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Tracking the Past (Part 5)

Part 5: Trackerfixing, Self-Addressing

The 604 Crew made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, one summer. While my participation in various Vantari and VCVGC parties garnered some attention, and the respect of people who fascinated me, I was hungry for recognition. Roger Earl provided some of that, sharing his endless enthusiasm and incisive analytic talent to the table.

He was the cool geek, and he made me feel cool. I didn’t understand what it was to be cool then, and it would be another ten years before I began to figure it out. He was that guy, you know, the one who didn’t just own an Amiga, but grokked it. He was into the underbelly of technology and always had a fascinating story about his work to tell.

Banks are every bit as fallible as the rest of us, don’t forget that.

Roger’s legitimizing of my hobby increased my hunger for more of the same. Then, The 604 Crew, more of an idea than a group, extended us an invitation to participate in a competition they called “Trackerfix”. A compo! An honest to goodness compo! In Canada!

Awesome!

Rowan turned out to be a pretty cool guy too. He actually knew music theory, whereas I’ve – until recently – flown by the seat of my pants. Very little theory, except for what my Dad taught me. Valuable things like – in solos you can go where ever you want, as long as you come back. Question and answer, and be an avid listener.

It wasn’t a coincidence I used Yes samples in my music, but I digress.

Rowan told us we had a half hour to compose something with the chip samples we were given, so I did what I do best: Immediate response. It’s something I learned from watching Emily Carr art courses on PBS that applies to creativity of all kinds. You don’t think – you just take it in and create.

1 Gig Per Byte had a good bassline and not much else, but I could be proud of it. After this we were invited to contribute to The 604 Crew’s music disk, so I submitted a few tracks that were admittedly repetitious in nature. I was pretty upset by this, and it is possible to find some of that vitriol in my sampletexts, if you look.

Not my more gracious moments. I composed songs to combat this view and … frankly, aspect of myself. I had no musical education to lean on, so I had to find it in external influences. Those in my immediate vicinity worth mentioning are Derek who expected higher quality samples from me, and Ryan who was never satisfied with my first effort. Dave selflessly hosted out music, and without him – well, I’ve been over that, haven’t I?

I was growing as a musician in leaps and bounds. Yet, it was those who I never met who contributed significantly to my development. Where to start? Moby, of course, because anyone who says they don’t know Moby, just doesn’t know it. Jogier Liljedahl, u4ia (Jim Young), Count Zero (gotta love some bombastic YM2149 drumlines!), EuphoniX and so many more.

The Atari demoscene was my bread and butter.

Even now my most ‘popular’ downloads online are my simpler, less technically advanced tracks. Theme of Light, for instance, was my response to Robert Miles’ Children. Songs like that prove I wasn’t a good judge of how my music will be received. The sample quality is simply atrocious, but it does have a good beat, and under the right circumstances, might be rave or dance material.

Who knows?

Dave and Ryan believed in my music, and me, enough to help me progress to a higher form of music. Well, enter the multi-channel era. Whilst they tinkered with ScreamTracker and FastTracker, Dave provided me with an Atari STe, which I used to produce my 8-channel works.

While audio fidelity suffered with doubtful mixing quality, my skills flourished. 1997 and 1998 were banner years for me, with 1998: Sailor Rifts my magnum opus. Filling a single disk to the brim and stacking samples together to make it all fit into a single module, I composed until Octalyzer STe couldn’t possibly manage another pattern. 830K not once, but twice.

It wasn’t long before I was going to need a new machine.

Continued next week.

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Tracking the Past (Part 4)

Part 4: Mostly Infamous

Trideja was formed before Derek joined the group and in a way returned to three key creative talents. Dave was more confident in his pursuit of Total Eclipse II BBS, for many years the only release site of Trideja tunes to the world. It would lay the foundation for his current job as a system administrator for Rockstar Games. We had hopes of taking our music to the next level, turning professional.

Attending computer conferences, submitting music tapes. Answering responses to requests for game music which never turned out. The most compelling to me was a Asteroid inspired beta that needed some atmospheric aural backing. My infamous claim would come well after I had neglected my trideja.com email.

Meteor 2. James Bunting needed music, and through email I brashly gave him permission. These days its a charming throw back to top down shooters with a Paint.exe style aesthetic. I swallowed the pill of having a game that fit in some ways but not in others. I hadn’t tailored my tracks to first, they were just energetic and the visuals were underwhelming.

The community ate it up, however, and it’s something I’m known for. “You’re that guy from Trideja, right?” It might even make it on Greenlight, and I am grateful. Little successes uncounted are meaningless, but when noticed weave a fabric that can form a safety net for some of life’s more challenging times.

For instance: Betas. These were snippets of ideas, half realized patterns sometimes amounting to half-complete songs. Derek began to amass these, and would ask about ideas he was interested in. There are some that would never have been finished without his relentlessness.

We collaborated very well and somehow never realized our own potential, but not for a moment do I regret the time spent and fun had. Perhaps there’s room for another collaboration the future. If there’s something I can think to say now, it’s not to frown on a style of music but to look to the purity of its expression. Techno never stopped Bowie from advancing his mastery, nor did it fail to communicate his messages.

Yet down the road, after spending some time with DJs, having songs played in clubs, I became aware that my betas were a ball and chain. Can you imagine recording every jam session just to have the memory of every melody haunt you as wasted potential?

What a waste of time, but nothing is, when practice results in a performance greater than the last. Improvement comes from many quarters and can go unnoticed. My attitude of trusting the flow meant some songs bloomed and others busted, but I always put my best effort into them. The value in that is the lesson learned; don’t be dragged down by could-be.

Continues next week.

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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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