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How Atari and Amiga computers shaped the design of rave culture

I can still recall the trip to Bournemouth to get the Atari ST “Discovery Pack.” The Atari ST was a major leap forward from our previous computer, the ZX Spectrum, offering superior graphics and sound capabilities. It also had a floppy disk drive, which meant it was no-longer necessary to listen to extended sequences of noise and coloured bars while the game loaded (this was an exercise in patience at the time, though retrospectively these loading sequences seem more interesting due to the similarities with experimental noise music!) Whereas the uses of today’s modern computers often seem very prescriptive, at least at a surface level, the Atari ST “Discovery Pack” not only came with pre-packaged games, but also included programming tools—opening up a world of possibility. My older brother was soon programming games, which I would assist by creating pixel art in NEOchrome. With the addition of Stereo Master, which included a cartridge with audio line-in, we were soon able to experiment with recording and manipulating digital audio samples, while trackers could be used to sequence music. Later on, I also got to experiment with other graphical packages like GFA Raytrace and Jeff Minter’s Trip-a-Tron light synth.

Of course, we were not the only ones who enjoyed this period of creative experimentation and excitement at the possibilities of computing. Around this time there was something of a golden age, with many innovative software houses and bedroom coders creating games and demoscene disks that have since gained legendary status. Even the cracked Pompey Pirates or Automation menu disks were exciting, with their colourful graphics, music, and irreverent streams of scrolling text. What is also interesting is that the futuristic excitement about computers in this period also spread out into other areas of music and culture. Computers provided the tools for low-cost music production, with trackers (a type of music sequencing software) such as OctaMED on the Amiga, and the first version of Cubase on the Atari, which also included an in-built MIDI port.

For the burgeoning rave scenes of the late 1980s and 1990s, these computers—together with drum machines, synthesizers, digital samplers and workstations—provided inexpensive solutions that were adopted by many underground music producers. For example, Urban Shakedown/Aphrodite, Omni Trio, DJ Zinc, and Bizzy B were among those who used OctaMED. As a result, the design and aesthetics of a great deal of rave music from this period such as breakbeat hardcore, jungle, and drum and bass, can be associated with these computers and the tracker interface. Indeed, in the case of jungle—a style of dance music that revolves around the intricate slicing and rearranging of funk breakbeats—tracker sequencers have remained enormously popular to the present day, with producers such as Bizzy B and Venetian Snares continuing to favour modern versions such as Renoise.

“While the music and graphics from this period remain interesting in their own right, recently we have also seen new artistic movements that mine these aesthetics and reconfigure them in new ways.”

Yet it was not only the sonic design of rave culture that bore the mark of home computers—so did the visual design. As explored in the 1999 documentary Better Living Through Circuitry, graphic design packages provided the means to create event fliers, record sleeves, and VJ mixes. Just as hardcore rave tracks sampled and remixed mainstream culture—turning children’s TV themes into allusions to drug-fuelled raving—graphics packages enabled similarly subversive détournements of corporate logos. Meanwhile, software such as NewTek’s Lightwave 3D and the Video Toaster, a video production expansion for the Amiga, allowed designers to construct psychedelic fantasias that depicted ecstatic virtual rave utopias. Tools such as these allowed the production of Studio !K7s classic X-Mix series of VJ mixes; The Future Sound of London’s stunning Lifeforms visuals; and Alien Dreamtime by Spacetime Continuum with Terence McKenna, the latter of whom was one of the key counter-culture philosophers of the 1990s.

In no small way then, computers such as the Atari, the Amiga, and their successors, were vital forces in shaping large sections of 1990s rave culture. While the music and graphics from this period remain interesting in their own right, recently we have also seen new artistic movements that mine these aesthetics and reconfigure them in new ways. For instance, vaporwave constructs audio-visual experiences of surrealistic nostalgia for the synthetic utopias of 1990s computer graphics. Vaporwave and its The Simpsons-themed offshoot, simpsonswave, are like spaced-out, melancholy dreams of the 1990s, recorded on a VHS player with bad tracking. These genres are both narcoleptic hymns to a lost age of techno-utopianism, and psychedelic video fodder for America’s double cup (purple drank) codeine subculture. Elsewhere, the retro computer aesthetics of rave culture are also being revisited in street-wear, as can be seen through the designs and promotional media of Kenzo, Palace skateboards and Fun Time (to name but three). Through these various post-millennial permutations, we see not only how 1990s computers such as the Atari and Amiga shaped a golden era of rave culture, but also how those subcultural aesthetics have had enduring popularity, as subsequent generations seek the unattainable ecstasies of bygone techno utopias.

Featured image: Digital artwork “Vaporwave Island” by Jon Weinel, 2018. Image used with permission.

Recent Comments

  1. Emmet

    What magnificent memories! I well remember the little ZX, which my brilliant live-in boyfriend used to teach himself coding (which we called ‘programming’ back then). I half remember that we graduated subsequently to the BBC or Beeb computer. I think it was designed to work in conjunction with the family TV, but – what with television still being relatively new in my country, and with most of us who lived in lowly student squats hardly able to afford the luxury of a set – I don’t quite remember how we got around this. We may have bought a small black and white set for the purpose. Or perhaps it was possible to buy a monitor back then. And oh yes, I remember the days when a floppy disc actually was floppy!

  2. Staffan

    “offering superior graphics and sound capabilities”? The sound chip was almost identical in capabilities.

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