Inspired by the work of The League of Automatic Music Composers, my initial proposal was to combine the ideas behind The League’s Music for an Interactive Network of Microcomputers with the ‘really raw, beautiful electronic tone’ (Perich to Gottschalk, 2008) of Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music project.
Upon discovering the Science Fair Microcomputer Trainer, I realised that, rather than emulate the sound of early home video-game consoles, I could actually use the real thing (the Trainer uses the same chip as the Microvision, the first hand-held console to use interchangeable cartridges).
As well as being stunning to look at, with its nest of wires and bright primary colours, the Trainer had its very own ‘raw, beautiful electronic tone.’ Plus, as the Trainer was aimed at teaching the basics of assembly language programming to young people, I was hoping the machine would not be difficult to master.
I was able to track down two of these machines via the internet, and soon discovered that they were extremely limited in terms of what they could do. Clock speed, memory and, most importantly, sound generation were unbelievably basic. However, I hoped to use these constraints to my advantage.
My first step was to discover what sort of timbres I could create. Using a technique referred to as ‘pulse-tone synthesis’ (Roads, 1996), I was able to produce a number of tonal variations by exploiting a quirk in the way the machine was set up. Unfortunately, this routine was only capable of playing a single, continuous pitch!
Sticking with the Trainer’s built-in sound, a brassy, square-wave tone capable of playing only fourteen notes, I developed a simple pseudo-random note generator which worked within these limitations to produce a satisfying musical output.
The next step was to get the two machines ‘talking’ to each other. After leafing through my copy of Collins’ Handmade Electronic Music, I discovered that by heat-shrinking an LED and photoresistor together, I could create a connection between the LEDs of one Trainer and the keypad of the other.
I adapted my pseudo-random note generator so it could be triggered via the keypad. I ran this on one machine and the original program on the other. This allowed the first Trainer to ‘react’ to the output of the second. While this was effective, I felt that it needed to be more of a two-way interaction.
I achieved this by typing the adapted program into both machines and using a ‘run mode’ that displayed a constantly shifting pattern of LEDs. This produced a variety of interesting note combinations. The brassy tone and the call and response nature of the interaction put me in mind of an almost jazz-like improvisation.
Having got the two machines to where I wanted them in terms of networked interactivity, I began to experiment with altering the raw sound by running the direct output through a series of effects. I soon abandoned this approach as I felt that the sound from the built-in speaker had much more character.
Overall, I was pleased with the final result. I felt that my interactive network could almost be viewed as two ‘people making music and listening to each other continually along the way’ (Bischoff, Gold & Horton, 1987) I am well aware that the musical output will not be to everyone’s taste, but to my mind there is something wonderful about its ‘raw, electronic tone’, something that echoes The League’s desire to produce music that was ‘noisy, difficult, often unpredictable, and occasionally beautiful’ (Bischoff & Perkis, 2007).
Bischoff, J. & Perkis, T. (2007) The League of Automatic Music Composers 1978-1983. New World Records [Internet]. Available from: <http://www.newworldrecords.org/uploads/fileIXvp3.pdf> [Accessed 2 June 2010].
Bischoff, J., Gold, R. & Horton, J. (1987) Music for an interactive network of microcomputers. In: Roads, C. & Strawn, J. eds. Foundations of computer music. London: The MIT Press.
Collins, N. (2009) Handmade electronic music: the art of hardware hacking. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.
Gottschalk, K. (2008) 1-bit wonder. The Wire, issue 297, November, p. 18.
Roads, C. (1996) The computer music tutorial. London: The MIT Press.