Instrumental Instruments: Atari ST

Our series on important music-making devices continues with the personal computer that was the first major step in the democratization of electronic music production

October 6, 2017

As the 1980s reached their midpoint, the idea of using computers to make music was gathering momentum. Still, it was far from a mainstream pursuit. Those with access to money and high-end studios could use the pioneering but cumbersome Fairlight CMI, while home enthusiasts with a Commodore 64 had a few very simple “tracker” style sequencers to choose from. When the computer music revolution finally did arrive in earnest, it was thanks not to a dedicated music-making machine but rather a personal computer: the Atari ST. The story of the computer’s development, and its battle for supremacy with Commodore’s Amiga range, has since become the stuff of legend, with both playing their part in bringing home computing to the masses.

At the heart of the Atari ST story is Jack Tramiel, a fearlessly hard-nosed businessman whose life was the embodiment of the American dream. Born in Poland to Jewish parents, Tramiel suffered in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War, eventually making it the United States – and a promising new life – in 1947. During the 1960s, Tramiel created a manufacturing empire by focusing on typewriters and calculators before turning his attention to business computers in the 1970s. By the time the 1980s rolled around, the Commodore International company he’d founded controlled a significant share of the home computing market. His VIC-20 computer was reportedly the first to sell over a million units; the machine that followed it, the Commodore 64, was even more successful.

In January 1984, Tramiel fell out with Irving Gould, the similarly tough-talking chairman of Commodore International. The two clashed at a particularly stormy board meeting that ended with Tramiel walking away from the company. In a burst of competitive energy, Tramiel bought the US arm of video game manufacturer Atari six months later and set about developing a next-generation personal computer that would blow Commodore’s in-development rival, the Amiga, out of the water.

The combination of tight timing, built-in MIDI capability and a new generation of user-friendly software sequencers ensured that the Atari ST was the first major step in the democratization of electronic music production.

When news of Tramiel’s takeover reached the developers at Atari’s Californian headquarters, panic spread around the office. According to a 2008 blog post by former Atari programmer Landon Dyer, few of his colleagues were pleased with the news. “My office-mate had worked at Commodore a few years earlier,” he wrote. “He said to me, ‘If this is true, I’m quitting. I’m not working for Jack again – he’s a monster.’ I didn’t know anything about Jack, but this wasn’t a good sign.”

Tramiel was famed for micromanaging and cutting costs, and he immediately got rid of nearly two-thirds of Atari’s staff. Those that remained, including Dyer, were given less than a year to build a new personal computer, complete with its own bespoke operating system. The fact that they managed to do it ahead of schedule remains a remarkable achievement, and what they’d come up with was, for its time, a very versatile home computer. Journalists quickly dubbed it the “Jackintosh,” as it mirrored some of the Apple Macintosh’s capabilities at a fraction of the cost.

When the first Atari 520ST units rolled off the production line in June 1985 – beating Commodore’s Amiga by a month – they came loaded with 512 KB of RAM, a Motorola 6800 16/32 bit central processing unit and a Yamaha YM2149 sound chip. What made it so attractive to budding computer musicians, though, was the computer’s MIDI capability. The ST was the first computer to come with MIDI “In” and “Out/Thru” ports built into the casing. Right from the start, it was production-ready.

“Something not enough people talk about is the Atari ST’s fast MIDI attack,” says Alec Empire, whose Atari Teenage Riot band was named in honour of the machine. “Some of the music we made was only possible because of the amount of MIDI information the Atari can process. The Atari just delivers a certain punch.”

Quite why the Atari ST development team decided to include MIDI, a then relatively new technical protocol designed to allow electronic instruments to communicate with each other, remains a matter of great debate. Even those employed by Atari at the time don’t seem to know why the decision was made.

“To be honest, I don’t know who the driving force behind putting a MIDI chip in there was,” admits Darryl Still, who joined the company in 1988, eventually rising through the ranks to become Head of Marketing in Europe. “I never met a music expert who worked for Atari in the US, or any of the European territories. It may have been included to cover all bases. It was driven by the Steinberg guys, I’m sure, and the other developers in that area. They looked at the ST and thought, ‘Actually, this is a really nice piece of hardware.’”

Some have speculated that the decision to include MIDI was made by Leonard Tramiel, second in command to his father Jack at Atari. Certainly, both would have been familiar with Steinberg Research, as the Hamburg-based company had previously developed a MIDI sequencing “tracker” software package for the Commodore 64.

“When I started working at the company in 1985, we had two Atari development machines, maybe half a year ahead of release,” says veteran Steinberg programmer Werner Kracht. “There was nearly no documentation, and there was a lot of trial and error to programming. I think some people gave up on this task because it was very hard. I was more or less alone with it, because nobody was sure whether it would be a success, and Steinberg made a living out of Commodore software at the time.”

Kracht was set to work on what would become Steinberg’s first MIDI sequencing program for the Atari ST, Pro 12 – a “port” of the Pro 16 package the Hamburg-based company had previously developed for the Commodore 64. This would later become Pro 24, one of a spate of MIDI sequencing programs developed for the ST in the years that followed. These included the popular C-Lab Creator, later Notator Logic, which had been developed in Hamburg by a team led by former Steinberg programmer Gerhard Lengeling.

“I was a bit shocked when I saw people use the Atari ST for things other than music. I almost forgot that it was a home computer.”

Per Martinsen

“There was a friendly competition in the first years,” Werner Kracht admits. “Gerhard even invited us to his birthday parties. The competition was very good, because we were watching each other all the time.” This light-hearted local rivalry helped push both teams of programmers to develop pioneering music production packages. These software programs, designed to work in unison with the affordable, MIDI-enabled electronic instruments now flooding the market, helped make the Atari ST an attractive proposition for musicians and would-be dance music producers.

“I got my Atari 520ST in 1986 along with an AKAI S900 sampler,” says Norwegian producer Per Martinsen, AKA Mental Overdrive, who spent much of 1989 operating the Atari ST used at the R&R Records studio in Ghent, Belgium. “I’d been fiddling with synthesizers and drum machines for a few years before that, and it was all about hardware sequencers that were hard to program. When I first saw the ST coupled with C-Lab software, I was thinking, ‘This is so good.’ I could make tracks from scratch and finish them.”

By today’s standards, the likes of C-Lab Creator and Steinberg Pro 24 were relatively primitive. Even so, they were hugely advanced for the time. “The software I used to begin with looked like a tracker, in that it didn’t have a timeline like today’s programs,” Martinsen says. “It was all about sending MIDI information to external gear through the built-in ports. That was the genius of the ST. I was a bit shocked when I saw people use them for things other than music. I almost forgot that it was a home computer.”

By all accounts, it took Atari some time to wake up to the machine’s music-making potential and rising popularity amongst producers. While they may have given the world the tools to begin a computer music revolution, they didn’t seem that interested in taking part in the uprising. “Every territory had a different focus,” Darryl Still says. “Germany had their desktop publishing and we [in the UK] had a gaming focus. For each territory, music was like the third level. I’m not a musician, but by the early ’90s I was running the music side of the company. They really needed music experts in there doing it. I’d get a phone call from Jean-Michel Jarre asking technical questions. It was an honour to talk to him, but I didn’t have a clue what I was saying.”

Regardless of the company’s inability to grasp the growing demand for the machine as a music production tool, the ST rapidly replaced its lumbering predecessors in professional recording studios. “It was the standard thing in studios at the time,” says British dance music veteran Dave Lee, who at the time was just beginning to score club hits as Joey Negro. “We preferred to get the engineer to use it, though we’d take over for a bit when we were doing certain fiddly things. It was just a sequencing system to us.” Even those acts that had been enthusiastic Fairlight users, such as Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys, made the transition to the ST, while the runaway chart success of UK pop hitmakers Stock, Aitken and Waterman was partly enabled by Atari’s MIDI-friendly machine.

There were these crazy records coming out, and this was only possible because of the Atari.

Alec Empire

“It was just much easier to work with,” says Pet Shop Boys programmer Pete Gleadall. “If you had the Atari, some MIDI synths and a few samplers, you had a really flexible set-up. The Fairlight was very good, but it was less flexible. MIDI sequencers open up a whole other world [of possibilities].”

Thanks to the Atari ST’s affordability, these possibilities were open to home users just as much as studio-bound music professionals. And as the 1980s made way for the ’90s, it was music made by home users that began to take clubs, and later the pop charts, by storm.

Utah Saints - What Can You Do For Me

“Our first hit, ‘What Can You Do For Me,’ came out of Jez Willis’s bedroom,” says Utah Saints member Tim Garbutt. “He had a small set-up, which was an ST, an AKAI S900 sampler, a little desk, and a couple of sound modules. It was a really fast way of working. The only thing that would slow us down would be working with samples on the AKAI.”

“The Atari St was for many years the main brain of the studio,” says Per Martinsen. “It was the main piece of sequencing hardware for everybody at the time. What happened, in around ’89 I think, was that a cracked version of Cubase turned up in the studio. Everybody started using that, because of the timeline.”

Cubase was Steinberg’s follow-up to Pro 24, and offered a revolutionary user interface. It was the first software sequencer to boast a graphical user interface, an arrangement “timeline” and the ability to drag and drop musical elements using the computer’s mouse.

“I think all the people who used Pro 24 wrote letters to us and made suggestions,” Werner Kracht says. “‘Can we get a graphical interface for it, where you could just move the parts by mouse?’ We had a clear vision of how it should look when we started.”

When it was launched, Cubase was accompanied by a “multi-tasking MIDI operating system” designed by Karl Steinberg. “You could actually run two or three programs that used the same MIDI engine and the same timing, and it would be synchronized,” Kracht says. “We had direct access to the Atari hardware, so we could work like that on the timing.” Talk to those who used the Atari ST with either Cubase or its main rival, Notator Logic, and they’ll almost certainly mention the quality of the computer’s MIDI clock timing.

“I just remember I'd hook up my S950 sampler [to the Atari], put a loop in there, listen to it, and it would so rock,” Trevor Jackson says. “I could listen to it for 10, 15 minutes, and it wouldn’t shift at all. Something about the ST was militant in its sequencing.”

Novo Line - Three Forces

Nat Fowler, whose releases as Novo Line for Ecstatic and Diagonal are largely composed using two Atari STs, is similarly full of praise for the computer’s famous timekeeping. “It’s pretty amazing that these old computers can stay completely in sync with each other for hours,” he says. “I’ve hit the space bars on them [simultaneously] at sound check, let them play, gone away for six hours, and when I’ve come back they’re still right on with each other. The timing on the ST was more precise than anything else.”

Smartly, Atari had also made sure that the ST also boasted greater running memory than the rival Commodore Amiga. This quickly became an important factor in the machine’s popularity with producers. “When you made a song on the Commodore, you ran out of memory very soon,” Werner Kracht says. “On the Atari, you could play the complete song on different tracks using MIDI, without any repetition. Therefore the music that came out of the Atari was much more alive.”

The combination of tight timing, built-in MIDI capability and a new generation of user-friendly software sequencers ensured that the Atari ST was the first major step in the democratization of electronic music production. It also allowed the development of strains of dance music that relied far more heavily on intricately edited and programmed percussion.

Carys Huws
Atari Teenage Riot - Digital Hardcore

“The Atari ST was so different from other sequencers,” Alec Empire says. “It was a big step forward, as you could trigger cut-up samples and do very fast stuff that wouldn’t have been possible on analogue sequencers.” Empire’s Atari Teenage Riot pioneered a style they called “digital hardcore,” which relied heavily on quick-fire bursts of intricately programmed, cut-up percussion samples. They were not alone. Some have credited the rise of jungle and drum & bass to the editing, sampling and sequencing possibilities offered by the Atari ST.

“It became almost like a competition [to see] who has the wildest programming,” Empire says. “We were always much faster than the British. I remember talking to Squarepusher at some point, and he was telling me, ‘Yeah, we were always paying really close attention to what the Germans were doing.’ There were these crazy records coming out, and this was only possible because of the Atari.”

Many of the innovations introduced by the Atari ST would later become commonplace within music production, and by the tail end of the 1990s, it was possible to produce similar music using a Mac or PC. But although most producers switched to bigger and better new machines, a few dedicated enthusiasts continue to use the Atari ST to this day.

Nat Fowler believes the computer should be considered a genuinely groundbreaking machine. “I think it’s extremely important for the development of computer music,” Fowler says. “I think everything after the Atari has kind of deadened the life that the ST had, but I think that it was a huge, crucial point in the automation of music. Remixes could be made easier, and sugary, recycled pop could be made easier. Not all good things, but it was definitely a revolution.”

It’s a view shared by Alec Empire, who still uses STs to this day. “The moment the Atari appeared in the studio, that became the central focus, with everything else pushed to the side,” he says. “People still use the other instruments, but everything is built around the Atari. This is important, because it changed the way people approach the music itself.”

Even though it was undoubtedly an important staging post in the development of computer music, it’s rare to hear the Atari ST being talked about in such hushed tones. We celebrate many other iconic music-making machines from the period, but the ST is generally overlooked.

“When you look back at pieces of gear from over the last 30 years that stand out, you go: ‘Right, the 303 for its acid sound, and the 808 and 909 for their drums,’” Tim Garbutt says. “They are timeless bits of equipment, which people still use today. The reason why the Atari ST is overlooked is because it was purely a sequencer, and it didn’t make a sound. But to me, it’s as important as those other bits of gear.”

Header image © Carys Huws

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