Music composition software on the CPC

By Tom et Jerry / GPA (in December 2017). Translated into english by Robert Barton.

The story of a difficult birth process.

Any self-respecting Amstrad CPC fan, let alone demo enthusiast, knows that for many years our favourite computer was not a machine on which musical creation flourished. The Commodore 64, the Amiga and Atari ST 16-bit computers proved to be much more fertile ground for the emergence of high quality “amateurs” music.

To what can we attribute this weakness, when the machine has an AY-8912 sound chip which, albeit not the eighth wonder of the world, nonetheless has sufficient capability to produce unforgettable melodies? The small speaker certainly does not do justice to the music produced on the CPC, but the real problem lies elsewhere.

In fact, during the commercial life of the Amstrad CPC, no completely successful music software was released. Some programs allowed reasonable music in the most basic terms, yet none aroused the desire among budding musicians to really invest in the Amstrad platform and produce music comparable to what we found in games. As proof, we never find “personal” music in the floppy disks sold on auction sites. Graphics and programs, but not music.

So what is good music software on the CPC? Two things must be taken into account:

  • The music creation software must be easy to learn with simple controls (nothing especially difficult so far). It must offer broad enough possibilities to create complex music – that means managing the noise channel to be able to simulate drums, ability to make chords, transpositions, etc.
  • The music must be able to be replayed outside the creation software: this is where things usually go wrong. To be usable in the background of software, the music playing routine (the player) must not exceed 1/6th of the CPC’s computing power on a duration of one fiftieth of a second. This value is not due to chance, it corresponds to the machine time available between two interrupts. Beyond this value, it becomes very complicated to use certain programming techniques based on precise display timing (screen splitting, rasters, graphics mode changes and so on). The player must be also flexible, i.e. able to be placed almost anywhere in memory, wherever the programmer requires.

This article will present a chronological list of the main musical software released on the CPC, placing them in context with the “fashion” of each era. Obviously, it is not exhaustive and reflects my perception of history. I did not use all the programs mentioned extensively: only Music Pro (thanks to the help of Bax, one of the rare CPC fans to have made music with this tool), Equinoxe that I had bought (somewhat cracked) at the time, and finally Soundtrakker 1.1.

In the beginning

When the Amstrad CPC 464 was released in late 1984, a number of musical programs were released. They share the common characteristic of being written totally or partially in Basic. All use a classical European representation of the music in the form of a score. We find the basic notions of musical writing: a stave, a key and notes indicating the pitch and duration of the sounds played (note, crotchet, semibreve, etc.). Some are interesting for musical beginners or the creation and printing of scores but no program can produce data files that are usable in machine language. At best, we can export usable data using Locomotive Basic commands.

Music Edit by Sprites

In 1986, more ambitious software came out from our English friends: Electronic Music Utility (EMU) by Gremlin Graphics (via its Discovery label for utilities), The Music System, then The Advanced Music System by Rainbird. These pieces of software are in machine code with neat graphical interfaces. The demonstration music provided is good and makes you want to work with these programs. EMU allows you to export your works thanks to a well done relocatable routine. Unfortunately, it uses CPC system drivers. While this is sufficient for Basic programs, it is too limited for more ambitious projects requiring all the memory of the machine.

EMU by Picturesque / Discovery

For Rainbird’s programs it’s even worse, there is no way to export the music.

The situation changed in 1987 with the release of Music Pro by Music Logiciel. The author, Charles Callet, had already self-published Amstradeus, a good piece of software for creating sheet music in Basic. This program aims to produce music for the CPC and breaks free from traditional presentation. Instead, there is a system of sequences; tables of notes organised in vertical columns. These arrays are linked in a main list to build the composition. What is particularly interesting is that one can thus reuse the same sequence several times. From this point of view, Music Pro is a forerunner of later software. The music structure is still based on notions of music theory because it is necessary to define the length of the notes using classical notation.

Music Pro by Charles Callet

The software comes with a player capable of playing music in Basic or assembler programs. While Music Pro facilitates beautiful creations, the player is unfortunately not powerful enough to be used in programs that heavily use machine resources. As Charles Callet was a talented composer, he naturally used his software to provide sound for some Infogrames games such as Passengers on the Wind or The Amazing Shrinking Man. He also edited a compilation of music made with Music Pro called Juke Box. These songs were often used in the first fanzines released on floppy disks which were mostly in Basic.

In 1991, Benjy from the New Age group optimized the Music Pro player but did not distribute this improved code. It was used in some demos to play fellow scener Duffy‘s compositions. It can be found for example in the intro of The Other World 3 by Overflow or in Creation Meeting by Paradox.

Other French programs were released during this period such as Magic Sound or Music Studio. Magic Sound was marketed in 1987 by its author Henri Bittner. The interface is neat, there is a routine for playing music outside of Magic Sound, but the program is really tricky to use. It’s a mix between composition software and a drum machine. The program falls between two stools, which ultimately complicates the creation of music more than anything else.

Magic Sound by Henri Bittner

Music Studio by Cobra Soft is more classic and requires notions of music theory. It provides a player that can be used under Basic interrupts which is a little more advanced than usual, with a direct call to the sound chip registers.

Music Studio by Cobra Soft

As this software had a low distribution its popularity has suffered. At the time these programs were not copied very often because they were difficult to use without instructions.

Even more obscure is Intermusic published in 1987 by Chip (to be honest, I did not even know this program existed before writing this text). The program offers what seems at first glance to be a fast player but has a basic interface compared to its competitors. It requires the user to encode the music according to the internal logic of the program. Looking at the screenshot below, you can see why Intermusic was not a resounding success. It was only used by Chip to add sound to The Adventures of Ka.

Intermusic by Chip

Along with publishing music composition software, from 1986 programs were released to market which made it possible to digitise analogue music by connecting a sound source to the headphone jack on the CPC. This produced a large file that could be replayed at will using a program supplied with the digitisation software.

The first of its kind was Echosoft from the Bordeaux publisher Esat Software, followed by UltraSon from MBC in 1987 produced by Ludovic Delplanque. Esat returned in 1989 with The House Music System. The most complete program is probably Megasound by Fefesse, which was published in the French magazine “CPC” in 1990.

Echosoft from Esat Software

Let’s face it, these pieces of software are mainly for leisure. The ideas are nice and within the grasp of newcomers but the music played by the CPC is of poor quality. They also use memory locations that are totally incompatible with intensive use in a game. Digitization is sometimes used to make sound effects (for example in Mortville Manor). But for music we had to wait for Xyphoes Fantasy to have something reasonable.

In short, at this time the budding musician on the Amstrad CPC was a little frustrated. They couldn’t really use their creations in ambitious programs. In fact, among all my contacts at the time, only one had composed any pleasant music, Bax the menace.

New times, new needs

Beginning in 1988, a new type of software appeared on CPC, the demo. Created by passionate programming enthusiasts, these were sound and graphics demonstrations intended to show the world the capabilities of the Amstrad and showcase the skills of the programmer. A demo must obviously have sound. The problem of managing machine execution time used by the sound player, which was already important for games, now became crucial. Any “wasted” computing capacity meant fewer effects, potential synchronization issues and so on. Demo-makers therefore were fond of compact and fast music.

To compensate for the lack of a music scene on Amstrad, demo makers turned to music from commercial games. Thus, the vast majority of demos produced before the release of The Demo in 1991 have sound by composers working for mainly English publishers (such as David Whittaker, Ben Daglish, Tim Follin, Tiny William, Jonathan Dunn etc.).

For demo-makers at the time the sport consisted of extracting music from commercial games to make compilations. The most gifted even managed to modify the players to store them in different memory locations from those used in the original programs. From 1987 onwards many compilations or packs came out allowing the use of this music quite easily [NDHicks: among the most famous packs of the 1990s we should include those of the (modest) author of this article: Music Pack 1, 2, 3, and 4!]

On reflection, it may seem odd that no professional musician decided to create their own software on the Amstrad, which would inevitably have been successful. Several explanations can be given for this. Some authors were not working on CPC but on other computers. Others simply transcribed the music directly into machine code (JDRogers for example, and the sources of his songs are available on the Internet). Finally, some musicians were independent (like David Whittaker) so it was perhaps not in their interest to see any competition emerge (a very unlikely hypothesis).

In the early 90s, some programmers tried successfully to adapt music from the Atari ST, a machine with lots of music not heard on CPC. The idea was good because this computer has the same sound processor as the CPC. It is clocked at the frequency of 2Mhz instead of 1Mhz, which means that in addition to converting the player it is necessary to recalculate the values of the notes played. Longshot from Logon System started the trend, but Fefesse will remain forever famous for his many conversions. For the record, these transfers caused a controversy that shook the early Amstrad scene, “the story of the lost floppy disk”. In short, music transferred by Fefesse ended up in the wild and was used without his consent. Fefesse used the services of an ST musician called Emmanuel Lary to provide sound for Xyphoes Fantasy.

To close this era, let’s not forget a few rare individuals who composed or adapted their music without any particular tool. Weee! is the worthy representative of this movement. He always innovated by composing beautiful music, playing samples in Terrific Demo (1992) and being the first to create specific music for CPC Plus. Let’s also recognise Face Hugger, who created his own player and composed all the music to provide sound for the Ultimate Megademo!

A revolution on Amiga

In 1987, a new piece of music composition software was released on Commodore Amiga and revolutionized the genre, The Ultimate Soundtracker by Karsten Obarski. Its goal was to make transparent the management of samples (digitalized instrument sound) played by Paula, the machine’s internal chip. However, the most interesting part was the way the music was represented in this tool. From this point in time the notes and all their characteristics were coded in the form of letters and numerical values (English notation).

Do   Ré   Mi   Fa   Sol  La   Si
C    D    E    F    G    A    B

Everything was organized in sequences in the form of columns like Music Pro, called “patterns”. But here the duration of the notes was linked to the instrument used. Finally, the position of the note in the pattern determines when it was played. The four sound channels of the Amiga are visible and editable in the same window.

Obviously, this simplifies the composition because it is no longer necessary to have a good knowledge of music theory to be able to write music.

The Ultimate Soundtracker by Karsten Obarski

This innovative presentation was particularly well suited to computer music creation. The Ultimate Soundtracker was not the first software to use it but cemented its place. For the record, the first trackers seem to have been created on Commodore 64 (Sound Monitor by a certain Chris Huelsbeck who became legendary for his C64 and Amiga music).

In fact, The Ultimate Soundtracker inspired a whole series of music software on 8, 16 and 32 bit machines! Everyone has their own “tracker”, with varying degrees of success.

On Amstrad, it was not until 1989 that a program inspired by The Ultimate Soundtracker was released. This is Noise Tracker from MTI. This program copies the interface of the Ultimate Soundtracker. Released as a pre-release it seems to never have been finished. It is not possible to export music.

Noise Tracker by MTI

In 1991 Ubi Soft released the commercial program Equinoxe. It is the work of the well-known Alain Massoumipour alias Poum of the French magazine Amstrad 100%. While the intention is good, the software is a little limited (fixed length patterns, twenty sequences of patterns at most) and especially less user-friendly than the beautiful interface would suggest. For example, when editing a pattern, you can’t listen to it: you have to go to another menu. Editing of instruments is classic. The concepts of volume and frequency envelopes are included. Tweaking a sound is not very practical, because you cannot test anything on the fly. There is a widespread impression amongst users that the tool is designed to encode music once it has been created, not to compose it directly on the computer.

Equinoxe by Alain Massoumipour (Poum)

The player is fast and can be called at configurable interrupt frequencies (25, 50 or 300th of a second). It is unfortunately memory-heavy and occupies a fixed portion of memory. In the end, Equinoxe is better than its predecessors but can still be improved – a missed opportunity. It also had the misfortune of appearing more or less at the same time as another more successful program.

Equinoxe was used in some demos and games but is not the benchmark software for creative Amstrad users. Only Ric from Static group released beautiful melodies with this tool, used for example in Sea You Soon.

Then Soundtrakker 1.0 arrived …

In 1991, a new commercial musical utility was released in Germany. Published by New Age Software it was the work of a well-known demo-maker, BSC. This time miraculously we have a balanced program, quite easy to learn and FINALLY offering an efficient and relocatable player! Compared to everything that was previously released on CPC, the Soundtrakker also offers new features such as the possibility of using the hardware envelopes of the AY-8912, albeit in a somewhat limited way. It also allows you to easily manage arpeggios, define the length of patterns, and transpose them. Once learned its interface is simple and complete.

BSC Soundtrakker

With BSC’s Soundtrakker, we finally had the means to compose music directly on the Amstrad CPC that resembles what professionals had been doing for years, being usable in demos, games or fanzines. Admittedly, it was not yet perfect for games (there is nothing to manage sound effects for example, and the player only plays at 1/50th of a second), but it was solid enough to produce sound for demos, and that’s what mattered most at that time!

From that date onwards we saw a plethora of musical modules flourish, mainly in Germany. Cpc freaks like Kangaroo produced many new compositions or adaptations of Amiga music. These are sometimes more successful than the originals (Space Debris by BSC for example is used in Digital Orgasm and is more dynamic than Captain’s .MOD in terms of sounds).

Version 1.1 of the software was released in 1992 to fix some bugs. Soundtrakker was sold in Germany and England – the French had to obtain their copies from these countries.

In 1994, a new program was released (Soundtrakker 128), which could be considered an optimized version of the Soundtrakker. Unlike its predecessor, it does not run on all CPCs as it requires 128kb of memory.

New features include a new improved player, the possibility of composing longer pieces of music, simplification of the use of the hardware envelopes, etc. There is even a cheat mode in the editor! This program became THE music software on the Amstrad and remained so for a long time. It was the tool of choice for many new musicians like Targhan, Zik, Shap, Frequency, Eliot, etc. [NDHicks: as well as Tom et Jerry himself, who with over 200 songs is arguably the most prolific non-professional creator on CPC to date!] It was used in a few rare commercial games, like Prehistorik 2 by Titus.

The success of BSC’s Soundtrakker 128 didn’t stop other programmers from trying to create similar music software. Unfortunately, either the programs were released but were less ambitious and not used by active Amstrad users (Boo Tracker by Boo! in 1992), or were never finished (CharleyTracker by CRTC), or did not even see the light of day (Shap’s famous phantom tracker!).

The only program to present a credible alternative was the Advanced Music Creator created in 1995 by the German group Exodus. The software is complete and the demo music provided is attractive. Unfortunately it is very complex to use. AMC uses a system of loops and coding which certainly optimizes the space necessary in RAM for the music, but makes any composition “on the fly” almost impossible. Only Eliot from Benediction group has been brave enough to use this software to adapt some existing music.

Alongside Soundtrakker two programs using samples came out one after the other in 1993. Digitracker from Prodatron has a very clean interface, and Protracker from Crown. They do the same as The Ultimate Soundtracker on Amiga.

While technically it’s a good performance, the players of both programs use almost all the CPC processing time to produce the music. This technique suggests that the digitized sounds are recalculated each time we want to play a different note from the one which they were recorded as. Their use was therefore mainly limited to transfers of Amiga modules to the CPC.

Prodatron’s Digitracker

Modules are still sometimes used in demos. The most noteworthy are in the first part of Digital Orgasm by Symbiosis and the intro of the Bordelik 4 Meeting by Arkos / Mortel (bonus fact, this music was composed for the CPC by Targhan and is not a transfer of an existing .MOD).

The 2000s

Over time, the limitations of Soundtrakker 128 began to encourage demo-makers to look for other sources for music. The very turn of the century saw the emergence of a trend for YM file transfers to the CPC. This format is simply a raw export of data sent to the sound chip by a player. The YM format was born on the Atari ST, created by Leonard / Oxygene for the St-Sound tool. The advantage of this format is that it is quite easy to create a very fast player. The flipside is that it uses a lot of memory if the data is not compacted (several tens of KB for a small piece of music). Quite a few people have dabbled in optimizing and compressing this raw data. Madram from the Overlanders group released the AY Kit in 2000 that brought everyone together. This tool makes it possible to produce a very compact AYC binary file that can be played by a routine that is much faster than the Soundtrakker player. YM music therefore became the new standard for demos – even music composed with Soundtrakker 128 was converted to this format when processing time was very constrained.

In 2005, Ramlaid designed a fixed-time AYC player (always using the same processing time) used in Mortel’s DTC. This was the holy grail for any demo programmer, because music was no longer a variable factor to take into account when programming hardware effects. The concept was improved a few years later by Hicks / Vanity which managed to reduce processing time by 50% compared to Ramlaid’s (already efficient) routine.

Another novelty was that some music uses digidrums which are samples of drums and percussion instruments. This idea also came from the Atari world. We admit that, for want of a dedicated tool and because it takes processing time and memory, these creations have remained on the whole quite rare (Longshot paved the way in Amazing Demo with Monty Part in 1990, but on a fixed screen).

Others tried to simulate different sound envelopes from those produced directly by the AY-8912 sound chip. Here again, the influence of the Atari ST is evident. The sounds produced are supposed to approximate what the Commodore 64’s famous SID sound chip can do. Although it’s far from it, it does sound different from a classic AY-8912. It’s the same score for the digidrums, it takes processing time and the result is sometimes random. Overflow was the first to demonstrate such music in Backtro.

It was another few years before new software came to define a new standard for musical composition on the CPC.

And Starkos arrived

Starkos continues the functions of Soundtrakker 128 but seriously optimizes all of its aspects. It was created by Targhan / Arkos, who as a distinguished musician is well aware of the limitations of BSC’s software. After tackling the herculean task, Targhan released Starkos in 2003.

Compared to Soundtrakker 128, you can create even more substantial music (255 patterns). Starkos manages the hardware envelopes of the sound chip much better, allowing music to be played at different speeds. It is even possible with a little programming to synchronize the digidrums with the music! Finally, the player is faster and more compact than Soundtrakker 128‘s player. The only criticisms we level are an inability to manage arpeggios (you have to simulate them with instruments) and not to scroll through the notes in the patterns when playing music (which will be corrected in the future). Getting started is fairly quick and it is clearly a major advance over BSC’s software.

Starkos by Targhan

The uptake of Starkos was slow as the few active musicians found it hard to ditch the familiar old Soundtrakker 128.

New versions of Starkos were released in 2004, the latest being 1.21. It is still the software of choice for composers working directly on a CPC.

The PC takes over the scene?

In the 2010s, new software came out, but it was no longer on CPC. Finally the AY-8912 made it to PC!

Targhan struck first in 2009 with Arkos Tracker 1.0. It took the basics of Starkos and transposed them to PC while adapting the interface to use a mouse. An MSX version of the player offers compatibility with other machines. Another big novelty compared to Starkos is that the player source code is provided. It can therefore easily be modified to make it work on more exotic machines that use the AY-8912.

Arkos Tracker 1.0 by Targhan

In 2015 a competitor emerged from Spain, WYZtracker by Augusto Ruiz. The program looks good but is less powerful than Arkos Tracker. The main flaw in my opinion is that it generates less compact music. Like Arkos Tracker it is based on a Microsoft Windows .NET library, which is no guarantee of stability. Since its release, the program has been regularly updated.

WYZTracker by Augusto Ruiz

2017 brought its share of novelties with first of all Chip’n’Sfx by CNGSoft. While its presentation harks back to the early 90s with a beautiful text mode interface worthy of C64 trackers, the program is nonetheless high quality and dedicated to the production of very compact music for games and demos with exceptionally limited memory (1k/4k). The compositions can also be played on machines other than the Amstrad. It is therefore an interesting alternative to Arkos Tracker.

Like WYZTracker, the program is supported by its author, so new versions are released regularly.

Chip’n’Sfx by CNGSoft

Finally, in 2017, Targhan released Arkos Tracker 2.0. At the time of writing, it’s still in pre-release, but it looks promising! Compared to its predecessor, the program allows the use of an unlimited number of sound channels (beyond three, the user requires TotO‘s Playcity interface which allows a CPC to manage up to nine channels) and has a very customizable interface [NDTarghan: a 9 voice player is already available in the alpha version, and used in the teaser “The Last V8”!]. Finally, it offers what every musician working on game music dreams of using one day, a program allowing you to create modules containing several pieces of music that share a common bank of instruments! At last it breaks free from the infamous Microsoft .NET library and becomes multi-platform! You can now compose soundchip music with Linux or even on a Mac!

Where is the Amstrad Plus in this story?

Simply put, at the time of writing no software exploits Plus features. However, the Plus range has a major advantage over its predecessor, being a DMA system. We can thus play digitized sounds using much less machine time than on a “real” CPC. The Plus demos that play sample-based music use and abuse this feature, but we end up in a situation where fans create players and not music composition software.

The DMA demo made by Weee! in 1992 announced a Soundtracker for the Plus, which sadly did not materialise. Another Weee! composition can be heard in the menu of Prehistorik 2.

Since 1998 there has been talk about dedicated Plus software called Soundtracker DMA created by Zik of Futurs’ group. This very long wait may soon be over, because the music for Roudoudou‘s latest demo, CRTC power 3, was created with this tool. Native AY-8912 sounds mix with samples and other SID effects (we hope). Come on Zik, get this damned software out soon!

Conclusion

Music creation tools for the Amstrad CPC are now very efficient and accessible. They no longer represent a barrier to creativity. Despite this, I note with disappointment that the number of active users is actually quite low. In recent years, only Mr Lou, Egotrip and McKlain have joined the ranks of people who regularly compose new music for the CPC. A new phenomenon has arisen linked to the existence of PC trackers. Demo-makers sometimes request those with “external skills” to augment their programs with talented music, such as Factor6 (who comes from the Spectrum world) or Ultrasyd (Atari ST).

Hopefully the release of Arkos Tracker 2 will inspire some more people.

Useful links:
https://github.com/AugustoRuiz/WYZTracker
http://cngsoft.no-ip.org/chipnsfx.htm
http://www.julien-nevo.com/arkostracker
http://leonard.oxg.free.fr/ymformat.html