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Tim's Atari MIDI World

An Atari MIDI Studio

 

[Photo: Tim in his studio]Recently a friend came over to my studio and decided to bring his digital camera with him. He took a variety of pictures. After reviewing the collection, I thought it might make a good subject for an article to depict a home project studio with descriptions and methods on how it all works... for me anyway. Each musician's studio will be different and to their own taste. It also depends on the pocketbook as well. My own is what I would call a "budget studio" in that I have been able to collect over the years a good number of instruments, however, being satisfied with "older" technology combined with some new. A number of them have been outright gifts. I have also been lucky to receive several Atari computer systems and use them all together as one system. Let's take a look.

[Photo: Tim's rack]Left is a photo of my main Atari computer center and rack mounted modules. Starting at the right top is the monitor for my Atari Falcon with Dr Ambient's AEX showing. The first module in the rack is a Kawai XD5 16-bit digital percussion synthesizer. What most people don't know is that it is the same as a Kawai K4 and it can do synth sounds as well. Of course it is excellent for percussion. On the Atari, GenEdit and Matucana's XD5 utility handle the editing. Right below that is an EMU Sound Engine GM module. Given to me for free! Great General MIDI. The next module is a Boss RRV10 digital reverb unit I use strictly for the XD5. Next (mounted on a board) is my TT030 keyboard. The actual TT030 CPU is below on a shelf. The monitor for the TT030 is to the left showing my NeoDesk desktop and rare Star Trek clock! Under the TT030 keyboard is a Roland MT32 and a small mixer. The MT32 is excellent for GM type sounds as well as analog style sounds using the Caged Artist editor which runs on the Falcon.

Next is my actual Atari Falcon. There's a story that goes with this as well. I helped a friend track down a Falcon system, where he had Best Electronics put in a hard drive and 16 MB of RAM. I loaded it up with MIDI software. After a while, he did not have time for it any more and gave me the system. What a friend! I run New Beat's ACE MIDI soft-synth on the Falcon as well as various algorithmic programs.

A small board protrudes for the TT030 mouse and Falcon trackball. The TT030 mouse is actually a PC serial mouse. I use an AUTO folder program on the TT030 that allows you to use the modem port for a serial mouse. Works quite well. Having both keyboards close together allows greater and easier interactions between the TT030 and Falcon. The rack was actually built up so I could fit the Falcon into the rack and bring it to gigs or sessions. It was meant to work independently from my other modules and keyboards. For example, I could have AEX pumping away, playing the modules in the rack, while I am free to play my other keyboards. Not a bad system.

Right below the rack system is my MIDI percussion center which consists of a Yamaha DD50 and DD5 giving me 11 pads and 2 foot pedals. While not as big as the Roland V-Drums it serves it purpose, and I got it at a floor model price!

That pink little box is the heart: a MIDI merge box going into the MIDI In of the Falcon so I can combine controllers. For example: a DX7 keyboard and the DD50 for percussion.

[Photo: Tim's keyboard rack]

Now for the keyboard rack. Starting at the top are some modules: a Yamaha RX-11 drum machine, an Alesis Data Disc for storing sounds and sequences, a Suzuki SX500 analog-hybrid module I got for $25.00! I was able to create a Cubase mixer map for editing. Great analog sounds. Next, one of my prides and joys: a Yamaha TX81Z FM synthesis module. 8-part multi-timbral and microtonal tuning. Lots of Atari editors for this one. On the shelf are also my nick-nacks: a Hotz logo, Yes keyrings, Lord of the Rings cups and action figures and meditating monks (every studio should have one of those!). Also my studio monitors are there: basically a good quality speaker system used for computers.

[Image: U20]

Next are my actual keyboards. First is a gift given to me by a friend. A Roland U-20: a good looking instrument. Using XOR I was able to create lots of soundscape type patches. It almost sounds like a Korg!

Next is a Yamaha DX7S, a second generation DX7. There is a story connected with this one. I had my original DX7 burnt in a fire (but it still works!). A DX7 list member saw my web page about it and contacted me and gave me a great deal on his  DX7S and a TX81Z together as one package. I am very thankful indeed! I use the DX7S as a master keyboard at times as I can plug in a breath controller. The sounds are also excellent. Lots of resources on the internet. See my article in MyAtari about it (Atari and the DX7, http://www.myatari.net/issues/sep2002/ataridx7.htm).

Right below that is a Prophet 2000 sampler which was another gift from a friend! Basically I had an extra Atari system and set him up for sequencing. In return, he gave me this unit with lots of disks as well. The strings and percussion sounds are great!

On top of the Prophet 2000 is a Boss DR550 Dr Rhythm drum machine, another gift! Pretty good drum sounds for a small box.

[Image: PSR510]

Going further down (not shown in studio photo, see above photo) is a Yamaha PSR510 keyboard I use as a master keyboard. An underestimated "consumer" keyboard that when connected to the Atari, gives me 16 General MIDI tracks along with great DSP effects which can be controlled from Cubase (panning, volume, reverb...). The eight drum kits sound pretty good, too.

I use it for GM sounds and even sometimes use the auto-arranger. For anyone starting in MIDI, I always recommend the PSR series. Big bang for the bucks.

Next is a Ensoniq Mirage. 8-bit sampling, but sounds wonderful. I have created a lot of samples for this "beast" myself. There have been comments that all you can do is "grunge" music because of the 8-bit sampling. I have been able to use it for excellent analog pad sounds, because of the real analog filters built into it. The strings are excellent as well.

Last but not least is my trusty but burnt DX7. Even after going through a severe fire, it still works (through MIDI). Even the battery is still going strong. Read the story here: http://tamw.atari-users.net/mydx7.htm

To mount these keyboards, I went to Home Depot and purchased heavy duty shelving. A real space saver so you don't have to use dedicated keyboard stands. I also installed shelving to hold the other monitors and also have a place for all the manuals (too many!). I had limited room, as you can see from the photos I crammed a lot into a small space. However, this way everything is within arm's reach. I can use the main Atari computers from sitting in my chair next to my keyboards. They are not across the room and this makes for better ergonomics.

Also represented are some paintings and pictures, which I believe brings atmosphere to a studio and also personalizes it. Above is a space painting of planets by my daughter when she was ten years old (I think). Below that is an airbrush painting I did, a sort of space thing. Above the Roland U20 to the right is one of my synth heros: Tomita against a background of Moogs. Right below that is a Jean Michel Jarre cover of Oxygene and of course the angel to the far left. Below the angel are rainforest pictures. You can really tell my interests from this wall! Sometimes I look at pictures of studios and they look like offices. They should stir creativity, thus I would recommend adding personalized pictures and also mood lamps of some sort.

[Image: Module Rack]

Next is my module section. Starting at the top, you see the bottom of my two-way color/mono monitor system for the Atari STE (shown top-right). You can also see the monitor switcher on the STE itself. Above the STE is a Toad 800 MB hard drive. I don't turn it on very much as I run mostly from floppy disk on the STE. Hanging off the STE is my Music Mouse (by Laurie Spiegel) keyboard mapping diagram, as I am an avid user of the program. I use the STE mostly for "left hand" applications such as Music Mouse, Tunesmith, and also for Notator SL which does not run on the Falcon or TT030.

On the shelf below the monitors is a Kawai K1M synth. Got it for $50.00! There are lots of Atari editors for this unit and it delivers great atmospheric and punchy sounds. Next to it on the shelf is an unusual Yamaha module called a TQ5. It's basically a TX81Z, but has effects, a sequencer and a built-in clock (no alarm, however!). Martin Tarenskeen's YS Editors handle the editing on this one. The same shelf holds a small rack of master cassettes of my songs for the Tascam 4-track cassette (see below).

The next shelf contains a Yamaha FB01 4-op FM synthesis module and a Yamaha TX7 (same as DX7 but without the keyboard). These units are going very cheaply now and offer a studio the benefits of FM technology. $40.00 for the FB01 and $75.00 for the TX7. Now that is what I call a budget studio!

Going down the rack is a Digitech 128+ effects unit. XOR handles the editing. Great budget effects. Flange, chorus, delay, reverb and EQ. To get the most out of the FM instruments (and others) you need a good effects unit which really brings life to what would be a dull patch if played alone.

Next is a Yamaha TXP1 piano module. While it only offers a few sounds, they tend to stand out in the mix. $50.00 for this one as well.

Right below the TXP1 is a Korg KMX122 12-channel line mixer which is used to mix stereo pairs, as a lot of the modules are in stereo and sound better when patched that way. The effects are also patched in here as well. This mixer acts as a sub-mixer to the main mixer (the Tascam M-512, see below).

[Image: Yamaha CS5]The next shelf starts with a Fender M80 pre-amp (another gift), mostly used for guitar and Yamaha CS5 analog synth. Actually, I put my guitar through the input of the CS5 to process it through the filters and envelopes, then it goes out to the Fender pre-amp. It has an overdrive section which sounds wonderful and I can get any kind of overdrive sound. Combined with the CS5 doing filter and envelope effects, it sounds great for electric guitar. I also use the CS5 as a keyboard. It is not MIDI, but adds analog warmth to the mix and is great for soloing or effects. When using the overdrive from the M80, it screams! To hear an example see my M42 piece description.

[Image: EML200]Below this is a Sony ten band equalizer I picked off the street during a "spring clean-up". Works great! Next is a Sony double cassette deck for dubbing cassettes, and a Pioneer amplifier for monitoring.

Right below that is a treasure from my early days: an EML 200 analog synth. You actually use patch cords on this one! I use it as a mixer and for space frequency type sounds. I learned a lot about synthesis from this jewel from the past.

[Photo: Tascam multitrack]

Recording
Also seen in this set of pictures is the heart of the studio, a Tascam Porta 02 4-track cassette recorder. This cheap unit (new for $150.00) has served me well and I get good results from it. Basically, I record all the MIDI stuff to two tracks of the Tascam (stereo), then I have two tracks to work with for other stuff, such as guitar, percussion or voice. From there, I mix down to stereo on the PC running Sound Forge. From there it gets put on CD or converted to MP3 for the web.The key I believe is to use hi-EQ when going into the Tascam so you get a lot of highs which make it sound very crisp. You also get the analog saturation that creates the "warm" sound that analog recording is known for. Below the Tascam is a special wireless mouse I use for the STE.

[Photo: Mixer]

Mixing
If the Tascam 4-track is the heart, the Tascam M-512 12-track mixer is the hub. One time I set up another friend with an Atari system running Hybrid Arts SMPTE Track. Down the road he got a Mac based Pro Tools system, but still uses the Atari for MIDI as he got so used to it. As a gift he gave me this mixing console. While quite large, it does the trick in creating final mixes of the MIDI stuff as well as the audio material. It's like a super patch bay and I have learned a lot from using it. Basically, I use two channels for the sub-mixer (the Korg 12-channel running stereo pairs) and the rest for my mono instruments, such as the DX7S, DX7, TX81Z, Mirage, Prophet 2000, TX1P... It has eight busses, meaning outputs. I can assign any channel to any buss. I have two busses assigned to go to the inputs of the Tascam 4-track. Two go to the PC for mastering. Two go to the inputs of my sampling machines (Mirage, Prophet 2000) so I can sample anything that comes into the board. Quite a system! I have learned to use this console as an instrument. When I start Cubase or an algorithmic generator, I can set up sounds on my instruments, then mix them in and out while recording the results to the Tascam 4-track. So you might call it a performance. I also tend to record amd mix on the fly when I am doing my master recording on the PC running Sound Forge. A recording engineer would wince! Above the mixer, you will see a Radio Shack turntable in which I recently installed a new stylus cartrige. I can now play my "old" prog-rock records. The M-121 has a special input just for turntables, so I can put it through the mixer as well. I have tried sampling some sounds from records for fun with good results.

The PC
While my MIDI stuff is covered with Atari computers, I also use my PC for a number of things: As a sound generator running sound fonts or soft-synths in an application called Orion or KeyKit for algorithmic MIDI stuff. Recently I did a soundtrack for a project we are now doing on the CN-Fractal forum. Combined with a PC program (Magix Studio 2000) to run the video portion and synchronize MIDI stuff to, then finished in Atari Cubase. I also run several fractal music applications as well as audio minipulation programs. The major use is for mastering using Sound Forge which I have found quite easy to work with.

[Photo: Tim playing his guitar]

I use a Peavey T60 electric guitar. Went through a fire, but still works well. The burnt edges make me look like I am smoking! I also have a guitar that was given to me called a Series 10. It has a whammy bar, so I use it for whammy bar effects when needed. For acoustics, I use a Seville PC-120 which is a classical guitar. I also use various flutes, whistles, ocarinas and varous percussion instruments. I recently used an Irish tin whistle for a piece. Put it through some echo and delay and it soars!

[Photo: DG20]

Recently, with the help of an Atari MIDI member, I was able to get a Casio DG20 MIDI guitar. Good tracking as well as lots of features and a space age look, it can send on six MIDI channels at once, each can be assigned a different sound. I have tried using it with the Hotz MIDI translator to good effect as it gives me 128 different alternate tunings.

Wiring
Now we deal with an intricate part of the studio: how do you hook it all together? Here is my MIDI layout in general terms:

  • Master keyboard (Yamaha PSR510) MIDI Out to Atari STE MIDI In.
  • Atari STE MIDI Out to MIDI merge box MIDI In (A).
  • Casio DG20 MIDI guitar or Yamaha DD50 percussion controller MIDI Out to MIDI merge box MIDI In (B).
  • MIDI merge box MIDI Out to Atari Falcon MIDI In.
  • Atari Falcon MIDI Out to MIDI In of sound module.
  • MIDI Thru of sound module to MIDI In of next sound module in rack.
  • MIDI Thru of last sound module in rack to MIDI In of Atari TT030.
  • MIDI Out of TT030 to MIDI In of MIDI Thru box (eight Thrus).
  • MIDI Thru box eight Thrus to rest of MIDI modules. One of the MIDI Thrus goes to the MIDI In of the PC so I can synchronize and control soft-synths on the PC.

This is my own set-up, and it tends to change from time to time. If you think of In/Thru, then you are OK. On the STE and Falcon, I usually boot up a program that has MIDI merge so my master keyboard can play through to the other modules in the system.

Putting it all together
Here are some notes on how I created one of my pieces called M42 (the Orion nebulae for astronomy buffs).

M42: process
Been working a week or so on this piece. It is more of a production for me. Tried all sorts of experiments. It was first inspired by a piece I was working on in Koan (a PC application). Recorded it to tape. Then added DX7 stuff, then started adding more, like some tablas and some KeyKit-generated material running at the same time as some Tunesmith stuff... very fast tempo to get a "sparkling" sound. I made two passes and panned them stereo. Makes a nice blend and the Keykit stuff seems to work really well as if they were one sequence panning across the stereo field. Fades into a Koan background which generated the bass, 1st style percussion and arpeggiated sequences. Then I tried a kit percussion played in by hand as well as tabla. Both sounds were from my Kawai XD5. Then I tried some of my "space" guitar and got into it!

[Photo: Tim jammin]

Just some more notes on the recording process: I had fun putting it together. Had to make several passes putting in the hand material. Studio work is not glamour work! But you get a certain satisfaction out of it. I actually tried some tricks to make new tracks. First did the Koan and DX7 stuff. Recorded all four tracks on the 4-track cassette. Mixed to Sound Forge. Then re-recorded to two tracks (stereo) on the 4-track (while recording the tabla parts by hand live) which gave me two more tracks to work with. Set up the algorithmic parts on KeyKit and Tunesmith. Played those live, then fading out by hand, and put in the kit drum parts and guitar by hand. Then recorded the whole thing back to Sound Forge while triggering the wind sound live from my analog synth (Yamaha CS5) while I was mixing down. Quite a lot of live processing to make the most of available tracks.

Once in Sound Forge, I used the fade in and out commands and did a light chorus on the whole thing, then saved to WAVE, and converted to MP3 using Music Match.

An Atari musician speaks up
I asked the Atari MIDI forum for links and information about their studio set-ups using Atari (see link section). Here is a great response from Nutking:

[Photo: Studio] [Photo: Studio]

In the studio of the technical university in Delft (Netherlands) there is a Mac and a 2 MB Atari 1040STE. We use the Atari for monitoring the output levels of the audio signals, just to be sure there is no distortion. We can also see how the L/R channels are panned. It has an SM144 monitor. Everything is fed into the ROM port of the Atari via a cartridge with audio connector plugs (the Japanese type). This was custom made by the people at the university. The program for it was also programmed by one of the students. The Atari does its job well. On the photo s You can see the 1040STE if you take a good look. The keyboard of the Mac is situated on top of the computer compartment of the Atari, so the lower keyboard and the smaller monitor are Atari. The rest is Mac. It is funny. We don't have any MIDI recording to do but we still use the Atari! The CD is coming out soon.

Here is another response from Atari MIDI member Alexander Feige.  

Some notes about Alexander (taken from his web site, see links section)

My name is Alexander Feige. I was born in July of 1974 in Mannheim/Germany.

I came to making music in 1991 when I got a so-called "soundtracker" for the ST in 1991 and started making music for our Atari demos.

Since then I have written more than 700 pieces of music, but I have had a semi-professional studio for about a year now, so I will continually convert and upgrade the older tunes, too.

I think my music is mainly inspired by the following musicians, which I all admire a lot for what they have done:

ABBA, Depeche Mode, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Front 242, Guru Josh, Jochen Hippel, Petr Iljitsch Tchaikovsky, The Maniacs of Noise, Frontline Assembly, Jean-Michel Jarre, Reinhard Mey, Alphaville, Rob Hubbard, Camouflage, Erste Allgemeine Verunsicherung, Peter Schilling, Mike Oldfield, Nena.

All these musicians managed to write music which you will recognize by just listening to the first two tones - from Symphony Nr 40 to Human Race 4.

It's not the sound that makes the music, it's the melody. And you can enhance it by sound. That's the way it is.

[Photo: Tim's studio]

Shown

  • Sequencer:
    • Atari Mega STE with Cubase Score
  • Keyboard:
    • Casio CTK-1000 is a synthesizer, too
  • Synthesizers:
    • Yamaha TG500
    • Yamaha TG77
    • Yamaha TG100
    • Yamaha FB-01
    • Yamaha EMT-10
    • Kawai K4r
    • Kawai GMega
    • Roland MT-32
    • Roland U110
    • Atari Falcon030 with ACE MIDI soft-synth
  • Effect units:
    • Zoom Studio 1201
    • ART Multiverb LT
    • Phonic Verbifex
  • Sound enhancers:
    • Behringer SNR2002 Denoiser
    • Behringer Ultrafex II
  • Mixer:
    • Behringer MX1604a
  • Recording:
    • Atari Falcon030 with Soundpool Audio Tracker
  • I'm using the following software:
    • Steinberg Cubase Audio, Soundpool Audio Tracker, New Beat ACE MIDI, NewWave Falcon, FiveToFive

Your own studio
You have now been on a journey with my own studio as well as some others. Hopefully this will encourage you to build your own studio, or make your present studio a better creative place to work in. There are many Atari MIDI forum members that have small to very large professional studios but still use Atari in their set-up. I also encourage those who have boxed up their Ataris to move on to "new" technology, to unbox them and use them in the studio for what they were intended: as tools for music. With all the great software available, this is now a reality. Time to make music!

tim@myatari.net

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #2, June 2003

 
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