GOING A LITTLE MIDI
Midi is the much vaunted link for synthesisers, drumboxes and other musical hitekkery. If your synth's got it, you can record, edit, sequence and generally much around with music as much as you like; without needing to go anywhere near a tape recorder. But you do need a computer with Midi.
Normally the Spectrum doesn't have one but a Spectrum with Cheetah's interface fits the bill precisely.
And the precise bill happens to be £49.95. for which you gift a black box, Midi lead, software and instructions. The box fits on the hack of your Spectrum, the lead connects the box and your synth. the Software loads in from tape and transfers to microdrive and the instructions get read. No surprise there.
On loading, a list of options appears, selectable by cursor keys and the now traditional menu bar. First choice is 'Record a verse' which allows you to tinkle away on your Fairlight and have it recorded for posterity.
The software treats all music as a collection of verses: once you've recorded one you can add notes to it, edit the existing contents and play it back in a number of ways. You can link verses together to make up songs, or have them repeat at will ad nauseam.
Having recorded a verse or more, you can get the computer to play back what you've got so far on your synthesiser while you record another track. If your synth can handle it, you can play this backing on a different voice, so building up a complete piece of music. I used a Casio CZ-101 for this review - capable of four voices at once - and managed some rather fetching orchestrations of familiar and much-loved melodies from Philip Glass et al. (Al's stuff wasn't so good.)
Great, but what if your timing is, ahem, a little looser than that perfection for which you (as a true musician) constantly strive? The software is a pretty undemanding creature. It will spare no effort in trying to make the notes it receives fit into what it understands about musical timing. Called quantisation, it tightens up your timing to a given note value - use it carefully - given too much license it will turn syncopation into strict Sousa. But a well judged sprinkling of quantisation can really help those whose quavers are a touch quaint.
The Midi editor I found a little strange at first (bit like SU, really). Instead of the familiar stave, the editor shows a section of a verse three bars wide and an octave high. Notes in the verse show as horizontal lines: their position vertically being their pitch, and the length of line being their length in time. You can edit notes by choosing their pitch with the up and down cursor keys, and their start and end with Z and X. Confused yet?
After a pitched battle with the editor for about half an hour (more and more like SU...), I began to like the idea, and it soon became a fairly natural way of working. It's closer to the way Midi treats music than normal musical notation is, and soon becomes less of a barrier to hand-editing chunks of data than trying to work with crotchets and quavers would be. A nice touch is the ability to add notes during the edit from the computer or the synthesiser. It would have been nicer to hear the current contents of the editor screen without having to leave the edit. Maybe next time, Cheetah?
Verses belong to tracks. There are eight tracks, each with 18 verses, and they can be assigned to different Midi channels. Depending on your set-up, different synths tend to have different channels. Changing the synth a bit of music plays on is then just a matter of changing channel numbers, and it becomes too simple for words to remix a song.
Getting down to the minor hits of the package now. There's a metronome that snaps its fingers in the background to keep the band (you) together. There's a Midi delay, which sends out data after a wait. Hooking this back into a synth with a couple of second's delay can be an interesting way of building up a short sequence. It can also drive you mad and end up sounding like a New Age record (gulp).
If you've got a drum machine you can hook it up to the interface. The tempo set on the drum machine will govern the tempo the interface plays at. Indispensable stuff - if you've got a drumbox.
That's about it for the software. The hardware is hardy enough. During the course of this review I spoke to the designer, Bob Powell, a couple of times while sorting what turned out to be a duff Spectrum (blush), and learned a few things about the design. It's clever. The circuit itself is just two chips and a smattering of small components. Considering the performance, that's nice work. It should certainly make for a reliable product.
I think this is the first Midi package for the Spectrum that I've seen that is genuinely useful musicwise.
I could niggle about the software (no indication of memory capacity left, inconsistency in the controls) and the instructions (bit brief and dense), but computer musos should wring fine things from the package.
If you've got a Midi keyboard then I wouldn't hesitate too long before bolting this to the back of your Spectrum.