8-Bit Musical Goodness

8-Bit Goodness

Back in the day, we made music the hard way – with real instruments. Then, along came this incredibly promising device – the personal computer.

But making a song out of beeps is, well, not terribly exciting.  We made songs like this, for games that looked about as sophisticated (the end “music” starts around 1:28 or so in):

Tone-based “pianos” suck, but if the only alternative is a real one, and you can’t afford one, you couldn’t beat it.  Legendary jazz guitarist Ryo Kawasaki personally coded some awesome Commodore products back in the day. Long live, SID!  Loved them.  Simple – yet inspirational stuff. Demo groups cropped up everywhere. The game was on.

FM synthesis was the order of the day.  We could use multiple tones, oscillating in various ways to create complex sounds. We used early “tracker” software to write tunes.  Yeah, this was painful.  Fun, but tedious and painful:

We ditched our VIC-20s and C-64s for Amigas – which were incredible at the time. Early PCs were becoming affordable as well, but they sucked for making music.  Because they had no on-board hardware for anything beyond a simple beep over the PC speaker.

And then, a little company named AdLib changed things.  Ooh la la.  Everyone just had to have a PC with an AdLib card. :)

Sound cards evolved quickly, thanks to another little company called Creative Labs and their incredibly innovative 8-Bit GameBlaster card (which beget the now iconic 8-bit SoundBlaster card).  For the sufficiently geeked or nostalgia-seekers, Wikipedia has an awesome page on the history of the PC sound card (riveting reading, for me at least).

With the Creative cards, demo artists and groups could now work in some really cool digital audio elements into their creations.  Oh, and games were able to take advantage of it, too :)  Go, go, Sierra (RIP).

Sounds great, no pun intended.  But by today’s standards, the quality was mega sucky.  How sucky?  Imagine listening to your favorite MP3s on your iPod or other device.  They sound awesome, right?  Now, imagine your friend calling you on a cell phone, and holding their phone up to a crappy alarm clock radio that is playing that same song.  Ugh.  But you know what?  It was delicious at the time.

Hmm.  So we could make these cool little 8-bit audio samples of real-world sounds.  But we still needed a really cool way of stitching all of these little soundbites together to make a song (without having to buy an expensive 1st-gen consumer-grade digital sampler, which would have done the same sucky job anyway).

So the concept of the “MOD tracker” was born.  There were lots of them, but one of the best in my view, was a little program called Composer 669.  It was developed by Thomas Pytel (aka Tran) of the demogroup Renaissance, and was the evolution of Composer 667, an earlier attempt they put out in 1991. It sported eight channels of digital goodness – screenshot below. Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like an all night session of slaving away in a text-based MOD tracker (lol).  It was a painful vehicle, but incredibly rewarding.

For the truly (*truly*) geeky among you, there is an awesome SVG which shows the lineage of the tracker.  You’ll likely need to scroll the mouse wheel a bit to get the full view of this one ….

I was involved in my first demo group back in 1985 or so.  C-64 stuff.  I left the scene when I joined the Army out of high school, but once I discovered Composer 669, I started messing with compositions again.

I found an old archive of some of my old 669 MOD files.  I was able to play them still, in Winamp, using a MOD/669 plugin.  I found an old copy of Composer 669 online, but couldn’t get it to run under DosBox.  EMM issue.  Who knows. I pulled my hair out, but was finally able to convert them to .MP3 format.  They’re a riot to listen to.  You really have to be into retro stuff to endure them.

I’ll try to carve out some more time to throw them up on my music page at some point, but here is a quick one.  A little tribute to Shadow – specifically, a little tune based loosely on one of our old original songs called Halloween.

Oh, for those looking to convert old MODs or 669s to MP3 format:  the formula is DosBox, 6692mod (if need be), then use the service at media.io to convert the MODs to MP3.  The service at media.io couldn’t recognize the 669 files, so I had to convert them first.  When converting, make sure you mod filenames follow the old-school 8.3 convention (“SOMENAME.669”), and don’t use the file extensions on the command line, just use the base filename.

Fast forward to 2012.  I have a fully digital recording studio on my iPad that’s about 1,000 times more powerful than the old-school studio in Germany where we recorded our old LP in 1989.  Insane.



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