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….

19 Comments on “ZX marks the spot”

  1. Erez says:

    Right infront of my PC workstation, proud on the wall,
    A framed ad (actually a plastic bag which I framed) that says-
    “Sinclair spectrum – the best-selling personal computer in the whole world!”
    (Translated from Hebrew, but you catch the drift)
    That remark about the cassette player- the worst it is, the better chances that your files will load- so true and so funny / frustrating.
    I had a mint condition ZX48, I went to a long trip to India and my folks just threw it away when they moved :(((
    Oh well, still have this plastic bag 🙂

  2. Just read this while listening to What I Did off Sitting Targets – strangely apt soundtrack. Loved the Spectrum – so exciting to be able to walk into a shop and walk out with a programmable computer.

  3. Bruce Hatton says:

    So, to get back to the point:
    If we are getting all nostalgic about early 80’s technology, can we expect a performance of ‘Lighthouse Keepers’ in the next round of VDGG concerts?
    I suspect if it was put to a vote, the result would be positive 🙂

  4. Clive Price says:

    Never owned a Speccy but had a borrowed ZX81 for a while with the wonky memory cartridge! Had a Beeb A and soldered in the extra memory to make it a B, then went for an Atari and ran C-Lab Creator linked to a Roland D10 – great setup which kept me happy for years..Nowadays I’m more into writing folk music hence no need for sequencing but have a Mac with Pro-tools. We have lived through an amazing time for technological advances.

    My missus used to really hate me loading progs into the Beeb as the volume had to be up on the cassette recorder and sometimes it took 5 mins to load a large prog – or not as was often the case. eee tell that to a young ‘un and they won’t believe you…

  5. T.J.W.M. Froyen says:

    I also had the ZX48+ as my first – even with an Opus Disk Drive after the things mentioned that could generate a lot of problems…
    Enter K…

  6. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating. I think I need to listen to A Black Box and Sitting Targets in computer-geek mode now.

  7. Bruce Hatton says:

    Yes, those were most certainly happy and exciting days!

    I followed the Windows route, as I never liked the restrictions that Apple placed on their products, though to be fair they were the best in certain segments for a while.

    It was the right decision, for me at least, as I’ve made a living out of it ever since.

    Still, it will be intersting to see what comes out of the Raspberry PI, hopefully we can get back to the stage where computers were interesting!

  8. Chris Weir says:

    I remember the silver thermal printer labels on the early SofaSound newsletters. I couldn’t afford a computer at the time as I had no pressing need for one & games are boring. As you say It hardly seems yesterday, but also an age ago.

  9. Matthew Wright says:

    I remember going to see Robert Calvert at Manchester’s International. He sang a particularly impassioned song about Ned Ludd and the Luddites getting really worked up about how labour-saving technology put workers out of jobs. Naturally his band had an early and temperamental drum machine, rather than a drummer…

  10. Iain Costall says:

    Somewhere I still have all the Sofa Sound newsletters and postcards, many of which have the tell-tale silver label that came off the Spectrum thermal printer….they’re probably in the same box as my ZX81 computer that I built from a kit.

  11. more outdated; http://www.analogmuseum.org/ ; a friend of mine is involved

  12. David Davis says:

    One of my favourite memories is turning up to play in a punk club in Belfast in the early 90s, with a ‘Cheetah SpecDrum’ plugged into the back of our ZX Spectrum to serve as drum machine, and a little 14″ colour portable telly. We had to stop the set midway to load in some more songs off cassette, at which point the audience grew extremely restless and started yelling “schpeckky!!” (Northern Irish slang for a lady or gentleman who wears glasses) I was quite enjoying this hilarious pun until they started pouring beer over my bass pedals as well. In the end we had to escape out the fire escape, as pint glasses and used veggie-burgers rained down on us. That was the last time we used a ZX Spectrum live on stage!

  13. peterbennettdotnet says:

    @Simon – you were probably (almost certainly?) the only punter who ever did that ;o)

  14. Henry Martinez says:

    Legacy gear can be fun to use. I’ve been listening to a recently serviced Sony TC-K611S stereo cassette deck. Aside from the nostalgia factor, it sounds great. I believe it was Mr. Steed who once observed that a ladies performance is not indicated by her years. Your Spectrum may be pushing thirty, but it can probably still pull sixteen!

  15. peterbennettdotnet says:

    @Ian – I was listening to some classical music this weekend (bit of an odd one – Smetana’s Ma Vlast) on the radio, really enjoying it, and wondered about the digital tweaking issue. One reason I like listening to classical music on the radio is that it has been compressed (in the old fashioned leveling sense). About every three years I wonder ‘have they made a pc music player with built-in compression yet’ and take a look, but nothing, time to look again ;o) Oddly the only device I’ve seen that did that was a weird, big, mp3 player from Creative Labs called ‘Nomad’ or something with all manner of tweaking available through a tiny LCD
    With Rasp Pi I think it’s just whether someone’s make a Linux music player that does what you want. I’ve just used Banshee which was just the usual yada.

  16. Simon Wenham says:

    Ah the Spectrum! My first home computer too – I waited for the 48K version (yes that is 48 Kilobytes!)

    I had (ok still have) an LP by Pete Shelley which had a special track at the end of side one which was actually a ZX Spectrum program which played graphics in time to the music. All you had to do was…

    Record it to tape,
    Load the tape into the Spectrum
    Go and get a cup of tea/glass of beer or whatever
    When the start screen was displayed …cue up the LP
    Press a button on the Spectrum

    Et voila a screen full of swirls and patterns with the words on a tickertape along the bottom – all slightly out of sync with the music!

    I used punch cards at University – it was always tempting to grab someone else’s pile and shuffle them and put them back on the tray.

  17. We seem to be going through a wave of 70’s nostalgia, led by BBC2, much best forgotten but much also to remember fondly for those of us for whom it was a key phase of our youth.

    I’m also now committed to/dependent on Macs for many things including listening to rather than making music. It’s slightly frustrating that the inner workings of iTunes et al are to me at least a mystery and I wonder if the new Raspberry Pi when received will lead to us being able to listen to music with some digital knobs that can be tweaked?

  18. miguel muzquiz says:

    he he he

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