Soundtracker origins, part 3: Facing a stone mountain

Temps de lecture : 21 minutes.

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

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

And now, today.

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

Steinberg, you say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Says Karl:

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I succeed in contacting them?

My attempts at talking with « those who know »

I agree, this subtitle does not bode well…

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

No answer. Figures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well…




There’s this one webpage.



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

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

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

Let’s breathe a little.

Interviewing Karl Steinberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From private e-mail exchange from September 2023.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted from private e-mail interview from April 2021.

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

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

Let’s see his other answers.

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You thought it was over, right?


That would be too easy…


Get ready foooooor: an 🤘Á̸͈̣̉͆͊̈́̚͝Ḑ̵̧͕͙̀̅̽̎͊͂̿̏̀͒͛̽͘̕͠D̵̢̥̩̫͈̠̘̫̫͎̰̯͈̘̉͌Ḙ̵̱̖̺̜̼̬̰̟͒̐͒̇̿̌̂̔̊̕͘͘N̷̢̯̜̈́́̿̀̄̀̍͑͌̇͗̓̕̚D̶̹̪̈́̿͛̃̏̔̔͋͑́Ų̷̳̱̮͍̪̬͍̥͓̺̯͉͑͐̐M̵̨̢͈̐͠!!!🤘


Addendum: Manfred Rürup’s take

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

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

So here goes, a short interview!

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

MR: That is correct.

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

Private e-mail interview from September 2023.

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

So, yeah, quite a task in itself!

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

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


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

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


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

MR: The real number is probably around 50 copies. 


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

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

MR: I think all over Germany and Austria. 


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

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

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

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


I had to try…

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

MR: No, not a single line.


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

And that’s it, my friends.

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

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

Other articles in this series:


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

Temps de lecture : 18 minutes.

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

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

So, where were we?

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

Version 1.21, from December 1987.

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

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

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

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

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

Or was it?

Writing computer game music in the 80’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Says the man himself in this video interview from 2017:

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

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

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

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

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

His C64-Wiki page even says so:

He admits to having 3 ways of working:

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

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

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

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

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

And in another one:

Had you ever considered a music utility yourself?

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

Another Commodore Zone interview.

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

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

Still that Commodore Zone interview.

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

Let’s get to that.

The birth of Soundmonitor

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

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

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

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

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

A blessing! A blessing from the Lord!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

64’er, October 1986, translated.

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

Five. Pages. Of. This.

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

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

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

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

More context setting18I promise you this gets somewhere eventually.

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

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

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

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

64’er, October 1986, translated.

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

How could we know for sure?








Let’s ask Chris Hülsbeck.

Interviewing Chris Hülsbeck

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

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

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

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

To the first question, then!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s try and get some details from Chris.

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

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

Private e-mail interview from June 2019.

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

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

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

Continuing with the interview

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

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

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

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

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

Who else was making a popular editor at the time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s it for now!

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

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

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

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

See you next time!

Other articles in this series:


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

Temps de lecture : 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.


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 did release a couple more versions of Ultimate Soundtracker, including v2.0 in October 1988 which implemented (and thus made official) the famed « module » or MOD format. That file format, 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.), combined note patterns with audio samples into a single file.
And then, as Keyser Söze would say, « Poof, he was gone ». No more updates to Ultimate Soundtracker. He was not heard of anymore on the Amiga, as far as I know. 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 2000-2005.

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?

What made you start programming the SoundTracker?

A short time after that I [moved] to the Amiga I realized that everyone used large sample loops instead of coding music.
I couldn’t understand why no-one used samples as instruments. So I sampled a few sounds from my Yamaha DX21 and programmed my first music routine.

AM/FM interview

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.

« A few years later, in 1987, shortly after the release of the legendary Amiga 1000, a German developer and composer by the name of Karsten Obarski decided to make the most of the machine’s sound processor (Paula, as it was known), and designed a music composition software based on the Huelsbeck model. This was the advent of the first ‘real’ tracker, Ultimate Soundtracker.
I say ‘real’ because for purists, since Sound Monitor doesn’t use samples (but rather the audio synthesis of the internal SID chipset), it isn’t really considered to be a 100% pure tracker. The debate is open. As far as I’m concerned, C64 wins. »

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 and most importantly sample playback, along with a fourth channel10Thanks to Paula, the Amiga sound chip, which was more advanced in that matter 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…
(Edit in 2023: the Tinkercad account has since been deleted)

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!

Other articles in this series:

Musique technologies

Soundtracking sur Amiga : passion, explications et exemples

Temps de lecture : 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.

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.

Autres articles dans cette série (en anglais) :

  1. Soundtracker origins, part 1: Where in the World is Karsten Obarski? — A propos de Karsten Obarski, auteur de The Ultimate Soundtracker
  2. Soundtracker origins, part 2: Welcome to Turrican, aah hahahaha — A propos de Chris Hülsbeck, auteur de Soundmonitor
  3. Soundtracker origins, part 3: Facing a stone mountain — A propos de Karl Steinberg, auteur de MIDI Multitrack Sequencer.
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)