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 before 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.

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 behemoth 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 198423The 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!


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

Temps de lecture : 10 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.


Karsten Obarski,
elusive legend

Karsten Obarski programmed the Ultimate Soundtracker tool for Amiga 1000 in the Summer of 1987, and released it through German software publisher EAS in December 1987.
He was 22. It was his first ever completed program. He initially wrote it to write his first music, for the first game of a friend of his, Guido Bartels.

You can almost hear the nostalgia!

Ultimate Soundtracker was the first musical program to mix the tracker format with audio samples (instead of synth sounds), and thus was a tremendous success… in terms of number of tools which stole the whole idea and built upon it, that is. Commercially, it failed, apparently due to a temperamental behavior (= it crashed all too often), and the fact that the target customers, musicians, were not interested in that way of composing.

Version 1.0 (or « demo version« ), from November 1987. Notice that Obarski used his nickname here, « Obiwan » 🙂
The first version published by EAS was version 1.21, from December 1987.
Which part of your song are you going to start with? Melody, or percussions?

Nonetheless, it gave birth to a host of clones (and a name to its own genre of tools), each building upon the previous clone’s improvements.
In March 1988, just 3 months after the initial commercial release of Ultimate Soundtracker, coder The Exterminator/TJC (Netherlander Mark Langerak) released Soundtracker II under his own name (removing Obarski’s full credit, shy of a mention).
Exterminator had de-assembled the original program and released the resulting source code, along with its playroutine4A piece of code that makes it possible to easily integrate a Soundtracker song (or « module ») into any program. This allowed anyone to not only create music in the tracker format (fine), but they could also freely (as in, illegally) use that format in their own production (games and demos).

While illegal, this was the needed spark to trigger the Cambrian explosion of trackers: before long, several other clones appeared. Just for 1988, Amiga musicians witnessed the successive releases of Soundtracker Pro I, TJC Soundtracker I, Soundtracker III and IV, DOC Soundtracker (11 versions in 88), Master Soundtracker, and many others. Check out this graph!

Some would say it was « fair game » for a software that wasn’t successful, and felt abandoned. From Pex « Mahoney » Tufvesson, coder of another clone named Noisetracker:

« The basic idea of ​​Soundtracker was delightful, but unfortunately there were some serious bugs and other shortcomings. I tried to contact Karsten Obarski with bug reports, but was told that he was not going to do anything about it and that Soundtracker was not a commercial success. Today it would be classed as abandonware, but at the time it was just frustrating. »

Pex Tufvesson took matters into his own hands and disassembled the entire program. After much effort, he had the entire assembly code for Soundtracker on his desk. He fixed the bugs, increased the number of samples from 15 to 31, and released Noisetracker 1.0 on August 1, 1989. However, this first version also contained some bugs, so version 1.1 was released just a week later.

Techworld interview (automatic English translation)

Abandoned? Truth be told, Karsten Obarski didn’t last long in « the scene » (of which he was never a part of anyway). He released a couple more versions of Ultimate Soundtracker, including v2.0 in October 1988 which made official the famed « module » format (combining note patterns with audio samples into a single file) created in July 88 by the DOC Soundtracker IX clone (coded by Unknown/DOC, aka Michael Kleps5Update from December 2022: See this interesting thread by Thomas Cherryhomes about how the MOD format was introduced.), and then, as Keyser Söze would say, « Poof, he was gone ». He was not heard of anymore on the Amiga. Barely a year had gone by since the initial release of his groundbreaking tool.

On the right, Karsten Obarski in 1991, in the reLine offices. They are watching over a competitor for « endurance game playing » for the Guinness Book of Records.
From Aktueller Software Markt (ASM) magazine, May 1991.

He kept working on games for a bit, specifically for the reLINE publisher, for which he composed the music of the game « Dyter-07 » 6For which he created another tool: « I wrote an completely new tool named « Synthpack » which used sampled audio for
percussions only and realtime generated synthetic sounds for the melodic voices. It sounded more like an old 64 which I like very much. »
. Then, by 1993, it seems he left the computer world for good.

What’s left of him is a legacy, both in terms of composing process, but also in terms of « sound »: Ultimate Soundtracker was accompanied by the legendary ST-01, a sound disk, which contained audio samples which Obarski ripped from his own synthesizers 7Check out this audio comparison between the ST-01 samples and the original synthesizer sounds., and which came to define the early sound of the Amiga.
Obarski himself provided the template: Ultimate Soundtracker came with several complete demo songs, showing that the man also had a knack for melodies. Amegas, Crystalhammer, Endtheme, Bluesong, Blueberry, etc.: Titles that bring nostalgic stars to the eyes of any kid from these days 🙂

The man behind the legend

Hi, Karsten!
Picture taken from AMP, dated probably 2008.

Not much is known about Karsten Obarski, really. Only a couple of interviews are available online.
Let’s dive in, and find out what brought him to create Soundtracker!

The two main interviews are:

In addition to that, there are a few sources here and there, for instance a biography on the VGMPF wiki, a since-deleted page on Wikipedia from 2008 (now forwarding to the Ultimate Soundtracker page); the since-lost Karsten Obarski Tribute Project, with a short message from The Man himself in 2001; … and that’s it! If you know of more, I’m interested 🙂

So, from these interviews, what can we learn?

How did you get the idea of creating Soundtracker?
A friend of mine (…) asked me if I could write some music for him (…). At that time I had already experimented around with a playroutine on my brand new Amiga (…)
So I begun to code a simple-to-use editor to generate the data to be used by my playroutine. After some improvements, my Soundtracker was born.

AMP interview

Sounds like it came out of thin air!
But let’s look at the question right before this one:

Which composing programs have you been using?
In the times of the « 64 »8Commodore 64., I’ve used Chris Hülsbeck’s « Soundmonitor » to implement some music-tunes in my codings.

AMP interview

Ah ha! That’s interesting. So, Karsten Obarski had a Commodore 64 before he bought an Amiga 1000, and on that C64 he discovered Soundmonitor, which… is a tracker-style program from 1986, the year before Obarski wrote and released his own Ultimate Soundtracker!

Soundmonitor 1.0, by Chris Hülsbeck.

Indeed, while it’s much less easy on the eye, we can see similarities: channels (three, in that case, marked TRK for « tracks »), line positions on the left sidebar (SP for « song position » I guess, or maybe « step »?), and more settings.

Browsing other sources, we find that this is the same conclusion reached by others. For instance, in his book « Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes« , author Kenneth B. McAlpine writes:

« Obarski simplified the interface of SoundMonitor ».

Peter Moormann goes one step further in his book « Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance« :

« An early model of such tracker software was Soundmonitor for the C64, written by Chris Hülsbeck. »

French blog Geekzone treads the same waters in their article « The little-known history of trackers » 9In French in ze texte., but goes one step further: author and audio producer Jean-Christophe « Faskil » Detrain relates that, for purists, Hülsbeck’s Soundmonitor was the first necessary step, but Obarski’s Soundtracker was indeed the first real tracker — because to said purists, a real tracker has to use audio samples, not synth sounds.

Still, to Faskil, « C64 wins »: the first tracker is indeed Soundmonitor.

Looks like Karsten Obarski took inspiration from Chris Hülsbeck, contributing a nicer interface around the tracker format, along with a fourth channel10Thanks to Paula, the Amiga sound chip, which was more advanced than the C64’s SID chip., right?
Ergo, that would make Chris Hülsbeck the real father of music trackers?

It’s not quite that simple. Turns out, Hülsbeck got inspiration somewhere too — of course.

But before we dive into Chris Hülsbeck’s own inspirations for Soundmonitor, let’s try to understand another aspect of Karsten Obarski’s legend: after releasing such an important piece of software, why did he disappear all of a sudden, vanishing without a trace? Let’s answer the title of this article.

After releasing a key software product, Karsten Obarski more or less disappeared, never to be heard again of in the game music (or demo music) world. Why so, and where is he now?

The answer to « Why did he left? » can be found by mixing various sources.

I was very proud to have invented a milestone program.

The data structure of my MOD files even still lives today on PCs and all other music programs, after they ripped parts of my program and modified my playroutine as well.

But say – how many people who know about « trackers » and modules also know their roots? Who knows me? That’s only a few of them.

AMP interview, adapted.

I would like to thank (…) all those who care about the young but forgotten history of computing, with all these great guys.

AMP interview, adapted.

When and why did you give up the SoundTracker project?
After I’d sold my copyrights to a company named EAS for a few bucks, and the Soundtracker clones started to come from all directions, I didn’t have the inspiration to code any more on that program.

Did you feel bad when other people stole your idea/program?
(…) It wasn’t funny when people made some patches on the SoundTracker and then thought of it as their own program, removing my name completely.
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 have anything to say to the programmers of new trackers?
Just try to find new ways by yourself and do not spend so much time making the same things others have done before you.

AM/FM interview.

So, by the looks of it, he wasn’t too happy with the situation, and decided it was time for him to find a new hobby.

Now, « where is he now? », you might ask me, and I’m glad you did. Again, we resort to the available interviews…

Are you still active in the scene these days?
I now have a job as an electronic-specialist at an industrial company. Sometimes I program a little bit at our circuit-board testing machines – that’s fun enough for me 😉

The other free time I like to spend with my wife, my motorbikes, my old house, my synthesizers and my very few left friends.

AMP interview.

Indeed, while desperately looking for anything resembling an online presence of Karsten Obarski, the closest I could find was an empty account on the Tinkercad website. Tinkercad is a free tool to create 3D models of, amongst other things, circuit boards. We can only guess that he was trying it out for fun…

But [music is] still just a hobby – and in the Summer my wife and I often prefer to ride with our motorbikes [rather] than sitting in the house.

KOTP website, adapted.

So there you have it. Our hero, proud of his accomplishment and eager to try something else, left the Amiga town, riding his motorcycle into dawn…

From AMP. Those glasses have seen some dust.

Goodbye, you legend. Goodbye.

Lacking direct interaction with Karsten Obarski himself (and believe me, I tried to track him down, or to find at least an email address), this is the best I can do. Karsten, if you read this, please contact me 🙂

Let’s move on to Obarski’s apparent inspiration for Soundtracker, then, in order to find out, in turn, his inspiration.

So, Soundmonitor was created by Chris Hülsbeck. This name might ring a bell to old-timers: he scored such well-known games as Turrican and Turrican II, Apidya, R-Type, etc. Unlike Obarski, he did not disappear, but kept very active in the gaming music scene, even producing several of his own albums (and royalty free music) and orchestra versions of the Turrican music.

All this from writing an audio tool on the C64 on 1986, probably as a teenager? Nice!

We could dive into the numerous interviews of him online, sure.

But, just in case, let’s try and ask him directly!

He seems to be very busy, I doubt he’ll ever answer…

5 hours later:

So that’s going to be the topic for the next part of this series 🙂

See you soon!

Musique technologies

Soundtracking sur Amiga : passion, explications et exemples

Temps de lecture : 13 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.

Première démo à voir : évidemment, la gigantesque « Desert Dreams » du groupe danois Kefrens, sortie en 1993, gagnante de la demoparty The Gathering ’93. Oui, ça dure 13 minutes 13Et ça tenait sur deux disquettes. 1413 minutes, c’est déjà une bonne durée, mais la moyenne pour une démo de bonne facture oscille entre 5 et 10 minutes. D’autres sont bien plus longues, comme « Odyssey » du groupe Alcatraz en 1991 qui dure 44 minutes du début à la toute fin, sur 5 disquettes. .

Chose rare : le code, certains graphiques, et surtout toute la musique ont été créé-e-s par Anders Emil Hansen, alias Laxity. Un vrai polymathe ! 15D’ailleurs, votez avec moi pour ajouter Alexandre Astier à cette page ! Je veux dire, le mec est musicien, conférencier, acteur, homme de scène, réalisateur, homme éloquent, et il influence une palanquée de geeks à l’humour douteux depuis plus de 15 ans.

Il va falloir commencer un glossaire, sans doute. Pour le moment, reposons-nous sur Wikipédia : démo, démoparty, The Gathering 16Ne pas confondre avec The Gathering \m/, ’93.

Premier module : l’incontournable « Klisje Paa Klisje » 17Anecdote : on m’avait dit (sur RTEL…) que le titre voulait dire « Pas à pas » en norsk, ce qui me semblait bien aller avec l’approche de ce module, qui comprend de nombreuses parties.
Arrivé en 2019 et avec les outils de traduction en ligne aujourd’hui disponibles, je crois comprendre que c’est plutôt « Cliché sur cliché », ou « Une succession de clichés ». Bon, c’est moins poétique, mais ça montre l’humilité de l’auteur 🙂
par le norvégien Tor Bernhard Gausen, alias Walkman18Je vous avais bien dit qu’on allait reparler de lui./Cryptoburners (« x/y » signifiant « x, membre du groupe y » dans la démoscène).
(pas moyen de l’inclure dans la page, vous devez cliquer…)

Je découvre aujourd’hui que cette musique vient de la démo « The Hunt for Seven October« , réalisée par le groupe Cryptoburners en 1990. Cette démo est sympathique mais n’est pas restée dans les mémoires, à la différence de la musique qui elle est devenue légendaire dans le milieu. 19D’ailleurs tout le monde est à fond sur « Klisje Paa Klisje » (KPK.MOD pour les intimes — et les pécéistes), mais j’ai une préférence de snob français pour « Sonate To Her » du compatriote Cyril « Chrylian » Jegot, dont je vous ai fait une capture pas plus tard que ci-après. L’hommage semble assez clair (intro piano, multiples parties, guitares rock), j’aime bien.

Je dois prévenir, ne soyez pas choqué-e-s par la qualité du son des modules (c’est à dire, les fichiers musicaux) que je vais partager dans cet article : le format date de 1987, et bien que très innovant à l’époque, plus de 30 ans d’évolution logicielle plus tard ces modules sembleront un peu ridicules. 20Surtout les premiers modules produits sur Soundtracker, utilisant les si-caractéristiques sons de ST-01, à commencer par le tout premier module au format Soundtracker : Amegas.

Quelques détails sur le fonctionnement d’un module, parce que vous êtes ici pour lire des choses passionnantes :

  • Chaque note de la gamme (do, ré, mi, etc.) d’un son (piano, par ex.) vient d’un seul échantillon (ou sample), joué à différentes vitesses pour changer la tonalité. Un sample joué lentement donnera une note grave ; joué rapidement, il donnera une note aiguë.
    Typiquement, un sample est créé avec la note do par défaut, donc pour faire un ré, il faut lééégèrement accélérer la lecture du son, et ainsi de suite pour un mi, un fa, etc.
    Alors oui, je vous vois venir : du coup, si on veut jouer le si qui termine l’octave, voire si on veut monter d’une octave (le do suivant, etc.), le son dure moins longtemps. Réciproquement, si on descend d’une octave, le son durera plus longtemps — mais ses défauts seront plus apparents. La solution ? Avoir un son différent pour le do de chaque octave — mais ça prend de la place !
    Une astuce : un sample peut-être défini comme « bouclé » dans l’outil : au lieu de s’arrêter à la fin du fichier, il reprend à son début (ou à un endroit pré-défini), en boucle. Un loop bien conçu peut ainsi durer indéfiniment malgré un fichier audio initial très court.
  • La puce audio de l’Amiga, baptisée Paula, ne propose « que » 4 pistes seulement, en pseudo stéréo (deux pistes à gauche, deux pistes à droite). Une seule note par piste pouvait être jouée à chaque instant.
    Je dis « que 4 pistes », car pour l’époque c’était énorme, et surtout l’Amiga mettait à portée 21Portée, hoho ! Vous l’avez ? de toutes et tous l’équivalent des outils professionnels du moment, à un prix grand public !
  • Un « pattern » comprend donc 4 pistes (channels), avec chacun un maximum de 64 positions (de 00 à 63, ou de 00 à 3f pour les fans d’hexadécimal). Pourquoi 64 positions et pas 42 ou 50 ? Question de taille et de code binaire, sans doute : 63 en décimal, c’est 11111 en binaire (et donc 3f en vous-savez-quoi). Une position de plus dans le pattern et on arrive à 10000 en binaire, ce qui nécessite un bit de plus de stockage par position pour toutes les positions suivantes 22Si j’ai bien compris. J’ai sans doute mal compris.. Au final, je n’ai pas vraiment trouvé la raison en ligne…
    Mais aussi, on s’y retrouve élégamment avec la mesure du temps ou la valeur des notes d’une portée musicale ! Souvenez-vous de vos cours de solfège 23Et de clavecin, bande de bourgeois. : une ronde vaut 2 blanches, une blanche vaut deux noires, une noire vaut deux croches, une croche vaut deux double croches, etc. Si on reprend, cela nous donne : 1 ronde = 2 blanches, mais également 1 ronde = 4 noires, 8 croches, 16 double croches, 32 triple croches et enfin, 64 quadruple croches. En somme, on peut placer 64 quadruple croches sur un pattern complet… ou une blanche 24Si j’ai bien compris. J’ai sans doute mal compris. 🙂
    Bon, clairement je pense que c’est plus dû à du bon vieux binaire qu’à du bon vieux solfège, hein.
  • Un sample n’est pas compressé, et le format standard de l’Amiga est le IFF 8SVX (Interchange File Format 8-bit Sample Voice, créé par Electronic Arts 25EA avait également créé le format graphique IFF ILBM, et le fameux Deluxe Paint pour aller avec.), avec un longueur maximale de 128 ko en 8 bits. Mais les samples des trackers utilisaient rarement le 8SVX, plutôt le format brut (RAW), avec les mêmes propriétés.
    De nos jours, le format Opus par exemple peut monter à 510 kbit/s et 48 kHz, en multicanal. Bref, aujourd’hui c’est mieux. 26Vous l’aurez compris : je n’y capte rien.
    Avec le temps, chaque groupe a créé son propre compresseur de modules (NoisePacker, ProRunner, etc.), pour obtenir un net gain d’espace sur la disquette.
  • Seulement 32 samples possibles en tout dans un module Amiga de type ProTracker.

Bien sûr, le rendu sonore d’un module n’a pas la qualité d’un fichier mp3, même de l’époque. Mais le fait d’utiliser des samples courts et rejouables à l’infini avait un grand intérêt : l’espace disque. « Klisje Paa Klisje » dure 13 minutes, son fichier pèse 219 ko (contre 4,6 Mo pour une conversion mp3). Ça laisse de la place pour du code et des graphismes — et de fait, ce format a été très rapidement adopté dans le monde des jeux vidéos, à une époque où tout devait tenir sur une disquette de 880 ko, et 512 ko de mémoire !
Avant cette révolution du tracker, l’univers sonore des jeux était soit limité à des sons synthétique, ou « chiptune » (le « blip blip » de la machine — mais beaucoup plus passionnant qu’il n’y paraît 27Si, si ! J’ai hâte de vous parler des formes d’onde : sinusoïdale, triangulaire, carrée, dents de scie… Haaaa !), soit à un seul sample très court (ça prend beaucoup de place un sample !), donc qui boucle toutes les 20 secondes, par exemple.

Les samples peuvent être joués tels quels, bien sûr, mais les trackers permettent d’y ajouter des effets, ce qui est ‘rôlement chouette didon, car cela permet de manipuler/modifier le son « en direct » (sans modifier le sample).
Chaque ligne peut être configurée avec un effet et une valeur d’effet : volume, vibrato, glissando, etc. Un effet peut également agir sur le pattern plutôt que sur le sample : vitesse de lecture (BPM), saut de position (passer au pattern suivant avant la 64e ligne), etc.
Si aucune note n’est jouée, l’effet s’applique sur le son en cours de lecture.

Prenons un exemple sur cette capture d’écran récupérée sur le net.

Voyez ci-dessus la ligne 43, avec G#106C20 à la deuxième colonne (ou piste). La notation G#106C20 se découpe en G#1, 06 et C20 :

  • G#1 : le sample est joué en sol dièse (G# en notation anglaise) de la 1ère octave. Sol bécarre (sans le dièse), ç’aurait été G-1. Un module est limité à 3 octaves, de C-1 à B-3 (do première octave à si 3e octave). 28Pas de notation pour le bémol, je sais, vous êtes déçu-e-s.
  • 06 : le numéro du sample en hexadécimal (donc ici, le 23e sample du fichier musical).
  • C20 : l’effet « C » de ProTracker, avec la valeur 20 (en hexadécimal toujours). C permet d’indiquer le volume auquel le sample doit être joué. Valeur minimale 00, maximale 40 : grosso modo, on est à la moitié du volume initial du sample. Simple ! 🙂

Si on regarde d’un peu plus près les position avant et après notre G#106C20 sur l’image ci-dessus, on constate deux choses :

  • L’instrument n°6 est quasiment toujours utilisé, mais également le n°4.
  • Toutes les lignes de l’instrument 6 utilisent une valeur différente de l’effet de volume C, et une tonalité différente également.
E-2 04 000 - Instrument 4, mi 2e octave, sans effet.
G#1 06 C10 - Instrument 6, sol dièse 1ère octave, volume à 10.
F-2 06 C30 - Instrument 6, fa 2e octave, volume à 30.
G#1 06 C20 - Instrument 6, sol dièse 1ère octave, volume à 20.
C#2 06 C1A - Instrument 6, do dièse 2e octave, volume à 1A.
G#1 06 C0F - Instrument 6, sol dièse 1ère octave, volume à 0F.
F-2 06 C15 - Instrument 6, fa 2e octave, volume à 15.
G#1 06 C0A - Instrument 6, sol dièse 1ère octave, volume à 0A.
E-2 04 000 - Instrument 4, mi 2e octave, sans effet.

Ce 4e instrument joué à la même note sans effet, j’imagine facilement un grosse caisse (de batterie, n’est-ce pas), et du coup le 6e instrument, avec ses divers volumes, pourrait-il être des variations sur la cymbale charleston (« hi-hat » en anglais) ? 29Vérification faite : ah non, c’est du chiptune. Appuyez sur Envoi pour écouter. Oui, c’est un tracker complet dans votre navigateur, oui.

On comprendra mieux avec un exemple : observez par exemples l’intro du module « Boesendorfer P.S.S. » par Romeo Knight (l’allemand Eike Steffen). Il ne contient que des samples d’un piano (de marque Bösendorfer ?), chacun étant enregistré à une octave différente pour avoir un meilleur rendu sonore lorsqu’ils sont joué à diverses vitesses, pour faire toute une octave proprement :

Une pause, avec « Voyage » de Razor 1911, sortie pour The Party ’91 :

Cette démo dure 15 min 42 s, et comprend quelques scènes assez poétiques pour l’époque, et surtout une seconde partie avec une musique par le duo Tip & Mantronix du groupe Phenomena (on y reviendra sûrement30Ou pas.) !

Un exemple de module cousu main avec de effets bien discrets mais qui donnent une ambiance folle, c’est « Melonmania » par Audiomonster (le français Raphaël Gesqua), en 1992.

La démo d’où vient ce module, en passant : S.O.S., par le groupe Melon Dezign. 31Oui oui, y’a même eu un groupe « concurrent » nommé Lemon. …
Et si vous remontez voir la démo Desert Dream au début de cet article, la première scène consiste en une attaque des pyramides de Gizeh par un vaisseau alien qui lance… un melon 🙂 Les « bagarres » entre groupes étaient fréquentes sur la démoscène, ça permettait de motiver les troupes à faire mieux que ceux d’en face 🙂

Pour le coup je vous ai fait une petite vidéo où je joue chaque piste séparément, afin de se rendre compte du travail d’orfèvre.

Quatre canaux seulement : de la contrainte naît la créativité ! On est en plein OuMuPo 🙂

Vous me direz, ça reste atroce comme manière de composer : ‘faut taper G#106C20 et autres chaque fois qu’on veut insérer une note ?!? On est où, là, dans une formule Excel ? Pourquoi ne pas avoir simplement utilisé le solfège ?

Réponse : le solfège n’est pas simple, justement. Il reste incompréhensible pour 90% de la population. Remplir une partition dans logiciel, c’est la plaie.

Oh, le solfège a bien été essayé, comme avec Deluxe Music Construction Set (Electronic Arts, 1987), mais ça n’a pas pris : la foule voulait enchaîner des notes, pas deviner ce qu’est une double croche.

D’où le succès immédiat des trackers, le premier étant Ultimate Sountracker, écrit par l’allemand Karsten Obarski et publié par EAS en 1987. 32Enfin, « succès immédiat », ‘faut le dire vite : commercialement ce fut un échec car le logiciel était trop instable et l’interface trop « geek » pour les « vrais musiciens ». Mais le concept a été repris par nombre de copieurs et pirates, qui ont sortis leurs propres versions, chacune avec son lot d’améliorations : Noisetracker, ProTracker, SoundFX, OctaMED, etc. Musicalement, le tracker a été omniprésent tant dans les jeux vidéo que dans les démos, pendant longtemps — et continue jusqu’aujourd’hui avec Renoise.

Avec les trackers, la saisie de notes se fait grâce au clavier de l’Amiga, « mappé » sur 2 octaves. Mirez, mirez :

J’ai tenté de vos donner une représentation simple de ce mapping clavier, avec

Le décalage des touches du clavier place même les touches noires comme sur un piano ! Facile !

Donc non, créer sa séquence ne se faisait pas laborieusement, genre saisir « G#106C20 » touche après touche, appuyer sur Envoi pour passer à la ligne suivante, et recommencer, comme dans un fichier Excel (youhou!).
Pour obtenir un sol dièse, il suffit d’appuyer sur la touche 6 du clavier de l’Amiga : Soundtracker insère alors la note correspondante (G#1), pour l’instrument sélectionné (06), puis passe à la ligne suivante, sans mettre d’effet (donc par défaut, G#106000). Hop, on peut saisir la note suivante !

Donc, on sélectionne un sample, on se place sur la piste, et on enchaîne les notes au clavier, qui s’inscrivent les unes après les autres. Besoin d’un saut de ligne ? Flèche en bas. Une fois les notes en place, il sera temps d’ajouter des effets – et cette fois, oui, ça se fait à la main, mais on a accès à tous les outils de copier/coller qui facilitent la vie. 33Je ne découvre ce manuel que maintenant, ça m’aurait TELLEMENT fait gagner du temps à l’époque !

(pause dramatique)

C’est ici que se terminait mon thread, en avril 2019.

J’avais prévus bien des tweets suivants dans mon petit fichier texte, mais le premier de la série me turlupinait. Le voici :

En reprenant les concepts de séquences (patterns) et d'échantillons (samples, joué à différentes vitesses pour simuler l'ensemble des notes), concepts introduits par le Fairlight CMI Series II et son séquenceur Page R (1982), Obarski a mis un outil très cher à la portée de tous.
page_r.gif + Soundtracker18zymoxs.png

Les images, les voici :

Et moi de me dire : c’est quand même fou que Karsten Obarski, un allemand alors inconnu (et malheureusement oublié depuis) ait été seul pour faire un tel saut entre le Page R du Fairlight CMI Series II et son Ultimate Soundtracker, entre le hardware et le pur software, entre la workstation et l’ordinateur familial.

Je me base sur la page Wikipédia pour « Music Tracker » pour écrire cela (il faut bien dire qu’avant de la lire, j’ignorais même l’existence du Fairlight CMI) :

The general concept of step-sequencing samples numerically, as used in trackers, is also found in the Fairlight CMI sampling workstation of the early 1980s.

Le paragraphe immédiatement après me confirme que j’ai sans doute raison de douter :

Some early tracker-like programs appeared for the MSX (Yamaha CX5M) and Commodore 64, before 1987, such as Sound Monitor, but these did not feature sample playback, instead playing notes on the computer’s internal synthesizer.

Plaçons deux citations, pour faire intelligent :

Alors, qui a inspiré Karsten Obarski ? Et à son tour, cet élément inspirant s’est-il inspiré directement du Fairlight CMI, ou y a-t-il tout un arbre généalogique à remonter ? Voire… plusieurs branches parallèles, à la manière de Charles Darwin et de Alfred Russel Wallace découvrant indépendamment la théorie de l’évolution par la sélection naturelle ? 36Brillez lors des cocktails en ville grâce à mon blog !

C’est ce que je me propose d’explorer avec vous dans la seconde partie de cet article — qu’il me reste à rédiger et mettre en page dans WordPress ! Mais je peux déjà vous dire que la forme sera différente (une enquête à base de témoignages), et qu’on va voyager, à la fois dans le temps et sur Terre 🙂

Rendez-vous dans… rhôh allez, dans un mois ou deux ! 37Aucuns doigts croisés dans mon dos, nononon.

amusant Musique

À propos des batteurs

Temps de lecture : < 1 minute.Toute mon enfance, on m’a appris à croire que les batteurs étaient inoffensifs.

Exhibit A : Roger Taylor, de Queen


Exhibit B : Lars Urlich, de Metallica (3e en partant de la gauche)


C’était plutôt clair. Je me mettais à la guitare, et elles étaient toutes pour moi.

Puis, en 1989, sur son album Sarbacane, Francis a commencé à faire flancher l’édifice :


Enfin, en 2002, la goutte qui fait déborder le vase : Wilco et sa chanson Heavy Metal Drummer :



Ajouté le lendemain :

…et tout d’un coup, je comprends pourquoi j’ai été bassiste dans tous mes groupes :


(Tiré de la série « I Hate my Teenage Daughter », s01e02. Extrait YouTube)

(back2blog, jour 4/10)


Musique offline photos

Amon Tobin – ISAM 2.0

Temps de lecture : 4 minutes.Après avoir raté ses deux passages précédents à Paris, et n’en avoir entendu que de bonnes choses, je me devais d’aller voir Amon Tobin et la mise en scène de son dernier album. Pour bien faire, et parce que j’aime bien être accompagné, je m’en suis servi comme cadeau d’anniversaire pour mon frère. Hop !

Amon Tobin est un DJ, ou plutôt musicien électro. Ses albums sont des petits bijoux de travail sur le son et l’ambiance, le tout avec des rythmiques impressionnantes, partant souvent dans le breakbeat. Après Foley Room, un album aux sonorités très organiques, son dernier album, ISAM, fait la part belle au travail du son et de l’ambiance, laissant un peu de côté les samples de batterie.

Il n’y a rien de plus ennuyant que de voir un DJ mixer, donc tous les artistes électro s’entourent d’écrans et de jeux de lumière pour emporter la foule plus facilement. Mais là, ISAM n’est pas vraiment un album « dansant », donc il fallait quelque chose de plus visuel…
Pour la tournée de cet album, Amon Tobin a travaillé avec une équipe de designers (V Squared Labs et Leviathan ; en coulisse) pour créer un environnement de formes cubiques blanches, sur lesquelles sont projetées des images créées spécialement pour l’album. Après le succès de la tournée de 2011-2012, nouvelle tournée avec une installation deux fois plus grande sur la scène (si j’en crois le site officiel, 8m de large pour 4m de haut et 2,5m de profondeur ; « a stunning 25′ x 14′ x 8′ multi-dimensional/ shape shifting 3-D art installation »).

J’ai découvert Amon Tobin vers 2000-2001, avec son album Supermodified. 13 ans après, il était temps de le voir en live. Et on l’a vu.

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Après une heure à jouer les titres d’ISAM en parfaite synchronisation avec les effets visuels bluffant, courte pause pendant laquelle Amon sort du cube central où on l’apercevait par moments pendants le concert, afin de saluer le public. Cela permet de se faire une idée de la taille de l’installation

En phase avec la thématique des visuels, il est habillé en astronautes. Il devait avoir chaud là-n’dans.


Puis il retourne dans son cube, et repart pour une grosse demi-heure de concert, cette fois avec des visuels moins synchronisés, mais il se fait plaisir, entre ambiance et breakbeat. Les projecteurs, situés au fond de la salle, reprennent le travail…

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Entre les basses beaucoup trop fortes et le fait que je ne me sois pas vraiment intéressé à ISAM (l’album), j’ai passé le concert à m’émerveiller du spectacle, sans vraiment reconnaître un titre en particulier.

Amon ressort de son vaisseau, cette fois habillé en civil. Il nous remercie, et nous indique du doigt : encore un titre. Retour dans sa cabine, et là : Horsefish, tiré de Foley Room. Du coup, j’ai filmé ça :

(back2blog, jour 3/10).