Computer Chronicles Revisited 64 — The Music Studio, EZ-Track, Soundscape, the Apple IIgs, and the CompuSonics DSP-1000

The Battle of the 16-Bit Computers was in full swing by late 1986, with the Apple IIgs joining the fray against the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST at the lower end of the market. One of the key fronts in this battle was sound–specifically, the ability of these newer machines to produce digital music. Computer music was still in its infancy but had taken a significant step forward thanks to the development of a new standard called MIDI, which was the focus of this September 1986 episode of Computer Chronicles.

Instead of hearing the usual Chronicles theme music as the show faded in for the introduction, there was an automated tune playing on a Casio SK-1 keyboard in the studio. Cheifet noted that computer keyboards had come a long way in the two years since the previous Chronicles episode on computer music back in season one. For example, the Casio keyboard cost about $100 and came with a built-in synthesizer capable of digital sampling.

Cheifet said one reason that computers and music had moved along so quickly was the establishment of the MIDI standard. Gary Kildall–making his fourth season debut–reiterated his long standing belief that the entire personal computer industry was based on standards, such as the floppy disk, RS-232 connectors, the IBM motherboard, et cetera. The MIDI standard would similarly lead to a bunch of new applications.

A Brief Introduction to MIDI (on the Macintosh)

Wendy Woods presented her first remote report from a recent expo featuring computer music. She profiled Gary Leunberger, a musician and composer who used a synthesizer to “mimic” traditional instruments–and invent a few new ones as well. The equipment that made this possible was a combination of hardware and software that communicated with the synthesizer via a musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) port.

Woods said the process began on a Macintosh screen with a program called Professional Composer that laid the foundation of a musical piece. The program counted out and automatically numbered the measures, creating a musical sketch to place notes. Leunberger could then move directly to his keyboard, the output of which fed into the Mac, again through a MIDI port. Once the rough draft was in the machine’s memory, it could be played back and manipulated. Leunberger used a digital sequencer with eight MIDI ports to assign the different voices to eight separate synthesizers. If he added a drum part, the MIDI clock synchronized the beat to the tempo of the piece. When the fine tuning was complete, the MIDI data went to a Yamaha digital sequencer, which controlled the playback of the completed piece through the eight synthesizers. Leunberger could still change the piece at any point or play along in real time.

Woods noted that synthesizers began to appear in the 1960s and found a special niche in the musical world over the next decade. Now with the advent of MIDI, electronic music could finally take center stage.

The Atari ST as a “Tapeless” Recording Studio

Chris French and Bob Moore joined Cheifet and Kildall for the first of three round table segments. French was a music software consultant with Activision. Moore was president and founder of Hybrid Arts, Inc.

Kildall opened by excitedly introducing The Music Studio, a $70 MIDI software package published by Activision for the Atari 520ST. (Nice to see Gary wasn’t holding a grudge over that whole Activenture name dispute.) He asked French for a demonstration.

Music Studio basically allowed users to compose and playback music. French explained that most operations could be performed just using a mouse. The software also provided “real-time” feedback, playing the accompanying note as the user moved the cursor around the on-screen musical staff. There were 15 available instrument slots, each using a different color for their respective musical notes.

French then played one of his own compositions called “Nvision,” which included sounds that he made using the software. This playback relied entirely on the Atari’s built-in sound chip. Cheifet then asked French to demonstrate a song using separate instruments attached to the ST’s built-in MIDI port. For this demo, French used a Casio CZ-101 keyboard, a Yamaha TX-7 tone generator, a Latin percussion drum machine, and a regular trap set drum machine. With all of this equipment, French played back his own MIDI version of “Axel F,” the theme from the 1985 movie Beverly Hills Cop. Cheifet asked French how long it took him to put the song together in Music Studio. French said it took about three-and-a-half hours.

Cheifet turned to Moore and asked him about Hybrid Arts’ products. Moore said his company manufactured a series of products for the 8-bit and 16-bit Atari computers. One of those products was ADAP, which he described as a “tapeless recording studio” or digital audio workstation.

Cheifet, Kildall, and Moore then went to a separate setup to the side of the studio for his demonstration. Kildall noted that Hybrid Arts made products for both consumers and music professionals. First, Moore demonstrated a consumer product called EZ-Track, which retailed for $65. The software allowed the user to send commands from an Atari 520ST to an attached Casio keyboard. For example, the program could change the tempo, start and stop drum machines, and make voice changes. Basically, this was a recording studio that let you manage different tracks. Moore showed how you could even correct the timing on a single track.

Cheifet next asked about ADAP, which was a high-end product offered by Hybrid Arts. Moore said ADAP was a 16-bit recording system that replaced tape machines. He demonstrated a version of ADAP on the ST that was CD-compatible. Kildall asked what an equivalent professional system would cost. Moore said some of his competitors were planning to release systems like ADAP over the next five years, which would likely cost around $300,000. The ADAP system ran between $2,000 and $15,000 depending on the configuration.

Cheifet wanted to know more about the CD compatibility. Moore said a CD player could be used as an additional sound source. It was patched into the stereo inputs of the recording system. ADAP could digitize analog inputs and store them in RAM, so it could then be played back and manipulated by the software. Kildall commented this was essentially a “word processor” for music. Moore agreed.

Amiga and Apple’s MIDI Offerings

Chris Potter joined Cheifet and Kildall in the side-studio for the first part of the next segment. Potter was the chief beta tester for Mimetics Corporation. There was also a Yamaha DX-100 hooked up to a Commodore Amiga. Potter was there to demonstrate his company’s product, Soundscape, using this equipment.

Potter said Soundscape offered a “music operating environment” that allowed the user to play up to 16 external synthesizers as well as use internal sampled sounds. He played a demonstration piece that included an organ. He then replaced the organ with the sound of tapping a wine glass that he sampled on-set.

Potter noted the Amiga was particularly well-suited for this type of music creation because it had four digital-analog converters, so it could playback sounds well. Additionally, he said the Amiga could run graphics in the background while playing music.

Kildall asked how the quality of a sample created with Soundscape compared with the audio quality of, say, CD audio. Was it a better quality sample? Potter said no, the sampled audio was lower quality but still perfectly adequate for a home studio.

Cheifet asked about the cost of Soundscape. Potter said it cost $149 for the software. The sampler hardware was an additional $99. Cheifet said this could then be used by both home users and professional musicians. Potter said yes, and in fact Soundscape was already being used by several professionals.

Moving back to the main desk, Cheifet and Kildall next spoke with Curtis Sasaki, the product manager for the Apple IIgs. Sasaki said the IIgs came with an Ensoniq sound chip, which was traditionally used in keyboards and allowed the IIgs to do both digitizing and synthesizing of music. He then played a digital sample retrieved from a CD.

Cheifet asked about the storage capacity for sounds on the IIgs. Sasaki said it was limited only by the amount of system memory. The IIgs could be configured with up to 8 MB of RAM. For reference, the sample he played was about 20 seconds in length and took up 600 KB of memory. Cheifet clarified that Sasaki wasn’t demonstrating a particular software package, he was simply showing a sample program for the IIgs.

Cheifet next asked about the synthesizer capabilities of the IIgs. Sasaki loaded a copy of Music Construction Set, the Will Harvey program demonstrated in the first Chronicles episode dealing with computer music. Sasaki said Harvey had “quite a bit of fun” updating Construction Set to take advantage of the IIgs and the Ensoniq chip. Sasaki then played a sample song that was written with that program.

Cheifet asked how the IIgs version of Music Construction Set differed from that of the original Apple IIe program. Sasaki said the Apple IIe version only allowed the user to play four voices, while the IIgs could play 15 voices at once. Kildall asked how the IIgs sound processing compared with the Atari and Amiga 16-bit machines. Sasaki avoided making any direct comparison but reiterated the IIgs had the processing power to handle 15-voice playback.

Using Lisp to Analyze and Reproduce Music

Wendy Woods presented her second remote segment from the Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), which was also profiled in the first-season computer music episode. Woods said that CCRMA researchers were now trying to imitate the human ear with a computer program. Specifically, the computer must not only hear the music but distinguish between several notes or harmonics played at once.

Woods said the CCRMA experiment involved a piano solo recorded through a microphone onto tape. The researchers wanted to see if the computer could play back the performance with the identical pitch, rhythm, and harmonics. This required artificial intelligence using the Lisp programming language. Chris Chafe of CCRMA told Woods that the research entailed finding algorithms that imitated how the human ear understood musical signals. Using Lisp they had a good tool bench for this kind of experiment. Woods added the tool bench also included a minicomputer, a signal processor, and a synthesizer. Another part of the software then wrote a score of the music and printed it out.

The entire process of analyzing a single, 30-second piece of music took an entire afternoon, Woods said. But as faster, more-powerful microprocessors hit the market this process could eventually occur in real time.

High-End Digital Editing Equipment for Audiophiles

David Schwartz and George Morrow joined Cheifet and Kildall for the final segment. Schwartz was president of Compusonics. Our old friend Morrow was identified in his new role as vice president of engineering with Intelligent Access.

Kildall asked Schwartz to demonstrate his company’s product, the CompuSonics DSP-1000. Schwartz said the DSP-1000 was the world’s first optical disc audio recorder. Unlike tape recorders, this machine recorded music onto optical discs. Kildall clarified that the DSP-1000 did not use the traditional audio CDs, which were read-only, but relied on recordable media that offered CD-quality audio. Schwartz added the media wasn’t just recordable, but recordable in a permanent way. He claimed the optical media wouldn’t wear out like a magnetic tape.

Cheifet noted you could also manipulate the audio data after it was recorded. He asked Schwartz for a demonstration. Using editing software running on an IBM PC (and soon on the Macintosh), Schwartz said a user could list tracks on an optical disc and process the data. For example, you could boost the bass levels, reduce background noise, or remove the effects of a “scratch” on the original record. Schwartz then played the exact same “Axel F” theme that Chris French demonstrated earlier in the program. Schwartz said he used the DSP-1000 to record that audio from the Chronicles control room.

Cheifet turned to Morrow, whom he noted was a major collector of 78 records with lots of scratches on them. What could he do with this type of setup? Morrow said he could probably take “the worst of the noise” out of his records. He could restore many of his historic recordings to make them sound more like they did when they were new. Additional analysis could even make it possible to restore how they sounded when they were recorded. Morrow said this was “one of the most exciting things” you could imagine.

Cheifet jovially asked who the market was for the DSP-1000 aside from “weird guys” like Morrow. Schwartz said the product was targeted at audiophiles at the high end of the market who were extremely serious about their music and could afford a $7,000 recording device. (Morrow said he couldn’t afford that.) Kildall asked about the price of the individual optical recording media. Schwartz said they cost $100 each and could store about 80 minutes of stereo on one side. There were also more expensive discs that could store 80 minutes on each side.

Cheifet asked Schwartz if he ever saw the price coming down on this sort of equipment to the point where it became a consumer item. Schwartz said as devices like this became more popular, he saw the price coming down by an order of magnitude, eventually to around $700. (Morrow liked the sound of that.)

Send Images via Electronic Mail for Just $99!

Susan Chase presented this week’s “Random Access,” which was recorded in September 1986.

  • Commodore planned to cut the price of an Amiga 1000 system, with a color monitor and 256 KB of RAM, by between $500 and $1,490. Commodore would also offer no-interest financing on Amiga purchases through 1987.
  • Lotus announced plans to combine analysis software with financial information on CD, making it the first software company to enter the emerging CD-ROM market. Lotus One Source would come with eight databases containing 20 years of stock price information, with updated discs offered weekly. Chase said Lotus planned to sell the service to banks, investment firms, and large corporations.
  • Intel was expected to announce a deal with IBM to make semi-customized computer chips. The agreement was expected to allow Intel to use some proprietary IBM technology.
  • San Jose State University planned to offer a four-hour class on how to build your own IBM PC-XT compatible computer for less than $800. The National Association of Accountants in Florida planned to offer a similar class.
  • Paul Schindler reviewed Color Magic (Lifetree Software, $40), a color palette selector for EGA display adapters.
  • The IRS continued its automation program. Businesses from around the country, and individuals in seven sample cities, could file their 1986 income tax returns electronically. Chase said for the first time, filers could also receive their tax refund by an electronic funds transfer.
  • Telegraphics announced a $99 program called TeleVision that allowed users to transmit computer graphics through commercial electronic mail services. But the recipient also needed a copy of the program to “decode” the images.
  • One-third of workers in the United States reportedly experience some form of “uneasiness” when they work at a computer, and about 1 out of 20 suffered “severe” reactions.

Moore Led the Way in Atari’s Early MIDI Success

Although this episode basically covered all of the major personal computing platforms of 1986, it was probably the Atari brand that was most associated with MIDI music in this period. This association began more than a year before Jack Tramiel formed his Atari Corporation. MIDI itself had been in development since 1981, and the standard was first demonstrated at the January 1983 National Association of Music Manufacturers (NAMM) meeting.

Jim Pierson-Perry explained in a 1988 MIDI retrospective for STart magazine that Bob Moore was among the first people to realize that MIDI, which was originally developed for synthesizers, could be extended to computers as well:

In April 1983 a small Los Angeles company named Hybrid Arts was formed that set out to bring MIDI to the Atari 8-bit computer line. Founder Bob Moore stated that they chose the Atari because it was the sturdiest of the lightweight personal computers and stood the best chance of surviving a professional road tour. Any questions about basing their work on a “game machine” were quickly quashed when Hybrid Arts demonstrated the very first MIDI sequencer program at the January 1984 NAMM show.

This led to the MIDItrack II sequencer program for 48K Atari computers in mid-1984, followed by the even more powerful MIDItrack III for the 130XE in 1985. Both were extremely well received. A series of patch editors, librarians and a sample editor for the Mirage filled out the product line, which continues to do well today.

Pierson-Perry added that once the 520ST came onto the market, a number of other companies quickly joined the MIDI fray. He cited Activision’s The Music Studio as a “surprise hit” in the field due to “its ability to change the sounds of the internal speaker voices, very much like using a software synthesizer.”

Indeed, the 520ST would become popular not just with home musicians but professionals as well. Frank Foster, a former college classmate of Bob Moore who joined him in founding Hybrid Arts, recalled a meeting with Genesis co-founder and “Sledgehammer” Peter Gabriel for a 1987 Atari user group newsletter:

It was two days after the Grammys… Peter Gabriel was meeting with me to discuss an ST MIDI system for his new studio. I wondered why someone like Peter Gabriel would be thinking about an ST when he already owned a Fairlight and could probably afford any computer system he wanted. He listened quietly, taping our conversation with a small portable recorder. I explained that the ST was the continuation of the revolution that MIDI started. This technology–previously out of reach, financially, to the average musician–would now be accessible to even the “potential musicians,” people who, with the aid of a computer, might find new musical abilities they had never been aware of.

He smiled, and I realized it was probably the politics of MIDI, this new affordable access to technology, which attracted his attention to the ST. That, plus the freedom these recent advances now offer to the artist…

“Whether it’s an album or video project, I like to work from as many options as possible,” he said. After the meeting was over, I watched him walk toward the parking lot with an armload of ST software, and I couldn’t help but think the Atari ST had finally made it.

Foster left Hybrid Arts in 1987 to join Atari Corporation where he served as director of special markets for two years. It’s not clear to me how long Moore was actively involved with Hybrid Arts. In 1992, Digital F/X purchased Hybrid Arts’ hardware technology, including the ADAP system that Moore discussed on the broadcast. Moore later said that the ADAP was used by a number of television programs for their sound editing, including The Simpsons and King of the Hill. Meanwhile, three former Hybrid Arts employees started a new company in 1992, Barefoot Software, and acquired the rights to keep supporting Hybrid’s legacy software products. Based on California corporation records, Barefoot only stayed in business for a couple of years.

Schwartz Helped Pioneer MP3 Standard

David Schwartz was an architect by training, earning his degree from Carnegie Mellon in 1972. But he was also a musician with an interest in figuring out how to compress and store digital audio on floppy disks. In 1984, Schwartz filed for and received a United States patent for an early audio compression technology that he claimed would make it possible to store 45 minutes of digital audio–in stereo–on a single 5.25-inch floppy disk.

It was an outlandish promise and it managed to attract a modest amount of capital. Barry Fox, writing for Stereo Sound in October 1986, said a Colorado-based investment bank helped Schwartz launch Compusonics–originally named CompuSound–in 1981 with $100,000 in funding. Even before producing a working product, the company went public in 1983 and raised an additional $650,000. Schwartz announced the DSP-1000 at a May 1984 press conference in New York City with the proclamation, “The age of true digital audio began today.” At the summer Consumer Electronics Show a month later, Compusonics showed off the first prototype of the DSP-1000.

For the next two years, Fox reported, Compusonics “had stands at several shows” touting the potential of the DSP-1000, but “the system was always not quite ready for demonstration that day.” The problem was Compusonics couldn’t actually manufacture 5.25-inch disks that could store 45 minutes of digital audio. It was not until 1986 that Compusonics managed to produce a working prototype with a disk that held just 4 minutes of stereo audio. Even then, Fox said the “sound was very poor and the music skipped and stopped for up to half a minute.” This is presumably when Compusonics shifted hears to the floppy-sized optical discs that Moore demonstrated on Chronicles.

By this point, the company was bleeding money. In October 1985, Compusonics reported a $2.3 million quarterly loss. The company decided its best chance for turning things around was to produce a professional line of digital recorders and editors, which were dubbed the DSP-2000 series. According to George Peterson, writing in 2009 for MIX, Schwartz said Compusonics “did well in pro audio” and the DSP-2000 eventually found its way into a number of post-production houses.

Compusonics apparently did well enough in the professional market to stay in business until 1990. Peterson said that Schwartz went on to head a software group at Tandy that helped to develop the MP3 audio standard, which was effectively the culmination of Schwartz’s early work at Compusonics in digital audio compression. Schwartz also had a stint at Jack Tramiel’s Atari Corporation where he worked on the Atari Falcon home computer and the Atari Jaguar game console. In the mid-2000s, Schwartz returned to his roots in architecture, serving as a lead architect for Madsen, Kneppers & Associates. Since 2013, he’s worked as an engineering and design consultant in northern California.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and has an original broadcast date of September 30, 1986.
  • Stewart Cheifet presented his cold open from the San Francisco Opera House where music from a 44-rank organ could be heard. But Cheifet noted the “organ” was actually an Apple IIe with an attached MIDI hardware-software package called the Cathedral 100.
  • Bob Moore ended up working in television for a time. He received an Emmy nomination in 1997 as part of the sound editing team that worked on the medical drama Chicago Hope.
  • Curtis Sasaki left Apple shortly after this program aired to join Steve Jobs’ NeXT Computer. Sasaki remained with NeXT as a product manager until 1992. He later had an extended stint at Sun Microsystems as a vice president, and in the 2010s and early 2020s worked in a variety of posts with Samsung Electronics.
  • Chris Chafe joined Stanford University’s CCRMA in 1978 and has served as its director since 1995.
  • As I discussed in my recent special post on George Morrow, he did in fact spend the latter part of his life digitally remastering and re-releasing old 78 albums from his extensive collection through his own record label, The Old Masters.
  • Bob Moore’s Hybrid Arts, Inc., didn’t just pioneer the use of MIDI as a digital music standard. In 1987, the company published MIDI-Maze, believed to be the first non-musical MIDI software product. MIDI-Maze was an early multiplayer, first-person shooter game that used the Atari ST’s built-in MIDI port to link together multiple machines.
  • Scott W. Gibbs founded Mimetics Corporation in 1984. Gibbs was previously a co-founder at Syntauri Corporation whose president, Ellen Lapham, was a featured guest on the 1984 Chronicles music episode. Mimetics was only in business for a few years and I didn’t learn much about the company and its ultimate fate. As for Soundscape, Ben and Jean Means wrote a largely favorable review of of the package for the July 1987 issue of Amiga World. The reviewers pointed to the software’s ability to demonstrate audio and video simultaneously on the Amiga. But the Means also noted that earlier releases of Soundscape were buggy and prone to crashing.
  • The Apple IIgs version of Music Construction Set demonstrated by Curtis Sasaki was not the same product as Deluxe Music Construction Set, which Electronic Arts also released in 1986. Deluxe was essentially a new program written by Geoff Brown. Will Harvey, who created the original Music Construction Set, separately ported that program to the IIgs. That is what Sasaki demonstrated. But just to make things more confusing, there was also an unreleased IIgs port of Deluxe written by EA’s Randel Reiss.
  • The Music Studio was published by Activision but designed by another company, Audio Light, Inc. I assume this was simply an attempt by Activision to compete with the more popular Construction Set offerings from rival EA.
  • We’ll hear more about Lotus One Source in an episode from later in this season of Computer Chronicles.
  • The theme from the television program “St. Elsewhere” composed by David Grusin was apparently a popular way to demonstrate MIDI capabilities in 1986. Gary Leunberger played the theme during Wendy Woods’ remote segment, and Curtis Sasaki used it in his IIgs demo of Music Construction Set. (Does this mean Computer Chronicles is part of the Tommy Westphall Universe?)