AMIGA and the 16 bit music legacy


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Chiptunes and 8 bit music have grown in popularity over some years now, partly spurred by the retro game trend that has been going on for quite some time now.  Commodore 64 was the crowned leader at the time having three audio channels to use in the compositions, compared with its less fortunate competitors like Spectrum and Atari. Then AMIGA entered the stage and in a sense this was a game changer; thanks to stolen blueprints (the Atari ST), with new 16-bit technology, and up to 8 available audio channels to mix down to high quality stereo. In addition, the Amiga (and ST) were fully MIDI compatible; which essentially meant that a computer and a synthesizer would be linked directly to each other at last.

The number of tracks that has been released on the AMIGA are of course numerous, but some have made a bigger impact than others, like this one from Xenon 2 – Megablast in 1989:

The Bitmap Brothers co-operated with the British musician Tim Simenon of ‘Bomb The Bass’ to include the hip-hop track ‘Megablast – Hip Hop On Precinct 13’ (which is also the origin of the game’s subtitle), as the title music – to become the very FIRST game to accurately include an existing pop single as its theme. The song itself is based on the theme of John Carpenter’s ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ movie, and also features samples from Sly and the Family Stone song, ‘You Can Make It If You Try’.

David Whittaker is also no stranger to programming audio hits. His sub-tune of ‘Lazy Jones’ was the basis for the dance hit ‘Kernkraft 400’ by Zombie Nation, which went to number 1 in many European countries. David is still busy today working on the LEGO (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman) action series of games.

Starting from 1987 with the release of Soundtracker, trackers became a new type of music programs which spawned the mod (module) audio file standard. The Mod audio standard is considered the audio format that started it all in the world of computer music. After Soundtracker many clones (which often were reverse engineered and improved) appeared, including Noisetracker, Startrekker,Protracker. Also many deratives appeared, amongst which OctaMED and Oktalyzer.

The key thing with the introduction of Soundtracker is quite simple; you have a number of sound samples, that you can arrange them as tracks. A track (also called “channel”) can not play more than one sample at the same time. Whereas the original Amiga trackers only provided four tracks (this was the hardware limit), modern trackers can mix a virtually unlimited number of channels into one sound stream, applying various effects to the samples used.

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Tracks which are played at the same time are grouped to form a pattern. A pattern typically has 64 entries per track; these entries are cycled through at equidistant time intervals. A basic drum set could thus be arranged by putting a bass drum at entries 0, 4, 8, 12 etc. of one track and putting some hihat at entries 2, 6, 10, 14 etc. of a second track. Of course you can also interleave bass and hats on the same track, if the samples are short enough — they can’t overlap, otherwise the previous sample is stopped when the next one sets in.

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If you ever have been listening in on this type of music or if you were a gamer back then you are bound to have come across The Bitmap Brothers. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Wapping based production house released a run of classic 16 bit games, all distinguished by high quality graphics, insanely hard gameplay, lurid box art, and banging soundtracks. With titles including all time classics such as Xenon 1&2, Speedball 1&2, Gods and the Chaos Engine series, they burned themselves into the consciousness of a generation of Amiga battering teens. Unusually for a production house, Bitmap Brothers fancied themselves as a bit rock n roll; something of a precursor to Rockstar Games.

A good example can be found below in the classic game Gods, also known as Gods Into the Wonderful, is a 1991 video game by The Bitmap Brothers where the player is cast as Hercules in his quest to achieve immortality. As a tribute to contemporary electronic music artists Gods had an interesting tweak; as was common with Bitmap Brothers, an external musician assured the game score, this time John Foxx as Nation 12. This intro track has all the hallmarks of a low-res attempt to deliver an ambient house classic – there’s a shuffling breakbeat, vaguely portentous, if essentially meaningless vocals ‘into… the wonderful’, big and a synthetic swooping choral effect that sounds pure Madchester – like someone’s trapped Inspiral Carpets inside the Amiga.

A biography on The Bitmap Brothers will soon hit the store. The Bitmap Brothers: Universe is a comprehensive history of the visionary British software house behind seminal titles such as Xenon 2: Megablast, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe and The Chaos Engine. It combines an authoritative inside story, thoroughly researched via new, first-hand interviews with The Bitmap Brothers’ key figures – including founder Mike Montgomery and lead artist Dan Malone – with a breathtaking haul of never-before-seen archive material.

Pre-order it here:

https://readonlymemory.vg/shop/book/the-bitmap-brothers-universe/

State of the Art is another demonstration of the sound and graphical capabilities of the Amiga, using advanced programming techniques to combine silhouette dancers with hardware generated special effects – one of the very first sources to do so to such an
extent. The music is in the hardcore rave style that was very popular at that time, using many high quality synth sounds and modern sounding rhythms; which seems to complement the presentation to a tee.

Last but not least the AMIGA was launched with speech synthesis software. This could be broken into three main components: narrator.device, which could enunciate phonemes expressed as Arpabet, translator.library which could translate English text to American English phonemes, and the SPEAK: handler, which any application including the command-line could redirect output to, to have it spoken. Reading SPEAK: as it is producing speech will return two numbers which are the size ratio of the width and height of a mouth producing the phoneme being spoken.