New Beat Developments is (justly)proud to present.
At last, the first fully developed authentic Falcon software synthesiser is
upon us! After years of waiting, the not so humble Falcon '030 gains added
value to its already distinguised existence, now that you can turn it into a
cool musical instrument. Not so much of a mere instrument mind you, more a
soundscape of infinite possibilities, equally at home in the studio, or at,
erm, home. But the first question I'm asking, is why did it take so damn
long to get there?
The possibilities were there from day one, which was sometime in March or
April 1993 for most of us early adopters. Easily the most interesting single
piece of hardware on the new machine back then, was, as you well know, the
Motorola 56001 DSP. This wunderchip was claimed capable of breezing a number
of tasks, from realtime manipulation of audio samples, through very fast
precalculation of the terrifically hard numbers that make up interesting 3-D
objects, taking in fast JPEG decrunching, and with the possibility that you
could make up your own sounds entirely from scratch!
Leaving aside the non-event of a DSP-based modem, most of these ambitions
were realised in one form or another. Some things quite quickly (Brainstorm
JPEG decoder), some things coming a bit more slowly (EKO System, Sono',
Running), but the one thing which seemed to elude any meaningful production,
was the killer application that could generate sounds from scratch. CreamSID
showed that emulating an entirely alien soundchip, in this case, the famous
C64 Sound Interface Device, was possible on the Falcon's DSP, and the end
result sounded rather good. It was only a matter of time before the first
softsynth broke the surface.
But the softsynth scene on the Falcon was littered with the corpses of What-
might-have-beens and vapourware. I remember that Griff of Electronic Images
was down to produce a commercially available Softsynth for System Solutions
in the early days, but nothing came of that. We all remember Sentry's
notorious analogue synth emulator, which many people aren't sure really
existed at all apart from a murky screengrab and a brief sample? Tat even
thought of doing one in his Avena days, but I don't think that one got past
the preliminary idea?
There was one softsynth, which went from hype to working code, and I salute
Jason 'Red Specter' Couglin for making the effort. I was one of the beta
testers, and it went through various early incarnations, eventually ending
up with the name "Necrophilia". This actually worked, in a crude and erratic
form, I enjoyed several nights of teasing Matt 'Neo' Smith down the phone
with some of the weird and electronic swooping howls I generated on the
thing. There was no tutorial, no sample or patch save, so you got stuck in
regardless, each session with 'Necro' turning into a fascinating voyage of
discovery where you never quite got the same result as the last time, and
you never quite remembered to connect another Falcon to sample it! Ah well..
A few very observant or early rising people may remember seeing me play
around with it at the Siliventure 2000 party in sunny Gdansk. It seemed that
Red Specter had ambitious plans, but didn't go very far with them.
'Necrophilia' seemed to stagger and freeze in mid-development, never to
Around the time that 'Necro' made itself known, there were rumours that
Thomas of New Beat was working on his own softsynth. This was in the early
part of 2000. Now we had some previous experience of his release schedule.
Some things we have been waiting for, for a very long time. (Hi Willies
Adventures!) We had some idea what to expect, with a pre-release of their
sound tracker program 'Flextracker' This was a very high quality piece of
work, with an interface and sound quality to die for. Before too long,
Thomas did confirm that he was working on a softsynth project, which picked
up the title 'Ace'.
For a while, Ace settled into the steady rythm of the Atari scene, that is,
not much showing on the surface, but teeming with activity underneath. The
New Beat website kept us informed of new beta versions going out to the
lucky few testers. We even clubbed Shiuming Lai over the head, to write us a
report based on his hands-on contact with the thing for the Maggie 10th
Now suddenly in the spring of 2002, Ace has finally made it out! This is the
softsynth which broke clear of the hype and disappointment. I've got my
hands on the demo version, which is a taster for the full registered
package. This has a few things disabled, namely the ability to save sets or
banks of sounds, restrictions on using external sound outputs, and
limitations on the number of voices that can be used. This version is the
demo of the MIDI version, which would need to have an external ST or Falcon
running a sequencer, or a MIDI keyboard to supply the musical input,
although you can play around with the sounds using the computer keyboard.
To look at it, you think of the control panel in Flextrack, and that
resemblance will grow even more marked when the tracker version of Ace is
released? The top part of the console contains the load and save options, an
event window, and rows of clickable buttons where individual sounds can be
stored in banks.
The mid-part contains the bulk of the ever-fascinating and fun to play with
'twiddly bits' that make the synth work. The two oscillators, and the
options and knobs that change the sound are to the left, a graphical step
modulator, that you can 'hand-draw' wave forms in, dominates the middle, and
various filters are off to the right, where you can twiddle a bit more.
A seemingly empty space at the bottom is devoted to the MIDI part of Ace,
and clicking on one of three options springs it to life. 'Patch' shows a
graphical view of the selected oscillator wave forms, and gives control over
relatively trivial parts of Ace, such as the screen saver and mouse cursor
speed. 'Multi' conjures a piano keyboard into existence. This seems to be
one of the key MIDI ingredients, in how it relates to the MIDI data input,
and I've got nothing to hand to test this. 'Master', the last of the three,
brings up a spectroscope of the sound you are currently testing, further
controls for the output, and options, not present in the demo, for DAC and
In use, you can tell immediately that this is a solid and refined product,
much more so than the late lamented 'Necrophilia'. The legendary New Beat
attention to detail is present in Ace, the mouse cursor changing to a
pointing finger when it alights on a control knob or button, changing to a
transparent hand once you activate the control. There is no awkward cutting
out or distortion of the sound, when you try something weird and wonderful
with your realtime fiddling. Oh yes, one of the best features of 'Necro'
made it here. Realtime 'on the hoof' adjusting of sound parameters, attack,
decay, substain, depth, volume, frequency, reverb, delay, and more, all at
your fingertips! Just play along, and see where your adventure in sound will
take you! You can use the synth as an instrument in its own right, even
before you get a MIDI source involved.
It is possible to load samples in, and subject these to the same parameter
bending and waveform related torture, as when you create sounds from
scratch. Then, when suitably modified, or wrecked, you can save these out as
patches too. The 'APH' file format is surprisingly economical on disk space,
using a mere handful of bytes for storage, rather than the gigabytes we have
come to expect on inferior unoptimised platforms (grin!) I nearly forgot to
mention that Ace runs on all Falcons, even unexpanded four meg ones! How
about that for good coding? Of course, it is expected to be able to run on
most accelerators, work is being carried out to make sure it is glitch-free
on a CT2, and I'm sure the likes of CT60 will be catered for as well, when
that comes out.
This brief preview doesn't really do the whole Ace concept justice. The full
version, with sixteen voices active, and bank and set save and load, not to
mention DAC support, will really rock! I'm holding my registration fee out
for the tracker version, which will have the same high quality synth engine
that I've been describing, plus a sound tracker to export my newly created
synth samples to. There are already demo tracks available at the New Beat
website, which show what this thing can be capable of. This will be reviewed
in a future issue of Alive!
For those of you more than casually interested in Ace, you will know that
this is available on a commercial basis. The full version can be obtained
via the New Beat Website (http://newbeat.atari.org) This does not come for
the price of a packet of chocolate buttons, being the best part of 50 UKP,
but it comes with a CD-ROM of related material, and a printed manual, and
password access to the website for future releases. It also comes with the
New Beat ultra-high standard of workmanship and presentation, which I think
is well worth rewarding. A lot of people will be familiar with such internet
based methods of payment such as Paypal, from getting their CT60's. This is
one of the options in use here. I wonder if Thomas is thinking of using such
a web-based registration and payment system for Willies Adventures?! ;-)
New Beat deserve some reward for the hard work they have put into the scene,
they really are one of the heartening *positive* reasons for staying with
that angular grey box with a Fuji logo on it. There is also the fact that
this is one of the all-time ultimate killer audio apps for the Falcon! Get
it now, you know it makes sense!
CiH, For Alive! Mag, May '02