a sample is played at a different pitch from the original, the length of the note changes, just like a tape player at the wrong speed. Better software would keep note lengths constant, but you can make a sample loop, or repeat until you release a key. With care, this can produce some very plausible choral effects.
As for the sound quality, again, technicalities rear their ugly heads every which way. There are two magic figures for the quality of a digital audio system like the Music Machine, - sample rate and word width. For true hi-fi, you need at least 30-40 kHz for the rate, and 12 bits for the word width. The Music Machine uses 19.4 kHz and 8 bits.
While this means that, no, you can't sample Dire Straits and not tell the difference, it does give a respectable response, and you do get a (reasonably) useful amount of space for your digital doings. Some care has to be taken to get the levels right, as the MM seems sensitive to hiss or overload, but properly done the sound ain't at all bad. On a side-by-side comparison with the Specdrum, using the samples supplied, nine out of ten housepersons couldn't really tell the difference.
I'm not sure it's quite good enough for serious musician-type noises, but it's more than adequate for the discerning hobbyist. And I wouldn't really be surprised to her the MM crop up on an album or two.
Then there's the aforementioned MIDI. On my sample, it wasn't working reliably, but in it's good moments I could plug in my trusty Casio CZ101 synth and play samples from the keyboard, just like a Fairlight.
The MM can also play a drum track whilst outputting two voices of music via MIDI, or drive a drum machine and play two voices of music. There's no analogue sync available, however, and this could pose a problem as MIDI hasn't percolated down quite as far as the budget drum machines yet. The sequencer facilities are rather limited, also, and there's no way of storing incoming MIDI information which is a big shame.
The last thing the MM does is act as a digital delay line. Speak into the microphone, and the requisite number of milliseconds later your voice reappears from the depth of the Spectrum. There's no feedback provided, so for reveberation and echo effects the microphone has to be within hearing distance of a loudspeaker.
Maybe you've noticed that the manual hasn't been mentioned yet. That's because the pre-release notes that came with the MM were accurate, well written and helpful. They did the job well.
The bottom line approaches. I spent a good weekend fiddling with the MM, and enjoyed myself no end.
The hardware is capable and compact, and obviously able to make nice noises.
The software that comes with it is easier to criticise, it does a lot of things moderately well but nothing splendidly. It would have been nice to have a better sequencer, a 'draw a waveform' facility and various preset waveforms.
I also get the feeling that the Music Machine would be a lot happier with at least 128K Ram; an ordinary Spectrum is just a little too restrictive.
The Music Machine is very good value for money, methinks. At £49.95 it does do an awful lot, but it is limited by the software if you want to do anything more than just play around.
That's a niggle - it must have the highest fun-per-pfennig rating of any Spectrum peripheral to date.
The Music Machine package.
Using the Spectrum as a keyboard. Letters corresponds to Qwerty keyboard notation. Only one octave though.
Further editing of sounds.
VDU can display the sampled waveform graphically.
Assigning channels to MIDI.
Composing music using special music machine notation.
Editing drum patterns and tempo changes.
External sync of tracks.
The keyboard as drum kit.