Musique technologies

Soundtracker Origins, interlude: The coders behind the Cambrian explosion

Temps de lecture / Reading time : 50 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).


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?


Soundtracker origins, part 1: Where in the World is Karsten Obarski?

Temps de lecture / Reading time : 11 minutes.

Note: Cet article (et les suivants de cette série) sont écrits en anglais, pour la simple raison que mes sources, tant directes qu’en ligne, sont anglophones.
Par ailleurs, dans certains de ces articles, il me semble que j’ajoute du contenu original/rarement vu au corpus de connaissances, donc autant faire en sorte que cela profite au plus grand monde 🙂

My previous article on Soundtracking1In French in ze texte. was all about passion and nostalgia: presenting a couple of great Amiga demos, playing a handful of notable Amiga modules, and explaining my understanding of how soundtracking worked — you know, the whole « notes as a sequence of letters instead of solfege symbols » thing2 Or, « A#3 > 🎶 », which incidentally is the name of Elon Musk & Grimes’ next child.

SoundTracker: it’s like writing music with Excel!
This is a Unix version of Soundtracker, from February 2006.
(to hear this specific song, click here and press the Return key)

Today I’m starting a series of articles which is no less about passion and nostalgia, but tries to go further behind the curtains, and talks about the ones who made soundtracking possible: Mr. Obarski of course, but also those who inspired him (and those who, in turn, inspired them3Spoiler alert: It’s turtles all the way down!).

Eventually, my intent is to find out when the « tracker » way of composing music (or, the music sequencer) made the jump from a hardware, physical product to a software product. Who was the first one to dream up coding that interface? Is it really Karsten Obarski, father of the Sountracker? I want to find out.

So let’s start with the culmination of all these inspirations.
Let’s start where this little « quest » of mine started.


Musique technologies

Soundtracking sur Amiga : passion, explications et exemples

Temps de lecture / Reading time : 14 minutes.

Le 1er avril 2019, je tweetais :

Je me suis fait un petit « trip down memory lane » 1🎵Ce petit chemin, qui sent la noisè-è-teuh 🎶 Amiga ce matin, du coup j’ai envie d’écrire sur le sujet, pour les gens qui n’ont pas connu ce merveilleux monde. Cela me donnera l’occasion de partager une sélection de démos qui m’ont marquées, et une sélection de modules du même tonneau.

Note : ceci est une mise-en-blog de trois diatribes 2Ou « threads », comme disent les jeunes de nos jours. Twitter que j’ai commencées en avril 2019, et que j’alimentais quand me venait l’inspiration. 3Ça a duré 3 jours…
Il est grand temps d’en faire un article digne de ce nom. Si vous me suivez sur Twitter malgré mon compte privé, vous pouvez retrouver ces contenus dans trois threads : le principal, celui dédié aux modules, et celui dédiés aux démos.

Note 2 : ce n’est pas la première fois que j’aborde le sujet de la musique sur Amiga sur ce blog. En 2009, je faisais déjà un article sur le soundtracking, que je pensais même être le premier d’une longue lignée. 4J’étais jeune, j’étais fou.
effectivement, je retrouve dans mes brouillons la seconde partie, écrite apparemment en 2011, qui aborde l’histoire de la musique dans les jeux vidéo ! Que d’ambition ! Du coup je l’ai publiée telle quelle, avec les manques et les trous — il ne faudrait pas que tout cela se perde 🙂

Pourquoi cette nostalgie musicale ? Parce qu’entre 1989 et 1997 5Estimation Ipsos/Cofinoga., quand d’autres mettaient leur radio ou K7 préférée pendant leurs devoirs du soir, moi je lançais mon Amiga (500 puis 1200) pour mettre un fond sonore. 6Dans la série « Dis que tu avais une télé dans ta chambre sans dire que tu avais une télé dans ta chambre… » 7Disons-le tout de go, ça n’a pas forcément amélioré mes notes au collège/lycée…

Un truc comme ça. Actuellement stocké dans le grenier parental, au grand dam de maman. Non maman, si tu me lis, tu ne peux toujours pas jeter ces cartons ! Merci ! 🙂

Donc, le soir venu, face à l’énoncé du devoir à rendre pour le lendemain, soit je lançais une démo 8Une « oeuvre multimédia », pourrait-on dire aujourd’hui. (ou un music-disk), soit je lançais le logiciel ProTracker 2.3d 9Ou 3.15, chacun ses goûts, je ne juge pas., afin de charger l’un des nombreux « modules » provenant de ma vaste collection 10Acquise à la dure, au fil des années, à force d’envois et réceptions des disquettes PAR LA POSTE, messieurs-dames, oui, je n’ai pas honte à le dire : j’étais… un swapper ! Si..

La démo « Celebration » du groupe norvégien IT, sortie en 1989, et accessoirement la première démo qu’il m’ait été donnée de voir, faisant partie du lot de disquettes vendues avec l’Amiga que mes parents m’ont offert à l’époque (j’étais bon élève au collège, oui).
En fait de démo, il s’agissait surtout d’un « music-disk » (au clic droit de la souris, un menu s’ouvrait avec une sélection de 6 musiques, dont 4 par Walkman, dont nous reparlerons bientôt…), ce qui était bien pratique vu que les musiques bouclaient…
Pour vous donner une idée des temps qui change, cette démo Amiga de 1989 occupait une disquette de 880 ko, tandis qu’en 2009, en 4 ko (!) et sur PC, on a Elevated de RGBA.
Vous me croyez si vous voulez, mais cette interface m’était très familière fut un temps. Aaaaah, 1993…

Parfois même, je lançais simplement cet Util-Disk (une disquette pleine de logiciels piratés, oui oui — on voit ici notamment Deluxe Paint III), juste pour entendre la musique du menu de sélection que j’aimais bien, composée par Titan.

Un module, c’est un fichier musical dans le monde du soundtracking. Ce fichier englobe à la fois la « partition » (une suite de « patterns » de notes, nous y reviendrons 11Vous avez teelllement hâte, je le sais.) et les instruments (de tous petits fichiers audio 12Tout pitis pitis.).
Et, parce que why not?, l’extension du fichier était au début d’icelui : mod.Cant_Get_Enough, mod.Hymn_To_Yezz, mod.Consert_In_Space (sic), etc.

J’entends la foule clamer « Oh oui Xavier, épate-nous avec des musiques faites à base d’échantillons 8 bits sur 4 voix, et des graphismes en 32 couleurs ! » Patience, patience, nous y voilà.