Atari and MIDI Hardware vs. You Know Who's

Atari-MIDI-HardwareAtari and the Hardware Approach

I know what you're thinking, dear reader. What the hell is he doing writing about Ataris as we move into the second decade of the new century – where everybody who claims to be serious about making music with MIDI is either gnashing their teeth at a PC or mortgaging their grannies for the latest all singing all dancing Mac? And why is he going on about hardware, when any sane person does it all on one computer with soft-synths, plug-ins, and the latest editions of everything? Well read on, and I'll explain.

I have one principal when considering any piece of gear: do I like what the equipment does? If so, I buy it. It doesn't matter if it's ten days or ten years old. As long as you like it and its right for you, it doesn't have to be right for me, or the guy down the road. It's your gear, your studio and your music. Write, record and mix for yourself, not for anyone else. You're the expert on you, and your music is a reflection of who you are. We tend to get pigeonholed and forced into boxes in all areas of life: use this, wear that, think this, listen to that. If you're an Atarian, you've obviously rejected the herd mentality and are your own person. Congratulations!

Originally, I'm a classically trained double bassist who's worked in most fields of music including classical folk, jazz, jazz rock and theatre. Much of my work has been done in my MIDI studio since 1988. If you had told me that I would be involved with all this technology stuff when I was at music college in the 70's, I would never have believed you. Nevertheless, I've written gear reviews for various music magazines for a few decades now, and more recently, I've taught music and music technology in colleges observing how students are using the latest gear (or at least the gear that schools and colleges can actually afford, which is another matter entirely).

My studio is exclusively an Atari MIDI hardware studio - very old skool to some, but I'm sticking with my 'obsolete, outdated equipment' for some very good reasons. This is not a case of inverted snobbery or technological luddism on my part. The conclusions I've formed over the years comes from having to deal with supposedly superior and more current computers and music gear in colleges that entirely failed to impress me with their performance, reliability, user friendliness and overall sound (or lack thereof)

Why Atari?

I use Ataris for all of my work, even now. I even write my magazine articles (including this one) on my faithful STE using Wordplus 3. I like the sheer perversity of using 20 year old reliable technology.  You may think that I'm nuts, but for me, it works. For Internet, I use a Mac G5 which also converts my Wordplus files to any of the myriad of formats that different editors require.

Typically, I have two STEs on the go at any one time, with three backups, one of which is my original STFM from 1989 that still works fine. Most of my STEs have the full complement of 4MB of memory and handle just about anything I wish to throw at them. Here's an important point: the last time I had a major crash was in 1996 right after I'd completed six magazine articles - it took two days to retrieve them. My two main Ataris are put to different uses: one STE is installed inside an AT case with two hard drives totaling 1GB. It holds all my music archives, synth sound libraries, articles, and more.  The second Atari is dedicated to my studio running Notator SL with a Unitor and Log 3, providing a total of 6 MIDI out ports and 96 MIDI channels. And yes, I use the lot!  Both Ataris are connected to Syquest EZ135MB drives and large PC monitors with adaptor leads so that I no longer have to squint at the ever contracting display of an original Atari Monitor.  With the EZ drive, I have separate partitions for synth libraries and sysex programs, as well as the music files and hard drive housekeeping applications. I like to keep everything is on tap and easy to use.

The Hardware Studio.

When I was planning my studio way back in 1988, I'd already seen what others were doing, and we all get inspired and influenced by the folks who are already established. Mind you, one of the first MIDI studios in the London area managed to survive for a few years with a Commodore 64 as the main computer. Luckily, I decided on an Atari, although my original Pro 24 had an incomprehensible manual and crashed all the time. Once I got Notator, I never looked back.

12-Kurzweil-K1000-MIDI-Module-ModulesWhen it came to studio hardware, I wanted to cover as many sonic bases as possible, and contrary to other musician's opinions, I didn't need a sampler - and I still haven't got one! Instead, I made the happy decision to get into the Kurzweil 1000 module range – the sounds of which came from the classic K250 of the 80s. I've now got 12 of them all connected together!Why so many?The 1000 series came in three varieties: the Pro 1 (general purpose sounds), Pro 2 (orchestral strings, brass and woodwinds), Pro 3 (horns and guitar sounds), and GX (acoustic and electric guitars). The Pro 1s are 24 voice poly, while the others are 20 – quite impressive for the mid '80s. You can also layer up to 4 sounds per patch for a total of 6 mega-voices. With 12 modules connected together, I can achieve a blistering 288 voices! Over the past 20 years, I've got to know and love them even more - they're an integral part of my sound and no one else sounds like me. Every so often when I've wondered if they're getting past it (sonically), I've been surprised and delighted by the fact that they still outperform a lot of the sounds from newer synths. Though I am somewhat disturbed by the sheer lack of progress and imagination from some manufacturers. The GM sound sets out there still sound like the same ones on computer sound cards from the 90's.

When I set up the studio I wanted examples of analog and digital (FM) synthesis. I've always been a great fan of analog, and can claim to have written one of the first articles in Sound on Sound magazine's first year, putting the case for older and classic technology. I've written elsewhere about the folks who ditched analog gear because they were told that digital and sampling was the future and later regretted it saying, “I used to have on of those, I wish I still had mine”. Remember the claims that, thanks to sampling, acoustic instruments were now obsolete?

The analog side was, and still is, catered to by a Roland MKS70 (module version of the JX-10), producing massive sounds and textures that you still might think are produced via wave tables. The FM digital side of things was provided by my master keyboard, a Yamaha DX5 (essentially two original DX7s in one). Over the years, I have over 20,000 DX sounds on my hard drives, but I can still only play two banks at a time.  I still lust after a TX816 rack...

The Early Days are still Nowadays

I've always done things differently. My first keyboards in the mid 80s were a Yamaha CS80 and a Mellotron Mark 2, while everyone else was chasing Prophets and DX7s. It's amazing what sounds you could get just from those two. When I set up the studio in '88, I started off with the DX5, PX and GX modules, and the MKS70. I also considered a Mini-Moog, but opted for a MIDI'ed OSCar that boasts some pretty convincing lead synth sounds and a very good Taurus-like bass sound. Non-MIDI stuff was the CS80 and Melly Mark 2, to which I added a Mellotron 400 and a non-MIDI Oberheim OBX (yes, I'm an unrepentant Melly fan). Drums were taken care of by a Roland TR707 and 727. Completing the package was a Yamaha CX5, which gave some 4 op FM sounds.

All the above equipment ran through a Seck 18/8/2; vocals and acoustic instruments were (and still are) recorded onto a Fostex Model 80 8-track tape machine. After the fun and games with Steinberg Pro24, the change to Notator made life so much easier – and made TV soundtrack work a doddle.

Outboard was, and still is, the usual Drawmer gate and compressor. Deltalab and Audiologic DDLs; many folks still marvel over the sheer intuitive ease of using real pots rather than buttons and menu windows. Add a Slapback Scintillator for aural excitement, Symetrix 511 single-ended noise reduction, and a Yamaha 31 band graphic EQ. You'd be amazed at how useful the Yamaha 31 is for transcribing recorded magazine interviews and cutting out unwanted noise!

For reverb, I found an ad in the press for a Roland DSP2000 which was actually designed as a 20-bit hi-fi unit for audio buffs.  I also acquired a MIDIverb 2, which I set to the triggered flange setting to warm up the analog synths and add chorusing to turn my DX5 into a completely different beast.

For mastering, I chose a system that even at the time might have seemed strange: a Sony PCM converter linked to a Betamax video recorder, which has proven totally reliable and I still use it. At the time, one studio supplier said that what I really wanted was a Sony DAT machine at 1800. No, I didn't, and six months later much cheaper DAT machines were released.Damn that DATTime has proven that DAT has a lot of compatibility problems between different brands. A few years ago, a magazine interview with the folks at the National Sound Archive proved to me that I was right to stick with the PCM video system: they still use it and won't touch DAT with a 10-foot pole. You'd be surprised at the number of pro-CD duplicators that still cater to PCM recordings and love the system.

Finally. monitoring duties were taken care of by a Marantz hi-fi amp running Tannoy DC200s and Auratones. The Marantz's mono button is invaluable for checking for phase cancellations.

Expanding the Studio

My basic setup served me very well for many years, but changed as my own circumstances changed. Eventually, the non-MIDI gear went off to new owners and I started increasing my number of Kurzweil modules. As my synth collection grew, I ended up adding a Behringer MX8000A. That allowed for far more inputs, plus a total of six FX sends per channel.

But all these extra inputs inpired more shopping.   So, I went after more classic synths rather than the stuff "everyone” was using. In came a Roland D550, Kawai K5 and K1 modules, an Emu Morpheus and Procussion. I also got myself a Technics WSA1 rack which I had wanted for a while for its instrument modeling capabilities.  More recently, I was given a Korg DW8000 which is still a classic and superb sounding instrument – particularly with a voice download that is reputedly the library for Yes '91 tour. I also came across the Lexicon LXP 1 and 5 FX units (both half rack with a nice range of sounds). The fact that there are Atari editors for them made it even better! My final FX unit is a LEM FX24 (part of the now defunct GEM line), which provides two independent FX with twin mono ins and stereo outs. Finally, the most recent addition to the studio is a Digitech VHM5 vocalist to expand the vocals and tape capabilities. I originally reviewed one of these in the early 90s and loved its capabilities, so I resolved to get one eventually.

In case your wondering, I'm still using my PCM/ Betamax system for backup mastering. When I'm done, I record my music to a Tascam CDRW700, a wonderful beast in a completely different class of its own.

Using Atari MIDI Hardware and Software in 2010: How Does it Stack Up?

So why do I stick with this “stone-age” MIDI hardware technology? Because I get great results in a fraction of the time that it can take on ( know who's) computers, and I love using my Atari and hardware in general. Firstly, let's talk about my favourite Atari music package - Notator.

Notator has simply refused to crash or throw any kind of wobbly at all. The MIDI response time is tight and after all this time, still beats the hell out of PCs – at least in my experience.Re: PC MIDI Timing But then again, you might know someone who has a friend who once met someone who heard in a pub a rumour that a second cousin once removed knew someone who might have had better timing on his PC!.Naturally, since I teach music at college, I often encounter PCs that still can't play MIDI files back without difficulty. In fact, four months ago, the main PC in the music tech department threw a wobbly announcing that it wouldn't load Cubase as it somehow lost its license. That PC is now – MIDI-wise – a very luxurious door stop. The guy in charge of music tech at the college has done all the usual re-installations, called the helpline, sacrificed a goat and read its entrails – all to no avail. Mind you, I don't help matters when I announce that I never have this sort of problem with Ataris. The college in question gave me theirs a few years ago. I wonder if they regret it?

I use the score side of Notator all the time when editing, and seeing the much vaunted Sibelius in action is interesting. I find Notator still better and easier to use, and Sibelius' MIDI handling still in the dark ages by comparison. Earlier this year, a cellist friend asked me to do some MIDI work for her and she came over to the studio. She used to use Notator, and had “traded up” to Sibelius some years ago. Seeing the original in action, she became all misty eyed and wished she'd stuck with her Atari for her music publishing! She finds Sibelius can be the proverbial pain in the neck to work with.

Let's look at the whole question of MIDI work on the different computers. The Atari is supposedly (by today's standards) pitifully lacking in memory and features. On the contrary, it's that limit of 4MB that is its very salvation! Less is more, simply because it does one thing - MIDI - and that's it; it does that economically, smoothly and, most important of all, without superfluous add-ons that can get you lost for weeks in a side issue and forgetting what it was you wanted to do in the first place! And we all know how quickly an Atari boots up! The machines at a college I used to teach at were so laden with 'features' you could almost go out and have a three course meal while waiting for the desktop. As far as my G5 Mac goes, it's a lot faster – but still not as fast as an STE!

So-called 'current industry standard' music programs like Cubase and Logic offer too much in the way of options (and these are all only my opinions, all of which you are perfectly at liberty to disagree with). It's always a relief to go back to Notator with it's three edit pages where you were only a mouse click or return button away from sanity. And, going further: do you really need to customize colours, settings, and 1001 other things? Maybe they're nice to have if you're an inveterate twiddler, but at the end of the day anything that gets in the way of music making (which is what we're here for, after all) must be non-essential.

We Atarians are pampered beyond belief compared to the PC market. For example, we're not asked to download endless upgrades, some of which that might render the program unusable because the upgrade just happens to have a bug that requires you reinstall everything from the beginning again. We just boot up, load up and away we go. Simple, you might think, but the pages of music tech mags are regularly filled with articles on problems with PCs, how to repair them, how to upgrade them, fix bugs in programs, select a suitable hard drive, and more. This is all fine and dandy for computer geeks (and where woueld we be without them?), but it's not what you want to have to deal with in a working studio when you're working on a deadline on a project and can't afford downtime. I know several musos who have these problems regularly (even, whisper it gently, occasionally on Macs).

Here's another example: a friend of mine recently purchased a new Toshiba laptop that I helped him set a PC-based studio on. The latency using MIDI was fearsome, but it was even worse with VST instruments - over half a second! We complained to the Toshiba helpline and the guy on the other end of the line said, “Yes, we know about that one.”  Now, whether Toshiba laptops are suitable for MIDI is only part of the problem. It's the general principle of fitness for purpose (or lack thereof) that disturbs me. Anyway, enough computer ranting. I'm happy with my Ataris. They work, they don't break down (well, hardly ever!), and compared to PCs, they are a paragon of reliability and ease of use.

The Best Arguments for Using Hardware

If a piece of gear starts to misbehave, you simply switch it off and keep going with the rest of your studio! You don't have to reinstall programs, look for bugs, play around with the order of installation, or send e-mails to customer service departments of the computer or software company asking for help or FAQs. Everything is very tactile, you can see at a glance what's going on and what's connected to what, and you don't suffer from RSI making endless adjustments with a mouse. You simply grab a pot, cable or switch - easy-peasy.

As for 8-track tape vs non-linear systems of recording, I suppose it could be a generational thing; perhaps I'm too old school compared to folks who've grown up with DAWs. But, I like using tape, I find it reliable – my M80 has had nothing done to it since 1986.  The sound is authentic tape. In fact, did you know that you can buy a 'tape saturation emulator' for DAWs that makes things sound like they were recorded on tape? All very fine, until you look at the price - some units cost thousands. Why not have a tape real machine for one or two hundred and save money? Granted, with tape you have to work in the "old ways" by getting the performance down in one take rather than splicing together lots of different takes – which takes time and money. If the vocalist is not up to the job, then why are they in the studio in the first place? I'd rather have a good performance with some warts rather than rely on endless editing (more time and money in the studio, remember) as a talent substitute.

Both Notator and Unitor seamlessly link my 8-track to the rest of the studio. Unitor puts out exactly the right timecode level on tape, and the acoustic sounds play back with the MIDI arrangements. Of course, you sacrifice one track for time-code, but I use a lot of bouncing down on the other seven tracks. On my latest album project, one track comprised 20 backing vocals over 5 tracks and the remaining 2 were for the lead vocal. Just the type of thing we used to do in the '60s and '70s!

I like having a large desk to mix on. You can see all the knobs and switches and adjust them easily by eye. The first time I came across a digital desk it seemed to offer a tremendous amount. But, the endless pages of menus and values expressed in percentages meant, once again, that I got stumped and quickly lost altogether, then discouraged. And that's before you get to the fact that early digital desks are now regarded as "problem children" with regards to sound. The number crunching going on in the converters means that the sound played back can lack a lot of the nuances you were hearing and instead substitutes some rather nasty overtones. Compare this to analog distortion which produces even-numbered harmonics that sound nice. While some, and I stress some, not all, digital desks can produce odd harmonics that clash with the original tones.

David's Atari Music GearHardware Synths vs. Software Synths vs. Samples

I love hardware synths for a variety of reasons. You'll notice that I have units from a variety of manufacturers that all use different systems of sound creation – and that's the important point. I find that the late '70s and '80s were a golden era for new types of synthesis, with seemingly every manufacturer coming up with something different from their neighbours. In the '80s, I didn't subscribe to the “all in one solution” marketing blurb. Even now, I don't think that one box does everything. Manufacturers have gotten closer to that ideal over the decades, and maybe that day will come, but there's still a long way to go.  In my set-up, if I want orchestral sounds, I'll use the Kurzweils (although they offer some fearsome sound mangling capabilities themselves). Analog fuzziness will come from the MKS70, digital clangs from the K5, electric pianos from the DX5, evolving weirdness from the Morpheus, and so on.

Mind you, you'll always find that there are sounds on one instrument that you never thought possible. Some DX5 sounds are really quite good analog emulations, made even more evocative with a little chorusing. I've found that in general, third party sounds from friends or the web can be a revelation as to what a synth module can do – as opposed to what you thought it could do.  The main problem here is one of time – isn't it always? Take time to go through your sound banks and make up a bunch of favourites, rather than spending weeks/months/years going through absolutely every patch you have, every time.

As for software synths, there's a colossal amount available that recreate the classic hardware synths.  Some even expand on the capabilities of the originals in ways the designers could never have dreamt. But you'll find that some users on discussion sites are still unconvinced that these are as accurate as the originals. Sure, the virtual guys are extremely handy, cheap to a fault compared to the original hardware versions, and for those who've never played one of the originals, the VSTs will do fine. But, as part of my music examining duties at college, I've had to listen to numerous tracks from colleges around the country, all using virtual instruments, and I have to say they all exhibit a blandness and lack of definition. Granted, this could be from the poor quailty of the soundcards they're running on or it might be bad recordings by students who haven't been taught any better, but I still wonder.  I still find some professional tracks have that lack of character.

The ever evolving quest for sonic purity seems to have engineered out all the character of the originals, and that character is made up of the sonic impurity that gave the originals their distinctiveness. Virtual instruments, processors and FX can be a mixed blessing. Again, my examining duties show me that a lot of students (some of which who intend on becoming sound engineers) take a one-size-fits-all approach: "this plug-in has a preset for vocal compression and drum reverb, therefore, it must be better, right?"

What's happening here is that the spoon-feeding we're offered with virtual-everything means that no one understands how the real thing works anymore. More importantly for creativity, how many musos actually experiment their way to a sound? Or do they just go for the closest approximation that is “good enough”? The September 2009 edition of Sound on Sound magazine caught my eye. One of the very erudite columnists points out that he knows a lot of musicians who have every plug-in under the sun installed on their computers, but they never actaully complete a song. I think that says a lot about what your priorities might be in the studio.

When it comes to sample libraries, let's take sampled orchestral instruments as an example. There is a large number of superb libraries for all sorts of orchestral instruments that attempt to capture the wide, dynamic tonal variations they are capable of.  But there are limitations with the infinite number of possible variations and time it would take to record, process, and use in a composition. Trying to allocate all the different samples of strings and playing techniques to MIDI velocities and channels takes forever compared to being played by one musician live. Of course, film music maestro, Mr. Zimmer, is an exception to this rule - he's used to working that way so maybe he's much faster! But then again, he's been known to run dozens of PCs or Macs all at the same time (each one dealing with a sample library) to get a realistic, convincing recording.  Mind you, the the cost of such a feat is formidable.

So where does this leave us Atarians and our hardware studios?

Exactly where we were at the start of this article! Atari for music and MIDI works well and is reliable! It doesn't suit everybody, and that's fine. My recordings sound like me because no one I know has this combination of sound modules and effects, and my musical charts are the product of my own musical vocabulary and harmonic and melodic tastes. Your recordings will be expressions of you, and all the better for it. Of course, there's always something (my patchbay needs some soldering to remedy the dry joints after 21 years). Compared with the cutting edge guys who have to fidget with upgrading their virtual studios on a regular basis, I'm doing just fine.

My latest album project went just fine. The vocalist loved the sound of the studio and the range of sounds available to her from my Kurzweils, which have a variety of string articulations that put GM modules back in the dark ages. She also loved the fact that she could sing to a complete backing track in-stereo with a nice reverb, and that we could work fast and easy without losing vocal takes, which happened the last time she tried recording into a PC.

The mixes are ready for compilation and topping and tailing, but that will be done on a Mac at another studio which specializes in these things! I'm very happy with my Atari MIDI setup. Mind you, I could always do with a larger room and a bigger desk! Then I could run several Ataris in tandem, and get more of those classic synth modules I still lust after...

David moderates the Atari forum at Sound on Sound andhosts an excellent Kurzweil K1000 and K1200 site.