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Look At All This MIDI - Part 1

Let's shift gears for a bit and talk about music. And more particularly, MIDI and such devices that I've owned for making music.

I grew up owning a Commodore 64, and knew the basics of synthesis from the manuals of that, but never had any tools for working with it. When I was a teenager was about the whole time when the internet was getting started, and MIDI's were the thing as it was before the MP3 and during the days of dialup. Our family computer wsa a Packard Bell, with a custom sound card/modem called the Aztech 2320. It had two MIDI playback modes, a built-in OPL3, and a software wavetable that was licensed by Packard Bell, but I think a version of Brookstree Wavestream. I didn't discover this software wavetable until a few years after we owned the computer, and after being accustomed to just OPL FM music, oh boy did the "real" instruments of the wavetable blow my mind.

In my 9th grade year, I was gifted another computer from a neighbor who had just finished up some computer coursework at is college. It was an NEC, but by that point NEC and Packard Bell were one company, so it had similar hardware as the family computer, including the same Aztech 2320. He originally was using it with Linux, but I didn't understand it at the time so reimaged it with the Packard Bell's image disc, and gained access to the Wavestream wavetable. From some random shareware disc, I think, I found a software for editing MIDIs, and then I first started to dabble with that.

As the years went on, into my adult life, as Windows moved on the standard Windows GS wavetable came around, but it's not all that great. I still kept the old computer around just for the other wavetable software, when I wanted to use it, but that's a hassle to work with so wanted to find some other thing. Somewhere around 2011-2012, I discovered the Roland MT-32. This was far before the retro gaming computer scene emerged, and MT-32's were something nobody wanted, so I picked up one for dirt cheap, but found the LA synthesis engine interesting but complicated to work with, and it didn't sound as good as I hoped, so I ended up shelving it.

Being that I'm a Touhou fan, this is where the Studio Canvas line of course enters. The fandom is obsessed with the SD-90, the device ZUN uses for composing, and trying to make things sound like his work. I became interested too, but not for the same reason. I simply didn't know there was any modern hardware like that anymore, thought it was all late-80s/early-90s stuff like the MT-32 and the SC-55 or the Yamaha MU-80. The original Studio Canvas line has three versions: the SD-20, SD-80, and SD-90. Each one served a different purpose: the SD-20 was a pared down version with the wavetable, but without any aftereffects units, limiting it to only the General MIDI 2 standard of chorus/reverb settings. The SD-80 adds 3 FX units, and the SD-90 also adds external connections for microphone/guitar/aux audio processing as well. I ended up going for the SD-20, just because of what I was looking for, which got some scoffing from a few others in the Touhou fandom (least of which was for them thinking it was inferior for having "less" presets than the SD-80/90, but one of the banks of presets on the larger devices is simply existing voices with preconfigured FX units, so there's nothing actually lost that post-processing elsewhere can't do anyway). A few years later, though, I traded it up for a SD-90 anyway, wanting to have the on-hand FX units rather than post-processing ones on the computer (though when I first got it I didn't even understand what most of the effects even did) and finding one for a great deal that was much less than what they usually sold for. To have an additional sound set from Yamaha, I also bought the MU-128 which was near the top of the line for Yamaha's offerings. I considered Korg's equivalent offering as well, the NS5R, but never did find one at a price I wanted to pay. Somewhere in here I also bought an SC-88, although I don't remember why exactly, then sold it off to a coworker (without the power supply, because the one that came with it was bad but it used the same one as the MT-32 so I just used that).

Some years later, I picked up an iPad, mainly for use when on planes rather than trying to use a bulky laptop in cramped economy tray. On there I discovered the Sound Canvas VA, which is a software recreation of the previous line of Sound Canvases, and particularly the SC-8820. This only had one FX unit, compared to the three with the SD-90, but a much larger and more varied preset list. And when I found that it also existed in a PC version as a VST for DAW usage, that eliminated the FX limit because multiple instances can be run. At that point, honestly, I lost interest in the SD-90 and wanted to use SC-VA going forward, so I eventually sold off the SD-90, netting more than I paid for it since I had bought it at a steal price originally.

On the iPad I also eventually found something else, too: Korg iM1. Another software recreation, this time of Korg's M1 workstation from 1988. The M1 was not simply a preset device, but was designed to let you custom edit the sound patches to be exactly how you wanted. I had dabbled with a few things over the years that were like that, but beyond the basics of ADSR that I had learned from Commodore days, I could never really wrap my head around them. But Korg iM1 was different. Because it has an absolutely beautiful layout, that breaks it all down perfectly to understand.

To be continued in part 2...

Date posted: 16 March, 2021
Tags: musicmaking
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