Computer music tech history and me

Here is a computer music history story. It has some background history and details on the parts I had something to do.

This story of history of computer music starts from 1951 when the first computer music recording was made using a Ferranti Mark 1 computer at the University of Manchester. That computer played God Save The Queen, Baa Baa Black Sheep and In The Mood. The revolution had begun… Lots of great development work was done in the 1960s and 70s.

Synthesizers were adopted by electronic acts and pop and rock groups in the 1960s and 1970s and were widely used in 1980s music. Sampling, introduced with the Fairlight synthesizer in 1979, has influenced all genres of music and had a major influence on the development of electronic and hip hop music. The Fairlight CMI (short for Computer Musical Instrument) is a digital synthesizer, sampler, and digital audio workstation introduced in 1979 by Fairlight. It was one of the earliest music workstations with an embedded sampler and is credited for coining the term sampling in music. It rose to prominence in the early 1980s. It was a very expensive equipment that was used by some of the big name artists and biggest studios. The song Running Up That Hill written and produced by Kate Bush was one of the first big hits that used Fairlight in the center of song making.

Kate Bush – Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)

Commodore release Commodore 64 computer in 1982. The C64 that home computer music making really got going. It was notable for the inclusion of its SID sound chip, which enabled users to create music using a whopping three channels of synthesis. In fact, the distinctive SID sound is still popular today, which is one of the reasons why you can download C64 emulators for your Mac or PC.

The introduction of MIDI in 1983 was of crucial importance to high-tech music makers. This new protocol enabled computers, synths and other hardware to talk to each other, and is still in widespread use today. Without MIDI, computer music history would be very different indeed. Back in the 80s, the Atari ST (released 1985) was the machine that every computer musician wanted to own because it had built-in MIDI ports.

Commodore Amiga was a home computer family manufactured from 1985 to 1994. Amiga had very good sound chip for the time, the Paula sound chip could play back four channels of digital sampled sound at 8 bit resolution and 28 kHz sample rate. The Amiga was transformational due to its four-channel stereo sound. It was revolutionary for music makers. There were audio sampler/digitizer add-ons that allowed to record sounds to the computer. Those Amiga parallel port sound samplers were quite simple hardware devices from the late 80s/early 90s which allowed users to digitally record audio to their home computer.

Amiga Samplers: Budget dance music in 1990

There were a lot of Amiga music software. Starting from 1987 with the release of Soundtracker, trackers became a new type of music programs which spawned the mod (module) audio file standard. The Mod audio standard is considered the audio format that started it all in the world of computer music. After Soundtracker many clones (which often were reverse engineered and improved) appeared (like ProTracker in 1990). Those tools allowed to make a dance track on a budget home computer. With the reasonably priced home computer, some cheap extra hardware and some software you had basically in many ways better tools available than what was considered the very expensive “high end” less than 10 years ago.

It was the poor man’s studio. In the period from 1985 to 1995 the Amiga audio (which was standard in Amiga computers) was of greater quality than other standard home computers. From the second half of the 1990s, the most popular genres of tracker music have been electronic music genres such as techno, trance, hardcore and chiptune. There has been many competitions on computer demo party events where different music makers competed who makes best tracker music. I did not make music with tracker myself, but I have been involved in making some of those competitions on those events to happen (between years 1996-2004).

The tracker programs were instrumental in popularizing the MOD file format also on platforms other than the Amiga. The popularity of the file format led to the appearance of programs that reproduce it also for IBM PC. The problem on IBM PC in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s was lack of good sound output. Due to the variability and rudimentary nature of the PC’s sound equipment, the implementation of just the mod playing routine was significantly more difficult and posed a challenge to the programmers. However, the early PC demo groups wanted to show that the PC could do the same as the Amiga.

I did at the late 1980′s and early 1990′s some hardware and software development to improve PC sound features (before the sound cards became widely available). I developed software technology that allowed the PC internal speaker (that was originally designed make only simple BEEP sounds) to play back music samples. I have written my work on that My PC speaker PWM story post. My pretty much state of the art code was even integrated into Drum Blaster software from EPIC Megagames (but was never released out by some US patent issues that were not worth to fight in court).

I did design also hardware that allowed the PC printer port to be used for sound playback and even sound recording. In the late 1980′s PC sound was poor. One hack those days was the original Covox Speech Thing, that connected a simple DAC to to PC parallel port. The Covox Speech Thing was an external audio device attached to the computer to output digital sound. It allowed to play back sounds in considerably better quality than with PC speaker. That Covox thing was connected to PC parallel port, and it could work quite nicely together with the printer. The circuit was marketed around 1986 by Covox, Inc of Eugene, Oregon, for about 70 USD with the accompanying software (that included speech synthesis). This hardware was eventually supported by the old DOS games from Sierra and Id. I came by one device and it’s software one day around 1988 or early 1989. I did some thinking and analyzing, and came out with my own circuit simple design that worked same way as the original hardware but was easy to build by DIY electronics experimenters.

I posted the circuit to one BBS some day 1989, and the idea started to spread quickly. Immediately someone posted this circuit to some Finnish national BBS network. The plans spread well, file was very much loaded. It went viral. Very many people started building this circuit, and started spreading the software that uses it, first pirated version of original Covox software and later software developed by users. Soon several PC MOD music playback software and tracker software started to support it. It was a huge hit. Other people also designed improved versions of it, and I also made my own improved designs (based on R2R network, read DAC IC, added several different low pass filters to output to get rid of high frequency noise etc..).

Using a 1986 Covox Speech Thing clone on a modern machine in 2017

In addition to that parallel port DAC I pretty soon designed also my own parallel port sampler for PC. It was a 8 bit ADC chip that I interfaced to the PC parallel port. I used the bidirectional communications feature supported by some PC parallel ports (but not all) to get the 8 bit data nicely to the PC. So my design worked quite well on my PC, and some other PCs, but not guaranteed to work on other (even risks damaging some PC hardware). Due those risks I did not distribute my design widely in the early 1990′s. I had also plans for some more complicated better quality sound playback and recording devices, but the era of commercial sound cards had started… it did not seem to be worth anymore to design your own designs from scratch and waiting to get some software support for it.

In the 1990s PC computers at last started to become audio playback and recording devices in their own right. The very first of Creative Labs’ hugely successful Sound Blaster soundcard was launched in 1989 and Sound Blaster Pro soundcard in 1991.. Sound Blaster had capability to record and play back digitized sounds and also had musical synthetizer chip in it (Yamaha YM3812 / OPL2 that was used in Adlib sound card released few years earlier). The first Sound Blaster had only 8 bit recording. The launch of the Sound Blaster 16 in 1992 added 16-bit recording, which enabled the home computer user to record at ‘CD quality’. I started my PC sound card era with Sound Blaster card, and i pretty much ended designing my own sound hardware. It took many years until the sound card became the standard feature expected to be on PCs.

The PC demo scene favored the Gravis Ultrasound sound card, which, like the Amiga, played samples without consuming processor time. I got one for me, and it was truly amazing at the time. Many demo groups developed their own tracker. The two strongest PC trackers of the mid-1990s were the Finnish Future Crew’s Scream Tracker 3 and the Swedish Triton’s Fast Tracker II (which was the first to support 16-bit samples taken at a frequency of 44 kHz).

I continued experimenting with PC sound cards. I did some early PC sound card audio quality testing and published result on my web pages for several sound cards. That lead me later to take part in making one of the first PC sound quality measurement standard “Personal Computer Audio Quality Measurements 1.00″ started by Cirrus Logic in the later 1990′s. I contributed to standard and reviewed the technical material. Quality levels for some of these measurements are suggested in Microsoft’s PC ‘97, PC ’98, PC ‘99, Intel’s AC ‘97, and in the MPC3 specification.

When years got on, the sound became standard feature to the PC motherboards and laptops. Over the years AC’97 standard features integrated to PC motherboards made using external sound card not necessary for most users. The built-in sound hardware was typically quite simple 16 bit ADC and DAC hardware that played back sounds generated by software running on the main CPU. The PC CPU power had increased so much (higher clock frequency and multimedia signal processing commands) that quite complicated sound processing could be performed by the CPU only (not necessarily need for special synth and/or signal processing hardware built to sound card itself needed). Later Intel_High_Definition_Audio replaced AC’97.

Sources and links to more information: Definition Audio


  1. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Discovered another “smart” parallel port DAC, the ds311 (Digispeech Plus). Like the Disney Sound Source, it has a FIFO buffer, but unlike the DSS’ 16-byte buffer, its FIFO is 256 bytes (only 721 interrupts to play a 16.5 second song @ 11 KHz)

  2. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Evolution of Electronic Music (1969-2020) (V1)

  3. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Making electronic dance music in 1990 with an Amiga!

    The struggle was real back in 1990. Although we didn’t use an Amiga, we used an Atari ST, but before that just a workstation. Intriguing to see how an Amiga was used to create music.

  4. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Sounds from the 80s – The AY-3-8910 Chip

    The AY-3-8910 chip was widely used in arcade games and computers in the early 1980s. This demonstration board showcases both recognisable game sounds and tunes, as well as sound primitives, such as tones, noise, and amplitude modulation.

  5. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Amiga Samplers : Budget dance music in 1990

    An Amiga 500, Stereo Master and handful of $1 records from a 1990 Sunday market: Can we make a dance track on a budget home computer? Of course! Back when big-name dance tunes required big-budget-gear, a secondhand Amiga let you take the first steps to making a dance-floor banger.

  6. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Fart of noise: Kate Bush was known to sample her own flatulence and make music with it on her Fairlight, says former collaborator

    Known for her love of literature and eclectic musical style, Kate Bush is also believed to have sampled her own flatulence and played it back on a Fairlight sampler, says a former collaborator.

    “She was a funny, mischievous woman. Somebody told me she sampled a fart on the Fairlight and she would happily play tunes on it!”

    The star was introduced to the Fairlight by Peter Gabriel, who’s said to have taken delivery of the very first Fairlight Series I in the UK, and used it extensively on both The Dreaming and the all-conquering Hounds of Love album, from 1985.

    It seems that Bush was still using the Fairlight some years later, too. The Kate Bush Encyclopedia reports that, speaking to International Musician in 1989, the star confirmed: “As we have a Fairlight, it tends to negate us getting in other sampling gear. We’re pretty well covered with the Fairlight and the DX7 for keyboard and the quality of the Fairlight is much better, though so difficult to use. Everyone says that. I used to program it myself, but since the new software… I can’t keep up. They keep changing it as soon as I learn to program it.”

    Designed by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, the original Fairlight CMI was released in 1979, with systems starting at $25,000 and rising to $175,000. It’s since been re-released as an iPhone app and emulated various times as a plugin.

  7. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Building on a design originally powered by a Raspberry Pi Pico, the new PicoGUS 2.0 puts an RP2040 directly onto the ISA card.

    Ian Scott’s PicoGUS 2.0 Turns a Raspberry Pi RP2040 Into a Range of Classic ISA Soundcards
    Building on a design originally powered by a Raspberry Pi Pico, the new PicoGUS 2.0 puts an RP2040 directly onto the ISA card.

    Vintage computing enthusiast Ian Scott has released the PicoGUS 2.0, a modern ISA soundcard for classic computer systems capable of emulating a range of original hardware — powered by an on-board Raspberry Pi RP2040 microcontroller.

    “PicoGUS can emulate Gravis UltraSound, AdLib (OPL2), CMS/Game Blaster and Tandy 3-Voice, and supports MIDI output with MPU-401 intelligent mode emulation,” Scott writes of his board’s capabilities, ticking off the vast majority of audio output devices a classic gamer could hope to use. “You can also plug in a USB gamepad ([Microsoft] Xbox 360 & [Sony] DualShock 4 currently supported) and play DOS games with a modern controller!”

    As the name suggests, the PicoGUS 2.0 is a twist on the original PicoGUS — built primarily to emulate the Gravis UltraSound, or GUS, soundcard, and requiring a full-size Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller board to be installed. The PicoGUS 2.0, by contrast, retains the name but ditches the Pico in favor of putting the Raspberry Pi RP2040 microcontroller directly on the board.

    Scott has also released the design files for the board under the CERN Open Hardware License v2 Permissive license — though has a warning for anyone looking to build their own. “PicoGUS 2.0 is designed from the ground up for automated assembly so making your own would be a major challenge,”

    The PicoGUS 2.0 is listed on the Polpo Electronics Tindie store now at $45, though at the time of writing was showing as out-of-stock

    The design files and firmware source code are available, meanwhile, on the project’s GitHub repository.

  8. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Jaroslav Sýkora Builds a Modern Equivalent to Yamaha’s Classic YM2151 Synth, From an iCE40 FPGA
    With original chips now hard to come by, the AURA aims to offer an emulated replacement — software-compatible with the real deal.

  9. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Really old synth

    The Telharmonium (also known as the Dynamophone[1]) was an early electrical organ, developed by Thaddeus Cahill c. 1896 and patented in 1897.


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