What’s in the Box?

After passing the first hurdle of having a working computer and a working floppy drive, it was time to rummage through the rest of the box and see what are goodies were in store.

Having sort of gotten over the loss of my books and magazines (whenever I say ‘books and magazines’ I’m reminded of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (or Mormons or whatever the blazing hell they were) visiting Bernard in Black Books), I figured let’s savour the moment and closely examine what is left.

Let’s begin …

Computer Concepts Wordwise Plus

Ok, so not the most exciting start – a word processor.  Near mint original box of Wordwise Plus.  I have no idea how I acquired this.  I don’t know if it works, but it is in such good condition that I assume it does.  I’d better send in that registration card perhaps, as Computer Concepts are still around (I think: the website doesn’t look like it has been updated for a while).  Note the function key strip at the bottom – you could insert this behind the clear plastic strip above the functions keys to get a reference for the shortcuts.  Someone’s thinking …

The Music System

From Island Logic (a division of Island Records strangely enough), I bought this new to try my hand at making some music but didn’t get very far.  As I didn’t read music and had no other experience in making music, it was too difficult to try and get my ideas down – I really needed the immediacy of being able to play around on a synthesizer keyboard and then edit the results into a song.  I haven’t tried it again yet, but flicking through the manual suggests that it is a pretty sophisticated bit of software.

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 13

In the dying days of the BBC, Superior mostly released compilations of older games, with the occasional new game included that wasn’t ‘big enough’ for a standalone release, as well as games from other companies even.  Barbarian II by Peter Scott is the highlight here, being a hack ‘n’ slash fighting game.

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 8

Another great compilation spread across 3 (count ’em!) discs.  As yet I haven’t played them, but I’m itching to get back into Repton (the game, not the village, which of course I have never been to).

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 7

Definitely one of the best in the series.  Firetrack was a pretty amazing technical achievement and great fun (go Orlando!), while Bonecruncher kept me tied to the screen for a while.
Snapper is as perfect a Pacman clone as you could expect without legal issues and Ghouls was a great little platformer.

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 6

I love shoot ’em ups, and Galaforce 2 had plenty of that plus a fantastic Martin Galway soundtrack.
Yet another faithful arcade conversion by Acornsoft in the form of Hopper and I remember Hunchback being fun for a while.
Looking forward to giving Sentinel another go, and thankfully my Dad kept our list of level codes so I’ll take it as a personal challenge to fill in the rest.

The Fourth Dimension - White Magic

Coming later into the BBC scene, The Fourth Dimension produced some cracking games for the Beeb and the Archimedes later on.
I was always a fan of the arcade game ‘Gauntlet’ but it was so damn hard (and with the ability to top-up your health at any time simply by inserting more money it was more financially crippling than any poker machine), so I was keen to get my hands on this game.  Can’t remember much about it but looking forward to it again.

Superior Software - The Palace of Magic

Can’t remember much about this and I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to complete it without some sort of cheat sheet, but once again I’m looking forward to finding out.

Logotron - XOR Designer

I didn’t realise that BBC games manufacturers sold so many copies of anything that they felt able to release the game and the designer as two completely separate products and you really needed to buy them both.  The designer comes with a paltry 3 levels all taken from the original game and that’s it.
I used to own the original game too (taken from the cover of A&B Computing and then registered to unlock the rest of the levels) but I lent it to someone and never got it back. It was the first game I ever bought and it took about 5 months to arrive from England by swallow (obviously a heavily laden one).

The Fourth Dimension - Nevryon

Awesome shoot ’em up.  Much as I enjoyed this, when I saw screenshots of the Archimedes version I was absolutely blown away – I don’t think I had ever seen something as cool as that.  Still haven’t played it …

Superior Software - Exile

What can I say?  I may have completed this game, or at least got damn close.  Yes, I used a hint sheet but it wasn’t easy.  I don’t think I’ve ever played anything so atmospheric except maybe the original Quake game (with the Trent Reznor soundtrack and effects).
It was so tense, and you could feel it every time you got hit by something.  The physics was so realistic that it was hard not to feel like you were there, particularly on the surface of the planet with the wind.
Simply an amazing combination of gameplay and technical achievement.  I’m simply in awe of the people who have the skill to produce work like this (and sick to death of the idiots who somehow make all the money).

Superior Software - Exile (contents)

I’m so happy I own a copy of this.  All I need is a box set of Elite and anything else is just a bonus.  Note all the different keys that are in use.  In this game you can crouch, fly, pick up and throw things and change the angle at which you fire/throw.
I might sit down and read the novella …

Hmm … there was a kid at school with a copy of Elite which I borrowed for a while.  Might need to find out where he lives.

Acornsoft Logo

Early on I felt it was important that I learn another computer language, and clearly Logo was the language of choice.  I think it just came down to the fact that a local computer store had this in stock so I bought it. If only they had Acornsoft ISO Pascal instead things would have been a lot different.
This is a pretty hefty package and comes on two ROMs, along with a sternly worded copyright notice on the box that starts “You are reminded that the software …”.  Back in those days I didn’t always feel guilty until proven innocent when it came to copyright, and no fines were mentioned that totalled multiple year’s salary.

Like the average person could duplicate two ROMs anyway.

Finally, despite the mysterious disappearance of the actual user manual, I still had two versions of the disc interface manual.

Inside front cover

Interestingly, this manual claims to be modified for Australia and is presumably printed locally.  Not sure what the differences could be, and I didn’t see any places where ‘By Jove!’ was replaced by ‘Strewth!’

So folks, that is the sum total of my collection at the moment and it looks like I need to hit Ebay for some more choice pieces.

I’ve had some good news recently however – finance has been approved on the house so we’ll be moving in within a couple of weeks, and that means I can start setting up the garage out the back into some sort of retro pad.

First thing to get setup is my trusty Loewe Xelos 5270 television.

Loewe Xelos 5270 ZW

Pretty much as good as a CRT can get, and I held off buying a plasma/LCD TV for a long time because the picture quality wasn’t as smooth as this. Sure the resolution was better, and they were less bulky and with more screen area, but they all looked so ‘digital’ for a long time.
Still, once the Bravia arrived it got packed away, but I couldn’t bear to get rid of it.  Good thing too – it has something that fewer modern TVs have – SCART, and better still it supports RGB input signals.
And guess what the BBC supports besides shitty RF?  Oh, boy!

I just need to make me up a rewired SCART cable and I’ll have a beautiful display that will look better than the Bravia (which can only support RF).

At least I didn’t throw away the TV.  I discovered a few days ago that I did in fact give my magazines and books away many years ago to a fellow Beeb owner, and he moved out of home a year ago – and threw them out.

Fark!

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On ‘tracking, SID, Koyaanisqatsi and more … (Part 2)

I’ve only just recovered from the awesomeness of the Monty Mole and Delta covers, but must press on with the remaining modules I want to share with you.  I’ve realised that a few of these don’t seem to play in XMPlay: it just completely ignores them so you’ll need MODPlug instead, which seems to cope better with older tracks.

Just remember to rename the extension of these files to .mod from .doc as this was the only way I could upload them to WordPress.

Hallucination – Courtesy of Jesper Kyd, this is reminiscent of Tubular Bells but with some kickin’ drums over the top.  A very familiar drum sample – love to know where it came from.  It’s not the Amen Break though …

Jamboree – From Fleshbrain (no, really!), this is a great dub/reggae piece.  With steel drums and some nice pitch bends and vibrato, what’s not to like?

Laidback 5 – By Dr. Awesome, as its’ name suggests, this is a mellow piece that travels along very nicely.

Message – Another by Jesper Kyd, this samples Depeche Mode, Vangelis and 2001: A Space Odyssey. With a line up like that you are destined for success, but it is a fun track and stands well on its own merits.

The Moebius 2 – Coming out in 1993 this is practically modern, but still features 8 bit samples and four tracks.  A great little trancer.  Not sure of the author.

Moongazer – Fantastic little piece, with a very good attempt at a saxophone.  I should have guessed – this is also by Dr. Awesome.

Noname – Noname is the name, but it is by Anty.  This is one of those mods that just has that ‘mod’ feel which I can’t describe – gloriously electronic but has that ability to take you on a journey.  You can just imagine the graphics that would go with this.  Sadly XMPlay doesn’t play this so use something else instead.

Paradox – Composed by Pinnacle, this is another mellow track, this time featuring some nice bendy flute and more plinky plonk sounds that I love.

RSI Rise – This is a track that I keep coming back to (but you’ll need MODPlug to play it).  Another Romeo Knight number (hey, it says it in the track), this just screams out cyberpunk.  What the hell is cyberpunk anyway?  I think this is one of those ideas that made perfect sense for a while – right between a technological dark age where you had to be a computer whizz to get a computer to do anything of any real interest to a time where everyone was jacked into a network 24/7 without even realising it … only without the cool augmented cybernetic bodies.  We now have a ‘disease’ – Nomophobia, not to mention Internet addiction in general, yet no-one seems to have made a conscious decision to ever say- “Hey, this computer stuff is really going somewhere, I’m going to give the geeks some credit and hang up my football boots and join this interweb thingy”.  Instead, the people who make this all happen are still labelled ‘boffins’ (if I ever meet the person who coined that term …) yet if Joe Sixpack is ever unable to instant message his girlfriend it is all our fault.

Nomophobia – for God’s sake, how could this even come up as a possibility of an idea of something that could potentially happen. Fear of being out of mobile phone contact?  Sounds like nirvana to me.  It never ceases to amaze me the number of people on an aeroplane who switch their phone on the instant they hit the ground, despite warnings to keep them turned off.  Seriously, what are they expecting to hear?  Are they Donald Trump?  Are they waiting for news of some multi-million deal, or are they waiting for some inane shit from their family – ‘Hi, I’m waiting at the terminal‘ – where else would they fucking be waiting?  People need to gain some perspective on their lives.  Let’s say there was a slight possibility that something could go horribly wrong while using a mobile phone next to a fuel pump or whatever.  Is it their right to make that decision for me that they consider that possibility remote, and thus don’t have a problem ringing to tell someone ‘that they will be there soon‘.  From where I am sitting on the plane I can pretty much see the person on the other end of the call waving to us from the terminal.  For fucks sake, your personal life is not that important.  A few minutes will not send them into a flurry of concern, desperation and mindless speculation that the plane is currently being held up by terrorists and will explode if the tanker truck approaches to empty out the toilet system.

Anyway, I could spend all night riling against the inanity of humanity, but will instead leave you with some of the great comments on this page.

Sahara – Damn, I swear I’m not related to the guy and there is no nepotism involved.  Yes, it is Dr. Awesome again with another out there, melodic, drifting piece.  I can’t remember where I downloaded half these mods from – they have been on my computer for ages so maybe I went to his website.  I doubt it though…  maybe I just like his style.

Sarcophaser – Well, this is a bit of a turn up for the books.  If the AMP website is to be believed, this track is written by Karsten Obarski himself – the creator of the original Soundtracker format.  Some great intertwined melodic lines – it seems that he set the tone for many modules to come and this is a wonderful example of the genre.  Great stuff …

Space Journey – As the name suggests, a journey into the mind – after that it is your responsibility of where you go next.  Fresh samples and squelchy analogue samples round out a superb track.

Telephone – An unassuming name for a sweet track that really gets me going – that melodic line gets me every time.  Pity it is so damn short. I think the author poured everything into it in one go and didn’t leave room for dessert.  A common mistake that one.  Still, put it on repeat and it will be a while before you realise it as it just flows so beautifully.  Sorry, did I not mention?  This is Karsten Orbaski again.  Funnily enough I first heard this track via a public domain disc I purchased for the Archimedes and it stuck in my head for years before I rediscovered mods on my PC and searched it out …

Thunderbirds – Had to include this as a bit of a geek anthem for the time.  Plus it has a totally awesome bass-line …  and just the right amount of orchestra hits.  Couldn’t find it in the AMP database, and it doesn’t play in XMPlay, which makes the effort all the more worthwhile.

Toccata – More commonly know as Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by the ‘father of harmony’ of the classical (or baroque?) world – Johann Sebastian Bach.  While there is debate on whether this was originally composed by Bach, whether it was originally for the organ and whether it was even in D Minor, this version kicks arse (which is like an American ass with less legs and no tail).  Ok, so while it probably derives more from Sky’s version that the original organ piece, this is still an amazing interpretation and must have been done by someone who had some idea of what they were doing.

AMP credits two people – Allister Brimble and Blaster_One.  After listening to tracks from both, I’m sure Allister deserves the credit for this mod.  Plus, it seems he is responsible for the Superfrog soundtrack as well, so as far as I’m concerned, he is God, and I am one of his most loyal and devoted subjects.  Superfrog rulez.   Actually, so does Worms, the other Team 17 masterpiece.

Unveiled – Listed on AMP as ‘ISIS Unveiled’ by Watchman and Trixal, this is so damn boppy.  Ok, so I’m going to be (uncharacteristically) geeky here and mention that there is a part of this song at exactly 32 seconds in (and at 2:39) where there is an orchestra hit line that sounds chopped up and I’m sure that is not how it is supposed to sound.  Many, many years ago I had a Soundtracker player on the PC that ran under DOS (so required a Sound Blaster compatible sound card) and when it played this track that part sounded completely different.  Instead of each note being chopped, they all blended into each other with some pitch bending, and frankly it sounded bloody fantastic.  I have never found another player that did it the same way.  Maybe it was serendipity (you need to watch it).  I’ll try and search out the modplayer in question, but I think it is on a 5 1/4 inch disc at my parents so we’ll see …

Similarity – So we come to the end of our journey, at least for now.  Composed in 1997, this contains 16 bit samples (and I sit here in 2010 and 16 bit samples are still the norm, and with MP3s the quality of music in terms of fidelity has decreased, but that is a topic for another time).  Unsurprisingly no mention of this on AMP, as it has moved firmly outside the Amiga realm, but it mentions being composed by ‘LX’.  I assume this is not Alex Paterson so it must be someone else.  You can tell it is a more recent track as it contains dire copyright notices as well, but I think I am ok as I am not making money from this, but then again IANAL.  Damn, I’ve always wanted to say that … IANAL, IANAL.

Note: this is an Impulse Tracker module, so rename it to .it rather than .mod before you try and play it otherwise your computer will explode in a fireball and almost certainly send a spark into your eye.

This track is supremely spacey and delicate and has all my favourite bits in it …

I hope something has rubbed off on you, but I guess like so many things most of the enjoyment is from the nostalgia.  You just had to be there …

Then again, I wasn’t there.  I never owned an Amiga or Commodore 64.  To this day I have never played Monty Mole.  I have to thank friends like Alex, Glen and Tank-top Tony (poor bastard recorded heaps of mods for me from his Atari ST onto tape and I used to listen to them on my walkman.  Luckily he got a kick out of it too so it wasn’t such a chore) for letting me watch demos and play Superfrog on their Amigas.

Ultimately, to me I love this music so much because it strips it down to its essence.  You had to make something sound good with only four tracks – no room to chuck in random crap that just hides the fact you have no musical ability.  No room for over production or vocals that you only include because of a vain hope of getting into the Top 40.  If your idea sucked then it was laid bare for all to see.

With that thought, I might put on some Monolake and go to bed.  I looove Monolake.  Only minimal when listened at a superficial level.  The best music is music that rewards the listener – you put the effort in to listen and the music gives back in sounds and feelings that tickle the sensitive, rarely used parts of your auditory system.  Or something …

On ‘tracking, SID, Koyaanisqatsi and more … (Part 1)

I mentioned in an earlier post the topic of Soundtracker modules.  So what?  So it was a way of creating and playing music in a relatively compact format using patterns and loops of samples?  Big deal.

Well, I guess it opened up the ability to make music on the computer to an audience of people who weren’t necessary programmers but were frequently interested in making music for programs – yes, that’s right folks, we are talking about the ‘demoscene’ (and games of course).

Starting life on the Amiga and quickly moving to its’ arch-rival the Atari ST, the variations on the Soundtracker concept became the standard way of producing and embedding music into a variety of programs, as well as a standalone app of its own, with people producing tracks just for the hell of it and compiling them together into music discs.

As someone who was pretty much into electronic music from the moment I first heard Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Doctor Who incidental music from the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, I was hooked on them.  There was just something so ‘electronic’ about them.  Being a pattern-based format and with the limitations of disk and memory capacities of the time ruling out vocals and long string sections, they tended to be rhythmic, arpeggiated and at first, limited to four simultaneous channels.

As always, when faced with limitations like this, people would embrace the format for what it could do well, and some awesome stuff came out.  You see, with computers being as powerful as they are, and with the ability to just simply include an MP3 recording of pretty much any style of music you want, from any source, the art of computer music has been lost, or at least subsumed as a sub-genre of ‘electronic’.  What would be the point of trying to write music using 4 tracks and 8 bit samples now?

My original thought was to share some links to some of my personal favourites, and ones that I think really show off what I consider the real soundtracker ‘style’.

As part of doing some background work on this (yes, it is not all made up), I came across some really cool stuff, and the web being what it is soon found myself drawn down numerous paths which I really want to share somehow (I’m letting Foxy Tunes/Yahoo Music Player play through all the tunes found here as I type).  Let’s see if I can pull it into something vaguely cohesive.

One thing I found that got me really excited (and a little misty eyed when I saw the dedication these guys have put into it) is the Amiga Music Preservation (AMP) site.  They have tried to link up every soundtracker module ever made with the people who did them and the groups they belonged to.  There are even interviews with many of the musicians – absolutely fascinating for me, but must be an amazing site for people who were actually involved in the scene at the time.  I’m so glad someone is cataloguing all this for the future.  I might slip them a fiver or two for their efforts.

Yet again this reminds me of what it is like living here away from everything when all this exciting stuff was going on.  I love it here, but not for the first time have I imagined what life would have been like if I grew up in Germany or something.  I really want to go there one day …

So with this new found resource I thought I’d try and fill in the blanks and give credit where it is due to all the artists responsible for my picks…

But first, you are going to have to find yourself a player.  I used to use Modplug, but recently tried XMPlay, which I don’t find quite as usable, but sounds noticeably better, and that’s what really counts.

And one last thing:  I couldn’t upload files to WordPress using their real extensions, so I renamed everything to be “.doc”.  Unless mentioned otherwise, rename these files to “.mod” so your player picks them up.

Yo, here we go:

Bass Sketch – Not off to a great start, as this didn’t seem to exist in the 100,000+ library of the AMP website.  This is a nice little number with a great spacious feel.  Love that analogue bass and anything that samples Art of Noise and comes off not sounding like Art of Noise is doing pretty well.  Then again, it does sound like something they could have done if they only had a couple of hundred kilobytes to play with.

Classical – This is classic soundtracker style, but at the time I’m sure the name meant something different.  Created by Random Voice, this utilises what was a standard set of sounds back them.  To actually make your own samples required equipment that wasn’t commonly available so people tended to use libraries of samples that were passed around.  I believe early on there were a couple of discs that pretty much formed the basis for the scene and many modules used them, so don’t be surprised if some of the sounds in these mods are familiar.  I have a suspicion that many of them come from a Yamaha DX-7 but could be completely wrong.
This has that ‘minor key’ feel that I love and lots of plinky-plonk sounds.

Complications – Composed by Tomas Danko, this is more upbeat, and has some nice echo effects.  It’s inna bit of a dub style too, which always wins me over …

TAR concert in air – One of my all time favourites – this just keeps growing and growing.  Thanks to Sledge Hammer, this creeps up and then hits you with that awesome bass lead and sweet percussion. Plus it has a sound called ‘Ninja’ so what more could you want? Love it!

Crack of Dawn – Until AMP came along I had no idea this was another Romeo Knight masterpiece.  Edgy and industrial, this is a perfect cyberpunk soundtrack.

Cream of the Earth – Still amazed how he managed to pack so much into four tracks – the new sounds just keep coming.  Not sure how to describe this one, but thank Romeo Knight again.

Daisy Chain – Would have loved to see the demo this came with. From Rhesus Minus, this is really out there and really shows off what is possible when you can get hold of some great samples.  That deep horn sound just hangs in the air and underpins the sense of menance.  Even though I have always liked this track, it blew me away when I hooked up the laptop to the hi-fi one day and played it in surround sound with the sub – just magic.

Delta2 – This was included as a fine example of classic soundtracker style but joining the dots in various places led to a whole new view of it.  Firstly I don’t know who wrote this as there a heaps of matches on AMP and after going through all the ones around the same file size I couldn’t find this version.  It is simply a great track, even though it uses the standard sample set – it just has something going on that really grabs your attention.

However, there is more to it than meets the ear.  While the BBC Micro was totally incapable of playing modules, there was some great music floating around. One game that I always remembered fondly for its music was Galaforce and Galaforce 2.  While the game was a very capable Galaga clone, the music was a stand-out by one Martin Galway.

Anyone who owned a Commodore 64 would remember his mastery of that machine’s sound processor – the infamous SID chip.  Interestingly, he actually started on the BBC but eventually focussed on the Commodore as I’m sad to say that it did have superior sound capabilities over the Beeb.

It was at this point that I began to get a sense of what an impact things like this had on a lot of people and the amount of interest it still gets today.

Firstly, I need to post a link to the Stairway to Hell music page for the BBC just because it has to be done.  I’ve moved away from the Doctor Who remixes for now and I’m letting that play through in the background.

Secondly, one thing I came across very quickly while trying to find out more about Martin was the C64 Audio Page.   What can I say?  An entire site, or rather, label, devoted to the Commodore 64 and its music.  Featuring recordings of original tunes from the machine as well as numerous remix albums this is a great site, and the fact that you can buy their stuff from iTunes must mean something.

By this time I was also seeing references to Rob Hubbard, a similarly gifted C64 SID musician, and by whatever means I found myself on YouTube.

Now the thing about YouTube is that it does a pretty good job of suggesting related stuff.  Before I knew it I was listening to an orchestral version of the soundtrack Rob did for a C64 game called … Delta.

Wow … once again I’m blown away that people are so into this that not only do they spend time scoring this for an orchestra, but they do it so bloody well.

However, reading the comments led to another surprise: this soundtrack is based on the music Philip Glass did for the film Koyaanisqatsi.  I have seen this film but it was quite a while ago, but after hearing it done orchestrally I have flickerings of recollection.  Still, accusations of plagiarism I think are unfounded as Rob has certainly brought a new vision to it – at the least I’m sure the pulsing bass-line of his version wasn’t in the original.

While I’m itching now to hear the original again, there were a couple more stops to be made before I could move on:

Delta with Powerchords

Some dudes at a festival with guitars and bongos

So what have we learnt from this?  Through a bit of creative cutting and pasting, Philip Glass’ work has now potentially been brought to the attention of a whole new generation of music fans.  I’d love to know what he thinks about it.  I actually went to the contact page of his site and was confronted with a bunch of crap regarding his publicist and various distributors of his music but no way of actually talking to the great man himself.  I might have to look further afield …

Maybe he might decide to sue instead, but that would just be illogical.  That just makes no sense. No real artist would do that.  What could you possibly gain by pissing off your listeners and fans?

Still, it does happen from the more artistically bankrupt people who are living off the royalties of the only half-decent song they ever did.  Sorry, too tired to find an example right now, I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

I’ve decided to split this post and go to bed, but I need to share one last song:

Monty Mole – I couldn’t find the author of this particular version on AMP either.  Love that house piano, and really, the orchestra hit never completely went away, it’s just lain dormant since the 80s and resurfaces in times of need. I never had the pleasure of playing this game or hearing the original C64 music by Rob Hubbard, but once again there is a bit of a culture around this one too.

First, check out the C64 Orchestra‘s version.

That was the entrée, now for the main course.

And finally for dessert, not really music related but piss funny: A ‘review‘ of the Monty Mole game.

‘Till next time … auf wiedersehen.

Actually, one last thing – I started this with Martin Galway, so I’ll finish with this fine rendition of his Wizball theme.  Plus that guy looks like one of my clients (hi Paul!).  All this makes me want to learn the guitar.  What is the world coming to!