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Exploring algorithmic music

Tim Conrardy gives us an overview of Atari MIDI applications on the more "exotic" end of the musical spectrum

Back in the days when MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was still in its infancy (1983 onward) Atari was ahead of the game by providing  MIDI ports on all its  computers. Thus were born many innovative and experimental applications the likes we have not even seen today in our age of “production” digital audio workstations. These applications were meant for interaction between man and machine. They were played in  real-time by the performer, using the computer as an instrument in its own right. These programs were known as algorithmic music applications. The term, “algorithmic” conjures in some people's minds a sense of “randomness” and “computer-generated music”. While certainly it entails the computer carrying out musical decisions, it is not at all random, but it is the performer who gives the computer instructions to achieve the desired goal.

Screen-shot of Music Mouse

A case in point would be Music Mouse by Laurie Spiegel. Originally coded for the Mac, it was ported to the ST platform in 1988 with the help of  David Silver. This program turns the Atari into a musical instrument in its own right with complete control in the hands of the performer. Basically it takes mouse movements inside a grid and transforms them into four moving voices .The voices can be assigned different MIDI channels and sounds .With actions you perform on the QWERTY keyboard you can  control other aspects of the sound such as volume, transposition, panning and a host of other features. While Music Mouse is fun to use and creates an instant gratification of the senses, it can also get quite deep as you explore and refine mouse and QWERTY keyboard techniques. Music Mouse is still available for the Atari platform direct from the programmer (

During this time period many other algo-comp applications came onto the market. Companies such as Intelligent Music produced classics such as “M” the interactive performance system by David Zicerelli and ported to the ST platform by Eric Ameres. M became a favorite in experimental circles. The Mac version is still being upgraded by David Zicerelli ( Intillegent Music also produced MidiDraw by Frank Balde. MidiDraw is a MIDI graphical painting program in which you can actually draw pictures on the computer screen with the mouse and it’s translated into sound. In addition a very unique MIDI sequencer was produced called  RealTime by Eric Ameres which incorporated features of M and offered other algorithmic possibilities. All of these programs had a feature that allowed you to record your interaction with the program . When your interaction was completed, you were able to save whatever was performed as a standard MIDI file. From there the MIDI file could be exported to another MIDI sequencer program for inclusion in a larger piece.

Screen-shot of Ludwig

Another algorithmic application came from Hybrid Arts programmer Tom Bajoras, who created Ludwig. This application was different then the Intelligent Music applications in that you selected “operations” . An operation was the actual algorithm that would happen within a “cell” which is a block of time. A pattern, which could be a scale or melody could also be selected. The program has different operations that apply to pitch, rhythm and velocity. For example, operations of pitch included algorithms called: reverse, warp harmony, invert chords, randomize, play odd/even, reflect, substitute rest, and drop a chord. All these could be applied to a pattern that the user created. The same algorithms could be applied to the rhythms operation with similar transformations. In time, a library could be built of patterns and rhythms so you could have starting points or “bones” as Ludwig calls it, to work with. Historical note: the name, “Ludwig” came not from Mr Beethoven, but was the name of the R&D director’s dog!

Another famous company known for very unique MIDI applications was Dr T. Software. Producing software for multi-platforms, its strength was in applications developed for the Atari. The flagship was called Omega II KCS created by Emile Tobenfeld. This incorporated an unusual editing module called the PVG (Programmable Variation Generator) which “is arguably the most powerful composition system ever seen on this planet” (PVG manual). Basically you could take a small section of notes and transform them using the many tools available in PVG. Some of these involve random processes, while others are very deterministic. This allowed for a very flexible composition package, which was not linear as in most sequencers offered today. There was also the OPEN MODE in KCS, which allowed you to have 128 different sequences or patterns in memory. The sequences could be triggered with keys on the computer QWERTY keyboard. This allowed interaction that would be impossible on a linear style sequencer. You could basically do a live performance using the computer keyboard.

Screen-shot of Turnsmith

Other algorithmic products from Dr T were Tunesmith by Jim Johnson and Fingers by Emile Tobenfeld. These were phrase generators capable of intoxicating intricate patterns, which also had a live performance element to them. You could change any of the parameters in real time as the music was playing. They also integrated into KCS as MPE (Multi-program Environment) modules so whatever you did in Tunesmith or Fingers, it would record right onto a sequencer track. This was musical multitasking, ahead of its time. Today Emile Tobenfeld is creating video at  Jim Johnson is still creating MIDI products at

Other algo-comp applications would include auto-accompaniment programs. The program from PG Music called Band-In-a-Box offered a music minus one scenario with styles you could play along with. However, they also offered a way for users to create their own styles and this is where the algorithmic elements come into play. The program “Freestyle” from SoundPool GmbH could also be grouped into the same style of applications.

Screen-shot of MIDIJOY

Today, a good majority of these applications are now freeware, thanks to the original programmers who gave their permission. With the release of these applications, more Atari algo-comp applications are coming out of the woodwork such as MIDI JOY by Harry Kooperman, David Snow’s many Atari MIDI applications, AFSTS, the Algorithmic Film Sound Track System by Christian Banasik and Fractal Music Composer by Hugh McDowell (former cello player with Electric Light Orchestra). Omega KCS is also now  shareware with upgrades available from Dr T himself.

With the help of Algorithmic Applications we can explore a new world of possibilities that we have only begun to fathom in the depths of our musical heritage.

Tim’s Atari Midi World

MyAtari magazine - Feature #5, January 2001

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