Jack Tramiel, who died this week, had as deep an impact on computer music for the everyday musician as just about any computing industry pioneer. While Jobs, Woz, Moore, Grove, and Gates get a lot of the attention, Tramiel’s legacy was in making computing affordable and accessible. As such, he was indispensable to the computing revolution, and his computers were early forebears of the digital music-making Renaissance. In an extraordinary microcosm of the 20th Century, Polish-born Tramiel escaped Auschwitz, served in the US army, and built the roots of the most successful desktop computer of all time in a typewriter repair business in the Bronx. And today, when you make music with a computer, you’re connected to that extraordinary story.

Take the Commodore 64. Its ground-breaking SID chip (the 6581, with three oscillators, four waveforms, a filter, an ADSR envelope, and a ring mod) remains sought-after today. It’s easy to forget, but rival computers – including, notably, Apple – were fairly tone-deaf when it came to sound capabilities. Commodore, via a design by Bob Yannes, was the first major computing hit to include high-quality sound. The C64 single-handedly transformed the sound of game music, spawning new genres of game scores, and later becoming a major part of the demoscene and chip music movement. (In fact, you might even argue that the C64, not Nintendo game systems, really produced the initial spark for what would evolve into chip music or 8-bit music.)

Or, consider Tramiel’s second leadership role, at Atari. The Atari ST’s standard inclusion of MIDI set a benchmark that still influences machines like today’s iPad. In fact, if you’ve got an iPad handy, remember that Apple’s pro music focus is led by one Gerhard Lengeling, founder of Emagic and C-Lab, whose first products were all for Tramiel’s computers: the Commodore 64, and then the Atari ST. Maybe it should come as no surprise, then, that suitably infused with Emagic DNA, Apple would make software MIDI support standard on the iPad. Ed.: Okay, I should in fairness note that the OS team at Apple is not led by Lengeling, although I’m sure he’s enjoying that MIDI support on there. Let’s at least say that *all* of us – myself included – have expectations of MIDI that were nudged along by the Atari ST. The Atari ST set the stage for a host of music software, including being the primary platform on which the “tracker” evolved (see today’s Renoise), many of today’s sequencer features (see Logic, Cubase), and, albeit to a lesser extent, graphical music notation.

Musicians who used the ST range from 808 State to Fatboy Slim to Jean Michel Jarre – and, of course, Atari Teenage Riot. In fact, I’d go as far as arguing to say the two Tramiel machines are the only desktop computers that have actually directly touched the sound of electronic music – the C64 for the SID and its influence on game music, the Atari ST for driving a new interest in sequenced sounds and the micro-editing of trackers. There’s no “sound” of an Apple or a Windows (or even DOS) PC, but there’s a personality, a style, in a Commodore 64 or even Atari ST. We love our computers, to be fair, but the Atari and Commodore might be imagined as their own instrument. (This is a debateable opinion, and I don’t want to get too carried away, so I’m happy to hear opposing viewpoints. Or just join me in singing a love song to the SID, and waxing nostalgic about the Steinberg – Emagic – Dr. T rivalry, and we’ll leave it at that.)

What’s most compelling is that the legacy of these machines is more alive than ever. Computer musicians acquire Commodore 64s the way a guitarist might a vintage instrument, and even continue to develop software for them. (When the hardware dies, I expect this will live on in emulation. Us computer musicians don’t die; we just run on a new virtual machine.)

Then, there’s what’s next. I know that Tramiel’s aesthetic of affordability, and the approach of his chips, has inspired us on the MeeBlip open source synth. Now, we can look forward, as well, to the ultra-affordable, DIY-friendly Rasberry Pi, which itself promises to become a compelling music platform. (The moment they’re available in any quantity, I know I’ll be trying that out.)

Watching as we lose our heroes, the men and women who produced the incredible technological world in which we live, could be a sad affair. But because these individuals championed businesses with real ideas and real innovation, we see instead hope. The products of their imagination, the ones for which they fought to run their businesses, are more vibrant and alive than ever. As Silicon Valley becomes obsessed with “exit strategies,” quick fixes and disposable apps, it’s heartening to think of the people who really work to put something physical in peoples’ hands. That computing power has led to the fastest technological advances in a range of fields in the history of humanity – and, boy, can it make some fun noises, too.

With that in mind, I present for your enjoyment the Tramiel machines in images and video, as seen on CDM, with a few extras. And here’s to not only Mr. Tramiel, but all the people who worked to make these machines available.

MSSIAH is still available as an actively-developed cartridge for your Commodore computer. The cart even allows you to connect a MIDI cable.

The MIDIbox SID project produced new hardware, powered by the SID chip.

Combining these projects, here’s one of my favorite mods – a gorgeous, orange, modded C64 with SID2SID expansion and Prophet64 cartridge.

Demonstrating just how significant the machine was to music composition, The C64 Orchestra transcribes classic game music back to full orchestra.

What happens when Guitar Hero meets the C64:

A Commodore 64 speaks and plays:

Digimancy: A Commodore 64 Spouts Philosophy, Plays Modular Synths

And a reminder that Commodore will never die:

Behold sequencers we use today in their early days on the Atari ST:
Main screens of Atari ST sequencers
Pictures of Vintage MIDI Sequencers

Musical Mods of the Commodore 64, from Traktor DJing to Knobs for Prophet64 [CDM, vintage 2006]
For Love of Chips: Chipsounds Instrument and EP and the Gear That Inspired Them [this release by Plogue of a chip instrument turned out to be a window into the chip music scene – artists and equipment – as well as a way to get these sounds on more modern computers]

CNET has a nice obituary, as well as an extensive look at Tramiel and his contributions

  • http://twitter.com/plgDavid David Viens

    Thanks a lot for this post Peter, Commodore’s influence on the personal computing and music producing is very often dismissed by the press (completely absent from Triumph of the Nerds/Pirates of Silicon Valley). Without Tramiel and his tough take on business, my dad probably wouldn’t have afforded a VIC-20, and you could say that my whole career path would have been very different.  Was Jack a nice person to do business with? By all accounts not quite, but his role was crucial. I probably read Bagnall’s commodore books more times that i can count, and you could say that I’m biased towards the commodore side of things. (BTW: you kind of forgot the AMIGA and the MOD/Demo scene), true Tramiel was mostly gone to Atari when the AMIGA got out. .. in any case. i Repeat, thanks for the article. 

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I didn’t forget the AMIGA – the issue is, the AMIGA was very much a post-Tramiel machine at Commodore, because he left in January 1984. (I left out the PET and the VIC-20 as there’s less to say about them musically speaking, though they’re important in the history of computing!)

      It’s a similar situation to Jobs’ departure at the same time – the “Big Mac” project (Mac II) would accuse Jobs of stealing technology and information (Jobs at NeXT … which turned out to be a really stupid battle for Apple to pick, given the thing wouldn’t ship, but they overestimated their former colleague at the time).

      The Mac II wasn’t really a Jobs machine, though, and by the same token AMIGA really didn’t wind up with Tramiel’s fingerprints on it as did the Atari ST.

      Of course, people don’t have to like him — he’s clearly on the same level as these other people, so I agree, leaving him out of history just doesn’t make any sense at all. (Speaking of incomplete history, you’ll notice US journalists and historians really ignore Sir Clive Sinclair, perhaps because they don’t have the history with the machine)

    • Designworxs

       Props for this. Thanks Peter.

    • Thomas

      The Amiga didn’t have a “sound” in the same way that the C64 did. It had no equivalent to the SID-chip, and relied on sample playback.

      What people think of as the “sound” of the Amiga, I think, came from how those samples were used in tracker programs, like Protracker or the original Soundtracker.

      If I am not mistaken, Soundtracker on the Amiga was the first of its kind. (It still lives on in programs like Renoise.)

      Sadly, Commodore greatly neglected the sound capabilities on the later Amiga models – focusing mainly on graphics capabilities (for which the Amiga was more known for).

    • Bgg

       The Amiga Paula chip absolutely has a sound of its own. Interestingly, the Amiga represents a swap of Atari core engineers going to Commodore as Tramiel took over Atari.  The amiga is more of a descendent of the atari 8 bits.  No relation to the C64.  

  • Paradiddle

    Thanks for the article! Having both owned a commodore 64 and an atari ST, it’s sad to see a legend die but I’m sure he’s lived a good life.

  • Designworxs

    Those pictures of the Atari St bring a tear to my eye. We will miss you Jack.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=712268320 Irl Sanders IV

    Peace, Jack Tramiel. I learned to program in Assembly on a PET, BASIC on a C64, got into music and MIDI on Atari STs. So glad I got to grow up alongside these computers.

  • Random Chance

    Don’t forget that it was Robert Russell and Bob Yannes who are the fathers of the C64. Jack Tramiel didn’t understand technology but he was a businessman through and through (and a ruthless one at that who didn’t think twice before screwing over suppliers, retailers and partners for a few dollars more; fired people on a nearly weekly basis and micromanaged everything except engineering, lost whole teams of gifted engineers because he did not give them the credit (and money) they deserved, etc.). By no means was Tramiel a saint or a visionary. He was at the right place at the right time and because he thought of the computer as a commodity when other companies were still oriented towards businesses he helped to bring about the home computer revolution. Commodore as a company was much more important than Apple in the days that home computing gained traction. 

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Yeah, absolutely. (Well, Jobs, too, had his share of management bungling … though I think these folks all deserve some leeway, in that they were managing an industry that was growing beyond anyone’s ability to understand, an industry they were essentially inventing — which is why you do wind up with these odd characters running massively-exploding companies, when they would have been thrown out of a more traditional business.)

      Tramiel makes Jobs look like a saint, yes … and for all of Jobs’ flaws with people management, he did have a genuine flair for promoting engineering as artists, in motivating them, even if sometimes he motivated them past the point of burnout. (In that, he’s hardly alone.)

      Now, that said, “being in the right place at the right time” tends to be the very definition of historical importance, which is why I think Tramiel belongs in the same category as some of these other people.

      Of course, I’m with you — to me, Yannes is the most interesting to me individually (along with Russell, for less-musical reasons), and perhaps a profile of his contributions is badly due.

  • http://kooztop5.blogspot.com Kooz

    Wow–you have an amazing amount of information here.  Awesome.  RIP Jack.

  • Cynic

    Although I’m a fan of Gerhard Lengeling’s work (I still have copies of Supertrack for the C64 and Notator and Logic for the Atari), I think it’s a bit of stretch to say that “Emagic DNA” is an influence on Core MIDI coming to iOS. Core MIDI is arguably thanks to people like Doug Wyatt (ex-Opcode) who were at Apple developing this technology for Mac OS X even before the Emagic purchase.

    An interesting footnote regarding Bob Yannes and the lack of sound capabilities in the Apple II is, of course, that Yannes went on to co-found Ensoniq, which would eventually produce a sound chip (the same one used in the Mirage) for the Apple IIgs. Funny the way all this stuff goes around!

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Yeah, to be fair, you’re … absolutely right. I made a little note of that. (What, Gerhard isn’t the secret CEO of Apple?) I’m sure both Gerhard and Doug Wyatt are pleased to have MIDI there, and yes, Doug deserves a lot of the credit (as well as for the work on pushing MIDI on the Mac at Opcode).

      I think the most important thing is rather that a lot of our expectations of what DAWs do and what MIDI on computers is like were advanced by the Atari ST and the competition across platforms and applications.

  • PaulDavisTheFirst

    Sometimes you just have to hook up the old with the new:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/carlo-ratm/6911627586/

  • PhoenixGreen

    The commodore 64 was a big part of my childhood (load…) http://blog.digitalstudent.co.uk/music-technology/

  • Hologram777

    Great site!

  • John Mills Tudder

    I worked as a live musician (guitarist) with an SX-64, sequencing software, multiple synths, midi bass and midi percussion and Latin percussion all on an A frame keyboard rack. http://c64music.blogspot.com/2005/12/another-sx64-midi-setup.html

    • nebula

      I used to play live with a 3-piece band, with a C64 (full size) running “Sonus SuperSequencer” – the live MIDI rig was a Roland JX-3P, Yamaha DX21 (later DX11), Akai S612, Roland TR-909 and TR-505, Yamaha RX21L, Simmons SPM 8:2 programmable (MIDI recallable) mixer, and a Yamaha R100 reverb. I liked those days, because we really had to work hard to make every sound just right, and as a result it all seemed so much more personal.

      Eventually the C64 got replaced with a Kawai Q-80, and much of the MIDI gear was replaced with a Roland S-330.