Sunday, September 10, 2006

Stone-age MIDI: Why I still love the Atari 1040


Believe it or not, it goes beyond the novelty of "old skool" credibility.

The Atari 1040 STe computer is, upon first glance, nothing more than an obtuse-looking dinosaur, especially when compared with the modern plethora of shiny bang-for-your-buck computing platforms and accompanying music production software. Released in 1988, the original model sported a minimum of one megabyte of RAM (mine has the maximum of four), and a limp Motorola processor that was completely dethroned by the IBM x86 line. It also had no hard drive, relying on complex memory shuffles between the RAM chips and the singe 3.5" floppy disk drive to operate. The keyboard and computer were fused into one solid plastic case, with integrated MIDI ports and a cartridge slot on the left side, and the dual mouse/joystick ports inaccessably located beneath the lower right corner. It had no fan, no onboard sound worth speaking of, and just plain looked funny.After a few years of being almost completely overlooked in the American market, and only moderate sales in Europe, the Atari 1040 eventually faded into near-complete obscurity.

Notice, however, that I say 'near-complete obscurity' and not 'complete obscurity'. Despite the fact that it was not a popular and widely known platform for anything at all, there was some honest potential to be unlocked for those willing to give it a go. Most musicians who sought to integrate computer-based MIDI into their studios could see that a) the Atari platform was a dead end, as they could not be upgraded easily, and b) only computer geeks seemed to like them anyways. But naturally, there were a few who recognized the benefits of having MIDI ports integrated straight into the computing architecture, and kept on with the Atari despite its apparent demise. What one might call a dedicated core of enthusiasts, which included folks like Fatboy Slim, Moby, and of course, screaming cyberpunks Atari Teenage Riot.

Though Cubase is arguably the most popular piece of software to stem from the Atari platform, there were many other software sequencing packages that went on to great success, including C-Lab Notator, which later jumped platforms (twice, first to Mac, then to the PC) and eventually morphed into Logic Audio, a program we've all at least heard of. I myself use the final release of Notator for the Atari, and often swear by it, as opposed to AT it, like I do most modern MIDI packages. This is largely because its MIDI integration is far, far tighter than anything I've found on modern computers, with no latency, no stuttering, and no fussy compatibility bullshit. Granted, the learning curve is steep-- you really have to learn about what MIDI is, how and why it works, and what all those archaic-looking terms mean-- but once one has a solid base of knowledge to work from, Notator and the Atari 1040 leap to life like a cat on crack.

During five years of use, my MIDI chain has only slipped out of sequence once, and this is because I had the Atari unit sitting on a carpeted floor, where it quietly overheated; in all other situations, it has performed admirably, despite some heavy abuse. That kind of stable, reliable performance comes from a lot of attentive programming and hardware design, as the restrictions of the platform itself did not allow for bloated software filled with excess code. Everything from the MIDI engine to the graphic interface had to compute as smoothly and with as few instructions as possible, because if it did not, then the entire platform would simply choke and die. I would not haul it out to a gig, though, as it's too fragile, and would be a bitch to replace; instead, I bounce my arrangements over to a Yamaha RM1x.

The fascination and utility of the Atari 1040 and Notator do not end there, however. After five years of regular use, I'm still reading the Notator manual and discovering new magic tricks that require no money, plugins, or fiddley updates. In fact, the manual is thicker than the average Robert Jordan fantasy novel, and packed to the gills with so much esoteric information that I may never make it through the whole thing.

For instance, through use of the Realtime Transform window, there is practically no limit to the ways in which one can re-translate MIDI data. Like when I discovered how to make note data dictate the LFO position on my Juno 106 synthesizer, which then lead to the next step of making any and all note data dictate slider and envelope positions split across the Juno's entire keyboard... or one slider dictating the position of another, which leads to all sorts of wild "musical accidents," with filters working innversely against one another. It might sound a bit gimmicky, but hey-- if you can fake the functions of expensive modern keyboards on something that was made the year you were born, why not do it? Why not do it to the hilt? Why not completely OVERDO it, since you can?

Another fantastic use comes when I plug my Electribe sampler into the Atari. Not only will the Atari record program changes without the tedious dialing-in of patterns on an eeky lcd screen (like in the Electribe's painful and time-consuming Song mode), it will record knob movements far beyond what the Electribe's 'motion sequence' function will allow. In fact, you can record any and all knob movements, program changes, starts and stops, mutes and solos, even the manual note tapping MPC-style, all simultaneously! After you're done pulling out all your slickest performance tricks on your box, you can go back and do it again, edit, change, adding layer upon layer of tricks and variations... imagine a full scale multi-track recorder that also functions perfectly as a loop sampler, only with MIDI instead of audio, and you'll start to have the right idea.

And its' from 1988. And I spent less than $200 American on it. And it's fucking great for sequencing insane chemical breaks-style beats. Granted, it's not for everyone-- the impatient and feeble-minded should probably avoid this thing... but with the right knowledge and enough practice, this weird old chunk of plastic can become a formidable weapon in one's studio arsenal.

As always, questions, comments, corrections and general abuse are always welcome.


Vintage Computer Manuals said...

marvellous analysis of the Atari 1040 as well as its shortcomings.

Anonymous said...

Check out the Atari Music Network! It's a brand new website for us freakz who still use the Atari for MIDI and audio production!