Let's talk with Marc Albrecht...11 March 1999

Back to interviews index Hello everybody! \8^)
This is OgniX, and I am proud to introduce you Marc Albrecht, founder and head developer of A.C.T. (Albrecht Computer Technik), a German company involved in projects regarding the audio side of the magic Amiga!
You may know two of their famous products: Samplitude, the professional solution for audio hard disk recording and editing on the Amiga, and the sound card Prelude, well known for its good performance/price ratio.

An OLD photo of Marc

Q:Well, first of all, just to know you better, about the Amiga side, when did you discover the Amiga?
A:About one year before it became available in Europe: I was working as a freelance author for a Commodore 64 magazine (called Source), which was printing the latest rumours about an amazing new computer which Commodore just bought the rights for.

Q:When did you start your company?
Were you on yourself only?
Why did you choose the audio side? Were/are you involved in this field by another mean?
A:The current business A.C.T. exists since 1997 in its official form, mainly targetted to have a commercial background for our hobby Amiga products. In the beginning I ran the biz on my own, with freelance partners and of course Thomas Wenzel, ''my personal hardware guru''. :)
We are absolutely not restricted to audio, but we have done quite some programming for presentation systems, software-on-demand, etc.
Audio is simply the area where our products find a larger public, since we concentrate on personal solutions otherwise.
By taking over development of the Amiga port of Samplitude our audio interests simply became focussed (I have been a professional composer/musician in the past).


Q:Let's talk about the software projects first, which are Samplitude and ARTAS.
Well, we know you bought Samplitude rights and code from Sek'D, which continues the development of this program on the Windows 9X platform...
A:No, we didn't. Samplitude would have been killed for the Amiga if we hadn't offered to continue supporting and developing it; so we made an agreement with Sek'D to port their Aztec code to SAS and continue on our own. A licensing agreement for the financial side has been worked out.

Q:Ahh... ok, Marc. Thanks for pointing that out and for your ''rescue''... ;)
Now, just to make an idea of what Samplitude is to the people don't know what it is, I can say it's a program like the mythical Aegis AudioMaster, a sample editor which works with files either in RAM and hard disk.
You can work on many samples at once, you can perform the classic editing operations as well many special effects.
It can load a large variety of formats (IFF 8SVX, AIFF, MAUD, WAVE, etc.), but the most interesting thing is probably the capability of mixing various samples, precisely timed.
Well Marc, is this right? Tell me and add other aspects I missed if you want...
A:Well, Samplitude is targetted to the audio/video sector, not sample editing in the first place. It is being used by a number of video studios (pre and post-production) which create material for broadcasting purpose. Samplitude is also used in some sound studios due to the high quality of some features like the FFT routines.
The mixing/cutting/editing functions are used as well, and there are some rather succesful DJs or pop projects using Samplitude Opus on Amiga; but this has, so far, not been the main purpose.

Q:Well, now I want to touch an hardware argument related to the last function I mentioned: we know we need processing power and fast peripherals to perform real time high quality mixing. Not to mention eventually some real time special effects.
Since I'm subscribed to the Samplitude mailing list I know this argument has been touched sometime: could you explain to our readers why is it so difficult to implement a real time mixing plus special fx on the Amiga?
A solution?
A:It isn't difficult to implement real time functions at all. It is difficult to achieve a convincing result in terms of accuracy, timing (syncronisation) and performance stability. I don't have any problems running 20 tracks with my personal setup, but I am sure most customers will have. The problem with Amiga technology is that you cannot rely on some minimum setup: many Amigas are poorly equipped with Zorro SCSI controllers or buggy SCSI software. Releasing a Samplitude version that can do ''unlimited'' streaming (real time effects) would create a support need that simply cannot be handled.
It would be easy to implement poor ''effects quality'' in order to achieve the needed performance, but this has never been the goal of Samplitude and will never be. Samplitude is known to offer a very high quality in signal handling, and we do not intend to let the problem loaded Amiga setups make us release quick shots.
Real time effects will be available as soon as PPC native SCSI handling, usable SCSI controllers (DMA controllers) and reliable file systems are available. We are working on the needed routines for Samplitude already.

Q:Well. what's your gear? We are curious... or anyway what is the present hardware you would suggest?
A:At the moment I have to admit: any hardware that carries the brand ''Amiga'' wouldn't be convenient... sadly.


Q:And what about the other platforms?
A:The problem is software. Forget Windows systems: they are useless if you look at it closely. MacOS doesn't even have multitasking. BeOS might be a solution and we are currently investigating this very closely.

QNX would be perfect. Unfortunately it is not achievable: developing for QNX seems much more expensive than development for Windows NT, which really doesn't make sense.

We do have some plans in the back, but please forgive me that I am not going to discuss them. We won't turn down the Amiga, but we have to find something that works and serves the customer's needs. Amiga currently doesn't.

Q:Why QNX is not achiveable for developing? What do you mean? Could you be more precise?
A:How could I be?

You know that you have to pay licence costs if you want to develop software for commercial OS like Windows or... QNX. The licence costs to develop for QNX are extremely high, based on the official information, which makes this (so far not widely spread) system rather uninteresting for smaller companies like ours.

Q:In these last times inside the mailing list you talked about porting Samplitude on other platforms. You told Windows is no choice because there is already Sek'D with its version...
A:That's not the main reason: this porting is not porting the code but the idea of Samplitude. Windows systems don't offer what we need (real time processing, see above), so Windows systems are no choice.


Q:Ahh... ok. Coming back to the previous question, you told BeOS is a possibility. On a question about Linux you told it's quite difficult that someone on a free OS is disposed to pay for a commercial program... yes, it's probably right, but all of this stuff lead to a question: do you really keep in consideration present Amiga Inc. plans to relaunch the Amiga?
A:There is no relaunch of Amiga. The software Amiga Inc. pretends to develop will be used on standard PCs (the MMC is not in discussion any more) and there is absolutely no parallel to a real Amiga.

Q:I didn't know Amiga Inc. abandoned the MMC idea and the special architecture.
Is it true?
A:I don't know. There isn't anything about MMC anywhere any longer; rumours go that the MMC company has been bought up and therefor vanished, or at least they are no longer interested in Amiga Inc. (which I could understand).

I have to judge from what I know. What I know is that there is no such MMC (meaning: it isn't available, therefor it isn't existing for a serious developer). I also know that Amiga Inc.'s current plans do not need such a CPU (since Neutrino is completely portable; it doesn't make sense to use such a CPU).

Q:I just can say we have to wait, but I'm really uncertain they'll succeed in such a big plan (Digital Convergence) with just one technician/engineer, Dr. Allan Havemose (at least about hardware), especially if you consider the small amount of time (end of 1999, beginning of year 2000).
What do you think about their plans?
A:See above. There are real companies doing exactly the same Amiga Inc. is pretending to do: IBM is involved there, Sun is, and many others.
Do you really think a handful of Amiga Club CEOs can compete with such majors?

Q:Will you continue supporting the ''classic'' Amiga?
A:We will continue to support the real Amiga. [Great! This is what I want to hear. OgniX's Note]
This is not a ''classic'' Amiga or anything, it is the AMIGA! We will also try to support any effort to produce new Amigas, even if compability is not the best, as long as the idea is kept.


Q:What do you think about various alternative projects with the Amiga/freedom philosofy in mind?
I mean especially the KOSH project.
A:I have been contacted by Fleecy Moss (Mr. KOSH), but so far I don't see enough power in KOSH. There are so many projects and commercial alternatives to Win systems; KOSH will have to show why it is better than e.g. QNX, BeOS, Rhapsody, or even AROS, Linux, etc.

I don't see ''Amiga spirit'' in KOSH. Perhaps I don't know what ''Amiga spirit'' is.

Q:Could you explain this sentence a bit more? Are you confused about what the Amiga spirit is? Why?
A:I don't know whether KOSH will be what I feel the Amiga was: a complex setup made of a certain hardware and specific software especially suiting that hardware, running a fast, small and still very handy OS that even comes close to real time (though still being far from reaching that goal).
So I doubt that KOSH will be an Amiga replacement (which I am still looking for).

I don't know what an Amiga spirit might be today. It has been the knowledge of users that they can do everything on their system, even if they had to do it themselfs. The large amount of free software (Fred Fish, not Aminet, which is covered with buggy, unstable, partly commercial stuff) and the many many shareware programmers built some kind of ''Amiga spirit'' I could see. I don't see this any more. I cannot do everything with my Amiga any longer, with hardware being so brutally bad (graphic boards, SCSI controllers, etc.) and actually no modern software being available (we don't even have a working modern WWW browser!).


Q:Exactly why the Amiga is so brutally bad ? What's missed?
Hardware problems? OS problems?
A:You do not mean that seriously, do you?

I mean: get a live! Amiga's hardware is centuries outdated (meaning: ''computer age centuries'' - about 5 to 10 years). The bus speed is good for a laugh (a painful laugh though); the motherboard design could have been better by my 6 years old daughter (especially the A1200 one, which is the most important PCB nowadays). The software equipment is a joke: no real TCP/IP stack in the OS. Forget about the buggy shareware solutions: this is something that belongs to an OS; no modern file systems, for example.
There are no usable software solutions for business... absolutely no adaequate word processing system: I am not going to play around with stuff like Wordworth, etc.: I am writing books, not letters; or think about 1-2-3 packages, think about the complete audio sector, where nearly nothing is going on except for a few isolated solutions. Look at the graphic sector: we don't have something like Photoshop (don't even think about naming the Amiga graphic tools! Don't do it!), we don't have something like Bryce, we don't have something like Quark XPress: well, we have Pagestream. Wow. Amazing. Incredible. Shocking.

There is no standard hardware. We don't have PCI (this is the minimum today), we don't have standard SCSI in the system (we need a special controler hosted on the CPU board!). We don't have USB. We don't have acceptable RAM speed, we don't have acceptable bus speed, we don't have acceptable SCSI speed, we don't even have acceptably priced new boards!

We don't have an owner of the Amiga rights who cares for the system, we don't have an owner who is keeping his promises. We don't have an actual OS that could even cope with Windows 95 in functionality and usability (I hate Windows 95, but you have to admit that it has been this system that made a PC walk right into your wife's living room!).

In short: we are working with 10 years old technique, which has been so good in those ancient days that it is still usable today (none would like to use DOS 3.0 today!).
But that doesn't mean it is acceptable anymore. Everything is missing. So you could not mean that question seriously.

Q:I know all you said it's sadly true, but I see you're really negative or, at least, drammatically realistic.
A:Where am I negative, where negative words aren't the only possible ones to use? I mean, seeing things realistically shouldn't mean that they aren't serious.

I am still using Amiga computers, and many others do just like me. This doesn't mean that we do not see that Amiga is out of sync. So, tell me: what words should I use other than the words I have used when describing the situation? Is there anything I could have said differently without lying with open eyes?


Again: I am not the negative guy I seem to be when reading these lines. You can tell that from the fact that my company is known to be one of the best supporters we still have (doing service and support for many third company products without earning money from it, just for the good name).

I am one of the positive Amiga lovers. But I am a developer, a husband and a father.
I have to be serious from time to time and I have to live from something. Tell me how I could do that with Amiga.

Q:I know, I know, you're right :| , but I wanted you to tell me/us what is your list of negative things precisely.
A:Oh, please, come on... :-)

We are not tearing things down here. I am simply not going to pretend everything is wonderful, like most magazines do (because they have to; they live from the adverts, not from their readers. Amiga magazines are specifically made for advertising customers, not for readers).

Things are bad with Amiga and in my eyes the current rights owners have given this system the stab with a dagger it was missing. It's over, we are talking about an old system with no chance for the future. So why are we using it?
Because, at the moment, there is no real alternative. But this will most likely change soon.

Q:Do you know something we don't?
Some rumors about something really amazing like the A1000 in 1985?
A:There are too many rumours, I don't believe a single one of them anymore.
But all systems are getting better, even Windows 98.

Q:One more question that came into my mind just now, which is related to the previous one anyway...

In my opinion the Amiga is not just an operating system, a philosofy... is a machine too!
I mean a special hardware architecture like the present one (for this reason I don't like things like emulators and so on). I think we are forced, even uncosciously, by the low prices of the present PC market, so the idea of creating a totally different standard is discarded in the beginning. What is your opinion about this?
A:Of course Amiga was hardware and software in a special cooperated setup. Amiga consists of a very handy, small and fast OS which is directly connected to the hardware used. This is, in my opinion, a good thing (tm).

But nowadays hardware is so much more powerful that one should be allowed to question whether a specialized system like Amiga OS is still needed.
I think that QNX (a microkernel) or BeOS (a complete, blown up OS with lots of integrated stuff) are two possible ''modern'' ways to make the best of a computer hardware. QNX is small, fast, flexible, whereas BeOS is comfortable right from the start. Amiga OS isn't bad, but completely outdated.


Q:What are the negative aspects of BeOS and the QNX microkernel in your opinion?
A:I don't know of negative aspects. I know of problems.

BeOS does not have a commercially usable development setup; they suggest using EGCS, which isn't bad but you simply cannot convince companies to use it for their established projects: they have to say ''OK'' for themselfs, which is not always very likely. BeOS does not support the wide range of new hardware that is thrown on the market every month. BeOS is a full blown OS which needs a decent setup, does not come with a handy, easy-to-understand GUI. BeOS does not have enough applications to be used as a stand-alone solution for all-day-work. BeOS is nearly not discussed in public, it is nearly not advertised and there is virtually no big commerce going on with it. That is the problem side I see, it absolutely does not mean that I think BeOS is bad (I think it is good in fact).

QNX does not have: software applications, support, advertising, market space in the consumer area, affordable standard setups, drivers for new hardware, compability to anything. It is unbelievably expensive to develop for (judging from the officially available information).
In short: QNX might be the power kernel we all have been looking for, because of its micro nature. But the company behind it has virtually no experience in the consumer market (where I am placed in) and does not seem to have much interest in it.
I have plans for some embedded systems, that's where QNX might be interesting, yet it is far too expensive to be used as the development platform. That is the problem side.
I see, it absolutely does not mean I dislike QNX, in fact I think I could love it.


Q:Let's talk about ARTAS now, which won't be a part of the Amiga OS 3.5.
A:It seems it won't. I have been promised to get a contract for ARTAS.
I now believe that Amiga Inc. will simply take my ideas and implement it themselfs, either in the Plus Pack for Amiga (OS 3.5) or in the new setup.
If they should decide to use my software they will now have to pay me real money, not doughnuts.

Q:ARTAS is the acronym for Amiga ReTargettable Audio System: many people when hear these words think about AHI, but in many occassions you told that ARTAS will be 100% AHI compatible and it will be an expasion of its idea.
Could you explain us more about this? Could you give something like a block scheme of its way of treating data?
A:I never said ARTAS would be 100% AHI compatible: it will never be.
AHI lacks means of controling the hardware: it deals with, that is one of the major drawbacks. It also doesn't implement an inter-software communication channel and it doesn't have control streams, not dealing with audio themselfs. AHI is a great system for playing or recording audio, but that's all. An API for audio hardware and software has to do more than that. It has to have syncronisation features, it has to have uncontrolled and controlled streams; it has to have an architecture that deals with any kind of data (of unknown type).
ARTAS' kernel doesn't know about audio: it can be used for any kind of data transfer, from text to TCP/IP packets, from audio data to MIDI or MPEG streams, from single pictures to video streams. And it can be fully syncronized to internal or external clock sources, as accurate as you want it to be.

Q:Could you say when it will be completed?
A:ARTAS is finished, but it will be deleted soon. I won't release the version I made up for Amiga Inc.: it was developed to be an Amiga only system. I will redo everything from scratch now (in C++) to be able to use it on other platforms as well (which doesn't mean that I won't release it for Amiga) and I want to implement some new basic features that discussions with developers revealed to be of importance.
It will be released to the Amiga public for free and there are already a number of developers waiting for the new version to support it in their software.

It wouldn't make sense to release the ''old'' version since the ''new'' one is not completely compatible.


Q:Ok, Marc. Let's focus on hardware now. Let's start with the Prelude audio board. To the few readers which don't know what I'm talking about, the Prelude is a Zorro II board capable of full duplex operation (recording while playing) at a maximum frequency of 64 kHz, with 16 bit resolution. Recently you released the version for Amiga 1200, the Prelude 1200. Could you tell us more about it: compatibility, expandabilty, support, mounting, etc.
You know with it you have a bigger market than the Zorro II version...
A:This last sentence isn't quite true. The Prelude 1200 is mainly destined to be used in desktop ''Amiga'' 1200s since a tower equipped A1200 really should have a Zorro board, where the ''big'' Prelude can be pluged in.
The Prelude 1200 is fully software compatible, which means that the same drivers you use for the ''big'' one can be used with the 1200 version, including AHI and native drivers, giving you an already large pool of software, which even grows.
But the Prelude 1200 cannot be expanded like the big one, which can carry a MIDI interface, MPEG decoder and soon S/PDIF controller hardware. The Prelude 1200 is plugged into the clock port, which, of course, is a hack. This shows it is not meant to be a competitor to Zorro cards: it cannot be. The signal quality of the Zorro version is known to be of highest standard (studio quality); the A1200 version cannot and will never achieve this level. Anyway, Prelude1200 is selling very well and has been quoted to be of ''high audio quality''.

Q:I've read in every Prelude board now you're including a special version of Samplitude (like Sek'D with the Toccata board): what are the limitations of this version?
A: Samplitude OEM is available for Concierto for quite some time now. It doesn't feature the Object Modules (VIP Mode) for non- destructive editing, it is limited to 4 tracks and of course neither has FFT functions, nor the high-level (Floating Point) mixing routines.
It is otherwise a fully usable HD recording system with a very strong HD access kernel, amplitude modification routines and the most important import/export functions.


Q:Thanks, Marc. Now let's talk the add-on modules for the Prelude board, that features an expansion slot.
As I know there are three modules on the way: the digital I/O board (which I'm really interested in :) , an MPEG decoder and Rombler, an add-on will permit the connection of a WaveTable PC daughter board and MIDI instruments (since the MIDI interface).
What can you assure about these products? Will they become reality?
If I buy one of these three boards, could I put another one in the future without pulling off the previous one?
What about a board with a programmable DSP?
A:The Rombler (MIDI interface) is available since October 1998; we are currently producing a new bunch of this as well as of the MPEGIt module, which seems to be highly wanted on the market. You can plug standard WaveTable cards from the PC world onto the Rombler, like the famous Yamaha DB50XG board: it only has to be WaveBlaster compatible (not an ISA/PCI board). The Rombler also offers MIDI In and MIDI Out through a standard Game Port/MIDI cable outside the Amiga.

The MPEGIt is a licenced FHI MPEG audio decoder chip (made by Micronas Intermetal - ITT), using quality decoding in 20 Bit and its own DAC, so you can playback MPEG audio streams (even Layer 3!) while playing or recording digital data with the Prelude main board at the same time. Since the MPEGIt has its own DSP onboard the needed bus bandwith, and therefor the CPU power of the Amiga, are virtually null. Of course the MPEGit is also available, but due to the large orders we have to face short stock here as well.

The Arpeggiator is currently in development. This add-on board features digital I/O (coaxial and optical) with master frequencies at 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz (which means you don't need a 44.1kHz master like you need with common digital I/O boards). It will also have MIDI In/Out onboard.

You could theoretically use several boards at the same time. The problem is of mechanical nature only, since the Prelude only has one expansion slot (so a Prelude with the complete add-on, even including a WaveTable card, fits in a single Zorro slot). If you have enough room in your tower you can ask us to send a double adaptor to enable you to use Rombler and MPEGIt at the same time. Arpeggiator will eventually feature an update function for MPEGIt.

A programmable DSP in a Zorro II sound card doesn't make any sense. The DSP should be use as some kind of coprocessor, to reduce load of the Amiga's main CPU: to do this you need a much higher bus bandwidth than Zorro II offers. So such a DSP would be used for some cheap real time effects only, and is therefor nonsense, since such effects can be achieved by external equipment as well, which in most cases will be even cheaper than the add-on.

Q:Could you tell us (sincerely me, because I'm really interested in) when the Arpeggiator module will be available?
A:It's now in development and we hope to have the first bunch of cards in March. This is a hope, not a promise.


Q:And now where're approaching the end with the Festiva board.
This board would be made with the professional market in mind: in fact it would feature 24 bit converters, 8 separate input/outputs, digital I/O built in, DSP on board and MIDI interface. Because of the great performance demand it will be (we hope it will be) a Zorro III only board.
A:Of course Zorro III only. Zorro II doesn't make sense here (see above).

Q:This board is just an idea now, a project in your minds: isn't it?
Marc, what can you tell us about this project, especially in relation to your thoughts about Amiga Inc. policy.
A:The main development plans for the Festiva have been closed due to the lack of real interest. We have had too many bad experiences with Amiga dealers (not paying their invoices, not doing real support, etc.), so that we would have to face distribution on our own. Developing hardware for the Amiga is extremely expensive: we would have to have a minimum of 300 orders for Festiva, which we don't have. We asked customers on the Computer 98 fair: there was (strong) interest, but from too few actual customers. With working Zorro III boards for A1200 towers being rare and unbelievably expensive, the market is even shrinking. Amiga International (Petro T.) promised to support projects like this during WoA in London, but again (just like last year) he did not keep his promise; so I am afraid we won't be able to do the Festiva magic. I am sorry for this since I would have loved to use such a board on my own, the main motivation for developing on Amiga.

Q:**** that ****!!! :^(
Ok, Marc. We reached the end of this interview. If you wish to tell something important to our readers, it's time to do it.
A:I'd like to ask anyone to stop using pirated copies of any Amiga software. We have stopped three software projects in 1998 only because of the piracy situation (a video editing software and two game projects). Please ask developers, distributors, etc. to grant you reduced prices, or ask for sponsoring of projects, or anything like this (we have done quite a lot of sponsoring in the past), but stop destroying the Amiga! Piracy has done the greatest harm to Amiga software development, even more damage than the changing ownership of the Amiga rights.

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