The concept of using physical optical media for playing games, video, and music on computers has become passé in the modern era, but for several decades they were a desired, nay required, feature of computers. Nowadays, optical drives are a rare breed on computers, but during the mid-1990s through to just a few years ago they were standard inclusion on most desktops and laptops. How else could you play your CDs, DVDs, backup data, install games, and even play the stack of ‘completely legit’ Video CDs from your recent trip to Bali?
Prior to this, who remembers the days of PCs, Macs, Commodore Amigas, and Atari STs before CD-ROM drives were plentiful and affordable? Computer games were installed to hard drive or run from floppy disk, though movies couldn’t realistically or affordably be played on computers; your trusty VHS VCR was the go-to for the latest blockbuster (or a LaserDisc player if your were one of those hoity-toity types). What about music though? Sure, CDs or cassette tapes were the predominant formats during the late 1980s to early 1990s, with vinyl a distant third in most circles, though it did have many fans amongst the DJ set (pun intended), but what about playing high quality music on computers? What if you wanted to create tunes? How did you fit it on a 720kB or 1.44mB floppy disk and share it with mates?
Enter the family of music broadly encompassed by the term ‘module file music‘, the most commonly known of which is the MOD format originating in 1987 for the Commodore Amiga. Four tracks, samples, patterns, volume, effects (panning, echo, fades etc), and, perhaps most importantly, playback took up very little CPU overhead on Amigas and later STs; hence their use in games and demos from back in the 1980s through to current retro releases on 16-bit computers and consoles. It was all kinds of mind-blowing to be writing a university research essay in the mid-90s and listening to what seemed like ‘CD quality’ tunes being played as a background process. Of course they weren’t ‘CD quality’ at all, as the samples were only 8-bit and often quite crunchy; it was all down to the skills of the composer who put it together, with many of them being exceptionally creative and talented. Numerous offshoot formats sprung up (XM, S3M, OCT, IT) adding more features, more channels, and even MIDI control. Numerous electronic musicians got their start creating MODs, and even releasing music created in this format. ‘Popular’ artists including Aphex Twin, Aphrodite, Calvin Harris, Darude, Deadmau5, and Nasenbluten spring to mind, as well as those know for creating chiptunes or music for games and demos such as Anamanaguchi, cTrix, Goto80, Jeroen Tel, and Hoffman…I could go on! In future pieces we’ll look in depth at some of these artists and more.
This article isn’t meant to be a deep dive into MOD music or demoscene culture, I’m sure you want to get to the meat and potatoes that is the Tiny Music archive. Before we do I’ll cherry pick four personal moments (only four, there are numerous others I could mention) over the last thirty or so years where MOD music has altered my perception of just how powerful, influential, and pervasive this format can be.
- My first really memorable ‘wow’ moment with MOD music came in the mid-90s. Whist hanging with some friends at a house party on a Saturday night (a rarity for me, I worked almost every Saturday night for five years), I was playing DOOM properly for the first time. My mate interrupted (it was his computer after all) and played some music from his PC. It was a B-side from a Jam and Spoon release called Follow Me – an underground hit for an otherwise ‘top 40’ dance music band. When he explained that it was a MOD file that he made himself, I was gobsmacked. True, it wasn’t 100% identical to the original ten minute trance anthem, but it truly showed the power of the format. I will attempt to dig up the MOD file from my Atari TT030 that hasn’t been turned on in about twenty years…fingers crossed!
- I was at a 94-95 New Years Eve party at the Old Adelaide Gaol, when live artist Force Mass Motion (aka Michael Wells stepped up to play. To my amazement he played his entire live set on two Commodore Amigas, triggering samples and changing effects throughout. Mind blown again! Here is an entire album he wrote and produced using MOD music. Prepare yourself for lots of 90s style bangers!
- I’ve had the opportunity to see Melbourne’s own cTrix play live numerous times at PAX Australia and Square Sounds festival, in addition to DJing alongside him at several AVCon events. Additionally I’ve seen him at work preparing for several shows whilst crashing on my couch. His musical output is superlative and his knowledge of hardware, software, and musical theory second-to-none. Every time I’m amazed! If you haven’t had the chance, check out his videos on sampling and making music using computers in the 1990s. [cTrix on Facebook]
- The Last Strike is an upcoming Atari Jaguar shooter from Reboot and will published by AtariAge this year. The game was coded right here in Adelaide, and I was privileged to be able to edit the promotional video for the game. Throughout the editing process (and during game testing), I was constantly blown away by the extensive and varied music in the game; all 30+ minutes are housed in a 6MB cartridge. What a world!
So, Tiny Music then. Prolific long time Adelaide music photographer and music blogger Spoz Spozington (who also professes a fondness for Brutal DOOM) has spent innumerable hours over the last three years curating this impressive collection of MOD music. Scouring the many sources of this music format across the web, Spoz has methodically picked some of the best examples of MOD tunes available. To quote / paraphrase the man himself:
TINY MUSIC – basically just a shit name I give the internet’s most willfully obscure underground music scene of home-brewed source-code madness… in file formats MOD, XM, IT, S3M, MPTM, etc etc… but super curated in me selecting only the very best/weirdest of those tunes for your enjoyment (after almost 3+ years extensive research)… think a weird hybid between video game chiptunes and mad slapping underground club bangers / stoner Ninjatune/Warp label’esque style eclectica… all crammed into itty bitty file sizes small enough to cram onto a floppy disc. Featuring in a dizzying array of oddball genres – synthwave, industrial, drum & bass, acid, oldskool rave, druggy hiphop lo-fi stonerism, house, breaks, dream poppy type things and/or the mega chonkin’ sounds of Neo Tokyo mechas wailing hell on each other.
Indeed! You will need specific software to play these tunes:
- XMplay for PC (included and configured in the link below)
- ZXtune – for Mac/Linux/Android
- Modizer – for iOS devices
- VLC Media Player also generally works well, but there will be some issues with playback of some tunes (many will sound fine, others may not)
This is an ongoing project, with thirty tunes added every month or so, possibly more often during these interesting times. Spoz suggest that he’s probably listened to in excess of one million MOD files compiling this archive of over 780 tunes (50+ hours), with roughly fifty of the songs having been originally sourced during the mid 1990s.
Tiny Music is available for download HERE.
Let us know what you think of them, or if you would suggest any other inclusions. Enjoy!