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 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, 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.


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:


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


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.


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 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 (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.


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.


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.


Cartridge Music – the Best of Two Worlds?

August 18, 2016


Releasing music on a cartridge that needs an old 8-bit platform to work, might seem like the worst way of releasing music today. But if you think about it a bit more…. A cartridge takes the best parts of the software-world and the hardware-world: You get a good-looking physical object, and it doesn’t have to contain only static recordings that are the same forever and ever.

The first cartridge release I heard about was Vegavox, a NES-cartridge made by Alex Mauer in 2007 with a basic interface to select songs. The follow-up, Vegavox II (below) was more refined with custom moving graphics for each song.

This looks similar to music videos, but under the hood it’s actually quite different. A video is a recording – a stream that plays from A to B the same way every time. Vegavox II on the other hand, is code and instructions that requires a very specific platform for playback. It’s more like a theater than a movie. Potentially, the user/viewer can ruin the whole thing by interrupting and destroying.

In the 1960’s this was a politically fueled idea that became prevalent in the computer arts to come. The power of the user. Today there are of course countless apps, games and sites with playful audiovisual interaction. But there’s not a whole lot of musical apps and situations where the composer really tries to give the user power over their own composition. Ah, the neurotic narcissism of music folks, eh? ^__^


In the mid-1980’s, people started to rip game music and make compilations for the user to choose songs and trigger sound effects. The teenagers in the burgeoning demoscene started to make their own music, and by 1991 the music disk was an established format with quality releases such as Bruno’s Box 3, Crystal Symphonies and His Master’s Noise and plenty of gritty hip house megamix type of things, like Tekkno Bert.

These music disks normally pretended to be recorded music, even if it wasn’t. Under the hood there were notes and instruments being played live by software/hardware. You can see it in The Top Boys’ music disk above, where the notes are “played” on the keyboard. Theoretically the user could change each and every note, unlike a video where you can’t change the music at all. Music disks normally didn’t allow that, but commercial releases like the Delta Loader and To be on Top did.

While musical interaction almost seemed (and seems) a bit sinful to the genius music brain, visual interaction was (and is) more common. Back in the 1980’s there was 8-bit generative visuals like Jeff Minter’s Psychedelia (and other acid-ish stuff hm) that taps into earlier things like Atari’s Video Synthesizer.

Returning to the topic of cartridges and jumping ahead to 2016, RIKI released the Famicom-cartridge 8bit Music Power with music by eg Hally and Saitone. The user could interact with the music aswell as play games, and there were visualizers for the music. It’s like a mixture of a music disk and interactive music games.

Musical user interaction is still a rather unexplored field. Perhaps the user can mute instruments (8bit music power), move back and forth through a timeline (, dynamic game music) or trigger sounds/visuals in a game/composer environment (Playground). One recent interesting example is Yaxu’s Spicule, where the user can change the algorithms that compose the music in realtime.

A while back, Ray Manta at DataDoor came up with the idea to make a C64-cartridge and continue this exploration. So me, 4mat and iLKke got to work (and also did this). DUBCRT is our attempt to merge ideas from these different eras. There’s some music disk vibes to it, but in a kind of abstract and 1960’s modernist way. For each track there is a visualizer that spits out PETSCII-graphics, based on the music that is played.

The interaction is not all rationally easy to understand, but you can change the parameters of the visuals and (in a hidden part) change which audio sequences are played for each voice. You can also superimpose audio waveforms onto them, which means that you can pretty much ruin the song completely. A big plus! Nobody’s in charge. You can hear an example in Tim Koch’s remix in the album-release on Bandcamp.

All of this fits in 64 kilobytes, which means less than 8 kilobyte per song/visual. 4mat is known to only need 23 bytes to make good C64-stuff, and I tried to optimize my songs to fit aswell. All of ilKke’s graphics are in PETSCII, which also helped to keep the filesize down.

Here’s hoping to more absurd musical power interactions in the future! And since DUBCRT sold out in three hours, it actually seems like more people see this is as the best of two worlds. He he he…

Tech Criticism is Dead?

April 15, 2016

Evgeny Morozow has been one of the more spicy academics during the past years. He combines philosophy, internet criticism and social science to deliver clever and well-founded blows to the world.

While reading this, I got the impression that he is starting to run out of steam. He was always a bit of a pessimist or cynic, but now it feels like he’s doubting what he’s doing:

Why, then, aspire to practice any kind of technology criticism at all? I am afraid I do not have a convincing answer. If history has, in fact, ended in America—with venture capital (represented by Silicon Valley) and the neoliberal militaristic state (represented by the NSA) guarding the sole entrance to its crypt—then the only real task facing the radical technology critic should be to resuscitate that history. But this surely can’t be done within the discourse of technology, and given the steep price of admission, the technology critic might begin most logically by acknowledging defeat.

He’s talking about the academic world, and seems to intentionally ignore a lot of active criticism that is taking place in media studies, art, sociology, design, and so on. But I think his point is: the criticism is not making an impact on the public so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Internet freedom mongers were apalled by Pirate Bay-founder Peter Sunde saying that the battle of the free internet has been lost and it’s time to move on. Compared with the two other admins of Pirate Bay, he was more into the political aspects of internet activism, rather than the technology. And he still is.

Morozow too, has his aim on larger political questions. He slanders on the technologists and the technology critics who fail to see the bigger picture. Like in the Apple vs FBI-debate that was not only about technnology (encryption) and personal integrity, but much more complex. The issue at hand is not what technology does to the daily lives of human brains, and their job bodies. Or how technology should be an “extension of man” (a slave). The main question should be more like: how does it infect society, and who wants the consequences?

I’m thinking about how this relates to the lo-fi computing world. 10-20 years ago it was charged with a myriad of political values of anti-consumerism,  anti-hitech, libertarianism, socialism, recycling and sustainability, DIY/punk, retrofuturism, and so on. There’s not much of that left now, is there?

Retrocomputing to me seems more like a club for middle aged conservative white men who have beards because of Linux or because of “I’m not a hipster, but…”. We have enough money to pay for vintage hardware and ridiculous crowdfunding campaigns. Some of us even use it from time to time! But emulators are so much more convenient, of course…

Morozow says that technology criticism is “just an elaborate but affirmative footnote to the status quo”. And that pretty much describes much of the tongue-in-cheek, just for fun, “hacking intended uses” people of retrocomputing of the last 10 years. It has confirmed that high-tech progress is #1, baby.

Meanwhile, the tech industry “doesn’t really like democracy” and wants to techify the governance of cities. And in all honesty, doesn’t it seem likely that this will eventually happen? Capitalist realism + Californian ideology.

F**k yeah, loving the end of an era.

Ancient Trackers

March 13, 2016

orchestrion - Baud_museum_mg_8461

The roots of trackers is normally traced to the mid 1980s with Soundmonitor and Soundtracker. That was the genesis, The Root, the big bang. Boom! As if trackers appeared out of thin air. But where do we look for the precursors to what became known as trackers in the 1980s?

First of all, let’s define a tracker as a vertical step sequencer with alphanumerical symbols where positioning controls time but not pitch. They are either absolute (for soundtrackers) or referential (as in hypertrackers). Although there are other types of trackers, this covers the bulk of them (read more here and here).

Secondly, we need to distinguish between the materiality and the language of trackers.

Materially speaking, trackers work more like step sequencers than as piano rolls. Each event has a set duration in time, usually with a rather crude quantization. In piano roll sequencers the composer positions the stave to set the pitch and defines the duration, with a quantization that often has a higher resolution than trackers do.

More than 1000 years ago, persian inventors were automating the playback of music: ie, programming music. In the music box each note has a timeline where the composer inserts events, like in piano rolls. In the 20th century, player pianos built further on these ideas and became quite commercially successful. In these media there are individual timelines for each note. One timeline for C, one for D, and so on. Raymond Scott’s Circle Machine from the 1950s instead used one single timeline where the composer could set the pitch on each step. Many modern analogue sequencers use the same logic. In the 1980s, trackers brought this logic into a coded computer environment.

In a tracker, the composer can program each step to set pitch, timbre, volume or various kind of modulations. Right next to the note column there is an effects column. In Soundtrackers there are preset effects and the composer sets the intensity of the effect: 1XX for pitchbend up, 3XX to slide the note, 4XX for vibrato, AXX to fade the volume, and so on. In hypertrackers, the effects refer to a table of data elsewhere, so you can program your own effects.

lejaren hiller knobs 1970

This is what I mean with the language of trackers. Each step in a tracker sends instructions to the soundchip about what it should do. Tracker songs are like a list of instructions, and the palette is much bigger than in traditional notation. In the 1960s, Lejaren Hiller (almost the inventor of computer music) and a Japanese Fluxus-guy made musical instructions that looked similar to what tracker songs do today. Vertical text-mode lists of instructions to control the music, although not for computers.

In trackers (for PSG-soundchips that don’t use samples) each step can, in theory, contain any instruction that the soundchip or the computer can understand. Even non-musical instructions, like sync points to visuals (a popular trick in the demoscene). Trackers usually don’t offer this kind of freedom but the C64-tracker that I use, defMON, does something along these lines. While other trackers make a clear cut between what an instrument is and what a modulation is, defMON doesn’t discriminate. Everything is everything.

Sheet music are also a list of instructions, and could be called software. Or, with a gigantic stretch, even the more fashionable “algorithm”-term could be used. But imho, tracker music really is deserving of the software term, both materially and linguistically. A tracker song contains both the composition and the style of the performance. All the author genius, all the funk, all the style. It’s all in there. The instructions determine the performance almost completely. But it is not the performance. It is not a documentation of the performance, like recorded music is. The performance always happens in real-time as you play the file, and it will sound slightly different depending on the hardware you use.

Historically, economically and politically it has been – and still is – important to categorize music as either performance, recording or notation. Who wrote the song? Who owns the recording? Who gets the money for performing it?

I’m still fascinated by the materiality of tracker music for this reason. There is much more research to be made about the precursors to trackers, both as an interface and as a format. The history sketched above is just one suggestion, and I’m looking forward to the criticism! Be my guest to check out صفی الدین الارموی‎’s musical notation from 800 years ago based on numbers and letters, Braille music, ancient numbered musical notation in China, and klavarskribo which is a vertical notation sort of like Guitar Hero.


From Space to the Clouds

January 15, 2016

For the last 30 years, computer culture has moved from outer space into the clouds. From the dark and mysterious into the bright and familiar. From the alien and unknown to the heavenly.

Look at computer magazines from the 70s and 80s and you’ll see joysticks flying around in space, space exploration metaphors, black backgrounds, otherwordly vector grids, and star fields in space (I sometimes post these things here).

Space was the place, and not only for computers. A lot of movies, record sleeve covers, design and advertising were often out in space. Mars was exciting. Governments spent a lot of money on space exploration. And in the computer underground, space aesthetics was the shit. Personally, I feel like the Amiga crack intro aesthetics in the years around 1990 had something eerily space special, that hasn’t really been matched since.

Another way of describing this shift is to start in the depth of Hades instead, and move upwards to the clouds. Then you can also fit in all the metaphors about water and oceans (Pirate Bay, surfing the web) and land (information highway) and biology (swarms, flows, feeds). Computers started out in Hades, looking pretty evil and frightening (like many other “new” technologies). The computer world was something dark, something unknown and unexplored. Like space. Like Hades.

If you listen to how computers sound in movies and tv-series, you can get a sense of that. If you look at a movie from the 70s or 80s, or even earlier than that, computers were usually sonified with fast arpeggios of random squarewave bleeps. Scary and harsh, not easy to process for a human, as from another world. In the 90s computers started to sound differently. A sort of high-pitched ticking sound; a single tone/noise iterated into eternity. Rational and trustworthy. Reliable.

Those sounds are still heard in movies and series, especially when the computers are doing something important for the plot. To emphasize its cold power, for bad or for good, usually in scenes with advanced stuff, rather than everyday use.

In everyday use, it’s the sound of the operating system that is perhaps the most relevant. Brian Eno invented ambient in the 70s and, through his soundtrack for Windows, also invented the genre of operating system music. Soothing, kind, soft, business/beach, cloudy, comforting. Sort of vaporwavey today, I suppose.

This could be seen as a step away from the complicated and clumsy computer world of the 1980s, to a new era of user-friendliness. In a way, it was part of a general move away from hardware. Since the 1990s, software has taken over from hardware. We don’t want hardware anymore; we want it to be ubiquitous, invisible, unnoticeable, transparent. The interaction between computers and humans is disappearing. Designers no longer design interfaces but experiences (UX), something that Olia Lialina has written about many times.

Again, this brings us into the clouds. The dirty and dark cyberspace is being replaced by the immaterial and heavenly clouds. It’s a quest for perfection in a secluded world, protected from bad cyberd00ds and bulky hardware and political conflicts.

Everything solid condenses and turns into clouds that pee precicious data on us.

Greets to FTC for inspiring this post in the kolonistuga!