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.
From The Dungeons
(Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I clearly want to tell the world about A Decent Bomber . This is perfectly natural, it's my latest...