You would prefer another target? A military target? Then name the system!
Dantooine. They’re on Dantooine.
There. You see Lord Vader, she can be reasonable.
I’d never thought of myself as a hacker in the WarGames sense. I was just a programmer trying to master my craft. I swore off dial-up boards after ’85. Paranoia initially, but really I was just moving on. Boredom had nearly failed me out of High School. Now, suddenly I was recognized for motivation and academic success. I was as shocked as anyone.
Everything changed. Professors let me take graduate courses my junior year. Cohorts paid me to tutor them. Pretty girls asked for my help in the lab. There was even a new hotness for my modem.
The university had moved from UUCP to BITNET. Somewhere, out in cyberspace, it gatewayed to SPAN, which gatewayed to Arpanet. Mail went faster, there was realtime chat between universities, and USENET had more daily updates than I could keep up with. Best of all, my activities were sanctioned and aboveboard.
That didn’t mean I was oblivious to the underground. I bumped into my share of hackers, phreaks and pirates. They seemed to recognize me even without my eye patch.
What was more surprising though, was how many non-geeks spotted me. Perhaps non-geeks isn’t the right term, but you know, people who used the word “cool” in its musician sense. Astonishingly, guys who had never written a line of code in their life kept telling me about their favorite pirate boards. Places where they swapped file types that had been functionally invisible to me.
“You need to meet Brian’s brother Scott, he’s really into computers too!” That was our social network in the days before the web.
I didn’t usually hang with my brother’s friends, but hey, it was the holidays and there was beer. Scott and Brian had converted their parent’s garage into a party room. It was piled with amps and musician’s speakers, but they’d ditched ’70s posters and black lights in favor of ’80s neon and custom paint. Neon was Scott’s hobby but he and his brother had recently hatched a new plan.
“We built this room so we could invite girls over, but without some kind of event it gets pretty lame. That’s why Brian, Donny and I are putting together a party band.”
This news came as a bit of a surprise. Donny had taken a few piano lessons but he certainly wasn’t a musician. I’d never heard of Brian playing anything. Normally I would have laughed in astonishment but Scott carried the kind of swagger that made you want to hear him out.
“It’s all MIDI,” he said gesturing toward a drum machine and keyboards positioned like techno-decor. “I sequence everything from the Atari over there. The ST keeps the beat and plays most of the music. I’ve got it set to control two keyboards and the drums. I’ll sing lead. I’m teaching Brian to fill in chords. Donny will bust out an occasional keyboard solo.”
MIDI wasn’t a sound format. It was a way of controlling instruments. A kind of assembly language for music. Instead of poking note parameters into a tone generator, MIDI programs pushed them down a wire. At the end of the wire professional instruments made the actual sounds.
Scott wasn’t a computer programmer or even a musician in the traditional sense. He was a music hacker. He’d been trading MIDI files on a local BBS and had amassed a huge collection of popular songs. Most of the songs had multiple versions. Scott used a rudimentary MIDI editor to edit out instrument parts he didn’t like. Then he’d paste in tracks from a version he liked better. Either that or use a keyboard to play directly into the editor. His plan was to create a custom version of each song that left simple to play tracks out. Then he, Brian and Donny would ad lib them live.
There wasn’t a name for it yet, but Scott had created an intricate Karaoke machine. One in the style of the Rube Goldberg. It sounded quite impressive even without its human band mates. Two keyboards, a drum machine, and a computer all jamming together. It was quite a dance.
I think the trio played only one or two parties. But that was enough. It made Scott the first person I ever knew who successfully impressed a date with computer music.
“No! Oh, fuck! Oh, shit! Shit! It can’t be.” I returned after New Years to heartbreak. No my girlfriend was still there, but my prized Apple II had been stolen from her apartment.
The ache subsided only after the insurance company offered to replace the outdated machine with a brand new Apple IIGS. The ‘S’ in the title stood for sound. The new machine had a dedicated sound chip so powerful that it could play MIDI music internally. There was no need to wire the computer to an external keyboard. It had its own built-in instruments. In fact the GS’s Ensoniq chip was a generation beyond the processors in Scott’s professional keyboards.
My new box came with a music editing program that showed scrolling super high-res musical notes on a piano score. Its 32 voices played a quality of music that completely eclipsed the two voice code Mike and I had hand typed.
I knew because I dug out the dusty old box to play in comparison. The old dance made my heart thump but the new dance made it soar! Still my girlfriend was unimpressed. Some things never change.
My youngest brother Jimmy didn’t have any problems impressing women. He was a full fledged musician. A drummer extraordinaire. They swooned whenever he tapped his toes. Jimmy had graduated early from high school in the spring of ’86. A road band offered him a job but the gig couldn’t wait until after graduation. The band hired him sight unseen while listening to his demo tape. They had no idea he was only seventeen.
Jimmy had zero interest in computers. His forte was hitting things with sticks. Yet a year and a half later when he returned from playing the East coast, MIDI, MIDI, MIDI was all I heard. Jimmy had tried electronic drums, but loathed the sound they made. I was baffled. What else could he possibly do with MIDI?
“Sampling man! Sampling’s the future!”
He used an early drummer’s interface called an octopad to trigger his recordings during live gigs. The effect was amazing. Jimmy was already the fasted drummer I had ever seen but the combination effect made him positively inhuman.
Within a year, the digital experiment had changed Jimmy completely. He purchased his first computer to speed copying and trading of sample floppies. The next year he taught himself how to edit his own MIDI sequences. A year after that he bought a second computer and built his own digital recording studio.
Digital music was a kind of gateway drug. It gave computer geeks an appreciation of music. It taught musicians to appreciate computers. And with the new hobby came new files to share, new libraries to build and new degrees to confer.
It didn’t stop at music of course. There were new digital artists. Desktop publishers and even guys bragging they worked in multimedia. All had their own favorite cyberspace hangouts. Multi-line, networked BBSs with few busy signals. Places where artists and future empire builders gathered globally and in mass. All guided by consultant hackers who’d previously sat alone in their rooms.
Yet somehow, in some crazy way, every time someone threw the computer at a “cool” new hobby we all seemed a little less geeky.
…and a lot less invisible.