Flat four


Chiptunes - Atari music

This is a transcript of the programme broadcast as part of the chiptunes series on Flat Four Radio in 2005. The programme can be downloaded from the Internet Archive.

PRESENTER: This programme is about people who make music with old
computers - specifically, Atari's 80s home computers.

PAUL B DAVIS: ...these weird chirpy things...

  [Paul Slocum - Up On the Housetop]

PRESENTER: The Atari Company ushered in the video game era in 1972 by
releasing the now-legendary video game Pong. Later on, they stared to
produce consoles that you could use to play a variety of games, and also
a series of fully-fledged home computers.

The sound on these early home computers was primitive by any modern
standards, but it had a voice all of its own.

  [Grayscale - Irish Wood]

PRESENTER: This track is by Grayscale. It was made in 2004 - even modern
artists are pushing the classic Atari 8-bit sounds.

Another 8-bit Atari musician is Paul B Davis.

PAUL: My name is Paul Davis, I run a label called Beige Records, and I
have a band called the 8-Bit Construction Set, and I also release music
under my real name.

  [The 8-Bit Construction Set - Saucemaster]

PAUL: It's a 12-inch record, and it's sort of - well, we call it a DJ
tools record / concept album, if that makes sense. So it's supposed to
be a functional record, with samples and loops for DJs to use, but also
has some thematic content. And the thematic content is it's all coming
from old home computers - one side is all done on Atari 2600, and the
other is done on Commodore 64. I think it was the first record of its

That essentially defines what we do: we make functional, fun, sometimes
stupid music, but we always try to have some kind of high-faluting art
concept behind it, cos we really like that overlap between the two

With eight binary bits, the largest number you can get is 256, so that
number comes up in the number of commands it can understand, the number
of memory, everything like that. So it's easier in my brain to program.
I can't handle - 16 bits is millions and millions of numbers, and it
just gets too confusing.

The Atari sounds are ones and zeroes, which when you hook it up to a
speaker is interpreted by your ears as a square wave, like, on or off.
So it just has a totally crap crunchy sound. And I like it a lot. And I
really like that old 80s home computing culture, that's what gets me
excited. [Emma laughs] Yes, it's not my wife, it's old 80s home
computing culture.

EMMA: It's true though, that's the thing!

PRESENTER: Paul's long-suffering wife Emma is actually involved in this
eight-bit world too. She's involved in running an online community
called micromusic.net.

EMMA: My name's Emma Davidson, I'm part of the London HQ of
micromusic.net, and I'm also one of the board members for micromusic -
and my performer name and login name for micromusic is Lektrogirl.

  [Lektrogirl - Ganggirlz]

Micromusic is a website for uploading and downloading MP3s in the genre
that we call "micromusic" - it could be chipstyle, or lo-fi sounding,
reminiscent of early computer games, not necessarily made with old
gaming systems or anything like that. But that's the sound of the music
that's there. But it's also got a very strong sense of community online
and offline. Groups organising events and parties all round Europe, and
I think in America and Australia too.

There is a social scene, you know? Yeah, my mum's been on there, trying
to find where I am! There is a really strong social scene and that's
what I mean about the community spirit on- and offline, with events.
When they organise festivals in different cities, you know, people fly
over from Germany to come to London for our events, and other people
come from America to go to the ones in Germany, you know...

  [Psilodumputer - Psilodumputer]

EMMA: In London we're doing our parties every two months at the moment.
I always find it's a bit like a village fete or something - do you know
what I mean? Someone'll want to make a banner, and someone'll want to
make posters, and someone'll want to make a birthday cake, and it'll be
someone's friend's birthday for real, and so we'll have a party for
that.... When we organise an event in London, everybody that performs at
the event pays for their own travel, they play for no fee, and everybody
kid of pitches in to help - so it's always got that friendly kind of
atmosphere. And it's nice reading the reviews on other people's blogs
and websites, that have come to the event, and said, "I went there to
the micromusic festival at 93 Feet East, and it was like going to a
family Christmas." It's not like a gig where everyone's trying to be big
stars or something.

PRESENTER: So who are some of the current heroes of micromusic?

EMMA: There's Role Model, who is a Swedish guy who is the
creator-inventor-programmer of the LSDJ cartridge, which is a music
software for the Gameboy. goto80, which is a friend of Role Model's, who
makes music on Commodore 64. gwEm, who is a London-based guy who makes
music with Atari and a flying-V guitar. There's this guy called
Firestarter - he made a synthesiser form a SID chip. Bodenstandig 2000,
who are a German-based duo making music on old Ataris.

PAUL: He had a picture of a Atari 130XE, which was the last model of
Atari 8-bit home computers, before they put out the ST line. It was on
the cover of their record. And I listened to their record, and I didn't
hear it on there at all! So that's how I got to know them, I emailed
them saying that they were fake-asses because they had an old 8-bit
computer on there but they weren't even using it on their record...

PRESENTER: Bodenstandig 2000 achieved some kind of fame when their music
was used on an incredibly annoying advert featuring a frog. Here's
another of their Atari tracks:

  [drx - Oktopus]

PRESENTER: In 1985 Atari released the Atari ST, one of the first 16-bit
home computers. This broke out of the safe but somewhat limited world
that Paul B Davis was talking about, and stepped up the computing power
available to the average home computer user. So what was the sound like?

GWEM: Well, four years earlier commodore brought out the C64, which was
the most popular home computer ever, and this had a  quite advanced
3-channel sound chip with different waveforms and filters. Four years
later Atari brought out their new ST, which was supposed to be the big
thing - it was one of the first 16-bit machines available - so they
decided to put one of the worst possible sound chips in there, which
just had one waveform and no filters, and was generally obsolete even
then. So their decision was quite mysterious.

PRESENTER: That's Gareth Morris, also known as gwEm, one of the
micromusic artists Emma was talking about earlier. He makes a lot of his
music using the Atari ST. So why does he do it?

GWEM: You get envious of Commodore machines, like the C64 or the Amiga,
there's always a rivalry there, and... at least the Atari has quite a
powerful processor, which you can do some tricks with and push the chip
a bit further, and it doesn't sound so bad after all.

  [gwEm - Coding on E]

GWEM: Before I was interested in low-tech music at all, I was making
pure rave music in the normal way. And then a friend of mine played me
an album form a band called Bodenstandig 2000, called Maxi German Rave
Blast Hits III - and I heard this album and was quite amazed by how nice
it was.

I personally try and make rave and techno music, but there's some slow
ballads, and stuff. The sound chip's more about an instrumentation, you
know, like a synthesiser or a guitar, so in theory it's possible to make
all kinds of music, like classical or, some guys make funky kind of
stuff, or of course there's classic game music.

I specialised on Atari because I had one since I was twelve or something
- my gran got me it for my birthday, or something like that, I remember,
in '87. So there's always been one around, so when I got interested in
chip music it was quite obvious that I would be using the Atari.

I saw all these techniques that happened in the past, and I looked at
existing Atari chip music programmes. And each one of them has their own
good point about why it's good, and why you'd want to use it, but there
was no programme which had all of these included. So I wanted to make my
own software which had everything, basically.

I started this project July last year, and here we are some months later
and the project's finished. This has all possible techniques for
producing YM sound, and I also included some ideas from up-to-date
modern PC programs, for nice editing features and shortcuts and so on.
And with this all together I think I've come up with quite a nice tool -
it's always nice as a musician to have the instrument which you made -
like, a guitarist makes his own guitar, and that's his favourite. The
program is called MaxYMiser.

  [gwEm - maxYMise]

GWEM: The Atari scene is just one big scene. Atari made a lot of
computers, from the early 8-bit machines to the ST, and then furthering
on from the ST, machines like the Atari Falcon, but that's going into
details - I like them all, really.

There's a number of Atari heroes. The first one was a guy called Jochen
Hippel, or "Mad Max". He made a lot of music in the late 80s and early
90s which pushed boundaries. So, inspired by him, other musicians came
along and invented new techniques, which inspired more techniques. And
here I am, looking back on all this history - I can take these
techniques and put them all into my own music, and my own sound system.

PRESENTER: All the music we've been hearing so far has come from the
Atari's own sound chip. But one thing which was impressive about the
Atari ST was the fact that it came with built-in MIDI ports. This meant
it could control external synthesisers, drum machines - you name it.

  [Tim Conrardy - analogmt32]

PRESENTER: The Atari ST has the power to control all kinds of musical
devices using MIDI. It's used even today by musicians you're probably
familiar with, such as Depeche Mode, Roni Size, and Fatboy Slim.

Recently in Germany, one project took this to its logical conclusion by
using Ataris to control Ataris.

GWEM: there was an interesting art project using Atari STs recently, you
can find out about it on the web. They bought 17 Atari STs, and set them
up with screens, and they put them all into a church. Now there's 16
MIDI channels, so they used 16 Ataris as sound synthesisers, using the
built-in sound chip, and the 17th one ran a sequencer, and it was all
networked via MIDI so each of the Ataris was running off one MIDI
channel, and they, er, really basic square-wave type sounds, but because
there was 16 of them, rather than just having one machine, you know, the
sounds were quite interesting, and there was interesting phasing
effects, and it worked quite well with the reverb in the church.

  [Jeremy Clarke - D Minor Fugue (Bach)]

PRESENTER: So this music uses a single Atari ST to control dozens of
other Atari STs - actually in this example there are about 50 of them -
and makes them play as if they were an orchestra guided by a single

So there you have it. Ataris have been used to make some amazing music,
past and present. But do they have a future?

PAUL B DAVIS: Yeah I think so, i mean the whole point of doing that
record was to show continued viability of old machines.

GWEM: retro's always fashionable. i mean it's all good - C64, atari,
gameboy, you know. i specialised on atari, but i'm coming to the end of
a couple of a projects, i might try some other platforms later...



Flat four radio