Slipstream is a rail shooter developed by the group Bauknecht. The soundtrack, composed by Ronny Engmann, accentuates the game’s futuristic space setting and emphasis on speed by invoking the electronic dance music style of industrial techno, which combines the taut grooves of minimal techno with the abrasive sonics of early industrial music to make for an intensification of the sound that made the club scenes of Detroit and Berlin famous. Despite the Commodore 64 being a supposedly obsolete 8-bit platform that had its manufacture stopped decades ago, contemporary composers like Engmann are compelled to use the machine for its SID (Sound Interface Device) chip, which stands apart from the sound chips of other 8-bit home computers and consoles due to its variety of waveform types, filtering capabilities, ring modulation, and oscillator sync effects. The skills that Engmann developed while exploring the affordances of this versatile chip enabled him to compose a video game soundtrack that is informed by his engagement with the Berlin techno scene from the early 1990s onward. Drawing from ethnographic interviews with Engmann and Slipstream’s programmer Stefan Mader, this article demonstrates how techno’s pivotal theme of synergistic existence of humanity with technology resonates with an ecstatic feeling of forward propulsion that characterizes Slipstream. Focusing on the musical dimension of timbre and addressing the practical issues of modern cross-platform development through an analysis of Engmann’s project files for the Commodore 64 music tool GoatTracker, this article shows that Slipstream’s soundtrack is exemplary in effectively harnessing electronic dance music as video game music.

Thanks in no small part to Berlin-based Commodore 64 composer Ronny Engmann’s conjuring of industrial techno in his musical idiolect, the experience of playing the 2017 video game Slipstream is imbued with an ecstatic feeling of forward propulsion. The player cannot turn around or travel backward; they can only move ahead, blasting past hostile drones to reach for a brighter future. Engmann’s distinctive soundtrack serves as a testament to the richness of the seam that he taps between the interconnected musical technocultures of electronic dance music in his native Berlin and the practices of underground computer-mediated musicianship.

Bauknecht1 is a group of game developers whose members are also active in an international computer arts culture known as the demoscene, which sees audiovisual software productions created within challenging technical constraints such as limits on file sizes, obsolete target platforms, and the expectation that programs should run in real time. These productions, known as demos, are entered into competitions at events called demoparties, where knowledge is shared, contacts are made, and reputations are earned. Drawing from their experience in the demoscene, Bauknecht filled Slipstream with impressive visual effects and design features to elevate it above the standards set by Commodore 64 games released during the platform’s commercial life. While the game’s title refers to the name of the spaceship that the player controls, it can also be understood as both a reference to the player’s view from behind—a view comparable to one that a motorist has while riding in another vehicle’s aerodynamic slipstream on a highway—and to the science fiction trope of traversing space faster than the speed of light. These interpretations are useful when considering Slipstream’s mechanics and appeal. Because the game is a rail shooter, the spacecraft moves at a steady pace that the player cannot control; speeding through space while dodging or shooting down enemies is the only option until each of the game’s stages is completed upon the destruction of the end-of-level boss, making for a series of breathless challenges. In his efforts to match such gameplay (shown in Figure 1), Engmann channeled his experiences and knowledge of Berlin’s electronic dance music culture to produce a collection of hard-edged and driving pieces that exploit the capabilities of the Commodore 64’s famous sound chip: the SID (Sound Interface Device).

Figure 1.

Slipstream by Puls4r, screenshot by author from PC (running on the Commodore 64 emulator VICE), March 31, 2022.

Figure 1.

Slipstream by Puls4r, screenshot by author from PC (running on the Commodore 64 emulator VICE), March 31, 2022.

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Informed by two ethnographic interviews conducted with Engmann, this article investigates how the distinctive style of industrial techno is invoked to augment the prevailing feeling of speed through spaceflight that Slipstream hinges on. Industrial techno, existing within the genre of techno at large, can be recognized by the way it adopts the compositional frameworks that were pioneered in minimal techno and fills them with thrilling combinations of abrasive noises that are inspired by—and sometimes even recorded from—industrial machinery. What results is a reconfiguration of early industrial music’s sonic territory and spirit of wild productivity that, rather than dealing in latently nihilistic social critique, supports the optimistic and progressive impetus of the techno scene with regard for its history as a culture that grew out of post-industrial Detroit and post-unification Berlin.2 Crucial here is the implication that developments in cultural practice happen as part of a synthesis with technological advancements; the states of technocultures are entirely necessarily subject to change, as people find new ways of harnessing old systems and devices. Meanwhile, novel features of evolving technologies bring fresh affordances—and thus further opportunities and challenges—to seasoned users. As a creative form that exists on a temporal plane where changes in sound spectra take place, electronic music can be understood as analogous to technoculture, a domain of culture that is shaped profoundly by computer technology in a material sense. This is especially evident in the genre of techno, where, despite performance and production stemming largely from preprogrammed and automated electronic figures, the fixity of commercially driven contemporary music is rejected in favor of a pursuit of quasi-spiritual exploration, as Dan Sicko ventures: “Techno is a feeling, a mindset for interpreting the progress of technology and its effect on the human psyche: postmodern soul music, at the very least.”3 Of particular relevance to the scope of this article is the history of Berlin’s nurturing of techno and the consequent scene’s proximity to the technoculture of computer-mediated musicianship. The parallels between the contemporaneous technocultural developments of techno and music made for 8-bit computer systems are put in sharp relief by the soundtrack of Slipstream.

Ultimately, this article seeks to highlight how Slipstream’s soundtrack constitutes a nexus between the distinct technocultures of electronic dance music, video game music, and the demoscene, exemplifying how creative practitioners have symbiotic relationships with their chosen technologies in a way that problematizes any reductive notions that musical outputs can materialize from the processes of people—or technological devices—operating in isolation. I will provide an exposition of the history of a computer underground that emerged from the software piracy scene of the 1980s and evolved to become the demoscene, detailing how this culture has been situated in relation to the production and consumption of electronic dance music. From here, I will examine Engmann’s identification of and engagement with industrial techno in advance of a thorough analysis of the Slipstream soundtrack’s source files that will uncover how the composer manipulated the SID to produce the techno-informed pieces that accentuate the game’s futuristic setting and emphasis on speed.

Originally released in 1982, the Commodore 64 found its way into innumerable homes across North America and Europe on the strength of Commodore International’s aggressive marketing campaigns and an enormous software library that capitalized on the 8-bit machine’s unique chipset. Indeed, the Commodore 64 stands apart from the other home computers of its time (including Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum, the Apple II, and Atari’s 8-bit family of machines) for its generous sixty-four kilobyte memory, a custom graphics chip providing eight hardware sprites, and a sound chip that is not merely a simple wave generator but a versatile subtractive synthesizer. Engineered by Commodore’s Bob Yannes, the specification of the Commodore 64’s SID promises the sound-oriented user ample functionality through its three channels, four selectable waveform types (plus combinations thereof), filtering, ring modulation, and oscillator sync effects.4 This specification, however, should not be relied on to give a complete idea of what the SID can offer as a tool for sonic expression, as Stefan Höltgen argues: “The sound production of a real SID chip depends on many (chip-)external parameters, most of which were not even known to and thus not documented by its inventors.”5 The parameters that Höltgen alludes to consist of techniques in programming and musically minded sound design that explore the true expressive potential of the SID in a way that sees the technical details of the hardware become dryly abstract. Accordingly, this article’s focus on SID music is guided by my own perspective as a contemporary Commodore 64 musician to observe the manipulation of the SID in a practical context.

Although many owners of the Commodore 64 could afford to buy games for their machine, piracy was widespread. In his authoritative study of 1980s software piracy, Patrick Wasiak suggests that advertising campaigns discouraging the illegal copying of games may have backfired, as the illicit aspect of such practices only made them more appealing: “Most gamesters were male adolescents, and such practices fit perfectly into the teenage struggle for masculinity in a peer group.”6 Wasiak suggests that the practice of cracking the software publishers’ copy protections in order to make free copies of games formed the basis of a computer underground insofar as it resembled the graffiti and illegal rave scenes that also proliferated in the 1980s; this is due to how the crackers distinguished themselves from “ordinary,” that is, law-abiding, users.7 Besides the question of legality, another important facet of such underground scenes is their tendency to emphasize process over product, whereby participants are concerned more with engaging in a mode of autonomous production that involves skill and subversion than they are with purchasing and consuming mainstream media products. The creative abilities of those belonging to the nascent computer underground were exhibited in small programs known as intros, which served to credit the groups responsible for cracks and further showcase the technical aptitude of their members.

As the expansion of the Commodore 64’s software library had slowed considerably by the beginning of the 1990s, the computer underground transitioned from the cracking scene to the demoscene, where groups create productions that, as George Borzyskowski notes, exhibit “an irreverence for the official performance specification of the hardware used.”8 Borzyskowski goes on to make the point that the content of these demos is unlikely to be especially compelling to people who do not know—or indeed care—about the supposed constraints of 8-bit computer hardware, thus ensuring the medium’s status as a subcultural artefact as opposed to something with obvious commercial potential, but they are impressive to those who can discern the level of technical and artistic skill required to make them.9 Commodore 64 demos like Ignacio by Pretzel Logic (shown in Figure 2) represented a progression from crack intros in terms of audio; where intros of 1980s crack releases were generally accompanied by music ripped from games, demos saw musicians composing original pieces that often sought to emulate the period’s emerging styles of popular music, augmenting the stylistic qualities of the programs while demonstrating that home computer systems could be made to deliver striking music when handled by skilled and committed users.

Figure 2.

Ignacio by Pretzel Logic, released July 23, 1989. Screenshot by author from PC (running on the Commodore 64 emulator VICE), March 31, 2022.

Figure 2.

Ignacio by Pretzel Logic, released July 23, 1989. Screenshot by author from PC (running on the Commodore 64 emulator VICE), March 31, 2022.

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While the worlds of the computer underground and electronic dance music culture appear to be largely discrete, they have intersected in intriguing ways. In the early 1990s, a series of “diskmags” (magazine-type productions issued on disks) named Addybook was released, listing names, phone numbers, and home addresses of people who were active in the cracking scene and demoscene to facilitate the swapping of software, both legal and illegal. In the twelfth edition of Addybook, released by Commodore 64 demo group Oxyron in February 1993, there are numerous messages left by demosceners advertising that they wished to swap cassette tapes of electronic dance music in addition to software disks. This appetite for recognizably electronic cultural materials drove a decidedly underground and illicit network for the acquisition of music and games. The spread and increasing awareness of electronic dance music prompted fans of its emerging styles to seek ways of producing their own tracks, using relatively basic home computers. Discussing the beginnings of his career as part of Detroit techno’s second wave, producer Richie Hawkin recounts the time he spent internalizing the musical sensibilities of early techno and using a Commodore Amiga computer with his collaborator Kenny Larkin: “We used to drive around listening to Derrick May mixtapes, and we did some messing around at my house trying to hook up an old Korg keyboard to an Amiga computer!”10 So 16-bit home computers made impressions on electronic dance music that are easy enough to discern, but the same cannot be said of their 8-bit predecessors like the Commodore 64; the 1983 Commodore 64 program Kawasaki Synthesizer by the Japanese musician Ryo Kawasaki, for example, did not make any impression approaching the impact of tools like ProTracker on the Amiga, as it did not offer the user a sufficient degree of functionality in terms of sound design and sequencing. Hence, despite its powerful SID chip, the Commodore 64 was not considered a device for serious music production during its commercial life, but thanks to modern cross-platform tools, including SID-specific trackers, composing for the 8-bit machine is now considerably easier than in the 1980s.

The normalization of cross-platform development—in this context meaning the use of modern PCs to make programs for obsolete platforms—has allowed Commodore 64 musicians to discover and exploit ways of using the SID that were unthinkable in the 1980s, creating Commodore 64–produced music that adheres to the rubrics of electronic dance music styles. Among the contemporary Commodore 64 musicians working in this manner is Engmann, whose demoscene output is colored by a thorough enculturation in electronic dance music. Having come of age in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the flourishing of the unified city’s techno scene, Engmann has a particularly illuminating perspective. Through two ethnographic interviews with the composer, I was able to glean insights into what made techno appealing to post-unification Berlin’s youth from the outset, how the genre diversified over time, and how he consolidated his interest in the specific style of industrial techno into a strategy for composing Commodore 64 music that eschewed the melody-oriented sensibilities of crack intro music and chiptune in favor of something darker, heavier, and vitally, more reminiscent of the sounds that continue to reverberate in Berlin’s cavernous clubs.

During our July 2021 interview, Engmann explained that he first became aware of the techno scene in his native Berlin through the radio show Rave Satellite, which was hosted by DJ Marusha every Saturday night.11 The popularity of Rave Satellite among young Berliners was cemented by its emulation of the long-form experience of the music as it was played in club sets and the scene’s DIY impetus. Engmann states that Marusha’s show, encapsulating Berlin’s infectious enthusiasm for techno, had him “instantly hooked,” helping him discover styles that were adjacent to—or otherwise subgenres of—techno, and informing him of the Berlin clubs that were quickly becoming legendary as the city adjusted to its unification. Simon Reynolds notes that the music and environments of these clubs were markedly harsher than those of the earlier rave scenes that flourished in the UK.12 This is corroborated by DJ Frank Blümel, who remembers the proto-techno (or “tekno”) party Tekknozid: “Big sound, no announcing, no chart music—nothing but banging all night. I’m sure it unsettled a few people, but it reflected the spirit of the time.”13 Similar parties to Tekknozid took place at the Bunker, a Berlin club that Engmann attended on Saturday nights as a teenager. The anarchic spirit and emphasis on sonic hardness that these parties stood for left a profound impression on Engmann at a young age, but as he became older and the techno scene grew larger, he found that Berlin’s techno clubs became more expensive and exclusive, which discouraged him from attending techno parties as frequently.14 Consequently, Engmann’s musicality, as both a listener and a producer, became more introspective, with the hedonistic impulses that sought rowdy energy through high volume being replaced by an investment in the musical dimensions of texture and timbre—albeit retaining the memory of early Berlin techno’s prevailing hardness that punctuated the beginning of a new cultural era for the city.

In highlighting the repetitive character of techno, Hillegonda C. Rietveld identifies a transcendence of temporality, where “there is little sense of past or future during the ritual of dance.”15 This idea, denying the relevance of music’s temporal linearity, complements techno’s status as a style that holds its most salient musical information in its treatment of cyclical rhythms and the timbral profiles of its sound spectra within a framework that is often deemed to be “minimal.” Indeed, as Sean Nye observes, much techno of the mid-1990s acquired the alternative genre designation of “minimal techno” on the strength of stripped-back Detroit techno recordings such as Robert Hood’s Minimal Nation and Internal Empire, the latter being released by the revered Berlin-based label Tresor.16 These records, representing the vanguard of the Berlin-Detroit techno “alliance,” demonstrate how this form of electronic dance music allows rhythmic and textural sophistication to materialize from the basic foundation of “four-on-the-floor” kick drum patterns.17 Philip Sherburne states: “Beat-oriented electronic music’s most avant-garde productions explore the very nature of repetition itself, carrying on the mantle of classical minimalism as a movement delving deep into the heart of form.”18 With this, techno’s minimalism is regarded as both a means and an end, simultaneously a matter of product and process, inviting the listener or the dancer to make their own sense of the music by latching onto grooves, becoming intimately familiar with them through their repetition, and then finding ecstatic stimuli in their granular subtleties. For techno listeners like Engmann, the sense of spaciousness generated by the genre’s minimal streak produced opportunities for fostering styles that drew from other genres of music. Among these is industrial music, which much contemporary techno takes cues from in terms of production techniques and sonic source material.

Techno’s metamorphosis into a form containing industrial elements is a development that was embedded in the genre’s DNA almost from the outset. Sicko notes that early Detroit techno found popularity in the club scene of Sheffield, England, and out of this local scene emerged the label Warp, which issued “bleep” techno records by outfits like Sweet Exorcist, a side project of Richard D. Kirk from Sheffield industrial stalwarts Cabaret Voltaire.19 The essence of industrial music as it has been absorbed by techno, however, has more to do with the artists’ wild productivity in their practices than adherence to established compositional sensibilities. Expanding on the definition of “industrial” in industrial music, stemming from the name of the label Industrial Records, Genesis P-Orridge of the influential group Throbbing Gristle explains: “There’s the joke we often used to make in interviews about churning out records like motorcars—that sense of industrial.”20 This regular “churning out” of music is comparable to the output of producers active in techno, and also of Commodore 64 music composers. In Engmann’s case, being involved in both these musical worlds, he works by accumulating a large volume of partially completed SID compositions that he starts out of creative habit, and then finishes at a later date when he is asked to make a contribution to a demoscene production or when he wishes to enter a music competition.21 Addressing the practical approaches to music-making that have defined industrial music, Boyd Rice of the project NON recalls his use of mechanical devices like shoe polishers as musical instruments, a practice that he eventually pared back when he became tired of taking heavy equipment to performances: “I was always interested in the idea of doing less and getting more [original italics].”22

Industrial music’s balancing of priorities—of using mechanical devices to produce unique musical sounds versus the drive toward efficiency and economy in terms of maintaining as simple and portable a setup as possible—shows a minimalist/maximalist dialectical impulse that also permeates Engmann’s musical sensibilities. Discussing the appeal of contemporary industrial techno, Engmann singles out the use of sounds derived from “stuff that fell out of the kitchen like banging on bottles and banging doors” to enhance drum sounds.23 While he can appreciate the impact that early industrial groups had on popular music, Engmann finds that groups like Laibach and Einstürzende Neubauten were “too raw” for how they did not seem concerned with balancing their abrasive sounds in an especially musical manner. Industrial techno, however, wields abrasive sounds in a way that augments the driving grooves of programmed drums without overwhelming them, making supposedly nonmusical sounds work in a finely honed framework by way of careful and considered mixing. This is exemplified by Berlin-based industrial techno DJ and producer Angel Karel’s 2020 release Pain for Pleasure, which pairs heavy kick drums with looping textures of noise that operate as almost cubist patterns of surrogate percussion, emphatically rejecting melody in favor of darkly atmospheric soundworlds that are at once unsettling and uplifting. The gleeful character of this dance music’s spirit of abandon distinguishes it clearly from early industrial music.

Karen Collins, observing the common threads between cyberpunk literature and industrial music, notes there is a tendency for these types of media to valorize an underdog “outsider-hero” who appropriates technologies produced by a fascistic, hegemonic system of mass culture with a view to aiding a movement of resistance.24 Thus, industrial music is positioned as dystopian in its futurism, though shards of hope are offered in how the crafty protagonists turn the instruments of their oppression against the oppressors, even as the prospects of the system being overthrown entirely appear dim. By contrast, a dystopian mode of futurism in techno is conspicuously absent; while the genre plays on some elements from industrial music and has exhibited a certain futuristic streak in its aesthetics, its blossoming in the early 1990s saw it become something of a utopian musical culture. The Detroit-based producer and member of the group Underground Resistance Robert Hood ventures that the techno scenes of Berlin and Detroit were closely aligned for their “common bond” of seeking to move on from their communities’ troubled pasts—the gnawing degradation of Berlin’s decades as a divided capital, and the violent institutionalized racism endured by African Americans: “We were all looking to these futuristic, experimental sounds as an escape vehicle, as a spaceship with which to get away, to transport ourselves into the future.”25 Techno’s transatlantic multiracial unity and the spirit of optimism that permeated post-unification Berlin for many of its young residents effectively negated the dystopia of industrial music while retaining an insistence on sonic hardness as catharsis and foregrounding the synergy between human agency and technology. It is by harnessing this synergy that Engmann operates, producing dense and sophisticated electronic dance music that is made to be played on a supposedly obsolete personal computer such as the Commodore 64.

Many of Engmann’s Commodore 64 music releases have resulted from experiments involving extremely severe technical limitations. For the 2020 release “Jóga Yodával,” only one of the SID’s three hardware channels is used, and the filter is not used across the duration of the work. As a result, Engmann feels that this piece is reminiscent of the genre of IDM (intelligent dance music) as its fleeting sounds are heard in isolation due to the enforced lack of polyphony, placing a special emphasis on their timbres and the implied causalities that materialize from moment to moment.26 Another of Engmann’s pieces, “Ezer Róka Kapacitással,” released in 2021, was entered into a competition specifically for techno-informed SID music hosted on the Commodore 64 Scene Database website, evidencing his desire to revisit the confluences between his immersion in electronic dance music and his experience as a Commodore 64 composer that were vital to the development of his musicality. On October 17, 2003, Engmann performed a live set at the Berlin club WMF, opening for the acts Modeselektor and Plaid. At the suggestion of his record label Underscan, Engmann replaced the typical DJ setup of two turntables with two Commodore 64 machines, two disk drives, and two screens to play a set of original pieces that were completed in less than a week. Engmann remembers that his performance was received well by the attendees on the night for being a refreshing departure from what DJs tended to deliver in their sets, using technology associated with home video gaming in the context of a loud Berlin rave: “[It] was a pretty big thing for me because I was just the little guy back then, doing his funny bleep drum and bass shit.”27 Engmann’s performance was accompanied by live visuals that were also generated entirely by Commodore 64 hardware. This visual show, programmed by the demoscene coder Krill, was later released as the Commodore 64 demo Minimalmo, which featured the same compositions that Engmann played in his live performance. This project served to demonstrate how creative home computer usage does not have to be restricted to the home. Rather, it remains common to see several 8-bit and 16-bit systems set up at demoparties so that attendees can complete, test, and display their productions in advance of competition deadlines. Such demoparties include BCC (Berlin Commodore Club) Party and Deadline, both of which take place annually in Berlin and are attended by Engmann. At these demoparties, Engmann has honed his craft and nurtured relationships with other demosceners, leading to projects like the 2017 Commodore 64 game Slipstream.

In the planning and development of the game Slipstream, Bauknecht, led by Stefan Mader (aka Mad), was influenced by the 1995 Sony PlayStation title WipEout,28 a 3D racing game incorporating polygonal graphical assets and fonts that amount to a decidedly futuristic-looking production, complemented by a soundtrack largely produced by the electronic musician and video game music composer Tim Wright (credited as CoLD SToRAGE) but also featuring (in some of the game’s versions) tracks by the well-known electronic dance music acts Orbital and the Chemical Brothers. Arguably, the main strength of WipEout is the way in which the repeating rhythmic figures of its electronic dance music tracks serve to augment the feeling of speed that the gameplay seeks to deliver, foregrounding the critical importance of music in video game development. Mader notes that the rail shooter Rez was another important point of reference for its palpable synergy between the audio and visuals, making the soundtrack something more involved than simply a set of music recordings that play in the background. Slipstream performs a similar trick, but additionally, the bracing pace of Engmann’s SID music helps make the player’s experience as fluid as can be possible for a game developed specifically for the 8-bit architecture of the Commodore 64.

Mader approached Engmann to compose the game’s soundtrack as they had encountered each other on many occasions at demoparties and other demoscene-related meet-ups in and around Berlin, and Mader had a high opinion of Engmann’s aptitude in composition and SID sound design.29 Engmann recalls that the Slipstream project presented him with both an opportunity to refine his musical style and an interesting technical challenge, since he was only permitted to use two of the SID’s three channels for the in-game music due to the third channel being dedicated to sound effects.30 The only other directions that Engmann received from Mader were that the in-game music pieces had to loop seamlessly and had to consist of minimalistic structures—excluding anything resembling intro or outro sections. This was necessary due to how the player is thrown into the action immediately upon the start of each level, while the subsequent waves of enemies do not let up until bosses are defeated. Hence, Engmann decided that composing a collection of techno-informed pieces was the most appropriate way to proceed, and as a result he found that the soundtrack came together quickly, with him being free to produce loops carried by rhythm and timbre above all else.

In her study of the music of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Megan Lavengood presents the argument that the critical apprehension of music, if it is to be genuinely useful, should refrain from endorsing fixed ideas of alignments existing between genres and musical instruments. Lavengood asserts that rather than being concerned with instrumentation, “study must instead turn to the finer details of timbre and how those timbres represent various genres.”31 It is in the careful handling of a given device, colored by the associated technoculture of the applicable musical context and guided by an active consideration of timbre, that sonorities are made to satisfy the demands of certain genres. This is apparent in the music of Slipstream; Engmann’s compositional approach is appropriate in its conjuring of techno music for a futuristic rail shooter, rather than cheerful chiptune-like pieces for a colorful platforming game. My analysis of Engmann’s soundtrack that follows draws from examinations of source files for the cross-platform SID music tool GoatTracker (a screenshot of the source file for the track “Centauri” can be seen in Figure 3) to demonstrate how timbre, actualized by the manipulation of the SID’s waveform types as well as effects like filtering and ring modulation, is the most salient musical dimension to his favored style.

Figure 3.

GoatTracker v2.76 displaying the source file for “Centauri.” Music by Ronny Engmann (dalezy). Screenshot by author from PC, March 31, 2022.

Figure 3.

GoatTracker v2.76 displaying the source file for “Centauri.” Music by Ronny Engmann (dalezy). Screenshot by author from PC, March 31, 2022.

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Slipstream’s “Title” theme (Example 1) opens with an introductory drone playing over two octaves, enriched by a rising voice playing on a triangle wave that is subject to a ring modulation effect (represented by the value $15 on GoatTracker’s wave table).32 This drone builds tension before a moment of release comes in the form of a rhythmic riff, which in turn gives way to a loop resembling the uptempo electronic dance music genre of drum and bass. Another loop, which persists once the piece has reached the end of its programmed patterns, has snare drums playing on beats 2 and 4 across SID channels 1 and 2, with different timbres being used on the individual channels to create a complex gestalt drum sound. Elsewhere on channel 1, kick drums and percussion hits are interleaved around the snares to complete a breakbeat-like pattern, and raspy bass lines played through a sawtooth wave ($21) play in micro-level antiphonal phrases against the snares. Channel 3, which is available due to there being no need for sound effects during the game’s title sequence, is used to play rapid arpeggios, switching between the waveform types of pulse ($41), triangle and pulse combined ($51), and sawtooth. Although the use of rapid arpeggios is common in chip music for platforms that have limited numbers of channels (largely prohibiting chords of truly simultaneously sounding notes), Engmann’s use of multiple waveform combinations in the same arpeggio instrument setting results in a spectral profile that morphs as the pitches change, making for more complex sonorities than would be possible if the type of waveform remained unchanged.

Audio Example 1.

“Title” from Slipstream: The Soundtracks. Music used with permission from Jason Mackenzie / www.psytronik.net.

Audio Example 1.

“Title” from Slipstream: The Soundtracks. Music used with permission from Jason Mackenzie / www.psytronik.net.

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Engmann’s engagement with techno in Slipstream’s soundtrack is abundantly clear in the first in-game composition, “Aquilae” (Example 2). Here, a driving four-on-the-floor kick drum pattern is shaped by the SID’s filter set to low-pass ($90 in GoatTracker’s filter table) with a relatively high cut-off setting ($60) for the drum’s initial piercing attack before going down (to $05, then $02, and then finally $01) for a bass-heavy, rumbling decay. Playing between these firmly rooted kicks is a hi-hat, made to sound crisp and bright by the filter being switched to high-pass ($C0), followed immediately by a sawtooth wave for a synth bass sound. Technically, this bass sound is not heard at exactly the same time as the hi-hat, but these musical elements are made to sound simultaneous by how the wave changes from high-pass filtered noise ($81) to a sawtooth wave with both low-pass and band-pass being active on the filter ($B0) after only two steps of the wave and filter tables—too short a length of time for the listener to discern. This canny handling of channel economy is as effective as it is essential, since only two SID channels were available to Engmann.

Audio Example 2.

“Aquilae” from Slipstream: The Soundtracks. Music used with permission from Jason Mackenzie / www.psytronik.net

Audio Example 2.

“Aquilae” from Slipstream: The Soundtracks. Music used with permission from Jason Mackenzie / www.psytronik.net

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A deeper exploration of techno on the SID can be heard on the piece for Slipstream’s third level, “Centauri” (Example 3). Channel 2 sees rising chromatic figures playing through a triangle and pulse combined wave plus ring modulation ($55), with the filtered offbeat bass lines of channel 1 functioning as the ring modulation effect’s carrier signal. This makes for a scuzzy, almost distorting instrument that corresponds to the incorporation of harsher—even violent—timbres that characterize the coarser, more aggressive style of industrial techno. The piece’s texture is developed when a percussive pattern is introduced to channel 2, with an instrument sculpted from falling relative pitch data (from $06 down to $00) playing on a triangle and pulse combined wave subject to ring modulation and hard sync ($57) set against the kicks-versus-bass pattern that persists on channel 1. This demonstrates an approach to channel economy that is geared toward realizing timbral complexity at least as much as fitting as many independently moving sounds into the patterns as possible, and as such, it constitutes a highly convincing 8-bit manifestation of industrial techno’s musical priorities.

Audio Example 3.

“Centauri” from Slipstream: The Soundtracks. Music used with permission from Jason Mackenzie / www.psytronik.net

Audio Example 3.

“Centauri” from Slipstream: The Soundtracks. Music used with permission from Jason Mackenzie / www.psytronik.net

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“Passage” (Example 4), the piece for Slipstream’s fifth level, occupies a slightly different sonic territory to those of “Aquilae” and “Centauri,” albeit one that remains connected to the history of techno. With its heavily filtered kicks and bass lines on channel 1, the track is reminiscent of the dub techno subgenre that emerged from Berlin in the 1990s, showcasing Engmann’s awareness of techno’s various different established production styles. The reed-like principal synth sound, triggered on beat 1 of every measure, consists of a pulse wave with a thin pulse width ($82 in GoatTracker’s pulse table) that is echoed through a delay effect realized in subsequent pattern steps, as the wave switches to triangle and pulse combined and a long attack setting of $C on the instrument’s envelope results in a slow onset that creates a distant-sounding echo of the initial note. The result of Engmann’s delay effect is that the track mimics the creation of imagined acoustic spaces that defines dub techno, and indeed the reggae subgenre of dub that partly inspired it. Against this textural backdrop, snare drums play on beats 2 and 4, alternating rapidly between noise waves and triangle and pulse combined waves with ring modulation, making for a metallic quality that contrasts with the forceful yet dampened filtered kick drums of channel 1. Taken as a whole, this minimal track possesses a hypnotic quality, seemingly to aid the player in focusing at this more difficult stage of the game and ensuring stylistic diversity across the game’s soundtrack, even as the platform’s sound hardware and Engmann’s chosen tool for composition remain unchanged.

Audio Example 4.

“Passage” from Slipstream: The Soundtracks. Music used with permission from Jason Mackenzie / www.psytronik.net

Audio Example 4.

“Passage” from Slipstream: The Soundtracks. Music used with permission from Jason Mackenzie / www.psytronik.net

Close modal

Engmann’s assumption of the role of video game music composer for Slipstream is rather unusual, as he claims that he is not familiar with many video game soundtracks, being much more of a demoscener than a gamer. The warm reception for his contributions to Slipstream, then, took him by surprise: “Turns out people liked it. There was some person who told me it’s ‘Berghain material,’ Berghain being…the big Berlin club. I was like, OK, that’s quite a compliment, let’s do another game then! [laughs].”33

Slipstream’s music exemplifies how electronic dance music can inspire memorable video game music soundtracks that prioritize the dimensions of rhythm and timbre to enhance players’ experiences of fast-moving forms of gameplay, and how the Commodore 64, with its SID chip, is more than capable of providing such experiences when musicians who have honed their skills in the demoscene are involved in contemporary game development projects that target the machine.

Although Slipstream is most definitely a video game, one of its most notable traits is that it often resembles a demoscene production for its incorporation of visual effects that are familiar to fans and creators of the demo medium, such as vector graphics and plasma routines.34 This problematizes the distinction between video game and demo, showing how the current state of 8-bit creative production promotes a situation where contemporary Commodore 64 game development is reconciling the commercial software industry and the underground computer scenes, which had previously existed in an antagonistic relationship. Nevertheless, the illicit roots of the demoscene have not been forgotten and are in fact worn proudly by many Commodore 64 demo groups as subcultural markers of outlaw authenticity, hinting at a kinship with the techno scene that found its footing in parties held illegally and semi-legally in abandoned buildings across Berlin in the aftermath of the city’s unification. The collective will to upset mainstream culture’s sensibilities—even if it means breaking or bending the law—as a way of fostering cultural advancements is made effective only through engagement with available technologies; this is the essence of what is meant by “technoculture.” Lysloff and Gay note that “the technological device, whether it is a quill pen or a personal computer, gains meaning through human agency.”35 With this point, technological devices are understood to be given life by the creative activities of people and are without agency. A different perspective can be found in Anders Carlsson’s reflections on his time composing music for 8-bit computer platforms, as he claims that “sometimes it was almost as if we—the artists who made the music—had been reduced to objects. It was as if the machines were playing us, and not the other way around.”36 This seems to contradict Lysloff and Gay’s argument. In the 8-bit music scene that Carlsson describes, the musician is not necessarily the dominant agent; the technological device, with all of its idiosyncratic technical limitations, is thought to validate human input as much as human action validates the technological device, making for a synergy that ensures the useful continuation of residual computer hardware and software. One only needs to listen to how radically different Engmann’s pieces for Slipstream sound from the output of Commodore 64 video game composers of the 1980s to hear how musicians have learned how to engage with their equipment in surprising ways as new affordances are discovered and new musical styles are developed.

Dimitri Hegemann, who ran the Berlin club Ufo and later helped found Tresor, remembers that those involved in the early days of Berlin techno were “very interested in space and space research,” and that this preoccupation with space functioned as an extended metaphor for the community’s rejection of the perceived mundanity of mainstream culture, with the burgeoning club scene offering ravers a “one-way trip” to a galaxy of enthralling musical experiences.37 Slipstream taps this same off-center dynamism thanks to its rootedness in the digital virtuosity that defines the demoscene. Rather than selecting the Commodore 64 as a target platform so that players can indulge in technostalgia—a laconic reverse-gear pursuit of simpler times punctuated by unsophisticated bleeps—the machine is made to work as a spacecraft facilitating light-speed travel toward previously unseen and unheard technical and artistic possibilities deep in the 8-bit universe. Engmann’s music is instrumental to Slipstream’s success in this regard, as he deploys a range of SID programming techniques that make extensive use of the chip’s various waveform types, filtering capabilities, and special effects to produce a collection of pieces that are of consistent intensity but also offer much in the way of textural and rhythmic diversity, even as the in-game pieces are limited to using two of the SID’s three channels. Although Engmann has released several further pieces of well-received Commodore 64 demoscene music since, the soundtrack of Slipstream continues to stand out for the way it evinces what music for games released on 8-bit systems can accomplish when the composer is driven by a love of electronic dance music.

1.

Although official sources name Bauknecht as the developer, Puls4r is named as the preference over Bauknecht by the game’s programmer Stefan Mader, a member of the Puls4r team.

2.

René T. A. Lysloff and Leslie C. Gay, “Introduction: Ethnomusicology in the Twenty-first Century,” in Music and Technoculture, ed. René T. A. Lysloff and Leslie C. Gay (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 2.

3.

Dan Sicko, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (New York: Billboard Books, 1999), 10.

4.

There are two principal versions of the SID: the 6581 (which was subject to numerous revisions between 1982 and 1987) and the 8580 (produced between 1987 and 1992). The soundtrack of Slipstream was optimized to be played through the 8580 version.

5.

Stefan Höltgen, “Play That Pokey Music: Computer Archeological Gaming with Vintage Sound Chips,” Computer Games Journal 7, no. 4 (2018): 214.

6.

Patryk Wasiak, “‘Illegal Guys’: A History of Digital Subcultures in Europe during the 1980s,” Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History 2 (2012): 261.

7.

Wasiak, “Illegal Guys,” 261.

8.

George Borzyskowski, “The Hacker Demo Scene and Its Cultural Artifacts” (presentation, Cybermind Conference 1996, Perth, November 29, 1996).

9.

Borzyskowski, “Hacker Demo Scene.”

10.

Sicko, Techno Rebels, 125.

11.

Ronny Engmann, interview by author, July 21, 2021.

12.

Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash: A Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture (London: Picador, 1998), 112.

13.

Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen, Der Klang der Familie: Berlin, Techno and the Fall of the Wall, trans. Jenna Krumminga (Norderstedt: Books on Demand, 2014), 69.

14.

Engmann interview.

15.

Hillegonda C. Rietveld, “Dancing in the Technoculture,” in The Routledge Research Companion to Electronic Music: Reaching Out with Technology, ed. Simon Emerson (New York: Routledge, 2018), 128.

16.

Sean Nye, “Minimal Understandings: The Berlin Decade, The Minimal Continuum, and Debates on the Legacy of German Techno,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 25, no. 2 (2013): 161.

17.

The term “four-on-the-floor” refers to an overarching rhythmic scheme involving quarter notes played on a bass drum, as identified by Mark J. Butler in his book Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 78.

18.

Philip Sherburne, “Digital Discipline: Minimalism in House and Techno,” in Audio Culture, ed. Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2006), 319–20.

19.

Sicko, Techno Rebels, 111–12.

20.

V. Vale and Andrea Juno, RE/Search No. 6/7: Industrial Culture Handbook (San Francisco, CA: RE/Search, 1983), 9–10.

21.

Engmann interview.

22.

Vale and Juno, Industrial Culture Handbook, 55.

23.

Engmann interview.

24.

Karen Collins, “Dead Channel Surfing: The Commonalities between Cyberpunk Literature and Industrial Music,” Popular Music 24, no. 2 (2005): 171–72.

25.

Denk and von Thülen, Der Klang der Familie, 154–55.

26.

Engmann interview.

27.

Engmann interview.

28.

Stefan Mader, interview by author, December 2, 2021.

29.

Mader interview.

30.

Engmann interview.

31.

Megan Lavengood, “Timbre, Genre, and Polystylism in Sonic the Hedgehog 3,” in On Popular Music and Its Unruly Entanglements, ed. Nick Braae and Kai Arne Hansen (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 219–20.

32.

The use of the symbol “$” indicates that this value comprises a pair of hexadecimal digits, forming a byte. This form of representation of digital information is applicable to programming in assembly language as used by Commodore 64 developers.

33.

Engmann interview.

34.

Vector graphics are a type of computer graphics involving lines that form scalable shapes as determined by mathematical formulas, and plasma routines are visual effects that see changes in colors executed in ways that suggest liquid movement. Real-time computer routines made using these techniques are common in demos for platforms like the Commodore 64 and Amiga.

35.

Lysloff and Gay, “Ethnomusicology in the Twenty-First Century,” 10.

36.

Anders Carlsson, “A Retrospective on the Stories and Aesthetics of 8-bit Music,” CHIPFLIP, January 26, 2015, https://chipflip.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/a-retrospective-on-the-stories-and-aesthetics-of-8%C2%ADbit-music/.

37.

Denk and von Thülen, Der Klang der Familie, 35. Ufo was the first club in Berlin to be dedicated to acid house, an important precursor to Europe’s techno scenes. The theme of space exploration also pervaded the Detroit techno scene, which included the DJ crew Deep Space and spawned a space-themed album by Model 500 (a moniker of the pioneering DJ and producer Juan Atkins) also called Deep Space.

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