Which Atari is best for MIDI?


Of Atari's fastest machines, which one is the best for MIDI?

For a long time in the ST computer families life, there was single constant. While the colours and sound changed, the speed stayed the same at 8MHz, but then in 1990 with the release of the TT030 things started to change, not only with the processor type but also with the speed. The TT030 had the Motorola 68030 processor running at 32MHz and while it was not the first in a new line, it did show a preview of the things to come.

Within 2 years of the TT030's general availability, the Mega STE and Falcon030 were either launched or at least known about, and both of these machines had a processor speed of 16MHz, with the Falcon being promised as the first in a new line of computers, designed for the future of computing. Unfortunately history tells a different story, but that is not what we are concerned about here. This article has a single aim, to answer that age old question for us musicians.

Which one is best?

Should be simple to answer, but it also depends on what you need as a user. For example, if you have an older Atari compatible hard drive then without re-housing the drive or putting a new SCSI cable directly attached to the drive, your choice is limited to the Mega STE or the TT030. However it is not only things like that which can affect the decision, there are things like screen resolution, software compatibility, interface response and availability of machines on the second hand market to consider. Before we delve into that though, lets look at the merits of the machines themselves.

The Mega STE

This was the last of the ST line, marketed as a professional machine for those who didn't have the money for the top of the range TT030, and to emphasize this, the machine was housed in a TT style case but in the more regular ST grey. However the machine still had the VME expansion bus and LAN port of the TT030 and also had more than 1 serial port, though it did not have a SCSI port or VGA connector for its monitor. It did however have optional internal SCSI drives (on the 1MB model, standard on machines shipped with 2MB or 4MB), though this used an internal adapter to convert an internal ASCI connector to a SCSI interface, just like the older Stacy laptop. The machine shipped with TOS 2.01, though the latest version is TOS 2.06, and if you have a machine with the earlier version it is advised to get the later one as it does sort out a number of bugs in the earlier versions.

The Mega STE shared the same screen resolutions of its predecessors, however the VME bus allows for graphics cards such as the Martix series, Crazy dots and the Nova cards to be installed, potentially giving this machine graphics that can rival today's PC's, at least when it comes to resolution and colour depth. The processor is a faster version of the one in the older ST series, equipped qith 16KB of cache ram, but the ace up the Mega STE's sleeve is that the cache can be turned off and the speed reduced to 8MHz for programs that do not cope well, or just don't work with the higher speed or the cache. All the ports of the older ST series are included, though the serial port is a 9 pin port rather than the 25 pin port of the other ST's and if you have an internal hard drive and want to attach an external one, you must ensure the external one is set to a higher ID than the internal drive or the machine will not boot from or see either of them. Since only the Stacy and the Mega STE shipped with internal drives in the ST line, most manufacturers set their drives to the first and lowest ID, which can catch out the unwary.

The TT030

Atari TT030When released, this machine started at $3000 and went up in price from there. This may seem expensive (And it was!), but the equivalent Apple Macintosh II cost around $5000. The TT030 was a departure from the regular ST line, using industry standard ports and interfaces, bringing SCSI to the Atari line, VGA monitor port, Apple compatible LAN port and the VME interface. It also broke the ST's 4MB limit by allowing up to 16MB of ST memory, which was accessible by the DMA bus, but it also had a high speed TT memory bus, which allowed up to 256MB to be installed as well. The machine has a Motorola 68030, a 68882 maths co-processor and 32KB cache ram, though the system board runs at 16MHz.

Due to the changes in the TT architecture, a number of older programs do not work, which include C-Lab's Creator and Notator programs, Steinberg's Avalon, Cubase 1 and Cubase 2 (Though Cubase 3 and Cubase Audio work just fine) and a number of none music related programs also had issues (While First Word Plus worked, it could have graphic corruption). These issues hampered the adoption of the TT in music studio's in its early life, however as Cubase was updated to work on the machine and Notator Logic also worked, the TT began to appear alongside Apple Macs and PC's in high end studio's.

The TT also introduced the new TOS 3.01, which included enhancements to the GEM desktop which made it easier to detect hard drive partitions, the ability to launch applications by assigning them to a function key, a larger choice of icons for devices such as floppy drives, Atari TT030DTPprinters and CD Roms, and the ability to drag applications onto the desktop. Support for High Density floppy disk drives was also built into the operating system without the need for additional programs in the auto folder, and for the first time, GEM programs could be launched from the Auto folder.

There was however a strange omission. While the TT030 had the same colour selection as the STe, it did not include the STe's BLiTTER chip or hardware scrolling. During the machines design, it was Bfelt that the additional power of the 68030 was enough and additional graphic support would not be needed, though to be honest if you were serious about graphics you would have a VME graphics card fitted which could make the BLiTTER redundant anyhow, so in a way, Atari's thinking was correct. With a VME graphics card, the TT's high resolution mode of 1280 x 960 could be made available on a standard VGA monitor, which can make arranging music a lot easier as more of the arrangement can be seen on the screen at once, and unlike the regular TT high resolution mode if you had the right graphics card you could have that massive desktop in colour.

At the time of its launch, the TT030 was king of the hill, even if it was a little hobbled by software compatibility on launch. Even so, the interface is fast and responsive, and the machine allows for expansion beyond anything Atari had made available in its high end machines before.

The Falcon030

Atari Falcon030A new machine had been rumored for what felt like forever when the Falcon030 was first shown to the world. Here was a new machine aimed at the home user, with a completely new set of graphics options, a sound subsystem that at the time had no equal in the machines price range, and new storage options including the still quite new SCSI 2 interface. Memory could be expanded to 14MB and an internal hard drive could be fitted, and all this was crammed into a standard Atari STe case with a different colour scheme, well most of the time anyhow. The machine was a complete departure from what had gone before, with a 16MHz 68030 processor, optional 68882 maths co-processor, 56001 DSP chip, BLiTTER, internal expansion bus, 8 channel 16 bit sound, colour palette of 262144 colours with up to 65536 colours on screen at once in true colour modes and with external clocks, customisable screen resolutions up to the TT's high resolution (With interlacing). This was an incredibly powerful machine, but all was not as it seemed.

During the machines initial development, an STe system had been modified by removing the 68000 processor and replacing it with a daughterboard containing a 68030 and 56000 DSP, this was done initially to see if this configuration could be made to work well in harmony. The trouble with this is that the ST design has a 16 bit data bus and a 24 bit address bus, so if you start to build around this design, it is more difficult to adapt the design as you progress to a full machine. Why do I mention this? Well, the released Atari Falcon030 has a 16 bit data bus and a 24 bit address bus, even though the 68030 is a 32 bit chip on both its data and address buses. To make things worse, the internal expansion bus does not allow all the features of the 68030 to be accessed, so there is no burst mode over this port, making it a direct equivalent of the 68000 connector found inside the original Mega ST series in 1987.

But it is not all doom and gloom, as a result of the Falcons development, it does have an STe bus mode, and the processor can be slowed down using utilities such as FalconSX, making the machine potentially more compatible with older software than the TT030, though proFalcon on STfm and STegrams such as Steinberg's Avalon still cannot be made to work on the Falcon. Expanding the RAM to 14MB (16MB with 2MB allocated to 'OS Housekeeping') also made using the new multi-tasking MultiTOS much better, however no music programs ran properly under the new OS, though an improved single tasking version of TOS was included in the system ROM. TOS 4 brought new screen options and a less garish green to the GEM desktop, optional 3d buttons and more options when it came to adding colour to system windows. Cheap IDE hard drives could be accessed alongside SCSI hard drives, however there was no way of easily attaching older Atari hard drives as there was no ASCI port. Adding a second floppy drive was also out of the question as there was no external floppy port, although TOS will always 'find' a drive B if you search for attached devices.

There was however a number of interesting additions to the machines inputs and outputs, such as headphone and microphone sockets, which with a little soldering could be turned into line level inputs and outputs for attaching to a mixer, and also an interesting 15 pin port labeled DSP. This interesting little port connected directly to the 56001 DSP inside the machine, allowing things such as external interfaces for audio input and output, digital S/PDIF and 8 channel ADAT interfaces.

Something to note if you don't like the Falcon case colour scheme, if you look around there are a few Falcons out there with the more regular ST colour scheme. I have 2 falcons, one with the more regular Falcon colouring, and one with an ST coloured case and keyboard, seen above with my STfm and STe.

So which machine is the best?

The comparison

With the Atari Mega STE and TT030, the TOS startup routine goes through a hardware detection, which is shown by a long black bar which shrinks as the ports are scanned. However once the internal hard drive has spun up, you can bypass the rest of this by pressing the spacebar. On the Falcon, although it has the same process, this is much shorter as there are fewer legacy ports and as a result, less hardware likely to need initialising. Boot times are also affected by the number of programs in your Auto folder, so while a TT030 with a nice fast SCSI drive should boot faster than a Falcon using a stock IDE laptop drive, your mileage may well vary. As it is with my systems, the Mega STE boots the fastest, mainly due to the lack of programs in the Auto folder, however all 3 machines have NVDI 5.03 and are running Cubase 3 on stock hardware, so no additional graphics cards or accelerators are being used.

By assigning Cubase to a function key in GEM, from power on to being able to use Cubase is fast on all machines, with all of them being a the Cubase arrange page in less than 40 seconds. The respective times were 38 seconds for the TT, 38 seconds for the Mega STE and 35 seconds for the Falcon. However the Mega STE was technically the slowest as this had less programs in the Auto folder, namely HDDriver and NVDI 5, while both the TT and the Falcon had additional programs to support some additional programs and features on the machines.

In use the hardware of the machines comes into play, and it can't be denied that the raw speed of the TT makes it the most responsive of the three, however it is the responsiveness of the Falcon and the Mega STE that is the real surprise, with the Falcon being closer to the Mega STE than the TT in response, even though the Falcon and TT share the same improved microprocessor and the system of the TT runs at the same speed as the system bus on the Falcon. The reason for this lies in the Falcons internal design.

All of the 680X0 series processors are 32 bit processors internally, however the 68000 and 68010 have an external 16 bit data bus, meaning that a 32 bit value needs 2 cycles to get inside the processor. Even though the 68030 processor inside the Falcon is a full 32 bit processor, it is on a 16 bit data bus, meaning that when 32 bit values are used, it has the same issue as the ST series in that it takes 2 cycles to get the full value into the processor. As a result, while the processor in the Falcon runs at half the speed of the processor in the TT, the actual operating speed is less than half. And with that little diversion out of the way, back to the comparisons.

In use on the desktop, the Falcon can sometimes feel like the interface runs a little slow, especially when you have many of the built in effects like 3d buttons, colours on the scroll bars and window backgrounds, and all that funky stuff that made desktops look garish in the early 90's. While running in the highter resolutions with 4 colours made the whole machine feel snappier, there was always that feeling that it was not what it could be, especially if you have just come away from using the TT030. The Mega STE does not have as much to play around with when it comes to the user interface, but this helps in that the interface is not slowed down by excessive graphic flourishes that can adorn the Falcon, and as a result at times the Mega STE feels tighter and more consistent though not as responsive as the TT030. But what are the machines like in use with our favorite MIDI sequencers?

Cubase on the Mega STEStarting with the slowest of the 3, the Mega STE starts and goes into Cubase in quite a reasonable time, and copes well with large busy arrangements, even if there is a little slowdown in screen refresh. The arrangement I'm using is one I did as part of Diffusion in 1994 called Mist, which when it was first done on a 1MB Atari STfm, nearly killed the machine due to the SysEx, MIDI controller data and sheer number of tracks in use for the time. The Mega STE coped better than the older machine, and also had better timing through the serial port. This has nothing to do with the faster processor clock in the Mega STE, but with the newer and faster serial port driver chips that feature in all 3 of these machines. As a result, these machines can use a 3 port serial MIDI interface more reliably that the older ST series can.

But back to Cubase, copying and pasting data is quick, not instant but quick, and using the score and key edit pages is much better than on a stock STe or STfm, especially with a large arrangement in memory. The MIDI Mixer too is a lot more responsive and screen redraws of data is smoother, which is all down the the extra processor speed. The beauty of the Mega STE as well is that when you disable the cache and reduce the speed to the more regular speed of 8MHz, the Mega STE can also run Cubase 2, though it is a little more unstable than on a regular STe (But not much). The Mega STE does have the advantage of being an ST with some enhancements, rather than an enhanced machine trying to be an ST. While the distinction is small, it is important when it comes to software compatibility.

Cubase on the FalconNext up we have the falcon030, which like the Mega STE is clocked at 16MHz but has the more advanced 68030 processor which clock for clock, is faster than the 68000 in the ST series and is a full 32 bit chip. The more streamlined startup procedures of TOS 4 allow the machine to boot faster without needing to interrupt by tapping the keyboard, and the machine is quicker at loading Cubase from the internal IDE drive. Once loaded with the same arrangement as before, Cubase feels like it has moved a step up from the Mega STE, though there are times when you click on the mouse but there is a brief but noticeable gap before the interface responds. Lowering the colour depth to 2 or 4 colours helps as this reduces the amount of memory needed for the screen because unlike the ST series, which has a fixed 32KB set aside for the screen, the amount of memory the Falcon030 uses can vary depending on the screen resolution and number of colours selected. The more memory the screen uses, the less there is for arrangements, but more crucially, the more data has to be pushed around just to update and redraw the screen!

With a reasonable resolution and colour depth, screen redraws while playing and editing are quick and smooth, and the MIDI timing feels that bit tighter on external MIDI interfaces as well. Once again there are faster serial port driver chips used and it makes a difference, though you must remember to set a higher baud rate before starting Cubase. In 80 column double height mode, you get a screen resolution slightly higher than the ST series high resolution mode, which can be important if you have a large MIDI arrangement with a lot of separate tracks. It also helps in the editor pages where less editing space is lost to the controller bar along the bottom of the key editor for example.

There is also an advantage to choosing a Falcon030 if you already use an STfm or STe computer in that the case is identical in size and with most of the port locations, so it will literally just drop in where the old machine used to sit. The Falcon can also be expanded up to 14MB of RAM, though also came with either 1MB or more commonly 4MB of RAM. Either way, memory expansions are reasonably easy to come by, and are generally available from Keychange Music Services. If you want to try recording audio, the Falcon030 had the best onboard audio system in its price range for the time, allowing up to 8 channels of better than CD audio quality, and with Cubase Audio 2.06, up to 16 channels can be recorded to an external hard drive on the Falcon.

One thing to watch with the Falcon though is that for the MIDI only version of Cubase, you must use version 3 as versions 1 and 2 will not work with the Falcon. Neither will the MIDEX interfaces as the cartridge port mapping is changed in the Falcon. While this is unfortunate, it should not detract from this brilliant machine. Even though it should be around half the speed of our next computer, it sadly isnt for reasons mentioned earlier, as a result the speed departure from the Mega STE is not as great as it should have been, however the improved processor and larger cache do help the Falcon pull ahead of the Mega STE. Another advantage is that both the SCSI and IDE bus are proper device interfaces, while the Mega STE has an interface board sat between the internal ASCI bus and the built in SCSI disk. As a result the hard drive of the Mega STE does not perform as well as the internal IDE drive of the Falcon, especially if a newer, faster IDE drive has been fitted.

While the Falcon can run MultiTOS pretty well with no issue, no MIDI programs work with it, so if you have it installed on your Falcon, either disable and reboot before loading Cubase, or power on holding the left shift key and press 'N' when asked if you want to load MultiTOS. That way you boot into the more traditional GEM single tasking desktop, and all your Falcon compatible MIDI and audio programs will run fine.

With a desk accessory called FalconSX, you can slow the machine down to 8MHz, disable the cache and make the system bus run in STe mode, that way some programs that don't generally run on the Falcon can be made to. Thanks to this accessory and others like it, the Falcon is a little more compatible with older ST software than the TT030, however some programs such as Steinberg's Avalon will still fail to load.

Cubase on the TT030 in high resolution modeWhich brings us to the TT030, the flagship of the Atari range with a 32MHz 68030 processor on a full 32 bit system bus, 2 types of RAM, proper SCSI interface both internally and externally alongside all the more traditional ports of the ST range. On powering up the TT the machine lets you know it is there, with fans blowing air out of the back to keep the system cool and while noisy, is still not quite as noisy as the PC my partner has downstairs for her writing. With a standard VGA port on the back, the TT can accept any CRT based monitor and many LCD monitors, though some of the more picky LCD monitors may take a little persuasion before displaying a stable picture. With a special type of monitor, the TT can display a 1280 x 960 high resolution monochrome desktop that even my most busy arrangements cannot fill, and the likes of Cubase look ever so spacious at this resolution.

But even before loading something like Cubase, once you are on the GEM desktop, the whole interface works faster than on the other 2 machines here. Click on the screen re-size button and the wire frame outline of the screen appears instantly, not a moment later like sometimes happens on the Falcon and the Mega STE. Double click on a hard drive icon and the contents window jumps straight up into view. While this seems natural on the machines of today, back in 1990 when the TT was launched, you would have to pay twice as much as the TT cost to get an Apple Macintosh with similar responses, and mere STfm and STe users could only drool in envy at the speed of this top of the range powerhouse. But back to the tests in hand...

Loading Cubase from the desktop is fast, really fast and the speed of the screen redraws once an arrangement is loaded and playing makes even the Falcon look a little outpaced. Editing and moving parts around the screen in an arrangement is fast, again very fast, with copying an entire arrangement and passing it onto the end taking less time than the Falcon, and a lot less time than on the Mega STE. And I'm not talking about ghost copy's either (Pointers to existing data, but not actually copying the data itself), a full copy of the entire Mist arrangement was copied onto the end of itself.

Running in TT Medium resolution gives a nice 640 x 480 resolution similar to the old PC VGA mode and while this does not show as much data as the high resolution modes and gives a similar view to that of the Falcon and like the Falcon, in Cubase 3 the colours available can be used to give a visual idea of note velocity in the key edit page, though using this with more than 4 colours on the Falcon can introduce a noticeable slowdown in screen redraws, not so on the TT though, even though the TT is not blessed with a BLiTTER chip. It does however have a 68882 maths co-processor as standard, and while this is not of much real use in a MIDI application, can be of use in programs such as Zero-X when is comes to audio editing.

Like the Mega STE and the Falcon, the TT has the high speed serial driver chips and another port all 3 of these machines have is the LAN port, though no networking software was ever released. However in Cubase's MROS folder, there is a LAN driver, and this can be used with the MIDIMan Apple Macintosh interfaces to provide more MIDI out AND in ports, though if these are plugged in before the MROS LAN.drv file is initialised, your mouse stops working until you unplug the interface. Something to note if you want to try and use one of these interfaces.

But back to the TT030, this machine can have up to 16MB of ST RAM installed and an additional 256MB of TT RAM, however not many MIDI applications make use of TT RAM, so if you are only going to use programs like Cubase or Logic, any TT RAM installed would not be used. However with the maximum ST RAM installed, there is little chance of ever running out of memory on even the largest and most complicated of arrangements.

And the winner is...

So which is better for purely MIDI arrangements? Well all things considered, the TT is still the ultimate MIDI cruncher with the falcon coming second, but not that far off the Falcon is the Mega STE. Despite the 2 machines being clocked at the same speed, the falcon only really claws its way ahead because of the larger cache and the better processor. Had the machine been blessed with a full 32 bit data bus, it would leave the Mega STE for dead, but its compromised design means that it runs less than half the speed of the TT and only a little faster than the Mega STE if your using the falcons colour options. If you use the mono modes however, the Falcon pulls away from the Mega STE when it comes to using Cubase, but be warned, 256 colours may look pretty but it will fill the RAM and slow the Falcon down.

For compatibility the Mega STE wins, closely followed by the Falcon. The TT comes third, though towards the end of its life most professional applications did have versions that would run on this powerhouse, though for many users Notator SL is the sequencer of choice, and there is no way to run this on the Falcon or the TT, the system architecture is just too different. Both hardware (MIDEX and MIDEX plus) and software (Notator SL, Creator, Avalon, Cubase 1 and 2) have problems running on the 68030 based machines, and even the Mega STE can suffer if the cache is activated, but at least on the Mega STE, it can be made to run like a regular STe machine by disabling its enhanced speed boosting features.