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!


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