Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Celebrating ST-01 and ST-02

February 13, 2017


1987 was a good year for amateur music makers. The E-mu SP-1200 sampler came out and was a crucial element in the golden age of hip-hop, because of its reasonable price, decent interface and the characteristic crispy 12-bit/26.04kHz audio quality.

In Europe, a different technology spawned a sample-based revolution in music: The Ultimate Soundtracker for the Amiga. Thousands of kids started to make music using the sounds from the two floppy disks that came with the program: ST-01 and ST-02. They were packed with samples from synthesizers like Roland D50 and Yamaha DX21, and were so heavily used that they became “the sound of the Amiga” for several years.


Soundtracker was later hacked and modified to be less buggy and more user-friendly, most noteably by Mahoney & Kaktus’ Noisetracker in 1989. The tracker standard was set free, and spawned a sort of remix culture where open source mod-files were spread around the world for free. This was a thriving movement through the 1990’s and beyond, leaking into electronic genres such as gabber/breakcore, IDM, UK hardcore/drum n’ bass, and so on.

Meanwhile hip-hop had a different development since it relied on record labels to release music. It was vulnerable to copyright mongers and money makers who crippled the use of samples, and today you need serious money to sample famous recordings. The “tracker scenes” never had problems like that since it used its own distribution channels, and was never as $-relevant as hip-hop. Pretty much everything was free.


ST-FM is a celebration of this culture, and the original sounds of the ST-01 and ST-02. I invited old legends and fresh talents to make new songs based (to some extent) on the original ST-sounds. It comes as an online music disk (“the computer equivalent of an album“) and as a cassette available through Bandcamp.

ST-FM includes early pioneers (4mat, TDK, Enzo Cage, Omri Suleiman) and younger talents (Linde, Firedrill, Svetlana), modern performers and sceners (Vim, Tero, Ingemar, Zabutom, Qwan, me), and two italo disco Amiga heroes (Dr. Vector, Balboa).

It’s released on protoDATA, a new sublabel to Data Airlines, run by me and Dubmood. You can expect more juicy releases in the future, be sure of that.

Can’t get enough of the sounds of ST-01 and ST-02?

Here’s some weird suggestions:

Listen to songs by Karsten Obarski, who made The Ultimate Soundtracker and ST-01 and ST-02.

Soundtracker-songs at Modland (not necessarily using ST-01 and ST-02)

Download wav-versions of the samples at (but do read the comment first) or use Chipslapper or Chipsounds in a modern DAW.

Mazemod – the online Amiga radio with a careful selection that includes some ST-smelling tracks.

Some 90’s eurodisco reminds me of early tracker aesthetics, like Getaway by Maxx.

The soundtrack to Liquid Sky was made with the Fairlight CMI, and sometimes sound like dorky Soundtracker experiments.

I once managed to get some ST-sounds into an indie movie soundtrack. Check the end credits in ANGRY.

This Atari ST-game with MIDI weirdly has some ST-vibes.

New Recording of the First Computer Music

September 26, 2016

The Guardian reports about the first recording of computer music, created by Alan Turing. Or, well, it’s actually not the first time that a recording of this computer music appears (BBC, 2008). It’s not the first computer music. And the music is not made by Alan Turing at all, as the Guardian also points out after the clickbait.

Nevertheless, it’s a good listen. Especially because you hear the voices of the women operating the electronic brain. They’re laughing and talking about the interruptions in the music: “The machine’s obviously not in the mood.”

Two kiwi scholars restored the recording, which is interesting because the previous recording of the Mark I that appeared in 2008, was also revealed in New Zealand. Both use the same BBC recordings as source material. Did the BBC ship all their archives to New Zealand, or what gives?

The music was reportedly made by a Christopher Strachey, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few uncredited women involved as well. After all, computing at the time was a field for women. In fact, as far as we know, the first computer music was played in 1949 by a Betty Snyder (later Holberton) who also created COBOL, the first computer manual and the UNIVAC console. But her story is lost in his story, naturally.

More examples of early computer music in the timeline.


Ancient Trackers

March 13, 2016

orchestrion - Baud_museum_mg_8461

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

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

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

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

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

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

lejaren hiller knobs 1970

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

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

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

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

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


From Space to the Clouds

January 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greets to FTC for inspiring this post in the kolonistuga!

Chip Music Piracy – Since the 1960s

December 2, 2015

Thanks to Hally and iLKke I learned that one of the earliest hackers around (you know, one of the train geeks at MIT) released an LP with his chipmusic in the 1960s. Although less known than Max Mathews, Peter Samson made computer music in the 1950’s and developed his own music software (see timeline). Already in 1960 he made a graphical interface for his music software for the TX-0 machine, and the user controlled with a light pen. He’s probably most famous for his music/software on the PDP-1, and he’s involved in the recent restoration of PDP-1 music.

And now it turns out that gus PDP-1 music was released on a vinyl sometime in the 1960’s as Music on the PDP-1X. Most likely it was released after Music for Mathematics (1961/62), Rekengeluiden van PASCAL (1962), and Bell Laboratory’s Computer Speech 7″ (1963) but it is obviously one of the earliest released computer music. Perhaps the first stereo computer music on vinyl? Or the first one with only classical music? I’m sure this release was first with something?

Given the amount of time I put into researching early computer music a few years ago, I was surprised that I had missed this one. Well, the LP is the only release from PPDX Records and it’s very hard to find any information about it on ze web. So I went to the source and asked Peter Samson himself. Here’s his complete response: Sorry, I don’t know anything about that recording. It was made without my knowledge or permission.

Aha! So this was actually the first chip music appropriation! Someone decided to put this out on vinyl without asking Peter about it. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Who had access to the computers and the know-how to play the music? Did they bring a PDP-1 into a recording studio? Who paid for it, and who cashed in? And if they didn’t do it for the money, then why wouldn’t they ask Peter about it? Hm!

Ironically, the Youtube-uploader says that there are digital recordings of the vinyl. But you have to pay for it.

Now that’s oldschool piracy for you!

Black Dog, Swedish House Mafia, Anthony Rother – New Old Sceners!

November 13, 2015

After I published the rough blog post draft Famous People who Came From the Scene I received hundreds of suggestions of sceners who moved on to the music charts, the cinema, the gaming industry, and so on. The “success stories”. A bit overwhelming, and I had to try to decide which were relevant to include or not. I didn’t have time to do a thorough job, unfortunately.

But I learned a lot of new things! The Finnish games industry seems to be even more riddled with ex-sceners than Sweden is. I was also reminded that the softsynth company AudioRealism is from an Atari-scener. And that several sceners started to make 3D graphics and visual effects for Hollywood-style movies.

What I found even more interesting is that Anthony Rother, one of the bigger names in European “oldschool electro” scene especially 15 years ago, used to be in the C64-scene as Anthony R/Online. He didn’t release much it seems – there is just one song on CSDb – but he went to the legendary Venlo party in the Netherlands, December 1988. Although he never got there. He was stopped at the border because his passport was in bad shape. So Anthony and his group mates in Online ended up hanging around in Heinsberg until the discotheque opened as Paradroid put it. Thanks to Tero for digging up this information. And here is Tero’s C64 signed by Anthony, btw:

tero mäyränen anthony rother hacker online

Other sceners chose the mainstream, or eurodisco specifically. In Finland, Captain/Frantic was involved in the euro disco group Dance Nation (check this video!) and he probably even made some Smurf eurodisco. Thomas Detert, a famous name in C64-music, also made eurodisco in Activate (see video below).

A related genre to eurodisco, progressive trance (oops, dodging glow sticks from angry trancers once again), also has some big acts with scene backgrounds: Infected Mushroom and Logic Bomb. And in the real modern version of eurodisco, EDM, there is also some scene influence. Axwell of Swedish House Mafia used to make Amiga music as Quazar.

But what made me most happy to find, thanks to Tim Koch, was the old Amiga productions of Black Dog Productions. The two original members (now active as Plaid) made a few mysterious yet harmless Amiga “demos” before they pioneered the early 1990’s “intelligent techno” that led to IDM.

Fractal Factory #1 from 1990 (above) is way more hip hop inspired than most scene works at the time. Loopy and “trancey”, the rhythmic and harmonic approach has many similarities to their seminal Warp-album Bytes from 1993.

The Pharaoh amiga demo (above) is more rave-culture oriented. The music has these loopy, mysterious and monotonous beats and the visuals have.. well.. loopy, mysterious and monotonous animations. :)

They used a very odd music software. The comments on the Pharaoh-video (recommended reading) leads to this video of the Pharaoh-song playing in a tracker called MultiMedia Sound. This seems to be one of the least popular Amiga music programs ever, judging from SOAMC. To be fair though, there are hundreds of songs made in its predecessor, SoundFX.

Black Dog released more Amiga-stuff. Fractal Factory #2 was on a CU Amiga disk, for example. Interesting to note is that they released it in the public domain and not in the scene. While that might seem nitpicky, these were two culturally separated fields at the time. For sceners, the public domain was lame. You wouldn’t want to be caught dialling into a BBS full of PD-lamers! Although PD-people watched and distributed demos, afaik there was some resentment towards the cracker-parts of the scene. This distinction can still be seen today, for example in arguments about whether Compunet-productions should be on CSDb or not.

Black Dog had their own BBS called Black Dog Towers. I can’t find much info about it on the web, but I remember reading a log from a local trader who called the BBS using a Calling Card (w0w). He got to chat with Ken Downie who made some a snarky remark about the trader’s handle. Fair enough perhaps, becase he used the handle aPH3X tW1Nn. :)

Right, enough for now. Feel free to explore the list of “famous” sceners and add your suggestions to this neverending project.


Cyber Punk Rock and Lucifer, 1977 & 1994

May 24, 2015

In the 00’s, people liked to compare chipmusic with punk. No one more than Malcolm McLaren, who was the manager for Sex Pistols when they released their first album in 1977. That same year, Duncan Lewis Jowitt formed his first punk band and played in various constellations until 1994. That’s when he discovered the Amiga and became Lucifer.

His first release was Cyber Punk Rock. It was a bootable floppy with two Ramones-covers. The originals didn’t have much vocals, so Lucifer was able to fit two songs with vocals on one 880kb floppy disk. The second song is also available on YouTube. Cyber Punk Rock Volume 2 came out later in 1994 and was a double-floppy release with four Ramones covers and one original. CU Amiga wrote: That’s quite cool. The music’s not that good but it’s a nice idea. You could order the floppies for £2,75 from Scribble PD. Public Domain Punk Rock!

Well, I like it. And I was quite happy that his four floppy releases 94-95 were recently re-issued as MP3-downloads: Cyber Punk and Cyber Zone. Highly recommended! The music was made in OctaMED. Like most other people who made Amiga music, he ripped sounds from other Amiga songs. So his music has traces from both scene music and game music. It sounds like he used a guitar sample from Lotus Turbo Esprit Challenge, for example.

Vocal Amiga rock music had been around atleast since 1989 in games, demos and as standalone songs. But this was something pretty different. It was executable music not aimed at the scene, not aimed at the 1990’s multimedia bubble, and not aimed at some sort of “music industry”. Or the punk scene. It’s actually not easy to say who this was made for. Which makes it even better! Anyway, here are some examples of vocal Amiga rock from 1989-1994:

^ Minä Omistan by Groo (April 1994). Hard and odd. 455kb.

^ Anarchy in the UK by Bannasoft/Melon Dezign (1993). Rocky and lo-fi. 295kb.

^ Fuck the Norm by Chromag (1993). Rage Against the Machine-y. 276kb.

^ Jumping Jackson (1990). Curiously soft rock.

sportmadTrash-Collector by Walkman (1990). Great lyrics! Released in the demo Sportmad by Complex. 88kb.

^ Slemmig Torsk by The Lynx Crew (1989). Samples the full song “En slemmig torsk” by the classical swedish punk band KSMB.

Bonus: Sonic Youth’s Youth Against Fascism that my neighbours made in 1993 to hate on a local demo group.

More linkage:

Computer Music Was Invented by Women and Militaries

May 17, 2015


Irrlicht Project, who runs the chip/demo/8bit blog IP’s Ancient Wonderland, has done some impressive research to find out that computer music is older than we thought. Just a few months before Australians and Englishmen did their pioneering beeps, a group of Americans played music with the UNIVAC. Lieutenant Herb Finney at Army Air played hits like The Eyes of Texas and The Air Force Song.

Later on a Betty Holberton, who was involved in programming the ENIAC, made some other tunes which Irrlicht writes about in his post. Those songs were played in public in June 1951, which is the oldest public performance of computer music that we know of at the moment. Depending on what you mean by computer music. The ENIAC did not actually synthesize digital sounds like the Australians and Englismen did that same summer (err, winter). The ENIAC-music was essentially telling a radio receiver to play notes and music. This technique was made famous by Steve Dompier on the Altair 8800 in 1975, but had been done many times before. In fact, in 1968 the Rand Corporation writes (p.16):

All in all, this was a neat and clever idea, and still is: nearly every college computing center rediscovers it independently.

Another h/t to herr Irrlicht for finding this quote, which gives us reason to ask: How much digital music experiments have been lost in time? I think it’s safe to say that it’s quite a lot, for several reasons. Many engineers were doing this for fun, perhaps even without permission after working hours. And music wasn’t exactly part of the repertoire of “proper computing” so it was not well documented either.


If you are surprised that a woman did this – don’t be. The first programmer was a woman, and many other computing pioneers were too. Also – back when “computer” was a work position and not a machine, many computers were females.

Are you surprised that militaries did this? Don’t be. Plenty of music- and media technologies originate from military R&D. The German media theorist Kittler went as far saying that “the entertainment industry is, in all senses of the term, misuse of military equipment”.

Anyway. I’ve changed the timeline accordingly and look forward to doing it again!

Btw, if you happen to be pals with Herb Finney you might want to get in touch with Allan Reiter for his UNIVAC documentation project (where the image at the top is taken from).

Btw, Also check out the Dutch computer music that was released on 7″ in 1962 that Irrlicht also found recently.

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.

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?