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Chiptunes - Spectrum 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 using old computers. 
Specifically, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a cheap home computer released 
in 1982. Primitive, obsolete technology. So why do they do it?

VARIOUS PEOPLE: I don't know, really... ...there's definitely an element of 
showing off... ...why are we doing it... ...I don't know, to be honest...
...just heard nothing like it before... ...and I wanted to know what the "BEEP" 
sounded like... ...people pick up on that particular sound... ...burnt out part 
of my brain... ...it's ridiculous really.

PRESENTER: Modern machines have hi-fi surround sound and genuine chart hits form
the soundtrack of many modern video games, so what's the attraction of such 
archaic technology? Let's meet one of these people.

GASMAN: I'm Matt Westcott, and I go by the name of Gasman, and I write music on 
the Sinclair Spectrum. It is very much a mixture of the technology and the more
artistic side.

  [Gasman - Dragonfly]

GASMAN: The whole scene these days comes out of the demo scene. That's something 
that grew up mainly in continental Europe - it's sort of like a semi-secret
society. Artists, programmers, musicians, get together and they make a
program that just looks cool, sounds cool, and... doesn't actually do very much 
in itself, it is just a standalone piece of art. The vast majority of activity 
is in Europe - continental Europe - and Finland in particular, for some reason.

  [Yerzmyey (AY Riders) - Yerz Mix 3]

GASMAN: I'm in a band, the AY Riders - the "AY" is the sound chip in the 
Spectrum. There's six or seven of us now, I lose count, from all around Europe, 
and yeah, we've released three albums now, and it's really been quite a success.

Probably the best example of that was the AY Riders concert. That was in Warsaw
last year, and that was just a regular nightclub that people just turned up at
and we had this "retro night", and we all played our tracks straight from the
Spectrums. It was quite amazing to see the reactions, really, it's - there's 
people who are too young to have grown up with the Spectrum who had just heard
nothing like it before, to the old-timers who got a real nostalgia hit out of 
it. Yeah, so that was a real eye-opener.

  [Jeffie (AY Riders) - Blue Arctic Sky]

GASMAN: I think one thing that attracts people is seeing if they can program under 
certain limitations. It's quite unusual to have the melody of a song played out
just in these very basic sort of square-waves.

I do get inspiration from all sorts of places really, but I guess Tim Follin is
the main one. He was the one really famous musician on the Spectrum, I think.

PRESENTER: Indeed, much of the pioneering work in this strain of electronica
was done in commercial video-game soundtracks. Back in those days, the chance 
to hear where your computer's noise output could be taken was a major selling 
point for many games, with Tim Follin being one of the major attractions.

TIM FOLLIN: My name's Tim Follin, and I write music for computer games.

  [Tim Follin - Bionic Commando Level 2]

TIM FOLLIN: My brother Mike used to be a programmer, and I had a tinker with 
his Spectrum - he had a ZX Spectrum, and I remember playing with it when I was,
whatever age, 14, 15... tinkering on it, which is what some 14-year-olds do, I
suppose. And I remember having a go with machine code. I wrote a program 
that made a sort of phasey sound on the Spectrum, which was pretty hard to do
because with the Spectrum basically just beeped, and I think you could make the 
speaker turn on and off, that's basically all you could do. A "beep" was just
turning it on and off very quickly at a certain frequency. So I managed to make 
it, by trickery coding, made it do a phase sound. And, that was it!

  [Tim Follin - Future Games]

TIM FOLLIN: I was interested in making sounds on it. I remember being interested
in synthesiser-type things at that time, but I could never afford a decent 
synthesiser, you know, being 15 - obviously my mum wasn't too happy about buying
me one, so - I think I just thought, this is quite good if I can make sounds
using the computer, so that's how that started. So I learnt the code, just to 
achieve that end, you know, make the computer make sounds. 

PRESENTER: So where did Tim get his inspiration from? Was he inspired by the 
early rumblings of the 80s house and techno pioneers?

TIM FOLLIN: No, I mean, to me the whole techno thing, the synthesised music 
thing, was a kind of fad for me. You know, that's a nice sound, but I didn't 
really class it as... music, to be honest! Music for me was, well, the sort of 
stuff I'd been listening to growing up, more harmonic - all these 70s prog-rock
bands like... Rush mainly, actually, which wasn't a 70s prog-rock band but it 
was a 70s band. And then, I think bands like Genesis and Yes and people like 
this, you know. Early prog-rock sort of stuff, and I just grew up listening to
all that stuff. More, I suppose, closer to something you'd describe as tuneful, 
melodic, harmonic sort of thing, rather than something that's synthesised for 
the sake of synthesis - which I think a lot of the music at that time was like,
you know, it was musically pretty empty, it was just interesting sounds.

   [Tim Follin - Bubble Bobble]

PRESENTER: That was Tim's music for the Spectrum version of the classic arcade 
game Bubble Bobble.

Is there a big difference between music for computer games and ordinary music? 

TIM FOLLIN: You're limited by the things like the fact that the tune has to 
loop, and... I did the music for the first Starsky and Hutch game, and - I was 
told by the producer that this has to be driving music, so it has to be a 
certain tempo, you know, it can't really drop below whatever BPM it was, it has 
to be more or less constant. One thing with the Starsky music is that I was 
told to do funk music at, you know, a speed that just didn't suit funk. Funk is,
almost by definition, a certain speed, it's quite slow. So what I ended up 
trying to do was a sort of hybrid 70s chase music sort of thing - all the tunes
ended up sounding the same, because, within such narrow limits that's all you 
can do. 

It's inventive, that's the thing, it's not necessarily the sort of thing you'd 
invent given your own motivation, but within the criteria you're given to do it,
you can be inventive within that, so that's where the interest lies.

PRESENTER: Here's some funky skillo speccy music for you - this is from classic 
budget game Agent X.

 [Tim Follin - Agent X II]

PRESENTER: That's Tim Follin, one of the original geniuses of ZX Spectrum 
music.

Earlier in the programme we heard from a member of the AY-Riders, a collective 
of people who grew up with the technology and work within the underground demo 
scene. But some people come from a different angle - like the ZX Spectrum 
Orchestra.

MIKE JOHNSTON: I'm Mike Johnston and I'm a civil servant. And I'm also a member
of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra.

BRIAN DUFFY: ...and he also has his own act, Mike In Mono. I'm Brian Duffy, I'm
an artist, and one of the things I do is the ZX Spectrum Orchestra.

MIKE JOHNSTON: It's basically an orchestra of Spectrums - we're really the 
conductors, and they are the body of the orchestra. The machines, that is.

BRIAN DUFFY: We first started because we'd been going to lots of car-boots and 
seeing these beautifully-designed computers and wondering about them. I 
bought a manual for them for ten pence, and inside it, it said there was the 
BEEP command, and my imagination was taken by the notion of BEEP, and I wanted 
to know what the BEEP sounded like.

  [ZX Spectrum Orchestra - Experiment]

BRIAN DUFFY: I was asking around, and talking to Mike, and I said do you think 
it's possible that these computers can make music and he said yes, it definitely 
is. And it turned out that he had one, in the 80s, so we concocted this idea 
that maybe it's possible to have multiple Spectrums onstage and started pursuing 
that. And only when we were booked to do our first gig did we realise what an 
absolute nightmare it is! It's like having a gang of naughty schoolchildren 
onstage that could just do anything they want to do at any moment, sometimes. 
It's, er, not like using modern technology at all.

  [ZX Spectrum Orchestra - Proper Jumper]

MIKE JOHNSTON: Basically, you're just dealing with something that's either on 
or off, so it's a really blank canvas.

BRIAN DUFFY: When I first started programming, we came up with the idea and I 
didn't know anything about them, I'd never programmed at all, I didn't know 
anything about the protocols. Mike was helping me, and telling me how to put 
the syntax of code together, and... I spent many many late nights staying up 
all night trying to get things to work that just weren't working. I just hadn't
got the language in my head, I couldn't understand it, and no matter what I did 
I just couldn't get a program to work. I kept writing these programs, they 
wouldn't work, and I wouldn't know why. 

And then late one night, I spent ages programming this particular program, and 
fell asleep with my face against the television screen, and woke up in the 
morning with drool over the screen, and looked at the screen and completely 
understood what was wrong with the program. It was as if the 
electron-tunnelling-effect cannon of the television had burnt out the part of
my brain that was in the way of understanding the code. And after that I just 
understood BASIC, and it was fine, I could program then.

  [ZX Spectrum Orchestra - Beepulator]

BRIAN DUFFY: But the way it works live is that you can't sync the computers 
together, so that's one of the big differences between Spectrums and modern 
equipment that has MIDI - most musical instruments nowadays can communicate
with each other, so they can keep in time with each other. Whereas with the 
Spectrums you just can't do that, you just have to rely on the maths of it.

A lot of ZX programmers attempt to program everything into one machine - the 
drums, the melodies, everything - we tend to divide it between machines and
not worry about the fact that they don't sync.

MIKE JOHNSTON: We also have one machine just dedicated to the "Wham drum 
machine" - yeah, the band Wham. They sponsored this piece of software in the
80s. A couple of tracks have the drums coming from that, which are programmed
as a sequencer, using that software. 

And then another computer which is dedicated to the "Kerr Microspeech", which 
is a speech synthesiser built in the day, which is really idiosyncratic -
it's great, it's got a great sound to it. Full of imperfections, which are nice 
to listen to in this day and age.

BRIAN DUFFY: The speech synth is designed so that when you turn it on, when 
you press the keyboard it says the letters that are on the keyboard - but it'll
also say the commands that are above the letters on the keyboard. So it'll say
A, B, C, D, but it'll say things like RANDOMISE USER, or... various commands.
So the one track we use it for live, it's the hidden poetry embedded in the 
speech synthesiser. So we're not writing, we're only using the available words
of the code language, and you can use it to make various sentences. A classic 
one would be U R A V I P only using the letters. So we utilised this hidden 
poetry, and in it it says STOP STOP DOLLAR POWER DOLLAR POUND PERCENT, and so 
we use that live.

  [ZX Spectrum Orchestra - Dollar Power / Skank]

PRESENTER: 23 years on, and fans keep the Spectrum beeping. What does the 
future hold?

BRIAN DUFFY: We haven't finished exploring the Spectrums yet. What we're really 
interested in doing is mining the surplus value, the kind of hidden potential of 
those machines. They naturally lean you towards different solutions in music, 
and it's those that we're really interested in using them for in the long term,
rather than using them to imitate other ways of making music.

PRESENTER: And what about Gasman? Does he feel there's a limit to the ZX 
Spectrum scene?

GASMAN: You feel like you're reaching the limits, but then I do find myself 
constantly surprised by the new effects and new sound that you can get out of 
it. So yeah, I'm still pushing the boundaries, today.


 

 

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