Musique technologies

Soundtracker Origins, interlude: The coders behind the Cambrian explosion

Temps de lecture / Reading time : 52 minutes.

Remember Part 31Wow, that previous part had an estimated 21-minute reading time, and back then I thought that was really too long for an article about my little nostalgic trip down memory lane. Well now, GUESS WHAT? of this series of articles on Soundtracker?
Those were the days!

I fondly remember writing the following, near the end of that article:

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!

Me, the hopeful pessimist.

Good times! Look at me, making sincere promises and everything:

  • Sure, I could easily write that Fairlight CMI article, mostly just by copy-pasting the content of email answers dating back from 2019.
  • And as for the Jellinghaus (JMS) article, along with a couple other ideas thrown in in order to tie it all together, well it’s a quick road to publication, methinks.

But where’s the fun in that?

I say we go the usual ADHD route: stop at 80% completion, and start something new altogether!2But let’s keep it in the same overall context, so as to not feel too much guilt. Structured procrastination: 60% of the time, it works every time.

Let me therefore add an interlude to this series of articles, in order to tell you a story.

A story of pioneers, of sharing, of standing upon the shoulders of giants, of youth, of friendly competition, and of bad blood.
A story of humans making History without even knowing it.

As with all good, heartwarming stories, it starts with…


Soundtracker origins, part 3: Facing a stone mountain

Temps de lecture / Reading time : 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).

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

Temps de lecture / Reading time : 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.


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

Temps de lecture / Reading time : 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?

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The origin of Soundtracker’s MOD format

Temps de lecture / Reading time : 4 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 dumpster fire, and Thomas possibly closing his own account and moving to Mastodon…
Yes, there exist apps such as ThreadReader, but they don’t archive threads, they just display them in a more 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.

Obi1Nickname of Karsten Obarski. 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 Masters2« 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, Obi 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:

Other articles in this series:

  1. Soundtracking sur Amiga : passion, explications et exemples — The Twitter thread that started it all (in French).
  2. Soundtracker origins, part 1: Where in the World is Karsten Obarski? — About Karsten Obarski, author of The Ultimate Soundtracker.
  3. The origin of Soundtracker’s MOD format — When you see a Twitter thread with key information, it is your duty to preserve it.
  4. Soundtracker origins, part 2: Welcome to Turrican, aah hahahaha — About Chris Hülsbeck, author of Soundmonitor.
  5. Soundtracker origins, part 3: Facing a stone mountain — About Karl Steinberg, author of MIDI Multitrack Sequencer.
  6. Soundtracker Origins, interlude: The coders behind the Cambrian explosion — Where I get to interview a few key people in the Soundtracker saga.