Our three-part article on MIDI concludes this week, and the week also brings news of Apple dropping prices, information on how to solve weird QMS-PS 410 printing problems, a look at AppleCare Premium, and a review of ARA Commander, a client package for AppleTalk Remote Access that does a better job than Apple’s software and has a feature even the author didn’t know about.
"Crash Course" Correction — In my article in the Jun-93 MacUser, a mistake was made in copy editing that introduced a serious error. For the non-programmer, MacsBug has three, maybe four important commands. They are es or escape to shell (which is the Finder), rs or restart, g or continue where you left off, and ? or help. Unfortunately the g command was turned into "Go" in the article, and MacsBug just spits at you if you give that as a command. My apologies if this mistake caused trouble. MacsBug is available on <ftp.apple.com> as:
Those of you using the Centris 610 and low-end 650 with the 68LC040 chip, need a special version of MacsBug that is available as:
Technical Support Coordinator, BAKA Computers
For those of you following the steady decline in Macintosh system prices, word from Apple last week is that prices of several systems are being reduced. As usual, some reductions are in suggested retail price, some actually affect purchase prices, and a few items show reductions in both.
The PowerBook 165c is among the computers whose retail prices are staying the same but whose dealer prices (which are typically reflected in end-user purchase prices) are coming down. Chances are, this change makes way for the expected introduction this summer of an active-matrix color PowerBook.
Other computers whose retail prices are staying put but whose dealer prices are being reduced include the PowerBook Duo 210, the Color Classic, and the various models of the Centris 610. The revised Centris 610 pricing isn’t far above current LC III prices.
In the higher education markets, where the LC II is still available, the retail and reseller prices alike for the various LC II models have been reduced.
Also of interest are price reductions in several printer models. The Personal LaserWriter LS retail price has dropped by more than $200 to $725, and end-user prices should drop somewhat as well (perhaps not as dramatically). Even more dramatic is the fall of almost $500 in the Personal LaserWriter NTR’s retail price, to $1179 (accompanied most likely by a somewhat more sedate reduction in acquisition prices). The beleaguered Apple Color Printer loses thirty percent of its retail price, and reseller prices are dropping as well.
— Information from:
I’ve posted a couple of notes on the nets about upgrading my QMS-PS 410 laser printer to a new version of the firmware, and to judge from the email, I’ve hit a bit of a nerve. Perhaps my experiences can save some of the rest of you the troubleshooting time.
As I remember it, (this was at least a year ago) I had trouble printing downloaded PostScript fonts on the QMS-PS 410 unless I first printed a document with a resident PostScript font. That was strange, but the more common problem for most people is an inability to print TrueType fonts. I didn’t have that since I seldom print TrueType fonts.
In any event, after calling QMS tech support, we determined that I had firmware revision 1, whereas at the time the current version was 9.4a (it’s probably higher now). I sent my printer to a QMS depot, where they gave it the 9.4a firmware revision, and my problems disappeared (and they didn’t even reset the page count). I did have to pay for shipping to QMS, but they paid return shipping and didn’t charge for the upgrade. Overall, it was a good experience, although I’ve heard that QMS support in other countries isn’t necessarily as pleasant or useful, so persevere if you have an early firmware revision that needs replacement.
QMS Tech Support — 205/633-4500 — 205/633-3716
The dust had hardly settled from last month’s announcements of the Apple Assurance program, offering more comprehensive support and repair options to Macintosh owners, when Apple announced another innovation, the new AppleCare Premium plan. The plan currently covers the new Apple Workgroup Servers and provides faster service response time for users who can’t afford to have their servers down.
The two premium options, intended to supplement the Workgroup Servers’ one-year limited warranty, are Four-Hour Response and Next Business Day Response. The goal of the former is to have a qualified technician and the necessary service parts on-site within four business hours after Apple has determined that a service dispatch is required, and the goal of the latter (as you probably guessed) is to have the technician and parts on-site the next business day after Apple has determined that a service dispatch is required. Suggested retail prices for these options are $480 and $240 respectively.
The AppleCare Premium service is available between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM local time, within a 60-mile radius of participating Apple service locations. As a result, Apple says that activation of the four-hour option may require up to thirty days notice so the company can bring a local service provider up to readiness or add that region to its internal service network. (Apple says that most of the service calls will be handled by Apple itself, rather than by dealers’ service technicians.)
Apple says these plans are intended to augment, not replace, service options that individual dealers provide. Many dealers already offer special service contracts to their customers, providing fast response time, guaranteed resolution time, loaners, etc. In fact, MicroAge, one of the companies with a number of affiliated Apple resellers, is in the process of creating a network of its affiliates and franchises that provide premium service around the country. MicroAge plans to offer service contracts to large corporations with many locations, providing comprehensive service for all branch offices through the local affiliate in each area.
For companies with mission-critical information on their servers, a day or two repair delay might be crippling. The new AppleCare Premium options indicate Apple’s realistic approach to providing service for such customers, and, we hope, will encourage resellers to restructure their own service offerings so as to provide similar, or even better, options for their own customers. For resellers who feel Apple is stealing their thunder, new service options that come to mind include:
- Administrated data backup
- Backup equipment standing by
- 24-hour emergency response
- Comprehensive help-desk service
- Equipment registration and engraving
Obviously some of these options would be expensive, but for users who are too busy to maintain their own backups, or not interested in the drudgery of keeping track of all equipment on the premises, they could be valuable services.
— Information from:
For today’s increasingly-mobile Macintosh user, remote access of one kind or another is vital. Travellers must be able to read their electronic mail, communicate with colleagues back at the ranch, retrieve forgotten files, and access information services, no matter where they happen to be. Apple’s introduction of AppleTalk Remote Access (ARA) along with the PowerBooks brought remote dial-in access to the masses, and Trilobyte Software’s ARACommander makes ARA complete.
For those of you not familiar with the original product, ARA is software that allows you to connect your Macintosh via modem to an AppleTalk network at another location, by calling a Mac at the remote site. The ARA application includes both the client and server function, which is a waste of memory and hard disk space for Macs that are only used for one function. That’s where ARACommander comes in.
ARACommander provides a client-only interface to ARA. It requires the ARA extension software, but not the chunky ARA application. ARACommander requires much less disk space, and takes up less RAM when in use, than ARA itself.
The user configures ARACommander through a Control Panel that adds a number of features missing from ARA. For example, ARACommander offers a phone book-type listing of known remote sites that can be reached simply by selecting one from a pop-up menu and clicking on the Connect button. The Control Panel allows you to select any number of items to open once the connection is made, including file server volumes, documents, and applications. Another popular feature is the ability to play a user-specified sound upon successful connection. Even better, you can specify dialing prefixes and phone credit card strings in separate fields.
Although ARACommander can be used perfectly well through the Control Panel, it shines when you use its Connector applications. Once you properly configure the Control Panel for a given host and everything works, ARACommander allows you to save a pre-configured Connector application that, when launched, immediately makes the connection. The Connector can be configured to prompt for dialing prefix and/or credit card info, so the same Connector can be used no matter what odd phone system you try to use.
Naturally, you can place a Connector application in the Startup Items folder connection on startup, or in the Apple Menu Items folder for convenient access. The Control Panel or Connector application need not stay open while the connection remains active (though if kept open, both provide an elapsed time display), so you can launch an included application called ConnectNot at any time to disable active connections.
One particularly impressive advantage ARACommander has over ARA is its ability to make outgoing calls through network-shared modems such as Shiva’s NetModem V.32, or modems connected to a Shiva NetSerial or LanRover. This feature handily eliminates the LanRover’s one-way limitation. (LanRover is Shiva’s dial-in ARA server product, which the company has been unable to convince to dial out using ARA.) Shiva doesn’t support this feature, but our testing with a NetModem V.32 and Shiva’s 3.7.3 drivers shows the combination to work well. Ron Duritsch, ARACommander’s author, says he was astonished and pleased to discover that his software worked with the Shiva products, since Shiva had told him quite adamantly that it was impossible.
ARACommander differs from an earlier shareware version, ARAClient, mostly in the capability of opening files or playing a sound at connection time, as well as the dialing assistance (prefixes and credit card numbers). User reports suggest that ARACommander is also more stable than its predecessor. A demo version of ARACommander that works for two weeks is available on CompuServe in MACCOM, Library #11 (Apple Remote Access) as ARACMD.CPT, and on America Online as ARACmdr.sea in the Communications and Network Forum, in Communications Programs. [I can’t connect to check right now, but if the demo isn’t at sumex and mac.archive in one of the comm directories already, I will upload it. -Adam] The shareware version is still available from some online sources, but the author no longer actively promotes it. (He still accepts shareware payments, though!)
Prices range from $19.95 for a single-user package of ARACommander (which is five cents less than the shareware payment for ARAClient, so it’s a good deal) down to about $8 per head for a 100-user pack. The software is available for resale through dealers, or may be purchased directly from Trilobyte. (Note the difference between the spelling of the company’s name and its AOL address; someone beat them to it on AOL!)
— Information from:
Ron Duritsch — [email protected]
MIDI Hardware: Interface — A MIDI interface provides a link between a Mac serial port and MIDI device(s). For example, Altech Systems offers an inexpensive, light-duty, self-powered interface which has three MIDI-outs, one MIDI-in, one serial in, one serial out with a MIDI bypass switch for a direct serial-in to serial-out connection (useful if you use an external modem and don’t wish to spend your free time switching cables between MIDI and modem), and three LEDs to register serial and MIDI traffic. It draws power from the serial port – an improvement over older models which had bulky power supplies. It is possible that some interfaces that depend on the serial port for their power may not work with a PowerBook.
Then there are the AC powered mid-line interfaces like Studio-2 from Opcode. At the upper-end, you can buy Mac-MIDI interfaces with up to 16 MIDI ins and outs, SMPTE converters, internal MIDI processing and routing, and much more (MIDI Time Piece from MOTU, Studio-4 and -5 from Opcode, etc..) These industrial-strength interfaces use special protocols and do not work with ordinary MIDI applications – unless you use OMS or something equivalent.
Interface products are also available from other manufacturers such as MacNexus and MIDIMAN. Apple too, sells an interface with one MIDI-in and one MIDI-out. However, if you plan to expand your MIDI system in the future, get an interface with more than one MIDI-out port. Make sure the package you buy includes at least two MIDI cables (DIN 5 pin 180 degree male/male) and a null serial cable. Prices for the "light duty" models run around $90 list, $60 street.
Macs — Some PowerBooks (140, 145, 160, 165c, 170, and 180) with their disposition for imposing serial-port blackouts can be frustrating MIDI platforms. However, a combination of using the PowerBooks in Don’t Rest mode and keeping AppleTalk on may help keep MIDI-data loss to a minimum. However, on PowerBooks with only one serial port, like the PowerBook 100, AppleTalk interferes with the serial port and must be off for MIDI use. As mentioned earlier, MIDI Manager automatically disables the Rest mode.
Reportedly, the Duos 210 and 230 have no problems with MIDI. Tests have established that the PowerBook 100 is fine at MIDI speeds – just. However, the PowerBook 100 may fail with special high speed interfaces. The PowerBooks 140, 145, 160, 165c, 170, and 180 can do easy MIDI chores such as simple record and play-back, but falter when receiving large amounts of MIDI data. In one series of tests conducted on a PowerBook 140, a great quantity of input MIDI data was lost, not just long sysex dumps as Apple maintains (a sysex dump is a bulk, high-speed data dump from a MIDI device to the Mac.)
A Tech Note suggestion (TN 318 – PollProc) by Apple was augmented and implemented by Opcode in a new version of OMS, 1.2beta. Under 1.2beta, the problem of lost MIDI data on the offending PowerBooks 140, 145, 160, 165c, 170, 180 is solved, but incoming data loses its timestamping. However, not all commercial programs are OMS compliant, and the TN 318 fix works only for interfaces attached to the modem port. The printer port continues to be unreliable for input.
MIDI data can be lost on the PowerBooks because they suffer from periodic serial port blackouts, which can last as long as six milliseconds (blame this on the Power Manager). Theoretically, as many as 30 bytes of MIDI data can be transmitted from a device to the Mac during a six millisecond span. During a blackout, only three bytes can be stored by the serial port’s buffer. In the worst case, it is possible that as much as 90% of the data transmitted during a serial blackout could be lost. Regrettably, MIDI Manager predates PowerBooks and is blissfully unaware of PollProc calls. Further, some who have tried the solution in TN 318 suggest it is incomplete and does not quite work as advertised. Were it not for OMS, the functionality of the PowerBooks 140, 145, 160, 165c, 170, and 180 as complete MIDI platforms would be impaired.
The PowerBooks with their slim form and light weight are otherwise ideally suited for real-time MIDI performances. It is puzzling that Apple allowed some technically minor, but functionally disastrous problems to fester on most PowerBooks. Among the portables, the buying recommendation for a MIDI platform is a Duo. If you can find one, a PowerBook 100 can be a bargain platform for simple MIDI work.
Controllers — Most people associate MIDI controllers with keyboards, but they can be anything you pluck, strike, or change in some way. For sanity’s sake we’ll limit discussion to keyboards and sound modules (keyboard-less synths).
Samplers and Synthesizers — Thus far, we have used the terms "synth" and "synthesizer" for illustrating various MIDI functions. But samplers have equal status with synthesizers – you can get keyboard forms of both.
Samplers contain (in ROM or RAM) a literal hi-fi recording of a real instrument. The E-Mu Proteus is the most famous sample-playback module, while the Fairlight CMS and the E-Mu Emulator are probably the best-known sampling keyboard systems. Samplers can also be rack-mounted studio effects devices, and there are probably 40 or 50 samplers at all prices between obsolete models on the used market and new models. Some do not use MIDI.
A synthesizer builds sounds from simple waveforms blended together, from a combination of samples and waves, or by intermodulating a handful of waveforms (FM synthesis, the "DX7 sound," and also used to death in a poor-sounding 4-wave chip on most PC "Sound Whacker" add-in cards).
Do not pinch pennies when buying a keyboard. There is a marked difference between the inferior and the better ones. But you don’t need a fancy keyboard if you are not a trained musician – just one you are comfortable with. After all, sequencers offer "step mode," which allows them to be slowed way, way down so even a talentless hack can play amazing MIDI shred arpeggios. If you’re new to all this, a used Kawai K1 is a good inexpensive keyboard to look for. (On the other hand a $1,500 synth is in some sense, as good as it gets.) If you’re planning only to edit and play back and you are not a trained musician, any keyboard is functional (yes, even a CZ101 will do just fine, thank you.)
You’ll want a sound module with "good" sounds (preferably General MIDI compatible). The Roland Sound Canvas is a good value for beginners. Yamaha, Roland, and Korg all compete in the value-priced sound module market.
Here are features you can use to evaluate synths and define your musical priorities:
- Number of octaves: A five octave range (that is 61 keys) is sufficient for most casual users. A 76-note keyboard would be considered a minimum for controlling several modules during a live performance. For playing Debussy, you’ll probably want 88. Some keyboards have the ability to shift (or transpose) which adds two (or more) octaves.
- Key size/feel: Does it matter if the keys are slightly smaller than usual? Do they have the feel of a piano key? If you are used to playing the piano, these considerations make a difference. Most of the better synths have full-size keys. Some offer weighted keys.
- Polyphony: Polyphonic synths can play more than one note simultaneously. Thus, when a chord is played on a polyphonic keyboard, all notes of the chord sound. If the synth is monophonic and a chord is played on it, only one note of the chord will sound. However, a 32-voice polyphonic synth does not necessarily imply that 32 notes can be played simultaneously since each note itself could be made up of more than one voice. (Technically, the correct usage should be waveform instead of voice.) Polyphony is a must for serious MIDI-dabblers. Since almost all modern synths are polyphonic, this may not be a deciding factor.
- Multitimbral: A multitimbral synth can play more than one musical instrument sound (patch) simultaneously. A synth could be polyphonic and able to play many notes simultaneously. However, if it is not multitimbral, all notes will play by only one instrument, for example, entirely as Hammond organ. A multitimbral synth could give you a string bass on the bottom, a piano in the middle, and saxes on top. This is another must feature if you want lots of instruments at once, and don’t want an apartment full of synthesizers.
- Velocity Sensitive: How loud a particular note is supposed to sound is embedded in MIDI messages as velocity. Velocity numbers range from 0 (0 is note-off; 1 is the quietest) to 127 (loudest). Most synths have velocity sensitive keys – when a key is struck, not only is the note and duration transmitted, but also how hard the key was hit (actually, how quickly the key moved).
- After-touch: A type of touch sensitivity where the synth senses how hard the key is pressed down after it has reached (and is resting on) the keybed. After-touch is useful for assigning special effects and is commonly used for "expression" – to swell a sound, like a conventional instrument.
- Sound quality: Most people consider this the most important factor (and rightly so). After all, you have to listen to the sound produced by your synthesizer. If the sound quality is inferior, even playing Bach will not help the music sound pleasant. Some synth models have digitally sampled sounds of various instrument stored in ROMs. Not surprisingly, these samplers sound pleasing when used for conventional orchestral, rock, or jazz music.
- Miscellaneous: How many (and which) instruments can the synth emulate? Does it have a ROM slot that would allow expanding the internal instrument list by adding ROM cards? How easily are these cards available? Does the synth have waveform editing features? Can it do special effects? (You’ll be surprised what just a simple reverb or delay can do for synth-sounds). Does it have adequate RAM (or a RAM slot) to save waveforms of customized instruments you create? Besides the standard MIDI-in and MIDI-out, a MIDI-thru port might provide more flexibility in configuring various devices on a complex MIDI network. General MIDI capability is essential if you plan to purchase and play libraries of commercially-produced MIDI music files.
Casio, E-Mu, Ensoniq, Peavey, Kawai, Korg, Kurzweil, Roland, and Yamaha are a few of the dozen-odd companies currently marketing electronic synthesizers (Casio has exited the musical/professional synth market and only sells inexpensive home units). Before starting your synth hunt, get a copy of the FAQ maintained by Craig Latta for rec.music.makers.synth on Usenet (FTP-able from <xcf.berkeley.edu>). It has useful pointers on buying your first synth. A used synth price list (available by FTP from <sprite.berkeley.edu>) posted every few weeks on the discussion group can help you shop around. This group is a good place to pick up used equipment, and solicit hardware and software recommendations. Keyboard and Electronic Musician are two magazines which are good newsstand resources.
Coda — MIDI is often given superlative billings about how it can enhance your musical abilities and transform you overnight into a great musician. MIDI does give you precise control over the way your music sounds, but the greatness depends on you. Why, MIDI wasn’t around until 10 years ago, and we did have a wee bit of good music before then.
You might not have enough money to buy all elements of a dream Mac-MIDI system (or for that matter, even a dream Mac system!). However, you can put together a simple MIDI studio comprising of a Mac and a synth easily and inexpensively. Aim for an open system that can grow easily by accepting new MIDI devices.
With the advent of 16-bit DSP chips in Apple future-ware, one area bound to see a proliferation of new products is the integration of digital sound and MIDI. Opcode’s Studio Vision with Audiomedia (list $1,995) is one such Audio/MIDI package as is Digidesign’s Pro Tools (list $5,995). Both are MIDI/Direct-to-Disk recording environments, or "tapeless studios." Expect to see digital audio/MIDI cards incorporating Ensoniq and Kurzweil chipsets in the future. In fact, a number of the programs mentioned earlier already offer SMPTE timecode synchronization of MIDI tracks onto video and digital audio master tapes.
MIDI has opened doors to exotic possibilities, and new MIDI instruments, software, and all kinds of MIDI accessories (like MIDI lighting controllers for stage lights, gloves with embedded MIDI controllers, etc.) are continually being introduced. There is MIDI software that introduces variations into the data you feed it; MIDI controller wands you wave, innumerable MIDI drumpads and variations thereon; MIDI marimbas; MIDI guitars; basses, violins, and wind-instrument controllers; MIDI floorpads you step on; MIDI sensors that pick up light, sound, or movement; you can do it all. For those of you into creative self-flagellation, at least one guy designed a MIDI drumset into a jumpsuit.
You could even create a MIDI file by transforming the last ten years’ Dow Jones daily closing average as the lead voice and that day’s high temperature in Manhattan as the backup. Just don’t play it back for us.