ZX marks the spot

The entry this month is only tangentially to do with music, but bear with me. It’ll be of interest to some, I suppose; but it’ll be Martian to those who are and have always been immersed in the modern world of smartphone, tablet, satnav. I come from a time Before.

A few days ago those of a geek-minded disposition celebrated the thirtieth birthday of the ZX Spectrum computer. Thirty years? Like yesterday, like a lifetime ago….

The Spectrum was the first home computer in the Hammill household and its arrival marked the shift into a modern world in which it would actually be possible to have a sustainable future in the business of music making.

At first I used it to keep my accounts and then, quickly and significantly, it became the storage spot for the Sofa Sound mail-order database, which until then had been maintained as a card-index file.

Working with the Spectrum was always a bit of a hit and miss experience. The monitor I used was an old black and white Sony Trinitron, emblazoned with the VdGG logo on the side, which I’d bought in order to follow the World Cup in dressing rooms in 1970. (Incredibly, that’s still in my possession.) No such thing as onboard programs of course, they – and data – had to be loaded in from a portable cassette player. If I recall correctly, the dodgier the player the more likely you were to get stable results. Volume setting was crucial and it usually took a good few tries before things were properly in order.

Later I had a superdrive. It wasn’t anything like a floppy though, being a tiny tape cartridge based system. You needed many copies, as the tape was always breaking.

Printing was pretty strange as well at first, being on a tiny thermal bit of kit. Later I got a proper tractor feed printer but it was far from simple getting that to be recognised and continue to be recognised by the ZX.

For all the strangeness, though, this was a proper computer and it was, for me, the start of the long trail which has led to where we now are, utterly dependent on the things.

The biggest problem with the Spectrum was the keyboard, a miniature rubberised layout. The next home computer had a much more satisfactory keyboard and was, in its own way a piece of kit very much built and fir for purpose: the Amstrad PCW, undoubtedly Alan Sugar’s finest product. (There have been some other pretty strange ones from Amstrad over the years….)

The Amstrad didn’t have pretensions to be much more than a word processor, though it could handle accounts & database stuff as well. As an all-in-one unit of processor, (slightly unusual) disc drive and monitor it was remarkably robust. It wasn’t an Apple or even a BBC but it certainly did its job.

The smoke signals were already going up, though, that computers could be much, much more useful than this for musicians.

My first exposure to sequencing (and the rest) was via Paul Ridout, whose main gig this was at the time. He had one of the aforementioned BBCs, though was soon to move on to Apples.

Both these machines were a step too far – and too expensive – for me. But yet another idiosyncratic unit exactly fitted the bill: the Atari ST. This was ostensibly designed, I believe, as a games machine but its major calling card was that MIDI ports, in and out, were built in. So it was a given that those music software writers would get in there to make it the wonderful workhorse it became. Its graphics capabilities meant that I was able to use it for Sofa Sound newsletters as well.

(The music software I went for was Pro16. This became Pro24 and eventually Cubase, of which I’m an adherent to this day. Catch them young, eh?)

This machine – or even, I think, a couple of them, as I later upgraded – served me very, very well and I have fond memories of it. It was rock solid in terms of MIDI timing. In the way of things, though, it eventually had to go and since then, after a degree of biting the bullet financially, I’ve been a Mac man.

That’s a delightfully straightforward world, really, and I have no regrets at all about having gone down that route, through at least four or five different models  for music work alone. And of course the power and flexibility on offer these days is astonishing.

But in this brief reminiscence I’ve been rather more interested in the first three, slightly wonky, computers which set me on my way. Cheap (-ish), cheerful and unpretentious, I wouldn’t trade the experience of working with (though sometimes it felt like against) them.

And it’s only thirty years since that little rubber-keyed black box entered my life. Remarkable.

I’m not that much of a geek that I can remember the specific model numbers I owned and some of my memories may be a little bit hazy; but if anyone is interested in looking up this stuff I can recommend this site for all things computer-retro: http://bit.ly/2lpnNl

And finally, no, I’ve never attempted to do any programming of my own on any of these machines. My time for that was as a temporary employee of Big Blue in 1967. I was hired out to write stock control and wages stuff for companies leasing their mainframes. Punch cards, yet! Now that *really* was a different world….