Soundtracker origins, part 3: Facing a stone mountain

Temps de lecture : 21 minutes.

So, the story so far1Click to « Steinberg, you say? » if you’ve already read the previous articles.:

  • In April 2019, I started a thread-based Twitter love letter to my years as an Amiga fan, back in the days when I didn’t have to worry about bills, taxes, and dating apparently. This thread tried to give an overview of demos, modules (the musical kind), and music tools on the Amiga (especially ProTracker, and its inspiration: The Ultimate Soundtracker).
    That thread lasted only three days2And 25 or so tweets, in 3 separate threads. ‘cos if it’s easy it ain’t fun., but got me thinking: Where did the author of The Ultimate Soundtracker, Karsten Obarski, get the idea for his paradigm-shifting3Important topics require important-sounding words, mate. tool?
    That threw me down a rabbit hole of searches and deleted forum posts and date comparisons and emailing people left and right, trying to answer that one question: When did the « tracker » way of composing music (or, the music sequencer) made the jump from a hardware, physical product to a software product? 4Did I succeed in answering that question in the end? Read on…
  • In July 2021, I turned my 3 love-letter threads into a proper blog post, which quite innocently ended with a single5but very lengthy question, which I’ll sum up as this:
    « Did step-sequencing really made a single jump from the expensive, Australian-made Fairlight CMI II sampling workstation in 1982, to the cheap, German-made Soundtracker software in 1987, as Wikipedia implies? »6Told you it was lengthy. I already had the answer in several notes, links, and emails. I just needed to write that down. 7Welcome to today, four years after the initial threads and searches, where the present article is finally scratching the surface, yaaaay procrastination (and fatherhood)!
  • In September 2021, I started this « Soundtracker origins » series, where I presented the context of the creation of The Ultimate Soundtracker by Karsten Obarski, its demise as a commercial product, its rebirth in a thousand free clones, the vanishing of its creator, and his apparent inspiration: Chris Hülsbeck’s SoundMonitor, in 1986. Getting closer to 1982, woohoo!
  • On January 1st, 2023, I published part 2 of my Soundtracker Origins series, where I explored the origins of SoundMonitor, got to interview Chris Hülsbeck himself, and learnt that his inspiration could be8His memory of 1985 is foggy, understandably. I don’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday, let alone 30 years ago. Probably Nutella crêpes, come to think of it. Steinberg’s MIDI Multitrack Sequencer.

And now, today.

To remind you of the steps to cover, we’re trying to go from this to that.

Steinberg, you say?

In Part 2 of this series, Chris Hülsbeck told me that he remembers using Steinberg’s MIDI Multitrack Sequencer tool on the Commodore 64 computer, around the time he wrote his own tool, Soundmonitor.

Steinberg9By the way, if you are germanophone, please excuse the sad pun in the title of this present article…? In 2023, they are one of the biggest musical software/hardware company, with industry-defining contributions such as Cubase of course, and the VST plugin interface, amongst other inventions.
In terms of well-known names for professional and amateur studio musicians, they’re up there with Digidesign/Avid (makers of Pro Tools) and Ableton (makers of Ableton Live).

But 40 years ago, in 1983, they were three, working from a living room in Hamburg: Karl « Charlie » Steinberg (31), Manfred « Manne » Rürup (32), and Nicole Rürup, Manfred’s wife (age unknown).

At the time, Karl was a musician and audio engineer, and Manfred was a musician and a salesman at a music shop. In the early days of the Steinberg company10Thus named because « Rürup » didn’t sound international enough to them., Nicole took care of design and manuals11« She’s very good at graphics and so she did some of the company adverts and helped produce the manuals. We had this little Roland computer plotter and we did our first manuals with that. » (source).

A normal day at the office: Karl Steinberg in front of hardware, including a C64 keyboard. Photo from a great Sound on Sound behind-the-scene article in 1986.

We’re lucky to have several early interviews online.
Let’s start with Manfred:

Interviewer: « In the 80s you formed a new wave project called Direktion and released ‘Jeder Tag Wunderbar’ in 1982.« 

(…) I went to a studio on the countryside, called Delta-Studio. The studio was willing to take the risk of producing my songs. So I went into the recording room to meet the engineer and there he was: Karl Steinberg. It was one of these moments where two souls meet for the first time.

At that time, 1980, I was part time working in a keyboard shop, at Amptown in Hamburg which gave me access to the latest in keyboards and samplers and to the MIDI12The MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) protocol makes it easy to transmit musical data between digital devices like keyboards and computers. Instead of sending sound files, it transmits event messages such as pitch, velocity, and timing. Upon its release, it revolutionized the music industry by enabling seamless interaction between digital musical instruments and computers, profoundly influencing the creation, recording, and production of music. protocol which was released in 1982 I think13Ackchyually, 1983. *tips fedora*..

from the excellent It’s Psychedelic Baby magazine interview, May 2021.
Not to be outdone hairstyle-wise, Manfred Rürup is a talented pianist/organist who had a stint in several German bands — including psychedelic/progressive ones, such as Tomorrow’s Gift. Check out that cool album cover! (Picture is from their second album, released in 1973)

Says Karl:

I was always interested in electronics; in 1976 I built an analogue sequencer with sliders, but you could also speed it up and use it as a waveform generator. However, my soldering was never too good. Then I became a studio engineer, and that’s when I met Manfred Rürup. We soon discovered that we thought on the same wavelength, and because Manfred was working a lot with keyboards, we always had access to the latest gear.


One day [Manfred] gave me some sheets of paper which had MIDI data formats on them. As I had already been working with Sinclair computers – ZX81 etc. – I suggested to him that it would be very easy for me to write a MIDI program. So I used a Commodore 64 computer to develop it, which Manfred had at home, and then we just started to sell it to other people we knew.


I used to work at Manfred’s home. That’s where we started building the little MIDI interfaces which I developed and even soldered up all by myself. They were the very first things we did there.

from the Sound on Sound interview, July 1986.
Manfred Rürup and Karl Steinberg in 1992. I guess the long hair had to go eventually.
Photo from the TOS Magazin interview (January 1992).

Says Manfred14And no, no trace of an interview of Nicole online.:

At that time I played with Inga Rumpf and thus had the opportunity to visit the music dealers in the morning with my portable SX6415The portable version of the C64. and to present our system to them. However, the interest was not very great. But we were only a three-man company: Charly, my wife and I, and when you sell ten MIDI packages, that’s « big business » (laughter).

Google-translated from the TOS Magazin interview, January 1992.
I’m pretty sure I’m missing on a LOT of interviews just because I don’t know the right German keywords to search…

Musicians writing software for musicians… Kinda reminds me of both Karsten Obarski (in part 1 of this series) and Chris Hülsbeck (in part 2), who each saw a personal need and successfully scratched an itch that, hitherto unbeknownst16I warned you there’d be important-sounding words. So there. to them, was common to all musicians.

Not much remains online of their MIDI Multitrack Sequencer (1984), not even a screen capture17Unless you’re like me and you went down that same rabbit hole as I did, and came back with this.. But that’s possibly because that tool was quickly surpassed by Steinberg’s next creation, Pro-16, another MIDI sequencer which quickly gained quite a bit of success from the moment it was released in 1985.

Karl Steinberg hugs Manfred Rürup after receiving the MIPA Lifetime Achievement Award at Musikmesse 2009. Photo by Flickr user Fr1zz.

There are many different software sequencers on the market for the CBM 6418Commodore Business Machine 64. That’s a mouthful. and they all have something to offer, but none of them are as complete and easy to use as this one. Well done Steinberg: 10 out of 10!

A review of Steinberg Pro16 MIDI Sequencer, aptly titled « The Professional’s Choice« , in Sound on Sound (April 1986).

You can record the notes of a MIDI keyboard, track by track, and replay all tracks in parallel, up to 16 tracks, even with effects like the pitch wheel.

To our 2023 eyes, it looks pretty basic and clunky, but at the times, it was an eye-opener on the possibilities offered to everyone, professionals and hobbyists alike.

Alright, I hear you, « Enough already with the History lesson! »

Did I succeed in contacting them?

My attempts at talking with « those who know »

I agree, this subtitle does not bode well…

Well, I figured I would never be able to contact neither of the Steinberg co-founders directly, so I tried to go the official route:

No answer. Figures.

Let’s get personal, then!
Karl « Charlie » Steinberg has an old-school online presence, where he writes about current projects — ever since he sold Steinberg to Pinnacle in 2003, I suppose he has a lot more free time on his hands. The website doesn’t look quite up-to-date, but he seems to enjoy being the keyboardist for the German band Stier.
Sadly, I cannot find a contact email on his website — I guess we can understand that he doesn’t want to be too easy to contact.
Oh well…

I couldn’t find an online presence for Manfred Rürup, nor Nicole Rürup19Weeeeeellllll, that’s not quite right. It’s more « I couldn’t find a readily accessible online presence », really. As a matter of fact, there is a « Manfred Rürup, Supervisory Board Member at Ableton » (yes, Ableton, not Steinberg) on LinkedIn who looks an awful lot like an older version of the hippie guy from above. But I couldn’t message him directly because I had to be a LinkedIn Premium member to do so, and, well, I guess I decided not to bother him, when I started this research project back in 2019?. Damn.
Where to look?

Cool guys don’t look at explosions.
Werner Kracht and Charlie Steinberg, as published in this nice Music Technology interview, in December 1989.
By the way, thanks a lot to mu:zines for being such a treasure trove of articles and scans!

With their early success and growing projects, Karl Steinberg and the Rürups started hiring employees, and were soon joined by musician and software developer Werner Kracht in 1985.
Mr. Kracht worked for Steinberg on a couple of educational products, then in 1986 he developed the successor to Pro-16, called Pro-24, for the Atari ST20A machine that comes with a built-in MIDI interface: no more custom dongle to bundle with the software! To this day, the Atari ST remains a very important machine for musicians, thanks to this hardware choice by Atari. 21But Amiga roulaize quand même, hein..
Herr Kracht wrote Pro-24 on the Atari ST pretty much on his own, because Herr Steinberg was very busy producing various OEM versions of Pro-16 for different hardware manufacturers — it was a real money-maker for them at the time.
Pro-24 was the first music software written for the Atari. It had quite an impact on the industry as a whole.
That first step on the Atari ST market was key for the Steinberg business, as it would lead three years later to the creation of Cubase in 1989 — mostly created by Mr. Kracht and a small team, as I understand.

Werner Kracht does have a nice online presence, with extensive information about his musical whereabouts — and a long, informative and ultimately bittersweet write-up of his programming endeavors and his relationship with the Steinberg company as a contractor for 25 years (written in German; Google Translate link).
Of note, there is also this recent in-depth video interview (which, yes, I watched from beginning to end). He also published several videos from his early work at Steinberg.

I found his email address on one of the pages on his website.
So let’s contact Mr. Kracht!

Well, that didn’t pay off.
My Steinberg early-employees lead dries up…

In order to get first-hand information, I need to contact Mr Steinberg himself, it seems. An impossible task, I suppose: finding the direct contact address of the former CEO of one of the greatest music company there is!

Oh well…




There’s this one webpage.



Where… Maybe? It doesn’t seem to be directly tied to… but we never know… doesn’t hurt to try I guess?

…and, what do you know, the very next day:

My friends, two years after I started this on-and-off quest, I was in direct contact with Karl Steinberg.

Let’s breathe a little.

Interviewing Karl Steinberg

Mr Steinberg (I’ll call him Karl from there on22‘cos after 5 emails I think it’s fair of me to call him a friend.) seemed genuinely interested in digging in his memories (and even his attic!) to retrieve memories, send me screenshots and pictures, and generally answer my questions.

Karl Steinberg in his home-studio. Author and date unknown (found here).

So, let’s copy-paste from those emails, shall we?

XB: By email, Mr. Hülsbeck told me that his « inspiration for the note representation came from an early C64 midi sequencer by Steinberg, which didn’t display notes as symbols, but as a list of single letter note name, an optional ‘sharp’ symbol if needed and a number for the octave ». He later wrote that his inspiration was the « MIDI Multitrack Sequenzer » from Steinberg.

KS: As nice as it sounds, I cannot confirm that.

Our first C64 Program was indeed named « Midi Multitrack Sequencer », little known, and so it’s hard to even find a picture (see below).

The Steinberg MIDI Multitrack Sequencer v2.0, in all its C64 glory.
Yes, this image cannot be found anywhere else on the web. HA! /me does the dance of exclusivity23I figured out later that this is taken from a short video hosted on a public Steinberg FTP server, and Karl simply extracted the images from it to provide them to me. Still, it’s exciting!

It already had the « Songtable » which was later continued in its successor, Pro 16.
But there was no MIDI editing with Midi Multitrack Sequencer. Pro 16 later featured a keyroll editor (quite remarkable for that time if I may say so). Midi Multitrack Sequencer had a quantize feature24The ability to move notes around on the playing grid, in order to adjust timing or to correct imperfections., which would also allow for double- or half-speed playback, and transpose25The ability to change the pitch of a note, to adjust melody or, again, to correct imperfections — a predecessor to Auto-Tune.; it also even featured sync (Roland) via a proprietary sync interface

I assume you (or Chris) are referring to JMS (Jellinghaus Music Systems) Multitrack Composer (see picture).

Indeed, we can clearly see « 3 C », « 5 F# » and other notes! Image taken from this JMS review in Electronics & Music Maker, July 1984.

Jellinghaus had a MIDI Interface first which was quite similar to ours (UART), and added that list-based sequencer software which is the first I can remember. Given that it was released around 1984, we were quite fast to create a sequencer with « UI » 🙂

Private e-mail interview from April 202126Yes, again, I’m that late in publishing this..

🚨Alert, alert, a new player has entered the game! 🚨
Karl here mentions Jellinghaus, a company I have never heard of before! And indeed, seeing from the picture he sent me, their tool does seem to include « text-based » notes that musicians will see again appear in Soundmonitor and, eventually, The Ultimate Soundtracker and all of its clones.

Looks like I’m gonna have to dig up information about that Jellinghaus Music Systems!

However, Karl did send me this picture of Pro 16’s Key Editor, which clearly features « textual » notes on the left column: F5, D5, E4, with a # for black keys.

Says Karl: « Pro 16 Key Editor (one of my favourites :-). One could insert notes in realtime either with the MIDI
keyboard or function keys while it would scroll (!),
or single-step. »

So, could Chris Hülsbeck really have been inspired by Steinberg’s Pro 16 rather than their Midi Multitrack Sequencer — or even the Jellinghaus system?

I asked Chris directly, sending him the Jellinghaus and Pro-16 images above:

I’m pretty sure it was the MIDI Multitrack Sequencer, but there are no screenshots online from the pattern page and as far as I know the software doesn’t run without the Steinberg Midi Interface hardware… so it may have been the Pro-16 too… it’s been such a long time ago! 😉

From private e-mail exchange from September 2023.

I further sent him the Multitrack Sequencer single screen that Karl sent me.

Yes, then the pattern page may have been from Pro-16…

Maybe I was also dreaming about a pattern edit page… maybe they did not even have one… the color scheme and blinking cursor definitely more resembles the Pro-16, but everything is so hazy at this point… 😉

From private e-mail exchange from September 2023.
Nevertheless, the Pro-16 Key Editor, seen here with moving « notes », really gives a hint to what Soundmonitor and ultimately Soundtracker will bring to the world in terms of accessibility of music.
Image taken from a weird seemingly old Russian eBay UK listing (?), which also contains several other interesting Pro16 images but a very lazy/dying webserver27Sometimes some images would load, sometimes others, sometimes none, sometimes thumbnails would not load but the actual image would… Let me know if you can get them all!, so I saved what I could on Imgur.

So, not quite a definitive answer there. Since all of this happened some 40 years ago, I can understand the foggy memories 🙂
But since Steinberg’s Pro-16 was being reviewed by a UK magazine in February 1986, and Chris Hülsbeck wrote his own Soundmonitor in the Summer of 1986, then it could definitely still be a match — although quite a tight one, I’ll admit.

Anyway, that Jellinghaus thing is an interesting story in itself, but that’s for another article; let’s continue talking with Karl Steinberg about the early Steinberg history.

XB: [Were you] the sole developer of the C64 Multitrack Recorder and Pro-16?

KS: Yes, I pretty much developed those two programs by myself. Then Pro 24 followed on the Amiga, which was mostly done by Mr. Werner Kracht, myself adding some « low-level » stuff. There was also a version of Pro 16 for the Mac II if I remember correctly, ported by somebody else whose name I forgot.

XB: [What were your inspirations for these tools?]

KS: My inspirations were just to see that it was possible; we only just had started to deal with computers. We (Manfred Ruerup, co-founder, and me) were busy in a decent studio (Delta Studios Wilster), Manfred sold keyboards at Amptown Hamburg and always brought in the latest gear, so there was a lot of inspiration from that end. Also I guess sequential drumtracks was inspiring quantize and pattern concepts.
Later we dealt with samplers, [Fairlight] CMI, [Sequential] Prophet, etc., triggered everything with everything via the studio patchbay and so forth.

Adapted from private e-mail interview from April 2021.

🚨Alert, alert, we have inspiration! 🚨
Karl mentions « sequential drumtracks », which I assume means « drum machines » — but he could also be talking specifically about the DrumTraks drum machine, released in 1983 by the Sequential company (hence, Sequential DrumTraks, with proper capitalization!) — whose CEO, the late Dave Smith (archive), co-authored in 1982 the MIDI specification itself.

Again, a story for another article — but let’s keep in mind that « sequences » and « patterns » were nothing new in the 1983 world of digital music28Although the word « pattern » appears only once in the MIDI specification. But they might be using synonyms?.

Let’s see his other answers.

XB: I’d like to find out whether [you] invented the whole « pattern of notes » representation, or if [you] got inspired from somewhere else, like a drum machine or the famous Fairlight CMI Series II.

KS: See [my previous answer] 🙂
Not sure what you mean by « pattern of notes »; list-based sequencers like the JMS mentioned above, were probably the first to allow MIDI editing, and that was the obvious choice for computer-based systems as a first step.

Not sure if there were piano-roll type MIDI editors before the Pro 16 addition – it also even featured a score editor later on.


As for inspirations, I’m certain that it was not only me who was inspired by drum machines. Those were based on patterns and « songtables » (chain of patterns) and featured MIDI, and were the first devices to combine this, so it was kinda obvious to start off from that ground.

Trackers are more closely related to « list-based » sequencers which in turn were the obvious choice from a (pre-)80s computer point of view. There was practically no graphics until Apple, and then Commodore, and then Amiga and many others to follow, and until then you’d have to use computers for music like a typewriter.


One more note…nothing I say here is proven truth; memories are often changing over time, and I’m particularly bad at this 🙂


As I wrote to Karl, his answers brought me new clues and new directions to find when the « jump » of the sequencer idea from hardware to software happened.

I’m closing this interview with the following: a picture of the Card 32, the MIDI interface that Karl created along with Pro-16, followed by his very own comment on it:

« The legendary Card32. Imagine that: plugged into the C 64’s expansion port, not only gives 1 MIDI In and 3 MIDI out plus Tape Sync i/o, but also the Pro 16 with Key Editor and Score Editor, each on an Eprom: switch on the C 64, and after no more than 3 seconds, the sequencer display is up and running and ready to record. Wish i had that today… »

As I understand, Pro-16 was not sold as a software on a floppy disk or cassette: it was sold as part of the EPROM of the MIDI interface itself, thus bypassing any other system request29I hear it’s called a fast loader.! Incredible piece of equipment…

Oh well, let’s drop a couple more pics, just because I can 🙂

« Prototype of the Card32. »
« Same interface [for the Hitech 1020]. Here, the EPROM is selfmade; switching on the C64, some very sophisticated development tools were right up and running! Besides the Assembler, we had an extended Monitor, Basic Editor, and a cool feature which would allow to blend the application and development screens line by line (using the VIC, via NMI). »
« The EPROM Programmer for the SMP-24. The 6502 code was developed on the PC and dumped via the parallel port to the EP which would be plugged to the EPROM socket of the SMP 24. »
« The EPROM Programmer as it was used during devolopment, featuring the original, highly isolating 3M Floppy-Disk sleeve 🙂 « 

And now I can be satisfied in knowing I gave you everything I know 🙂

It’s interesting in that it seems to have walked parallel paths:

  • The people behind the Fairlight CMI Series II’s « Page R » feature where inspired by a drum machine30More on that in the next part of the series! — but this was more about step sequencing, so that did not directly inspire trackers such as the Amiga Soundtracker.
How I suppose you see me at this point.
  • And now, it seems the « Commodore line » follows this path: Jellinghaus’ Multitrack Composer ➡️ Steinberg’s MIDI Multitrack Sequencer ➡️ Chris Hülsbeck’s Soundmonitor ➡️ Karsten Obarski’s Ultimate Soundtracker — each taking inspiration from the previous one, and adding a significant progress to the initial idea.
    Their common aspect: describing notes not as in a graphical representation, like the Fairlight CMI II’s Page R did31You know, with « ♪ » and « ♫ » and all that jazz., but as « text-based » sequences, such A-3, B-5, F#232And no, « X Æ A-12 » doesn’t mean that that poor child has an A at the 12th octave in his name., etc.

Indeed, it looks like the pioneers at the time were quite fast in taking inspiration and improving upon each other’s ideas! What a time it must have been to be in that field!

Now, I have to find out the ones who created the JMS Multitrack Composer — and it seems I’m getting close, as a quick search seems to indicate that they were hardware producers mainly.

So, there ends an important milestone in my little quest! 🙂

The next parts will focus on each of the two parallel paths that I highlighted above:

  • The Fairlight CMI path: finding out how they came up with the idea for their Page R sequencer.
  • The « Commodore » path, going down the JMS rabbit hole, and their Multitrack Composer.

Will there be more parts? Who knows? I sure don’t!


You thought it was over, right?


That would be too easy…


Get ready foooooor: an 🤘Á̸͈̣̉͆͊̈́̚͝Ḑ̵̧͕͙̀̅̽̎͊͂̿̏̀͒͛̽͘̕͠D̵̢̥̩̫͈̠̘̫̫͎̰̯͈̘̉͌Ḙ̵̱̖̺̜̼̬̰̟͒̐͒̇̿̌̂̔̊̕͘͘N̷̢̯̜̈́́̿̀̄̀̍͑͌̇͗̓̕̚D̶̹̪̈́̿͛̃̏̔̔͋͑́Ų̷̳̱̮͍̪̬͍̥͓̺̯͉͑͐̐M̵̨̢͈̐͠!!!🤘


Addendum: Manfred Rürup’s take

Since 2023 is definitely not like 201933And I’ve had to take a LinkedIn Premium account anyway, for training reasons., I’ve decided to approach Mr. Rürup, in order to have his own take on the whole thing, and possibly bring a different perspective.

Manfred Rürup on the keyboard.
Taken from this Sound on Sound article, March 2003.

So here goes, a short interview!

XB: Reading various early interviews (notably this one from 1986 and this one from 1992), it sounds like that Nicole was the designer, Karl was the technician and you were the marketing/salesman. Was that as binary as that, or did you share duties? 

MR: That is correct.

Nicole did not design UI or anything like that. She did all the print advertisements and the manuals. 

Private e-mail interview from September 2023.

As a technical writer myself, I can tell you that just producing the documentation for this is no small taks — but it seems she did it « with an electric typing machine, all the illustrations are ASCII art (!!!) and all the binding and transparent plastic cover are typical office stationary from the ’80s« , as per this eBay UK listing, which I’m taking the image below from.

So, yeah, quite a task in itself!

XB: I mention Nicole, your wife, because she was part of the initial team, as I understand, but I hardly see her name in interviews — most of the time, she’s there as « support », or as manual and adverts designer. How did her role grow with the success of the company? Or did she move to another line of work / company eventually?

MR: She continued to do advertisements and graphics and the manuals. A lot to do, as the software became very complex and so the manuals [grew] bigger and bigger.


XB: It seems that Steinberg’s very first product was the MIDI Multitrack Sequencer. Do you remember if it was influenced by an existing product, hardware or software? What were the competitors at the time in the MIDI market? 

MR: The MIDI Multitrack Sequencer was a single page product, because we preferred one page and no menus which lead to another page. I think it was pretty unique. 


XB: How many copies do you think were sold before you moved on to bigger things? This article says « fewer than 50 copies », and in this one you are quoted as saying « when you sell ten MIDI packages, that’s « big business » (laughter) ». Is the real number in between?

MR: The real number is probably around 50 copies. 


Remember the quote from the interview earlier in this article? « When you sell ten MIDI packages, that’s big business (laughter) ». Well, I suppose selling 5 times above your expectations is a sure sign that your little hobby is onto something, and you should push forward. I’m glad they did!

XB: Who did you mostly sell it to? Did it spread outside of Hamburg, to your knowledge?

MR: I think all over Germany and Austria. 


Chris Hüelsbeck was born in Kassel (300 km from Hamburg) and worked for Rainbow Arts in Gütersloh (267 km from Hamburg), so yeah, I suppose he could have found a copy a Steinberg’s early tools at the time.

Funny thing is: both roads from Kassel and Gütersloh to Hamburg pass through Hanover — which is where the CeBIT, the « largest and most internationally representative computer expo » at the time, happened from 1970 to 2018. So information and ideas certainly spread around from this epicenter 🙂

XB: Mr. Steinberg told me about the Jellinghaus Multitrack Composer. Do you have recollection of that tool, of the Jellinghaus company itself, or even of their C64 development team?

MR: What do you mean by « recollection »? Never met them [then nor] since then.


I had to try…

XB: My understanding is that, after the MIDI Multitrack Sequencer, there were a few OEM product and the Pro-16, made by Mr. Steinberg on C64, then Pro-24, made mainly by Mr. Kracht on Atari. Eventually it all lead to Cubase on the Atari, but who’s was the main programmer of Cubit/Cubase 1.0, Mr. Steinberg or Mr. Kracht (or someone else)?

MR: Cubit/Cubase was a team-work of Werner Kracht, Wolfgang Kundrus, Stefan Scheffler, Michael Michaelis and Charly Steinberg. 


Many names, which I could interview, but really, it’s time for this article to be released.

For those interested, here is an in-depth and recent video interview of Wolfgang Kundrus; and Michael Michaelis has a lot of opinions and shares them on his website (en German).
Also, did he forget about Chris Mercer?

XB: It seems to me that Mr. Steinberg was mostly working on M-ROS and low-level stuff, while Kracht (and a team?) worked on the main interface. Is that right?

MR: The architecture and UI idea came from Wolfgang Kundrus, Werner Kracht did the data-storage and handling, Charly Steinberg did M-ROS and other things, Michael Michaelis did work for the scoring and Stefan Scheffler did the integration of the User-Interface funktions. 


I have to say a word about M-ROS, for the sake of completeness.

The MIDI Real-time Operating System (M-ROS) was a very innovative alternative operating system, which worked on several platforms (Atari, Apple), and brought true multitasking to systems that weren’t quite able to do that by themselves. Since MIDI meant having different tools working together in (hopefully) real time, M-ROS turned to be essential to the success of that protocol — provided that those tools were written for M-ROS.

It eventually lead to the ReWire protocol, conceived by Propellerhead (makers of Reason) and Steinberg, which was very much used by most other DAWs from 1998 to 2020.

So, no small feat for Karl to be so prescient and technical in 1989!

XB: Did you yourself do any programming on the Steinberg tools?

MR: No, not a single line.


I suppose Manfred is great with a piano keyboard, less so with a computer one 🙂

And that’s it, my friends.

Let’s close this chapter about Steinberg by remembering that they were first and foremost musicians who were passionate about music and helping other musicians achieve their dream!

Find a copy of this home-made album to convince yourself 🙂

Other articles in this series:

pas classé

De la bonne prise en main d’une bouteille de lait

Temps de lecture : 7 minutes.


Je ne suis pas fou.


Longtemps je me suis levé de pas si bonne heure, mon seul objectif restant, une fois les nuages dissipés, de me poser devant le téléviseur familial et de tremper l’une après l’autre mes deux tartines matinales dans mon mug de chocolat chaud (et matinal).
Petit-déjeuner classique, certes, à cet âge, mais petit-déjeuner de champion quand même.

Cette coutume m’a suivi une fois le nid parental quitté et le CDI trouvé. Ce dernier a d’ailleurs eu une forte influence sur mes matinées : je me devais d’arriver à l’heure au bureau malgré la distance en trains de banlieue, mais je ne voulais pas pour autant sacrifier mes heures de sommeil.
J’ai donc choisi le sacrifice ultime : fi des tartines tartinées ; fi de la poudre de cacao lactée. Juste le lait, frais, dans un verre, siroté en regardant pensivement par la fenêtre.

Toujours le même verre, bleu ; toujours le même format de bouteille de lait, avec une poignée. Consistency is key.

J’avais à l’époque cette curieuse compréhension, sans doute d’influence familiale, qu’il ne fallait pas retirer entièrement l’opercule afin de mieux préserver le lait1J’en vois qui se moquent, mais selon un sondage auprès d’une large population de pas moins de 38 personnes sur Mastodon et sur Twitter, près de 42% de la population française l’a fait (41,25%, pour être précis), voire le fait encore.. Je l’ouvrais donc seulement à moitié, versais le blanc nectar, repliais l’aluminium de l’opercule pour recouvrir l’orifice de la bouteille, et vissais le capuchon par-dessus l’opercule plié avant de ranger le tout au frigo, bien à la verticale, jusqu’au lendemain matin.

Combien de bouteilles bues ? combien d’opercules semi-ouverts ? je ne saurai l’estimer…

… si ce n’est pour cette courte période de ma vie où je les ais comptées.


Comme l’a rappelé Jeff Buckley en introduction de Night Flight, l’une de ses reprises du Sin-é EP, « If you do anything regularly for a while, sooner or later, the weirdoes will show up« .

Bon, là, seul dans ma cuisine avec ma bouteille de lait, il me revenait de jouer le rôle du weirdo.

En l’occurrence, cet opercule me questionnait. Surtout, le placement de la languette du-dit opercule, qui faisait que l’on ouvrait icelui dans un sens ou dans un autre.

À force d’ouvrir moult opercules pour moult bouteilles à l’aide de2Vous l’aurez deviné. moult languettes, j’en suis venu à un questionnement fondamental, pendant le pensif sirotage matinal de lait devant la fenêtre :

Les bouteilles de lait sont-elles majoritairement conçues pour les droitiers ou les gauchers ?

Source : tkt frer

Bear with me for a minute, and you’ll see what I mean.

Voyez-vous, la languette n’est pas toujours placée exactement au même endroit sur l’orifice. Résultat, si l’on se repose systématiquement sur celle-ci pour ouvrir à moitié l’opercule, on se retrouve avec un versement idéal du lait qui se fait tantôt vers la gauche, tantôt vers la droite de la poignée de la bouteille.

Ainsi, certains matins tout va bien et l’on peut verser le lait avec sa main dominante. Et certains autres matins, on ouvre l’opercule pour se rendre compte que, pour les quelques verres à venir, on devra faire le versement à l’aide de l’autre main3Qui n’a même pas de petit nom scientifique, semble-t-il.. Ewww…

Deux images valant deux mille mots, voici :

Comment savoir si la filière laitière de l’industrie agroalimentaire mondiale ne fomente pas en ce moment même un complot visant l’une ou l’autre de nos chères préférences manuelles4Venues de la petite enfance, rappelons-le. Ils s’en prennent aux enfant ! ?

Oui, vraiment, comment ? Qui pour nous défendre ? Quel chevalier blanc aura un destrier assez fier pour mener à bien ce combat pour les générations futures ?

Oui, qui ?



J’ai donc commencé à garder les bouteilles que j’ouvrais (et buvais), prenant soin de les nettoyer et surtout de les conserver avec leurs opercules encore attachés.

Lorsque j’ai décidé de mettre fin à mon inlassable collecte de données, j’avais 73 bouteilles en stock, dans je ne sais combien de cartons — mais en tout cas, ça prenait de la place dans ma cave.

Pourquoi les avoir stockées ? Pourquoi ne pas avoir, pour chaque bouteille ouverte par la languette de l’opercule, simplement pris note du sens de la-dite ouverture, et puis jeté la bouteille une fois les notes terminées ?

"Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down."
Adam Savage, de l’émission MythBusters, citant Alex Jason.

Parce qu’il est facile de falsifier des preuves. Je voulais agir en bon scientifique, et pouvoir montrer des preuves de ce que j’avançais. Cela supposait une photo finale, regroupant toutes les bouteilles.

Cette photo, en somme :

C’est le bon moment pour vous rappeler de lire de préambule de ce texte.

Ou, pour la science, celle sans capuchons (attention les yeux) :

Point de crainte à avoir pour l’odeur, toutes étaient nettoyées.

Notez que toutes les poignées des bouteilles sont dans le même sens, mais pas les languettes ! #complot !

J’ai bien d’autres photos, que j’enverrai à toute publication scientifique sérieuse qui voudra se faire l’écho de cette étude sourcée. Haha.


J’avais donc plein de bouteilles en stock, mais pas de notes. Clairement, je faisais de la collectionnite en attendant la motivation pour La Science.

Cette motivation est venue non pas au premier déménagement de mon charmant couple, mais juste avant le second, en 2017. Allais-je déménager à nouveau avec X cartons de bouteilles de lait vides5Et propres, j’insiste. ? Non, non, soyons raisonnables6Le fait que l’alors-futur appartement n’ait pas de cave n’a aucunement joué de rôle en faveur de l’épée de Damoclès qui surplombait alors ce projet lunaire. Du tout..

J’ai donc pris mon courage à deux mains une après-midi, tandis que nous commencions à mettre en carton nos affaires utiles, elles.

J’ai étalé les bouteilles sur notre table du salon, comme le montre si bien la photo ci-dessus, et j’ai débouchonné avec ténacité, et j’ai pris des photos, et surtout, pour reprendre la citation elle-même ci-dessus, j’ai (enfin) pris des notes. Science!

Quelles notes prendre ?
On pourrait se limiter à la base : le sens de l’ouverture, indiquant qui celle-ci favorisait.

Cela nous donnerait les statistiques de favoritisme suivantes :

  • D pour les droitiers,
  • G pour les gauchers,
  • A pour les ambidextres (meilleur scénario matinal),
  • et AA pour un opercule anti-ambidextre (pire scénario au réveil).

Mais la Science requiert la Vérité Totale. Alors j’ai noté toutes les métadonnées que je pouvais trouver sur l’étiquette ou le bouchon :

  • Marque (toujours Candia)
  • Produit (toujours GrandLait)
  • Type (toujours demi-écrémé)
  • Contenance (majoritairement 1L, avec de rares 1,5L)
  • Code barre
  • Date DLC
  • Et d’autres indications que je n’ai pas su déchiffrer : F16, F21, D.12181.F, DE, T64, etc.

Voici le fichier.

Par la puissance de Google Sheet7Et de StackOverflow, car je n’y pifre rien aux formules Excel., voici le graphique qui révélera à vos yeux ébaubis toute la triste vérité :

« Nombre de bouteilles par sens de l’opercule », Xavier Borderie, 2023, pixels sur GIF.

Force est de constater qu’il y a :

  • presque autant de G que de D,
  • presque autant de A que de AA.

Il appert donc que le distribution de la languette permettant l’ouverture sereine d’une bouteille de lait GrandLait de Candia se fasse de manière tout a fait aléatoire.

La triste vérité est donc que nous obtenons un résultat tristement normal.


Ou alors… Il y a 4 G de plus que de D… Serait-ce là la marque d’un complot plus insidieux et subtil que je n’osais l’imaginer ? Les gauchers sont-ils à très long terme une menace pour les buveurs de lait droitiers ?

L’enquête doit-elle vraiment s’arrêter là ?

Voilà, c’est fait, toutes les données ont été saisies, je vais pouvoir vider quelques cartons et… remplir une poubelle verte.

Ceci étant fait, je m’empresse de finir mon déménagement, laissant promptement toute cette petite histoire se perdre dans les limbes du Pacifique…


Mangez des pommes.



J’ai depuis longtemps oublié ces relevés, ces bouteilles et ces opercules — ce malgré les litres de lait écoulés depuis pour l’Enfant. Mais le lait est maintenant acheté en briques de carton, pour des questions de compression et de place dans la poubelle, et point d’opercule en vue.

… Jusqu’à ce que j’achète une bouteille de lait, par manque de brique cette semaine-là au magasin, j’imagine. Candia GrandLait, très bien, ça fera l’affaire.

Un matin je sors la bouteille du stock afin de préparer le biberon du Saint Enfant. Je retire le capuchon et… je me retrouve face à l’opercule, qui protège hermétiquement le contenu liquide. Et à nouveau, face à ce questionnement cosmique d’antan.

Je suis ramené à ce délire d’il y a quelques années, je me demande où sont passées les photos8Et si mon disque de backup fonctionne toujours., je me rends compte que depuis j’ai compris que l’opercule doit être entièrement retiré9D’autres se posent toujours la questions., je me souviens de toutes ces bouteilles qui occupaient plusieurs tiroirs10J’avais une cuisine démesurément grande. puis des cartons entiers11J’avais une cave., cartons qui ont déménagé d’un appartement à l’autre avant que je ne me décide à les prendre en photo et jeter le tout12Mon épouse peut être très patiente avec mes délires. Un temps..

Je retrouverai le soir-même sur mon GDrive le fichier GSheet des relevés. Il est daté du 14 mai 2017, presque 6 ans jour pour jour avant le début de la rédaction du présent article. Les relevés des données des bouteilles indiquent des dates limites de consommation allant de 2012 à 2104, soit 10 ans avant ma redécouverte de ce fichier.
J’ai donc conservé ces bouteilles pendant 3 à 5 ans avant de prendre des notes, des photos, et de jeter le tout13Trrrrrès patiente..

Et je me retrouve ce matin, par les hasards du Temps et du Destin, face à la 74e bouteille. La dernière bouteille.

Peut-être est-ce là l’occasion de l’écrire, cet article trop long résumant tout ce projet ridicule ? Il me faudrait une chute.

Allez, le petit réclame son petit-déjeuner.

Je retire l’opercule en commençant par la languette, et :


Soundtracker origins, part 2: Welcome to Turrican, aah hahahaha

Temps de lecture : 18 minutes.

It’s high time I write part two of this series of articles on the origins of Soundtracker, since the content itself has been lying in my inbox for well over two years now…

As a reminder: I’ve been writing about my « quest » of looking for the missing link between what seems to be the first « tracker-like » interface1The Page R sequencer, from the Fairlight CMI Series II workstation. At least, according to Wikipedia. and Karsten Obarski’s Ultimate Soundtracker tool, which introduced a cheap tracker interface2Meaning: patterns formed of per-channel columns and single-note rows. But fret not, this loose definition of tracking will soon change. to Amiga musicians back in 1987.

So, where were we?

In part 1 of this series, we learnt more about Karsten Obarski, who became the « Father of the Soundtracker » at age 22. Through existing interviews, we got to understand where he came from, how he came to create his Ultimate Soundtracker tool on Amiga in 1987, why he called it quits a few months afterwards… and where he probably took his inspiration for The Ultimate Soundtracker.

Version 1.21, from December 1987.

Said inspiration was, by all accounts, an earlier tool named Soundmonitor, which German developer & musician Chris Hülsbeck wrote and released on Commodore 64 in 1986 — a year before Obarski’s own Ultimate Soundtracker. Hülsbeck was 18.

Soundmonitor V1.0
Soundmonitor 1.0, released in October 1986.
I guess kids those days didn’t really need a manual.

Chris Hülsbeck went on to become world-famous by creating game music, not the least being the Turrican series of games3If the title of this article wasn’t enough of a subtle clue already.. He nowadays creates royalty-free music, and oversees orchestral renditions of the Turrican soundtrack, amongst other things. Looking at his Bandcamp page, you could say he keeps himself busy. Buy the vinyls!

Now you know why I chose that title for this article.

So that’s the status of our quest: Soundmonitor seems to have been the original tracker.

Or was it?

Writing computer game music in the 80’s

There’s much to learn about Chris Hülsbeck’s context at the time when he wrote Soundmonitor, back in 1986.

The context is: there were no music tools for the general public — even for seasoned amateurs. The first tools were very expensive and inaccessible to most musicians — let alone people who wrote computer game music.
The Fairlight CMI that I mentioned above4In a footnote in the intro. As you do. was only used by a handful of people, for instance, and they were wealthy household names already: Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock5You can see him demonstrating the workstation, with some guy named Quincy Jones looking over, Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush6Yes, « Babooshka », of course « Babooshka »!, etc. Anecdote: The Miami Vice theme was composed on that tool 7See the Fairlight (and the theme’s composer) in action in the official music video 🙂.

Before the arrival of affordable tracking software such as Soundmonitor and Ultimate Soundtracker, game musicians had to rely on their programming skills to write their music. Game musicians were, for what it’s worth, programmers before anything else.
Eventually they did write their own music software, however crude and just for themselves, compiling their usual tricks into something easier to use on a regular basis, so as to be more productive.
But in the early days, they simply wrote their music in machine code, adding one hexadecimal value after the other in the code, in order to change volume, pitch8La note, pour faire simple., or type of soundwave.

A successful Rob Hubbard.
I would totally trust this guy with my register. Wink wink.

Let’s take Rob Hubbard9Not to be confused with that Dianetics guy. Yuck., for instance. A professional studio musician by trade, he got interested in computers in the early 80’s, at roughly 27. He learned to program in Assembly language10No small feat, even at the time., wrote music tooling, got hired as a game musician, and within a handful of years became of legend11I mean, the guy has recently toured with a symphonic orchestra, conducting his own arrangement of his tunes of yore, for Zeus’ sake! of what is now known as « chiptune » music — music that exploits the sound chip included in computers at the time. Rob was a master at that.

Here’s an example of what great C64 game music sounded like in 1985:

You might want to lower your expectations of what « sound » means before clicking, just in case.

He became a master because he knew about analogue synthesizers before he got into computer music, and thus he understood the possibilities offered by their sound chip — namely, the equally legendary SID chip, whose sound is still very much appreciated today12See for instance this Instagram post from my friend Ema, an electronic musician, where she shows how she wired a vintage C64 computer into her setting so as to exploit the unique sound of its SID chip. Hubbard knew he could program the chip’s registers, and he did that aplenty.

Says the man himself in this video interview from 2017:

« I knew all the chromatic pitches pretty much all by heart in hexadecimal. 30x would be a C, 3Cx would be the octave above that, 48x would be the octave above that…
I knew all the numbers: I could get a machine dump and recognize exactly what was going on. »

« I used to know the SID chip inside & out. The filters were always different on the SID chip, you could never rely on them. »

« The Atari has an 8-bit register, so as you got higher in pitch, the resolution got less and less, it becomes very difficult to get certain notes in tune. You write your music around the fact that as you went higher, you could only rely on 3 or 4 pitches. »

« Three channels is basically all you had at your hand, so there was no choice. Later on I did manage to squeeze more out of it because I developed a digital channel as well. People were doing digital audio, using digital samples, and I was the first person who incorporated that into music, so that I could try to get a rock guitar in there with the SID chip, which was just unbelievable pain in the ass, because you’re using four bit, so the volume register (…)

Sounds like a tedious way of writing music — but not that far off from the Soundmonitor screen you see at the top of this article, ain’t it? And Soundmonitor was easy in comparison. Rob Hubbard, and the other genius composers of that golden era, wrote their music right in the code, in hexadecimal if need be.

His C64-Wiki page even says so:

He admits to having 3 ways of working:

  • write directly with the C64 by poking bytes using a machine code monitor;
  • write using a pen and paper;
  • sit at the keyboard and play until the ideas come out.

« Poking bytes using a machine code monitor ». Let that sink in. Now tracker programs look more visually pleasing, for sure.

And, well, the man himself described the musical landscape of the times in this interview:

Kenz: How did you go about composing your C64 tunes? Did you have a music editor that you used, as there were often rumours you used one you made yourself?
Rob: No, I just used an assembler and edited the source code – most people in those days did the same. There really wasn’t time to sit and write an editor, as there was so much work to do.

Commodore Zone interview.
We can also read in that page that he used Mikro Assembler by Andrew Trott, whose current homepage… mentions his interest for the Fairlight CMI. It’s all tied up, I tell ya!

And in another one:

Had you ever considered a music utility yourself?

« No, because I can’t think of any way to make my methods accessible enough to the average punter to make it worth while. »

Another Commodore Zone interview.

Music-making was thus confined to the programming elite.
Says Rob:

« It’s taken me [a] long while to develop my routines, and I’m not about to give them away! » (Rob hinted that one company which had made free with one of his demo disks might shortly regret having lifted his routines!).

Still that Commodore Zone interview.

Trackers were a few years away, because Chris Hülsbeck had yet to release his paradigm-shifting tool.

Let’s get to that.

The birth of Soundmonitor

Chris Hülsbeck was 18 when he « released »13I’ll explain the reason behind those fancy quotes in a minute. Or two, depending on your reading speed. his Soundmonitor tool, in 1986.
What does a teenage geek do in his spare time? Painstakingly type down type-ins from computer magazines of course!

« Type-ins« ? Old farts like me remember buying magazines full of source code, hundreds of pages of them, that you would bring home and then type for hours on your computer, eventually compiling this code into a program or a small game — or a set of system-crashing errors if you typed something wrong. When it did work, that feeling of pride was immense: You had typed it; it was your work of art.
To many, this was the first introduction to programming — as well as English.

If you were lucky, the type-in used regular words14Such as LOCATE, REM, or GOSUB — y’know, regular, everyday words., making it easier to transcribe.
This one is from the French Amstrad Magazine n°01, from July 1985.

Of course the Internet existed since 1983 for some happy fews, and BBSs (bulletin board systems) were already a thing, but modems were still expensive in those days, and consumer-centric machines such as the C64, Atari ST or Amiga 500 weren’t equipped for global communication out of the box.

Magazines started to feature covermounts15Yup, totally a legit word. (a cover cassettes or floppy, eventually a cover CD-ROM) in the mid-80’s. But still, type-ins were quite popular in the 8-bit era.1616-bit computers had much more memory and power, and programs became too complex to have their source code printed and shipped around.

A blessing! A blessing from the Lord!

Alright alright alright, why am I rambling on about type-ins, you ask? Because that’s how Chris Hülsbeck got his start in the computer music world.

See, in early 1986, German computer magazine « 64’er » launched a music competition. You guessed it, the winner was 18-year-old Christopher Hülsbeck, with this piece of music:

Don’t click unless you are ready to face History, my friends.

If that doesn’t sound like much to your 2022 ears, read what the jury had to say:

It wasn’t easy for us to decide which song was the best – until we heard « Shades » by Chris Hülsbeck. A short breathless moment of silence, a restart, another short listen and then it was clear to us: this is the winner!

The truly unique composition of « Shades » deserves a lot of credit. Comparisons with the creations of professionals like Jean-Michel Jarre, Eberhard Schöner and similar synthesizer jugglers are not even that far-fetched.
« Shades » also compares favourably with the creations of the well-known C64 music professionals Rob Hubard (he wrote the music for the game « Thing on a Spring », for example) and Martin Galway (« Comic Bakery »).

About the future of the young Chris Hülsbeck one can assume: He can become one of them.

One more point that needs to be said: When we presented « Shades » for the first time to the C64 fans at the CeBIT fair in Hanover, many thought that this piece of music had been « borrowed » from some professional game. But this is not the case.

64’er, June 1986, translated.
If you’re nostalgic for shoulder pads, check out this 1986 CeBIT news report 🙂

The interesting part is that the whole piece of music was made available to the 64’er readers, through a 3-pages, 8-columnes long type-in fully in hexadecimal17And a tape you could mail-order..

Ah! That Amstrad type-in above doesn’t look so daunting after all, does it?

Even more interesting to us, right in the article presenting the winner, the editorial staff wrote: « Chris Hülsbeck, der Programmierer des Musikstückes »Shades« arbeitet derzeit an einem Editorprogramm » (« Chris Hülsbeck, the programmer of the music piece « Shades » is currently working on an editor program. »)

And, what do you know, five months later came this:

« Music… like never before »
64’er, October 1986. By the way, thanks a lot to The Internet Archive for hosting scans!
Behold! A vintage Chris Hülsbeck, seen here in his natural habitat.

When we started to evaluate our music competition a few months ago, the piece of music « Shades » by Chris Hülsbeck amazed us with some fantastic sounds. Until then, we were only used to something like this from professionals such as Rob Hubbard.

On an enclosed note, Chris Hülsbeck asked if we would like to have the music routine for publication. At that time Chris was programming the routine in an uncomfortable way with a machine language monitor. On the phone, he promised to write an editor around the « music master » (as Chris christened the music routine).

When the sound monitor was finished, we were so impressed that we wanted to make it available to other readers. It became the listing of the month.

64’er, October 1986, translated.

Follows a manual written by Hülsbeck himself, and then this, the type-in for the Soundmonitor program:

Five. Pages. Of. This.

Fortunately, you could mail-order a cassette with the program on it. Phew. Enough type-ins already!

Thus was first released Soundmonitor, true father of the trackers. Or is it?

While I started my exploration thinking that Karsten Obarski came up with the tracker layout, it seems Ultimate Soundtracker mostly re-used the layout introduced by Soundmonitor, improving it thanks to the Amiga graphic abilities — and benefiting from the Paula chip, meaning 4 audio channels and the ability to use samples rather than synth sounds.

Now, to find out whether Chris Hülsbeck, in turn, found inspiration elsewhere…

More context setting18I promise you this gets somewhere eventually.

Chris’ « manual », published in the 64’er magazine, offers some information of how Soundmonitor came to be, and how advanced it was at the time.

The sound chip of the C64 offers considerable possibilities, but unfortunately the comfort of programming leaves a lot to be desired.
There are already several programmes that support the programming of the SID. Most of them are designed in such a way that you can place notes on the corresponding staves or play sounds via the keyboard.
Even complete music studios are simulated, but all known programmes have a decisive disadvantage: the composed music can only be played if the complete programme is in the memory. If you want to place a piece of music in a self-written basic game, for example, you are ill-served with these programs.

That’s why a completely independent playback routine was programmed, which is called « Musicmaster ». With the appropriate data, results are achieved that can even surpass background music from professional games.
However, it would be extremely uncomfortable if the music data had to be entered with a normal machine language monitor, such as SMON. The piece of music « Shades » was composed in this way, which was time-consuming work.

For this reason, a « monitor » had to be developed that specifically supports the input of music data: the « sound monitor ». The programme differs from other sound editors in some essential features.
The main part of the programme, the playback routine, runs completely independently in interrupt. This means that the song can be listened to at any time, even during editing. This is an excellent control possibility, you can immediately hear what you are typing.
In addition, the sound monitor contains a « realtime-record » (recording of music while playing on the keyboard).

64’er, October 1986, translated.

Still, nothing about a possible predecessor, or an inspiration, or anything. Could it be that our quest ends here? That a passionate teenager simply came up with the tracker-format idea by himself, out of thin hair?

How could we know for sure?








Let’s ask Chris Hülsbeck.

Interviewing Chris Hülsbeck

Unlike Karsten Obarski, who vanished shortly after releasing his Ultimate Soundtracker, Chris Hülsbeck has remained very active online: he makes royalty-free music through his Patreon, has all his music available on Bandcamp, maintains an active Twitter account, has released orchestral version of his most-known work, etc. You could say he keeps himself busy.

Chris Hülsbeck today, working from his motorhome in the US.
Funnily enough, in this photo (taken from his website), he displays two tools on the big screen: ProTracker 2.3d, and his very own TFMX editor (through the WinUAE emulator).

As you could see at the bottom of the first part of this series of article, I contacted Chris Hülsbeck back in 2019 through his website, not really expecting an answer — and getting one within 5 hours! Imagine being able to talk directly19Well, through emails. But still! to someone whose music filled quite a few hours of your teenage years!

I’ll skip the overly long intro and context-setting from my email, since, well, I’ve already written that into this article 😅

To the first question, then!

XB: Did you come up with the tracker layout for Soundmonitor, or did you get inspiration from the Fairlight CMI (or any other tool)?
Were you in contact with Karsten Obarski, or any other « music-programmer » of the time?

CH: Let me start a bit earlier – despite having had 2 years of piano lessons when I was 5 years old, I never got to properly learn or appreciate musical notation.
By the time I was starting to compose and « program » music on the C64 (around age 16), I had developed my own musical understanding and language, otherwise I would probably have tried to represent the notes in a graphical way just like other musical software at the time.

I didn’t know about the Fairlight sequencer page at the time, but the inspiration for the note representation came from an early C64 midi sequencer by Steinberg, which didn’t display notes as symbols, but as a list of single letter note name, an optional « sharp » symbol if needed and a number for the octave. This made the most sense to me for computer music and the rest came together just by needing a simple layout for the song data and the patterns.

I didn’t meet other music software programmers until years later.

Private e-mail interview from June 201920Yes, I’m that late in publishing this..

🚨Alert, alert, we have an inspiration! 🚨
Chris used a tool by Steinberg, the editor of Cubase, the world-famous DAW21Digital Audio Workstation, and inventor of the de facto standard for digital audio plugins, VST22Virtual Studio Technology.

Back in the 80’s, Steinberg wasn’t the software superstar23At first I wrote « software behemoth » here, but when checking about it, they seem to have 200 employees — which, sure, is big, but not quite behemoth-y. So let’s go for « superstar » instead. that it is today. It was founded in 1984 by Karl Steinberg and Manfred Rürup, who were musicians and studio engineers, and their passion for the latest musical gear led them to write audio software, starting with the C64.

Their first best-selling software was « Pro-16 » from 1986, a tool able to manager up to 16 tracks of MIDI instruments…

Looks like a stepping system on the right, if I’m not mistaken…

… but their very fist tool was indeed named « Midi Multitrack Sequencer », and released in 198424The MIDI standard dating from 1983, you could say that Steinberg were at the forefront of the DAW revolution, as told by the history written at the bottom of this page..

Are we seeing some kind of sequencing here? Oh right, « sequencer » is even in the name, duh.

So, any of these two tools could have been the inspiration for Soundmonitor, it seems, since they date from before 1986.
It’s hard to find any resemblance with the tracker layout of Ultimate Soundtracker or even Soundmonitor, but the inspiration might as well come from the way those earlier tools operated.

Let’s try and get some details from Chris.

XB: So I understand you came up with the tracker-like layout, inspired by « an early C64 midi sequencer by Steinberg ».
Do you remember the name of that sequencer? Was it Pro 16, Trackstar, or even an earlier tool?

CH: I’m actually not quite sure… maybe it was the « MIDI Multitrack Sequenzer ». I did also work with and loved the Pro-16, but I don’t remember if I did before or after the Soundmonitor.

Private e-mail interview from June 2019.

So, MIDI Multitrack Sequencer is the next step in our quest, it seems. And it’s not a small one, since Steinberg is a whole other kind of thing today.

It’s one thing to contact a music composer who is very much present online; it’s a whole other thing to contact the co-founder and CEO of a company whose later tool, Cubase, is used by a large portion of professional and amateur musicians today.

I’ll try my luck anyway. But that will be a topic for another post here — I don’t know if you noticed, but this article is quite long already 🙂

Continuing with the interview

Of course I had a few more questions I wanted to ask to the man whose music livened quite a few of my teenage gaming evenings, so here goes!

XB: Your first tune, Shades, was as far as I understand, written directly in machine code — all for a music competition for the 64er magazine, which you won.
What was your journey between writing your own music, and writing your own editor?
And which came first, the song or the editor? 🙂

CH: The creation of Shades was actually quite painful, because I had to edit the hexadecimal numbers representing the note data and everything else directly in the computer memory using a program called a « monitor ».

So my idea was to make a similar program, but tailored to sound data, hence the Soundmonitor was born. When I told the writer for the magazine who was responsible for the music contest about my plans he was very excited and suggested that I should submit it to the sister magazine Happy Computer for their « listing of the month » and it was accepted right away.

XB: In an interview, Rob Hubbard said that he composed his C64 tunes directly in assembler, « most people in those days did the same. There really wasn’t time to sit and write an editor, as there was so much work to do. »
Obviously you took the time to do it. Is it because you weren’t a professional at the time — and thus had more free time?

Who else was making a popular editor at the time?

CH: I was still in school and on Summer break when I created the Soundmonitor, so I wasn’t bogged down with professional music jobs yet (as Hubbard said).

I honestly don’t know of any other editors during that time.
The first scene music tracker I became aware of was actually just a hack of the Soundmonitor called Rockmonitor, which added one track of a rather crude sample playback (different from my own sample playback system, which I never released to the public).

I like the idea of professionals not having the time to take a step back and write a proper tool, and being beaten to the finish line by a teenager on Summer break 🙂

XB: By the way, on your SID Anthology vol 1, Shades is only the second track. Does it mean Planet of War, the first track, is your first officially released track?

CH: Planet of War was composed and programmed before Shades, with a much simpler player, but it was actually released after Shades because of a delay to find a publisher for the game. But for the album I felt it needed to be chronological in terms of when it was composed.

XB: So, just as for Shades, I understand that all musicians at the time were actually programmers with a gift for melody — which might explain why they were few and fondly remembered (Hubbard, Galway, Follin, etc.)
How much of composing at the time was a result of trial and error?

CH: It was very inspiring if I would find a cool new sound or trick when composing, but often I would develop my melodies just with a piano sound on my keyboard synth and then translate that melody into the machine.
In any case it was a very tedious and technical way of creating music and I think that is one reason only a handful of people developed the skills that truly set them apart from the rest.

XB: The published source code for Soundmonitor takes 5 magazine pages long (albeit, with 3 columns). I find that impressively small for a full musical program! Did you already introduce optimizations in there?

CH: The listing is not a source code, but an actual compressed binary… I never released the source code itself and it’s actually a horrible piece of mess because I was so young that I didn’t care about readability or that I would need to ever go back and understand it… 😉

XB: As I understand it, one of the great step forward was that Soundmonitor could save and load files, with a separate playroutine, saving both time and space for other musicians. Was that also a creation of yours, or did you get inspired from others?

CH: That was just a very cool idea I had to give people the ability to put music into their own games or demos, even if they had only very basic programming skills. It also made it very easy for people to share their music and recipients didn’t even need the editor to listen…

XB: In an interview in 1992, Karsten Obarski said that « Even today’s trackers work in that same way, and still use the tone-event data structures which I invented. (Which is a very simple one.) » Do you understand what he means by « tone-event data structures »? I have an idea, but maybe that talks to you more?

CH: No exact idea, but I assume it’s got something to do with how his sequencer triggers notes and modulations. The Soundtracker format was much more streamlined compared to the Soundmonitor and had real memory management, so you couldn’t easily crash it by making mistakes, but I feel that also made it somewhat less flexible. Because trackers are easier to learn and use, the format has understandably surpassed the Soundmonitor.

XB: I found out that different waves produced different sounds (who would have thought? 🙂 ). Sine, square, triangle, sawtooth… Did you make use of these? Did Soundmonitor solely relied on such sounds, or could you import other sounds? (I understand TFMX could load samples, for instance).

CH: I took advantage of all the wave forms and possibilities that the SID chip offered and added sample playback to my own developer version of the Soundmonitor. By the time I developed my next tool TFMX, samples had actually been on the way out because they did not work on a new revision of the SID (until a different way was developed much later) and they took too much memory and CPU power to be included in the ever more complex games that were created. So TFMX doesn’t actually include sample playback, but instead I invented a new way of manipulating the SID chip with every screen cycle through something I called sound macros and it could result in complex instruments that almost sounded like samples (particularly drum sounds). This system lived on with later music I created for the Amiga, game consoles like Super Nintendo and Sega Megadrive as well as on the Nintendo 64 with a new tool that I developed with Factor 5 called MusyX. This sound tool still featured the concept of the TFMX sound macros and Nintendo actually bought a license to use it for their third party developers.

So that’s it for now!

Karsten Obarski’s Soundtracker took inspiration from Chris Hülsbeck’s Soundmonitor, who in turn took inspiration from Karl Steinberg’s MIDI Multitrack Sequencer. Phew!

What’s next? Will I find the missing link between the Fairlight CMI hardware workstation and later software audio tools? It’s a mystery!

Let’s just say that I closed my emails exchange with Chris Hülsbeck with this small spoiler:

As an aside, I’ve been interviewing the creator of the Fairlight CMI, and I think I know the exact moment when the whole « pattern of samples » format made the jump from a physical drum machine to the Fairlight’s sequencer, and who’s behind it! It’s a small thing, but this is exciting 🙂

See you next time!

Other articles in this series:

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The origin of Soundtracker’s MOD format

Temps de lecture : 3 minutes.

I did not write this, retro-computing enthusiast Thomas Cherryhomes (owner of did, on Twitter in December 23rd 2022 — hence the backdated publication date for this post.

I’m turning his Twitter thread into a proper blogpost because it’s a very informative one for my own research on Karsten Obarski, and I fear that this content might be gone sometimes soon, what with Twitter/X turning into a burning trashcan, and Thomas possibly closing his own account and moving to Mastodon…
Yes, there exist apps such as ThreadReader, but they don’t archive thread, just display them in a streamlined way.

Thomas’ thread is reproduced as-is, as closely as possible, with only minor tweaks from my part here and there. All credits due to him.

It is commonly said that Karsten Obarski created the MOD format.


[Obarski’s Ultimate] SoundTracker saved songs[, not MODs].

The format we know today as MOD evolved very quickly through the efforts of many hackers trying to make an in-house tool better.

It was expected that once you had a song ready to embed within a game, that you would use the supplied replay routine, and fill in the blanks at the bottom containing pointers to the up to 15 instrument samples you wished to use.

This wasn’t considered a problem, because this was an in-house development tool for game music, and you couldn’t even modify the preset sounds, because they were hard-coded into the program.

Obi would continue with his original version of Ultimate SoundTracker, eventually splitting out the preset-list to a separate file (PLST), making a source file for it that could be assembled with SEKA-Assembler…

…and providing a separate PRESET-ED tool that could modify the PLST file, thereby allowing a musician to not only have his own presets, but to properly store the important instrument data (length, repeat, replen, etc.), and release it as version 1.8 in April of 1988.

The ability to even SAVE a module didn’t appear until after more than half a year after the cracking groups started disassembling SoundTracker to add features. It appears as early as July 1988 in D.O.C.’s Soundtracker IX, to be used with its replay routine.

It turns out that July 1988 was a watershed moment for SoundTracker, because The New Masters1« Coder 4: Tip of TNM » in the screenshot below, future author of Oktalyzer. had significantly modified SoundTracker to add module loading (first appearance of Disk Op menu), making the module format sustainable as a self contained music format.

Finally, that October, Obi2Nickname of Karsten Obarski. released UST3Ultimate Soundtracker. version 2.0, it also had the Save Module feature, but no Load Module feature. This would never make it into The Ultimate SoundTracker, as Obi would stop working on the program, and even more would happen in the coming months…


Thomas also produced a comprehensive look at Ultimate Soundtracker 1.21:

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Instafest 2022

Temps de lecture : 2 minutes.

En ce temps d’incertitudes envers les plates-formes de publication en ligne, je vais me remettre à publier des contenus courts ici, afin de ne pas faire profiter uniquement Instagram ou Twitter.

Comme chaque année, il y a des applications qui reprennent les données sociales que l’on stocke sans vraiment le savoir, et nous permettent de les mettre en forme.
La dernière en date est, qui crée une affiche de festival à partir des artistes les plus joués dans Spotify sur les 4 dernières semaines, les 6 derniers mois, ou depuis le début — il y a une éternité, en ce qui me concerne.

Voici donc mon résultat, pas vraiment surprenant :

Pas vraiment surprenant, donc, car je stocke sciemment ces informations sur depuis des lustres — avant même l’éternité de Spotify, donc, d’où la disparité.

Ah tiens, d’ailleurs on peut aussi le faire avec directement. Let’s go:

Publié sur Twitter avec le titre « Je tiens la barre depuis 1997 » (date de sortie d’OK Computer), un mien camarade commenta que je suis « surtout RESTÉ en 1997 », ce qui est très vrai, étant donné que, quand même, 1997 est la meilleure année pour la musique — aucun lien avec le fait que ce soit l’année de mes 20 ans, bien sûr.

Je remercie cependant ces stats de ne pas avoir pris en compte les heures de bruit blanc que j’écoute en boucle lorsque je dois me concentrer…