Archive for the ‘history’ Category

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?


Top Amiga Scene Composers

May 23, 2014

Eurochart was a disk magazine that published perhaps the most well-respected charts of the Amiga demoscene. It was a big thing to be #1 there! Among other things, it ranked music composers and I found a list of all the #1-composers over the years (1989-2006). Made by Slash/Citron in a Facebook-group. So, I’ll just leave this here with links to their current work (not necessarily music).

Oh and just so you know – the Amiga scene didn’t die in 2006. There’s still plenty of good music being made by people like Hoffman and my group mates in Up Rough. Anyway:

Top Amiga composers (amount of #1-spots @ Eurochart)

1. Revisq – 7
2. Muffler – 6
3. Jester, Romeo Knight – 5
4. Audiomonster, 4-mat – 4
5. Tip, Moby, Jogeir – 3
6. Dr.Awesome, Reed – 2
7. TipMantronix, Dizzy, Ganja, Yolk 1

#1-spots for all Eurochart issues

#3 1. Romeo Knight / RSI
#4 1. Romeo Knight / Red Sector Inc. 
#5 1. Romeo Knight / Red Sector Inc. 
#6 1. Romeo Knight / Red Sector Inc.
#7 1. Romeo Knight / Red Sector Inc.
#8 1. 4-Mat / Anarchy (RSI?)
#9 1. 4-Mat / Anarchy 
#10 1. 4Mat (Ex.Anarchy – last appearance)
#11 1. 4-mat / Anarchy 
#12 1. Tip / Phenomena 
#13 1. Tip / Phenomena 
#14 1. Tip / Phenomena 
#15 1. Mantronix & Tip / Phenomena 
#16 1. Audiomonster / Silents 
#17 1. Audiomonster / Melon Dezign 
#18 1. Audiomonster / Melon Dezign 
#19 1. Audiomonster / Melon Dezign 
#20 1. Jester / Sanity 
#21 1. Jester / Sanity 
#22 1. Jester / Sanity 
#23 1. Jester / Sanity 
#24 1. Jester / Sanity 
#25 1. Moby / Sanity 
#26 1. Moby / Sanity 
#27 1. Moby / Sanity 
#28 1. Dizzy 
#29 1. Jogeir/Scoop
#30 1. Jogeir/Pulse&Noiseless
#31 1. Jogeir/Pulse&Noiseless
#32 1. Revisq/Anadune&Floppy
#33 1. Revisq/AND&FLP&NAH 
#34 1: Muffler of Haujobb&DCS 
#35 1: Muffler of Haujobb&DCS 
#36 1: Muffler of SCX&DCS&LVB 
#37 1. Muffler 
#38 1. Revisq 
#39 1. Revisq 
#40 1. Revisq 
#41 1. Ganja 
#42 1. Muffler 
#43 1. Muffler 
#44 1. Reed 
#45 1. Reed 
#46 1. Revisq 
#47 1. Revisq 
#48 1. Yolk



FACT Magazine Gets Computer Music All Wrong

April 22, 2014


FACT magazine just published 14 pieces of music software that shaped modern music. It writes a history that seriously portrays computer music history as going from “bad” to “good” and from “no options” to “anything you want”. It’s quite strange, since it’s written by Xela who did his first (?) release on the demoscene label Monotonik back in the days. Ok, well:

*initiate uncool data-rant*

1980’s computers are portrayed in the article as word processors that only a few people made some experimental sounds with (of course, USA’s computer music inventor is mentioned as always). First of all – as much as I love text mode, computers had been using colours and vector graphics for ages. They had also generated pop music in 1956, made christmas carrols and TV-music in 1958, played Bach in 1959 and in 1960 you could draw music with a light pen. And in 1968 Douglas Engelbart did that demo that sort of featured all those gimmicks we still use today. So no, it wasn’t like computer music was just a grey little blob in the 1980’s. But that’s what the article claims. But it was followed by a revolution in quality!

Over time, however, music software blossomed, and transitioned from fiddly time wasters, doomed to the forgotten directories on an Commodore Amiga cover disk, to the plethora of usable and sturdy apps we have available to use today.

“Plethora of usable and sturdy”… what? Let me count the times that Ableton Live has crashed compared to how many times Protracker has crashed. Let me count how many years that your spankin’ new [DAW/VST/whatever] will be usable for, and then compare that to the sequencers and softsynths from the 1980’s. Let me count the amount of bloat that got added to music software in the 1990’s, and compare that to the ultra-fast interfaces of 1980’s trackers. Let’s look at the huge archives of MOD-files and chiptunes that are freely available today. And if we strip away all the normal stuff, there’s a quite fair amount of innovative or impressive works. Just like today. Made “despite of” or “because of” the software, depending on your perspective. I can only assume that these things are not important for the author, but let me say this: usability & usefulness are not exactly objective concepts.

I know the purpose of the article is not to give a thorough history lesson on computer music. Seems more like a click-bate, although there are some very interesting bits in there too. But if you start at 1985 and basically only say what the software did and who used it, you’re not going to be able to say anything about “shaping modern music”. And I don’t know, the tone of that first page of text just pisses me off, actually. The author might not like people (“hipsters”?) who don’t use computers to record audio nowadays, but he does it on the expense of more or less thousands of years of music that didn’t have these “apps” that have been fashionable for, oh, 20 years?

Oh and one last thing: The article opens by saying “We’re at the stage in history where using music software isn’t so much an option as it is a necessity.” What does that even mean? Hardware and software need eachother – you can’t have one without the other. And in fact, the software metaphor as we use it today leads people like Florian Cramer to say that software has existed for thousands of years in magic, music composition and poetry.

Sorry Xela, I guess you just touched a sore spot…


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.

Rewiring the History of the Demoscene: Wider Screen

April 15, 2014


Wider Screen has just released a themed issue on scene research, including scientific articles on the demoscene and the chipscene. It seems to be some very good texts, although I’ve only read one so far. So let’s talk about that one!

Markku Reunanen gives a long-awaited critical examination of the history of the demoscene in How Those Crackers Became Us Demosceners. He notes that the traditional story is basically that people cracked games, made intros for them, and then started to make demos. He problematizes this boring story by describing different overlaps between the worlds of games, demos and cracks. The first time I really reflected on this issue was in Daniel Botz’ dissertation. It is indeed obvious that this is a complex story full of conflicting narratives, and we can assume that (as always) The History is based on the current dominant discourses.

What do I mean with that? Well, take Sweden as an example, where the scene was always quite large. These days the scene is usually, when it is mentioned at all, described as a precursor to games, digital arts and other computer-related parts of “the creative industries“. When Fairlight’s 25-year-anniversary was reported in the Swedish mainstream media, cracking was portrayed as a legal grey area that contributed to the BNP. The forth-coming Swedish book Generation 64 seems to be telling a similar story. The scene was a bunch of kids who might have done some questionable things, but since these people are now found in Swedish House Mafia, Spotify and DICE it seems like all is forgiven. But it’s not.

Look at what the other sceners are doing today. The ones who didn’t get caught up in IT, advertising and academia. Piratbyrån, The Pirate Bay and Megaupload all involved scene people and, from the previous story, appears as a darker side of the scene. The data hippies, the copyists, the out-of-space artists, the dissidents, the fuck-ups. The people who don’t have much to gain from their scene history. But also the BBS-nazis (one of them living close to me) is interesting to consider today, when far-right discussion boards are frequently mentioned in the media. The info-libertarians at Flashback also remind me of the scene’s (in a very broad sense) spirit of “illegal information” and VHS-snuff movies that I mention in The Forgotten Pioneers of Creative Hacking and Social Networking (2009). Something else I mention there, as does Reunanen, are the swappers and traders whose sole function was to copy software around the world. But they are not really part of the history since they weren’t doing that Creative and Original work that we seem to value so dearly today.

No, the scene wasn’t a harmless place for boys-2-men, from geeks to CEOs. And also – there were plenty of people making weird stuff with home computers that were not part of the scene. People at Compunet were making audiovisual programs that looked really similar to the demoscene’s, but are usually not regarded as part of the scene. Possibly because of its apparent disconnection from the cracker scene. I’ve sometimes seen STE argue about this with sceners at CSDb. Jeff Minter did demo-like things, and people had been doing demo-like computer works for decades already. And all the hobbyists who wrote simple or strange sonic and visual experiments on their 8-bit home computers, but never released it in the scene? Well, they are effectively being distanced and erased from the history of the demoscene by not being included in archives like CSDb and HVSC that exclude “irrelevant” things.

So yeah – thumbs up to Markku for this article! Let’s not forget the provocative and subversive elements of the scene (read more about that in the 2009-article I link to above) because they might become very relevant sooner than we think.

A Short History of Hardcore Chipmusic

March 9, 2014

This post is an attempt to save some of the history of the harder kinds of chipmusic, before all of us forget what happened. Please comment or get in touch with corrections and more suggestions. This post will be continuously updated thanks to people like Alex Yabsley, Peter Swimm, Takashi Kawano, Abortifacient, Ant1, Nordloef, C-men, Rioteer, and … you?

Glenn Rune Gallefoss' C64

Those who think that chipmusic is cute and innocent will be surprised to know that there are thousands of evil, rough and hard chiptunes around. In fact, what we call breakcore today developed in the mid 00’s by using the same tools as chipmusic had done a few years earlier: amiga trackers.

In the mid 90s, the hardcore 4×4-pounding of gabber slowly evolved to a slightly more, uhm, “mature” genre. This evolution, I’ve been told, was driven forward by the Australian Bloody Fist label. Many of their artists worked with Protracker on Amiga. The label manager Mark (aka Nasenbluten) told me that they made 20 releases during 1994-2004 that were more or less only made on Amiga (see timeline).

The Amiga was likely used because it was affordable and available, reasonably portable, and also very sturdy. So it wasn’t only Bloody Fist who did this. I did it too, although there wasn’t exactly much interest for it. Elsewhere in in Europe the labels Fischkopf, Fifth Era and Digital Hardcore put out plenty of amiga hardcore with artists such as Patric Catani and Cristoph de Babalon. In USA, Milwaukee seems to have had a big Amiga following with eg Davros and Unibomber, later followed up by Dispyz who is now running Radio Graffiti that puts out plenty of hardcore Amiga music.

This music is sometimes called amigacore. This is not just a geek term – I saw it used in a record shop just a few years ago. It seems to be characterized by a raw and unedited sound, and isn’t necessarily made on Amiga. Remember, it was during the 90s that sample chopping and VST-wankery became popular, so this formed a sort of anti-thesis to that.

But in fact, the choppers and wankers of IDM wasn’t so far away from amigacore as you may think. Chopping and wanking had been done for years with trackers. And trackers are still well-suited to mess around with samples and create intricate beats by easily assigning effects to individual trigs and so on. Famous breakcore artists like DJ Scud and Venetian Snares seem to have started on Amiga, though I’ve yet to confirm this. But many famous IDM-artists started with trackers, such as Bogdan Raczynski, Brothomstates and Machinedrum.

After the 90s boom of amigacore, the next 8-bit hardcore booms came along with the growing hype of chipmusic. In the mid 00’s, gazillions of artists started to mix chipsounds and breakcore. My impression is that chipbreak often uses quite poppy and even trancey harmonies, along with amen breaks. I was doing quite a lot of this too at the time, and I really enjoyed the combination of happy & hard, like in Comsten. But I think Sabrepulse (UK), Saskrotch (USA) and possibly Bit Shifter (USA) were the biggest names in this field, and later maybe IAYD (USA)?. Tons of other artists worked in high tempos, such as Paza & Psilodump (SE), David Sugar aka Logic Bomb (UK), Divag and Computertruck (FR), Dorothy’s Magic Bag (SE), USK & Maru & BSK (JP), Jellica  & his Kittenrock label (UK), Eat Rabbit (FR) and Uoki Toki & 777 minus 111 (RU).

In tandem to chipbreak, others worked with darker atmospheres, sometimes bordering to noise and rock. Overthruster and Timeheater from USA seemed pretty outstanding at the time, and were also aggressively anti towards the more lightsided chiptunery. :|krew was an early-2000s group including Overthruster & Starpause. The mp3death-labelmaintained by Starpause, also put out plenty of evilry, as did 8CYLINDER. Baseck (MP3), though operating a bit outside the chipscene, put out plenty of good stuff too. American artists like Shitbird, Stagediver, CCDM, Kool Skull, WizwarsYatagarasuNarwhalz of SoundWet Mango & the label Datathrash continued to work in this field. 

In Europe there’s plenty of rave/noise/breakcore/gabber-disco people like Mobb Beep (DK), DJ Scotch Egg (UK), Next Life (NO), Gijs Gieskes (NL), Huoratron (FI), Dr Von Pnok & Zombectro (FR),  Hexadeci (UK), Kodek (LV), Distortled Box (ES) Lo-Bat (BE), Rioteer (NL), Unas (FR), and the French label Chip’n’Damned released some good stuff. Japan also had many artists, but right now I can only think of Aonami and Hizmi (and the rest of Ground Zero). Also check Kizan518. In South America I remember Una niña malvada used to get some pretty harsh stuff out there, and now Yz Yx is delivering some new goods.

Australia has continued to deliver the goods ever since Bloody Fist years. Ten Thousand Free Men and Their Families and Godinpants with a taste of punk rock, Abortifacient, Peaches the Wale… The Thematics Radio had tracker specials with lots of the aussie low-res hardcore, including links to mod and xm-files – check here.

Ok, that’ll have to be enough for now. Feeling pissed off that X wasn’t mentioned? Please help me to document this history by making a comment or get in touch.
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