Tracking the Past (Part 1)

Part 1: A Boy and His Mod, or the Days in Which I Learned How to Make Noise

It was a moderate summer when I obtained my Atari ST 1040, which as I recall was paid for by my Dad. Ryan Goolevitch and I had for many after school nights watched demos and listened to the latest experimentations in Protracker.

At some point I asked Ryan if it was possible to compose music on the ST as well, and he explained that it was, with limitations, naturally. No stereo sound, lower fidelity output; just a tender 22Khz without interpolation of any sort. Playing mods on an ST is a clever trick of code, anyway.

I was thrilled. More than thrilled; enrapt. At first I played some games, because a colour computer was so much superior to the Macintosh Plus machines at school. My small television, connected by RF at first; an old dongle recovered from a Atari 2600 VCS long past its prime.

Static-laden audio and video with no headphone jack, and for the first two years no hard drive. In 1991 you could get away without one. So, untrained and unskilled, how did I learn to compose Protracker Modules?

The Atari ST made it easy, at least, it did for me. Protracker used 128KB (roughly) of RAM, and this is important because it limited the size and thereby quality of the thirty two samples I could load into the 1024KB of memory I had access to. 960KB of which 880KB would fill a standard double density floppy disk, remember those? I never had to swap disks, to load program resources, not like the Macintosh OS did because TOS was on ROM.

So that was a bit of sanity saved. While it was fast, upgrading was a tinkerer’s job, and beyond my skills. I just wanted the dern thing to work, which it did. Even a hard drive was a trick, with drivers loaded from disk as they weren’t in ROM in any version of TOS I owned, but I wouldn’t get one of those until years later.

Protracker has no player/editor barriers. While the ST version I used for nearly a decade lacked support for some commands, like E9X – when implementing it I had no immediate feedback, no idea how it would sound. Usually the fact that I merely knew the commands was enough, and instinct covered my guesses, anyway.

How did I track? I put some notes into an editor, then I learned what hexidecimal was. I didn’t know the difference between a basskick and a snare, though Ryan was happy to teach me. Levels of Insanity was – you could say – the first collaboration of what would become Digitronic. With Dave Toews we formed a small music production crew.

Levels was obnoxious, repetitive and real! When we formed Digitronic exactly, I don’t quite remember. It was probably about the time I knew I had something and wanted to hang onto it.

Next week I’ll dive more into Digitronic and our efforts to produce music of any kind.


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