From Pong to Poing
Forty years. That’s a long time in the tech industry and Atari knows it. Today it celebrates four decades in the game, and quite the tale it is. Highs, lows and everything in between, Atari has been there. As one of the most influential brands both in gaming and technology, it only seems right to take a look over the company’s history and chart some of the more significant twists in its less than straightforward journey. After the break we speak to the man that started it all and the one currently at the helm, as well as some of the many people whose lives were irreversibly changed by its influence. Happy birthday to you, Atari!
After Warner sold off the the Consumer Electronics and Home Computer divisions of Atari to Tramel Technology LTD, it introduced the Atari 520 ST. It was this computer that would possibly cause one of the more enduring — and surprising — cultural offshoots. As a last minute decision, Atari added MIDI ports to the ST, which had never been done on a computer before. They also wired them right into the main processor (instead of using a parallel bus, for example), which made them extremely effective. Accidentally, the rm had just created a powerful and, more importantly, affordable home music computer. To put this in perspective, the Fair- light CMI Sampling Synthesizer, used by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock (search YouTube to see the latter using one on Sesame Street), cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The Atari ST was priced at less than $1,000. David Etheridge, working musician, lecturer and overseer of the official Atari Music chat boards for Sound on Sound Magazine, elaborates: “I think Atari were surprised (and probably delighted) by the ex- plosion of interest from the music community. Remember that the addition of MIDI ports was essentially an afterthought. I’m guessing that Atari were probably thinking of the ST as a general purpose computer.” And this isn’t just a phenomenon of the ‘80s, many people (including David) still use the Atari ST to this day. “Atari’s timing and sheer musicality beats more recent computers hands down,” he says. “There are reports that the hip-hop and dance fraternity are coming back to the Atari as a desktop alternative to the beloved Akai MPC range, and there are one or two noted classical composers who still create scores and parts on the Atari.” The impact of the Atari ST on mu- sic in the ‘90s, especially electronic music, is therefore immeasurable. For a few hundred dollars, budding musicians could unleash their creativity on an unsuspecting world. Rave culture in particular would feed on this new source of innovation.
Maurice Steenbergen is one half of Dutch dance act Rotterdam Termination Source. Their 1992 European hit single “Poing” crossed well over into the mainstream, despite its humble, Atari-based beginnings. “I got my first Atari in 1991,” Steenbergen remembers. “I sold that one in 1995 when I eventually switched to Mac, but I re-bought another one last year because I needed to open some old songs for re-recording. I also used it to re- record “Poing” from the original disks. At the time, I ran Cubase and had an Akai S950 sampler. The Atari propelled electronic music, it made MIDI available to people who weren’t engineers. It was a way more intuitive way to make music, so I think it pioneered the MIDI / bed- room scene.” Other artists were even more in- spired by the Atari, even naming them- selves after it. German “Digital Hard- core” group Atari Teenage Riot, came windmilling onto the rock-electronic crossover scene in the early ‘90s, with a 1040ST firmly under its arm. “We’ve programmed the beats for our songs on this computer since we started in 1992,” the band’s Alec Empire explains. “It’s a very stable machine that does the things we need it to do very well. It has a special timing, groove and attack to it that gives us a characteristic sound. It only has 2MB RAM, which is insane when you think about it. Yes, two MEGABYTES, not gigabytes… I love this little thing.”
Despite a dedicated following, as was to be a reoccurring theme for the Atari brand, a mishmash of over-cooking ideas, and misguided project development would ultimately steer the ST range off the rails. As David Etheridge neatly puts it: “By the time of the Atari Falcon, things were a complete mess; it hadn’t been developed properly, and bugs in MultiTOS (the multitasking operating system) took 18 months to sort out. The Falcon could have been a Mac killer, but by the time Atari had its act together, Apple had snatched the lead away, and the rest is history.”