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Alive 5

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
appear again?

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
anniversary issue.

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
external clocks.

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 ( 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

Alive 5