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The Amiga

Dr Kenny McAlpine explores how the native sound sampling of the Amiga began a move from chip music to a new, more production-style of game soundtrack.
If one man were to be singled out as the father of Commodore’s Amiga, it would be the soft spoken Jay Miner who had originally spearheaded the development of the Atari VCS in the mid-1970s. After the launch of the VCS, Miner went on to design the architecture and chip set of Atari’s first home computer, the 400, and a more powerful version, the 800, which was released with a larger case, and improved keyboard, the look of which foreshadowed Commodore’s own C64. Miner left Atari in 1979 and spent the next few years designing special purpose computer chips for pacemakers with ZyMast a small medical electronics company. He never lost his love of home computing, though.
So when Larry Kaplan, an old Atari colleague, called him and asked him to help design a new games console, Miner leaped at the chance. Kaplan’s company, Hi Toro, was based in Santa Clara. As the new venture started to gain a bit of momentum, Kaplan set up a meeting with Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, to see if he would serve as chairman of the board of directors. Instead, Bushnell offered Kaplan a job back at Atari, and Kaplan accepted, leaving behind Hi Toro, its offices, its business plan, and its financing. By the end of 1982, almost by accident, Miner found himself vice president of the company. In truth, it was just the opportunity that Miner had been waiting for.
Ever since his days at Atari, he had dreamed of designing a computer around Motorola’s new 68000 chip, a hybrid processor that shifted data in 16-bit chunks, but which performed its internal operations at 32-bit resolution. He knew that a machine built around one of these new 16-bit chips would be able to offer graphics and gameplay that would be orders of magnitude better than the old 8-bits. The change in management also brought with it a change in name. Hi Toro, it turned out, was also the name of a Japanese lawnmower manufacturer, and so Amiga Inc., a name that would conveniently place the company ahead of Atari in the telephone directory, was born.
At the heart of this new machine was a completely new chipset, Agnus, Denise, and Paula, the latter of which handled the sound generation and allowed the Amiga to play back four simultaneous, monophonic, 8-bit, digitally sampled waveforms. Now, that was a technical feat that was unheard of on home machines, and one that would enable it to create music composed of short recordings of real sounds. The Amiga would be the machine that would finally be able to break away from completely synthetic tones in favour of a more realistic produced sound. The Amiga’s chipset was years ahead of its time. Miner and his team hadn’t just provided helper chips.
They had developed a sophisticated system of resource management, incorporating direct memory access channels and a blitter chip that could perform a range of graphics processing tasks much more efficiently than the main CPU. Collectively, the chipset relieved the main processor of much of its computational load, with Denise handling complex graphics operations, Paula taking care of 4-channel digital audio, and Agnus managing both direct memory access and the other two chips. The Amiga 1000 demoed at the CES show in January 1984. Amiga Inc. rented a booth in the west hall with an enclosed space behind the public display to showcase the machine to invited trade guests.
The operating system and other software was nowhere near ready to show, so two software engineers worked through the night to create a rolling demo that would showcase the power of the chipset. Boing Ball is a short animated sequence that displayed a red and white, rotating chequered ball that bounced around the screen synchronised to a heavy boom sound that shifted around the stereo field with the movement of the ball. [BOOM SOUNDS]
That sound was created by hitting a garage door with a foam baseball bat, and it gave the Amiga a presence at the show that leaked out far beyond the confines of its booth.
The machine launched at a lavish event at the Lincoln Centre in New York in July 1985. As the months passed, it became clear that the Amiga wasn’t the mass market sensation that Commodore had expected. It had a loyal following among the tech savvy who saw the machine for the technological achievement that it was, but while Commodore had hoped that it would be compared to higher-end machines from the likes of Apple, Commodore’s reputation as a low end, mass-market manufacturer of home gaming computers proved difficult to shake off. Part of the problem stemmed from the Amiga’s position, or rather, it’s lack of it, in the home computer market place. It was too expensive for most home users and too limited for professionals.
In response, Commodore replaced the 1000 with two new models in 1987, moving more mainstream with the domestic 500, and a little more up-market with the PC-like 2000. The Amiga 500 marked a return to Commodore selling computers aimed at the home gaming market through mass retail outlets, and in that respect at least, it was a spiritual successor to the old VIC-20 and the Commodore 64. The Amiga 500 didn’t particularly extend the capabilities of the original design, but at less than half the price of the Amiga 1000, it was the commercial break that Commodore needed. By early 1989, more than one million Amigas had been sold. The Amiga’s biggest musical strength was its native sample playback courtesy of its Paula chip.
Because it relied on samples, the Amiga was a bit of a sonic chameleon. It could, of course, sound like the sound chips from the 8-bit era, but it could also sound like a rock band or an orchestra. Suddenly, confronted with possibilities, musicians needed a way of differentiating music that was written in that 8-bit style from other tunes, a way of describing a particular sound and technique. The term chip music was, by the time the Amiga arrived, already in use as a way of describing music written using the sound chips of microcomputers. This article about programming chip music on the SID, for example, appeared in Your Commodore magazine back in 1985.
The term chiptune, meaning a piece of chip music, began to appear in 1991 as the Amiga music scene really started to take off, and it’s been with us ever since. Below, I’ve provided links to some music from Amiga games and from Amiga MOD files, short pieces of music written using the Amiga as a production platform but intended to be standalone pieces of music. What I’d like you to do is compare and contrast these with music from the other platforms we’ve been exploring. What do you notice about the sound and the arrangements? You might like to think about the richness of the sound, the density and the complexity of the arrangements, and the overall sound and feel of the tracks.
Please post your thoughts on the discussion board, and I’ll join you in the next activity.

When Commodore’s Amiga launched in 1986, it was a machine ahead of its time.

Packed with innovative technology and design, its sound chip, Paula, could play back four sampled sounds simultaneously, something that just a few years earlier had been the sole preserve of high-end electronic synthesizers that cost more than the average house in the UK.

In this video, we’ll discuss how the launch of easy-to-use composition tools transformed computer music-making from being a musically-informed technical programming task, to a technically-supported creative one.

The Amiga’s sample playback gave it a voice that distinguished it from the computers and consoles that had come before it. It could sound like microchip music, but it could also sound orchestral or rocky.

Below, I’ve provided links to a selection of Amiga game music, and from a selection of MOD files, short pieces of music written using the Amiga as a production platform, but intended to be standalone pieces of music.

What I’d like you to do is compare and contrast these with music from the other platforms we’ve been exploring. What do you notice about the sound and the arrangements? You might like to think about the richness of the sound, the density and complexity of the arrangements and the overall sound and feel of the tracks. Please post your thoughts to the comments section.

You can access the collection of Amiga music here.

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Video Game Design and Development: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music: Video Game Sound and Music

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