01 March 2012
At this day and age, looking from a hilltop backwards a decade or so, it’s safe to say that most of the people from my age and background started in music from absorbing fragments of their parent’s record collection. From there we all sort of moved into those awkward, twitchy teen years when a good number of us — including myself — discovered whatever local strain of punk rock there was and moved forward from there. In some cases this would inspire us to pick up guitars, or sticks for a drum kit. No synths though — they were somehow a sinful thing to mention in the early 90s — but in hindsight I just a bit young and naive to correlate what equipment it was behind the music of mysterious “English” groups like Depeche Mode or Human League.
It is true, my dad had a very extensive collection of LPs and chock full of a lot of the common classics from the 70s and 80s. For some reason I didn’t gravitate toward direct absorption of that music like what it seems others had done. My dad also had a collection of Omni magazines as well and the cover art for some of records were stranger than the music itself. “Slow Down World” by Donovan comes to mind: sort of a psychedelic man in space – lights burning and a name written in that glowing “calculator” font above his head. And films — yes, films and their soundtracks. This was a large contributing factor as well.
The first piece of music equipment I really had a play around on was some mid to late 80s Yamaha Portasound keyboard. I have no idea what model it was it. It had about 99 voices in it all trying in some fashion to emulate some “real” instrument: woodwinds, brass, guitars, Asian instruments — of course which none of them sounded exactly like the real thing. There were a few “synth” styled patches, mostly designed for the purpose of coughing out some sort of ghetto Rick James electro-funk (ie: Funky Clav, Fat Fifths, etc.). The Portasound also contained an Accompaniment section in which you could pick from a number of beats distilling various genres into some hammy backing track where you can execute chord changes to the whole backing track by pressing different root notes on the lower half of the keyboard.
I’m not sure what happened to that thing; it sort of lingered around for a few years afterwards but after that things took a slightly different route when the household acquired a Tandy computer in the late 80s. It was from Radio Shack and contained a really clunky operating system called Deskmate which was comparable to what Apple and Microsoft were doing at the time. I seem to have a memory of the mouse movements being highly inaccurate, therefore making it a somewhat frustrating physical experience to get the pointer to move around correctly on-screen.
In this clumsy operating system there was a program called “Music & Sound”. When booting up the program a pixel-mapped cartoon chacacture of Beethoven waited with while the hard disk clacked and whirled during it’s loading. Once up and running, it was a very basic program with a musical staff and four voices to choose from: strings, bells, piano, and I think clarinet (?). The sound quality would lead you to believe that these sounds were recorded on an extremely low bit rate and they probably were. Information about this Music & Sound program is a bit patchy and the old references to it on the vast expansive internet are in websites that look like they’ve been frozen in time since 1997 or something. There is one clip I’ve managed to find, which is a rather awkward sounding Xmas medley no less:
Being restricted to writing bizarre, attention-deficit classical music influenced compositions, Music & Sound quickly ran out of steam as my interests developed and a strange, predatory pace into the teen years. I had been thrashing out noise on a newly acquired guitar and although my attentions were starting to turn to harder music, I thought I could give that Tandy the equivalent of a punk hair dye job. A few years into the Tandy’s service a newer, more robust (for the time) soundcard was swapped out for the old, default one. It was an Ad Lib Soundblaster but don’t let the name fool you. “Blasting sound” was hardly a feature as it’s poorly constructed FM synthesis model was the equivalent of sound coming out of speaker cones made of generic range toilet paper. I did have a lot of fun though; writing these sort of industrial/punk/thrash compositions on them. I’d record them by plugging Walkman headphones into the rear of the computer and taping the earbuds over the internal microphone of a cheap Sanyo ghetto-blaster. That made the audio quality ten times worse with a sonic range matching the width of a coffee stir stick.
Once again, documentation is limited but here’s what remnants I’ve found online of that thing:
Eventually I moved out of the family home and the Tandy took up retirement shortly thereafter. By that time those fancy coloured iMacs started sneaking through pop culture’s back door and I think we know the general story of where things went from there. I have recordings on tape somewhere and should I somehow fall victim to house arrest and have a lot of time on my hands, there would be consideration to digging them up and taking a re-visit to those primitive recordings.