Calculator Music with Houston Tracker

Not too long ago I read about how some genius called ‘irrlicht project’ had hacked old Texas Instruments graphing calculators so they could be used to make 1-bit music. Naturally, I had to have a bash at this myself. There’s something particularly special and rewarding about being able to compose whole tracks on devices that were never intended to work that way.

The models that support the ‘Houston Tracker‘ software are seemingly everywhere in the US, as they were apparently a mandatory purchase for many schools. That means they can usually be picked up fairly cheap second hand over there. However, as it turns out, these weren’t all that prevalent in the UK, so they are still fairly pricey – coming in at around ¬£30 on eBay.

I finally got an okay deal though, and got to work getting Houston Tracker onto the device. It’s not all that straightforward, as you need a specific kind of cable – which costs almost the same as the damn calculator. Importing one from America worked out to be the most cost effective route in the end. Installation wise, there’s a lot of fiddling about to get the dependencies right on OSX, unless you use MacPorts – which saved the day. Once it was all up and running though, it was pretty good fun to use – with a whole host of features that I didn’t expect.

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I recorded a fairly simple tune to find my way around the controls, and decided to record it. The raw calculator sound was a bit too bare for my tastes, so I threw in some minimal effects and overlaid some glitchy guitars/harmonised vocals. Here it is, my first calculator music track:

Mr. K

It’s been a while since I got pished on a Saturday night and just recorded some music. Well, I ended up recording after an hour of fighting with my mixer to work out why the stereo output was only producing mono…

There’s always the risk that it could have been my crappy soldering, which meant testing out every possible step. So many variables. Surprisingly, it wasn’t actually any of the Gameboys, but the mixer.

I’m pretty pleased with the result, and it should give a hint as to what the next album will sound like. Listen to and download it below:

To finish off, here’s a picture of my tidied up workspace.

Hungover music making

On Saturday night a few of us headed out (full of rum) to belt out classic power ballads for a few hours. It was good times.

We didn’t feel all that great on Sunday though. Normally I’d just lie about and eat rubbish all day, which eh… I did anyway. But Lee aka radiomoths¬†came round and we recorded the base of a new track with a bunch of different pedals, synths, and the C64. It’s all de-tuned and sounds a bit like the soundtrack of some robot death march from a film. Lee also took photos that I’ve stolen from his blog.

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After we were done, I ate some more rubbish food. Not too bad a way to get through a hangover.

 

As weird as it seems to be announcing the release of one record whilst having worked on a totally different one for the past few weeks, that’s the way it goes in the life-cycle of things.

This is an awesome split EP of the 8-bit inspired chiptune electronic variety, with The Wet Dreams taking the first half of the record; myself the second. We took a basic melody for one of the tracks, and wrote our own versions (tracks 3 and 4) which made it all the more interesting.

Click through to the music page for the relevant links and all that.

For those of you not so enamoured with the chiptune side of things, watch this space – there’s other creations in the works.

As you may probably have picked up from the previous posts, it’s been a bit of a tough slog getting into the whole electronics modification side of chiptune music.

It reminded me a bit of learning to drive. You keep thinking – how on earth can I find this so difficult when so many other people find it so easy?

After hours and hours and hours of accumulated research though, I’ve finally taken a big jump forward and managed to front-light the Gameboy Color so I can use it to compose stuff on whenever and wherever. I did also add an extra 3.5mm line-out, but discovered that Maplin had given me the wrong jack… mono instead of stereo… which put the kaibosh on that plan.

Either way, soldering mistakes and cut hands aside, things are starting to settle in. Here’s a couple of shots of the Gameboy in all its illuminated glory; nestled snugly beside the other electronic gear.

My brain feels like it’s melting out through my eyes after not sleeping too much the past few days, but it seemed only right to type up something since I’ve spent almost every waking hour researching and trying to get my head round things related to this whole musical endeavour.

What started as a simple idea to have a couple of lights added to an old Gameboys has spiralled wildly out of control into what is unamiliar territory. Ultimately there should be a few different units that can be hooked up to different effects pads and guitar amps and all that sort of exciting stuff, as well as the ability to plug in a synth via midi…

Having never taken physics to any level past the age of 14, this is going out on a fairly big limb; a world of diodes, capacitors and resistors that I know literally nothing about. I think we’re getting somewhere though.

I was told today that when I take on a project I really go for it, with everything else in my life dropping off of the radar. I always knew that was true; I just didn’t realise it was that obvious. It’ll be exciting to have all the gear set up and ready to go – already I’ve managed to get the guitars that have sat in a dusty corner for years awaiting repair fixed, which is no small feat of motivation. Trust me.

In other news, samples and contributions have been trickling in from some of the musicians involved in the collaborative project that’s on the horizon, and they’re sounding rather delightful. More of that to come…