Welcome to No Limit Sound Productions

Company Founded
2005
Overview

Our services include Sound Engineering, Audio Post-Production, System Upgrades and Equipment Consulting.
Mission
Our mission is to provide excellent quality and service to our customers. We do customized service.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Granelli Audio Labs G5790 - Summer NAMM '09

EES PC-MIDI

1/4 PC MIDI Interface

Reviews : MIDI Interface


As PC musicians expand into the world of MIDI outside their computer casings, they'll find a few more MIDI outputs never go amiss. MARTIN WALKER enters a parallel dimension.



As reported in our recent roundup of PC MIDI Interfaces (see SOS August 1997), Cimple Solutions have recently started to market a 1-In/4-Out interface from manufacturers EES in Germany. It's an external device, which attaches to the parallel (printer) port on the PC, and comes in a neat but tough ABS casing, with a connector for the parallel printer port at one side, and a through connector to attach additional devices (such as your printer) on the other. (If you buy an interface without a through port, you'll either have to buy a parallel port switching box or expander card to simultaneously attach your printer -- around £15 -- or power-down and change the cables every time you want to print something.) A cable is provided so that you can place the interface a short distance from the PC, rather than trying to hang it off the printer port itself.

CONSTRUCTION & OPERATION



The PC-MIDI 1/4's MIDI sockets are all along one side, with a single MIDI In and then four identical MIDI Outs in a row. These are discrete outputs, each providing a totally separate 16 MIDI channels, giving a total of 64. Unusually, the PC-MIDI 1/4 case contains a mains power supply, and if the unit is powered up without the PC the MIDI input is passed 'thru' to Out 1, so that you can play attached modules without switching on your computer.



On the top, there are two LEDs: the red one initially comes on to show that mains power is reaching the unit, and the other lights up green when the interface is active, whereupon the red LED flashes if MIDI activity is detected. Driver installation from the floppy disk is fairly painless, although some of the text options on the review model were still in German at the time of the review (I have been promised that this will have been sorted, as well as the drivers being upgraded for multi-client use, by the time you read this issue of SOS). Once the driver has been installed, you need to tell it the settings of your parallel port (look in Device Manager first). Having clicked on the correct values (see screenshot, below), click on OK, and then reboot the PC to initialise the interface.



I decided to plug the unit into the chain of other devices that I already have hanging off my printer port (Cubase Score dongle, Waves Native Power Pack dongle, and an Epson Stylus Color printer), to see if anything untoward happened. I connected my devices in the order 'PC, dongles, MIDI interface, printer', and everything worked first time for me. However, in the interests of thoroughness, I persevered, and did manage to make Cubase throw a wobbly by reconnecting the devices in the order 'PC, MIDI interface, dongles, printer', as Cubase then refused to see its dongle. It seems that leaving the dongles nearest the computer is the way to do it. Some people have apparently had trouble with fast parallel ports recognising Cubase dongles (see the Steinberg web site for more details), but as long as your dongle worked before installing this interface, there seems no reason why it should not continue to do so afterwards.



Unlike some interfaces which provide no through port, this one allows everything to co-exist in relative harmony. This is because the MIDI interface is automatically disabled by the interface driver when you send the first byte to the printer, so there cannot possibly be any interaction. Whenever a subsequent MIDI application is run, a small utility automatically reactivates the interface. This all worked well for me, and the LEDs were useful for indicating current status.

SUMMARY



This is a robust interface that has sensible precautions designed into it, so that it works alongside other devices using the parallel port. It also seems to be the cheapest 1-In, 4-Out device currently available. Most people only need a single MIDI In, but nearly always need more outputs, so this interface ought to find a lot of potential customers, especially once the multi-client drivers have been finished. Sometimes the Cimple things are the best!  

Friday, May 30, 2014

Akai LPK25 & LPD8 - Summer NAMM '09

CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING

PC Musician Hardware Update

Technique : PC Musician




If you thought the MMX processor was still the last word in new technology, prepare to boldly go where your PC has never gone before. MARTIN WALKER looks at the many new families of PC chips, and explains their relevance to the musician.



So many new PC processor chips have been released during the last year that it's not surprising if many people are a bit confused. Almost everyone has heard about the Pentium MMX processor, particularly due to the controversy that followed its inauspicious launch directly after Christmas 1996. However, despite the promises of huge potential increases in performance, little software uses its powers directly even now, and still less of this software is relevant to PC musicians. Fortunately, most applications that are not specifically written to take advantage of the special facilities of MMX still show a typical 10% system speed improvement when run on an MMX system, compared to a system using a non-MMX chip of the same clock speed, largely due to the MMX's larger on-board cache size and design. For this reason, although Cubase VST does not require an MMX processor, its designers claim a 10-15% increase in performance if you have one installed. One application that does use MMX directly is Seer Systems' Reality software synth (which I reviewed in the November issue), and this shows a 30-40% improvement with MMX, over the same speed of non-MMX processor.



With the launches of other processors to rival the Pentium range, Intel have now removed the non-MMX ones from the current line-up. This leaves the Pentium 166MHz MMX as the entry-level model, with a new low price of about £100, so if you still haven't got one in your PC, it's well worth upgrading. Check first with your supplier that your motherboard supports the MMX processors directly (they need a 2.8V supply, rather than the 3.3V supply used by their predecessors). Most bought in the last 18 months should do so, and in this case you can just use a standard MMX processor. If not, you'll need an MMX Overdrive upgrade, which is a bit more expensive (see June's PC Notes for full details).



Since the Pentium 166MHz and 200MHz MMX models were released, they have been joined by a 233MHz model. Although many motherboards can run this one too, the faster the processor, the more current it takes, and some

"Most people agree that, of all upgrades, installing a new motherboard is the most fiddly."

motherboard power supplies have insufficient 'welly' to cope -- check your motherboard manual before purchase. Current prices are around £200 for the 200MHz chip and £300 for the 233MHz version. Don't buy a faster processor thinking that upgrading from a 166 to a 200MHz version will immediately give you a 20% improvement in overall system performance (200/166), because it doesn't work like that. Although the processor will be running 20% faster -- and I have certainly measured this improvement when running DMSS plug-ins -- the processor is only one link in a long chain of components inside your PC. Expect a real-world system improvement of more like 5% when upgrading from 166 to 200, and another 3-4% when moving from 200 to 233.



The other big processor launch from Intel this year was their Pentium II range, which is designed to succeed the Pentium Pro. The Pro traditionally had a 'professional' image, with support for multiple processors on the same motherboard for more power. It is generally acknowledged that the 233MHz Pentium MMX is probably about as fast as standard Pentiums are likely to go (although there is an AMD K6 model running at 300MHz), but the Pentium II range starts at 233MHz (around £400), with faster models at 266MHz (£500) and 300MHz (£650). They all incorporate the benefits of MMX technology but, in a complete departure from all previous designs, the 'II' is not just a plug-in chip, but a complete sub-assembly with cache memory and a huge attached heatsink, which is known as the 'Slot 1' format. This requires a completely new design of motherboard, leaving existing Pro owners with no plug-in upgrade path.



When it comes to other processing contenders, such as the K6 range from AMD, and the MX range from IBM/Cyrix, despite their MMX features (licensed from Intel in the case of AMD, and 'reverse engineered' with Cyrix) these are best avoided by musicians. When measuring audio performance with the majority of musical applications, my experience to date suggests that, despite their lower prices, the supposedly faster performance with most



GETTING BOARD



There are several choices when it comes to the physical dimensions and layout (form factor) of a PC motherboard. The most common boards, up to now, have been based on the 'Baby AT' layout, which has caused some problems for musicians. I have one in my current PC, and since the main CPU is in line with the card slots, its heatsink and fan prevent me from plugging in more than one full-length ISA expansion card (which is about 13 inches long). The mass of wiring attaching peripherals such as the I/O ports and floppy and hard drives to the motherboard also obscures the memory sockets, which makes it far more difficult to add more memory without unplugging everything.



To make things easier, a new design known as ATX has been available for about a year: this relocates the processor from the front of the motherboard to the rear and to the side, beneath the power supply. This allows full-length cards to be plugged into every available slot and, even more usefully for musicians, improves the cooling system. Rather than sucking in air from the front of the case by using an extractor fan in the power supply (which means that most processors still need an extra heatsink-mounted fan to blow air directly onto the processor, to keep it sufficiently cool), the ATX design reverses the process: air is pulled into the case by the power supply fan, then blown directly towards the adjacent processor. This means that many processors need no dedicated fan of their own, which removes a major noise-producing component from the studio environment.



From the manufacturer's point of view, ATX assembly costs are reduced, because the I/O sockets are an integral part of the motherboard. The only thing to watch out for is that ATX motherboards require a special case equipped with a different power supply from that of the more common Baby AT board, but these are relatively inexpensive -- see the 'Buying the Bare Bones' box.



mainstream applications simply does not translate to the rarefied world of HD audio and real-time plug-ins. Seer Systems measured the performance of their Reality software synthesizer: compared with their benchmark Pentium 200 (non-MMX), the Pentium 200 MMX came in at 133%, the AMD K6 233 at 92%, and the Cyrix MX200 (166MHz) at less than half the speed (46%). Incidentally, the Pentium Pro 200 measured 200%, and the Pentium II 266 came in at a staggering 273% -- nearly three times the speed. When it comes to music applications, it pays to have Intel Inside.



THE MOTHER OF ALL UPGRADES



Although many people have no idea what sort of motherboard they have inside their PC, anyone buying a new machine (or those DIY-ers who are happy to upgrade the more complicated bits) will need to know the options. Each motherboard is designed around one of several chipsets, consisting of between two and four Integrated Circuit chips, and most often designed by Intel (although there are several other manufacturers). The chipset used by your motherboard will determine the range of processors that you can plug in, the types of memory that can be used, and the hard disk performance.



The most significant choice is the processor, and for the majority of musicians at the moment this will normally be one designated as 'Socket 7'. Many processors will plug into a Socket 7, including all Pentiums, the AMD K5 and K6 ranges, and the IBM/Cyrix 6x86 and 6x86MX ranges. The 'Socket 8' standard is for plugging in Pentium Pro chips, but these have already been superseded by the Pentium II range, using the new 'Slot 1' format. These are the basic three choices for a motherboard, and each processor socket standard is supported by one or more chipsets. The chipset controls the flow of data to and from the components in your PC, such as the CPU, memory, hard drive, and any devices connected to either the ISA or PCI busses. Although a few motherboard manufacturers use chipsets from SIS, VIA and Opti, the majority rely on Intel's Triton series of chips.



The first chipset released by Intel for the Pentium was the 430FX (commonly known as the 'FX' or Triton). This has been superseded, first by the double launch of the 430HX and 430VX chipsets, and more recently by the 430TX. Most people probably have either HX or VX chipsets in existing PCs. The HX was also known as 'Triton II' (the 'H' is often referred to as High quality), and it offered increased support for up to 512Mb of RAM, as well as for dual processors. The 430VX (aka 'Triton III', and also referred to as the 'Value' model) has one advantage over the HX chipset: it supports up to 64Mb of SDRAM (Synchronous Dynamic RAM -- see 'Thanks for the Memory' section, later, for more detail). Both HX and VX series perform about 10% faster than the previous FX chips.



The latest TX chipset, which appeared in mid-1997, is supplied with most Socket 7 PCs sold today, and includes support for SDRAM (like the VX). More significantly, it also supports Ultra DMA/33 hard drives, which have a



BUYING THE BARE BONES



I recently spotted a very useful upgrade from PC suppliers Novatech which might be useful to you if you have an older PC in dire need of a few improvements. Novatech are now selling a 'Bare Bones' system, in both AT and ATX formats, which consists of a midi tower case with power supply, TX chipset motherboard, and floppy drive. The AT system costs £116 and the ATX (which will probably be more suitable for most musicians) is £222.



Most people agree that, of all upgrades, installing a new motherboard is the most fiddly, so as this has already been done all you need to do is plug in the easy bits. To complete your system, you can either buy a full set of components from Novatech, or simply cannibalise the majority of parts from your previous machine. These include the hard drive, CD-ROM drive, video card and RAM -- although, in keeping with the latest trends, the motherboard only has DIMM sockets, so this is your opportunity to upgrade to the latest SDRAM (see main text). Of course, you can carry on using your old monitor, keyboard and mouse. Finally (and the main reason for your upgrade), you can plug in a faster processor, such as a Pentium 200MHz MMX.



Novatech Bare Bones System £116 (AT)

or £222 (ATX) including VAT.

Novatech, Hamilton Road, Cosham, Portsmouth PO6 4PU.

0800 777300.

01705 322500.

Click here to email

novatech.co.uk



significantly better performance than their forbears. Finally, the TX chipset is often quoted as being optimised for MMX processors, although this is untrue -- only software using the extra MMX processor instructions will show a major benefit, and this does not rely on any component on the motherboard.



If you are using a Pentium Pro or Pentium II, the relevant chipsets are the 440FX (Natoma) and the 440LX. The more recent LX is the only one of the two to support SDRAM and Ultra DMA/33, along with the latest feature -- AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port). This allows users of heavy-duty 3D graphics to move vast quantities of graphic data at a much faster rate than the normal PCI buss allows (33MHz). AGP runs at 66MHz in its basic 1x mode, and links the main memory to that of the graphics card for faster throughput. The 2x mode achieves an effective clock speed of 133MHz, but both modes need a special AGP video card which fits in a new design of card slot. Frankly, few musicians are likely to benefit from AGP.



Although good motherboard design is vital for top performance, you are unlikely to see more than a 5% variation in overall performance between different models. This is not to be scoffed at, but expandability is far more important. Your choice of PC motherboard will determine the number of available slots for expansion cards and memory upgrades, and for a musician this is just as important as the final few percent of overall speed.



GETTING ON THE BUSS



One of the decisions facing manufacturers of expansion cards is whether to use the ISA or PCI buss. ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) has been around for a long time now -- IBM expanded it from an 8-bit to its current 16-bit width in 1984, when it introduced the 80286 processor. Nowadays the buss is still being used a great deal, even by

"Some motherboards are already showing a tendency to reduce support for the older ISA cards ""There does seem to be genuine evidence that occasional random PC crashes can sometimes be caused by cheap RAM running 'on the edge'."

recently introduced expansion cards (both DAL's V8 and Digital Wings' soundcards are ISA-based), but many believe its days are numbered. This is partly because of its lower maximum data rate. Most modern Pentium processors operate with a system speed of 66MHz, with the other computer busses synchronised to this. The processor itself works at a fixed multiple of the system speed -- so, for instance, a 133MHz device works at 2x the system speed, a 166MHz at 2.5x, a 200MHz model at 3x, and so on.



The 16-bit ISA buss, which runs at a usual speed of about 8.25MHz, has a maximum data rate of 16.5Mb/second. This might sound huge, but PCI runs at 33MHz (half the speed of the motherboard) and has a 32-bit width, which equates to 132Mb/second! Another major benefit of the PCI specification is that it can operate concurrently with the main PC processor -- the CPU can be processing data while the PCI buss is busy transferring data between other parts of the system. One of the attractions of the PCI buss to manufacturers is that it is cross-compatible with the Apple Mac; any PCI card should (theoretically) work on both platforms, as long as it has driver software available for each.



Although both busses can move loads of audio channels about (each mono 44.1kHz channel only requires 88.2Kb/second for a 16-bit audio signal), the faster the data can be shifted, the better. Nearly all modern graphics and hard disk controller cards are PCI for maximum performance, with the ISA buss being used for devices that don't need so much bandwidth, such as stereo soundcards, MIDI interfaces, and modems. Multi-channel audio cards tend to be of the PCI variety, especially since many sport DSP chips that can be used to offload some of the number-crunching from the PC's main processor, for real-time EQ and effects.



Some motherboards are already showing a tendency to reduce support for the older ISA cards; although you can still buy a large variety which have four each of ISA and PCI card slots (with one being shared, giving a total of seven simultaneous slots, which can be used as 4+3 or 3+4), some new motherboards are only supplying two ISA slots. Since many musicians are struggling to find space for all their existing ISA cards, this is something to watch out for when buying a new PC. In fact, Intel expect ISA-based audio to be generally phased out by the end of 1998, since it is more limited than PCI and is less configurable and manageable as well.



Ultimately, the PCI buss speed will increase still further. Although some motherboard chipsets already allow the 66MHz motherboard speed to be increased to 75MHz or even 83MHz, Intel do not guarantee their chipsets when running at these greater speeds, and you can run into other problems, since your expansion cards will still be running at half motherboard speed, and therefore beyond their rated spec. As the PCI buss speed rises to 37.5 and 41.5MHz respectively, reliability of the cards may be reduced, or some may refuse to work at all. Intel's new AGP architecture (mentioned in the motherboard section) allows graphics cards to run at the full speed of the motherboard, and even at double speed, but unless you are running heavy 3D graphics you are unlikely to see significant system improvements. The big push will come next year, when Intel introduce their Slot 2 (successor to the Slot 1, as currently used by the Pentium II), which will have a 100MHz PCI buss speed.



THANKS FOR THE MEMORY



When it comes to RAM, it's worth stressing how much better most Windows 95 PCs will perform with 32Mb rather than 16Mb. I noticed a huge difference when switching between applications after upgrading, since ideally Windows 95 likes to have 16Mb all to itself, and once you run an application you need more memory, so something has to be temporarily ferried off to the hard drive, to make more room. This allows you to run lots of applications, even when



CRYSTAL BALL GAZING



There seems to be a general consensus that the current Socket 7 system, with a 66MHz PCI buss, will support processors up to 300MHz, but no further. Currently the favourite multimedia systems are favouring Pentium 200MHz MMX, or AMD K6 processors at the same speed, although the K6 is not so useful for musicians, for the reasons given in the main text. The latest TX chipset is also likely to be the last one developed for this system. Certainly, industry pundits expect the Pentium II to take over in 1998, and for even the Pentium 200MMX to start to disappear about halfway through next year.



You can already buy a complete Pentium II 266MHz system for about £1600 including VAT, which points to prices of more like £1000 once we get into 1998. The beauty of the Pentium II is that it combines features of the Pentium Pro range (such as multiple processor support) with the MMX enhancements of the standard Pentium range that it will eventually replace. The next architecture for processors is called Slot 2 and features the 100MHz buss also mentioned in the main text. The working name of this processor is 'Deschutes' [also the name of a 1.6-million acre forest in Oregon, USA -- News Ed] and the launch model is planned for about the second quarter of 1998, with a 400MHz clock speed, and requiring a new chipset known as the 450NX. Faster versions of the Pentium II are also expected -- a 333MHz version early in 1998, which will use the same 66MHz buss as the current Pentium II models, followed by 350, 400, and 450MHz versions, all of which will need the 100MHz buss of the 440BX chipset.



you have run out of 'real' memory. The technique is known as virtual memory, with the portion of the hard drive used called a swap file. Once you have 32Mb of RAM, your swap file will remain fairly small, so switching between applications will become much faster.



However, the latest applications, such as Cubase VST, require a minimum of 24Mb of RAM, to provide all the memory buffers that allow so many channels of audio to be used. If there's one thing I've learnt over the years it's that when a minimum is mentioned, you will nearly always get significant benefits by doubling it. The amount of RAM recommended for Cubase VST is 32Mb, but on my system (which has 32Mb) only about 5Mb is left after I launch VST, so if you want to run another application (such as an sound editor, librarian, or software synthesizer) you'll soon be back into virtual territory. I'm going to upgrade to 48 or even 64Mb in the near future.



When it comes to memory types, there are two main packages: SIMMs and DIMMs. Modern SIMMs (Single In-line Memory Modules) have 72 pins and are used in pairs of the same value (for instance, a pair of 16Mb SIMMs will be needed for a 32Mb upgrade). Since most motherboards only provide four SIMM slots in total, this only allows you to upgrade once. However, popular SIMM sizes include 8, 16 and 32Mb, allowing you to install 16, 32, or 64Mb per pair respectively. DIMMs (Dual In-line Memory Modules), as their name suggests, provide the equivalent of two SIMMs in a single convenient 168-pin package. However, many motherboards only provide two DIMM sockets, so you are little better off when upgrading than with the SIMM type, although different sizes can be mixed at will.



Many motherboards provide both SIMM and DIMM sockets for memory, but few allow both types to be mixed, as memory must be installed in 'banks', and in most cases the SIMM and DIMM sockets are connected to the same banks, providing 'either but not both' support. Some only have SIMM sockets, but more of them (as many as eight in some models), and others only have DIMM sockets. You may even find a particular design of motherboard available in different versions, with either three DIMM sockets, or two DIMM and four SIMM sockets. Most of the time, therefore, the decision on which memory type to use when upgrading is taken out of your hands.



What's more important is that you match the speed of your memory upgrade with that already installed. Most modern PCs use EDO RAM, and this can be bought in three speeds: 70ns, 60ns, and 50ns. Don't ever buy 70ns, as this is too slow to work with any processor running at 100MHz or faster. If your machine has a 66MHz buss speed (100, 133, 166, 200MHz processors), you will need 60ns RAM, although some new motherboards can support the more expensive (and difficult to obtain) 50ns variety. Although you could mix 50ns RAM with existing 60ns memory, you would still have to run it all at the slower motherboard speed settings, so there's no real point in doing this. Also, much like the recent news in SOS that sampler RAM quality is definitely important, there are many reports on the Internet that, in PCs which have been tweaked to be even faster than normal, quality 60ns RAM tends to be more reliable than cheap 50ns RAM; there does seem to be genuine evidence that occasional random PC crashes can sometimes be caused by cheap RAM running 'on the edge'.



More esoteric memory choices, such as EDO (Extended Data Out) or SDRAM are, again, largely determined by the motherboard design. Unless you're contemplating buying or building a new machine, the only time you'll need to find out the type your motherboard is already using is if you want to add more RAM, as 'mixing and matching' is rarely an option. It's probably true to say that EDO RAM is currently fitted in the majority of modern machines (either in SIMM or DIMM packages), with SDRAM starting to appear more in higher end PCs (always in a DIMM package).



Many people think that SDRAM is the way forward, because although it currently costs more than other types it has the potential to give better system performance with faster machines. However, at motherboard buss speeds of 66MHz, you are unlikely to see any real improvements in performance with SDRAM. Testing the same system with first EDO RAM and then SDRAM is likely to show no significant change with the VX motherboard chipset, though the latest TX chipset will probably show a small improvement, in the order of 2%. Another advantage of TX is that it allows you to use 64Mb SDRAM modules, as well as 128Mb EDO modules, both in DIMM format. When the new PCI buss speed of 100MHz arrives next year, SDRAM should become more important.



THE UPGRADE PATH



As always, if you want to buy now you have to weigh up your desire to future-proof your system against what your wallet can actually stand. Since PCs are advancing in performance at such a rapid rate, you can adopt one of two approaches if you want to stay abreast of the latest technologies. Either you buy a complete high-performance system for about £1500, use it for a year or two, and then sell it (or trade it in) and buy a completely new system, or you adopt a continuous upgrade policy -- buy new components for your existing system as you need them. If you decide on the latter approach you'll probably end up spending a few hundred pounds, three or four times a year, to get more memory, a faster processor, a larger and faster hard drive, and so on. Eventually you're likely to need a completely new motherboard, but a local supplier can fit this for you if you don't want to take on the task yourself, and this will keep your system up to scratch for significantly longer.



Sadly, audio applications seem to be optimised for Intel processors so, as mentioned earlier, it's a bit dicey to save money by buying an AMD or Cyrix chip. If you want to stay future-proof for a little while longer, and are considering buying a completely new PC, look at a Pentium II system and you should be OK for at least a year. Unfortunately, if

"When it comes to music applications, it pays to have Intel Inside."

you want to upgrade on a component basis, Pentium II processors bought by themselves are still very expensive, and as you would also need a new motherboard (another £200 or so) you'd be better off going for a complete system and selling your existing machine. However, for those with an eye for a short-term bargain, the Pentium Pro 200MHz is still 50% faster than the Pentium MMX 200MHz when running programs such as Reality, so as long as you don't mind having to upgrade again within a year, you might just find one of these at an excellent price by early 1998. Bear in mind, though, that you won't get much for it when you come to upgrade again.



If you're seriously strapped for cash (aren't we all?), buy a system featuring a TX chipset on the motherboard and get the fastest Intel Pentium MMX processor you can afford. The TX chipset should carry on at least till the end of 1998, and is the final and best option for Socket 7 processors (unless the rival processor manufacturers come up with something to keep things going a bit longer). To be honest, although you could start preparing for the move to Pentium II by spending a little more to buy the faster SDRAM memory instead of EDO, it may be better to sell your complete MMX system when the time comes, to get a better price, and then start afresh. By the time Pentium II systems are below £1000, mass-market pricing should ensure that the other components they use will have come down in price significantly as well.



Of course, no-one is forcing you to upgrade; as long as your current system is fast enough to support the applications you want to run, by all means stick with it. However, the fact remains that major updates for each sequencer seem to occur about every 18 months or so, and it is likely that Pentium II systems will be required for efficient operation of state-of-the-art software by the end of 1998.  

Sony PCM-M10 - Summer NAMM '09

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Graphics Cards & Monitor Screens For The PC Musician

Tips & Tricks

Technique : PC Musician


GRAPHICS CARDS & MONITOR SCREENS FOR THE PC MUSICIAN

In the past, PC-based music software was not terribly demanding on the resources used to drive the user's means of visual feedback -- the PC's monitor. But as we try to display more and more MIDI and audio information, via ever more attractive graphic interfaces, your old graphics hardware may not be up to the job. MARTIN WALKER considers your likely requirements.



As we come to expect full waveform displays of our multitrack audio, it is no longer enough to buy the cheapest graphic card and monitor available. Fully-sculpted '3D' screen displays use far more colours than the simple bevelled windows of the past, and if you want to stare at these displays for hours whilst composing your latest masterpiece you will need a large screen with a crisp high-resolution display and lots of colours.



Every PC contains a graphics card, though some have the circuitry incorporated onto the motherboard, and it is this that converts the display information sent by the computer's CPU into video signals that your monitor screen can use. In a sense, it's rather like digital-to-analogue conversion in the audio world.



The current screen image is held in a small amount of very fast RAM on the graphics card, so that it can be accessed very quickly when being converted to the analogue signal. Since increased screen resolution and more colours means that more data must be manipulated, buying a faster graphics card can reduce the strain on your computer's main processor, as it can then deal with this information more quickly. A faster card may also allow the system to update the entire screen display more often, a property measured by the refresh rate. It is normally accepted that to minimise screen 'flicker', the vertical refresh rate (the number of times the screen is redrawn per second)

"If you want to wring out the last drop of system performance, temporarily switching off screen redraws might give you up to 20% more processor time to play with."

should be at least 70-75Hz; some people advise 85Hz. Even if you can't see a flicker at lower rates, it may still cause headaches when viewed long term.



REASONS TO UPGRADE



Despite appearances, the smart new graphic interfaces used by the likes of Ensoniq's Paris, Steinberg's Wavelab and so on are not true 3D -- they merely appear to have depth and solidity due to the way in which the graphics have been drawn. True 3D graphics, and the graphics cards optimised to run them, are used extensively in both CAD (computer-aided design) and by games developers to produce 3-dimensional images that can be rotated, and viewed from a distance or close up. These images are formed by joining together lots of polygons (flat, multi-sided shapes). Plotting the course of these polygons in real time as your objects move requires powerful hardware (and there are other intensive operations to perform simultaneously, such as mapping textures onto the objects' surfaces). If the graphics card contains in its hardware routines to perform these functions, the main PC processor will not have to work so hard.



Most Windows 95 packages, however, including music applications, use only 2D graphics, so there is no point buying a fancy 3D graphics card for these alone. Most modern graphics cards have a combination of 2D and 3D features, and will therefore help with both types of imaging, but if you want the ultimate graphics card for games, you will have to make a different choice. Once again, it is worth pointing out that games and music software don't mix well on the same machine.



SPEED KILLS



As always, PC musicians have a slightly different set of priorities from mainstream computer users. In the never-ending search for 'faster everything', solving problems with the timing of music software comes pretty low in the priorities of graphics card manufacturers. I have already advertised the VGA Kills web site in October's PC Notes, but to briefly recap, many graphic drivers are now optimised by letting them ignore other requests for access to the PCI buss when they are busy plotting graphics. Whilst this makes for fast screen displays that look good in PC magazine tests, it can cause glitches in the audio output, and even spurious swapping of the left and right audio channels with some soundcards. The Zefiro Acoustics web site has the full story (www.zefiro.com).



Thankfully, many graphic card manufacturers now provide software switches that disable this annoying feature. Some solutions involve adding lines of text to initialisation files; another general solution is to lower the Windows Graphic Acceleration by one notch (this can be found in Control Panel, System, Performance, Graphics). However, this may compromise other aspects of graphics performance, and therefore is not really the ideal answer. Problems such as these may leave you wondering whether it's worth the expense of a fast graphics card when you only have to slow its performance down again for audio work. However, most manufacturers tend to perform the same optimisation trick, so a fast card is still likely to be faster than the others even after disabling some of its features.



Most people will already have some sort of PCI graphics card, but if you are still using an ISA buss card then simply upgrading to a PCI card should produce a notable improvement in the speed of screen redraws, particularly when moving between several applications. This is because the buss is responsible for how fast the data reaches the video card, and the PCI buss works faster than ISA. If you already have a PCI graphics card and buy a faster one, you may see only a tiny overall improvement in system performance when running music software, since the average sequencer package, despite its attractive and detailed interface, is still not particularly graphics-intensive.



So why would you need to upgrade or change your PCI graphics card, if the one you have seems to work well enough? Well, many people start off with a 14 or 15-inch monitor screen, and later upgrade to a 17 or 19-inch screen. In order to select a higher resolution that will take advantage of a larger screen, and to get more colours, you may need to add more RAM to your existing graphics card (see the 'Ramming It Home' box for details). Most modern PCs come with 2Mb of RAM on the graphics card (many come with 4Mb) but, if you have an older machine, you may have only 1Mb. At a screen resolution of 1024x768 pixels (the number of dots in each direction), 1Mb of graphics memory will allow only 256 colours. As we shall see, this may cause you problems with the latest software, and upgrading to 2Mb (or 4Mb if this is an option) shouldn't prove too expensive (tens of pounds, rather than hundreds).



Rather than upgrade this RAM, however, you could buy a completely new graphics card; such are the benefits of mass marketing that you can buy a card with 2Mb memory for about £30, and one with 4Mb from about £60. If it would cost £20-30 to expand the memory on your existing card, it might be more sensible to go for a newer and faster card that already has the extra memory. Another benefit of buying all-new hardware is that you may also achieve a much faster refresh rate, which makes the difference between a flickering display updated 60 times a second, and a much less tiring one that updates 80 or more times a second. Let's look at the issues involved in displaying graphics, and try to reach some conclusions about what upgrade options are worth considering.



RAMMING IT HOME



Unless you have a graphics card that can use system RAM to store its images, the amount of RAM installed on the card itself will determine the limits of screen resolution (number of pixels wide by number of pixels high) and bit depth (number of colours). Although nearly all cards come with at least 1Mb already installed, an increasing number now come with 2Mb or 4Mb as standard. If you are thinking of buying a graphics card, you might as well go for 4Mb, as this will meet most most people's requirements with all but the largest 21-inch monitors at photographic quality.



Rather than list the exact memory requirements, the figures below indicate which screen modes will work with the standard 1, 2, 4, or 8Mb sizes.



Resolution 8-bit

(256 colours) 16-bit

(65,536 colours) 24-bit

(16.7 million colours)

640x480 0.5Mb 1Mb 2Mb

800x600 1Mb 2Mb 2Mb

1024x768 1Mb 2Mb 4Mb

1280x1024 2Mb 4Mb 4Mb

1600x1200 2Mb 4Mb 8Mb

1800x1440 4Mb 8Mb 8Mb



À LA MODE



When choosing a graphics mode you set, above all, the screen resolution and bit depth. Resolution determines the size of the desktop, and the bit depth determines the maximum number of colours available to the display. In Control Panel/Display/Appearance, you can change these two parameters (see Figure 1), although you will need to re-boot your PC before you can see the changes. Alternatively, it maybe easier for you to use QuickRes (first mentioned in my very first PC Notes column back in May '97, and available free as part of the Microsoft Power Toys utility), as this allows you to switch modes without re-booting.



The best choice of screen resolution is determined largely by the size of your monitor screen. Although expensive graphics cards may support high resolutions on a small physical screen, you'll find yourself squinting to read some of the text, which breaks the concentration you should be turning to making music. 14-inch monitors seem to have been generally superseded by 15-inch models, and with this size of screen most people recommend using a resolution of 800x600. With a 17-inch monitor, 1024x768 becomes more appropriate, a resolution that can also be used with a 19-inch monitor (though 1280x1024 is also good at this size). For those of you with 21-inch monster screens, either 1280x1024 or 1600x1200 can be used.



The choice of colour (or bit) depth for music applications used to be easy: 256 colours (8-bit) was more than enough in most cases, and even a mere 16-colour (4-bit) screen was quite adequate for some applications. All this has changed, however, with the latest MIDI + Audio sequencers, and their slick graphic design with full display of sample waveforms.

A PAIN IN THE NECK



There's more to getting the most out of your display than resolutions, bit depths and graphics RAM -- physical factors can make staring at a screen a more stressful business than it need be. First of all you should ensure that the display ergonomics are right; that the screen is positioned to create the most comfortable working environment. If you are looking at a screen for long periods, you can minimise the chance of eye strain and headaches by making sure that the top of the visible screen is just below eye level, so that your gaze is aimed slightly downward (this places less of a strain on the muscles controlling the lens in the eye). Try to ensure that the screen is free from reflections and glare. Adjust the screen controls so that the image fills the tube area and does not have a large black border around it -- this will not only give you a larger display, but also reduce the contrast between the edge of the image and the monitor case, which is less tiring.



There should be a distance of at least 16 inches between you and the screen, and preferably between 18 and 30 inches. This can be hard for musicians, since the most suitable place for the monitor screen is often between a pair of nearfield monitor speakers. To maintain a good stereo audio image the screen should not sit forward of the speakers, but this is hard to arrange if you're trying to cater for the typical listening position, with monitor speakers three or four feet apart, and the listener seated roughly this far back from the speakers. A solution popular with many recording studios is to buy a bigger monitor and place it further back, out of the way of the speakers; another is to move the computer and screen to the side of the room, or even along the rear wall, so that you swivel your chair through 180° when working with the sequencer, leaving the screen well away from the speakers.



One source of problems is in the way that 256-colour mode works, especially now that third-party plug-ins can be run within a main application. This mode uses -- no surprise here -- 256 colours taken from the millions available. Thus any application can use a huge range of possible colours, but with the important limitation that it can only ever display a maximum of 256 of these colours available at one time. Each application will have its own palette of 256 colours, appropriate to its visual style.



When reviewing the TC Native Reverb, I noticed that TC Works advise using 65,536 colours (16-bit), particularly when using their product with Steinberg's Wavelab. This is because both the Steinberg and TC Works programs use a significant proportion of their 256-colour palettes, and they have quite different palettes in 256-colour mode. So, when you move from one application to the other, the palette of the 'active' application overrides the previous palette, forcing 'background' applications to use the same palette, a palette which may make them look most peculiar (see Figure 2). In the case of Wavelab and TC Native Reverb, the clash can result in both applications exhibiting permanently flashing colours, a problem that is cured by changing to 16-bit colour depth.



Despite the fact that using 16-bit colour or better will avoid the palette-switching problem, many musicians 'in the know' tend to run sequencers in 256 colours. The reason is that fewer colours used to mean faster screen updates; traditionally, using thousands or even millions of colours offered no visible improvement with most music software, and just slowed your machine down. Nowadays the situation is less clear: most applications use more colours, and to ensure that graphics cards have optimum performance in the most popular graphics mode, manufacturers tend to optimise both their hardware and their drivers for a large number of colours. Because of this, it is quite possible that your PC will run slightly slower when running a particular graphics card in 256 colours than when running in 16-bit colour, simply because few people are expected to use such low colour depths.



Buying a faster graphics card will ensure that screen redraws happen more quickly, and will also probably speed up refresh rates. One reason why fast screen updates are desirable is that they can interrupt overall system performance -- thankfully, most sequencers have intelligent buffering to ensure that updates cause the minimum upset. Screen updates are required constantly; the worst case is when the cursor, scrolling across a waveform, reaches the right-hand side of the screen and the entire display needs updating. I carried out some brief tests to shed more light on the colour depth question, using my new Matrox Mystique 220 graphics card with 4Mb of RAM (my setup, by the way, is a Pentium 166MMX with 32Mb of RAM). The results are very rough and ready, but may be of some use.



Using a screen resolution of 1024x768, I opened Cubase VST, ran the audio demo provided on the Cubase CD-ROM, and monitored the processor usage with Microsoft's System Monitor utility. This comes on the Windows 95 CD-ROM -- if you don't have it installed already, you can do this from the Add/Remove Programs section of Control Panel (in the Accessories section of Windows Setup).



If you use the Line Chart option for Processor Usage in System Monitor, after running Cubase for a few minutes you soon recognise the blip in processor load usage whenever the screen is redrawn because the cursor has reached the right-hand side of the screen (see Figure 3). By way of comparison, I switched off the Follow Song option in Cubase, so that this update would not occur regularly during playback, and found that with the demo song running the average processor load was about in 50% all colour depths. As soon as I switched Follow Song back on, the processor load rose to an average of about 55%, just to plot the moving cursor. When it reached the right-hand side of the screen I measured the following peaks:



With 256 colours (8-bit colour depth), peak load was about 65%.

With 16-bit colour depth, peak load rose to about 70%.

With 24-bit colour depth, peak load rose again to about 75%.

With 32-bit colour depth, peak load was still about 75%.



This suggests that on a typical 166MMX system with a good PCI graphics card, you might expect peak processor overhead to drop by something like 5% if you use only 8-bit colour rather than 16-bit, and by 10% if you drop from 24-bit to 8-bit just for sequencing. However, this peak requirement will occur only once per screen update, so it's not a lot of help overall, and the figures would be different with different graphic card drivers. Nonetheless, if you want to wring out the last drop of system performance, perhaps to give your plug-ins extra room to breath in a critical mastering session, temporarily switching off screen redraws might give you up to 20% more processor time to play with.



GRAPHIC ACCOUNTS



Driver software can cause problems with some applications that use high-resolution graphics, such as the large waveform displays in audio editors. The anonymous PCI graphics card that came with my PC had an annoying habit of corrupting the bottom part of large waveforms with a maximised window within Sound Forge (see Figure 4). Fortunately there is an option in Preferences (Compatible Draw Mode for broken video drivers) which cures the problem. It is not uncommon to trace other odd problems to anonymous graphics cards and their rarely-updated drivers. Another bug that my old card caused was colour corruption in Cubase, whereby the initial screen was drawn with the correct colours, but after scrolling or opening a dialogue box, the updated part of the screen appeared with different colours.



All of these problems disappeared completely when I upgraded to a Matrox Mystique 220 card. After installing it I had a sharper screen display, with more contrast, and I measured a 300% improvement in Windows' graphics speed. As expected, I found that when running Cubase VST both my Event Gina and AWE64 Gold soundcards emitted a click every time the screen was updated. As a temporary solution, simply switching off the Follow Song option removed the clicks, since the screen was no longer being redrawn. However, I eventually discovered that the Cubase problem could be fixed by unticking the Use Device Bitmaps Caching graphics option, which had a minimal effect on graphics speed. Dragging a small window still produced the clicks, which suggested that I might still experience problems at times, but these too were removed when I set Use Automatic PCI Buss Retries to Off (see Figure 5). Steinberg also recommend unclicking the Use Buss Mastering option -- at first I didn't have any problems with this still ticked, but after VST audio recording stopped unexpectedly several times, unticking it seemed to cure the problem. Overall, the combined changes degraded the graphics performance by about 10% -- but that still but left me 290% better off than my previous graphics card...



CHOICES FOR MUSIC



For music applications, a graphics card needs to give a notable improvement when running Windows 95 applications, not when running games soft

"For music applications, avoid anonymous graphic cards, since their drivers may not have the options required to prevent audio glitches."

ware. Motherboards with built-in graphics capability are popular in some quarters, because they avoid the necessity of installing another PCI card, but their performance is not likely to be particularly good, and they can sometimes be difficult to disable when you want to upgrade to a more powerful stand-alone card.



Another recent trend is to cut costs by using system RAM for video, rather than having separate RAM (of whatever description) on the graphics card itself. Again, this at first seems an attractive proposition, because you never need to upgrade your graphics memory -- you simply use more of your system RAM if you want a higher resolution screen. The problem, once again, is compromised performance, because system RAM is not as fast as the various types of dedicated graphics RAM. You may see these specialist types of RAM, all of which can shift video data at high speed, referred to as VRAM (Video RAM), WRAM (used only by Matrox cards), and SGRAM (a special graphics version of SDRAM).



Personally, I chose a Matrox Mystique 220 card (around £80 with 4Mb of graphics RAM, expandable to 8Mb), a card which is regularly quoted as being good value for general-purpose 2D or 3D use. With 4Mb of graphics RAM already fitted, this will support 1280x1024 resolution at 24-bit colour. Although there are known problems with Matrox drivers (see 'Screen Problems') these are easily dealt with by changing a couple of well-known settings.



I've noticed many mentions of the S3 Trio chipset, and the S3 Virge/DX, in systems advertised specifically for musicians in the pages of SOS. There are many such cards around that use the S3 chip, and these can be used with no problems by musicians, once again with the help of a well-publicised tweak (see the 'Other Opinions' box). But, before anyone does it for me, I should point out that there are probably plenty of keenly priced alternative cards out there that will work far better with 3D games; just remember that they may not work so well with sequencer applications.



If you are lucky enough to have one of the Pentium II systems featuring the AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port -- see January's PC Musician feature for more details), then it seems that there may be a hidden benefit in using an AGP graphics card rather than a PCI one. Although AGP has a higher bandwidth, and ultimately will prove considerably faster than PCI, no-one will really notice until Windows 98 appears, as not all of its benefits can be used by Windows 95. Using an AGP graphics card will currently offer only a small improvement in graphics speed. However, if you use an AGP graphics card then graphics data will no longer share the PCI buss with audio data, which means that audio glitches due to badly written graphics card drivers should be a thing of the past. Only two months ago I reported that the AGP buss showed little relevance to musicians from the graphics point of view -- it's ironic that in fact it offers a way to cure an audio problem rather than improving the graphics performance.

OTHER OPINIONS



Some companies that specialise in supplying complete PC music systems use lower-cost generic cards, going against the advice I've set out here -- but they can test a selection of cards and then buy a batch once any problems that arise have been cured. (Individual purchasers rarely have the luxury of buying hardware for a trial run, so it is best to stick to reputable manufacturers whose driver tweaks are well known.) RKMS of Nottingham prefer to specify cheaper cards that have been tested in this way, and recommended two in particular. The Cirrus Logic 5446 64-bit (available in 1Mb and 2Mb versions) normally behaves well once the Windows 95 acceleration is turned down to 'none', and the S3 Virge DX card (available in 2Mb and 4Mb versions) apparently works particularly well as long as you add "busthrottle=1" to the [display] section of your System.ini file.



The Red Submarine Computer Company, suppliers of PC hard disk recording systems who are also happy to sell graphics cards separately, take a slightly different tack in recommending the ATI Expert@Work range, which use the AGP buss. However, for high-end systems employing Pentium II processors, and also for a few very recent TX chipset motherboards, a card using this buss is recommended (see main text for more details). Remember that both these companies specialise in putting together complete hard disk recording systems so, unlike a mainstream computer outlet, they know the potential graphic/audio conflicts. It bears repeating that the best way to avoid problems is to buy a complete system from a specialist, or at the very least to keep your PC a games-free zone to minimise the problems.



MONITOR SCREENS



There is no point in buying a monitor that can be refreshed at 85Hz if your graphics card is only fast enough to drive it at 65Hz. Conversely, simply having a fast graphics card does not automatically let you use the highest available settings for screen resolution and colour depth -- your monitor screen must be able to keep up with the amount of video data being squirted down the monitor cable. Since fast graphics cards are far cheaper than good monitors, many people find themselves able to select a screen mode that sends data faster than the monitor can deal with it. The result is a picture that rolls all over the place, like a TV set with incorrectly set vertical or horizontal hold.



If this happens you'll have an interesting problem -- you won't be able to see to select a different mode to achieve a stable screen again. The solution is to reboot your PC, press the F8 key to bring up the startup menu, and select Safe Mode. This always uses the standard 640x480 16-colour Microsoft driver that is guaranteed to work with any graphics card and monitor, and from here you can select a more suitable screen mode to take effect when you next boot your PC. Many graphics cards also have utilities that allow you to change screen mode, and preview the new display for several seconds before confirming the change; if you don't, they revert to the previous settings, which means that you can recover from screen roll automatically. Remember, however, that even if your monitor prevents you using some of the higher resolutions supported by a faster card, you still get the benefit of faster refresh rates (for less screen flicker) even when running at exactly the same resolution as before.



The reverse situation -- an expensive monitor with a slow graphics card -- will limit the maximum resolution that can be comfortably viewed. The optimum solution is to have a graphics card and monitor screen that are reasonably matched in performance terms. For instance, when I last upgraded my PC, I initially retained my 14-inch monitor to keep the total cost down, which meant it couldn't match the faster refresh rates of my new graphics card; I had to be careful to avoid screen roll when selecting different screen resolutions. On the other hand, after finally upgrading the monitor to a Iiyama Vision Master 17, I could manage only 1024x768 resolution with 256 colours, because the new graphics card had only 1Mb screen RAM. The answer was more RAM for the card (see the 'Ramming It Home' box for details on the amount of RAM required for each screen mode).



The sharpness of the monitor picture is largely determined by the dot pitch (the physical distance between each on-screen pixel), as this determines how many pixels can be distinguished both horizontally and vertically. The finer the dot pitch, the sharper the image. For a 15-inch monitor a dot pitch of 0.28mm should be fine, but for a 17-inch monitor you should be looking for a dot pitch of 0.26mm or less -- many are now available at a sharper 0.25mm, although they may be more expensive.

THE FINAL CHOICE



For music applications, avoid anonymous graphic cards, since their drivers may not have the options required to prevent audio glitches. Stick to well-known makes, and bear in mind that if you buy from a PC music specialist you should have the benefit of a pre-tested range of models -- and of staff who understand specific audio problems. If you are on the internet, take a look at the excellent 'reading room' provided by Mission (www.missionrec.com), and carry out a search for information on any graphics card you are interested in -- you may come across useful comments from other people already using this model in a music environment.



When choosing a monitor, picture quality is the most important factor, and you tend to get what you pay for. That said, Iiyama have a good reputation for quality without the price, and I've certainly been very pleased with the Iiyama Vision Master 17 that I bought some months ago (although the Vision Master Pro range gives even sharper picture quality at a slightly higher price). If possible, take a look at the monitor you intend buying before you take the plunge, and if you intend to buy blind through mail order then make sure you stick to well-known manufacturers.  


Published in SOS July 1998

Alesis DM10 - Summer NAMM '09

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

MXL R77 & R144 - Summer NAMM '09

Peavey PC1600X

MIDI Command Station

Reviews : MIDI Controller




As studios became more and more virtual, musicians begin to miss having real knobs and faders to play with -- hence the success of Peavey's original PC1600 MIDI hardware fader box. Six years on, it has just been replaced with a new version. Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser find out whether it has that vital X factor.



It can be hard to persuade yourself to part with cash for an item of MIDI gear that doesn't make a sound, even if it does a valuable job that could make your musical life easier. For not much more than the price of a hardware MIDI controller unit, you could be holding a squillion-note polyphonic sound module stuffed with sexy new sounds, rather than a silent box of sliders and buttons that could bring new life to all your old synths, be the real-world manifestation of your sequencer's mixer page, control your PC sound card, make groovy tweaks to the new generation of software synths, drumboxes and samplers, and even make hard disk recording less hard by removing the need to tweak onscreen faders with a mouse. Hold on a sec... That's sounding pretty good, actually!



Clearly, there are lots of MIDI musicians out there who've already been won over by this kind of talk. In recent months, Keyfax's £150 Phat Boy (reviewed July 1998), aimed right at those with controller-light GM synths and soundcards, has been something of a success story. For those with rather more sophisticated requirements, Kenton's new Control Freak (reviewed November 1998) adds

PEAVEY PC1600X £349

pros

16 faders.

Easy to program.

Extra device profiles available on Internet.

Feels professional.

Scribble boxes for labelling faders.

cons

More memories would be good.

External PSU large.

Easy to run out of RAM if you use a lot of long SysEx strings.

summary

Highly recommended. There really is very little missing from the PC1600x, which rapidly becomes indispensable in a highly MIDI-based studio, especially one with knobless synth modules and computer hard disk recording or MIDI + Audio sequencing.



comprehensive customisation possibilities and an extra £100 over the Phat Boy's price tag. And that's not forgetting Doepfer's Regelwerk hybrid MIDI controller/analogue-style sequencer, reviewed last month. But before these machines were even twinkles in the corporate eyes of their manufacturers, there was Peavey's PC1600.



This American company's hardware MIDI controller was reviewed by SOS way back in June 1993, and met with the full approval of the magazine's then editor. Six years later, Peavey have seen fit to add an 'x' onto the name and some extra features onto the spec, to produce the £349 PC1600x MIDI Command Station.



X Rated



Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of what the PC1600x offers, there's the mandatory examination of its metalwork to get out of the way. As it has to fit 16 faders onto its panel, the 1600x is one of the largest of the MIDI controllers mentioned here, though it's still not exactly huge. Directly beneath the 16 faders are 16 square buttons, and directly under these are 16 'scribble squares'. A giant data wheel sits beneath the fairly generous, brightly lit 2-line x 20-character LCD, and the button complement is completed by six labelled editing buttons (Edit, Copy, Enter, Utility, Scene and Exit), and four cursor buttons arranged in a cross shape. Back-panel activity is confined to MIDI In and Out, a PSU socket for a whacking great power supply, and two CV (control voltage) sockets, one of which can be configured to use two footswitches. Both can also be used with variable volume-type pedals.



All the faders and the 16 main buttons are programmable to transmit any MIDI data, as are the two footswitch sockets. A slightly stingy total of 50 'preset' memories is provided for MIDI device profiles and generic MIDI setups, most of which are already filled with factory setups for a host of popular equipment (and not just synths -- there are profiles for effects processors such as the Ensoniq DP2 and DP4 and various Lexicon models, Digitech's Vocalist Workstation, and even TC Electronics' Finalizer mastering processor). Pro gear features quite heavily in the factory presets; they can be overwritten with user profiles if you don't own all this fab kit, and then restored by initialisation later if you happen to win the lottery! Of course, the preset memories can also be dumped over MIDI to an external device for safekeeping.



An additional 100 'scene' memories store snapshots of the currently selected preset with the addition of fader positions and settings of the footswitch inputs -- ideal for storing synth voice settings, or the fader settings for different points in a song when using a MIDI + Audio sequencing system. Either could be recalled later, and scene changes can be recorded into a MIDI sequencer for simple automation. One particularly neat feature of scene memories is that they're independent of whichever preset profile is currently in use -- if you're using the PC1600x to tweak a synth's parameters while a MIDI + Audio sequencer is running, you can still transmit fader position snapshots to the sequencer at the same time.



Fade In Full



Each 1600x fader can be assigned to transmit any continuous controller or a freely-definable MIDI string, or to act as a master fader. The last option links any or all of the other faders to one fader, offering sub-grouping capabilities with computer-based mixing systems. The task of assigning MIDI data to the PC1600x's faders and buttons is not as daunting as it might seem, since a variety of tricks make the job

Factory Fresh: Selected Presets

The PC1600x features profiles for all the following equipment, plus some generic presets that offer control over volume, program change, pitch correction, XG instruments and so on, including Mod Squad, a preset group of the most useful synth controllers.



Akai DR8/DR16

Akai S2000/3000

Alesis ADAT BRC

Digidesign Pro Tools setups

Digidesign Session 8

Digitech Vocalist Workstation

Emu Planet Phatt

Ensoniq DP4/DP2

Lexicon PCM70/80/LXP15

Peavey DPM/SX/Addverb/Spectrum Synth, Bass & Organ

Roland GI-10 Guitar-to-MIDI

Roland JV1080

Roland VS880

TC Electronic Finalizer EQ/Expander/Compressor/Limiter

Yamaha ProMix 01



as easy as possible. The manual has a collection of excellent appendices that don't simply explain MIDI, SysEx and hex, but also present the information in such a way that all you need do is insert data parrot-fashion to get a result. Needless to say, this is in itself a great learning experience, and it would have been nice to see more in the way of detailed examples.



To save the trouble of even looking at the appendices, the PC1600x offers a 'learn' mode, in which incoming MIDI data -- from synth parameter changes, for example -- is captured and assigned to a fader. Couldn't be easier. Unlike Kenton's Control Freak, though, the PC1600x doesn't capture MIDI controllers, which is a shame. Fortunately, this type of assignment is easy to do manually: simply tell the fader that it'll be transmitting a controller and then choose the controller itself. It's numbers only, I'm afraid, but all controllers are identified in one of the manual's appendices. Another anomaly is that the PC1600x's learn mode won't capture pitch-bend or aftertouch either -- and these Channel Messages aren't included amongst the standard MIDI controller list. However, it's possible to insert this data as a MIDI string, or even to copy the required assignment from one of the 1600x's factory presets and tweak it (by changing its MIDI transmit channel or range, for example). Also unlike the Control Freak, the faders can't be set to transmit more than one controller or type of data at once.



Strings of MIDI data, such as the SysEx that would be generated when setting up a fader assignment for a synth parameter, can be of any length, within the limits of the PC1600's memory. If you happened to use a lot of SysEx strings in your presets, because you have a lot of synths needing editing profiles or lots of faders in a Pro Tools system, for example, the fairly limited memory would be used up more quickly, and though faders and buttons can be individually named, which is very useful, this data eats further into the memory.



Button-Down Mind



A wide range of data can also be transmitted by the 16 buttons. Note ons, note offs, program changes, MIDI sequencer transport controls, and complete MIDI strings are all definable. Buttons can be linked to their associated fader, in order to mute or solo its value or, if the fader is transmitting pitch-bend, bring the attached sound source back to its normal, unbent pitch. MIDI strings can be sent on a single press, with options for transmitting two different strings per key: one on a press and one on a release, or two toggled on subsequent button presses. Interestingly, a MIDI string could be a MIDI note, or an entire chord -- a

Xtra! Xtra!

Existing PC1600 owners can add all the extra functionality of the 'x', though obviously not its new paint job and enormous data knob, to their machines. Contact Peavey for details of the ROM upgrade. New features for the PC1600x are as follows:



A byte can now be designated as a checksum, and Bank Select editing now includes LSB and MSB programming. Both are useful for better operation with certain synths.

Buttons can be set to 'send fader' -- see main text for more.

The 16 buttons can be set to send scenes.

Buttons, if they're not being used for anything else, can be set to show their associated fader's name.

All 16 buttons can now be triggered via MIDI, such as from a MIDI foot controller, or via program changes.

A note capture function makes it a doddle to assign notes or chords to a button.

The left arrow button functions as a MIDI data mute switch.

Presets and Scenes can be individually initialised.

The scene display shows a scene's associated preset number.

A scene can be assigned to a preset, to be sent whenever that preset is selected.

There are 50 new factory presets (though only 42 appeared on the review unit!).



simple note capture option makes light work of this. We had some fun using the PC1600x as a real-time chord sequencer, and it can be used to trigger samples (from an attached sampler) in real time. In both cases you might need to use the press/release or toggle option, since any note ons need a subsequent note off. Incidentally, the faders can also be set up to transmit note ons, but there's no easy way of using them to generate the necessary note offs.



One other clever button trick is 'send fader': when a button is assigned to this option, moving the fader immediately above does nothing. You do, however, see a value changing in the display. When the desired fader value has been set -- a precise parameter change, volume level, pitch bend or transposition, say -- pressing the button transmits exactly that value.



Foot Work



The PC1600x's functionality is further augmented by footpedal, footswitch and data-wheel functions. When variable (volume) footpedals are plugged into the pedal inputs, exactly the same options are available as for faders -- making a potential total of 18 continuous controllers per preset. Pedal input 2, as mentioned earlier, can also take a dual footswitch. Each switch can be set to scroll through the presets, or duplicate the function of the front-panel Enter button or any of the 16 assignable buttons. The data wheel is a different thing entirely; it can be linked to a fader or variable pedal input (or the last such device touched), allowing more precise adjustments to be made to a given parameter. This comes in handy when the parameter being altered has a much wider range than the 0-127 offered by MIDI Controllers -- a good example is PC1600x preset 08, which is set up for pitch correction. The fader would allows you to find roughly the value required, with the data wheel being used to fine-tune the result.



Even more levels of MIDI sophistication are available: a preset can actually be programmed to transmit a bank select command, program change and volume level on each MIDI channel, plus an 80-byte SysEx string and any one of the 100 scenes whenever it is selected. This 'set-up string' could be used to configure a MIDI synth or system at the start of a session.



As part of a larger MIDI system, there are various choices about how the PC1600x treats incoming MIDI data -- for example, incoming controller data can be merged with, replace or update that produced

A Site That's Sound

Dan Nigrin's unofficial PC1600 Internet user page is recommended as a source of downloadable profiles and hands-on information. For example, Kenton's Control Freak has a section in its manual dedicated to turning it into a CV-to-MIDI convertor, so that an ancient analogue sequencer could be used to play a MIDI synth, for example. Well, it only takes a little lateral thinking to realise that the same could be possible using the PC1600x's footpedal inputs -- and, as revealed on this web site, it is. Full details are posted, and though the results are a bit hit-and-miss at first, with careful tweaking the trick can be made to work reasonably well. Point your browser at www.defectiverecords.com/pc1600/pc1600.html.

by the PC1600x -- and it's possible to filter certain (or all) MIDI messages as they pass through the unit.



Sweet 1600



Though the recent release of Doepfer's Regelwerk (with 24 faders) has introduced a little more in the way of competition to the hardware controller market, the PC1600x remains a sophisticated, compact and viable option, with a professional feel, at £100 less than the German machine. The 'x' enhancements (see 'Xtra!' box) are useful, and show that Peavey are committed to continued support of what is now a six-year-old and obviously popular design. Existing PC1600 users aren't left out in the cold, either, because the older machine can be upgraded to 'x' status.



The 1600x's complement of 16 faders is probably the most convenient number for a MIDI hardware controller, and this, combined with a tidy operating system and good range of features, must make the 1600x a front runner for anyone in the market for a serious MIDI controller.  

Published in SOS March 1999

ART M One & M Four microphones - Summer NAMM '09

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Improving Your PC Music System On A Budget

Feature Tips & Tricks 
Technique : PC Musician




As much as we'd like to buy all the latest PC software, no-one's coffers are bottomless. Martin Walker looks at some of the many free or low-cost alternatives for the PC musician.



There is a recurring theme in many of the emails I receive from SOS readers - they are either saving up for a new soundcard, or have just bought a new soundcard and are now saving up for some decent software to go with it. Musicians have traditionally been hard up, and it's virtually impossible to afford all the things you would like to buy, especially as today's technology is changing so rapidly.



For instance, in an ideal world the most sensible way to buy computer equipment is to decide what you want to do with it, then choose the software that fulfils these requirements, and finally to find out what spec of computer you will need to run it. However, few people have the luxury of this considered approach; most already have a computer with a soundcard already installed, and want to start making music. It does surprise me just how many PC musicians claim to have legitimate copies of Cubase VST when the only soundcard they can afford is an elderly Soundblaster clone, but the fact remains that having got to the stage of having a good sequencer and a passable soundcard, many of us need to make the best of what we already have.



There are many things you can do to improve what you already have without spending a penny, and if you also have a modem and Internet access, a host of low-cost or free products is available to expand your sound library, help you edit existing sounds, and improve the day-to-day running of your PC. Many of the items mentioned in this feature are completely free, but I've included nothing costing more than £50; much shareware seems to be in the £20 to £30 price range. Many small developers create niche products that are sold in this way, and in most cases you can download an almost fully functional version of the software to try out, and then pay a small registration fee to receive the password or serial number to unlock the full feature-set.



I should say at the outset that I'm not going to attempt to provide a comprehensive list of web sites or products in any of the following categories. The idea of this feature is merely to suggest areas that are worth pursuing for the PC musician, to point you in the right direction, as well as mentioning some of the items that I've personally downloaded that have proved useful.



General Purpose Tweaks



Of course there are still various things you can do with your PC to improve audio performance without downloading anything, so before we fire up the modem, it's well worth reiterating a few of the basic points that some people forget. First, and probably most important of all if you are recording and playing back audio files, is to remember to keep your hard drive well defragmented. You may remember from my discussions of hardware optimisation (see the December '98 issue) that the main reason a hard drive is slower during multitrack audio playback than when being bench-tested is that a chunk of each track is read in turn. Since it takes a finite time for the read/write heads to jump between the different positions on the hard drive where each track is stored, the sustained read speed drops considerably when compared with reading a single long file.



Now imagine a hard drive containing lots of fragmented audio files. Since the files are in several parts, each linked to the previous one, the read/write heads have additional jumps to perform. Each jump is as much work for the drive as starting another track, and this is the reason that keeping your hard drive well defragmented is so important. I defrag mine about once a week, and having done before and after tests on hard disk performance, I can assure you that defragmentation can degrade read/write performance considerably if you ignore it for very long. Don't get paranoid about it and defrag after every audio take (like one person I know) - this would only be necessary if you were running very close to the maximum number of tracks supported by your system.



The only reason I can think why some people still don't bother is that the Microsoft defragmenter supplied with both Windows 95 and Windows 98 can be very slow - a badly fragmented drive can take over an hour to finish, especially if it has a large capacity. I use Speed Disk as supplied with Norton Utilities (the latest version of which is reviewed in this month's PC Notes column), which normally takes me about five minutes to run, and is extremely thorough.



"If you have an older model of synth, shareware editor support may be the only available option, since there won't be a huge potential market to entice a commercial developer."

The other great enemies of smooth audio performance are background tasks - screensavers can be amongst the worst offenders. Don't take the risk of getting a glitch in your audio recordings (or a useless CD-R disc due to buffer under-run) - go into the Display applet in your Control Panel, select the Screen Saver page, and then make sure that Screen Saver is set to 'None'. I've written a more comprehensive list of offending background utilities in the PC Music: Frequently Asked Questions area of www.soundonsound.com.



As a final thought in this section, if you are having problems with electrical background noise from your soundcard, it might just be due to a poor earth connection on the card itself. To make sure, open up your PC and check the tightness of the screw clamping your soundcard into position - the metalwork of the backplate is connected to the rest of the PC case at this point, and a dirty or loose connection has been known to cause much higher noise levels than normal.



Manual Dexterity



Given the complexity of modern software applications, it's not surprising that we sometimes miss potentially useful features that we already have, or don't understand how to get the best from them. During the early days of the SOS web site forum I remember someone asking for a suitable sample-rate conversion utility to change Cubase VST mixdown files from 48kHz to 44.1kHz before burning a CD-R. Someone quickly pointed out, however, that VST already has this option built in - the trouble is that with so many manuals now in electronic form, we can't sit down for a detailed browse through them as we used to.

Upgrades & Downsides

Many developers issue a seemingly constant stream of updates for their products, and it is sometimes difficult to know whether to re-install them as and when they appear on the grounds that the newest must be the best, or to leave well alone if the version you already have works fine. This is a tricky decision but largely depends on what has changed in the newer version. I do wish that every developer provided a list of changes for each posted update. If such a thing is available, you can read through it and decide whether any bugs that previously affected you have been cured, if there has been any improvement in general performance, or if any new features have been added that interest you. If none of these proves to be the case, then I wouldn't personally bother to update, since by doing so you might just introduce a new bug.



The other feature that should be mandatory on web sites is that all downloadable files should have their filesize clearly indicated - there is nothing more frustrating than finding that a file is far bigger than you imagined once you start downloading it. In the UK any download over a couple of megabytes should really be left until after 6pm or the weekend if you want to keep your telephone bills down. Finally, make sure you keep a copy of any previously downloaded set of drivers before you de-install them. It has been known for new bugs to make you wish you'd stuck with the drivers you already had, and as long as you can delete the newer ones, you should in most cases be able to re-install an older version with care. Some helpful developers even keep a history of older drivers on their web sites, as well as the drivers themselves - given the almost infinite number of different hardware combinations available to the PC, it's almost impossible to guarantee that every one will work successfully with each and every driver.





The huge plus with electronic documentation is that many applications now have context-sensitive help - if you are unsure how to use a specific feature, pressing the F1 key will often launch a help screen on that very topic. If the manual is in PDF format, you can still launch it alongside the application and quickly switch between the two: this is sometimes better than using the printed version, since the screenshots are larger and more detailed (however, it's not really sensible to leave an electronic manual open when you are recording audio). Another advantage of PDF manuals is that they have a Find function. If you want information on 'sample rate', for instance, you can Find every instance of this phrase in the entire manual far more quickly than you ever could by looking in the index of a printed manual - and that's assuming that the printed manual has an index, and that it is thorough!



Sometimes updated versions of manuals are available for download from the developer's web site, and these can be very useful if you have updated your software and the manual is now out of date. However, possibly the most useful textual information available from developers is the FAQ or Hints and Tips pages, since these provide direct information about common problems which you don't have to wade through the manual to find. I always download these if possible for off-line reference, although this can sometimes be tricky if they extend over multiple pages.



Sounds



Having highlighted some ways to get more from your existing software and hardware, it's time to switch on the modem and do a little hunting. If you are looking for sounds for your MIDI synth, sampler, or soundcard, a huge range is available free or at bargain prices from a host of developers. One of the best places to start looking is Synth Zone (www.synthzone.com), since this excellent site has links to a whole host of other synth-related sites. For pure samples, their 'Sampling and Sample Sites' page (www.synthzone.com/sampling.htm) contains a wide range of links to get you started, and you can guarantee that a proportion of these will also have links to yet further sites. Most are completely free and run by enthusiasts, but some are likely to be commercial sites with a few free demo files.



Many are in WAV file format, often sampled at 22kHz to keep file sizes down, with others in MP3, AU, and IFF format. As you might guess, the emphasis on most sample sites is drums (mostly analogue beat boxes) and loops, and if these sounds appeal to you then there are lots to wade through. However, don't expect to find too many instrumental and orchestral sounds, as these need to be multi-sampled to be effective, and the file sizes are consequently too large for cost-effective download.



Banks of sounds for specific MIDI synths are widely available from a variety of different sources. The first place to look should be the web site of the appropriate manufacturer, since there are nearly always some freebies on offer here. Further afield you will need to do a bit of detective work by following various links, but for most synths you should be able to find quite a few banks of good sounds, and if there is a user group for a particular model this will often lead you to more relevant sites. Now that so many people are using computers to store all their sounds, fewer are being released on ROM and RAM expansion cards that plug directly into the keyboard or module. This does mean that for older synth models you can sometimes find these same sounds available for download free of charge, since they have in many cases long since ceased to be of commercial value to the original developers.



As I've said on various occasions, SoundFonts have now finally been accepted as a proper sample bank format, rather than as a poor relation. Anyone with a SoundFont-based card, like the Soundblaster range and Emu APS, or a software synth that supports SoundFonts, like Seer Systems' Reality, can find SoundFonts at various places on the Internet. A good place to start looking is the Creative Labs web site itself (www.creative-labs.co.uk), as this maintains a selection of free SoundFonts from various developers to whet your appetite. However, there are also many excellent commercial SoundFonts available at bargain prices. I mentioned the Sonic Implants range from Hruska Audio Productions (www.sonicimplants.com) in last month's PC Notes, and of course Emu themselves market the Module Mania series at £25 each - currently available are the first three Proteus modules (Pop Rock, Orchestral, and World), along with the Vintage Keys and Planet Phatt.



You can even download patches for effects units, both of the stand-alone MIDI variety and presets for plug-ins (although these tend to be somewhat rare). Again the best tactic is to follow links for the specific effect or plug-in - I quickly came across a site for the Alesis Quadraverb, at www.neato.org/qv, which had a page of downloadable patch banks.



Utilities



Many MIDI and SysEx utilities are available, and since MIDI has been going for so many years even utilities dating from 1996 can prove perfectly usable in many cases! Anyone who works with MIDI will on occasion find that notes refuse to emerge from the synth in question, or that a bank of sounds doesn't get sent to the right place. In cases like these some sort of MIDI monitor is invaluable - either a hardware one such as Deltron's Brighteye or the Studiomaster MA36, or a software utility.



"It's all too easy to end up with 2000 sounds for your synth or soundcard, yet never have them organised sufficiently well to sort out the good from the bad."

I've used the basic Midimon software utility for years, and mentioned it in my very first PC Notes column, way back in May 1997. Midimon was originally written by Microsoft way back in 1991, but was enhanced in various ways and posted in various places on the Internet as freeware. Quite by chance I stumbled on a radically improved version that has been renamed MIDI-OX, since virtually none of the original code remains. The latest version 5.5 is available from various places - I got mine from Cakewalk's ftp site (ftp://ftp.cakewalk.com/pub/Misc/MIDIOXSE.EXE).



Quite apart from the enhanced monitoring of MIDI input and output signals, MIDI-OX can now also be used to send controller messages, send and receive SysEx commands and dumps, use the PC keyboard to send MIDI notes, filter out any specific type of MIDI data, transform one type of MIDI data into another, and play back MIDI files. This is an excellent utility, especially since it remains freeware - I've already deleted various others that I used previously, and can now boot this up with confidence to carry out the majority of my day-to-day MIDI tasks. Many thanks to authors Jamie O'Connell and Jerry Jorgenrud - highly recommended!

Learn To Say No

When searching for suitable downloads it's worth using a bit of common sense, and restricting yourself to items that are genuinely useful. Yes, I know that it's tempting to have 150 VST plug-ins available if you can download the majority free of charge, but if you are unlikely to ever use some of them then it will make selecting the others far quicker and easier.



A similar approach is useful with sound banks. It's all too easy to end up with 2000 sounds for your synth or soundcard, yet never have them organised sufficiently well to sort out the good from the bad. If you find a hoard of seemingly must-have sound banks, create a couple of folders named Good and Bad. Then when you audition each bank, try out each sound in turn, and if any really appeal move the whole bank into the Good folder. If you get to the far end of the bank without being impressed, move it into the Bad folder rather than simply deleting it. Then, once you've waded through all your new finds, the next time you need a new sound you've already got all the appealing ones in the Good folder - this can save a huge amount of time. If you never seem to get around to listening to the contents of the Bad folder then delete them all, but you might just change your mind on another occasion and be glad you kept them.





Another useful utility is MIDIJoY - not a sequencer that works every time without crashing, but a way to convert a game joystick into a versatile two- or even three-way MIDI controller. In addition, up to four 'fire' buttons are supported, which can trigger (among other MIDI events) selected notes, or act as a sustain pedal. If you have a joystick, why not point your browser at www.cs.uwa.edu.au/~skot/vellocet/index.html - with all the current interest in controlling MIDI devices using hardware knobs, this must be one of the cheapest ways to do it!



Synth Editors



Once you have more than a couple of MIDI synths, it pays to organise your banks of patches a little more carefully if you are ever to find a favourite sound again. If you just want to load and save existing banks, a utility like MIDI-OX is ideal, but for creating your own sounds, a computer-based editor can be a lot easier than using the often tiny editing windows in many synths.



There are two design approaches to synth editors: generic (or universal) and model-specific. Generic ones tend to support a wide range of models, and are cost-effective if you have a large range of synths. They also tend to be written by the larger software companies, since developers need access to a huge range of synths to appeal to a large market, and also need to keep updating their synth profiles as new models are launched.



However, many people prefer to use a model-specific editor, since the entire interface will then be designed to suit the particular feature-set of one synth, with all its special features and quirks. Here shareware developers score highly, since often a particular editor will be written by an enthusiast frustrated that no dedicated commercial equivalent exists. I make no apologies for once again mentioning XGedit for Yamaha synths - I have never regretted sending my £25 to register Gary Gregson's editor (www.yme.co.uk/yme/), and have since downloaded at least a further half-dozen free updates over the last few years, as new XG synth models are added to the supported list.



In fact, if you have an older model of synth, shareware editor support may be the only available option, since there won't be a huge potential market to entice a commercial developer. Last year I bought a Korg Wavestation SR, which has been out of production for a long time. I was therefore delighted to find the Canadian developer Intelios (www.soundtower.com), who have dedicated editors for the Korg 01/W, Wavestation, Alesis Quadrasynth, and Waldorf Microwave, along with various other MIDI-based utilities.



Their Wavestation editor (WS SoundEditor), transformed editing my SR into a joyous experience. Anyone who owns one of these synths will know that the complex relationship between Performances, Patches, and Wave Sequences makes even moving a sound from one internal bank to another a major task. A dedicated PC-based editor makes all the difference, and this is a bargain at the price of 35 US dollars (£21.70). It is well worth looking out for and supporting shareware developers like Intelios - also, being smaller they can often respond to user queries much faster than large developers.



Plug-Ins



One of the most popular formats for audio plug-ins is Steinberg's VST, and because the company made their Software Development Kit (SDK) freely available, quite a few freeware and low-cost shareware plug-ins are now available. Until recently these could only be used by Cubase VST and Wavelab owners, but since the launch of Amulet Software's VST to DirectX adaptor (see last month's PC Notes column), they can be enjoyed by anyone with any application that supports DirectShow plug-ins as well. Even if you are using VST itself or Wavelab, there are still many basic plug-ins that rely on the 'single knob and scrolling parameter list', but using the adaptor gives you a slider for each parameter (see screen on page 206). By the way, the adaptor is now up to version 1.01, which sports a far more attractive graphic interface, as well as some minor improvements and bug fixes (it costs just over £30 from surf.to/amulet, or you can telephone 07808 157967 in the UK).



One of the easiest ways to access free and shareware plug-ins is to point your browser at Dave Brown's Cubase Webring Homepage (www.dbrown.force9.co.uk/webring.html), where you can find a list of sites in the ring (25 at the time of writing), many of which have plug-ins on offer. Although some people will be sceptical about how good free plug-ins can be when some commercial ones cost several hundred pounds, the beauty of the Internet is that you can download them for the price of the phone call and judge for yourself.



"While it's true that you are unlikely to find cutting-edge technology available for next to nothing, there are still plenty of bargains to be had, largely due to the resourcefulness, hard work, and generosity of a host of small developers."



Some types of effects, such as delays, chorus, and flangers don't need a lot of development time since they only need waveform offsets and mixing facilities, and many of the freeware ones fall into this category. More complex plug-ins (which take more development time), fall into the shareware arena, which is only fair. Ultimately, the really complex plug-ins including EQ and reverb are likely to remain commercial, but there is still a wonderful range of others to fill out the gaps in your collection.



Take Care Out There

I've found some extremely useful and impressive software at modest prices or completely free via the Internet, but of course you are also likely to download a lot of items that don't prove to be suitable for your purposes. As I've said before in these pages, installing loads of applications willy-nilly (especially the large ones often found on cover-mounted freebie CD-ROMs) can be a recipe for disaster, since some are not as well behaved as others. If you just leave them installed and unused they may not only clog up your hard drive, but possibly reduce your system performance as well.



The safest thing to do is to try to evaluate each downloaded item the first time you use it after installation. If it looks useful and suitable for your purposes, fine, but if it's obvious that you've either misinterpreted its function, or it simply doesn't perform as you'd hoped, then attempt to uninstall it immediately while you still remember what and where it is.



Thankfully the majority of automatic uninstall routines are far better than they used to be, and nearly always remove the majority of files that were originally installed. Problem areas include drivers that are currently running, since these are more difficult to eradicate - you may receive a warning that it was not possible to uninstall some files because they were in use at the time. If necessary, you can jot down their names and then delete them by hand after rebooting. Your Registry may also still contain references to long-since deleted applications, and over the months this can all have a cumulative effect.



The safest thing to do is to use a dedicated Install monitor utility such as Cleansweep (previously from Quarterdeck, but now at version 4.5 under the Norton banner). I still run this as a matter of course, since it tends to catch items that some automatic uninstallers conveniently forget about. You can buy it through most PC software suppliers for about £40.



I downloaded a selection of freeware ones to try out, and as you might expect they varied greatly, from 'my first plug-in' to several gems that could easily be sold on the open market. Your own plug-in likes and dislikes will largely depend on what sort of music you write, but particular favourites of mine included Vellocet's Reorder, Prosoniq's North Pole, and V. Burel's ppdisto. Reorder (vellocet.ii.net/software.html) is a wonderful concept - it chops any fixed-length audio loop into 16 equal parts, and then lets you re-order them any way you like in real time. You can also specify the level, pan position and direction (forward/reverse) for each part, as well as controlling loop length and feedback. It looks complex initially, but within seconds you're hooked!



Prosoniq have many well respected commercial releases (including the Time Factory and Roomulator), but the North Pole was developed by two of their staff during their spare time, and is completely free (www.prosoniq.com/sms/sprenger.html). It is similar in concept to the Waldorf D-Pole filter reviewed back in SOS November '98, though it is rather more limited, consisting of a 'virtual analogue' filter with resonance, along with an envelope follower, distortion, and stereo echo - the combination provides a whole host of possibilities.



V. Burel's ppdisto (webperso.alma-net.net/burel) is a complex beast providing ping-pong echo, distortion and filtering, and a host of controls (he shows a signal flow chart on his web site to make things clearer). When used in its VST form this makes it slow and cumbersome to set up, but if you have the VST adaptor each control gets its own knob (see screenshot on page 206), which makes it far more controllable. On the shareware front I was also impressed by the quality of the Aphro Verb from the same developer, at least on the basis of the fixed settings in the stand-alone downloadable demo.



Another beauty of all of these plug-ins is that the files are small, and they are incredibly easy to install - you just copy the DLL file into the Cubase\Vstplugins folder. Even if you are not on the Internet, but know a friend who is, it would only take half an hour or so to download a dozen of these to try out, and you could then copy them onto a couple of floppy disks to carry home.



Closing Words



Sometimes not being able to rush out and buy all the latest software can be a blessing in disguise, since it forces you to explore new avenues in your existing applications. And downloading a new sound or effect can spark off fresh ideas when you're feeling uninspired.



There's an old saying that nothing in life is free. While it's true that you are unlikely to find cutting-edge technology available for next to nothing, there are still plenty of bargains to be had, largely due to the resourcefulness, hard work, and generosity of a host of small developers.