On a typical August Wednesday in 1981, the arrival of the very first IBM Personal Computer was announced. The PC was designed as a business aid, though with its Intel 8088 processor operating at no more than 4.77MHZ the user would probably find it far quicker to go and fetch each individual record from a filing cabinet, upstairs, in another building, two streets away. Well, almost. Naturally, if your business had fewer than ten customers and you were prepared to contract out any letter-writing to a typewriter, an original IBM PC would have proved a capable office companion. But serious offices needed machines which took, like, less than half a minute to realise a key had been pressed on the keyboard, and the trad filing cab was, for the time being, going absolutely nowhere.
Of course, the thought of this horrendously expensive device of limitless incapability being used as some kind of musical control centre provoked laughter. But this was a long time ago. Trains in the UK were still heated (if not powered) by steam, there was no such thing as a CD, and Britney Spears was yet to be born.
It’s easy to forget in the light of current PC culture what sort of limitations the PCs of the early ‘80s had to contend with. No mouse, no soundcard, no Windows, and in many cases, no hard drive! A single-sided, eight sector floppy disk (standard PC storage at the time) had a data capacity of just 160 kilobytes. That’s enough space to store just under 1/17th of a single one-megapixel digital photo.
If you’re too young to recall the progression of the PC in its first ten to fifteen years, you may imagine that by 1994, when the subject of this retrospective was made, things had moved into the modern age. Well, here’s the reality…
This PC is a 1994 Packard Bell 486SE, with a colour PB1015 cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor. It’s a pre-Pentium machine running Windows 3.11, which predates the implementation of the Start Menu, Taskbar and Desktop layout, and employs the once familiar ‘Progman’ program manager user interface. The tech spec is as follows… 341MB hard drive, 4MB of RAM, and a 50MHz Intel processor – which was very fast for a 486, but is only around 1/30th of the speed of what was available a decade ago. Mind-blogglingly slow in today’s terms. There’s no CD drive, no USB, no soundcard or networking card, and the only communication with the outside world comes via a 3.5 inch floppy drive. This allows up to 1.44 megabytes of information to be transferred either in or out, per floppy disk. So, despite the passage of 13 years since the first PCs hit the market, typical 1994 machines like this one were still incredibly light on resources and features. This didn’t however, prevent them from costing in excess of £1,000!
Added to the basic unit is a Midiman Winman MIDI interface, providing two inputs and two outputs via an internally-mounted card which fits into the old 16 bit ISA slot. Those were the big, long slots PCs had before PCIs came along. The Winman was “guaranteed for life”. That’s a phrase you don’t hear very often in the land of hi-tech these days. And no, I’ve never had a problem with it, but it’s slightly disconcerting to think that Midiman expect me to die before their card packs up. Or is that not how lifetime guarantees work?… Anyway, the added music software comprises the Cubasis MIDI Sequencer package, which used to retail at £149, and came with a hard copy instruction manual. Almost everyone bought software from shops, in boxes, back in the mid ‘90s.
Without a soundcard, the PC lacks any hard disk audio recording capability. But it’s really too inept to handle a track of digital audio anyway, and with Windows in full flight it’s only just capable of dealing with MIDI recording. So the PC had a different role in the production of music 17 years ago. It was purely a sequencer and control centre for outboard MIDI hardware. You couldn’t simply pop onto the web and download a pile of VST instruments and samples, then get started. You had to buy real synths, or modules, and perhaps a drum machine, then link everything to the PC with MIDI cables. Once you’d done that, it was pretty similar to using a VST setup. It was just that when you played back a sequence, or pushed up the volume on the mixer or whatever, it sent out a message to a real synth, which responded accordingly. Until very recently, I had this PC set up to control a DR660 drum machine, a Korg Prophecy, an Alesis NanoPiano, a Korg 05R/W and a Korg X5. However, since this is my oldest computer and I don’t want to tempt fate with it any longer, I’ve retired it and passed control of the above instruments over to a 1990s Apricot, which I picked up about a year ago.
One of the (thankfully) long-forgotten memories of the early to mid ‘90s was the lack of Plug & Play on PCs. Windows 3.11 could not detect new hardware, or allocate IRQ (interrupt request) and base address settings to device drivers. This meant that the IRQs and addresses had to be set by the user (physically, using jumpers on the devices), and Windows had to be forced to find the hardware. Conflicts in the settings were rife, and there was often no real indication of what was wrong. The device simply didn’t work, and it was down to the user to work out why. If you managed to install the Midiman Winman in less than half a day, you could regard yourself as something of an expert.
In fact, the Winman came with two different programs, which were included purely to help the user work out which settings to use for installation. Neither program installed the Winman – there was an entirely separate program for that – they just gave advice on which settings were available in the hope that no conflicts would occur. Neither program could run from within Windows, so the computer had to be booted to the darkness of DOS. Here’s a paragraph from the Winman’s manual, reminding us how very lucky we were that Microsoft subsequently implemented Plug & Play…
IMPORTANT: The FINDIRQ.COM program does have some limitations – it cannot always accurately detect an IRQ that is being used by a sound card. If you do have a sound card in your PC you may have to do a little manual detective work to determine which interrupts and addresses it is using. Usually, a standard sound card uses Interrupt 5 and address 330 for the MIDI interface and interrupt 2 and address 220 for the digital audio function. If you do have a sound card in your system you may need to verify that these are the interrupts and addresses it is using by either looking at the jumpers on the card or by running the sound card setup program. Naturally, if you are using a sound card these interrupts and addresses should be ruled out for use by the WINMAN 2X2.
… So, that’s nice and straightforward then. Remember though, this wasn’t just the Winman. All hardware installations were subject to the same hassle, and many manufacturers were nowhere near as conscientious as Midiman were with their advice and provisions. Ah, PC users these days… don’t know they’re bloomin’ born…
Once things were up and running, the system was pleasant to use. Cubasis MIDI was nice, if basic (mega-basic in relation to today’s equivalents), and as mid ‘90s PC sequencers went it was very stable. Stability was a big thing at the time, and some sequencing packages would glitch like mad. We take a lot for granted with PC music setups in 2011, but a decade and a half back you absolutely marvelled at the fact you could click a mouse onto the play button on a PC screen, and after a short delay for the computer to respond, a multitude of MIDI tracks would begin playing their respective synths, exactly as you’d specified. If your PC could do this glitch-free, it was immensely satisfying.
Back in the day, I used this PC and hardware setup in conjunction with a Tascam 424 Portastudio, with a timecoder interface synchronising tape-recorded vocals and guitar to live MIDI instruments (there’s more on that in Recalling The Portastudio). I’d master to audio tape, because I didn’t have anything which was up to the job of recording digital audio. It seems like a massive amount of hassle looking back on it all. But in truth, I did more home recording then than I do now. I think the challenge just gave it that bit of extra excitement. Before using this (my first) PC for sequencing, I’d been using a Kawai hardware sequencer. Having everything laid out on a colour monitor seemed like such luxury in comparison.
Much as I don’t have any great accolades to hand to Packard Bell, this PC has lasted a hell of a long time. I’m staggered that the hard drive still works after 17 years, but it still chugs away just as it’s always done, never a ‘click of death’ to be heard. The PC can’t be said to have been well made, because on the internal extension board (which hosts the ISA slots) some of the solder joints were atrocious. They barely had any solder on them and you could see the actual holes around the pins! In fact one of the ISAs didn’t work. I wasn’t aware of this for some years because I didn’t use the slot in question until around 2000, but I had to re-solder all the pins myself. Since then, there hasn’t been a problem, but I suspect the machine is still working due to good fortune and very careful use, rather than any exceptional attention to quality on the part of Packard Bell. To answer the questions I’m sure you’re asking – yes, I did subsequently have another Packard Bell machine (in 1998), no, it didn’t last long, and no, I’ve never bought another.
It genuinely doesn’t seem as long as 17 years since I first sat in my lounge with gleeful face illuminated by the bright, white glow of the Windows 3.11 program manager. The computer these days has become indispensable, and it is a much bigger and almost infinitely more powerful part of our lives. It doesn’t, however, possess the magic that these ancient and often infuriatingly challenging machines could have in their day.
I've looked at a later Packard Bell PC in my Packard Bell Club 30 article.