Pete Shelley, screensaver and demoscene pioneer

Here's a video of the program, running in an emulator, and synchronized with the album. "Press any key at start of music":

This video shows the whole process of booting it up, along with more detail than you probably need to know about cassette tape audio fidelity:


In 1983, Pete Shelley's album XL•1 included as its final track a program for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 8-bit home computer. To play it, you had to first copy the track from the vinyl record to cassette, wait several minutes for the computer to read the cassette, and then press the any key once you dropped the needle on the first track! Lyrics and visualizations ensued.

Here's the programmer's story: Joey Headen:

In late 1982 Pete had ordered a Sinclair Spectrum by mail order, and one of the first BASIC programs he wrote put up the lyrics to one of his songs prompted by key presses. [...] I spent most of Christmas 1982 learning machine code and disassembling the Spectrum ROM.

I didn't have an assembler for the Spectrum, I don't even know if one was available then, so all the code had to be converted into its hex equivalent and typed into the program. All the jumps and calls to subroutines had to be hand calculated as well! When the machine crashed it had to be restarted and the cassette tape program reloaded, usually taking at least 5 minutes. [...]

With only a few days before the album had to be finished, Pete still had two songs to complete, one of which only had a title. We had to wait for the songs to be completed, type in the lyrics off scraps of paper, and then synchronize the lyrics to the music. [...]

Once the album was finished and mixed we had to do the final version of the timing for the lyrics. This involved adding in the timings between each track on the final master version of the album. It was at this point that we noticed that there was as much as 5 seconds difference (over a 20-minute side of the album) between different one-inch tape machines in the studio. The implication of this was that home turntables and tape machines could get horribly out of synch with the program unless they had some sort of variable speed control. One solution to this problem would be to add speed control keys to the program, but it was too late to add any more code. [...]

Our work wasn't quite finished yet, as we had to cut the album. To our knowledge nobody had put a program on a 12-inch disc before, so we were breaking new ground. After the last music track of side 2 there was a locking groove to prevent the code from blasting through someone's speakers.

The only way to play the code was to physically lift the needle onto the last track. We cut one master disc and tested it on a Spectrum but it didn't work, so we had to reset some of the levels and try again. Luckily the second master disc worked fine and it could go to the pressing plant.

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17 Responses:

  1. jwz says:

    BTW, there's long been a Shelley easter egg hidden in my payphone. I wonder if anyone has ever stumbled across it.

  2. jwz says:

    I'm a little confused as to why the procedure wasn't to load the program directly from vinyl. Surely anyone in possession of a cassette player for their computer already had the relevant patch cables.

    • Auz says:

      Maybe not. I think the only outputs on our record player were for the speakers and a 6.35mm jack for headphones. The cassette recorder for the Spectrum used 3.5mm jacks.

    • Martin says:

      I think the reason may have been that combined vinyl/tape decks were plentiful (at least in the UK) whereas the extra big-to-small headphone adapter required to hook the Spectrum to the vinyl system could have been rare back then, or at least was in my household.

      Interesting that Pete Shelley did this in 1983. I wonder if it was before or after Chris Sievey (aka Frank Sidebottom) did it with "Camoflauge", which was also released in 1983.

      • Phil Wildcroft says:

        XL1 came out in May 1983, Camouflage was June 1983.

      • Dan mcanulty says:

        I was hoping someone would mention Chris Sievey’s program! rest in peace little frankie and little denise

        • Dan mcanulty says:

          Er little frank I mean.

          Thanks the for camouflage link, I think that’s my favorite track of his. The video’s so great, and the dedication to Paula is kinda heartwarming. I can’t wait for the Being Frank to finally get released.

      • James Milne says:

        Thanks for posting "Camouflage". Not only is it a fun piece of 8-bit archaeology but it's also a really good tune!

    • Ewen McNeill says:

      My guess is they were concerned both that the signal was a bit marginal for the computer and might degrade over repeat plays of the record, and probably practically that the turntable/preamp might not be close enough to the computer. Loading via a cassette copy solves both those issues, with equipment most people would hav3 at the time. (The original article mentions their first master cut of that track was too hot, and they only did one more which seems to have been just “works for me” tested...)

      Ewen

    • Thomas Lord says:

      > "I'm a little confused as to why..."

      Perhaps:

      Razzing upcoming hackers with things like that is definitely Interesting.

      It is -- at least historically -- a thing in many cookbooks, too: deliberate (non-fatal) bugs in recipes that an experienced cooks will just automatically correct on sight but that will f up the over-trusting novice.

      Ostensibly teacher habits to sharpen attention -- but are they really?

      • ssl-3 says:

        I think a better reason is simplicity: The HiFi and the computer probably weren't convenient to use together. And maybe yours didn't have the ability to record an LP to cassette, but chances were awesome that you knew someone who could knock that little project out in no time.

        Plus, too: It is/was rather common to have a level control in the tape-deck arrangement, and very uncommon for a turntable output: The latter us the realm of the dedicated preamp, which never was a popular arrangement.

        And I sure hope that some combination of the above is accurate, otherwise:

        Great. Now my cookbooks are gatekeeping, too.

    • Lloyd says:

      from memory, my dad's record player (lounge) was nowhere near my computer (bedroom). A oneoff transfer to tape would be permitted...

  3. zeugmatis says:

    This is frigging awesome, did not know - thanks for posting this! Always liked the demoscene... of course the classic Second Reality but my personal fave back in 1995 was ambient gem Caero. The music too!

    It's different now but e.g. Cocoon and others are still doing some killer stuff.

  4. hellpé says:

    That's awesome! And it makes me think of something vaguely related that maybe some of you guys can help me with?

    I've very recently watched a Jeff Minter conference on YouTube, and the guy claims in here that his Virtual Light Machine for Atari Jaguar-CD was the first music visualizer ever, as in: the first "lightsynth" to react to live music. It surely may predate the Psygnosis "V-CD" for PlayStation by one month, but it's still 18 years younger than the Atari Video Music. Do you guys happen to know other signficant early examples of real-time music visualization (I'm kinda puzzled that the "Music visualization" page on Wikipedia doesn't even mention Jeff Minter, but yeah)?

    • margaret says:

      In high school I made an analog circuit (on a piece of cardboard because why fund schools?) that you plugged into the wall socket and connected to your speaker wires. It controlled three strings of xmas lights, each had about 4 bulbs - those giant ones, of course, because that's all they made back then. One string came on with bass and had all green lights, reds-mid, blue-high.

      In college^ I built "the bubble machine." It was three vertical plexiglass tubes in a row, each about 48" long, the two outside had diameter of about 1.5" and the middle about 3". All three had air tubes inserted into the bottom, the two smaller with aquarium stones to make tiny bubbles. At some point I jammed the lights down into the base of the bubble machine and that made for a very cool effect.

      The circuit, which came from a magazine and which I certainly wasn't the first to create. I took that class in the '79/'80 school year which was the same year the Atari initially came out, so I'd say Jeff Minter needs to add the "digital" qualifier. Oh - and it was interactive too. There was an attenuator to match the circuit to the music volume.

      ^ while living next-door to the oxford egyptologist pig arouser [previously]

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