Archive for March, 2009

MSSIAH MIDI Device Panel for Cubase SX3

I realised early on that interacting with my newly purchased MSSIAH cartridge wasn’t going to be easy. In the old days I used a portable TV to see what was happening on the C64, but the last thing I need in the studio is another big box taking up space. I briefly looked into connecting a flat panel VGA screen, but quickly discovered that it’s not possible without some incredibly expensive outboard equipment.

I did discover however that the later C-revision of the Commodore 64 (C64C) had a fully compliant S-Video output on the back. So perhaps an external flat panel TV with S-Video input would work. Although that quickly led me on to another idea – a USB capture device! In a nut shell, the C64 plugs into the USB dongle, which plugs in to the PC, and I see the C64 display on my screen using some capture monitoring software called DScaler.

It was with some disappointment that I found out that when in MIDI mode, the MSSIAH blanks the screen, so you can’t see what you’re tweaking. NOOOOOoooooo ! I’m sure this is done to save on CPU cycles, but goddamn it’s annoying!

All is not lost! The MSSIAH supports the use of four external potentiometers, also known as pots, or just plain old “knobs” to everyone else. These can be configured in MSSIAH to control any four controllers, as most people will only be tweaking the filter, this fairly usable.

Upon closer inspection of the manual, I found the MIDI controller table in the last few pages. With my first few bits of MIDI kit, this confusing table went largely ignored, as I’m sure is the case for many people. But if you want to get into the details it can make life a lot easier, by being able to build your own patch lists, or by knowing which controller signal to adjust in Cubase to make adjustments to your sound (or let’s be honest, to correct a bit of over ambitious knob twiddling).

It also means, that if you’ve really got a lot of time to spare, or are waiting for your USB Capture device to arrive, you can build a MIDI Device Panel for Cubase. So that’s what I’ve done! I think you’ll agree, it looks pretty flipping good too! Click on the image to the left to see a screen shot of my Cubase MIDI Device Panel for MSSIAH MonoSynth in action.

This has gone through a few changes while I was developing it, mainly due to the eccentricities of the Cubase Panel Designer which turns out to be functional, but fairly uninspirational and full of bugs.

You’ll see that all of Monosynth’s main adjustments for I mentioned in my last post are here. I’ve also added the ability to save presets. This means you can build a repository of your favorite C64 sounds. I’ll be honest; there is a slight problem with this side of things which means that whenever you load a preset, not all of the values are loaded. I think this is because Cubase fires all of the controller info over in one go, and MSSIAH just can’t interpret all of that information quick enough, and misses some things. This means that if you move from one patch to another, you often end up with a sort of hybrid of the two sounds. You actually end up with some interesting sounds sometimes, but I’d much rather it worked. If anyone knows how to slow Cubase down, please leave a comment on how to do this! In the meantime, of you click on the same patch two or three times, eventually you get something which more closely resembles the sound you stored in the preset.

I’ve made my work freely available for download here. You should right-click, then SAVE AS the file. To use it in Cubase, open up the MIDI Device Manager and click Import Setup, then browse to the file.

You can use this as a basis for your own MIDI panel, but if you do, please give me credit for all my hard work! A simple reference to www.rebornonline.com will do! Either a link from your website download page, or by putting www.rebornonline.com on your graphic….or both if you’re feeling particularly grateful!

C64 MSSIAH Music Applications

Following on from my previous post, I’ll now discuss the clever applications which are burned into the ROM chip inside the MSSIAH cartridge from 8bitventures.

Sequencer
If you fancy some all in C64 composition, then there is a Sequencer. This primarily uses a pianoroll type interface to allow the user to build music just like in Cubase or Logic. You can have 32 user presets or choose from 64 build in presets which are all inspired by the 8-bit music you used to hear on 80s computer games.

You can also switch the sequencer into MIDI mode, which then means you can trigger the sequencer channels externally. Either from another sequencer, or playing live from a MIDI controller keyboard. Polyphony is limited to three notes, but there is a clever little hardware hack called the SID2SID which doubles this to six notes. The SID2SID does require you to harvest a SID from another working C64, which is a shame. But if you want 6 notes, then this is the sacrifice needed.

I’ve yet to try the sequencer as my main use for the MSSIAH is with the next application, the Mono Synthesizer.

Mono Synthesizer
The clue is in the name, this is a 1 note polyphonic monosynth. This is where you get to see just how amazing that SID chip is. You have full control over the internal parameters of the SID which include things you only expect on a “real” monosynth.

Oscillators – At the heart of every analogue synth! There are 3 waveforms + noise. The waveforms can be combined with each other with ring and/or sync on oscillator 1 making for 32 combinations. Oscillator 2 can choose from the 8 combinations of sine, saw, pulse and noise. You can adjust the mix between the two oscillators as well as indepedent adjustment of the frequency (tune) and pulse width. There is also a fine tune on oscillator B, which along with pulse width is usefull for layering same/similar waveforms for that phat sound.

VCA – (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) : Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. The usual ADSR you find on a real synth. All finely tunable to customise your sound. There is also control for the slide time which is a nice touch.

LFO – (Low frequency Oscillator) : Waveform, frequency, amount (depth), destination – either frequency or pulse. This brings real depth to the sound scape possible with the MSSIAH.

Filter and Filter Envelope – The bread and butter; cutoff and resonance are here. There is also a very useable filter envelope with env amount as well as the usual attack, decay, sustain and release (ADSR). The filter on the SID is what really makes it for me, if the Amiga had a filter like this, there’s no knowing how much better my tunes would have been. Plus I’d probably still be using it now! It was the desire for real filters which led me away from the Amiga and onto real synths.

There are a few other parameters, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Bassline

This is a blatant design rip from the very familiar TB-303. This is here for those of you who love the 303 step programming. Personally, although I can use the 303 step sequencer, I’ve never really found it that inspirational. I think coming from the 16-bit tracking backround, it’s a bit limited!

The sound controls here are more simplied than the monosynth, and again this is due to this being a copy of the 303 interface. So you have tune, cutoff, resonance, envelope, decay and accent. It’s worth pointing out that the SID doesn’t sound exactly like the TB-303, but if you have the later vesion of the SID chip, the 8580 (found in the C64C), then it’s no too far off. The manufacturers describe it as a blend of SID and 303. But I personally think it’s closer to 303 than SID! As with the MonoSynth, if you put your output through some outboard DSP (I’m particularly thinking distortion and tempo delay), you’re in for a real acid house treat, or turn the delay up higher and for for that Goa Trance sound! In fact, this will give you the essenetial sounds required for ust about any kind of electronic music and is well worth a look.

Amazingly, the bassline can be synched to MIDI clock or like the other apps, can be switched to MIDI mode for external triggering.

Drummer
Another design rip from Roland. This is based around the familiar 909 interface, one which anyone should be able to get to grips with. The interface is where the simalarity ends, the drummer is all about SID drum sounds meaning there are bleeps and bloops aplenty for you retro music makers. You have tune, level, tone and snap on each of the eight instruments along with some limited filter and LFO control. I’ve not used the drummer much myself and don’t envisage it being used in more than a handfull of the band’s songs. It’s all in the monosynth for me.

Wave-Player
The final feather in the MSSIAHs cap. I really, really don’t envisage me spending any time with this application at all, but I’ll explain it a little for those who are interested.

You’ll remember in my last post that the SID isn’t capable of digital playback, that is : sampling. Well, some of those aformentioned C64 musicians (who, were by their very nature, excellent coders too) discovered that if they played back a severe volume change it resulted in an audible click. This was due to a flaw in the original SID (the MOS6581). Some bright spark then realised that you could play back those clicks very quickly to convert a binary source as audio – essentially sample playback! This was sadly fixed in the later 8580 SID, so I’m not sure (having not tried it) if this application actually works on a later model C64C.

Commodore C64 MSSIAH – Retro 8-bit SID sounds

I was lucky enough to receive a Commodore 64 for Christmas one year, I think it was 1989. The C64 had already been around for quite a few years, and my second hand “breadbin” came with literally hundred of games, how chuffed was I? I did once give music making a go on the C64, but it wasn’t very impressive (plus I wasn’t talented or patient enough back then)

A few years later I sold it in order to get a Commodore Amiga A500. It was the Amiga which first got me into music production via the amazing Tracker series of software (ProTracker, SoundTracker and NoiseTracker). The Amiga could play back 8-bit digital audio through 4 audio channels at the same time, something pretty amazing at the time. You made music by sequencing short audio samples and playing them back at different pitches to build up your song. Pretty intimidating, but after a few hours you kind of get the hang of it.

To round this flash back up, I eventually moved on to PC tracking, then MIDI sequencing with Cubase, which as you all know uses hardware MIDI modules, or VSTi “Virtual Instruments”.

So, how amusing it is that I’ve now gone full circle and am back to the C64 again. Why? Because of a little chip inside which we all lovingly call SID.

SID is a very basic sound chip, it’s not (strictly speaking) capable of digital audio playback, it simply has two oscillators on board capable of making beeps and boops. The creative and programmatic genius of the coders at the time resulted in some pretty great sounds and catchy soundtracks. The likes of Rob Hubbard, Ben Daglish and Martin Galway will always be some personal heros of mine due to their amazing compositions which still sound good today.

The fact that the Commodore 64s SID chip was, in essence, a real mono synth, it what makes it so interesting today. The final SID chips produced were recently snapped up by entrepreneurs behind SID based hardware synthesizers, such as the SIDStation. This means that to make a SID based synth today, you have to harvest SID chips from a real C64 and use them in a kit such as the MIDIBox. This means that C64s are become quite a popular purchase from EBay.

It seems a shame to steal the SID from a working piece of history, so it’s very exiting to learn that there is now another option : the MSSIAH.

In a nutshell, the MSSIAH is five music applications and a MIDI interface all inside a single ROM cartridge which plugs into the C64 expansion port. Being ROM means that the MSSIAH menu loads within 2 seconds of powering on the C64 and the applications themselves take less than 15 seconds to load. So no waiting 5 or 15 minutes for a floppy disk or cassette tape to load!

I’ll explain some more about the MSSIAH in my next post.