My Computer Chronicles
by Jens-Christian Huus (JCH)
Originally published on chordian.net - January 2017
This article is about my computer chronicles, right from the beginning of the 80's to the end of the 90's. I'll go into details about the computers I used, how I got into the C64 demo scene, created my music players and editors, and the experiences I had on the way until the turn of the millennium. If you're not used to home computers and chiptunes, fret not! I have tried my best to intersperse the text with interactive question boxes to help explain the technical terms and jargon in passing.
“This is the shop where they have the Commodore 64, dad.”
It was shortly before spring in 1984. I was 18 years at the time and still living together with my parents in our old house in Rungsted, some 24 km north of Copenhagen. Money was definitely not my forte, but dad had finally promised to help me buy the Commodore 64 that I had been dying to get for so long.
We went into the shop and quickly found the shelves where they were showcasing all the popular home computers. Among these, they had a Commodore 64 and a Sinclair ZX Spectrum that we could type on. No monitors. Just checking out the keyboards. But the decision had already been made, so we found a shop assistant in a jiffy and asked to buy a C64.
“I'm sorry, we just sold the last one and we can't sell the demo model over there.”
I was devastated. We had come this far and I had been very excited. I really wanted to get something out of the trip. I went back to the shelves and pointed at the ZX Spectrum.
“This is also a great computer, dad, and it's pretty popular as well.”
My dad walked over next to me and tried typing on the bouncy rubber keys. He started getting that doubtful look on his face and I knew he needed some convincing. I talked some more about how awesome the ZX Spectrum was and why it could be a sensible alternative. Dad walked back to the C64 on display and typed on its keyboard.
“The keyboard on this computer seems so much better – much more sturdy.”
And with that his decision was made. We were going to wait until the shop had the C64 in stock again, and then we would buy it as we had always planned.
Going home again with empty hands was a terrible feeling that day, but my dad was right. Eventually we bought my first C64 on April 2, 1984, and it was one of the best decisions he ever made for me. It became by far the greatest home computer I ever had and it would later become the center of an epic chapter in the demo scene during the 80's and 90's.
Eventually I would invent a music editor on it that would leave a major surge throughout the entire demo scene – an editor that has since inspired many of its offspring today. A lot of C64 composers favored this music editor and produced amazing tunes that can be found in the High Voltage SID Collection today.
Just think how different this might have been if my dad had not put his foot down that day.
Born in 1966, and thus a 50 years old geezer as of 2016, I was one of those nerds that came to experience the very beginning of arcade games, video game consoles and finally home computers. Video game consoles was never really my thing. I particularly didn't want an Atari 2600. Even at that time, I thought its graphics capabilities were way too crude. I wanted something better than that. I was so envious at arcade games at the time. Why couldn't we have something that looked this good at home?
I was a bit of a nerd in Rungsted school and only really had one consistently good friend there. Henry. He was also a bit of a nerd, and together we sat at a school table in between classes and drew weird creatures in our notebooks. We were also fond of racing sets such as Carrera Servo 160 and we spent a lot of our free time competing against each other on them.
Henry had many brothers, one of which was Jan. He was almost as old as Henry. One time when I visited them in the beginning of the 80's, Jan showed me this strange new thing he had just bought to help him in school. It was a Sinclair ZX81. I had never seen a home computer before, and at first I thought it was just an advanced calculator. He showed me some commands on the screen and I was immediately hooked.
I remember that we later typed a BASIC listing into it that I had written down on paper. As Jan didn't have a tape recorder for saving yet, we had to type it in all over again every time we wanted to run it. Henry and Jan later bought a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and introduced me to some of the games there, but that's where I went with a Commodore 64 myself.
At about the 6th grade I moved to another school. Through my racing sets I got to know a new friend, Axel. He was very different than Henry, certainly much less of a nerd. He too bought a ZX81 and also had the problem of not being able to save our listings at first. He actually had the ZX81 switched on during the night because he didn't want to type in the latest listing again the next day.
It didn't last long until he got a tape recorder for it.
I was really bad with money at the time and had to visit Henry or Axel if I wanted to get my computer fix. Axel next bought a Commodore VIC-20, and we had a lot of fun programming weird sound tests in BASIC. We didn't really know what we were doing – we just created a lot of FOR/NEXT loops and poked the sound chip for hilarious effect. Among these programs we made one that sounded just like poo dropping in the toilet. Lots of laughs there.
Axel's stepfather was a reverend, and he was the genuinely serious type. At one point, Axel ran the poo sound program for him and Axel commented, “Listen dad – mud!”
Axel in my room about 7-8 years later, in 1990. Probably playing on the Amiga 500.
Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
My very first home computer was a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A in 1983. The good old silver gray computer with a real keyboard and 16 colours. I really loved it at the time and typed in a ton of listings from various magazines. What I absolutely didn't love was that hitting the key combination for the plus character was almost the same as quitting out of BASIC.
I lost a lot of typing that way.
Nevertheless I managed to type in a lot of games and learned a lot. Eventually I managed to make my own games in Extended BASIC. Some of them were even relatively advanced, such as controlling an animated creature across a bridge dealing with various challenges in waves. It was probably inspired by Parsec, a great horizontal shoot'em up on cartridge for this computer.
But these early games are also among one of my biggest regrets of my life. When I lost interest in the computer a few years later, I made the foolish move of selling it together with the only tapes that contained these precious nuggets. Not long after that, I learned that the house of the buyers had burned down with all their possessions in it.
My tapes with my first BASIC games were gone forever.
The TI-99/4A was actually a strange combination of both being awesome and deficient all at the same time. It had 28 interrupt-driven sprites. You could define one, put it on screen, give it a direction and speed, and it would move along minding its own business while Extended BASIC did something else. There were of course limitations – more than four sprites on a line blanked out – but still.
The sound chip was not impressive, but it did have three voices plus a noise channel, and a brilliant speech synthesizer could be added in the right side. It was even used by some games such as Parsec.
The cartridge port allowed for swapping while the computer was still on. Inserting a new one automatically reset it. I have never seen another computer that could do that.
But on the other hand, the TI-99/4A had a 16-bit processor with limitations that made it slower than even some contemporary 8-bit competitors. Worst of all, there was absolutely no access to machine code, assembler, peek and poke. Not unless you bought a memory cartridge and a hard disk solution that was incredibly expensive. I was financially strained so I had to stick with whatever Extended BASIC could do. It could do a lot of cute things, but eventually the computer was just too inadequate and time soon passed it by as a rusty moped in the roadside.
That's when I got the Commodore 64 instead.
When my dad and I finally bought my Commodore 64 in 1984, I also got Omega Race on cartridge (a conversion of a static vector arcade shooter) and Jeff Minter's Revenge of the Mutant Camels on cassette tape (a side-scrolling shoot'em up). I also bought the cassette recorder at the same time. It took a few years more before I got a diskette drive.
Before we continue, a word about another one of my pals.
Marc is one of my oldest friends that I met in 2nd or 3rd grade. We've been close friends sharing a lot of the same interests, even almost the same birthday. I'm just one day older than he is. He was the outgoing type that talked a lot and I was kind of the other way around, and that actually worked out quite well. He did all the talking and I did the commenting.
So together with my two best friends at that time, Axel and Marc, we enjoyed a lot of games on the C64. Some we honestly bought from the local computer shop, ironically called Spectrum. It was right next to the gas station where we bought our candy and snacks. The shopkeepers were slightly gullible and lend us a few games at one point. Being the dirty scoundrel teenagers we were at that time, of course we copied them at home before returning them.
Games on cassette tape usually didn't have screenshots on its sleeve at this time, and at one point Axel bought one that turned out to be awful. He then held a magnet to the tape and claimed that the tape was faulty. He got his money back and bought a better game.
Dirty scoundrel teenagers.
I also remember that Axel once allowed me to buy a game for his money if I accepted bringing his jar of small change coins. That didn't bother me at all. I immediately went to the shop, poured the coins all over their desk and bought a game. I was really hungry for new games for the C64.
Even though the shop was called Spectrum, there were all kinds of home computers and gadgets of any kind. This was where we were introduced to the Commodore 1541 diskette drive, and we also tried out a Macintosh – using a mouse for the very first time. That was a weird experience. If only we had known how groundbreaking it truly was.
But eventually we concluded that we couldn't just buy a lot of games. Money was tight and games were expensive. So naturally, we had to find other ways. Marc started looking in Den Blå Avis, “The Blue Newspaper”, which is sort of the Danish counterpart to Craigslist. Let's just use their abbreviation DBA from now on. It was a place before the internet where you could buy and sell all kinds of used things. There was also a section where you could buy very cheap C64 games, which were of course cracked.
Marc and I made the call, we agreed to meet at their place, we bought a few games, and had a great time playing them. This was the first time I saw cracker intros on C64 games. It didn't mean anything to me back then and I didn't care. I just wanted to have the games. Later, I finally got a Commodore 1541 diskette station and now we bought our cheap games on 5.25" floppy disks.
I started learning machine code and made Gun Fight as an exercise.
I mentioned earlier that I might never have had a C64 if not for my dad (at least not at that time) but I also have to say that if it hadn't been for my friend Marc, I might never have gotten into the C64 demo scene in the first place. Who knows, maybe I would never have made any SID music at all.
Marc in my room about 4 years later, in 1989. That's a C64 on top of an Amiga 500.
You see, being hungry for more C64 games as he were (maybe even more so than me) he kept getting in touch with sellers in DBA. I would probably have been too lazy to make as many calls as he did. At one point, he got hold of one Lars in Herlev, right next to an impressive hospital tower. Lars was a true nerdy type and had a good supply of new games on disk, all cracked. He had a good friend named Claus that lived just a few blocks further down the road, and as Lars switched to Amiga games only, Claus took over supplying us with more games for the C64.
It then turned out that Claus had quite a few acquaintances in the demo scene.
The demo scene
The thing about the demo scene at that time is that cracks and demos were pretty much inseparable. It was possible to deal with demos only, but the line between the two things was virtually non-existent. The demo scene was about sending diskettes to each other via standard mail, and a diskette had typically a few cracked games and a few demos. Demos were coded by the amateur coders to prove what they could do, and games were cracked and then had an intro added to inform the gamer who had done the deed. Demo groups spawned all over Europe, and more often than not, a group had both demo coders, crackers, suppliers and swappers. It was an amazing phenomenon that was now starting to bloom.
In 1986, Lars, Claus and a few of their friends formed their own cracking group called New Men. I had learned a little bit of assembler language on the C64, and I joined to make a couple of intros for them. They were my first feeble attempts and were not very smooth, but they had nice ideas like animating the letters of the logo. I also spent way too long maintaining a demo editor. The members of New Men could add their own full screen picture and music of their own choice, along with a smooth scroll text in the bottom.
And then as 1987 arrived, things started to get a lot more interesting.
At around spring that year, I started fiddling with the idea of creating my own music player. Music on the C64 had always been a major interest of mine right from beginning, but it was quite crude to begin with. For a long time the game programmers didn't know how to make it say much more that the old types of monotone bleeps. The game Super Pipeline opened my ears for the wonders of good ADSR, but it wasn't until Rob Hubbard came along that the SID chip was really used properly. Rob Hubbard quickly figured out how to make pulsating, vibrato, drums mixed from various waveforms, arpeggio and other wonderful effects. Together with awesome tunes with good melodies and even guitar solos, Rob Hubbard made the SID chip warp into space age almost single-handedly. I was so fascinated with the way he enhanced the musical experience that I started buying cheap Mastertronic games just to enjoy his tunes on the title screen. I didn't give a hoot about the game itself, as long as his music was present.
So around spring that year, I started coding my first crude music player on the C64. I was even thinking about making an editor for it in one go, but just as I had sketched out the first ideas on paper, I got my Amiga 500 and along with it, the music program Aegis Sonix. This was a classic composer with notes and sheets, and I quickly learned to compose my very first tunes in it. I had absolutely no prior knowledge. No training, no education, no parent forcing me to play the violin or the piano. Nevertheless I managed to construct actual tunes almost immediately. Somehow I surprised myself – I imagined it would be much harder to make music without any kind of education. They were simple tunes, of course, but still.
But although composing music in Aegis Sonix on the Amiga was fun, I still had that very special desire to make SID music on the C64. I finished coding my music player and that's when I got the idea to transfer tunes from Aegis Sonix, note by note. Since I had no ingenious technical wizardry to help me transfer this digitally, I settled with reading the notes from the Amiga monitor, write them down on pieces of paper, then typing them into the C64 using a couple of input programs written in BASIC. It was exactly as crude and cumbersome as it sounds, but the novelty of having my own music in my own player in 1987 was a massive drive. Writing down a tune typically took a couple of hours. By far the worst labor was a medley of several Christmas tunes in one big composition. It took over 5 hours dotting that one down, and then typing it into the C64 took another 3-4 hours. And the old music player wasn't exactly top of the pops either. It took a lot of CPU time in the beginning, and the swapping of waveforms in some of the instruments was done programmatically instead of using a flexible table.
Well, we all had to start somewhere.
Meanwhile, New Men added a few more members that I soon met at Claus' place. Brian was a demo coder that would later also be involved in cracking games, and Kim was a hungry swapper that had an urge for spreading the newest cracks in Europe. Where Lars and Claus were sort of laid back and accepted the role of just passing on software, Brian and Kim wanted more. Both were determined to be involved in the scene. They wanted to swap with the best, make amazing demos, and produce the tidiest cracks. Especially Brian had a network of talented friends that could also code in assembler on the C64.
In spite of my simple tunes that barely paired a bass and a leader, Brian and his friends were really excited that I could make music for their demos, and even in my own player. In 1987, almost everyone was using a public domain editor called SoundMonitor. Not only did this produce a very familiar sound that became trite in the long run, there was also an enormous prestige in using one's own player. At that time, I was among just two or three people in Denmark that could do this. After making a few demos myself with some of my OldPlayer music, both Kim and Brian joined Jewels in November. Jewels was a combined demo and cracking group that became much more prominent than New Men had ever been. Brian and his friends made a lot of demos showcasing dithered logos, weird scroll texts, breaking the side-border, and of course using a lot of my OldPlayer music. People in the scene all over Europe starting noticing their cracks, their demos, and the unique music. It felt good seeing demos with my music chosen for them.
At that time there was a ton of other tunes ripped from many games that could have been used instead, but having truly original music in a demo mattered. It was part of what made some demos cooler than others. New visual effects not seen before, new records broken, and new music never heard before. It gained due respect for the creators.
Although simple and occasionally disharmonic, I could now deliver the music.
With all these groups spawning all over Europe, mailing each other floppy disks with demos and cracks, it was inevitable that we would eventually start having meetings where we could meet up, talk to each other, and swap software. For a long time these meetings had the nasty name copy-parties, because frankly, a lot of cracked games were also swapped here. Later, as the years passed and games stopped being produced for the old home computers anymore, they changed the name to demo-parties instead.
Actually calling it a party might also be a misleading synonym. This wasn't about dancing, drinking and getting laid. Typically, a big hall or a school was rented, a backbone set up to handle the electricity and network, and people would arrive bringing their own computers and gear. Nerds would be sitting side by side playing games, copying software, watching demos they had just acquired, and if there were a lot of them in the same room, there would of course be a racket of music, bleeps, noisy ghettoblasters, and people talking all over the place. Later parties grew in size and also started introducing competitions in many different kinds of categories for multiple computer formats. The best demo, the best music, the best picture, and so forth. Some people brought demo code along with their gear, but maybe it wasn't finished and they had to hurry up coding the rest at the party before the deadline. Then the productions would be shown on a big cinematic screen to an audience of greasy nerds, and if they liked what they saw, there would be a lot of loud praise.
This was another way to gain respect – to win a competition at one of these parties.
Part of this experience was understanding the limits of the computers at the time. Amiga demos could show a lot more colours and easily produce sampled music compared to the C64, but they were never compared directly in these competitions. For the C64, people in the scene knew what its capabilities were. How the graphics modes worked. What the SID music could sound like. How many sprites it had (8) and how difficult it was to have more. As demos evolved, new techniques were discovered – like breaking the side-border and placing sprites out there. Coders knew how difficult this really was. It wasn't just opening it up with a command and that was it. You had to do it for each scanline in a very timely manner, and sprites moving vertically could disrupt this timing. Other techniques were invented to scroll an entire high resolution image smoothly across the screen or wave it around in chunks. Primitive digital samples could be played by exploiting a small click the SID chip made when changing the volume. All of this and much more was shown in demos, other demo coders copied it and improved upon it, and when people went nuts at one of the party competitions, it was because they knew how difficult it was to code whatever they were watching right now. Sure, there was also the point of actual design, but in the beginning it was more about breaking records and show off.
Imagine not knowing anything about the limitations of the C64 and just watch a random demo on the competition screen. You would probably wonder what all the fuss was about and why everyone would get so excited about it.
My first copy-party was arranged by New Life in February 1988, a big stretch north of Copenhagen. It was a small one with probably less than two dozens of people, and it was relatively laid back. We merely showed our new demos and talked. I met the promising Danish composer Future Freak for the first and only time, and I remember he said something in the line of, “There can be a lot of money in making music for games!” That was the ultimate dream for us musicians – to actually get our new compositions on real games, just like Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway.
That would later turn out to be difficult.
In May later that year, Brian and his friends were planning a ride in his car through most of Germany to visit a promising Orion/MCG party in Marl. I got the flu and actually ought to have stayed home, but I was just as eager to get there. We were four or five people in Brian's car and I sat in the back with blankets around me, riding off the flu on the way. I had the SX-64 with me, a transportable version of a Commodore 64 with a built-in floppy drive, a tiny monitor and a keyboard built into the lid. Ole, one of Brian's friends, was an excellent coder and together we worked on a demo effect on the ferry to Germany. I just plugged in my SX-64 in the cafeteria and we all watched while Ole did his magic. Driving down through Germany took forever and when we finally arrived in Marl, we found nothing going on. The party had been cancelled. We didn't really get that pissed about it, but at the same time we wanted to know what had happened. After wasting time in a hall with arcade machines, we visited one of the guys involved in an apartment where he was living with his parents. It didn't take long before we had to admit the futility of the situation. We got back in the car and drove the long way back to Denmark. At least Ole and I coded some more on the ferry, and Ole actually made a very interesting demo effect where an animated sprite that I had drawn (probably the only one ever) had the strip lights of a horizontal tunnel shine on him as he walked to the side. Sadly this demo effect was never finished and released.
1988 arrived and it would completely eclipse 1987 in activity and important events. First of all, I was jumping from one group to the next, typically together with a few friends such as Kim, to greener pastures. The first jump was from New Men to Galaxy in late 1987, then to 2000 A.D. in February 1988. After a very short stop at INXS in April, I continued to Jewels (joining up with Brian and their friends) the same month, then Wizax in June. Finally I settled down a bit with Dominators in August – at least for the rest of 1988. Most of these groups had something to do with cracks, but they had their demo divisions as well. I made a few demos along the way, like the wavy “Enjoystick!” for 2000 A.D., and I also made the last part for a disk loading demo by Jewels where I had two colour-cycling scrollers across removed side-borders. Not totally out of this world, but good enough to prove that I knew more than just how the SID chip worked.
The scene was constantly growing, new people popped up in new groups, and a lot of them turned out to be allies – new friends – but not all. Some were in direct competition with me right from the beginning and stayed that way for years.
One such person was Thomas, better known as Laxity.
I first heard about this kid somewhere in the beginning of 1988 as I got a disk with a lot of his tunes in his own music player. The music player used almost no CPU time and sounded bloody great. His tunes were frisky, energetic and clearly showed a lot of talent. I was still using the OldPlayer system that munched way too much CPU time and was starting to feel somewhat archaic, and my music also felt like it couldn't quite match up. It was like I had been cruising along on the highway with a smirk on my face, completely oblivious, and suddenly I was passed on the inside by this rich kid in his fancy sports car.
I was instantly jealous.
This picture of Laxity is actually from 2011 but I thought it would fit the text really well.
My parents lived in Hellerup a short distance north of Copenhagen, and I had a room upstairs sort of built into the attic. As the years passed by in the late 80's and most of the 90's, I had an impressive traffic going of teenagers from both the Amiga and the C64 scene. Coders, graphics artists, musicians, swappers, and a lot of their friends. More often than not, we were at least three or four guys on a typical evening. Part of the reason was that I had all sorts of interesting stuff available. Eventually I had several C64, a C128, an Amiga 500, a PC later, I had a Korg M1 synthesizer for many years, and I also bought an arcade machine together with a lot of arcade prints so we could swap them out. All that made it the place to hang out for for a lot of like-minded computer nerds. Some checked out the new cracks we had acquired for Amiga and C64, some broke the hi-score on one of my arcade prints hooked up to a real arcade machine out in the cold and dark part of the attic, others came by to actually share knowledge and code demos and music players.
Thinking back, it's actually quite amazing how many of the recurring visitors were famous in the demo scene. Among computer musicians there were Drax, Link, Jesper Olsen, Johannes Bjerregaard (another one with a C64 music player in 1987), Tomas Danko, Shade, Anders Øland (who would later have a club hit with Barcode Brothers), MSK, and more. Then there were the talented creators of Hugo and Super OsWald as well as the coders and swappers from notorious demo groups, some of which I was also a member. Some came by for several days, sleeping in our guest room, others only stopped by for an hour or two and then they were off again. It was a wonderful throng.
There was one evening where my old friend, Axel, came up, took one peek into my room full of nerds, then said, “I'll… come by some other time!” and then he left again.
When he did turn up and an Amiga was available, he played a few games and was typically one of those that were off again after a few hours. I remember there was one time where he died in a frustrating game, but instead of shouting – which wasn't really his style in the first place – he jumped into my bedroom and started dancing to let off steam.
Anthony Quinn would have been proud.
Around summer 1988, one of the new guys that visited me together with some of his friends was another Thomas, better known as Scorpio of 2000 A.D. He immediately left a solid first impression with me. He was a talented demo coder, one of those that had ideas of how to push the envelope and maybe invent new techniques. What really got to me was the speed of which he created and tested things. In mere seconds he had created a set of sinus data using a few simple BASIC commands, which was then used in assembler to swing a logo around in elastic waves. It was like Scorpio “worked closer to the metal” so to speak, and somehow that inspired me; changed my own way of coding. I learned to stop beating around the bush like I had with my Aegis Sonix nonsense, to cut corners and try out new things.
Scorpio and Manimal of 2000 A.D. at a copy-party in 1988.
Being damn jealous of Laxity as I was, I ran a new C64 tool I had found straight on his player that reverse engineered it into the assembler editor we coders were using. The labels were all generic, but with a bit of detective work I figured out some sensible names for them that made it clearer what was going on. I knew that Laxity was composing his songs by typing in hexadecimal numbers into a monitor, and I wanted to try out something similar. I settled with hexadecimal numbers in the assembler source and then compiling it to listen for errors. Luckily the compilation process was so fast that it actually turned out to still be quite feasible. While I was trying out a new leader for a bassline originally created by Laxity, Scorpio told me that what I was doing sounded awesome.
That was another reason why I eventually made so much music and relevant code on the C64 – all the praise I got. A lot of my friends, visiting or swapping, repeatedly commended me on my progress on both my players and my music. It was like an energy source to me. I gobbled it up like candy and it renewed my drive for creating even more.
Unfortunately that would later turn out to be a problem on the PC.
Even though I knew that hacking Laxity's player wasn't really nice, the praise from Scorpio and others lured me into making more tunes in it. Composing in assembler was so much faster and more efficient than the Aegis Sonix method. It was like comparing a heavy truck with a swift car. Another thing that improved immensely was creating instruments. The old player system required me to dump in all the note data in one go and then create all of the instruments in another. Not only was that anything but efficient, it also made for a lot of unwanted distortion. This problem was virtually nullified when composing directly in the assembler listing. I ended up creating a total of about six tunes in Laxity's player.
And then another copy-party arrived. It took place at a school in Nykøbing Sjælland in northern Denmark, in the beginning of July, 1988. It was just humbly called the Dexion Meeting, but it was considerably bigger than my first one. Laxity was also there and I believe Future Freak was too. They were sitting at tables on a stage overlooking a corridor while I was sitting at a table somewhere in the side, in front of the stage. Laxity and I had barely ever talked so far, but at one point he came down to me and we had a chat. Before leaving, he finished off by saying that it wasn't a good idea that I was using his player. I'm sure he didn't mean any offense by it, but he actually did the scene a great favor. It made me realize that I was stuck and gave me the incentive to move on.
At first, however, I didn't quite see it that way. Suddenly I was left on the highway without a ride. I started considering my options. The old player was certainly not among them. It was just an old Trabant by now. Then chance would have it that a new editor called Future Composer had just been released at the party, an editor using hexadecimal input to make music in a hacked music player of good quality. I was wondering if this was my next option. In fact, I sat down and made a tune in one of the class rooms. It was definitely interesting, but I didn't like the way editing was done. Voices were not compared directly and it had always been one of my dreams that a music editor should be able to do that. I imagined that it would help immensely when composing. I settled with just that single tune in Future Composer, and it was absolutely the right decision. It didn't take long before everyone and his dog was using Future Composer in demos, and just as with SoundMonitor, it became way too recognizable and thus just as trite. It became synonymous with demo coders that didn't have access to unique music in special players and had to settle with less. That's not an image you really wanted to have as a respectable demo group.
But Dexion's copy-party this summer was also interesting because I believe I actually spotted another soon to be famous musician way ahead of time. Just behind me was a circular table, and a guy with thick, dark brown hair was sitting at his C64, coding what I could clearly see was some kind of music player. All the indications were there. This was his own stuff and he clearly had some skill. I can't exactly say why, but I was hesitant in starting a chat with him. He seemed like he wanted to mind his own business. It would take many months before we would finally get properly introduced.
That guy later turned out to have been JO of Amok.
The new player
Not long after I got home from that copy-party, that same month, it became clear to me that the only viable option was to start all over. Make my own player again, although this time making use of everything I had learned from using Laxity's. I seem to remember that Scorpio was once again visiting me and commending me for my progress. I went from a prototype version with mere bleeps to one with pulsating, arpeggio and drums using a table of waveforms, all within a sensible use of CPU time. Finally I was onto something.
My own player again, and this time not a Trabant. More like a Ford. Maybe a VW.
Another party came up, this time held by Jewels, Danish Gold, Dominators and Upfront in Tommerup on July 8-10, 1988. It was in the middle of Denmark, roughly speaking. I can't remember much of the company I traveled together with nor anyone I met, but what I certainly do remember is the disaster it started out as. We arrived way too many nerds to a tiny hut next to a bumpy field where nothing seemed to have been sown. We were among the first and I quickly booked a table just inside of the hut, but more nerds arrived in several waves and it was hopeless. Before long, they were rolling out wires on the field and placing unsteady tables there to put their computers on. It not only looked silly, it looked downright surreal. It didn't take long before the organizers knew they had to do something. Soon a few buses and cabs were summoned and we were all driven to a place with a much bigger hall. A considerable improvement.
Sleeping at copy-parties has always been one of the big cons for me. Sometimes a party had a dedicated sleeping room in another hall, especially if it was a school. Teenagers typically lost all sense of time and slept whenever they absolutely had to. Some in sleeping bags right next to their tables. Some even with their face down on their keyboard, only to wake up a few hours later with QWERTY imprinted on their faces. No matter what you did, it was almost impossible to avoid a lot of noise from hundreds of computers, stereos and people passing by here and there. Some of the later parties in the end of the 90's took place in a town where I could book a room at a hotel. It was expensive, but absolutely worth it.
Since the party in Tommerup was one of the first ones and we still had to figure out how to nail such things properly, sleeping was quite a problem there. At one point I had to accept sleeping under a table with makeshift legs and computer equipment on top. It wasn't too bad, actually. I managed to fall asleep and get an hour or two of shuteye. In the meantime, someone had the marvelous idea of sitting on the end of this table, and as he jumped down and walked away, the makeshift legs of the table gave in. The entire table came crashing down on top of me, computer equipment on top and all, brutally waking me up in the process. I was lucky and it didn't squeeze or hurt me all that much, and in the instant I woke up, I knew that a hundred eyes would be fixed upon me. I slowly squeezed out and made sure that I was completely stoic. Nothing to see here. Please move on.
It actually looked like people around me were genuinely disappointed.
I continued making music in assembler listings of my player for almost the rest of 1988. In the meantime I got to know Johannes Bjerregaard, a computer musician that not only had his own player on C64 but was also absolutely brilliant on a piano. He had already made music for a few C64 games and had a great talent for both coding and composing.
I had kind of a strange relationship with Johannes Bjerregaard. There was a lot of unhealthy respect for his abilities that actually made me feel uncomfortable around him to begin with, but at the same time he was also the humble type that didn't like to brag at all. I remember I sometimes played my C64 music for him, sort of like an eager student seeking the attention of the enigmatic expert. Most of it he didn't comment at all (probably not a good sign) or he would point out a few disharmonic errors.
A photo of Johannes Bjerregaard in 2016 where he was playing at the Cactus Theatre in Texas.
I also visited Johannes once or twice in his very tiny apartment he had in Copenhagen at the time. He had a shy cat that had lost its tail. It just sort of withered away, he told me.
He even sold me his Roland JX-3P keyboard. I later replaced it with a Korg M1.
Johannes had a wise habit of recreating all sorts of old and new radio hits as C64 songs, both to learn their arrangement and to see how close he could get. What was not quite as awesome was that he easily deleted those tunes shortly thereafter. A lot of tunes got lost this way that could have been legendary today. I actually managed to save a disk at one point from deletion, but a lot of others got lost forever. My guess is that he regarded it solely as training and thus not worth retaining. He was very critical of his own work.
I was at another copy-party in Hillerød held by Hexagon in late October 1988. Laxity and Johannes was also there. Both of them felt way out of my own league at this point. I was envious of them both. They could play the piano well, I couldn't. They both made better music than I did. It was discouraging and this might normally have kept me from continuing any further, but coding players and making tunes was great fun and I felt committed.
I refused to give up now.
The music editor
Right since the very first old player in 1987, I always wanted to have my own music editor designed to accommodate my lack of musical education. I wanted tracks to follow each other so that multiple voices could be compared easily. This was actually in my mind even before the first SoundTracker appeared on Amiga, a tracker that had four voices in columns of about 64 rows each. Notes were alphanumerical in this system, like F#3 or C-4. When it did arrive on Amiga, I tried it out briefly and made a few test tunes in it. This was definitely a step in the direction I wanted, but I absolutely didn't like how the voices were “fused together” in the same pattern. I wanted my voices to follow each other while still having independent sequences of any size.
Towards the end of 1988, I started thinking a lot about how to do this. I was a postman at the time and had a small route in Rungsted, a bit north of Copenhagen. It was often boring in the sense of visiting the same houses day after day, over and over. After a while it was going through the motions leaving me time to think while working. I thought a lot about that music editor. Sometimes I got an awesome idea of how to design something and I stopped my bicycle, fetched a blank register slip out of my little black book, then scrippled a few notes for later. A lot of ideas, both for the player as well as for the editor, was conceived this way. If only I had kept these slips so I could show you here, but alas I threw them all away as soon as I had copied the notes from them.
Me coding assembler on the C64 in September 1988. I was 22 years old.
One detail of the editor design was clear to me right from the start. I wanted it to have a consistent green look, just like green graphics on really old computer monitors. I imagined it would not only give the editor a unique look, it would also be comfortable to work with. I also wanted to have all tables and other editable information on the same screen. Changing to a different screen to edit e.g. the instruments might bring me “out of the zone” of composing a tune and I wanted to avoid that. Finally, I still remembered my earlier idea of the three voices of the C64 always following each other but have completely individual sequences of flexible size. It would make it possible to repeat short pieces in one voice while still repeating the longer ones in the other. That made a lot of sense to me.
In November 1988, I started coding on the first version of this green music editor. Coding the chain of sequences for each voice seemed daunting at first, so I cut a corner and just made infinitely long voices to begin with. I made the first four test tunes in it, but it was soon clear that the lack of sequences was absolutely not okay. So in December, I recoded the voice parts in version 2 of the editor to work with the flexible sequences as originally envisioned. I made a lot of additional test tunes and it was immediately clear to me that this was a massive leap from composing directly in an assembler listing. Comparing voices and editing music in real time was so much faster. Instruments and other help tables were put in the lower part of the screen, with another half pane popping up on a hotkey, reducing the size of the editable area for the notes. This ensured that notes were always available for tweaking no matter what table I wanted to edit as well. It sped up the editing process and made it possible to really “zone in” composing music.
I named my first official tune “Revolutionary” as 1989 arrived.
1989 is probably the year I remember as the most active year on the C64. I now had a good music player and now also an editor that was quite unique. I made a few more tunes and upgraded my players with better effects and techniques. The music was edited in big tables that was spread out to make insertion and deletion much easier to handle. Because of this, source tunes took up a lot of disk space. I then coded a packer that not only packed bytes closer and removed redundant information, it also concatenated note steps into fewer bytes with duration indicators instead. The end result was a much smaller block that was combined with the music player, ready to be used in a demo or a game. Later, I expanded the family of tools with a player version swapper as well as a relocator that could move a player block to another location in the C64's RAM.
While working on these tools and composing more songs in the editor, I was starting to wonder how other composers might sound like in it. It wouldn't take long before I got an answer. In around February that year, I was contacted by a new game company that had just started up and had barely found their name, The Electronic Generation. A few guys from all over the country were invited to a small meeting. I can't remember if it was all the way in Jutland, but it was quite far from Copenhagen. The young man in charge revealed the plans to start producing C64 games. The first one would by Golddigger which would be sort of a Boulder Dash clone. One of the invited guys was Klaus, known as Link of Cheyens. It was quickly decided that we would both work on music for the game, using my editor. At that point my NewPlayer version was 5 and Klaus became the first person to use my editor. I remember the strangely content feeling I had when I loaded and played music made in my editor by someone else. Having made a tool that other composers liked to use was a great feeling that I haven't topped with any other piece of software since.
Ironically, the deal with The Electronic Generation fizzled out incredibly fast. Although we made the music for the game, we didn't hear much more from the company at all. It was as if it had suddenly imploded out of existence. At least the meeting got me acquainted with Klaus, and I was happy about that. He was the composed type that didn't fool around and our conversions were usually always agreeable. He already had a bit of experience using Future Composer. The funny thing is that the music he made there wasn't really all that impressive. I think there was only one tune I really liked. But as soon as he started using my editor, I felt that I could immediately detect a significant improvement in the way he composed his songs. It made it clear to me that I was on the right track concerning all the design decisions I had made for the editor.
My swapping friend Kim knew a mate from school that was a member of the Amiga group Channel 42, and soon I had also established connections with them. Although they were strictly demo coders on Amiga, they respected what the C64 could do. In fact, both Niels and Morten were both very easy going and observant, often pointing out the little details in demos on both computers. Morten would later turn out to be a skilled programmer, coding games on Amiga and consoles, while Niels was a graphics artist that knew how to draw inviting cartoon characters. They themselves broadened my connections further as they too knew a lot of other fellow wizards. Niels and Morten would also later be important as they got involved in computer games for Danish television. More about that later in this part.
Niels in my room, probably around 1991. He later founded Krogh Mortensen Animation in 1997.
Kim, Scorpio and I created a C64 division of Channel 42 and I left Dominators to join it. Niels even created a few logos for C64 intros coded by Scorpio.
Towards the end of March 1989, I went to the Ikari & Zargon party in Slagelse. I had just converted a pop hit by Sandra to my NewPlayer on C64 and it was used in a demo by Ikari. This was a shared Amiga and C64 party, and the Channel 42 guys introduced me to Jesper Kyd. He was still learning the ropes at this point, but I noticed that he shared the same penchant for being observant and eager to learn when listening to MOD tunes on Amiga. He got hold of a new one at the party and it was interesting to see the way he immediately zoned in listening to it, concentrating intensely on how it was composed.
Jesper Kyd would later evolve his musical skills into composing professional music for a lot of video games such as the Hitman, Assassin's Creed and Borderlands series, but I never got to know him personally. In fact, I think I only met him this once at the Slagelse party.
But naturally, I was of course mostly interested in the C64 hall at the party. Cheyens was there and I had a talk with Link several times. Supposedly the German C64 composer Markus Schneider should also have been there and I actually tried looking for him, but I never had the honor of meeting him. And once again, I spotted that interesting guy with the thick, dark brown hair sitting by his C64 on a balcony, overlooking the hall. JO of Amok. Again he seemed reserved and I kept my distance. Or perhaps I was just too busy talking to all the mates I now knew at this party.
Klaus Grøngaard (Link of Cheyens) at the Dexion X-Mas Conference in December 1990.
Brian and his friends had joined Ikari, and they were of course present as part of the organizer team. Their demo won a shared first place in the C64 demo competition together with Channel 42. However, both demo groups were represented among the team of judges and it really felt anything but fair. Even I, who had a new tune in Ikari's demo and was part of Channel 42, could see that.
I'm ashamed to admit that I can't remember how I eventually did get to know JO of Amok, but it must have been shortly after the party. His first name was Jesper and he was almost obsessed with coding efficient music players. He also composed music in them, albeit always using the assembler listing method. He never really got around to finishing an editor. The following years I had a lot of competent feedback on player techniques. It was Jesper who first made me aware of the technique known as hard restart. It had previously been used by Rob Hubbard and also Laxity had figured it out. The technique involved the ADSR of a voice, which defines the course of volume changes during the life of a note. Due to how the SID chip was engineered, triggering a new note would sometimes start the ADSR in a faulty manner, interpreting the volume differently. It was subtle, but enough to make the listening experience more rough. A music player was typically called once for each time the monitor refreshed its image, which was 50 frames a second for us PAL users in Europe. The hard restart technique solved the inaccuracy of the ADSR by putting zero values in the registers during the last two frames of the lifetime of a note. It made the notes sound slightly staccato, but the ADSR would be rock solid. In fact, the technique made the ADSR so solid that short volume attacks would now sound almost like sort of a click.
Jesper was great at technicalities like this and was constantly coding on a player. And not only on the C64. Where I had a tendency to prefer the C64 only and update my editor as well, Jesper also learned how to code a player on the Amiga – both using samples and emulated pulsating. It was a great as that meant that we could now deliver on other formats for a game. But Johannes was actually also on the frontier when it came to cutting edge music player coding. It was while Johannes was visiting me that he discovered how to use a test bit in the SID chip to reset the random numbers used internally by the noise waveform. Resetting the numbers like this made the noise sound more predictable each time a note was played, giving it a slightly more metallic sound. Johannes also tried to improve his already excellent player to use only 12 rasterlines of CPU time, but it kept bumping up to 13 rasterlines no matter what he tried.
“Well – I guess there are limits to everything”, he finally concluded and accepted defeat.
Jesper and Johannes also knew each other and shared knowledge, but Jesper's relationship with him was even more forced than mine. It was clear that Jesper had an enormous respect for Johannes. Even when Johannes was not present, he was often talking about what he or they had done recently. It was understandable as I had a smattering of it too, at least to begin with.
I sometimes wondered how much Johannes was aware of this.
Retrospectively, you could say that we had our separate strengths on the C64. Jesper was probably the technically most adept player coder. I had an awesome music editor. And Johannes was by far the best C64 composer. He was definitely in the top ten worldwide.
A bit further north from where I lived already north of Copenhagen, two teenagers had decided to code a new shoot'em up for C64. Tecnetium. They were not in the scene at all, but somehow they had still managed to get in touch with me. I agreed to make the music and SFX and I tried my best at the time, making a really long title tune. Let's just say it was one of those that Johannes didn't have any comments for. But time passed by, and I heard nothing from the duo. I then called them and they were very apologetic. They had lost all interest in the game and eventually just stopped coding.
I was of course disappointed, but what was even worse was that this would only be the beginning of repeated incidents. Many more canceled games awaited.
Johannes wisely recommended to me at that point, “Don't make music for private people, it usually goes nowhere.” It made a lot of sense, but getting jobs for game companies would turn out to be very hard for a guy like me that had no talent for business. I had to take my chances when they presented themselves, sparse as I knew they might be.
Right from the beginning I was protective of my music editor on the C64. I didn't want it to be spread around and just become another common editor, eventually turning it into a humdrum sound everybody was sick of. I had already seen what that had done to the likes of SoundMonitor and Future Composer. Maybe it would even be possible to sell it later? I wasn't sure if that was even possible, but I always kept it in the back of my head.
But at the same time, I was usually very honored when someone actually asked for my editor, and if it was someone I knew was into music and generally seemed like a nice guy, I would usually give them my editor. As spring of 1989 passed by, I had already given my editor to about half a dozen people. I kept strict note of the users and even added a code to each individual copy, sort of like a stamp of ownership.
At that point, the most noteworthy users were Link, Scorpio and Scarzix.
But as the summer of 1989 crept closer, I started noticing remarkable music from a new kid in Denmark. This time it wasn't a coder that was about to overtake me just like Laxity had done. He just made music, and because of this his only options were SoundMonitor and Future Composer. But even though he used editors that were commonly available, he still caught my attention for several reasons. At that point his music was relatively simple, but it still contained proof of talent. The basslines were vivid and I also liked the consistent use of chords. Another interesting detail was that the bass and drum instruments were changed to entirely new kind of sounds, something virtually no one bothered to do in these editors. This made the music player less recognizable and also demonstrated that the kid was willing to go far to get the sound he really wanted.
I soon learned the name of this kid. Yet another Thomas, using Drax as his handle on the C64. He was just 13 years and lived in Arden, in the opposite side of Denmark. Way too far for us to just meet directly on a whim. Eventually I called him up. Drax was awestruck that a famous C64 musician like me was calling him. He was a fast talker and you could almost feel how eager he was to learn and hear everything related to C64 music. We talked for hours the first time, including playing a lot of C64 music through the phone. In the end I could actually sense Drax almost falling asleep, refusing to let go.
It was clear to me that he should definitely have a go at my music editor.
Luckily another copy-party was coming up in the end of June, this time held by 2000 A.D. in the town of Esbjerg, on the western coast of Denmark. It was one of the smaller parties. Link was also present and we met Drax. He was a tall kid that didn't give the impression of being just 13 years old. He felt older than that. Drax was all over the editor right from the moment we arrived, and both Link and I showed him the ropes in it. He immediately loved it. At the party itself I also met another Jesper (a good coder better known as Trap) and I got quite unexpected praise from a tough looking dude that really liked the conversion I had made of the title tune for Maniac Mansion.
After the party, Drax would soon start using my music editor intensively, to a degree that would leave most other composers breathless. He produced tunes like an assembly line, sometimes to kill boredom (usually these tunes would resemble each other) but sometimes also really trying to push the envelope. He was learning and improving with a drive and speed I haven't seen repeated anywhere else in the entire demo scene. It was almost like he was running on a supercharged battery. Throughout the remainder of the 80's and the beginning of the 90's, he managed to produce almost a thousand C64 tunes. He was fond of the funky bassline and almost always used a lot of chords, both of which became important trademarks of the type of music he produced.
Drax playing around with a cheap keyboard at my place. Probably 1990, give or take a year.
Drax frequently called me and we always had such long phone conversations, and not just about C64 and chiptunes. But if he got wind of me having made a new C64 tune, he would immediately ask that I played it through the phone. He also visited me a few times and he even composed a few songs there. One thing I especially noticed regarding his technique was that he often changed the general pitch of the entire piece up or down as part of the editing process, to test whether the music had a better sound there. I never did that myself but maybe I should have. My music always stayed at the pitch I started it at, as if it was set in stone. But Drax actually had a lot of ideas about composing songs that made a lot of sense. He also talked about using the chords to improve the fullness of a song.
A lot of my earlier songs didn't even have chords – it was just a leader and a bass.
I remember one time both Link and Drax visited me at the same time. At one point I took a nap on my bed while the two of them fiddled with the computers. I woke up later and just relaxed for a bit. I couldn't help overhearing a conversation they had. Link said something in the line of “Jens is really an amazing composer,” to which Drax replied, “Yes, but I think we've caught up with him recently.”
Drax also had a close friend, Torben, who was known as Metal. He made music much in the same style as Drax, and he too received my music editor. Together they made the music group Unitech Designs and initially made tunes for the demo group Nato.
In August 1989, I made a tune that was processed twice as fast, to hear how much arpeggios and instruments would be improved by this. To my knowledge, only the game developer Antony Crowther had tried something similar at this point, in the game Zig Zag. It was an interesting experiment, but I felt that it didn't yield enough advantages compared to eating up twice as much CPU power. I was also disappointed that no matter how many times I called the player within a frame, arpeggio chords never reached a point where they would truly sound like individual channels. They just got uglier.
Later I would code quick players that was customized to being called several times a frame, logically using less time for subsequent calls since the note data only needed to be processed the first time. But even so I still didn't use them much myself. Creating instruments such as drum sounds seemed to require a new kind of thinking when writing tables of waveforms, and I decided that I didn't want to spend too much time with this when it would also be more difficult to use in games and demos. Besides, players called the normal 50 times a second had a recognizable charm I liked. However, one of my later C64 music friends, Morten (MSK), loved the sound it created and made a lot of tunes this way.
I was just content that someone else found a use for them.
In the meantime, the Dutch duo Jeroen Tel and Charles Deenen had formed a music group with the name Maniacs of Noise. Both were composers, but especially Jeroen Tel was a virtuoso. Remember that top ten I was talking about earlier, the one I said Johannes was part of? Jeroen Tel was most certainly on it too. Charles Deenen had a few good tunes as well, but he was very critical of himself and preferred to make sound effects and also handle the business side of getting their stuff into games. Luckily he was excellent at both, and together they were an amazing team that had a lot of success in C64 games.
Laxity, Jeroen Tel and Drax. Laxity and Drax also joined Maniacs of Noise later.
Several C64 composers in the demo scene were of course jealous of this and dreamed of reaching the same level. They too invented music groups, some even using the same “of”-word in the middle. I immediately decided that creating a music group was a silly idea that would only make me feel like a copycat. I just wanted to keep using my handle, JCH.
But then, as the PCW show in London approached and it was decided that I would go there to try and sell our music, Link called me up one evening. He firmly believed that if I was to go over there and try to sell our music, we needed to have a group name to have a better chance at competing with the likes of Maniacs of Noise. I refused to begin with, but Link managed to change my mind. I could see it made sense. Then the same phone call became a brainstorming session where we tried to figure out a good name. We quickly agreed that using “of” as a middle word was completely out of the question. So “Dudes of Volume” was out. After a while I came up with “Audio Ants”, but it was missing something. I then thought of vibrato – the effect that cause tones to wave the frequency – why not try to combine that with “Ants” from the previous suggestion? I said the word “Vibrants” almost as a test to hear what it sounded like out loud. “Yeah – that's good,” Link immediately commented.
And so it was decided. JCH and Link would be known as Vibrants.
The Vibrants logo made for the Amiga/DOS game Lollypop.
The group name would become popular in the demo scene for years and gain more members. Drax was of course the third to join. One thing I've actually never revealed to anyone was how I disliked demo groups referring to us as The Vibrants. There was never supposed to be a “The” in front. It was just Vibrants.
In the end of September 1989, I went to the PCW show in London together with Brian and his Ikari friends. We visited some of their English group members. The show itself was the typical computer fair with lots of company booths. I had prepared a couple of demos on a batch of floppy diskettes with music by Link and I, and I tried to pass them on to eight companies I knew were making C64 games. It was surprisingly difficult. Here I was, looking like a nerd and with no sense of business, trying to talk the talk. It probably didn't help that I wasn't really all that confident either. Most of them dismissed me before I had a chance to do anything. Others took the disk and presumably threw it in the trash can as soon as I turned my back to them. Only one of the them actually got curious enough to load the demos and have a look, but even that didn't yield any game jobs at all.
It was pretty much futile, and I didn't even get to see London either.
The sad thing about my time as a composer on the C64 these years was the duality I felt about it. I was soon incredibly popular in the demo scene. Known by everyone and often in top of the floppy magazine charts. Had a lot of music in demos together with my mates in Vibrants. In that regard it was the ultimate success. However, that wasn't the condition I was measuring this by. What I really wanted was to get my music on C64 games. Money was part of it of course, but most of all, I dreamed of getting the same respect by C64 reviewers as Rob Hubbard and Maniacs of Noise once had.
I tried repeatedly to get my music on games. I later had some success with Danish games and later a few obscure English ones, but mostly I made for the private people that Johannes had warned me against. It never took off the way I imagined it could have. That always felt like some kind of shortcoming, a wasted opportunity. In fact, it may very well have been part of the reason why I fled to the PC instead in 1991-92. By that time, most of the game companies had started losing interest in the C64 – and thus so did I.
Today, I know I was thinking of this the wrong way. The demo scene on the C64 really was awesome and I'm happy that I was once a significant part of it.
And a fine example of how great it could be even appeared in the end of December 1989. Dominators, Upfront and Trilogy arranged a copy-party in Randers, and it became probably the best computer party I've ever been at. It was a cozy location at a school, I met a lot of prominent guys from the scene, and Vibrants had several tunes in the Bones demo that eventually won the C64 demo competition.
Apart from Drax and Link, I also met Moppe, Zizyphus, Omega Supreme, Steel, Laxity, and Zenox. Even Johannes Bjerregaard and the Dutch music group 20CC were present. Johannes tried to make C64 music in an assembler listing at one point, and I noticed how he was beating the time for it. I wished I could do that too. Edwin van Santen watched while Drax and I was messing around in my music editor, and he mentioned something in the line that 20CC also ought to make themselves a music editor.
One guy who probably had mixed feelings about the Randers party was that poor hot dog vendor just outside of the school. It's was clear to see that he wasn't used to that many customers lining up. I bet he gained both a lot of money as well as a lot of stress.
The Danish games
Remember Niels and Morten, the Amiga duo from Channel 42? Together with some of their friends they started making a strange kind of video games for Danish television. It was a unique concept that was featured in a weekly evening show, the kind where interviewing guests were interspersed with various entertainment. One of these shows was a video game with a polar bear called OsWald. People would call up the host using the fixed line phone of the time and then press its tone buttons (DTMF) to move the character. The first game in 1988 was viewed from the top while scrolling downwards, and the player would have to jump on floes avoiding various dangers. Is was cutting edge and very successful.
There was also a sequel in 1989 called Super OsWald where two players could play at the same time. The Danish company, SilverRock Productions, then decided to launch versions of it for the popular home computers in Denmark. I got to make the title screen music and sound effects for the C64 version where Scorpio coded and Niels drew the graphics. It must have been around fall 1989. The title screen music I made for it was the second suggestion I had played for Niels and Scorpio through the phone. The first one was a disaster, but luckily the second one was excellent. Being the real-time editing amateur composer I actually was, I never quite had as much control over the quality as I wanted to. Sometimes it just turned out to be a turd no matter what I did, and at other times I magically caught lightning in a bottle. Those two suggestions were in each end of this spectrum.
Good thing they made me try again.
Because of the success of the OsWald games, SilverRock decided to up the ante and try the same television concept with an even more ambitious video game. This became Hugo, a small forest troll with a cute voice that typically spoke to the player calling in. Niels drew the Hugo character and achieved a bit of fame for it in Denmark. The first game, which was running on an Amiga just like the OsWald games, had Hugo running in 3D through a mine tunnel. Since this was only the late 1990, the 3D wasn't done in real time. It was pre-rendered, but it looked very convincing as it moved towards Hugo. Again, people calling in would control him using the tone buttons on their fixed line phone, and again it became an enormous success on Danish television. In fact, the game started a franchise of video games that are still being produced today, albeit by a different company.
Again, a C64 version was being produced and I converted a Danish rap hit as the title tune for it. Eventually a PC version was also made and that became my entry into the world of AdLib music. I made the SFX and also converted a congratulations tune that a musician had composed for the Amiga version. The PC version surprised everyone by looking almost as good as the Amiga version. People probably expected CGA or EGA quality graphics, but the PC coder, Kaare Siesing, was really up-to-date with what VGA could do.
SilverRock Productions also started making video games that didn't have anything to do with the television concept. Advertising games. The first was Guldkorn Ekspressen in 1991, featuring the honey bear from the box of the popular Danish cereal. The honey bear would control a locomotive in a side-scrolling action game. I created loads of tunes and sound effects for the C64 version. Jesper had his Amiga player at the time and we converted my music to it pretty much the hard way. My title and hiscore tunes were not that amazing, but I still like some of the level tunes. They were made using two voices to make room for sound effects in the third voice, but unfortunately Scorpio ran out of memory on the cartridge for it. The player was forced to choose between music or sound effects, but not both.
Another advertising game was produced in 1992. It was Harald Hårdtand for Colgate-Palmolive, the toothpaste company. It was a side-scrolling platform shooter next to giant teeth inside a mouth. Harald had to fight bacteria with his toothpaste gun, and it even had boss fights. A version for Amiga, C64 and PC was made, and this time Drax made all the music on C64. I converted it to AdLib on PC and made the sound effects. Jesper took care of the sound on the Amiga version. Niels' friend Morten coded the Amiga version, Scorpio once again did the C64 version, and Kaare Siesing the PC version.
One of the odd things about working kind of freelance for SilverRock, producing music and sound effects, was the payment. For a long time most of us sound guys were just paid in various kinds of hardware. SilverRock saved some tax money buying it through the company and then passing it on to us. For the Super OsWald job, I received a 1.5 MB RAM expansion for my Amiga 500, which I was happy about at the time. The Hugo job in 1991 earned me a 33 MHz 80386 PC with an 89 MB hard disk. It was pretty much cutting edge at the time, and it immediately got me interested in the AdLib capabilities of the Sound Blaster card. In the later 90's, we switched to contracts and they paid me actual money. The final Hugo job earned me enough money to pay the advance for my own apartment in 1995.
One of the best things about the C64 demo scene in 1988-92 was the way we swapped with each other all over Europe. Of course a ladder of recognition was in place. You had a much greater chance of swapping with the awesome guys if you had something to show for it yourself. Climbing the ladder and getting the best swapping partners meant trying to create better demos and smaller cracks. Newcomers (usually the youngest kids) that failed to impress anyone were often condescendingly called lamers.
It was something you wouldn't want to be called, yet most of us started as one.
Being the network it literally was, getting the reputation of producing good stuff and being a nice guy earned you more connections. More people wanted to swap with you, improving the chance and speed of spreading your work. For the groups that prioritized cracks, it was about being the fastest and also having the smallest version of a game. The game might have a copy protection that was hard to crack. There was also some prestige in showing that your group can do that anyway. A smaller version meant having access to (or being able to code) a packer that could compress better than others. For demo groups, being able to break a new technical record or show a new type of awesome effect earned respect. A large part of this network was governed by this air of competition which by itself kept it alive and fast.
But the swapping also spawned camaraderie, giving it sort of a pen pal spin where nice letters were written, discussing everything related to the scene.
In my job as a postman, I loved coming home in the afternoon and check out some of the personal letters of the day. Typically there would be a floppy diskette or two, maybe along with a note and a stiff piece of carton for protection. Most of the swapping pals were impecunious and had to resort to money saving tricks such as placing tape on top of the stamps then asking you to mail them back. In spite of warning words on the envelope about not bending it, the floppy diskette would sometimes have had anything but a loving care while transported through Europe. The floppy would usually be flattened so much that could no longer spin inside its sleeve. We had all sorts of tricks to deal with that. One was to rub the ends of the floppy sleeve against the edge of the table. Now the floppy could spin again. Sometimes we also had to use spit on the inner ring of the floppy, to make sure that the drive mechanism could get a proper hold of it. And if that didn't help, we held down the front lock on the diskette station to force the magnetic head closer to the disk. Maybe the latter shouldn't really have worked, but it sure felt like it did.
The word had spread in the demo scene that I had a really interesting music editor, and I received a lot of mails from unfamiliar guys trying their luck. Some just wrote a small letter using a note program on the floppy diskette instead of on paper. But as mentioned a few chapters ago, I usually gave them my music editor if I could see it was a polite request and that they offered tunes on the diskette to prove that they were actually a composer. And as I updated the music editor to a more advanced version 3, I became even more benevolent with the old version 2. Considering how much it was sent to composers all around Europe, it's a miracle that my music editor wasn't leaked prematurely. Eventually someone did end up leaking version 2, but at that point it was kind of all right. It was old hat by then.
Apart from the usual cracks and demos, I also built a lot of connections with composers that were interested in swapping C64 tunes. We would comment on each others compositions and offer our latest creations, some even as work tunes for your ears only. And a few wrote really long letters. Richard from Scotland (with the handle Deek) stood out as particularly adept at this. He had a very stylish hand writing and it was clear that he loved writing these letters. There were always several pages and he usually had such interesting things to write about. Some, like Xayne from Germany and myself, were even inspired by this and started writing long letters too. Deek's envelope was thick as a book, also containing half a dozen floppy diskettes. Receiving these kinds of luxury letters from composers all over Europe became so addictive, I actually got downright disappointed if I came home from work and found that no one had sent me anything that day.
But Richard had even more than that going for him. England released a lot of good C64 games at the time and Richard was connected with a guy that was involved in delivering music for some of these. We actually got a few tunes on a few select ones. They were not the most fantastic games, but it was something at least. Richard also turned out to be a very talented composer and became another member of Vibrants. I always enjoyed swapping with him and even met him once at a show in London. After a couple of years he lost all interest in the C64 and kind of just fell off the face of the planet. A lot of us C64 freaks are in touch with each other on Facebook today, but not Richard. I have since figured out that he started singing in a few bands, but I have decided to respect his privacy.
A guy called Shade from Holland and I also started collecting SID tunes in 1990 on a growing library of floppy diskettes that we sent to each other. We collected everything from games and demos that we could get our hands on. Shade was quite enthusiastic and did most of the work. The collection grew to be reasonably adequate (certainly much more than most personal collections) but then it kind of just died out with no one to take over.
Luckily, another group of SID fans then started the High Voltage SID Collection which would soon dwarf our collection. I joined their internal mailing list around the turn of the millennium for a brief period of time. The discipline there was fascinating to watch. Even the smallest details were seriously discussed and sometimes came to a vote. As I left the mailing list again a while later, I knew the ongoing collecting of SID tunes was in good hands.
Fun and games
The following year, 1990, became almost as busy as 1989 – with a lot of work for games and visiting no less than four copy-parties as well as another show in London.
My musical friends and I made a lot of tunes for demos in my music editor, and several other guys around Europe did the same. I had made a program to select and play packed tunes called the Delux Driver, which would show the notes lighting up keys on a keyboard. This was included whenever we sent new demo music to each other. But as offers popped up for making music for games, unique demo screens were made instead where the music was presented in a small list for that particular game. It served as a demo for the coders of the game as well as an advertisement for others. Maniacs of Noise made this custom popular and it was blatantly copied by everyone else, ourselves included.
Probably the most interesting work I ever did for a game was for Orcus.
Haydn Dalton, a graphics artist in England, started working on this side-scrolling shoot'em up for C64 with Mike Ager as the coder, and they wanted me to do the soundtrack for it. The orders for it came in bits as the game was developed. I had created a separate sound effects player and editor that worked in a different way than a music player, making it easier to produce weird sliding and arpeggios. I even tried to make ring modulation emulate human speech to sound like saying “Get Ready” and “Game Over” at the appropriate moments. To my knowledge, it was something not even the renowned sound effects expert Charles Deenen from Maniacs of Noise had tried to do.
The usual basic tunes like the title and hiscore were actually not all that great, but the level tunes needed to have a limit of about half a minute each, and for some reason this limitation inspired me to be more daring. I tried all kinds of crazy stuff and most of the time it paid off. I made a tune with four-fingered chords, something I usually never did (I normally used just three). Another tune used ring modulation to sound almost like saying “give it up” and in other tunes, aliens were talking. I even had a boss tune based on a silly bass melody that my brother and I used to prank around with.
Unfortunately, Orcus became another one of those that were never finished. It was a real shame, given the amount of work I had put into it.
Speaking of Charles Deenen, I actually had a brief exchange with him per snail mail. He was getting too many orders for him to handle and was looking for qualified help. I sent him a floppy diskette with some of my tunes on it, but the first reply from him was not welcoming. He was all business and mentioned something about the English market not wanting the “hit, snare” kind of music and that I should listen to what Tim Follin had done. But at the same time he encouraged me to try again, so I did. One of the tunes I sent him on my next diskette was the intro music for Push-It, another game that wasn't finished. Ironically the music was indeed of the “hit, snare” kind, but it was also spunky and with a double voice drum. Charles wrote back to me with words in the line of that being more like it. We weren't accepted into Maniacs of Noise as such, but if a job came up that they didn't have time to do, he would get in touch with me.
The one job that eventually did come up was the C64 conversion of the arcade racing game Chase HQ II, also known as Special Criminal Investigation. I was working on something else at the time, but luckily Link was happy to do the tunes for it. Link tried to match the typical Maniacs of Noise sound and I think he actually did a decent job at it. I had to multiplex two voices of sound effects with two voices of music to fit three voices at the same time, but in the final game only one voice of sound effects was used. One of the tunes was also skipped, and I believe Link never got any payment either.
Drax and I did get to respectively make the music and sound effects for a few games that were eventually released, but they were mostly smaller games for magazines created by scene friends in Cosmos Designs. A small Danish maze game based on a popular television quiz also had its theme converted. And again there were more work for a few that were never finished.
We were rocking the demo scene, but the game scene? Not so much.
At least there wasn't a shortage of copy-parties to attend. The first was the Horizon Easter Party in April. It took place in Stockholm and I took a night train up there that failed to give me even a minute of sleep – it was way too rumbling for that. The Ikari guys was there, and they managed to bring Bod and Just Ice from England as well. I met Prosonix, a talented group of Norwegian SID musicians.
The second one was all the way up in Bergen, Norway. I took a plane up there to an ice hockey hall that now housed tables and wires for computer equipment, although most of the visitors piled up against the walls of the hall, or on the balconies. Apart from Prosonix, I also met Geir Tjelta and IQ64. But the most interesting memory from this party was actually when I took the plane home. The weather was awful, extremely windy with lots of rumbling the plane and air pockets. I was really anxious and actually feared for my life. Then my eyes turned to a suit sitting in another seat just a few rows in front of me. He had his head back against the pillow, sleeping like a baby.
I also attended Censor's Halloween Party in Göteborg (Sweden) in November, and Dexion's X-Mas Conference in Odense. In addition to the group members Drax, Metal and Link, I also talked to Scarzix, Scortia, MSK, Zonix, Kwon and the guys from the demo group Starion from the island of Amager, to mention just a few. I presented my new tune “Chordian” at the Dexion party. I think Link was the first to hear it. I was unsure about it at first, but it became both a hit as well as one of my personal favourites.
In 2006, I even decided to use the name of it as my new handle on the internet.
I also attended the ECE Show II in London in September that year. This time I went there on a ship together with Niels from Channel 42 and his friend, Henrik. The Ikari guys also went there, including Fletch's brother Michael. I still knew nothing about London, but Michael had been there before and knew the sights to visit. Together we went from one underground station to the next to see as much as we could. I didn't try to sell our music at the show this time, I was just there for fun. I briefly met Charles Deenen but it was merely to exchange a sentence or two. And just as I feared that we would never find each other at the show as agreed, Deek from Scotland suddenly popped up and introduced himself.
Zizyphus, Moppe, Moonray, Niels and Henrik in front of the ECE Show II.
September is also the month where Laxity joined Vibrants. Gone was the antagonism we ever had, if it even existed – maybe it was just all in our heads. Laxity later even created a new player version for my C64 editor and admitted that it was well thought out.
All good things
I had plenty of new ideas on how to further expand my C64 music editor, but I was running out of memory fast. The assembler editor I used, Turbo Assembler, took up some of its own and I also had to allocate a lot of space for the music player and its uncompressed tables.
What could I do about that?
Luckily, the answer was just around the corner. The brilliant demo coder Henning Andersen (Einstein of Upfront) had created a hardware solution called EASS that worked as a cross-assembler. I immediately ordered a copy of this and received a few pieces of hardware to connect to the parallel and video ports of the Amiga and the C64. The source code would now be edited and saved on my Amiga 500, making use of its higher resolution to display more characters per line. By a tap of a few buttons, the source would be compiled into machine code and then dumped into the RAM of the C64.
I used this development kit to create version 3 of the music editor. Among the many new features were follow-play (the channels scrolling to the music), support for quick players, tune and work clocks, a global volume, faster user interface, improved editing and of course bug fixes. I also made a superfluous poly-play feature that made it possible to play actual chords on the C64 keyboard while holding down several keys at once. But for the most part, version 3 was a significant improvement to an already renowned editor.
Coding on version 3 began in December 1990. I made a few minor version updates with small bug fixes during 1991, and the final v3.04 (that now also worked on SX-64 and C128) was done in August 1991.
Rewinding back to March 1991, I got an order for doing the music and sound effects for a German puzzle game called Su-Sweet. There was a tight deadline and I worked on my C64 like if I had an actual office job for a few days, then sent back the lot per snail mail. It may not be my most praised soundtrack, but I was actually reasonably satisfied. The title tune was funky and didn't sound like my creativity ran off the track. I even liked the level tunes. If I have to point at one bad thing then it has to be that the developer didn't pick up on my intentions for the level start sounds. The preview of the game showed a phrase sliding into view, stay for a second, and then slide out again the same way. I made sure the level sounds used sliding to match that exactly, but it wasn't used like that at all in the final game.
It was probably another good example of a lack of communication. Making music for games across long distances per snail mail had a tendency to produce unwanted compromises because of this. We were amateurs and didn't have a strict set of rules about how to discuss such details. Most of the time, it even felt kind of like one-way communication. If I didn't know the guys making the game, their order would sound like they had already created a lot of the game framework and thus the implementation of the music and sound effects was pretty much set in stone. Here's what we need, period.
I remember that I was concerned about the design decision having either a full music track or only sound effects in Orcus. If I had known the creators better or been with them while developing it, I might have suggested mixing music and sound effects, maybe even trying the multiplexing stuff I made later for Chase HQ II. I didn't like the idea of having a piece of music playing but no sound effects while shooting down aliens. It felt wrong for so many reasons. Sound effects could give you a cue of what was arriving or changing, and then a piece of music would just be like turning on a chiptune radio.
At its worst, the developers sometimes didn't even bother to report back. I had made a quick player title tune for an adventure game called Brubaker back in January, but I was never told that the game was actually finished and released.
No thank you, no payment, no nothing. Johannes was so right about this.
Nevertheless, the work for Su-Sweet is probably the only time it really felt like a real job for a game. It was a tight deadline instead of spread over months, the game was finished and released soon after, and I actually got paid too.
However, I also learned that I didn't really like working within a tight deadline. Some people thrive by deadlines, but I despise it. It may get a lot of stuff done fast, but I feel like I'm in the trash compactor of the first Star Wars movie. Ironically, working with soundtracks for the top games would probably have had me engulfed in deadlines. It's indeed possible I would have hated every second of that.
I had now tried a lot of things with the SID chip since 1987, but there was still one big area of unvisited territory. Digital samples. Changing the main volume on the SID chip made a small click, and this could be used to play crude samples in addition to the normal three voices. A lot of music coders had already experimented with this. Johannes Bjerregaard. Charles Deenen. Rob Hubbard. Martin Galway. Geir Tjelta. Even SoundMonitor had a RockMonitor offshoot since before I even started coding my own music players.
Could I code something like this to work well, and where would I get the samples?
It was actually a bit of challenge to code this into my music player as it required the use of something called NMI, of which I knew nothing. I had to learn about it on the way. I was probably a bit too ambitious and added all sorts of luxury effects to the digital channel. I used an old SFX sound sampler in the cartridge port to record some synthesizer and drum sounds from my Korg M1 keyboard. Being a bit behind with samples on the C64 as I was, I decided to call my first digital tune “Better Late than Never” on June 23, 1991. I managed to compose three more digital tunes, but it was cumbersome. I had sort of hacked my own music editor to swap a voice for the digital one instead of coding it properly, so it was too hairy to be used by anyone else but me. So, no digital tunes by e.g. Drax.
I had begun playing more consistently on my Korg M1, but since I started learning at such a late age, I wasn't really good at it. It was all ping pong bass and a bit of fumbling. Using a MIDI sequencer to record a longer piece was usually too erroneous to be of any good use. Still, I managed to devise some songs and harmonies in a different way than what I was used to in my C64 music editor, where things just sort of figured themselves out as I typed it in. My last tune ever on the C64 was called “Shift” and was a normal SID tune for a few minutes then broke into an additional digital track as sort of a surprise. It was composed solely on my Korg M1 before typing it into the music editor. Ironically, this first time of doing it like this was also to be the only one. It became the last tune I ever did on the C64.
Apart from an atypical exception or two – like making a crowd noise sound effect for a demo in 1992 – I pretty much left the C64 after the digital experiments. Another type of computer was waiting, offering a new kind of sound technology I was dying to check out.
At some point during 1991, I got a 33 MHz 80386 PC as payment for doing the Hugo sound work for SilverRock Productions. As soon as I got it, the C64 already started to fade into the background. It was cutting edge at the time, with a whopping 89 MB hard disk (my first hard disk ever), 5 MB RAM, a Sound Blaster card and of course a CRT colour monitor on top of a hideous desktop box equipped with a digital MHz display, a 3½” floppy drive and a turbo button I rarely used.
I was instantly attracted by the Sound Blaster sound card and its AdLib FM chip. I wanted to code for it immediately. It actually didn't take me long to learn how to code on the PC. Even though it was a 80386, everybody said that it was prudent to stick with 8086 code and that meant having to juggle with awkward 64 KB segments for code and data. For games this could be a problem, but it was good enough for testing how to code simple things and of course music players. For coding, I used Borland Turbo Assembler along with QEdit for editing the source codes. At this point it was all DOS mode only.
Getting hold of documentation about the Sound Blaster card was actually quite difficult in 1991. I searched for a long time before I finally got wind of a book in a small computer shop in a village further north on the island of Zealand. It was expensive and came in a box from which I pulled out sort of a small binder. It was unlike any other manual I had seen before for developing software. Things obviously worked differently on the PC. But the manual was a good investment. It had all the information I needed and soon I was testing the basic FM sounds of the AdLib chip. It also had data about programming the DSP on the Sound Blaster card for playing samples, something I would also make use of later.
AdLib was quite a different beast than the SID chip. The SID chip had three voices and just used four basic waveforms, only one of which could be pulsated. Creating modulation ate two of the three voices, so it was expensive. The FM chip, however, had nine voices with basic sine waveforms, and each voice had their own carrier and modulator to work on these sines. This produced a very characteristic, warm sound. It was the same as heard on various cheap keyboards and Japanese arcade games during the 80's and 90's.
Sound Blaster cards came in a ton of versions. One of my proudest possessions later was a SB AWE32 with RAM slots.
I started coding my AdLib music player in November 1991. I quickly added a lot of the same kind of effects as I had in the C64 music players, like the arpeggio tables. I also did my own vibrato as well as controlling the degree of modulations myself. This gave a much better control of all the real-time effects and it immediately distanced the player from almost anything that used AdLib on the PC. Everyone else just used the effects offered at the hardware level. I also tried to create better drums but that turned out to be harder than I imagined. Just using waveform tables didn't automatically ensure thunky drums like on the C64. It was as if the noise waveform in the FM chip was unnaturally frail.
Even worse, a faster computer didn't mean less time used by the music player either. The Sound Blaster card was sitting in a dedicated slot inside the PC and this meant that I had to wait for the sound card registers making their way into it before I could send again. For some incomprehensible reason there was no handshake mechanism to optimize this, so I had to call 6 and then 35 input commands that wasted a lot of time waiting around for the card to get ready for the next relevant register output again. Kaare Siesing, the hardcore assembler coder that made the PC games for SilverRock Productions, also told me that I couldn't rely on calling the player by tagging onto the screen refresh as I had always done on the C64. I had to use a separate timer interrupt instead. The good thing about it was that I could set it to a slower calling speed to make up for all the waiting around.
In the circled area, you can see macro commands for repeating the same commands 6 and 35 times.
Later, I came up with my own invention to circumvent the waiting considerably. I simply stored all the registers in my own table too before sending them to the card. Then when I needed to send to a given register again, I first checked my own table to see if it already had the same value from last time. If it did, I skipped it. I called this register bypassing and it cut down the CPU usage quite dramatically.
Not having a music editor on the PC meant back to typing in hexadecimal notes in an assembler listing, just like on the C64 in 1988. I made a rudimentary converter program that could transform a SID file from the C64 into note tables I could adapt on the PC. I converted a few C64 classics in 1992, but it wasn't just copy and paste and that was it. I had to spread arpeggio chords into real channels since the AdLib had three times as many, and I also had to figure out all new AdLib instruments. For my own part I settled with just creating sound effects on the PC. It was fun and there were plenty of jobs for Danish games. In December 1991, I did the sound effects for the first part of Hugo 2 and converted Drax's C64 tunes for the toothpaste platform game Harald Hårdtand.
1991 would also be the first year where visiting copy-parties shrunk to just one per year. A more professionally organized type of party began this year that would be repeated the same time in December at almost the the same place, in several big halls in Aars. Modestly just called The Party, there was plenty of room for hundreds and hundreds of nerds from all over Europe, a big screen for all of the competitions, a nice cafeteria, and separate sleeping halls. It wasn't all perfect to begin with – there were power outages – but it was still a big step in the right direction.
We would return to it again in 1992, 1994, 1997 and 1998.
In one of the first years, my friends and I had rented an auto camper both for driving there with our equipment and also to sleep in. In the later years, I discovered that there was a nice little hotel in Aars where my friends and I could book rooms. The first time I had a room there it wasn't an entirely good first impression, though. A neon sign just outside of my window made a high-pitched whistling sound all night and I didn't sleep well at all. Luckily this was gone the subsequent years, and it was a great feeling going back to the party after a good nights sleep and a relaxing shower. Teenagers at the party slept in their own sleeping bags on the floor of a sleeping hall that couldn't keep out the loud noise of the adjacent halls.
And the toilet facilities? I think it's best if we don't get into any details there.
At one point, my friend Henning and I got sleepy after many hours of computing and decided to catch up on some sleep in our hotel rooms. When we left, everything was up and running and people were having fun. We slept about four hours, and when we came back, everything was up and running and people were having fun. Then we were told that as soon as we had left, a transformer station broke down and the entire place had been completely without power. It had only returned a few minutes before we came back.
Talk about magnificent timing.
1992 became the first proper year on PC and I barely touched the C64 anymore, except to check out any snail mail for new demos and such.
At first I continued developing my AdLib music player and convert C64 classics, mostly by Drax and Laxity. In March 1992, I learned how to program the DSP on the Sound Blaster and expanded my AdLib player with one that could also play digital samples in a tenth channel. This was used solely for drums. AdLib and the DSP were kind of secluded which meant that it was difficult to match the volume to make it sound like a greater whole. The drums had a tendency to dominate the sound picture. To make matters worse, some Sound Blaster cards had a built-in mixer for individual volumes, some didn't. Converting a C64 tune usually also necessitated inventing additional drum notes since the original drum beat was typically mixed in between bass sounds and arpeggio chords.
In other words, a Sound Blaster version usually wasn't worth the trouble.
After doing the sound effects for the second part of Hugo 2, I started working on a DOS music editor for my AdLib player that would of course use the same sequence editing principle as on the C64. The first prototype was just called Multi-Editor. I quickly found out that it was difficult to fit in nine channels on a DOS text screen. I solved this problem by showing the channels with limited information, only folding out the currently selected channel. More text space also meant luxuries such as a list of hotkeys.
Both the C64 and the Amiga had such vivid scenes with lots of demos, music, swapping and enthusiasm. I was wondering what was happening on the PC. Did it have a great scene too? As I dived in to find an answer, I was severely disappointed. Demos were few and the quality way behind the Amiga. The graphical modes were obviously harder to master because of the modular design of the PC. The few times sound was used, it was merely a MOD player with four voices of samples. Things did improve during the 90's and there were exceptions such as Triton and Future Crew, but for the most part it felt like the few of us that had made the jump to AdLib – Johannes, JO and I – were pretty much on our own.
The missing attention on the PC was affecting me right from the beginning. It felt like I was left on the street without invitations to any of the great clubs. The few times I released something into the PC scene, such as a collection of the AdLib tunes and an informative player, it was as if I just tossed it into a black hole. Eventually I did get a few contacts, but it was still nothing compared to how it was on the C64.
At around August 1992, I started working on something that grabbed me as important and useful, yet turned out to be pretty much a big waste of time. DOS had an unsatisfying text mode for editing and I wanted to code a great graphical user interface in 640×480 that looked awesome like the GUI on Amiga did. I named this project the SirFace System and would include moving buttons, scroll bars, lists, option modes, a nice font drawn by Niels from Channel 42, even a fully fledged dialog box for file operations. There were a lot of things to add and I constantly had to fix bugs and refine the code for improved performance. Some things were definitely done wrong. It ought to have been driver based, but it only supported 640×480 in 16 colours. Yet I would still spend the next four years silently working on this.
Remember the arcade machine I had in the attic? Two of my C64 friends turned out to be great at soldering up electronic gadgets, and they made me a box with the big arcade plug in the back and a joystick on top with a few buttons. The box was about the size of a shoe box and connected directly to an Amiga monitor. It saved some attic space and it was quite cool playing arcade games this way. I think I had about 8 or 9 arcade prints, some of which I had bought directly from arcade machine workshops; Elevator Action, Xain'D Sleena, MagMax, Burnin' Rubber, Helicopter Scramble, Zippy Race, Tokio, Mr. Do and Knight Boy. Some of them required us to tilt the Amiga monitor on its side as they were vertically aligned. Kim, the C64 swapper I knew back from New Men in 1987, was an ace at some of these games. He even completed Knight Boy. Personally, I was only good at one arcade game – Mr. Do. I once scored over a million points in it.
I have no memory of whatever became of all this. I guess I eventually sold it all.
In November 1992, I started working on sound effects for what would become probably the most satisfying sound development project in my limited career. A few Danes formed Brain Bug and started developing a cute DOS platform game for Rainbow Arts, called Lollypop. Drax's brother Ole would be the project manager. I concentrated on doing all the AdLib sound effects while Torben (Metal) and Thomas (Drax) did the music. JO and Metal joined Vibrants to keep the credits clean and simple. JO converted all the music to Amiga and Roland MT-32. The game had really beautiful graphics and the team put a lot of effort into it, but it wasn't without its share of delays and complications. Even so, it was finished and released on PC in 1994 and on the Amiga the following year. Unfortunately it didn't create quite the stir we were hoping for.
But in spite of all this, we were still proud of our accomplishments. The sound effects fit the action well and the musicians had done a marvelous job creating an atmospheric soundtrack. It certainly also helped our commitment that the game looked like a major entry too. I wish that the game could have its second chance on Steam with a DOSBox wrapper. I bet it would do quite all right in the midst of all the indie platform games of today.
I even visited Brain Bug once during development. They had their headquarters in Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark, sited in eastern Jutland. It was like visiting a small indie development company and I guess that's exactly what it really was. JO was coding on his music players and as soon as the work day was over, he warmed up a strategy game. Ole briefly paused his work to put ELO's excellent “Time” on, a choice of music I absolutely agreed with. A graphics artist was drawing sprites. Not everyone was present – some of the developers were still living in other parts of Denmark – but it was a cozy development environment and I envied them. At that time I was still a postman and it had become tiresome. The good old days where I came home in the early afternoons were gone. The powers that be had introduced a full work day, and our rounds grew bigger for every reorganization.
From left to right it's Jesper Olsen, Bjørn Næsby Nielsen, Jørgen Ørberg, Søren Lund and Ole Mogensen.
EdLib and FairPlay
My prototype AdLib music editor eventually evolved into EdLib. It received an overhaul of the text mode user interface to look more inviting, and I added all the auxiliary necessities such as a file menu and the ability to pack tunes for release. Torben was probably the most persistent user, but JO, Drax, MSK and a few others also gave it a few shots. Drax and MSK never really took the big plunge, but JO now discovered (much to his own surprise) how useful it actually was to compose music in this manner instead of the assembler listing method he had always adhered to. The first version of EdLib was done in September 1993, and it was finally released to the public in December 1994. Again it felt like feeding the black hole of the PC scene. It was probably too late to cause any commotion anyway.
All this time coding in Borland Turbo Assembler in DOS mode, I had all of my many source codes in a secret development drive inside my real hard disk. It had a password and some sort of encryption. I still had many visitors and I guess I was paranoid. It wasn't so much not wanting anyone to see what I did – it was more in the line of trying to avoid practical jokes where someone had changed a few characters to cause trouble while I was away. Having everything on an encrypted drive made sure I wouldn't have any of that.
Then one day, the secret drive crashed.
It was a total disaster. At first I had trouble getting in, and when I finally did, everything was a garbled mess. Files were missing or trashed. I had lost everything in an instant. All my valuable source codes for my AdLib music players, EdLib, Lollypop, SirFace System, various new projects such as an upcoming MOD player, all gone. My mood immediately dropped. I was depressed like a member of my family had died. Then I got stubborn. I refused to let this be the end of it all. After a bit of research, I found a good disk monitor that could browse chains of disk blocks on the hard disk and save them as contiguous files. All of my data was still there. I used hours and hours meticulously finding disk blocks, recognize what file it was part of, then find the beginning and end. Sometimes I could get the entire file, sometimes just part of it. I also had to figure out what was old and new. It was a trying exercise, but just discovering that the disk monitor could help me immediately brought me out of my funeral mood like a considerable weight off my shoulders.
But I also learned something the hard way that day – always keep backups!
On August 10 in 1993, I bought a Gravis Ultrasound, a new type of sound card that could play no less than 32 channels in 16-bit. I made code that could play MOD music on it, but not a proprietary music player like I used to. I also owned a luxurious Roland SCC-1 sound card that could play magnificent MIDI music, but I didn't code for it at all. Maybe I was losing my drive for exploring new sound coding possibilities. I wasn't quite done with composing, though, even though I had only done a few simple test tunes in AdLib.
During 1994, I worked on a MOD project where I combined players for playing standard sample music in four voices for Gravis Ultrasound and various versions of Sound Blaster. I made use of my own GUI, the Sirface System, showing delicious buttons for loading and playing tunes with fancy effects. One thing I really worked hard on was making sure that the MOD player was accurate. I tested all kinds of obscure MOD tunes with weird and rare effects, compared it with the real deal, then made changes to the code to make sure it matched. I was proud of the fact that it adhered so well to the MOD format, and it was also fun to optimize its self-modifying code to work fast. I named it FairPlay, and as always the response was weak when I finally released it into the black hole.
Then finally someone mentioned it in a forum and I was immediately on the ball. What did he think? He wrote that he thought it was totally inaccurate and that he wouldn't want it to play his MOD tunes, but at least the GUI looked nice.
The last version of the SirFace System was released to the black hole in November 1994. One of my new friends of the time, another Claus, actually used the GUI to make a nifty kind of file manager for DOS that looked a lot like Directory Opus on the Amiga. It looked great and he added a lot of features, but again almost no one noticed. I continued updating the SirFace System until 1996, but it wasn't used for anything else. Then a new operating system arrived that would render my DOS GUI obsolete. Windows 95.
Windows 95 seemed slow and awkward to me when it arrived. I wanted to stay in DOS. Jesper (Trap) said at one point that he believed Windows 95 would become the next great platform, but I refused to believe him at first. Eventually he was indeed right and I had to float with the current as everyone else. It meant an end to all assembler coding. I couldn't be bothered to learn a new language for Windows, and besides, I didn't have anything I wanted to code there anyway. A music editor? Everything was going digital now.
As mentioned in a previous chapter about the Danish games, the final Hugo job earned me enough money to pay the advance for my own apartment. There was some trouble about my sound effects made in assembler objects that wasn't compatible with the Pascal code that the new programmers was using, but I never heard the end of that story. I guess they eventually figured it out, but how I don't know. I had done my part, it all worked as intended, and I received the money as stated in the contract.
So I moved in April 1995 to a place called Vangede, just a few kilometers from where I lived before. I was struck with this crazy thought of wanting to move out before I was 30, and I barely made it. I was 29 years at the time. It's a small flat with just two rooms and 47 m2, but the array of shops in the street is awesome. Present tense? Yes, I actually still live there at the time of posting this, more than 20 years later.
My computer corner in Vangede back in January 1996.
I put up my two PC at the time, the original 33 MHz and a 66 MHz, but in December 1995 I sold them both and bought a 133 MHz PC instead. I'm quite sure I never had any of my old home computers hooked up in this apartment. At that time I only had a Commodore 128, and it was just hidden away in a cardboard box in a small cellar room. I did have a Commodore 1541 disk drive present as you can see – it was used to transfer a few disks to D64 files on PC, but it was boring work and I didn't transfer much myself.
In the summer of 1995, I discovered a tracker on PC called FastTracker II. It was capable of playing samples in up to 32 channels, using patterns of typically 64 rows each. It used much of the same principle as my own music editors of the past, except the channels did not use separate sequences. A pattern consisted of all channels glued together. This was a typical tracker method that had been used since the first MOD trackers on Amiga. Not wanting to code my own players and editor anymore, I started composing in this tracker instead. A lot of my close composer friends did the same.
The first tune was “Memories” in July 1995, and I eventually created a total of 28 tunes up until the last work tune “Sweet Kettle” in September 1998. 14 of these were finished and released properly, but once again the black hole of the PC scene gave me virtually no feedback. Only my limited circle of tracking friends had any comments – MSK, Drax, Laxity, Metal and Trap. My library of samples was also limited in the beginning and this entailed that I often used too much time browsing through them for my songs. This? No. This? No. This? No. This? No. I even discarded a work tune once because I just couldn't find a suitable secondary leader sample. Later we were gifted with a CD-ROM with much better samples, but at that time I was already starting to lose interest in FastTracker II. Not getting any of the feedback that I was used to on the C64 was really starting to take its toll on me.
It didn't help the matter much that a tune I had made called “Little Zig” – which I thought was one of my best yet – wasn't included in the multi-channel competition at The Party 1997 that December. Drax also made an phenomenal tune for it that was ignored. I guess the selection committee made it clear that we certainly didn't have the same reputation on the PC as we had on the C64.
JCH? Drax? Who are those? Never heard of them. Next!
1996 was the year where I finally stopped coding in Borland Turbo Assembler, accepting that Windows 95 was going to be the next platform of coercion. I also came online on the big internet and created my first web site for the web browser Netscape Navigator.
In 1997, most of us still in Vibrants had a mailing list going and at one point Drax and I got into quite a heated argument. It started with me mentioning a bug in FastTracker II, after which Drax mentioned something about me not composing much and so why did I care anyway? My brain didn't pick up on a happy smiley in the end of the sentence, making me read it in a sinister tone. It started an angry quarrel like the ones you hear about in real life bands. Drax even called me up, claimed that too few made anything of value in Vibrants, and thus wanted to leave. Luckily, Drax's brother Ole intervened. He managed to cool us both down and make us apologize to each other.
After another incident with my friend Marc, I learned never to let arguments like this spin out of control in e-mails. If possible, grab the phone and settle it there.
My first experience with 3D accelerated games happened on March 10 where I bought a Matrox Mystique with 4 MB RAM. I enjoyed the first Tomb Raider with it. Four days later, I had my last workday as a Postman. I had finally found a job in IT instead and I started on April 1 in Merlinholm. 1997 was also the year where LAN parties started to become the norm. The first was in November, and we were seven playing network games such as Quake, Redneck Rampage, Moto Racer, Need for Speed II and Shadow Warrior. This phenomenon would repeat itself up until the end of the millennium.
I bought the domain for Vibrants.dk on March 27, 1998, and Morten (MSK) designed the first web site for it. He maintained it until 2006 after which I took over. The domain server for it was killed in March 2016.
Still dreaming of composing music, I tried making MIDI music in both Cakewalk and Cubase in 1997 and 1998, hooking them up with my Korg M1. I recorded both ideas and actual song attempts, but again it was hard to get anywhere without a childhood full of meticulous piano teachings. One thing were my muddled performances and incessant retrying, but it also felt like I hit a wall that I just couldn't get past.
I even started taking lessons from an old lady down the street and I did learn to crawl scales with a spidery hand, but actually learning and performing a tune was hard and my patience was not exemplary. Then one day, one of my newbie lessons ended with a child standing in the doorway. She was next in line and she was – 10 years? Maybe 11? She sat down in front of the piano and immediately played a wonderful tune that was vastly superior to my own level. I must admit that I lost quite some heart that day. Not long after, I quit the training and admitted to myself that it was too late. Maybe I could still compose interesting tunes, but learn how to be Ray Charles on the piano?
Apparently that was not meant to be.
During the summer of 1999, playing on the synthesizer actually got me depressed about my lack of skill on the keyboard. Eventually I just stopped trying anymore.
My days as a composer were over.
And then year 2000 arrived, and that's where I will stop this tale. I consider year 2000 and up to present time the modern period of my computer story. I got interested in other things such as making maps for Half-Life and I also started getting really serious about playing a ton of PC games. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a completely different story.