Music Construction Set - The Shrine

Music Construction Set !!

The splash screen for Music Construction Set running on a PCjr

[6/15/2009] THIS JUST IN!... I've deciphered the MCS file format and have written some tools that can accurately parse and produce information about MCS files!! I'm well on the way to producing a tool that will convert any existing MCS tunes into MIDI... and even better, a tool that can create MCS tunes from simple text files! Keep posted on this page - I'll be posting all the details here!

I'm not going to attempt a MIDI to MCS converter... sorry, MIDI has way too many variables and the limitations of the MCS format would be way too much of a challenge for 99% of MIDI files out there. But I will be making a tool in which you can punch out tunes in a text file and have them converted to playable MCS songs!

Welcome! This website is a shrine and a tribute to what could be considered one of the best (and earliest) music composition programs for in-home use. Forget Cakewalk, forget Pro Tools, forget all of your fancy multitrack stuff... This is classic stuff! On this website you'll find information about Music Construction Set, what it is, how you can run it, and be able to download some tunes that I myself have composed in the program (in both native MCS format and in MP3 audio format).

This website focuses on the IBM PC version of Music Construction Set. It was also available for such computers as the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Atari ST, and the Amiga.

So just what is Music Construction Set?

Music Construction Set was originally programmed by Will Harvey. He wrote it for the Apple II computer in assembly language at the age of only 15. For more information about the history of Music Construction Set, please consult the Wikipedia article.

The version we're focusing on with this website is the IBM PC version. This version could run on any classic IBM PC computer (such as the IBM XT) but it was best run on a Tandy 1000 or an IBM PCjr computer. Why? Because on these computers, the program could make use of the TI SN76496 sound generator chip featured on these systems to provide true three-note polyphony!

If you ran the Music Construction Set on an IBM PC, you were in fact offered the option of four-voice polyphony, but this was "pseudo-polyphony" and did not sound all that great. It was accomplished by precisely controlling the PC speaker to attempt to produce and multiplex four note frequencies. Many combinations of notes just didn't sound right at all, and others sounded kind of ok but still sounded fuzzy and not very discernable. With the PCjr or the Tandy 1000, you could experience true three-voice polyphony without any special speaker tricks.

What can you do with Music Construction Set?

Music Construction Set is a musical notation program. It was quite possibly the first program to allow a home computer user to program music into the computer simply by laying down various musical notation symbols on a musical staff. The program did the work of converting the musical notation entered into music which could be played through the computer speaker.

The program also has some other great features such as these:

While the program may not seem very powerful, for its day it was quite a move forward. Today, people take musical notation software for granted; there are many available titles for all varieties of operating systems. But largely, it started here, with the classic Music Construction Set.

Why this website?

When I was a young boy I received Music Construction Set as a present. Our family had an IBM PCjr computer that it ran perfectly on. I myself have been a piano player since a very young age, and thus was immediately hooked on the program. I found myself spending hours composing tunes, experimenting, and just having a good time. Sadly, many of the tunes I did compose are lost to bad 5.25" floppies, but some have survived (and are archived here, as you'll see shortly.) Even to this very day I sometimes take a little break to punch out a tune that's stuck in my head into Music Construction Set. Now that I'm older I have more appreciation for what is happening here: three square wave generators being carefully manipulated to make what you hope sounds like music. You'll see a clear difference in tunes I composed as a young child and tunes I've composed recently.

This program truly was my introduction to computerized music. Today I work with MIDI, using keyboards and various software programs to compose music. But I had to start somewhere, and for me that somewhere was MCS. I'm amazed that I can still run it today, even though our PCjr is long gone.

What's that? You can run Music Construction Set on a modern computer?

Yes! It's possible to run Music Construction Set on most any modern computer today.

Well, how??

It's a secret. ;-)

Just kidding. You can run it using DOSBox, a free open-source DOS emulator that runs under any modern operating system, from Windows to Linux to Mac OS X (on Intel hardware as far as I know). DOSBox fully emulates the TI SN76496 sound chip so you can experience three-voice polyphony exactly as it would have sounded on a PCjr or Tandy 1000!

The basic procedure of getting MCS running works like this:

So how do you use it?

I'm trying to acquire a copy of the manual. Once I find that I'll be posting it here. It's a bit too in-depth for me to describe myself, but just tinker around. You'll find some stuff out yourself. Here's a hint: point to the Disk icon then hit Enter to enter command mode. Here's where you can save, load, and so on. Type help at the prompt for command help. To get out of the command mode hit enter on a blank line.

Let's hear some samples!

Many samples and audio files are located on the songs page!

This page's content is copyright (C) 2007-2009 by Flint Million.
MCS demo songs, and the MCS program, are copyright Electronic Arts.