Space Debris is an Amiga mod I composed back in 1991. This is a short story about how I made the song, and what it was like to make music on the Amiga. If you don't know what "Amiga" or "mods" are, no worries, just read on!
Download the original mod file - you'll need a modplayer to listen to it. Or just enjoy the remaster & remix videos below.
Amiga, Trackers and Mods
Starting from the mid/late 1980's, many aspiring musicians (like me…) used the legendary Commodore Amiga computer to learn and compose music. Amiga’s sound and graphics capabilities were pretty incredible compared to other home computers available at the time, and it quickly became popular among gamers, coders, graphic artists and musicians all over the world, and especially in Europe.
Many Amiga musicians used a tracker, a type of music software that produces modules, or mods for short. A mod is a single file that contains everything necessary to play back a full song: notation, arrangement, song structure and instruments.
As you might have guessed, trackers and mods were quite primitive by today’s standards. The Amiga could play up to four monophonic audio channels at the same time (it was possible to play more than four with some trickery, but that had drawbacks, like greatly reduced sound quality). Each channel played back digital samples, which are essentially short recordings of any piece of audio. The samples had a 8 bit resolution, and typical sample rates were much lower than what we are used to today, which basically means they sounded pretty rough and lo-fi. You also couldn't use any realtime effects, like reverb, so everything was 100% "dry". But back in the day, it was just unbelievable you could do all this on an affordable home computer.
One of the most laborious but also interesting and rewarding aspects of making mods was finding ways around the technical limitations. As time went by, people really learned how to push the limits, and make those four lo-fi channels sound bigger and better than they appear on paper.
Mods circulated among Amiga users around the world, and were often used in audiovisual presentations called demos. Demos and mods took part in competitions, which were often arranged at events called demoparties. And all this was part of the demoscene community, which still lives on today. But that’s a story for another time...
I was 17 at the time, with no musical education of any kind (still don’t have any...). I didn't even have the basic music classes in school because we had to choose between music and visual arts, and I chose the latter. I totally sucked at drawing and painting (still do...), but all my classmates chose the art classes, and I didn't want to be the odd one.
But I remember being fascinated by music and sound from an early age. Growing up, I didn't have any traditional instruments at home, but I had been using my earlier home computers (VIC-20 and Commodore 64) to produce simple sound effects and drafts of music, maybe learning something along the way. I think it was just before Space Debris when I got my first actual instrument, the good old Roland D-5 synthesizer, and could finally try playing on an actual keyboard.
For some years, I had been sort of exploring the basics of music theory on my own, mostly by trial and error. I was essentially just listening to all kinds of music, trying to figure out what notes make up a specific chord, why does a chord or interval sound the way it does, etc. I noticed I could usually trust my ears to tell me when something is "right" or “wrong”, and that helped me learn some fundamentals without any formal music education.
On the Amiga, I started learning how to make music with trackers. I don't remember exactly how I got started with Space Debris, but I'm pretty sure I didn't have any single grand idea or a specific music genre in mind. It was more like "hey, here's a tracker, let's try something with it and see what happens".
I had a primitive sampler connected to my Amiga, so I could record any audio and use it as an instrument in the tracker (you can do this and much more with any smartphone today, but being able to do it on a home computer 30 years ago was truly unbelievable). I sampled many of the instruments used in Space Debris from my Roland D-5, including the choir sounds and some synths.
I had a summer job at the time, and while the company where I worked had nothing to do with music production, they had a small hobby studio at their office with a few synthesizers and a Roland R-8 drum machine. One day I recorded some drum hits from the R-8 on a C-cassette, took the cassette back home, sampled the sounds into Amiga, and that's where the drums came from.
There was also a large collection of preset sounds that came with the tracker, and a few instruments (like the bass) I took straight from that collection. There was this straightforward "use whatever you have at hand, don't overthink it" mentality with everything.
As I mentioned, part of the deal was to see how far you could push Amiga's amazing but still limited capabilities. By 1991, there were already many great Amiga mods out there, and people had discovered several techniques to break or at least bend the rules. I used some of those techniques in Space Debris, but I think I also came up with at least one useful idea on my own.
Since Amiga only had a finite amount of memory (a fraction of what even the cheapest smartphones have now), the samples used in mods had to be as short as possible, usually meaning a few seconds or less per instrument. If you wanted to have a long sustained sound, like the choir sounds in Space Debris, that required looping a short sample, which means playing the same short segment of audio over and over again. Unfortunately this usually produced a very obvious repeating pattern with an audible CLICK! at the loop point, sounding like a stuck vinyl player. And indeed many Amiga mods of the time had looped samples that sounded just like that. The length and speed of the loop also changed when the instrument was played at various pitches: imagine a low note going daaa-daaa-daaa, and then a higher note sounding like DADADADADA.
I absolutely hated that "effect", and started thinking of ways to avoid it. One day it occurred to me (when I was bored at school, I think): I could try “hiding” the loop point by adding fades in the beginning and end of the sample, and then overlapping the fade areas. I tried it in an audio editor (AudioMaster II FTW!), and it worked perfectly! The looping nature of the samples was much less obvious, and the horrible CLICK! was gone. This is what I used for all the choir & longer synth samples in Space Debris, and I’m still pretty happy with how smooth they sound. Later I found out that some professional samplers of the time were already doing something similar and called it crossfade looping, and I'm sure I wasn't the only Amiga musician who came up with the same idea on their own. But still, I feel pretty proud of myself for coming to think of it!
If you wanted to play a triad chord using single note samples, you would waste three of the four available channels. To get around this, it was common to sample full chords. I sampled four different chords to create four different instruments: major, minor, sus2 and sus4. By switching between these instruments and playing them at different pitches, I could create expressive "jumping" chord stabs that also contain some melody, using only a single audio channel. Another popular technique was to play a fast arpeggio to create an illusion of a chord using just a single channel, but for some reason I never really used this method.
When composing a mod in a tracker, you were presented with four adjacent columns, with each column representing a single audio channel. Each column was like a list of notes that played from top to bottom, with each row representing a 1/16th note. A common trick to emulate a rhythmic delay effect was to use a short staccato instrument, play a melody with it, then manually go through every empty row on the same channel, copy & paste the note from a few rows above with a reduced volume, and repeat this until all rows were used. It was slow and fatiguing work, but it worked surprisingly well! The end result was a channel where every single row is used for a purpose, there is no dead space anywhere, and it really does sound much like a proper delay effect. The “main melody” of Space Debris uses this technique.
Another way to add some depth and space to a mod was using two channels for the same sound: one playing the lead, and the other playing the same thing, but a little later and quieter. This created a cool echo effect, and unlike the single channel copy & paste -method, also worked with sustained sounds. But this obviously required sacrificing half of the available channels, so I only used it in a couple spots in Space Debris.
Since memory was limited, you couldn’t use too many instruments in a single mod. But there were ways to get a lot of mileage from a single sample. For example, you could start playback of a sample at any position, not just at the beginning. The sweeping resonant synth heard throughout the song is just a single static sample, but it does a lot of different things by varying the start position and pitch. Also, the “swoosh” sound heard in a couple of spots (like the very end) is the snare drum sample, just played very low.
Amiga composers did everything they could to get as much out of a single channel and instrument as possible. Making mods was (and still is) part traditional composing, part coding, part problem solving. (Incidentally, I also love coding and math puzzles...)
Why "Space Debris"? To my best recollection, I first came up with the word “debris”, probably by browsing through a dictionary and picking an English word that sounded good to me. Then a friend of mine suggested something to the effect of “let’s add the word 'space' in front of it, space is cool, it also makes the mod name cooler”. Simple as that!
Creativity & Limitations
It’s pretty obvious when you listen to Space Debris that I had no idea how to arrange some kind of logical or meaningful song structure (of course, this was probably the first finished song I ever did in my life, so don't be too harsh on me...). The whole piece is basically just a collection of semi-unrelated ideas one after another. It does come back to the “main theme” in the end, so at least there’s some sense of a circular structure, or something…
But somehow everything was simpler back then: Here's a nice sound, let me try something with it... yeah, that sounds like a nice piece of melody. Let's keep it and move on to the next part, and come up with a new melody. Repeat until done. Composing Space Debris was some kind of wonderful unrestricted free-flowing creative process that can be harder to achieve when you know “too much”, or go too deep into (often meaningless) details. A simple and restricted composing environment like a four channel tracker with a limited amount of samples guarantees you can’t spend half a day tuning a kick drum sound. Sometimes I wish I could easily go back to that same flow, where ideas just turn into music without thinking too much. It still happens, but it's definitely harder now...
Space Debris took part in a music competition in Sweden (Anarchy Easter Party 1991, thanks Google), and to my surprise, won the first prize! I still occasionally get messages telling me how people listened to Space Debris back in the day, and even today. Which is amazing and makes me happy! People have also made incredible remixes and remasters of Space Debris over the years, and it was even played by a live band some years ago at a demoparty (I forget which one, sorry...).
The Spacesynth Remix
In 2011, a friend of mine was working on a video game called Rochard. I wrote the soundtrack for the game (you can find it on Spotify etc.), and while it’s mostly an orchestral score, there's a scene in the game that takes place in a kind of futuristic space disco. It was probably my friend's idea that maybe we could somehow use my old Amiga mod in the scene...
Around the time when I made the original Space Debris, I listened to a lot of italo disco - artists like Koto and Laserdance were some of my favourites. While the original Space Debris isn’t really a strict italo disco track, it does have some elements that point into that direction. So I thought it would be cool and fun to turn Space Debris into a full-blown italo disco piece (or spacesynth - the two genres are closely related to each other).
Many instruments in the remix are kind of stereotypical italo disco tropes, and I spent some time hunting down the exact sounds that were used in the genre in the 80's and 90's. I didn't intend the remix to be a parody or too tongue-in-cheek, but maybe not 100% serious either... more like a wink to everyone who knows their italo disco, and can appreciate the nostalgic cliches.
Hope you enjoyed both versions, and this little story!