It would not be an exaggeration to say that encountering the Atari ST began my career as a technology writer.

Though I’d played with Sinclair Spectrums and Amstrad PCs in the 80s, I had never used a computer as a production tool. My undergraduate dissertation was written in longhand and I paid a lady with a royal family anniversary commemoration plate to type it up, for example.

I came home in 1989 with my 2.1 in Communication Studies and no job. My younger brother Jason had an ST up in his attic bedroom. He played games on it – a lot. I wasn’t interested in the games though. I was interested in the demos – these strange proof-of-concept showcases of imagery and music put together by enthusiasts. It was something beyond my capability – I’ve never been much of a programmer. But I was fascinated by the combination of skills required; technological savvy and creativity.

I got interested in a form of music making that went hand in hand with the demo scene called tracking. Music Trackers were tools you could use to create music with short samples, using none-standard notation. Their lineage stretched back to the punch-card, player pianos of the 1800s…

Illusion Software’s Quartet was not quite a tracker, but it shared some of their characteristics. Made by two University of York undergraduates, it was a four channel, stereo sample sequencer that was unique in that it used standard musical notation. +Rob Povey  designed the amazing, intuitive interface. To this day, I’ve yet to use a piece of music composition software with a better notation system.

I recently got in touch with Rob’s partner in creating Quartet, Kevin Cowtan, who found ways around the ST’s rudimentary sound system as co-programmer. I gushed about Quartet – a programme that changed the way I thought about computers and that sucked up my life for almost two years. He said he’d almost forgotten it.

Getting the sounds they needed out of the ST was quite an engineering feat.

“We wrote our own version of the synth code setting the beep frequency to maximum (well above audible range) and using the volume settings to create an analogue output. We created several very highly optimised implementations in assembler – to do this we basically memorized the number of clock cycles required by every 68000 instruction and carefully picked the instructions to optimize performance.”

I recorded hours of music using Quartet. Samples careful selected, looped and tuned as instruments – then assembled into “voicesets”. The last of it in the mid-90s on an Atari STe. Some of it still listenable. It ignited an interest in digital creativity that lead to the career I have today.

I recently wrote about the ST for Stuff magazine – here’s a link to it.

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