Happy February, folks!
This month, I wanted to shed some light on a really cool and inspiring Atari ST creation I came across this week. Set free to the world on January 24, 2018, ‘Escape Return’ is both a digital and vinyl release by Swiss artist, STU. I listen to a lot of music and, friends, this one really captivated me.
Most who read my articles on here know I tend to steer more towards reviewing artists who create music using vintage sound chips but don’t sound like your typical ‘Mario at the rave’ stereotype; I look for music that’s different. I like releases that are melodic without being cliche, downtempo, that touch on creative sound design, and that make you think a little bit. A firm believer that reading makes one a better writer, I also believe that listening makes for a better composer, mix engineer, and sound designer. After listening to this release, I was certainly looking forward to getting home from work to write music of my own, and without looking back, I bought the 7″ vinyl.
To me, a great electronic musician is someone who knows their hardware and software inside and out to the point where it can clearly express the music stuck in their head while using sound capabilities to their compositional advantage. STU achieved just that, and inspired me to look into learning a new terrain of computer music I knew very little about.
Part of my obsession with ‘Escape’ was the use of extreme harmonic overtones lingering above the melody. Driven by so many layers of awesome rhythmic backing harmonies, everything in this track works: The bass is gorgeous, deep, and driving, and it’s clear a lot of care went into the creation of each instrument to make the mix sound as fulfilling as it does.
‘Return’ will make you sway: While the call and response sort of echoing harmony is powerful, the bass plays as the essential melodic force whose oscillators collide slightly in and out of tune in a way that is necessary to create a heavy-hitting, attention grabbing track. It’s on repeat.
I have limited experience with the Atari ST, and learning that STU used it in this release was reason enough to dive into not only the capabilities of that computer, but also into the history.
Released 32 years ago in June of 1985, the original Atari ST (also known as the 520ST) was a popular pick for both professional and amateur composers of the time because of its MIDI ports and capabilities. Though initially quite pricey at a listing price just shy of $800 for basic black and white graphics, the unit was popular enough to eventually evolve into a newer release called the STe, which contained a great deal of upgrades.
Using the Yahama YM2149 sound chip, composers of the original ST era were drawn to trackers such as the TCB Tracker. Though the Yamaha chip was part of the purchase, a different sound chip by the name of AMY was originally set to be paired with the 1984 workstation called Sierra, and later was supposed to hit the shelves with the ST. Due to scheduling and development timelines, this never happened. From what I gathered, the AMY chip was a mystery for quite a while and it was only within the last 11 years that sound files resurfaced from long lost development disks. The AMY project was led by Gary Sikorski, engineers Scott Foster, Steve Saunders, and Sam Nicolino, software engineers and Jack Palevich and Tom Zimmerman. Based on experiments done at the Bell Labs (home of computer music innovators such as the late Max Mathews), AMY was inspired by work done by additive synthesist Hal Alles. You can hear samples of what might have been here. In a time where FM synthesis was more popular, it would have been pretty cool to hear additive synthesis used, don’t you think?
Back to 2018: Seeing ‘Escape Release’ available on vinyl only made it even better for me; something made with so much care deserves a place in physical format. I can’t wait for it to arrive to the States and to give it a home next to my other records. The release is so good that while I’m a good sharer, I would still want my friends to buy their own ’cause I don’t trust any of you to give it back, and I believe this artist deserves to be supported! There are still some records left and rumor has it that any remaining will go on tour with STU this summer. I hope you enjoyed.
Until next time,
The Unicorn Princess