About the demotalks at DATASTORM

August 24, 2018

So a few weeks ago we did another DATASTORM, a party for oldschool computing. The venue we’re at has had some recent troubles with the Swedish authorities because of bla-bla, but in the end everything worked out fine.

One thing that I was particularly happy with was the demotalks. We invited people who had made iconic and noteworthy scene productions, and got them to talk about it. This idea was inspired by an interview I made with Joe (for a forthcoming paper on CSDb as a “memory machine” for retro computing). He talked about how there is a gap in the history of the scene: we don’t really know so much about how demos were made. What kind of decisions and processes led up to these artefacts?

Some sceners are only interested in the tech stuff. Amusingly, when we announced Budbrain as speakers, someone questioned our choice because the coding was not complex enough. The kind of this-is-not-real-scene-stuff-attitude that still pops up every now and then… Such dedication!

But the tech stuff is really not the main point about this, to me. It is of course interesting to learn about the mathematics and all the smart coder tricks, or clever composing tricks, or pixeling styles. But maybe not for an hour? At least not on DATASTORM that is quite far from a nerdy conference (eh, I think?). So we encouraged the speakers to tell stories about the process, about what happened around the demo making.

Triad’s Red Storm was a pioneering demo in a technical sense, as one of the first “trackmos” – where the user didn’t have to press space for the next part. But it was also a pioneer in bringing in politics, poetry and other kinds of pop culture than the usual metal, acid, fantasy stuff that was everywhere in the scene at the time. King Fisher talked extensively about this, and you can see the slides here (turn on the notes!).

Budbrain, who made a Megademo that broke the tech-focus in the scene by bringing in humour into the mix (and imo very high quality graphics and music), talked a lot about their unusual position in the scene. On one hand they had a demo played on MTV, while on the other hand they were criticized by a lot of other sceners.

Mahoney talked about two music disks that he made together with Kaktus: Sounds of Gnome and His Master’s Noise. As usual, Mahoney did a great presentation and this time he made a competition between the two, with a bit more tech aspects than the other presentations, but with lots of charisma and humor to make up for it. :)

You can see video recordings of the talks over at SceneSat who once again have documented the whole thing. \o

So what I realized at the party, especially in a conversation with Hollowman, is that a demo’s connection with the rest of the world is what makes it extra interesting to hear about. Sure it’s about its place in the scene and its influence within the scene, but how it takes in the outside world, or how it relates to it, is at least as important.

So I hope to see more of these presentations in the future. Copy copy copy!

First photo by Kristian Tjessem

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Trackers from 1981 and 1983

July 30, 2018

It is common knowledge that Soundtracker or Soundmonitor were the first trackers. But it’s not necessarily true. In the 1960’s computer scientists and Fluxus artists made things that were rather tracker-like (here, here) and there are probably precursors from hundreds of years ago.

But talking computer software, we can have a look at for example Muzix81, released in Hungary in 1983. This was a CV sequencer for the tiny ZX81, and was apparently used for a few mainstream record releases. The manual reveals that Muzix81 has a similar layout to eg Soundmonitor, with a list of hexadecimal instructions. At the top left, “1. 0B” means duration 1, octave zero, note B. “+” means sharp and “*” means accent.

Muzix81 has many similarities with a tracker, but it uses explicit duration. The user sets the duration of each event instead of using a fixed time for each step (like a step sequencer). Most trackers don’t do this, but there is a strain of trackers with explicit duration that are sometimes called editors. (note that Muzix81 has a step sequencer for drums though)

Irrlicht Project recently told me about a similar program, released even earlier. Electric Duet for Apple II came out in 1981, and was made by Paul Lutus in USA. It uses the same basic principle as Muzix81: on each step the user sets duration and note.

elecric-duet

What makes this tracker-like, as herr Irrlicht himself notes, is that it uses a vertical time line (not sure if Muzix81 does?) and that it has text notation rather than sheet music. These two factors taken together, means that it is as much a tracker as the myriad of C64-editors from the 1980’s and 1990’s are. But this is from 1981.

Following this terminology, we could say that Muzix81 is a hypertracker (as the musical output depends on the settings on the external hardware) and Electric Duet is more of a soundtracker, since it simply plays the data that the user has typed in. But I’m not sure if that makes sense.

If you know of other early tracker-like software, feel free to send us a fax!

More on intended uses

March 26, 2018

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I heard some anarchists had some feedback my post about intended uses of technologies. They disagreed with my claim that we don’t know the original intentions of Facebook. So let me expand a bit on the previous post.

I have this slightly mystical idea that humans can’t fully and perfectly understand what a certain media is (following Kittler). So I don’t think we should go all anthropocentric and claim that we know exactly what this is, like objectively dude. Maybe aliens know it better? Eh, for example. Our understanding of something as “simple” as a Commodore 64 clearly changes over time, as we discover previously unknown details. So we should at least be a bit humble and keep an open mind about the media’s substance.

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That is not to that say some media aren’t made with specific intentions from its human inventors, which might be obscured from the end user. It’s a very important discussion too, but a somewhat different one. Maybe Facebook was intended to become what it is today already from the beginning, as these anarchists claim to know, but how can we be sure? Spotify is easier to speculate about, because we know that it didn’t start with the idea of streaming music. They wanted to stream something. Whatever. Peer-to-peer something. But they knew that they wanted to sell ads. So maybe that was the original intention?

We can and should speculate about these things. Especially when we talk about the politics of media. After all, Spotify becomes something else when its history doesn’t start with “let’s revolutionize the music industry in our underwear” but instead “let’s sell ads by streaming stuff” (in Swedish). But I’m not sure that we should put too much focus on the origin.

In the end, it feels like a particularly Western thing to look for an “original intention”. A singular origin. The “one man, one idea” kind of thing (yeah, those stories are mostly about men). It’s probably more complex than that, right? Lots of people involved, economic interests, unexpected events, failures, power struggles, ideology, and so on. Even if we can define one point of origin, it seems pretty unlikely that any intended uses would be so firmly embedded in an object or in a company that it would withstand the pressure from decades of political and economical changes. Or, you know, from your friend Steve who turns your computer company into a walled garden.

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To me it seems fairly obvious that a human-made object can take on a “life” of its own that the inventors cannot anticipate or explain, and that the inventors don’t own. And it’s also fairly obvious that there are psychopath inventors and structures that don’t care/know about what they destroy.

Gif from Black Flags by William Forsythe. Just-in-case disclaimer: I don’t dislike anarchists.

Who decides what “intended uses” are?

March 18, 2018

For the last year or so, there has been a growing mainstream critique of social media. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors are raising their concerns about what Facebook and other cyber gangs are doing to society. See for example the Center for Humane Technology. The recent concerns are often embedded in a discourse that “Russia” has abused Facebook to influence voting. But did they really abuse it? Or did they merely use it, as an article in WIRED recently put it?

It’s an important distinction, which has everything to do with how we talk about chip music and low-tech art. I’m doing a talk in Utrecht this summer, which has brought me back to these ideas. And they feel highly relevant now, with discussions about what social media are and how they should or should not be used.

Once upon a time the App Store rejected a Commodore 64 emulator because its BASIC interpreter could be used to program stuff. That was unacceptable at the time, but these policies later changed to allow the fierce power of C64 BASIC. It makes the point clear enough: what the iPhone and other iOS-devices can do is not just conditioned by its hardware. The possibilities of a programmable computer are there, only hidden or obscured. But there are ways to get around it.

And this is true for all kinds of hardware. Maybe today it’s even true for cars, buildings and pacemakers. There are possibilities that have not yet been discovered. We rarely have a complete understanding of what a platform is. My talk in Utrecht will focus on how the chip- and demoscenes over time have unfolded the platforms that they use. What is possible today was not possible yesterday. Even though the platforms are physically the same, our understanding – and “objective definitions” of them change. And it almost seems like the emulators will never be complete?

With a less object-oriented definition of these platforms, it’s reasonable to define the 8-bit platforms not only as the platform itself, but as an assemblage of SD-card readers, emulators and other more-or-less standard gadgets for contemporary artists and coders. The Gameboy, for example, might have been an inter-passive commodity at first, but after development kits were released, it changed. It used to be really difficult or expensive to get access to its guts, but now it’s relatively easy. So it might be time to stop framing Gameboy music – and most other chip music – as something subversive; something that goes against the “intended uses” of the platforms.

Sure, the Gameboy was probably not designed for this, in the beginning. And Facebook was probably not designed to leak data, influence elections, and make people feel like shit. But that’s not really the point. These possibilities were always there, and they always will be. But perhaps the Center for Humane Technology will push such materialist mumbo jumbo to the side, and re-convince people of the “awesomeness” of social media.

 

Custom Fonts Destryoing Your World

March 11, 2018

I’ve started to post things at the text-mode tumblr (and archive) again. This was prompted by me starting to write on my book about text graphics again. It’s taking forever, but it’s definitely starting to take shape now.

I’ve started digging deeper into character sets and fonts, and it appears to me that customization is becoming more popular. Ray Manta has been experimenting a lot with his own custom charsets in a yet-to-be-released text-mode editor. Now one of his fonts will be in the upcoming version of the Retrospecs app. This app lets you convert images to text, which is certainly not new, but what is new is that you can choose between a wide range of fonts and palettes, mostly from 1980s computers and consoles.

Ray Manta’s custom charset destroying the world

Playscii (formerly Edscii) is one of the first software I heard about that did this, and that also lets you design your own. Polyducks uses it to make interesting merges of ANSI, PETSCII and custom charsets. Some of his works, like the recent Boko Forest, almost doesn’t look like text graphics anymore. It looks more like the tile graphics that for example the NES uses, where everything on the screen is built from these “mosaic blocks”. I call this form of text graphics text mosaics because they often share more with geometric and mosaic art, than with text. Still, it is text graphics on a technical level.

It’s not easy to say where text graphics end and tile graphics begin. A font can be designed to look like graphical tiles, and tiles can be designed to look like text. On a material level we can look at things like colours (text graphics has more limited use of colours) and resolution (tiles often larger). When there is more colours and details, at some point it doesn’t feel like text graphics anymore.

But where that line is drawn, is something that changes. Over time and place and context. For example, I see sceners who say that ANSI graphics that are more than 100 characters wide, is not “real” ANSI anymore. In other contexts it might be fine to make make it 1000 characters width, which basically turns it into pixel art where you don’t see the individual characters, and still call it ANSI. Because that’s what it is. Or?

If custom character sets and fonts become more popular, I think this will push these changes further, in all kinds of directions, in the coming years. And maybe eventually destroy the world. But more about that in the book. It will hopefully be finished before those years have passed…

If you don’t want to miss the book release sign up to this and you can read more on this topic in previous blog posts here.

Members of Mayday on Amiga

December 12, 2017

Mayday is one of the most famous rave festivals in Europe, and has been running since 1991. One of the founders was Westbam, who formed a duo called Members of Mayday together with Klaus Jankuhn. They played at every Mayday until 2014.

It turns out that one of their releases had an Amiga remix. An 8-bit four-channel Protracker remix, to be specific. It was made by Jan Pravda, who I recently got in touch with (and could after 7 years confirm which of his releases that were made on Amiga).

So yeah, enjoy Pravda’s Amiga remix of We Are Different by Members of Mayday. Bring on the crunch!

There’s many, many more connections between Amiga and rave culture. If that’s your cup of tea, I have a YouTube-playlist, and I’ve written about it several times in this blog. And the timeline is full of examples by now – just search for Amiga and drool at all those rave, gabber, and techno releases from the 90’s!

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…