Archive for the ‘hardware’ Category

Lft’s Chipophone: Playing Chipmusic by Hand

July 22, 2010

Linus Åkesson, aka Lft, is a programmer and musician who has mentioned featured several times at Chipflip. He works a lot with combining the aesthetics of chipmusic and “classical” music. He uses soundchips but also programs custom “soundchips” using microcontrollers, often with rather impressive programming. Perhaps not surprisingly, he has a background in the demoscene. In Reverberations he simulated the hands of an organ player with delicate Assembler programming, and executed it on two C64s. Technique and concept in a tight interplay: yum-yum!

In a way, the Chipophone turns this approach on its head. Here, it is hands that simulate chipmusic rather than the other way around. The Chipophone instrument features some of the most characteristic aspects of chipmusic software: arpeggios, slides, looped bars and noise-attacks. Consequently, a skilled pianist can play chipmusic in something similar to a chipmusic platform (8-bit CPU, 1k RAM, 8.5k ROM) and add all the typical chipmusic ornaments with the hands. It’s quite surreal to see Hubbard’s Spellbound actually being performed by hand:

I think that this is qualitatevly different from using, say, Chipsounds and a MIDI-keyboard. The Chipophone is not an emulation – it’s a music instrument that is inspired by the aesthetics of chipmusic. Rather than using modern equipment to mimick something that it will never be, this is a custom-made low-tech platform using an oldschool organ interface. Surely this would inspire musicians to perform in a different way, compared to the hi-tech VST-world.

According to the 00-decade’s discourse of hardware purism, where chipmusic has to use certain soundchips, this is of course not chipmusic. But considering the Chipophone’s low amount of RAM, ROM and CPU and its low-level implementation of typical chipmusic effects, this is a refreshing alternative to the, eh, mainstream chipmusic (LSDj with default samples).

I have interviewed Lft for my (nearly finished) thesis, where we discussed the aesthetical elements of chipmusic among other things. The Chipophone is a very clever way to bring these stylistic elements into a postdigital context, where it is motor skills that condition the music rather than tracker-skills. He demonstrates it so elegantly aswell, by playing some songs from “the chipmusic canon”. Hopefully this can be an inspiration for chipmusicians to experiment with improvisations and performances, rather than doing another playback gig.

Update: btw, look at his combination of 480 bytes & piano: The Swan

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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!?<

Video Selection: Midsummer Haze

June 25, 2010

Exotic Escapes & Learning in Text Mode

June 11, 2010

After the previous teletext post, I found Teletext Holidays where you can browse current teletext travel ads online! Follow them on Twitter here for all your teletext holiday needs. A great service indeed, and I hope they pay me well for advertising their advertisements.

I like how the raw commercialism meets the blocky graphics. When you have 160 characters to set on a resolution of 23 x 39 characters in 8 colours, there is no room for fancy marketing. I doubt that current ad campaigns could be translated into teletext with much success. It just requires too many signifiers. Teletext fits better with a raw kind of product+price marketing. Have a look at Lektrolab’s teletext exhibition Microtel (2006) and all the advert-aesthetics in there aswell.

But teletext is also about news and education! Check out the Christian teletext edutainment by Bill Geers at his youtube-channel. And don’t miss the 10 episodes of Hands Up at this channel. Robots, cowboys and worms in hot air balloons, in the name of sign language!

Seriously, this is some very impressive work. I am not sure if this is all teletext. I mean, teletext is a lot more limited than the arbitrary use of colours in e.g. ANSI and PETSCII. Here you have to waste a character to change the back/foreground colour of the next char. Also, I don’t know how teletext animation works. Is it possible to broadcast longer animations than e.g. this one? Anyway, I guess they were not designed to be broadcast on teletext, because it doesn’t have sound. So, was teletext software really that good to animate with? Am I expecting an answer?

Below are two pieces from the Microtel exhibition. First by Videohome Training (Gijs and Marieke), and the second one by Drx (from Bodenständig 2000). If you want to make your own Teletext graphics, check Lektrolab’s tutorial.

If you wanna step up the obscurity yet another notch, get into the British teletext bureaucracy! First, try to understand how the different standards and providers and companies and channels worked in the 1990s. Then try to understand the present status of teletext, which seems to involve illegal text mode shout outs. Start here. You can see what people in Stoke-on-Trent think here (?!) and see a sentimental selection of highlights here (?!).

The Playlist Exhibition, and How Modern Technology Can’t Handle C-64

June 4, 2010

Playlist is an exhibition centered around chipmusic and had its opening party yesterday. As it moved from Spain to Belgium there were some new artists added, including yours truly. I wrote about the previous exhibition here, before I had even read the Playlist Reader, to be honest. There are some very interesting perspectives there, such as Ed Halter’s piece about digital materialism. It is great to read texts that take these works seriously, and go beyond naive perspectives of nostalgia or über-romantic notions of hacking. I think the Reader gives a refreshing art-oriented description. It doesn’t necessarily fit with the motivations and traditions of the demoscene and chipscene, though – for good and bad.

Many art works are also available online, so have a look. Demosceners might complain about the lack of demos (whatever that is), but there are four demosceners in the exhibition: Chantal Goret, Erik Nilsson, Julien Ducourthial, and me and Frantic. (Probably not the most representative demosceners though I suppose)

As usual, our C64 noise-play HT Gold proves almost impossible to show correctly with modern technologies. The frenetic glitch-shakes require 50 progressive frames per second, which is a piece of cake for oldschool CRT-televisions but a nightmare for modern screens and beamers. It’s a perfect example of planned obsolescence or the systems of secrecy that Kittler talks about. It is really difficult to show HT Gold to people! I’ve tried to transfer the video signal through myriads of protocols to finally end up with an online video that has lost all the things that made the original video special. I’ve tried to emulate it, but it doesn’t do the trick either. Sure, it’s fun to trash things, but it has to be classy trash! If anyone reading has a professional video capturing device, let me know!

Also, showing HT Gold was not made any easier by the Belgian post-man that destroyed the floppy disk I sent to Playlist. Someone should’ve told him that double-glitching is forbidden according to international law.

Photo by Rosa Menkman

Teletext is Videotext is Text TV???

June 2, 2010

Digital Tools celebrates 30 years of Videotext. Videotext? It is the German word for what the BBC had already termed Teletext in the early 1970s. In Sweden it’s usually called Text TV. Would be interesting to hear what it’s called where you live. But is it some kind of Televideotext-TV?

Yes! Since it seems like teletext is quite rare in e.g. North America, I will give a quick explanation. It is a 7-bit stream of coloured “ASCII” and graphics organized in pages, and you can browse these with your TV remote control. News and horoscopes, you know. Internet without cats and hi-res porn. It has a low-res pixel style that looks a bit like ANSI with the colours of ZX Spectrum. It’s a one-way communication (unlike Videotex or Telex) that sends a constant stream of pages in the non-visible areas of the PAL-signal. When you type a page number, you wait until the data stream reaches that page again. So it is possible to make animations – especially with modern TVs that buffer the data stream, or by using a blink command like in the clip below.

Though this seems like a remnant from a past of non-interactive media and large pixels, this is something that you can still see quite often around here. I’m not sure if it even exists in USA anymore though? In Sweden you can still see e.g. bank offices informing about the stock exchange by putting a TV on display with the stock market teletext page. New TV-technologies have hot features for buffering teletext pages – something that I recently heard a salesman boast about. My dad still uses teletext every day, as a complement to other media. And of course, subtitles are often sent as teletext packets. A friend even had  something called a teletext-keyboard (1hit) in Sweden, which worked over the telephone line so you could send information to make personals, sell stuff, etc.

There’s been some art projects with teletext, and I mentioned some of them here. I have a vague memory that someone (Paul B Davis?) had some art running on a national teletext (in Holland?) quite recently aswell. Anyway: the purpose of this post was really just to  ask what teletext is called where you live. Just got a bit carried away. Are there even more words than video, text, and tv involved in this? Is there a particular French term, or did this never hit the SECAM countries? Let’s hear it. See you on TV!

(Many people called the police on Saturday to report that they saw a gorilla. The police went there and found .. a German tourist. “He had a beard and a rucksack but he was not a gorilla”)

Anachronism or Typical Dreams? PLATO and Progress

May 29, 2010

“If a music teacher were asked to state the requirements of a classroom presentation “dream-machine”, the response would be a device capable of displaying musical notation, showing slides, playing recordings, and maybe even generating some new examples for aural training. Such a machine was dreamed about in the 1960’s by Professor Donald Bitzer (1961) at the University of Illionois. He made it a reality; it is called PLATO, and it is now a product of the Control Data Corporation.”

“For all subjects there is a basic PLATO display unit which contains a screen upon which graphics (like musical notation) can be drawn, a random-access microfiche projector which can show slides on the screen, a typewriter keyboard through which one can communicate with the computer, and a touch panel which allows students to answer questions by touching pictures or words on the screen.”

This is from a text from 1976: Hofstetter in Creative Computing. PLATO was the ultimate machine back then, and it’s not all that different from how some people idealize music and physical computing now, right? It’s a nice example of how technological development is not a one-dimensional anti-social progress upwards and forward. When some things are enhanced, others are per se made obsolete like the McLuhans said, and it’s not necessarily an improvement. PLATO is a good reason to think of history as cycles instead of lines.

PLATO V. photo by Mtnman79

PLATO enabled people to work with music in ways that has become attractive once again. Just imagine the feeling of showing slides on your TV/monitor. You could access recorded sounds on a magnetic audio disk, which I can imagine holds a lot of potential for physical manipulation of the sounds or songs. I’m not sure how the software worked, but it seems that you could work both on GUI-level and code-level with many programs. And of course, touch screens have become cool again and we perhaps forget that there were touchscreen GUIs to make music in the 1960s if not the 1950s (Samson and Mathews, see timeline).

PLATO presented “new realities for computer-based musical instruction” and it still does, and probably will on other occasions in the future. It makes me think about how the League of Automatic Music Composers were connecting KIM-1 computers in the late 1970s to create man-machine-software systems to improvise music with, and I can’t think of anyone doing it afterwards. I’m sure there are, but what I mean is that it never became very popular. Too controversial for humanism? (Stephen Stamper made me rediscover them with his similar chipmusic project, and the live coders in TOPLAP also mention them.)

As a nice by-product of searching for info on PLATO, I discovered that it was a pioneering system also for communications and games. The early models were more like terminals than computers and you could go to chat rooms, play 3D multiplayer games, instant message, draw bitmap graphics, etc – several years before the first BBS. In fact, in about two weeks there will be a meeting on this matter in California organized by Cyber1. You can find more info/pictures/videos about PLATO-communication at their site. And here I thought I was obscure for still using C64-BBSs

Diskmag Studies

February 2, 2010

In 2007 Markku Reunanen and Antti Silvast presented a paper called ‘Demoscene Platforms: A Case Study on the Adoption of Home Computers’ (pdf) at History of Nordic Computing 2. It was only recently made available online, through their excellent demoscene bibliography.

The title clearly states the purpose of the paper. The method is to study diskmags, described as “interactive electronic magazines” as the authors call them. This obscure form of media is still around in the demoscene, although most demoscene “journalism” today occurs online. Despite the multimedia possibilities of the Internet, it is noteworthy that diskmags are such an obscure practice. Maybe online diskmags will become more popular in the future though?

I will not go into the details, but I recommend you to read this paper. It is a thorough and well-executed study and it is interesting to go back to all those platform wars of the demoscene. Amiga rulez! Intel Outside! AGA is lame! The conclusion of the paper is that in the demoscene, “[p]eople will reject a new platform at first if it does not fit the current community practices, no matter how technically advanced it is”. The demoscene has therefore shown a degree of autonomy towards new technology, but also ultimately followed the roads as suggested by capitalism.

Platform Studies: Think Inside the Box

December 18, 2009

Earlier this year, Nick Montfort & Ian Bogost released a book called Racing the Beam – The Atari Video Computer System. It examines how the Atari VCS was produced – how the cultural and economic contexts shaped the hardware – and perhaps more importantly, how it was used by videogame programmers.

This is the first book in an MIT book series called Platform studies, which somewhat surprisingly claims to introduce a new academic field. Hasn’t these sociotechnical studies been done many times before, both by scholars and other writers? There are hundreds of books about the social and the technological. Yeah, sure. But the point is that they are usually focusing on either technology or the social. Social scientists don’t code, and computer scientists don’t know sociocultural theory: they are two cultures. Eventhough that’s not really true, what is true is that Montfort & Bogost’s idea of Platform studies attentuates to “both sides” and “no sides” at the same time. They’re bringing social theory past the level of software, to the bare metal that feeds our data souls.

And that’s difficult. I know, because that is what I am currently doing with my thesis about chipmusic. It is, of course, crucial to use both technical and social perspectives – a perfect example of the relevance of platform studies. There is no way of understanding the personal motivations and (sub)cultural fields without studying the hardware. But of course, a soundchip is not much in itself. It is given meaning by software, people, culture and economics; it is society that continuosly shape both the materiality of and the conceptions about soundchips. The materiality has all the potential uses inside from the start, but maybe only certain sociocultural settings brings it forth.

Anyway, Montfort & Bogost recently published a paper, addressing some of the critique they have been receiving, most of which seem rather predictable considering their novel approach inbetween ‘two cultures’. It’s an interesting read, and while you’re at it you should also read their book(s). Oh, and as a nice coincidence Ian Bogost showed his Atari work Guru Meditation at Pixxelpoint where also e.g. HT Gold also was shown. And, well, tons of other good low-fi oriented stuff by Florian Cramer, Rosa Menkman, Vuk Cosic, Math Wrath, Ubermorgen.com, Tonylight, and many others!

(btw, the title of the blog post was taken from here)

VJ on a Chip

December 17, 2009

The American visualist/artist/teacher VBLANK just announced that the Pocket VBLANK is available for purchase again. It’s essentially a low-res VJ-system on a chip that reacts to audio, and it costs $110. The visuals are nice and lo-fi, but I am not sure exactly what it does. Judging from the videos it is not really meant for tightly synchronized visuals. And the hardware is not programmable, although VBLANK has burnt custom graphics onto the chip upon request. Currently it’s only for NTSC, but a PAL-version is apparently coming soon. Read the Blip-interview with VBLANK where he briefly explains about his lo-fi and act-inside-the-box preferences. He also refers to the Amiga as a supercomputer. In the bad sense. : )