POKEY Sound: Grayscale Project

Interview by Thomas Raukamp


[Photo: Back of XE showing stereo audio outputs and SIO2PC cable]

Thomas: Thanks for giving this interview. Would you please introduce yourselves to our readers first...

Greg: Grzegorz Kwiatek, age 24, I'm living in Warsaw, Poland. Just married, since summer 2002. Scene nickname: Greg/Bit Busters.

X-ray: Lukasz Sychowicz, age 26, also known as X-ray/Slight, Warsaw, Poland.

Thomas: You express a common feeling of love towards the "little" Atari computers on your web site. Where does this love come from? How did you discover the Atari?

X-ray: It simply wasn't a special kind of discovery as you noticed. When I was young, I got in touch with Atari computers in my friend's home. It was in 1992. Atari computers were very popular in these days - the others were CBM and its C64... So... it was simply an accident, that I bought Atari.

Greg: I found my Atari 65XE under the Christmas tree. It was in 1987. I suppose, that it was by accident, too. I remember, that it cost about $130, and that was a very expensive gift for my parents. Well, maybe it's a kind of nostalgia... I think, that Atari was a part of our childhood, a part of our history.

Thomas: When did you start making music on the Atari?

Greg: On Atari? I suppose, that I started at the end of 1993; just in time when I bought CMC, Chaos Music Composer. I mean, the professional tracker for making music on little Atari. My first modules were completely awful and probably one would be irritated listening to them. However, I joined Taquart (Atari scene group) in 1994 and started making more and more professional music.

X-ray: I went through almost the same way. I had started making music in 1992 - on CMC of course - and then came Atari scene times...

Greg: ...and he joined Slight - the other scene group.

X-ray: Exactly. Music and Polish Atari scene made, that we soon first met. It was probably in 1995, at QuaST Party in Orneta (maybe you ST fans, knew this place much better then we, because it was an ST fans copy party). I presented there my songs at the music competition, and so did Greg.

Thomas: When did you start the Grayscale Project?

X-ray: Officially, Grayscale Project started in January 2003, as it is mentioned at our web site. Unofficially, it started when we made our first module in co-operation. It was impossible as long as Greg was moved to Warsaw from the southern part of Poland.

Thomas: Chip music seems to be very much the big thing to do at the moment, but a lot of people prefer the Commodore 64, because of its SID sound chip. What makes the POKEY sound so specific?

Greg: Well, firstly: What does the SID sound chip mean? A milder or maybe better sound? I believe, that is no matter what platform, Atari or C64 you've chosen. The most important thing is to interest the listener; making him feel the music you create, your expressions and feelings.

X-ray: Greg is right. We pay no attention to the ideology, whatever it means. We create music using Atari. It could be C64 as well, but our childhood made that we've chosen Atari. And that's all. SID/POKEY? It doesn't matter!

[Photo: X-ray at work and rear view of XE showing stereo audio outputs]

[Photo: Greg at work, Theta Music Compose on the left]

[Photo: Greg and X-ray both at work]

Greg: Technically speaking, Atari and its POKEY sound chip sounds more rough and raw, but also a little bit clearer than C64 sounds. SID has its fantastic filters and basses, but we don't envy C64 musicians.

X-ray: The list of comparisons could be much more longer, but, as we mentioned above, no matter what computer platform you have chosen, but how you use this platform.

Thomas: Now you have to tell us about your set-up; please, don't hide any details.

Greg: Atari 65XE with 256 KB on-board, stereo upgrade, MIDI Out port. Moreover: standard PC - Athlon 1800+ with trashy AC97 integrated sound chipset. Fortunately I don't need to create PC music.

X-ray: Atari 65XE, QMEG system, stereo upgrade, PC, and the most important part of our configuration: SIO2PC cable, which helps us connect Atari to PC computer.

Thomas: What software do you use for producing the tunes?

X-ray: Currently we use Theta Music Composer by Jaskier/Taquart, one of the most famous music trackers on Atari. It has one big advantage: it can make the most of our stereo upgrade.

Greg: X-ray doesn't mention that he uses Impulse Tracker too, see our web site!

Thomas: Any specific software to program sounds?

Greg: No specific software :-)

X-ray: Well, we use SapMaker in order to make SAP files. SAP files make possible to hear Atari music on your PC.

Thomas: Now let me tell you I am pretty amazed by the high quality of your productions. I didn't actually know such impressive sound was possible on the XE/XL. How many Ataris do you use in your productions? Let's look at "Euglena Zielona" for example. How many 8-bits do we hear there?

Greg: It is possible and it was possible! You didn't hear our previous modules on Atari! ;-) But, returning to the question... Maybe one can not believe us, but in "Euglena Zielona" and all Grayscale modules there is only one Atari playing. Of course it has above menthioned "stereo upgrade". It means, that you can hear there maximum 8 channels, twice as "normal" 4-channel Atari can generate. Stereo upgrade is very common and very simple alteration of your XE.

Thomas: Which equipment do you use for recording the tracks?

X-ray: Maybe it isn't a strict answer to your question, but here is the way from Atari module to MP3 file: Firstly, we connect Atari via SIO2PC cable to PC. PC is used as a file-server for XE, so we can transfer just-created TMC modules to PC hard disk. Secondly we convert TMC module into SAP file. You can consider it as a cross-platform file format (you can hear Atari music even on Linux with your SAP files!). Thirdly, we use Winamp SAP plug-in to convert SAP into WAV and, finally, CDEX to convert WAV into MP3.

Thomas: What software is missing on the XE/XL for producing music at the moment? What's on your wish-list?

X-ray: I'm sure, that our wish-list is empty; we've got everything what we need to have. I suppose that our and other Atari musicians' productions are a kind of "final frontier" in generating music on XE/XL platform.

Greg: Of course one can add another and another POKEY chip, increasing total number of channels, but it does not make sense.

Thomas: Do you just use Ataris, or is there any other hardware you like to produce chip music on?

X-ray: I'm using my PC and Impulse Tracker.

Greg: In 1997-2000 I created music with my XE connected to Casio keyboard via MIDI port. All of my MIDI productions converted to MP3 you can find at my web site.

Thomas: Why do you think chip music is so popular at the moment? We even hear some of it on German music TV...

X-ray: Hmm... I don't know if it's so popular, it's just another kind of music... but a special kind of, because you have to be very flexible, even cunning. You have to tense your brain and all your music abilities in order to make nice chip tunes.

Greg: Well, I think that it is a return to the '80s or... just a fashion.

Thomas: Talking about music and Atari, most people think of ST or even the Falcon. Ever worked with these machines, or do you plan to?

Greg: No, I don't. Of course, there is an ability to leap from one platform to another but, firstly, we should ask ourselves, "What for?"

X-ray: Greg says, that there are a lot of professional musicians on every scene, but there's a few on Atari XE/XL. Our (I mean: all Atari musicians') music helps Atari to be noticeable in the chip tune world. However, I made some modules on PC.

Thomas: Do you also produce music for demos?

X-ray: Greg made soundtracks for three productions: "Back to life" and "Ultra", both created by Taquart group. The second one was released at Intel Outside 4 CP in 1997. Moreover, he made demo called "Cogito".

Greg: X-ray created music for "Overmind" demo by Slight, and for "Numen" - a brand new demo by Taquart released in 2002. And a lot of music for intros and other smaller productions.

X-ray: ...and so did Greg.

Thomas: What are the special requirements for making music for demos or even games?

Greg: It depends... on coder, mainly. In general, there isn't any special requirements for making demo-music. Coders, of course, prefer music players which take less processor time, but it is only a suggestion, not an order. For example, "Ultra" soundtrack uses Theta player, which takes the most processor time.

Thomas: Do you consider yourself more as musicians or as a programmers?

X-ray, Greg: Musicians of course!

Thomas: Do you plan live gigs in the future?

X-ray: [Laughs] No, we don't, for sure. Who wants to listen this strange sounds? ;-)

Greg: It's difficult for me to imagine live gigs on Atari...

Thomas: What kind of music do you listen to personally?

X-ray: I'm listening to a wide spectrum of music styles: pop, jazz, rock, funky, classical music... everything. I like to listen concrete songs. I don't choose music according to artists or music style. I'm the musician, and I'm searching the whole music world.

Greg: It is said, that every music is good on condition... that it is good indeed. I'm trying to keep this maxim.

This interview was originally published in German by st-computer magazine, February 2003, and is reproduced in English with kind permission.

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #7, April 2003

Copyright 2003 MyAtari magazine