Product: Sound Expansion Cartridge
Publisher: Project Expansions
Compatibility: Acorn Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #60

"Here, have this incredibly rare Electron addon," a fellow clearing out his loft said recently. "It's gives it four channels of sound." Of course, if it was that simple, no further product review would be necessary. Unfortunately this one has to first note the box of tricks we were passed is broken. Considering some of the 'faults' noted below may be as a result of this breakage, don't take this review for more than that of the specific addon that subsequently arrived at EUG HQ.

The four channel sound cartridge, possibly Project Expansions only Elk product (besides a User Port), is a black ROM-cartridge style, cased circuit board which fits expectedly into an Acorn Plus 1/AP1 or Rombox+ expansion. Facing its owner is the "Project Expansions" logo; housed in the back of the casing is a metal cone wafer speaker beloved of the BBC series (from whence come the 'new' sounds); protruding from the left is a small white volume knob and mono output socket; and finally on the very top sits a headphone socket. Bundled with the cart is a dot-matrix 'manual' informing you that the cartridge will be initialised on "BREAK" and is 'fully-compatible' with all other hardware (except anything in unlucky slot 13 of a Rombox+).

However, the first difficulty with this product manifests not when one expectantly pops the demonstration disc into the drive but in trying to insert the cart into whatever Electron expansion your setup boasts. To describe it as a snug fit barely does the procedure justice. Where official ROM cartridges slide in and out like hot knives through butter, this block initially appears incapable of being squeezed into the cartridge holder, preferring to antagonise its assembler by uselessly only sitting seesaw-style until it is rammed squarely into place. Removing it is doubly laborious.

Possibly it is the excess of violence used in the installation and removal of this particular device that led to its volume control button being dislocated from the circuit-board, resulting in the volume being permanently stuck on full whack. This is something of a major problem as it means all the high notes that this reviewer heard were blurred.

Before trying to evaluate its performance further however, a questio we should answer is "Why would we want four channel sound on our little Electron?" The answer lies in the architecture of the Electron itself. As you may know, sound on the Elk is vastly inferior to sound on the Beeb - as the beige machine cannot play any more than one note at a time. The BBC can, as it has four channels. In 'chopping down' the BBC to make an affordable home computer (the Elk), three channels were sacrificed; whether you ask the Elk to play a note on channel "0", "1", "2" or "3", it plays it on "1". So, if you load four channel music pieces designed on the Beeb into the Elk, instead of a whole orchestra playing a main theme accompanied by rhythms, drums and accompaniments, you get either a main theme alone or an appalling cacophany of sound - all different channeled sound is 're-routed' into the one!

This cartridge is designed to allow those PD music pieces written for the BBC to work on an Electron too. One would imagine also that, as most Elk titles are converted from BBC versions, it would improve the 'depth' of "BBC/Elk" titles where the coding remains on four separate channels.

The three A4 pages comprising the user guide indicate that the best means of figuring out the intricacies of the star commands you may use is to !BOOT the demonstration disc which, duly done, displays an uninspiring menu offering you a four channel rendition of The Twelve Days Of Christmas, Superior's Speech or a Self-Test utility. There are also various programs utilising Speech commands within them on it.

As someone who had looked forward to playing with it since the offer [Or since reading Electron User in 1990 if I'm honest! - Ed], Twelve Days was an anti-climax. From the loudspeaker came a jangled blur which nowhere near matched the quality of the same program played on a BBC. However, as Twelve Days is equiped with a "How loud (1-15)?" volume control of its own, I quickly established the performance was comparable when played at its softest on the Elk. Just then was highlighted how serious the broken volume was. Even connecting a pair of PC speakers to the "out" socket failed to solve the problem.

"You will find you are best using a low volume when playing music/games but a high one for using Speech" says the booklet. Unfortunately the speech of Speech is unfathomable coming through at the high volume my Project Expansions cartridge is stuck on. A raspy and blurred 'voice' does respond to *SAY ELECTRON (RETURN) but it is impossible to understand the word that blips through any speakers connected to it.

To truly test the compatibility of the cartridge with music though, it was time to get ahold of the coveted BBC Byte The Apple music discs, strip out a few display routines and listen to the results. Most of them sounded completely different on the Elk - playing either atrociously, at a slower speed or not at all (due to lack of memory). [Doubtless some of these will play better with a fully functional cartridge - Ed]

'Improvements' to games were also unimpressive. Despite the 'full compatibility' pledge, Chuckie Egg refused to run with the cart connected, Killer Gorilla lost all of its sound (It zipped through all of its musical opening screens without even pausing!), Palace Of Magic replaced its atmospheric ENVELOPEs with bleeps and Arcadians emitted a long whine each time a shot was fired. These latter features are common to working versions of the device. Only seven PD tunes (No professional title!) could be asserted to perform better with the box (in comparison with the Elk's own internal speaker).

Nice features are a) the box contains one bank of Sideways RAM into which a ROM image can be loaded (providing the expansion isn't being used) and b) it is initialised on BREAK and removed on CTRL-BREAK so is simplicity itself to use when installed. Its demonstration disc though, despite including Speech, is pretty poor and it seems that in the majority of cases the musical extravaganzas out there in PD-land do need to be rewritten to work on it properly.

Its lack of support software-wise coupled with this particular one's fault factor leave a lot to be desired. In the end, this product seems to be as rare as promised, yet far less useful than was once hyped.