Last month being traditional holiday time, this columnist had a holiday! To make up for this loss, there are goodies aplenty dished up for your ear and eye in this slightly enlarged section including a bolt-on keyboard synth for the 128, a amplifier for any Spectrum and the re-vamp of Wham the Music Box for the 128.
Some while ago, we asked HCCS for a review. After a reasonable time had elapsed, both the Editor and I ran up several quids worth of phone bill trying to wheedle a review copy for me to tinker with. Finally, the synth system turned up, but on arrival at Chateau Bates it was found not to work. More phone calls, a very helpful service department, a second interface, still no sound. Eventually it was discovered that the keyboard had a loose connector. Plug in and away we go.
Meanwhile something in the back of what passes for my brain rang a bell and I went scampering through my old leaflets and files. Sure enough a few years back there was, for the BBC computer, the very same keyboard and amplifier with a rather decent music package with tons of voices, effects, chords and percussion. I rubbed my tiny hands with glee. However, I quickly discovered that the Spectrum 128 version was quite different. In fact the software is re-written and much simplified.
On loading up the screen displays a miserly 8 preset voices. Now whilst the sound chip in the 128 is not exactly the bee’s knees, the presets didn’t really do justice to it. The voices had the right shape to them but there was a rapid series of clicks that accompanied each sound, caused by the software being organised in such a way that each tiny increment of volume and/or pitch created a very audible click. And as there are plenty of increments for each sound this quickly becomes very tiresome.
The preset display allows you to crank the pitch up and down either in fractions of a tone or complete octaves. Pressing the space key gets you into the sound editing page which consists of a static graph and allows easy access to the various peripherals of the sound: attack; sustain; decay and release. Unfortunately, you can’t hear the changes that you have made without flipping back to the other screen display page, which makes sound editing a somewhat tedious process. It would have been most useful if the graph had reshaped itself so that you had a visual guide to the shape of the sound. In other words apart from informing you about the constituent parts of a sound shape (termed an envelope) the graph serves no active purpose.
The sounds you have created can be dumped onto tape and loaded back at later dates. More omissions — you can’t give your new sounds a name, so if you have created lots of sounds you have no point of reference. Mind you, the system can only store eight sounds at a time, so shuffling through a tape to find that wonderful sound you made at 4am in the morning could take some time.
It comes with a decent full-size, three octave keyboard plus interface: the software is available on both cassette and Microdrive. I can’t tell you much about the interface, as both the units I had were prototypes and not in their final form. No doubt, the production version will arrive in an anonymous small black box that plugs into the expansion port. The company who originally developed this for the BBC and Commodore machines went the way of many other software houses — into corporate oblivion — and the remaining stock has been taken over by HCCS. The software for the 128 has been derived from the original by a development company who are headed by one of the original design team, and it is this software that lets the package down.
I feel that the software offers too few facilities and should give you noise-free envelopes for sounds! The market is full of far superior software controls for the same chip and with 128K of memory to go at, there is really no excuse for omitting such obvious provisions as sequencing, note display, song files, access to the noise channel, chord playing, and maybe some additional filtering in the add-on hardware. Not to mention using the MIDI out port present on the 128. Although the system includes a keyboard, I feel it very non-competitive in today’s market. One gets a trifle niggled when companies suggest that users could develop their own software for expensive products like this... It is one thing to make minor adjustments to a product by way of fine-tuning for personal need, but it is another matter altogether to launch a very basic product at a price which is far from basic and then expect the paying public to re-design it for you. And why is the vastly inferior Spectrum 128 version more expensive than the superior versions for other micros?
This was previously marketed by its original developers at £49.95 and at 5p off £40, it now represents a better bargain. Basically it is a twin-cone speaker well matched to a reasonable monophonic amplifier with tone and volume controls. Sound quality is very acceptable and it is a handy little add-on to have about. It takes a mini-jack input so you can use the data recorder lead to connect the mic socket on the Spectrum to the Echosound.
The unit itself is mains powered, and I was pleased to note that it is also internally fused for extra safety should you fail to wire it up properly or drop it in the fish tank. The unit is quite compact, about 24cm x 18cm x 12cm and finished in best MFI placky wood. Unless you have a hi-fi equipped with suitable plugs handy to your micro it makes for a convenience item that is neither cheap nor expensive but of good quality. And you could use it to amplify anything else you have about. HCCS plan to market the speaker/amplifier unit along with the synthesizer as one package for £84.90, including a free keyboard tutor for good measure.