Beyond Encodings: A Critical Look at the Terminology of Text Graphics

June 15, 2017

I used to write a lot about text art here in the blog, but it’s been a while now. I’m still very much into it, though, and I do update TEXT-MODE every now and then. Today, I’m publishing an article about text graphics in the Finnish academic journal WiderScreen’s new issue focusing on text art. It’s pretty great, I have to say, with contributions from active artists and scene researchers alike. Raquel Meyers gives a thorough look into her KYBDslöjd approach where she, among other things, disses the oft cited ideas from media archeology that old media are more or less dead. Gleb Albert takes an interesting economic approach to ANSI art in the warez scene. Daniel Botz talks scrolltexts, Dan Farrimond shows teletext works, and Tommy Musturi shares very interesting artistic techniques with PETSCII graphics. And there’s much more.

I’ve contributed with the text Beyond Encoding: A Critical Look at the Terminology of Text Graphics. In my text I give brief overviews of ASCII, ANSI, PETSCII, Unicode and Shift-JIS art; some of the most popular forms of text graphics today. Text graphics is my own umbrella term for these visual forms, because I don’t think it’s necessary to downplay the skills and work involved by calling this “art”. Just like with the demoscene, I think it’s a lot more relevant to generally consider these works as a form of craft. Raquel also touches on this topic in her text.

My key point though, is that I find terms such as ASCII art or PETSCII art to be more difficult to use by the day. After all, these are forms of encoding. They only stipulate what number each character has. A lower-case a is 97 or 129 or 65 or something else. That’s of course very important for the technical purpose of displaying it correctly, but mostly… I mean… Who cares what numbers are there?

It’s about time to start to look beyond the encodings to discuss and categorize text graphics according to other criteria. Which fonts are used? Are the fonts customized? What kinds of characters are (not) used? What style does it have? How many colours and what resolution does it use? How was it made, and which media is it presented on? In what (sub)cultural context does it exist? For these purposes, I’ve included a model in the text to look at the different material levels of a piece of text graphics.

I also suggest the term text mosaic to refer to text graphics that use blocks rather than lines. These are especially popular in Western ANSI and PETSCII art, but exist in all forms of text graphics where the font has block characters. Block ASCII, Unicode or Shift-JIS art based on block elements, Chinese ANSI, and so on.

Text mosaic is different from ASCII art. I think we can accept the popular idea of ASCII art mostly using line characters, and alphanumeric characters. You know, all the ASCII-converters work in this kind of Matrix-style. And this idea actually also exists in the ASCII art scene, where you talk about block ASCII if it’s not like “normal” alphanumeric line-based ASCII art.

In this way, we don’t have to fight against the dominant idea of ASCII art, but we can and should develop more refined terminology for when it’s necessary.

OK, over and out.

The First LSDj Artists

May 31, 2017

I’ve started to dig through the first years of LSDj, the Gameboy software that is still being developed today, 17 years after its first alfa release. LSDj was not the first widely available Gameboy music software (Nanoloop, Trippy-H, MusicBox, Carillon, etc) but LSDj had a huge impact on the new chipscene that was forming at the time. That’s one of the reasons why I’m now working on a compilation for protoDATA with music from the first years of LSDj.

Many of the early users are still well known today. People like Bit Shifter, Bud Melvin, Cornbeast, Covox, FirestARTer, Lo-Bat, Mark DeNardo, Nim, Nullsleep, Produkt, Puss, Role Model (duh), Vim, Yuppster, Zabutom, and yours truly.

Others have been forgotten since. But now it’s time to remember!

Who used LSDj during 2000-2002? If you have any ideas, and contact information, I’d appreciate a comment or an e-mail (infogoto80⚫com).

I’m thinking about people like Aonami, Blasterhead, Cemik, Chesterfield, Cow’p, Digigig, DMG Plantlife, Firebrandboy, The Hardliner, Hex125, Keiichi Hirao, Kplecraft, Maak, Magnu3, Pasan, Pharmacom, Piano Busters, Pepparkaksninja, Tobiah, Zalza, etc.

And the people active on the LSDj-mailing list at the time seem even more tricky to reach. Smyglyssna, Daniel Viksporre, James Bernard, Tim Prezzano, Barter System of Music, Simon in Canberra, Casey McGonagle, Mangey from Holland, J Ruddy, Ryan (boobibaol.com), Virgile Iscan, Anxious Times, Erik Wiese (pxli?), Bohus Blahut…

Any help appreciated!

Top Amiga Music Countries

May 7, 2017

Hally recently announced his Japanese book All about Chiptune which looks like a really good treat. He has also started a new blog: VORCuration where he posted an interesting chart. He used data from Amiga Music Preservation (AMP) to show how many composers there are from each country.

Stats from VORCuration

Chart by Hally for VORCuration

Germany, Sweden, Finland, UK and USA are at the top of these statistics. Most tracker people are from Northern Europe so this makes sense, although USA’s position was surprisingly high. On the other hand, USA’s population is almost half of that of Europe, so…

But how would these numbers change if we take population size into consideration? Which countries have the largest share of Amiga composers? I divided the amount of composers with the country’s population, multiplied it with 1,000,000 to get rid of all the decimals, and got the list below. (In brackets is the current population size, taken from Wikipedia)

  1. Finland, 271 (5,5m)
  2. Sweden, 154 (10m)
  3. Norway, 151 (5,3m)
  4. Denmark, 99 (5,8m)
  5. Hungary, 38 (9,8m)
  6. The Netherlands, 37 (17,1m)
  7. Poland, 23 (38,5m)
  8. Germany, 23 (82,2m)
  9. UK, 17 (65,1m)
  10. Switzerland, 15 (8,4m)
  11. Belgium, 13 (11,3m)
  12. France, 12 (67m)
  13. Czech Republic, 10 (10,6m)
  14. Australia, 9 (24,4m)
  15. Canada, 6 (35,2m)
  16. Italy, 5 (60,7m)
  17. Spain, 4 (46,4m)
  18. USA, 3 (325m)

The Scandinavian countries are all in the top. They usually place high in scene statistics, but since they have such low populations, they really stand out from the rest here. I’m happy to see Finland as a clear “winner” because many of my favourite Amiga composers are from Finland. Suomi on maailman paras!

Update: Apparently Hally already had the same idea, so he made a diagram for that too:

hally-tracker.png

I think these numbers make sense with a lot previous research, but we should also bare a few things in mind:

  • We don’t know if the statistics show a composer’s country of birth, residence or citizenship. Or something else. About 17% of the composers in AMP are marked as unknown and not mapped to any specific country.
  • As Hally noted, AMP is skewed for Europe and North America. I’d say it’s most likely missing plenty of Eastern European composers too.
  • AMP focuses on the most popular 20 or so music formats for Amiga (and some PC). That means that hundreds of less popular formats are excluded, but I’m not sure how that affects these figures.
  • We don’t know how many composers are excluded in AMP. There might also be some people who are in AMP more than once, because of using several pseudonyms.

On a slightly different note: I think there is a sort of snowball effect in action here. Wherever there is a strong scene, there is probably more preservation, so that more composers will be remembered. In other words: you’re much more likely to be remembered as an Amiga composer in Finland than in, say, France.

Anyway – cheers to Hally for compiling all this info from AMP! In his blog he posts the numbers for the countries with less than 100 composers too, if you’re interested.

Very btw: Qebec (sic) is listed as a country in AMP. Does that mean that AMP supports the separatist movement to make Quebec independent from Canada?

Even More Amiga Hardcore

April 18, 2017

One of my everlasting side projects is the Timeline. That’s where I collect 8-bit related music releases, art projects, events, soft- and hardware, and so on. The main purpose was to give an overview of records that was primarily made with 8-bit hardware.

If you look at the 1990’s in the timeline, you will see tons of music made on the Amiga. And most of them are pretty hardcore – gabber, breakcore, speedcore, etcetera. Most people wouldn’t call it chip music but it is nevertheless made in a tracker, using 8-bit sounds, on an iconic 80’s home computer.

For the past weeks I’ve been getting back into this. I met Hexadeci at Bit Grid in Antwerp, who pointed me towards two Italian gabber heads who’s used the Amiga since the 1990’s: The Destroyer and Koney (nice n’ oldskool websites too). And also some other people, who I haven’t been able to reach just yet.

Low Entropy recently made me discover several potential Amiga releases, which I’m currently digging into. And then Syphus tells me he went to see Laurent Ho at a rave in Newcastle, and Laurent commented here at Chipflip about the Timeline the day after. Perhaps he and DJ UEP of Geordie Gabba Mafia were doing a bit of the Amiga gabber reminiscing?

Anyway, here’s today’s favourite Amiga gabber. I’m pretty sure Patric Catani was involved with this one…

 

Magazine talks chip music in 1985

March 24, 2017

This continues the previous post about the word chip music.

So, 4mat pointed me to Hally – the Japanese guy who used to run vorc.org back in the days and also makes great turbso chip music himself. He mentioned that a computer magazine mentions chip music already in 1985!

Thanks to archive.org, we can see that on page 5 in Commodore World #10, 1985, under The Well Tempered 64, it reads: Be a really big noise with another dose of chip music.

chipmusicmentioincommodoreworldjuly1985

So… The editors thought that most of the readers already knew what chip music was? Or they thought it was intuitive enough, so most people would get it anyway? Maybe the term didn’t exist yet, and they just made something up? Hm…

Answer one of these questions in the comments for a chance to win an ice cream!

1989 Appearance of the Chip Music Term

March 14, 2017

Who first started to use the chipmusic term, when and where? I once wrote that 4mat’s first chip music disk from 1989 could be one of the oldest mentions of the term. But nobody knew where that music disk was. Until now. Exotica found it!

It’s a music demo called Chip Music, for the Amiga. Since the Amiga pretty much only plays samples, it doesn’t have a sound chip in the traditional sense. What people did was to synthesize sound in software, with SIDmon and other programs. As you can see in the screenshot, “playroutine by 4-mat” indicates that he made a custom player to make this chip music. In the scroll text of the release, it reads:

OK YOUR PROBABLY WONDERING WHAT CHIP MUSIC IS – UNLIKE SOUNDTRACKER WHERE ALL THE INSTRUMENTS ARE SAMPLES PLAYED BACK     CHIP MUSIC PROGRAMS THE SOUNDCHIP DIRECTLY.     NO NEED FOR SAMPLES !!!!!!

Sounds good. But the thing is that all of these songs were actually made in Soundtracker. Using samples. 4mat told me he changed the labels in the Soundtracker player, as a bit of a joke. Maybe it was a wink at the die hard future composers on the Amiga who used C64-like hypertrackers rather than the new era of soundtrackers. 4mat and other early pioneers proved that it was possible to make chiptunes in a soundtracker, as well.

This production hints that the word chip music was already in use at the time, and it seems to have meant “synthetic” Amiga music. It’s also symbolizes the change of the meaning of the term, to mostly refer to chip modules – sample-based soundtracker music – for the next decade or so. At least from what I’ve been able to find out, but would love to hear alternative facts on this!

Yeah, and then McLaren and the early 2000’s chipscene decided that real chipmusic was made on PSG soundchips and forgot all about the 1990’s chipscene. But that’s a different story.

Obvious disclaimer for the obvious disclaimees: This is not to say that chipmusic per se did not exist before 1988, only that the term wasn’t used yet.

Celebrating ST-01 and ST-02

February 13, 2017

st-fm1

1987 was a good year for amateur music makers. The E-mu SP-1200 sampler came out and was a crucial element in the golden age of hip-hop, because of its reasonable price, decent interface and the characteristic crispy 12-bit/26.04kHz audio quality.

In Europe, a different technology spawned a sample-based revolution in music: The Ultimate Soundtracker for the Amiga. Thousands of kids started to make music using the sounds from the two floppy disks that came with the program: ST-01 and ST-02. They were packed with samples from synthesizers like Roland D50 and Yamaha DX21, and were so heavily used that they became “the sound of the Amiga” for several years.

st-fm4

Soundtracker was later hacked and modified to be less buggy and more user-friendly, most noteably by Mahoney & Kaktus’ Noisetracker in 1989. The tracker standard was set free, and spawned a sort of remix culture where open source mod-files were spread around the world for free. This was a thriving movement through the 1990’s and beyond, leaking into electronic genres such as gabber/breakcore, IDM, UK hardcore/drum n’ bass, and so on.

Meanwhile hip-hop had a different development since it relied on record labels to release music. It was vulnerable to copyright mongers and money makers who crippled the use of samples, and today you need serious money to sample famous recordings. The “tracker scenes” never had problems like that since it used its own distribution channels, and was never as $-relevant as hip-hop. Pretty much everything was free.

st-fm

ST-FM is a celebration of this culture, and the original sounds of the ST-01 and ST-02. I invited old legends and fresh talents to make new songs based (to some extent) on the original ST-sounds. It comes as an online music disk (“the computer equivalent of an album“) and as a cassette available through Bandcamp.

ST-FM includes early pioneers (4mat, TDK, Enzo Cage, Omri Suleiman) and younger talents (Linde, Firedrill, Svetlana), modern performers and sceners (Vim, Tero, Ingemar, Zabutom, Qwan, me), and two italo disco Amiga heroes (Dr. Vector, Balboa).

It’s released on protoDATA, a new sublabel to Data Airlines, run by me and Dubmood. You can expect more juicy releases in the future, be sure of that.

Can’t get enough of the sounds of ST-01 and ST-02?

Here’s some weird suggestions:

Listen to songs by Karsten Obarski, who made The Ultimate Soundtracker and ST-01 and ST-02.

Soundtracker-songs at Modland (not necessarily using ST-01 and ST-02)

Download wav-versions of the samples at archive.org (but do read the comment first) or use Chipslapper or Chipsounds in a modern DAW.

Mazemod – the online Amiga radio with a careful selection that includes some ST-smelling tracks.

Some 90’s eurodisco reminds me of early tracker aesthetics, like Getaway by Maxx.

The soundtrack to Liquid Sky was made with the Fairlight CMI, and sometimes sound like dorky Soundtracker experiments.

I once managed to get some ST-sounds into an indie movie soundtrack. Check the end credits in ANGRY.

This Atari ST-game with MIDI weirdly has some ST-vibes.

Post-Chiptune is All About Culture?

November 29, 2016

I’ve spent the past few months in North America, and I’ve been to a few chip-events around New York, Philadelphia, Californa and Montréal. I’ve understood more about how subcultures work differently in USA compared to Europe, and I thought I’d write some of those thoughts down here.

The chipscene is definitely not about platform fetish anymore. It’s okay to use whatever hardware or software you want. I’ve written about this before, but it dawned on me even more here in North America. Nowadays chipmusic is not about hardware, and it’s not even necessarily about the sounds or the aesthetics – genre. It’s about the culture. When I wrote about “chipmusic as culture” here 9 years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed it would be the primary one by 2016.

American-Hacker.jpg

My understanding is that platform fetishism was stronger in USA than in Europe. USA seems to like gimmicks and heroes, so there was a love affair with the idea of Gameboy musicians hacking techno-consumerism. Some years into the new millenium, USA – with Blip Festival and 8bitpeoples and 8bitcollective – started to take over after Europe as the prime place for chipmusic.

In Europe the scene slowly changed. Fewer releases and less parties. Less action in online forums. Some started to look into new music gear and genres, while others stuck with the old platforms. Not a dramatic change from before. But the feeling of community was not really there anymore. At least that is my impression, retrospectively.

In USA though, the sense of community definitely seems to be there even if the scene is less popular these days. I had many discussions about this (hello Chris), and I think it echoes the difference in how USA and Europe finances culture. In a welfare state citizens can live their life around the idea that the state takes care of you. Or at least that it’s supposed to. In USA, you can’t really do that. So the local or cultural community is much more important than in (Northern/Western) Europe. In New York you see posters about “supporting your community” while in London you see posters about “destroying capitalism”.

In California, where Los Angeles bombards the area with dreams of commercial success, someone told me that if chipmusic doesn’t draw a crowd we should “change or die”. (I should mention that it was said in a conversation about venues closing down due to increased rents.) So, this idea sounds too market-driven for welfarean Europeans, but it’s not like the European states are great at supporting underground venues either, right?

 

I talked to Dino in Cheap Dinosaurs, who made the point that the chipscene has matured. It’s gone beyond technofetishisms, beyond simplistic genre definitions, to form something bigger than that. And I think he has a point. It’s some kind of post-chiptune – not as “after” but as something that wouldn’t have existed without chiptune.

I met Dino at 8static fest, just after Donald Trump had won the election. And there was definitely a sense of community and unity in the air. People joined in to scream F**K into the microphone, and they talked about keeping each other safe from hate crimes. And the music that was played was definitely not just chiptoonz.

31016825655_a20eb958df_z.jpg

Photo by Marjorie Becker.

Maybe Europeans can learn something from the Americans who have managed to build communities despite of some pretty rough circumstances. And Americans can probably learn something from the Europeans who have created movements that are larger than just a community. Desperate times call for desperate measures! ;)

So yeah, this is just one story about this. If you want to expand or destroy it, feel free to comment. I’m off to Latin America. Let’s see what we can learn there!

What Can We Learn From the Demoscene?

November 28, 2016

I was in Montréal for the I/O Symposium and gave the talk What Can We Learn From the Demoscene? In 45 minutes I explained everything about the scene and explained what other fields could learn from it.

Or well, not exactly. I tried to give a broad view, but I zoomed in on four key points:

1. Computing as craft. The idea that code (and music and graphics) requires skills and knowledge about the material you are using. The techne is more important than the art, and the human is more important than the machine. Basically. This means that the scene is making computing sustainable, when most others are not and the internet already seems to require nuclear power to live.

2. Non-recorded formats. Releasing things as code rather than recordings gives very different possibilities. Scene productions are not products – removed from the platform once it’s finished – no, they are states of the machine (Botz). There are countless archives of data that future researches can unleash heavy data analysis on. What will the recording industry offer to future researchers? Not much. Especially not if they maintain their stance on copyright and related rights.

3. Collective copyright system. There has always been a tension around ownership in the scene. Early on there might have been plenty of anti-copyright among crackers, but later sceners who wanted to protect their works had a much more conservative stance. I exemplified this through the Amiga mod-scene, where artists sampled records and claimed ownership to the samples. “Don’t steal my samples” like it says in many a mod-file. On the other hand, the mod-format made it extremely easy for anyone to take those samples, or that cool bassline, or whatever else they might fancy. The remix culture was present in the materiality, but the scene resisted it for various reasons. They developed a praxis where artists who transgressed – who borrowed too much, or in a wrong way – would be shamed in public and have their status lowered. This sounds brutal and even primitive, but copyright praxis today means that you can do whatever you want if you have the capital for it. Which is perhaps not much better?

4. A bounded culture. There is a sense of detachment from the rest of society in the scene. The crackers and traders broke laws, the sysops didn’t want journalists sneaking around in their bulletin boards, and some artists follow the idea of “what’s made in the scene stays in the scene”. Some online forums today do not accept members if they are not sceners. And so on. There are all kinds of problems with this attitude, but it also meant that the scene could let their traditions and rituals take root, over a long period of time. Without it, it’s harder to imagine that kids in the 1990’s could maintain a network culture on their own, even before the www was commercialized. The question is, though, how many teenagers today are interested in all those obscure traditions and rituals?

Building on talks I’ve had with Gleb Albert, I also talked shortly about the neoliberal tendencies in the scene. How meritocracy and competition was so important, how groups were sometimes run as businesses with leaders and creatives and workers, and how there was a dream of having a network culture where The Man was not involved.

Discussions followed about how the neoliberal tendencies were different in the North American demoscene. In America, they said, people got into cracking games and making demos with a goal set on making a career and making money. I think this is one of the topics that Gleb Albert is looking into (in Europe), especially the connections between the cracking scene and the games industry.

There were also discussions about what I’ve called the collective copyright system. Some people in the audience talked about how coders would secretly look at other people’s code (because, again, that’s possible due to the formats used) and take inspiration from it. I’m sure most sceners did this at one point or another. But the point is that it wasn’t considered positive like in remix cultures such as hip-hop, vaporwave or plunderphonics. That tension between the Open and the Closed is probably something we need to understand better when we develop post-copyright networks in the digital.

New Recording of the First Computer Music

September 26, 2016

The Guardian reports about the first recording of computer music, created by Alan Turing. Or, well, it’s actually not the first time that a recording of this computer music appears (BBC, 2008). It’s not the first computer music. And the music is not made by Alan Turing at all, as the Guardian also points out after the clickbait.

Nevertheless, it’s a good listen. Especially because you hear the voices of the women operating the electronic brain. They’re laughing and talking about the interruptions in the music: “The machine’s obviously not in the mood.”

Two kiwi scholars restored the recording, which is interesting because the previous recording of the Mark I that appeared in 2008, was also revealed in New Zealand. Both use the same BBC recordings as source material. Did the BBC ship all their archives to New Zealand, or what gives?

The music was reportedly made by a Christopher Strachey, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few uncredited women involved as well. After all, computing at the time was a field for women. In fact, as far as we know, the first computer music was played in 1949 by a Betty Snyder (later Holberton) who also created COBOL, the first computer manual and the UNIVAC console. But her story is lost in his story, naturally.

More examples of early computer music in the timeline.