A retrospective on the stories and aesthetics of 8­bit music

January 26, 2015

Taken from the catalogue to Lu Yang’s exhibition ANTI-HUMANISM at the OK Corral gallery in Copenhagen. I was asked to write a free-floating essayoid text about 8-bit music, and I came up with this. I added some links here too, for further reading/watching/listening.

When practitioners of 8­bit music like me write about the genre, it is hard to ignore the skills and effort needed to make the music. To play 8­bit music you need to master a not­so­intuitive software interface in order to communicate with a computer chip, that in return produces bleeping sounds from cheap digital logic. On or off, increase or decrease. These inputs are the basics of digital technologies, making it as if there is something timeless about 8­bit music, although it might seem really old: 30 years in digital terms is the equivalent of something like 1001011001010101011111101011 years.

8­bit music can be understood as a low­level cultural technique of music hacking, where different stories can be told. The sceptic might tell a story of nostalgia for videogames, where the composer makes simplistic music because the tool used doesn’t allow anything complex to be made. Indeed, that would be a normal story to tell if we believe that newer is better, and that new expressions require new technologies. It’s an almost logical story in a society that values quantitative increases over quality.

The most common story about 8-­bit music among academics, artists and journalists, however, puts the human at the centre of attention. It sometimes has a similar narrative to an old monster movie. There is a hero who learns how to manipulate and finally control some sort of wild beast. Instead of a monster, the Obsolete Computer is a mysterious relic of old school digital consumerism that is nowadays hard to understand, both in terms of purpose and function. A young white male hero appears and tames a frightening thing with rational choices, and probably kills it with physical or symbolic violence. He achieves freedom and love and/or emancipation from capitalism or modernism or something. The end.

I should know, for I too have told this kind of story. Many times. I started making music with 8­-bit machines as a kid in the early 1990’s, when that was (almost) the normal thing to do. Thing is, I never stopped using them. Throughout the 2000’s, as 8-­bit music started to intertwine with mass culture again because of the current retromania, people like me had to start explaining what we were doing. Journalists started to ask questions, promoters wanted biographies that would spark an interest, art curators wanted the right concepts to work with, and so on. So during the noughties, a collective story started to emerge among those of us who were making 8­-bit music in what I have called the chipscene: a movement of people making soundchip-­related music for records and live performances (rather than making sounds for games and demos as was done during the 80’s and 90’s).

The stories circulated around Commodore 64s, Gameboys, Amigas and Ataris, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, and other computers and game consoles from the 1980’s. We were haunted by the question “Why do you use these machines?” and although I never really felt like I had a good answer, we were at least pretty happy to talk about our passion for these machines. For a while anyway.

In comparison to many other music movements we spoke out about the role of technology, and we did it at the expense of music. We didn’t care much about the style and aesthetics of the music we made, because 8-­bit music could be cute pop and brutal noise, both droney ambient and complex jazz. We didn’t care about the clothes we wore, or which drugs we took, or which artists we listened to. We formed a subculture based on a digital technology that uses 8 bits instead of 32 or 64, as modern machines do. Defining our music movement as “8-­bit music” was a simplified way of explaining what we did. It was a way of thinking about medium and technology intrinsic to some modern discourses on art. Like, anything you do with a camera is photography. Simple, but slightly … pointless?

The music somehow came in second. Or maybe third. Sometimes the music we made almost became irrelevant. The idea of seeing someone on a huge stage with a Gameboy was sometimes enough. The primal screams of digital culture roaring on an over­sized sound system in a small techno club, was what we needed to get us going, even if it sounded terrible. Some of us were more famous than others, sure, but there wasn’t the same celebrity­ and status­ cults as in some of the “too ­serious” 1990’s­ style electronic music scenes. For us, the machines were the protagonist of the stories. Sometimes it was almost as if we – the artists who made the music – had been reduced to objects. It was as if the machines were playing us, and not the other way around. Yeah.. very anti­human!

To be honest, not many people are willing to give up their human agency and identity, step back, and give full credit to the machine. Or even worse – have someone else do that for you. Well, I didn’t feel comfortable with it, at least. People came up to us when we performed live to interrupt and ask what games we were playing. Or perhaps requested some old song from a game: But for many of us, the entire movement of 8-­bit music was not about the games of the 1980s. It was about the foundational computational technologies and their expressions manifested as sounds. Or something like that, anyway.

It’s quite interesting how this came to be. How did 8­-bit music become so dehumanized, when it involves quite a lot of human skills, techniques, knowledge and determination? I think an important factor was when the chip­scene was threatened by outsider perspectives. In 2003, Malcolm McLaren, known for creating spectacles such as the Sex Pistols in the 1970’s, discovered 8-­bit music. For him, this was the New Punk and he wrote a piece in Wired magazine about how the movement was against capitalism, hi-­tech, karaoke, sex, and mass culture in general: Through the appropriation of discarded commodities, the DIY spirit, the raw and unadulterated aesthetics, etc.. On McLaren’s command, mainstream media started to report about 8-­bit music, at least for 15 minutes or so.

To be fair, it was a good story – when Malcolm met 8­bit. But it pissed off plenty of people in the scene, because of its misunderstandings, exaggerations and non­truths. It did, however, play an important role in how the scene came to understand itself. McLaren’s story had stirred a controversy that made us ask ourselves “Well, if he’s wrong, then who’s right?”. We didn’t really know, atleast not collectively. McLaren pushed the chip­scene into puberty, and it began to search for an identity.

I was somewhere in the midst of this, and contributed to the techno­humanist story that started to emerge. It was basically this: We use obsolete technologies in unintended ways to make new music that has never been done before. Voila. The machine was at the centre, but it was we, the humans, who brought the goods. We were machine­ romantic geniuses who figured out how to make “The New Stuff” despite the limitations of 8-­bit technologies. It was machine­ fetishism combined with originality and the classic suffering of the author. It was very cyber romantic, but with humans as subjects, machines as objects, and pop cultural progress at the heart of it. It could be a story of fighting capitalist media. All in all: pretty good fluff for promotional material!

Over time, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the narratives forming around 8-­bit. In 2007, I was asked to write a chapter for Karen Collins’ book From Pac Man to Pop Music. I researched the history of 8-­bit music and realized the current techno­centric view of 8-­bit music was a rather new idea. In the 1980’s there wasn’t any popular word for 8-­bit music. Basically all home computer music was 8­-bit, so there was no need to differentiate between 8, 32 and 64­ bits as there is today. That changed in the 1990’s, when the increase of hi-­tech machines created a need for popular culture to differentiate between different forms of home computer systems and the music they made.

The term chip­music appeared to describe music that sounded like the 1980’s computer music. It mimicked not only the technical traits of the sound chips, but also the aesthetics and compositional techniques of the 1980’s computer composers. So 1990’s chipmusic wasn’t made with 8-­bit machines. The term was mostly used for music made with contemporary machines (Amigas and IBM PCs) that mimicked music from the past. It wasn’t about taking something old and making something new. It was more like taking something new and making something old. In other words: not very good promotional fluff.

I realised something. The techno­determinist story of “anything made with sound-chips is chipmusic” was ahistorical, anti­cultural, and ultimately: anti­human. Sure, there was something very emancipating about saying “I can do whatever I want and still fit into this scene that I’m part of”. That’s quite ideal in many ways, when you think about it.

Problem is – it wasn’t exactly like that. Plenty of people made 8­-bit or soundchip music that wasn’t understood as such. The digital hardcore music of the 1990’s that used Amigas. The General MIDI heroes of the 1990’s web. The keyboard rockers around the world, who were actually using soundchips. So for me it became important to explore chipmusic as a genre, rather than just a consequence of technology. If it’s not just a consequence of technology, then what is it? How were these conventions created, and how do they relate to politics, economics and culture?

This is what I tried to give answers to in my master thesis in 2010. Looking back at it now, what I found was that it was actually quite easy to not make chipmusic with 8­bit technology. I mean, if you would hook a monkey straight into an 8­bit soundchip, it’s not like there would be chipmusic. It would be more like noise glitch wtf. Stuff. Art. I don’t know. But not chipmusic. Chipmusic was more about how you used the software that interfaced you and the hardware soundchip. So I tried to figure out how this worked for me, and more importantly, for the people I interviewed for my thesis. How and why do we adapt to this cultural concept of what non­human “raw computer music” sounds like?

I am still recovering from this process. During this time my music became increasingly abstract and theoretical. I started to move away completely from danceable and melodic music, and got more interested in structures and the process of composing music, rather than the results of it. I wanted to rebel against the conventions that I was researching, and find something less human, less boring, less predictable.

But at the same time, I wanted to prove that we don’t need hi­-tech machines to make non­boring music. I despise the idea that we need new technologies to make new things. And I am super conservative in that I, in some way, believe in things like craft, quality, and originality. In some way.

So I was trying to find my own synthesis between me and the machine. Since I am not a programmer, I didn’t work with generative systems like many post­human composers do. I kept a firm focus on the craft of making music. For example, I started to make completely improvised live­sets without any preparations. I got up on stage, turned on a Commodore 64, showed it on a beamer, loaded the defMON­ software, and made all the instruments and composition in front of the eyes and ears of the audience.

I like this a lot because it’s hard work (for me) and it gives surprising results (for me). It’s a bit similar to live coding, if you’ve heard about that, but with a less sophisticated approach, I suppose. It’s more like manual labour than coding. Typing hundreds of numbers and letters by hand, instead of telling the computer to do it. You have to do it “by hand” which opens up for different mistakes compared to when it’s automatized. Which leads to surprises, which leads to new approaches.

I am not in full control, nor do I want to be. Or, more correctly, I don’t think I can be. I agree with the media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s ideas that we can never fully grasp or relate to what a computer is, and how it works. It is a thing on its own, and it deserves respect for what it is. We should not say that it has certain intended uses – like a “game computer” – because that is just semantic violence that in the long run reinforces the material censorship of Turing complete machines into crippled computers, like smartphones.

I think that whatever we use these things we call computers for, is okay. And most of us have odd solutions to make technology do what we want, even if we are not programmers. Olia Lialina calls it a Turing complete user – s/he who figures out how to copy­paste text in Windows through Notepad to remove the formatting, or perhaps how to make Microsoft Word not fuck up your whole text.

What I mean is: even if I make sounds that people say “go beyond the capabilities of the machine”, I don’t see myself as the inventor of those sounds, nor do I think that they go beyond the machine. They were always there, just like Heidegger would say that the statue was already inside the stone before the stone carver brought it forth.

Yeah, I suppose it’s some sort of super­essentialist point of view, and I’m not sure what to make of it to be honest. But I like how it mystifies technology, rather than mystifiying human “creativity”. The re­mystification of technology is great, and the demystification of the author is important. What if the author is just doing stuff, and not fantastic art? What if it’s just work?

My Dataslav performance plays with this question. I sit in a gallery, and people tell me what kind of song they want, and I have to fulfil their wish in no more than 15 minutes. I turn myself into a medium, or perhaps more correctly: a medium worker. I mediate what other people want, but it takes skills and effort to do it. It’s perhaps craft, not art. Or maybe it’s just work. Work that I don’t get paid to do, like so many other “cultural” workers in the digital arts sector.

If the potentials are already present in the technology, and we humans are there to bring it forth, that kind of changes things, doesn’t it? We don’t really produce things by adding more stuff to it. We are more like removing things. Subtraction rather than addition.

And if that’s the case, then it’s obviously much better to use something where we don’t need to subtract so much to make something that most people didn’t already do. If everything is possible, which some people still believe to be the case with some technologies, then that’s a whole lot of stuff to delete to get to the good stuff!

So, start deleting. It’s our only hope.

The New Demosceneoid GIF-scene

November 6, 2014

GIF is not something I feel like having an opinion about. I’ve always liked things like ulan-bator’s oldschool gaming oddities and Max Capacity’s VHS petscii etc. They are obviously putting a lot of effort into making good GIFs. Filesize, loopwise, colourwise. Enso also does nice works in the gif-format. The one below is one of my favourites by him, and you should check his exhibition at ani-gif.com.

enso-satori

There’s lots of GIFs that connect with the art world. Lately I’ve seen quite a few people doing complex geometrical gif-loops that connect more to the demoscene than the arts. Polyrhythmic clever visual trickeries that loop seamlessly into eternity. This interests me, because it seems to be inbetween mathematical geekery and design. Which is where the demoscene is sometimes too. When it’s not engulfed in mega-polygonal overloads of hi-res slime.

Things like this don’t really fit well anywhere, but they can still get very popular.

These loop artists use Processing and After Effects and powerful computers, I guess. But then they cram it all into the GIF-format. Often also in Tumblr’s version of gif (small filesize, low amount of frames, and various difficulties of getting Tumblr to accept your gif). Unsurprisingly, some of these artists are nowadays using Ello, which allows larger images and doesn’t rename the files you upload (which, for file-saving people like me, is strangely satisfying).

Anyway. Still feels demoscene-ish to me. So let’s hit the gifs. This is a quick and sloppy selection, but hey – atleast it’s something!

Echophon:

echophon tumblr_ne8ss6BWx11six59bo1_400

Big Blue Boo):

big-blue-boo plus-2mb

biblueboo righ turn wrong impression

polish bigblueboo

dvdp:

dvdp tumblr_muxwirLCHL1qzt4vjo1_500

dvdp tumblr_mr4xol2NLu1qzt4vjo1_500

Bees and Bombs:

beesandbombs tumblr_ncmow7lcxd1s5f7v4o1_500

bees and bombs tumblr_nbsxm5hj0m1r2geqjo1_500

bees and bombs tumblr_nbedp4xnVK1s5f7v4o1_500

bees and bombs tumblr_nazgbu78eg1r2geqjo1_500

bees and bombs tumblr_n9rhj6An4I1r2geqjo1_500

bees and bombs tumblr_n9fr4rwYFb1r2geqjo1_500

I’ll leave you with one final thought: ?

About the Floppy Category at Discogs.com

November 1, 2014

Discogs is supposed to be an open place where everybody contributes with information about music releases. Theoretically, atleast. In praxis, decisions need to be made and that doesn’t exactly involve thousands of people… About a year ago there was a discussion whether a NES-cartridge should be listed at the site or not.  No, someone said, because it’s not recorded music. The NES-cartridge contains code that only plays once the right platform is there to execute it. After all, it’s not as direct as a vinyl record that you can play with your own finger nail.

Most other music formats, however, require complex platforms to be played. CDs in particular, need complex digital error correction to be played correctly. What’s on the CD might be better described as data, compared to the code of the NES-cartridge, but still – you can store “pure audio data” on an NES-cartridge aswell, if you’d like. A storage medium can contain different kinds of information. A CD can contain the code of the NES cartridge. You can encode an MP3 or a JPG or a Hollywood movie on to a piano roll, as long as you have the right technology to decode it with. Didn’t the modernists teach us better than to argue about that?

People pretend like there is a definite answer to the debate about recorded music. It’s certainly a question about media technologies, but it can’t be answered in some pure technical sense. This is a cultural question because the answers depends on ideology, aesthetics, history, and so on. In Western music, there has been a solid separation between written sheet music and performanced music for a long time. It would roughly correspond to the separation between “author” and “performer”.  Ideas and praxis. Art and work, even? Maybe. And then piano rolls came and disturbed the dichotomy. Then recorded music arrived and caused a terribly complicated music economy in order to make both composers, labels and musicians’ unions happy. And we’re still stuck with that mess.

gabber demo loops

Computer music has made these concepts even more hard to use. What is the difference between sheet music and code? How does algorithmic music fit in here? If chipmusic is not recorded music, then who is the performer? When I was a member of a Swedish copyright society (to get money when e.g radio/tv uses my music) I tried to discuss this. Since the radio show Syntax Error played my C64-music straight from a SID-emulator, I told them that it was performed live by the C64 and not recorded music (which affected the payment). Needless to say, they were not impressed by my argument.

And neither were the discogs people. After the discussion last year, they deleted all the NES cartridges from the database and lived happily ever after.

Or did they…?

una nina malvada

On discogs there is this category called Floppy. In the format list you can also see things like USB sticks, File, CD, miniDV, flexi disc, and so on. Problem is – these are not formats. They are storage media, that can store many different format. All in all, discogs is bound to run into some pretty difficult choices in the future…

But anyway. This floppy category. What kind of releases can we find there? Right now there are 605 floppy releases listed. Quite a lot of them have been released within the last couple of years. The Hungarian label Floppy Kicks has been very active and there seems to be plenty of noise/lo-fi/drone kind of stuff. Diskette Etikette and Floppyswop are two other floppy labels. I made a release for Floppyswop, and they were sort of connected to the micromusic world it seemed. Here we should also mention Sascha Müller’s Pharmacom records with floppy releases that sometimes had some 8-bittish things. I released stuff there too.

R-4925667-1379615531-5343

Some floppies are additions to other storage media. Mainstream artists released floppy disks in the 1990’s, likely with jaw-dropping interactive multimedia. Mark Knopfler, Erasure, Everything but the girl, and of course Billy Idol the cyber man himself. There were screen savers by Pink FloydRadiohead and Beastie Boys (only in the Netherlands). J Dilla put out a floppy disk with samples for the SP-1200 sampler in 2014, which atm is the most wanted floppy release on discogs. Also, REM made a white label-ish floppy promo in 1994.

Ryuichi Sakamoto included midi-files for 8 tracks off his album BTTB (1998) and someone put out a .mid-file of Tarkan on floppy. Songs made famous by Eric Clapton is a collection of .mid-files of Eric Clapton songs from 1996.

A psy trance compilation was released on 20 floppy disks in 2014. With 20 songs in FLAC. Now that’s pretty impressive! DUMPSTERAC1D released four acid floppies on the Moss Archive label, but Chris Moss Acid has never heard about them. Ethnic techno is a 1989 floppy release from Zambia that also includes a 4″ vinyl.

melkweg timemachine

Most of these releases are legit for the discog man, because they usually contain lo-bit MP3s, interactive media, promo material, and so on. Proper music industry stuff. My releases had mod-files, which is not recorded music. But it seems to have been accepted.

In fact, there is plenty of mod/xm releases in discogs. There’s things like Metal moduleNoisetracker modules no.6, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and public domain disks that are basically just collections of mod-files. Metallica Meds is even listed as an official Metallica release.

But wait – there’s more! To my surprise, there is plenty of demos and music disks in discogs aswell. I won’t mention them here, out of respect for their discogs presence. But we can be sure that the discog man will eventually hunt and destroy.

And why shouldn’t they? Discogs reflect the “recording industry” and if you’re looking for non-recorded digital music you’d be better of looking at demoscene forums, media art, games, and so on. Things like that might be listed at discogs – like Brian Eno’s Generative Music I or Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music, but they are merely tolerated anomalies, it seems. If you don’t like it, you could always buy diskogs.com and start ze revolution!

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

iron bitchface free mahi mahi

► Hardhat – Toolboxing

October 24, 2014

hardhat-vol1

Out now, here’s Toolboxing by Hardhat. It’s full-on instant techno with an interface made by the Javascript magician p01, known from the demoscene. There’s one long techno track and 17 additional bonus bangers, cued up and ready for your work out! The music was made on Gameboy Advance and fed through a Serge modular system. Yep yep, just look at how the bass makes Hardhat sweat! T-E-C-H-N-O!

Hardhat has been around in the chipscene for many years under names like Småm. He recently made two super interesting live music programs: the Pokrok sequencer for the Sony Pocketstation (!), and the nanoloopy Sqein for Nord Drum. Check them out! With this release he wanted to get out of his routine and make something different.

– I felt like I was being too dogmatic and precise when making music. It had to be this and that and bla bla snooze. I decided I wanted to make techno. Just techno. So I started to record really quick & fun little jam sessions with Game Boys and other consoles, stuff. I usually spent like 10 minutes recording and then maybe 15-20 minutes cutting it together to a more presentable track. These tracks are the bonus tracks.

– I found reBoy by Checkpoint to be a really nice sequencer for GBA, and I had wanted to process my Game Boys through the modular systems at my university for quite some time. It came together quite naturally. It’s a very simple setup though, I’m just using two envelopes & filters triggered by audio input- and that’s it. So basically, the entire Toolboxing main mix is made with reBoy, loaded with a bunch of OPL3 samples, running through the filters of a vintage Serge System. And if that’s not niche enough for you, I think my next release will be.

Teaser for Hardhat’s Toolboxing

October 9, 2014

Hardhat is up next at Chipflip, with a techno megamix made on Gameboy Advance and processed with a Serge modular. There will also be bonus tracks made with various vintage consoles. This video made by Hardhat himself, but www-visuals will be coded by none other than p01, the Javascript wizard. Brace yourself for this one…

Generation 64: A Harmless Story About the C64 Generation?

October 4, 2014

I just got a copy of the book Generation 64, and wanted to make a quick blurb..

Generation 64 is a new book about the generation of Swedes who grew up with the Commodore 64. It’s only available in Swedish, but I think there’s a Kickstarter somewhere to get it translated into English. And that would be great. This is an important story to be told, and it’s well researched and contains lots of curiosities, good photos, and so on. It’s definitely a book worth reading. Get it now!

It’s a book about the past. There are interviews with famous public figures about their childhood with computers. There are also more “advanced” users like demosceners, crackers, music makers, designers, game makers, and so on. There is a clear aim of making this generation relevant by essentially describing the current successes of many of people from Generation 64. In the games industry (Candy Crush, Minecraft, DICE), in music (Axwell and Swedish House Mafia, The Hives and also non-Swedes like Legowelt, Aphrodite, and Paradox are mentioned) and of course as programmers. And as entrepreneurs.

This book paints a nice-looking picture of an important background to Sweden’s hi-tech industries, basically. I haven’t read more than half of the book yet, but it seems clear that it’s not much about politics and hacking. Which is fine, of course. It’s a book for a wider audience, and not a critical look at computer culture and society.

But…

It connects to a history that goes something like this: in the 1980’s we had piracy and out-of-bounds hacking, in the 1990’s they went online, and now they work in the “creative industries”, with computers & networks, or at universities. There is a special section in the book about entrepreneurs. But no special sections on, you know, remix cultures or open source, file sharing, copyright fights, and so on. It’s basically more like the story of Spotify than the Pirate Bay – although both of them are represented in the book (by Peter Sunde and Oskar Stål, respectively).

As Spotify was quickly presented as The Solution to the “problem” of file sharing in Sweden, with it came a sort of white-washing of piracy. Kazaa and Fairlight are now mostly accepted as something like childhood mistakes. It’s not as controversial as it used to be.

Meanwhile, Peter Sunde is treated like crap in Swedish prison, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg is involved in a Danish court case which seems to be run with very dubious methods. The third Pirate Bay member is still on the run. And yet – the Pirate Bay is still online and torrents are being shared at more or less the same rate.

And Spotify is nowhere near a functioning business model – they are losing gazillions of money.

Obviously, this is not relevant for a book about Generation 64. My point is just that there is also a different story to be told about this culture. This rebellious use of technologies has not just been sucumbed into entrepreneurship, science and open source rhetorics. There is still lots of controveries that are not solved at all. There is still a lot of politics in this.

And had I written a book on the C64 scene, I would have emphasized that more. Sort of like I did in my 2009-paper for the re:live conference in Australia. Because that will be even more important in the future, when internet and computers are not as free as they used to be.

 

 

► Rico Zerone – Passenger

September 8, 2014

Passenger, design by Enso

Chipflip proudly presents a new release from Rico Zerone and his Austrian world of computer funk and sensual space music. Passenger is his newest release with 21 minutes and 8 tracks in his characteristic styles. The drone-ish synthy ambient of Simulacrum and Morphic Resonance,  the easy-going stroller style of Cosmic Stroller, the dreamy cheese of Restart, to name a few. Short tracks that get the message across!

Check out the release here in a custom web interface designed by Enso and coded by Freedrull. You can also download all the songs as MP3, for free. Chipflip keeps it simple.

Get more from this powerful trio of lo-fi aficiandos: Rico Zerone / Enso / Freedrull

Documentary on 80’s Japanese Game Composers

September 5, 2014

This documentary on Japanese game music from the early 80’s is interesting because:

  • It’s not exactly easy to get reliable info in English on the history of the Japanese chipmusic. But here you get interviews with experts like Hally and the original composers like Hip Tanaka.
  • It shows a little bit about the process. How these early 8-bit composers were designing their own waveforms, much like the Amiga chipmusicians in the 1990’s. I’m glad to see custom waveforms getting some love, and perhaps more people will learn about the massive 1990’s Amiga chipscene.
  • To see a notebook with drawn 8-bit waveforms talked about with so much love and affection, is pretty much all we need in life.

It’s the first episode in a series. The angle seems to be the influence of Japanese 8-bit music on contemporary dance music. Kode 9 is there, and he’s bound to say some very smart stuff. Still, these episodes will most likely leave out a lot of stuff that I (and probably you) think is relevant and important. But that’s probably how you get a proper budget to do these kinds of things, eh?

 

A Rant on Limitations

August 26, 2014

In the lo-fi arts, it is common to say that limitations serve as a source of inspiration. It’s such a common phrase that it’s become nearly as hollow as saying that less is more. This paradoxical expression basically means that less can be good despite not being more. Less is good only if it’s like more. If you flip the expression around into more is less, which Barry Schwartz does when arguing against freedom of choice, it actually means the same thing. Less is always worse.

It’s a truism to point out the ideological connection with a capitalist focus on eternal growth. Much less obvious, is how this belief permeats so many artistic, scientific and journalistic accounts of lo-fi computing. There’s a strong  focus on limitations when it comes to lo-fi computers, but not when it comes to hi-tech stuff. There’s a fetish with lo-fi limitations that I think we can all recognize, and therefore there is also a fetish with the hi-fi unlimited. Right?

***

We should probably talk about verbs rather than nouns. Saying that certain characteristics are limitations or not… well… says who? All systems have limitations, depending on how/who/when/where you ask the question. Can you imagine something that is actually unlimited? Invisible? Isn’t it actually the “limitations” that gives character to something? A piano without the limitation of discrete notes? Well, now that’s just not a piano anymore, is it?

But anyway – the real question is: how are those characteristics limiting? Can it be limiting to only have squarewaves and 3 oscillators? Yes, of course. And can it be limiting to have 3 million custom waveforms and 12 million super oscillators and a frictionless interface between man and machine? Yes, that too can be limiting. It can be too much. It can push is into making the familiar, because it requires a mega fresh brain to get out of the path dependence. It’s much easier to have an interface that suggests unfamiliar ways.

A lot of artists show love and respect for the technologies they use. In the digital art, not so much. For digital artists, the tools are mostly commercial products, and it’s not exactly arty to celebrate a commodity (unless, you know, you have a conceptual reason to do so). Computers are hidden in art galleries, screens are turned away from the audience at laptop gigs, and so on.

***

We’re also quite obsessed with critical and transgressive uses of these technologies. We imagine that we’re doing something that we’re not supposed to do, and call it critical uses or hacking or appropriation or something like that.

Smells like humanist spirit. As if we’re in control, eh?

8-bit artists, on the other hand, are often positioned in a much more posthuman way. As slaves of technology. Underdogs. We often portray ourselves as suffering artists – or even handicapped – who make stuff despite technology. And yet, that once again reinforces the idea that hi-fi tech is somehow less limiting than old tech. But here’s a few reasons why a lot of old tech is superior:

* Fast, reliable, sturdy. It’s not your work laptop that you have to be super careful with. It doesn’t take 1 minute to boot or shut down. It doesn’t break if you check your luggage in. It’s fixable and still cheap to buy.

* Super control. For me as a musician, I can do almost anything that the platform allows me to do. That’s not at all the case with hi-fi platforms, that hides most of it potential.

* Aesthetically, you can work with instant genrefication. If you keep it simple, your song/picture/animation is instantly recognized as 8-bit/retro. This can be negative, but also positive. No need to worry about aesthetics. Just let the machine provide it for you.

(this post was revived from the 2012-archives)

More Data – Less Knobs! About Tracker Music Remakes

June 17, 2014

Two old Amiga music legends have recently decided to re-make some of their olden goldies. Lizardking and Mantronix made melodic synth music, somewhere inbetween … Koto and Jean-Michel Jarre? German space disco meets Italo Disco? As cheesy as some of it is, it’s kind of hard not to like it. Atleast when you’ve been brainwashed by it when you were young. In the Amiga scene this style is known as doskpop.

After a new Facebook group popped up, with an amazing energy supplied by Slash who started it, plenty of old tracker celebrities have been showing up. Moby finished some old songs, for example.

Many of us have probably wondered what tracker musicians could’ve done with more powerful technologies. Some people seem pretty convinced that it would automatically be better, because there’s “more possibilities”. Let’s move back to the 80’s first, when Rob Hubbard made synth-versions of his songs before programming them on C64. Let’s look at One Man and His Droid. Listen to the first version here recorded with various synth gear (among them TR-606 and TB-303!). Then listen to the C64-version below.

The first version is much more rough than the second one. Understandably, of course, since the first one is a sketch. But if we look at other music that exists as both tracker music and “synth music” (in lack of a better word) it’s not unusual that this is the case. I’ve heard it in most game musicians who “re-master” their old songs to sound more modern, for example. The tracker versions are just more detailed, intricate, ornamental. Anal? Crazy? Yes, perhaps.

Check the original version of Act of Impulse by Tip & Mantronix, and then listen Mantronix’ 2012-version. The new version is better in many production-wise ways, like clarity and punch and bass and all that. But one thing is, atleast to me, better in the old version. The melodies. It’s a lot more expressive. In the original mod-file you can see all the effort of the composer with setting custom vibrato, glide and volume tweaks for individual parts, and even notes. That’s sort of a pain in the ass with modern DAWs, but in trackers you were encouraged to do so because otherwise it looked empty and “sounded lame”. The more the better. Aesthetic maximalism, as I’ve called it before.

I have a similar feeling with Lizardking’s re-makes of his own songs. It’s miles better than all the generic SID/MOD-remixes that are out there, but I still miss some of that tracker trickery that is so characteristic of tracker music. It needs to sound more “data” like we say over here in the Swedish scene. Less generic knobs, more detailed numbers. No more synth! hehehe

Ok, well, this might be the most grumpy-old-man post I’ve made so far, so I think it’s better to just stop here. But just to clarify: this is not meant to diss anything. I love the data-sound, yes, but most people obviously prefer knob music. My point is that the newer software sort of brings us away from these “hand-made” solutions that were more common before, and drives us into a different kind of sound. Because even these “unlimited” platforms have a sound to them, don’t they?

 


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