Archive for the ‘emulation’ Category

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.


Wider Screen: Authenticity in Chipmusic

April 16, 2014

Yesterday I wrote about the new scene issue in Wider Screen, where several noteworthy scholars write on chipmusic, demoscene and warez culture. Today I return to that, to discuss the ethnographic study of authenticity in the chipscene. Chipmusic, Fakebit and the Discourse of Authenticity in the Chipscene was written by Marilou Polymeropoulou who I’ve met a few times around Europe when she’s been doing field studies for her dissertation. Her article is refreshing because it deals with technology in a non-technological way, so to say. It takes a critical look at the ideologies of chipmusic (which I also tried to do in my master’s thesis) and she doesn’t get caught up in boring discussions about what chipmusic actually is (which, uhm, I have done a lot).

Polymeropoulou divides the chipscene into three generations. The first generation is described as a demoscene-inspired strive for being an original elite, by challening the limitations of original 8-bit hardware from the 1980’s. As I understand, this generation is everything that happened before the internet went mainstream. The second generation is internet-based and focused on mobility (read Gameboy), learning by copying and making more mainstream-ish chipmusic. The third generation is characterized as “chipsters” that are more interested in sounds and timbres rather than methods and technologies.

The first generation of chipmusicians would be a very diverse bunch of people, activities and machines. Perhaps even more diverse than the chipscene is now. Back then there were not as many established norms to relate to. I mean, we hardly knew what computers or computer music was. The terms chipmusic or chiptune didn’t exist, and I doubt that it was relevant to talk about 8-bit music as a general concept. It was computer music, game music, SID-music, Nintendo-music, etcetera. People were using these 8-bit home computers to make music for school, for games, for art, for their garage band, for themselves, for Compunet, for bulletin boards, the demoscen, for crack-intros, etcetera. However, looking back through the eyes of “chipscene 2014” it makes sense to zoom in on only the demoscene during this period, as it is normally considered as one of the most important precursors.

Chip Music Festival, 1990

In the demoscene there were many people who ripped songs to copy the samples, look at their tracker tricks, or just use the song for their own demo. Copying was common, but it wasn’t exactly elite to do it. There was certainly a romantic ideology of originality at work. But I’m not so sure about ascribing a technological purism to the demoscene of that time. Sure, people loved their machines. But most sceners eventually moved on to new platforms (see Reunanen & Silvast). So I’m not sure that this generation would be the anti-thesis to fakebit. In fact, when the chipmusic term first appeared around 1990 it refered to sample-based Amiga-music that mimicked the timbres of the PSG-soundchips and the aesthetics of game music.

So, in a sense, the Amiga/PC chip-generation of the 1990’s (when the 8-bit demoscenes were very small) was actually not so far from what is called fakebit today. And that’s obviously why this big and important momentum with tens of thousands of open source chip-modules is so often ignored in histories of chipmusic. It just doesn’t fit in. (It’s also worth noting here that many if not most 8-bit demoscene people today use emulators such as VICE or UAE to make music, and use the original hardware more like a media player.)

My theory is that the hardware-fetish of the chipscene is a more recent phenomenon, established sometimes in the mid 2000’s, and I think that Malcolm McLaren’s PR-spree had something to do with it, regardless of the scene’s reaction. If you listen to the early releases at and 8bitpeoples today, you could call it fakebit if you wanted to. Just like with the Amiga-chip music of the 1990’s. So it seems to me that this generation didn’t build much on what had been done in the demoscene, other than perhaps using tools developed there. Games, on the other hand, were a popular reference. So to me, the post-2000 generation of chipmusicians feels more like a rupture than a continuation from the previous generation (something like hobbyism->crackerscene->demoscene->trackerscene->netlabels).

At this time I was still a purist demoscene snob, and I thought that this new kind of bleepy music was low quality party/arty stuff. Still, I decided to gradually engage in it and I don’t regret it. But I was one of very few demosceners who did that. Because this was, in short, something very different from the previous chipmusic that was characterized by lots of techné and home consumption. Micromusic was more for the lulz and not so serious, which was quite refreshing not only compared to the demoscene but compared to electronic music in general (you know, IDM and drum n’ bass and techno = BE SERIOUS).

It’s funny, but when Polymeropoulou describes the third generation of the chipscene (the chipsters) it actually reminds me a bit of the early demoscene people, perhaps even during the 1980’s.

Chipsters compose chipmusic – and of course, fakebit – on a variety of platforms, including modern computers, applying different criteria, based on popular music aesthetics rather than materialist approaches. [..] Chipsters find creative ways combining avant-garde and subcultural elements in order to break through to mainstream audiences, a practice which is criticised by purists.

In the 1980’s they used modern computers to try to make something that sounded like the “real” music in the mainstream. They borrowed extensively from contemporaries such as Iron Maiden, Laserdance and Madonna and tried to make acid house, new beat, synth pop, etc. There was definitely some freaky stuff being made (“art”), and something like comedy shows (Budbrain) and music videos (State of the Art) and later on so called design demos (Melon Dezign) and those demos appealed to people who were not sceners. And the megamixes! Here’s one from 1990:

Okay… how did we end up here? Oh yeah — my point is, I suppose, that the demoscene is not as purist as people think, and never was. Atleast that’s my impression of it. But even if I disagree with the generational categorization of Polymeropoulou’s text, I consider this article as an important contribution to the field of techno-subcultures. Also, I am even quoted a few times both as a researcher and as an anonymous informant. Maybe you can guess which quotes are mine, hehe.

My Presentation of 8-bit Users

November 22, 2012

Last week I made a presentation at Merz Academy called Hackers and Suckers: Understanding the 8-bit Underground. I was invited by Olia Lialina for a lecture series called Do You Believe in Users? in Stuttgart. This question should be understood in the context of a disappearing user in modern discourses on design. Computers have become normalized and invisible, and the user seems to have a similar fate. (read more in Olia’s Turing Complete User)

The talk was about 8-bit users, and the hype around 8-bit aesthetics. I talked about different 8-bit users – from those who unknowingly use 8-bit systems embedded in general tech-stuff, through stock freaks and airports, to chipmusic people and hackers. I explained how “8-bit” is both a semiotic and materialist concept, but often used as a socially constructed genre. 1950s music or 1920s textile can be called 8-bit today.

I explained what the qualities of 8-bit computing are, as based on my thesis: simple systems, immediacy, control and transgression. Some examples of technical and cultural transgression followed, and then I gave the whole “8-bit-punk-appropriator-reinvent-the-obsolete” speech and then dissed that perspective completely. Finally, I tried to explain my own view of non-antropocentric computing, man-machine creativity, media materialism, and so on. When I prepaired the presentation I called this Cosmic Computing, but I changed it because my presentation was already hippie enough…

  • Humans cannot have a complete & perfect understanding of a computer.  Following ideas from Kittler – and the fact that 30-year-old technologies still surprise us – this seems controversial for computer scientists, but not so much for artists?
  • Users bring forth new states, but that might be all normal for the machine. This is controversial for all ya’ll appropriatingz artistz, but not for Heidegger and computer scientists.
  • All human-machine interactions are both limited and enriched by culture, technology, politics, economy, etcetera. Meaning that “limitations” and “possibilities” are cultural concepts that change all the time.
  • Don’t make the machine look bad — don’t be a sucker. Make it proud! Another anti-human point, to get away from the arrogant ways that we treat technologies.

In hindsight, it was a pretty bad idea to be so anti-user in a lecture series designed to promote the user. (: And the discussion that followed mostly evolved around the concept of suckers. Some people seemed to interpret what I said as “if you are not a hacker you are a sucker”. This was unfortunate but understandable. I don’t mean that there are only two kinds of users. They are merely two extremes on a continuum.

Hackers explore the machine in artistic ways and they can be coders, musicians, designers — whatever. They are not necessarily experts but they know how to transgress the materiality/meaning of the hardware/software. They can make things that have never been done before with a particular machine, or something that wasn’t expected from it. That often requires not-so-rational methods, which is not always based on hard science. Just because you know “more” doesn’t make you better at transgression. There is a strong connection between user and computer. Respect, and sometimes a strong sense of attachment – even sexual? That’s probably easier to develop if you don’t plan to sell it when the next model comes out. (btw, this is not some kind of general-purpose-definition of the term hacker, just how I used it in this presentation)

Suckers, on the other hand, don’t seem to have this connection. They buy it, use it and throw it away. Either they don’t feel any connection to the object, or they don’t want to. They act as if they are disconnected from technology, and only suck out the good parts when it suits their personal needs.

It is a disrespectful use. The machines are treated merely as instrumental tools for their own satisfaction. Suckers are consumers to the bone. Amazing technologies are thrown at them, and suckers treat them as if they don’t even exist – until something stops working. Or they go all cargo cult.

I don’t like it when I act as a sucke.r, but it happens all the time. I recently got an iPhone for free. I’ve had it for months without using it, because I am scared of becoming a sucker 24/7. I am definitely not in charge of my life when it comes to technology. And I like that. Hm…


C64 Graphics – Data or Light?

July 21, 2010

There is a very geeky discussion about C64-graphics over at CSDb, which is strangely annoying and fascinating at the same time. It is essentially an argument about what a C64-image ‘is’, or perhaps more correctly, how it should be represented at CSDb. Is it the raw pixel data, or is it the way the image looks on an old CRT TV-screen?

From a data-materialist perspective, the image is archived most correctly as pixel data. Nobody in the thread disagrees with this. The discussion concerns the screen shot, and whether it should be modified to look like it does on a CRT-screen (by re-constructing a ‘correct’ palette and using a TV-emulation). It is a question of what is the most ‘accurate’ representation of the image.

By STE’86

STE, a commercial pixel artist from the 80s who was active in the demoscene-ish universe Compunet, wants CSDb to “let me display my work in the manner and spirit it WAS created in. and let ME be the judge of that being as how i actually did it 25 years ago and may indeed have some recollection of what it looked like”. His idea of the image is a construction of e.g. two things: memories and screens. The way he remembers the image is not necessarily what was actually on the screen. Even if it was, his CRT-screen was different from those of others. Furthermore, his PC/Mac-screen might show graphics a bit different compared to your screen. Nevertheless, his point is that an archive such as CSDb should not modify the images in anyway, because for one it’ll be a huge problem to update it as the emulator improves.

The problem is that some images need some kind of filter/emulation, because they rely on the blending that PAL-artefacts create. In short, C64-graphics looks different on modern ultra-sharp screens. Bogost describes the inaccuracies of emulators in terms of texture, afterimage, color bleed & noise. These can be vital aspects for  pixel artists who work with CRT-screens, of course.

By Joe

What’s funny is how the technical discussions runs into a little halt half-way through the thread. It’s discussed if we can actually tell the difference between palette-issues and TV-emulation. In fact, the cause of the whole thread is revealed to have been an anti-alias issue in Firefox that was interpreted as a case of TV-emulation. For me, this is a little reminder to not get too stuck in technical details that, when it really comes down to it, is not something we are aware of anyway. In another way, it’s a reminder of what makes demoscene forums great!?<

The iPhone C64 Emulator and Progress=Change

November 28, 2009

Chipmusic is about accepting the system’s features (aka limitations), and expanding them (aka breaking them). 30 years of new sounds shows how a culture can progress through software and not hardware updates. Competition and community, trial and error & rationalism has contributed to it. But it presupposes that you are allowed to do what you want with the technology.

The C64 iPhone emulator was released in September as the first multi-purpose emulator on the iPhone. But Apple does not allow users to run downloadable code on the iPhone. Apple wants to retain control over what software is running on the iPhone (avoidable by jailbreaking and e.g. cydia). But since the C64 has a built-in BASIC programming language, Apple cannot stay in control. So the solution was to remove BASIC from the emulator, and offer a selection of something like 5 games. In that way, users cannot make their own software and they cannot load whatever software they want. This is the complete opposite to the hippie-libertarian-multimedia ‘coolness’ that has been around Apple since the 1970s. You know, Bill Gates writes a letter in 1976 to promote software copyright and ever since Apple has been cool and Microsoft evil…?

Whatever. But the iPhone C64-emulator transforms the C64-system into a restricted gaming console (but, but). Surely, 8-bit computers are often described as gaming computers. Indeed, they were developed (also) for gaming purposes, and not colourless and soundless business purposes. But they were not read-only and interpassive like consoles, so they should not be remembered, emulated and discussed as such. It is (even) harder to talk about intented uses of computers compared to e.g. Gameboy and NES, in that sense. Ie, there is nothing necessarily subversive about making your own music and software on a C64, even if chipmusic is often described in that way.

While the iPhone C64-emulator is just a piece of entertainment software, it plays part in a larger tendency to reduce old technology to something simplistic, something limited. But limited in what sense, and according to who? I can turn on my C64 and start programming in 1 second, and make music in 1 minute. I can easily have it fixed when it’s broken, or atleast understand what the problem is. I have access to 25 years of software and knowledge, and with a lack of commercial interests I do not have to consider intellectual property regulations. I don’t find 3 channels of sound to be limiting; I think it’s empowering. Of course, digital technology is improving in many quantitative and qualitative ways, enabling users to do more, and faster. But it is not a one-dimensional line of neutral progress – it is change, resulting from economic, cultural, social, and aesthetical values. New technology is not better per se. Even if it is, it doesn’t mean that new ideas require new technology. That modernist idea has been questioned in so many other fields, but is painfully present in digital media.

Oh well. So… here is some of little-scale’s soundchip-related iPhone apps! (Btw, does anyone know how the emulator can be sold, being based on the GPL-licensed Frodo?)

Chipdisco DJ Tool Out Now

November 24, 2009

PortaMod by Syphus, mentioned earlier, is now announced for the public here! It’s a new player for older music formats, which offers alot more than performing/visualizing recorded music. It’s basically a library for Processing to play MOD/XM/S3M, currently presented in a few different forms, for example the Chipdisco. It offers two decks for DJ-action, and is also a great way to perform your own music live. You can tranpose songs, tempo changes, automatic beatmatch, loop quarters of patterns and jump inbetween them, mute individual channels. And you can use either keyboard, mouse, or MIDI. Chipdisco also allows you to navigate through songs with the cursor keys. Left/right changes the song position in the pattern list, while up/down goes a step up or down in the current pattern playing.

The source will be shared, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds for MOD/XM/S3M performances/visualizers in Processing. (For those using Supercollider, you can use Fredrik Olofsson’s redMOD and redXM here.)



4 x Mortimer Twang: (sound)chip(based)non(chip)music

November 1, 2009

There’s been another discussion at 8bc about what chipmusic is. It seems to me that there are more people talking about genre than technodeterminism compared to a few years ago. There are thoughts about what building blocks make it sound chip (Sound chip here means: proper chipstyle, sounding-like chipstyle, soundchip). That could be due to the new perspectives that come with non-techno-purism. If you don’t use soundchips and trackers you need to be aware about what you’re doing in order to make it sound chip. When you’re using soundchips and trackers, you don’t have to worry about those things. (form vs medium)

It is interesting, because the technodeterminst view has tended to build this defensive discourse during the 2000s. “If you make chipmusic that’s not coming from a soundchip, we don’t want you around here boy!”. In the 90s it was about filesize instead, because a lot (if not most) chipmusic in the 1990s was sample-based on Amiga or PC. But still, if we say that the Paula chip of the Amiga is a soundchip, it is possible to stick with the soundchip-determinst definition of chipmusic. (A bit like pretending that the Gameboy has a soundchip)

Anything made with the internal sounds of the Amiga then, is chipmusic, e.g. Amigacore, Osdorp Posse, Bruno. Which finally brings us to the reason of this post. Up Rough has posted mastered MP3-versions of four Amiga MOD-classics by Mortimer Twang (Lukas Nystrand): Agima Blues (515kb), All Times by Music (588kb), Burning Chrome (350kb), Moonmaster (390kb). Calling this chipmusic is a bit useless, because the music form is quite far from quantized geek bleep museek. This has more to do with hip hop, jazz, and drum n’ bass. If you put Mortimer’s music into a mix, you no longer have to put your brain into tracker-data-analysis-mode when you hear it. Just listen to the music. Sometimes music is just music, nowhaddayouknow.


eMod: a Universal Tracker?

September 15, 2009

About a year ago I read about a tracker that would be able to import music made by other trackers, from various platforms. To my surprise, there is now a beta version out! “There are hundreds of possible types of files that this program will need to work with; most of them i have no idea about yet, because i’ve not studied them, or not even heard about them. I believe my vision is possible.”

For now it only handles a few Amiga tracker formats (Future Composer 1.0-1.4, Delta Music 2.x, and 4-channel Protracker) and only works for Windows. But soon there will be support for e.g Fasttracker and SID (!) and he also mentions VST, MIDI, and visualizers.

It’s not supposed to go public yet, but it doesn’t hurt to give it a go. So far my Amiga music plays well – although eMod sounds different from both Deliplayer and my Amiga1200 (so, it’s not only because of PC-jitter?). But let’s try not to swamp the man with requests and bug reports. Read his post about what (not) to expect and download the beta version here. And be very afraid of the future.

update: btw, check KEEP for an even more gigantic emulation project