Thursday, 3 September 2009

Ancient Geek V.2.11 (Service Pack 2)


I suppose I've started, so I might as well finish...

The stock controller at work’s husband was starting up a company making sound samplers based on the Apple II microcomputer – was I interested? I nearly took her arm off. A meeting in Hemel Hempstead's White Hart pub led to an offer – they were going to pay me real money to work with computer based music systems. I laughed all the way home (well, apart from the bit where my stupid BSA Bantam D7 broke down).

The Greengate DS:3 was the brainchild of a guy who worked for modem company Case, Dave Green. Green was painfully shy and brilliant, everyone’s idea of a true geek, and had worked out how to use a combination of analogue to digital and digital to analogue converter chips on an Apple expansion card to take sounds from the ‘real world’ and digitise them. The other half of the company name was supplied by uber-geek Colin Holgate, a programmer of remarkable genius. Colin used to ‘hardcode’ assembler programs. I remember going into work one day with a BASIC program that drew fractals and Colin losing patience with it (it took an hour to fill the screen with a fractal) and hand-coding the routine in opcodes on the spot to speed it up.

The genius of the DS:3 lay in the fact that it could sample and replay real-world sound, a trick made possible by using a little-known technology called Direct Memory Access. By using a DMA controller (a secret kept so closely that production units had the lettering erased from the DMAC chip using sandpaper) to bypass the processor and 'burst' data direct from memory, the DS:3 would sample and play back about 1.5 seconds of sound at something like a 24kHz sample rate (giving a 12Khz sound resolution. You’ve got to allow for yer Nyquist criteria, see?). At the time, this was revolutionary stuff that made the £2,000 DS:3 a competitor for the £20,000 Fairlight CMI, the uber-boffin’s Computer Musical Instrument of choice – used at the time by people as rich and famous as Kate Bush and based on an Australian defence computer rather than the relatively cheap and ubiquitous Apple.

Squeezing sounds out of the 8-bit, 1Mhz 6502 processor of the Apple II meant that you were pushing something like 24 kilobits per note per second through the system at the sampled rate – but changing pitch was achieved by speeding the output, effectively doubling the data rate for each octave. So replaying a sound across a keyboard from an A440 sample rate meant that you were pushing at limits like a 96 kbit data rate. The DS:3 was a four-note polyphonic system, too – which means an effective 384kbit data throughput. Not surprisingly, playing the top four keys of the keyboard not infrequently crashed early systems spectacularly.

It was all great fun. The ability to 'sample' just over 1 second of sound and replay it was a source of wonderment at the time and you'd always get oohs and aahs when you played it on a keyboard. It's one reason why computer based sound and music production today so awes me - especially software like Reason, which is a professional quality multi-track recording studio including effects, synths and samplers all on a rack stored on your PC screen. We used to have rooms full of boxes and wires and things.

We exhibited at the Apple show in London. I remember some company had hired a Scottish pipe band to 'pipe in' their product (Geddit? Mac product? Pipe band?) and I convinced the pipe major to come to our stand and be sampled. He was huge, hairy, red-faced and gruff and when he saw the Apple he laughed at me.

"Ye think ye're goana get mah payaps intae yon wee borx do ye laddie?"
"Err, yes." I stammered. And so he huffed and he puffed and he let rip and I sampled the resultant deafending skirl.
"Well? What's it sound like, laddie?"
I proudly hit the keyboard. And out came a sound not unlike "tweep".
His look of absolute, scornful triumph is etched forever on my memory.

We worked on sound to laser control systems for the Laserium in London (Kate Bush was performing and, like a fool, I turned down the chance to go) and all sorts of other geekyness. I remember a lot of playing about with binaural recording and getting a laser from Maplin to muck around with, as well as a lot of tea and soup. I ended up running the demos for new customers and so my days became a progression of oddities, from Buddhist monks to Hank Marvins, from the guy that programmed the keyboards for U2s Unforgettable Fire (he was really bitter about that: U2 got all that money and all he got was a session fee. I really couldn’t get my head around that one!) through to ‘Fingers’ – the Boomtown Rats’ keyboard player. Among many other things, the DS:3 was the engine-room for the first musical tootlings of two chaps called Bill Drummond and Jimmy Caughty who were to later become the K Foundation. The many and major copyright issues (and lawsuits) opened up by their use of the DS:3 were to define the start of a long and fraught battle to understand copyright in the digital age.

But it couldn’t last. Like so many innovative, ground-breaking British companies before and after it, Greengate died. No distribution channel and a policy of only selling direct or through hand-picked resellers meant that the company had little scale. The DS:4, a stunning machine based around the 68000 processor (Inmos’ innovative Transputer was almost the platform of choice) was late in development and American company Ensoniq had brought out a much more accessible keyboard based sampler, the Mirage. Other companies were following, including Akai. The writing was on the wall and sales volumes started to plummet. With no DS:4 in production, Greengate soon became shut gate.

Which is how I ended up selling computers for Radio Shack.

14 comments:

Mita said...

you sold computers for radio shack?

EyeOnDubai said...

Ah, Macs... Are you going to do the whole Mac Classic, Centris, Quadra, LC 650 thing?

'Cos I did!

Thanks for the post. Haven't laughed so hard in ages.

EoD

alexander... said...

Mita, I certainly did. But you'll have to wait 'till Sunday for that bit! :)

Jonathan - I never really did Macs, I only did Apples 'cos of Greengate. I've been a PC boy since.

I remember BASUG, though - the British Apple user group. Funny bunch having endless arguments about how the Mac was going to be a 'closed' architecture unlike the II's 'open' architecture. And, of course, I remember the Lisa.

And the Apple IIC, which was surprisingly advanced for its time, IMHO...

samuraisam said...

My Akai MPC 1000 sampler laughs in your direction. Well it would be laughing if it hadn't been gathering dust for a while now in my cupboard.

alexander... said...

Sam, have you SEEN Propellerhead Software's Reason? A software studio, multitrack desk, synths (analogue/digital) and as many screaming samplers as you can stack on a rack of limitless height. It's awesome.

Every time I use it, I think back to 1 second of hissy 8 bit sample playing at 12Khz and grin...

samuraisam said...

Yeah.. I don't like reason much though. I like my hardware sampler because its just plain awesome.

There are plenty of folk out there who splash thousands on vintage equipment just for that 8-bit crunchy sound.

guy said...

Seeing the old green screen reminded me of a great (and true - I knew the chap well) story...

Setting: Computer Trade Faire (why did we always use Olde English for tech?) in 1988; on the HP Stand, proudly showing off the new Touch Screens.

Background: in those far-off days, typical computer monitors (available in a choice of green, amber, or - at extra cost - white letters on dark background) were up to 12" in size. The HP Touch Screens were, however, still 9" ones.

A middle-aged lady wandered onto the stand and accosted a salesman there (who happened to be of Portuguese extraction, with English as his second language). Said the lady, "These are very nice, but they are so small!"

Retort from the salesman, somewhat taken aback at the direct approach, "Listen lady, would you rather look at 12" or touch 9?"

Exit offended lady, stage left. Rest of crew on stand falling about laughing...

Of course, today you'd be slapped with harassment charges, etc.

halfmanhalfbeer said...

Hi Alexander, is this post available to read in English somewhere?!

HMHB

alexander... said...

HMHB

Silly person.

Mo' Cheez said...

Oh man! Could it be that I've been actually looking for the Greengate DS3 for 28 years? I remember I'd seen a demo of an Apple IIe based sampling system at the '85 Apple Expo in Paris and my jaws had dropped on the floor when I heard the samples (recorded from people's voices around the booth) played back on that big black piano keyboard. My dad had just bought an Apple IIe and I remember I tried to convince him into buying the (supposedly) DS3. But he didn't. (Hey! What was I expecting, seriously?) I was 14 years old and already fond of computer music, especially samplers and vocoders. I finally got into computer music around 1989, when my dad bought an Amiga 2000 and I had to wait until 1991 to buy my first synth and Atari and until 1996 to buy my first sampler (E-mu). Still, to this day, frustration is still strong and I haven't given up on that Apple IIe sampling workstation. Could it have been the DS3? The "Greengate" name seems to ring a bell when I read it...

Alexander McNabb said...

It's highly likely that, yes, that would have been the DS:3 Monsieur Cheez, we had a disty in Paris (in fact I went there with two units to deliver to them and it would have been around then. Had a terrible hard time with customs explaining that one enchantionnez avec le carte et logiciel and then played over le clavier. My schoolboy French was rather stretched by the experience!).

Mo' Cheez said...

Well, that sounds like good news Mr McNabb…
For a second I thought it might have been the Decillionix DX-1 but it looks like this one has been on the cheap-o side of sampling, usually played with a brown Soundchaser keyboard that's not quite what was in my souvenir. I remember the fattest and blackest keyboard I had ever seen, more like the Alpha Syntauri.The only outstanding gear I was introduced to, about the same year, was the Emulator II. My father, who was a film director, would often work with musicians and would sometimes take me with him. That's how I met the Emulator. I remember the guy loading sax sounds from floppies… Wow!

Prosperity-Music said...

I still have a Greengate DS:3!
it has not been used for a long time, but all the bits and parts are waiting here in my cabinet...

Alexander McNabb said...

Wow - you lucky thing. I can only imagine what that software looks like now compared to stuff like Reason and Avid!

I can remember composing and sequencing demo songs made up of a total of something like two seconds of sampled sound. Probably good discipline for today's young 'uns, don't know they're born etc etc etc...

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