‘It was the poor man’s studio’: how Amiga computers reprogrammed modern music | Music6 min read
“Phat as fuck.” This was how jungle legend Gavin King – AKA Aphrodite – described the powerful bass capabilities of his Amiga 1200 home computer in a 90s interview. Several decades later, it remains in his studio. With its drab grey buttons, it looks more suited to tax returns, but Amiga machines are instrumental in electronic music as we know it.
“The thing about the Amiga bassline is that it was constant volume, it didn’t waver,” King says now, “so when you pulled it up to the maximum volume that you could press on to vinyl, it made it, well, phat as fuck.”
In the early 90s, the artists who used these Amigas didn’t know it yet, but their experimentation would become central to the burgeoning hardcore, jungle and drum’n’bass scenes, and pave the way for the accessible home electronic music production of the future.
Today anyone with a laptop can make music, but, at the dawn of home computing, music production was prohibitively expensive. Back in 1985, Atari released its ST home computer, which instantly became a hit with gamers and DIY producers. Rival Commodore quickly followed up with the Amiga 1000, but things really changed in 1987 when the company released the Amiga 500. It may only have had 512 kilobytes of memory – that’s 0.0128% of what an iPhone 13 has – but the Amiga was transformational due to its four-channel stereo sound. “It went much further into that bass register than any computer of the time,” says Ben Vost, former editor of Amiga Format magazine, who praises simple music sequencer programs, such as OctaMed, that allowed users to compose their own beats.
Inspired by Britain’s second summer of love, King was a house DJ until about 1990, when the hardcore era was beginning to take shape. It was at this time, during his third year in university, studying computer science, that he stumbled on an Amiga playing a looping sample at a friend’s house. “I was like: what’s that? I need that,” King recalls. “By hook or by crook, I managed to get one by borrowing money from my dad, saving, earning.”
He started experimenting with the machine, and inserting his own creations into mixes, before he and three friends, all armed with Amiga 500s and calling themselves Cellar-4, got together in a basement and made “a terrible record”. King threw 150 copies into a skip when he was moving house – “sad, really,” he says, because they now sell for £50 each.
But King’s next track, made with Claudio Giussani under the Urban Shakedown moniker, wasn’t destined for landfill. Fellow junglist Mickey Finn overheard an early version playing in the City Sounds record shop in London, approached King, and together they produced Some Justice in Carl Cox’s living room. With its reverb-heavy big beats and blaring honks – “How on earth did we make a riff from a car horn?” asks Finn on YouTube – this pioneering tune flew into the UK Top 40 and charted for five weeks.
“Our mission was just to make music and to DJ,” King says. “The Amiga was just a tool that allowed us to do that … unbeknownst to us, we would be put on the cover of Amiga Format.”
For Marlon Sterling, AKA drum’n’bass producer Equinox, the Amiga’s sound quality “wasn’t great” but it had a “certain sound”, which he loved for its gritty sampling and “Mentasms” – the grizzly hoover noises named after the Joey Beltram track.
When mentor and fellow Amiga user Bizzy B introduced Sterling to the Med V3 production software, it was a “massive gamechanger”, he says, giving him the chance to experiment with music on a budget. Equinox’s first tunes were recently released as Early Works 93-94 to a positive reception – “a shock, considering how bad my quality was” – and listening to them now catapults him back to being 15 again. “You found ways to do things,” Sterling says. “I think the limitations back then made you more creative. It wasn’t the sound why I used the Amiga, it was all I could afford. Back then, you needed all sorts of hardware to make music, but just having the Amiga sound sampler and OctaMed, you could get great ideas down without the need to hire a studio. It was the poor man’s studio – even the software was free!”
Meanwhile, producers such as Dex and Jonesey broke into the Top 40 with Amiga-made tracks like their souped-up remix of Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness, and even caught flak from the music establishment for daring to eschew the pricier Apple computers most professionals used at the time.
But the Amiga’s powerful bass sound and punchy, unique grooves were hard to imitate. Unlike music software such as Cubase or Logic Pro, which reads from left to right, Amiga’s equivalents cascaded from top to bottom in a lo-fi graphical waterfall of bits and bytes. “Because only eight things can play at once at any given time, it makes you work harder,” says King. “You need to go into the actual soundwave.”
This hyper-granular approach allowed King to be “forensic right down to the 1,000th of a second” in a way that would take “10 times as long” with Cubase. “I was obsessed with having everything perfectly matching and going at the same time,” he says – still a painstaking task considering the software only showed numbers passing by, rather than labelled blocks of drums and basslines that could be shuffled about more easily.
But this learning curve didn’t put off the many Amiga alumni, including a whole cast of fellow junglists, like Dlux, TDK, Zinc, Paradox, and Bizzy B, whom King once spent 18 hours with extracting sounds from their floppy discs. Australian breakcore troublemakers Nasenbluten wielded the machines to devastating effect; away from breaks, Mike Oldfield used an Amiga, while Japanese composer and P-Model frontman Susumu Hirasawa – who used an Amiga to compose the soundtrack for Satoshi Kon’s anime film Paprika – remains an enthusiast, and created the startup sound for a retro Amiga operating system in 2005. Amigas have been employed by contemporary pop producers, too, such as Calvin Harris, who put together debut I Created Disco on an Amiga running OctaMed.
Back in the 90s, a buoyant “demo scene” coalesced around the Amiga, where home programmers put together animated music videos, fitting them on tiny 880k floppy disks. Pirated software, meanwhile, would usually feature home-brewed intros, complete with the pirates’ own music, that users had to sit through before they could access their bootlegged copies.
This “cracktro” scene had a “huge influence on electronic music that’s often overlooked”, says Danny Wolfers, better known as Legowelt, who learned to make music on his Amiga 500 and still uses the machines today. He says 75% of his first records were made with the computers, he plays live with them, and his upcoming first full-length animated film can also be partially credited to the Amiga, with which he first learned animation.
Wolfers and his peers would “load game discs or demos to hear the music and have it in the background. This was, for a large part, the first pure electronic music kids were exposed to intensely, making them more receptive to stuff like the techno emerging from Detroit.
“There were no YouTube channels explaining everything – maybe a few Amiga magazines gave pointers, but that was about it,” he adds. “You learned by analysing the music files that came with the software. It was fundamental in my career, giving me a chance to make music while having no access to expensive studio gear or synthesisers.”
The Amigas probably launched hundreds of other music careers – including that of Venetian Snares and possibly even Kanye West, who owned one at 14 – teaching aspiring musicians music theory, notes, scales and octaves through determined experimentation. And, even though Commodore declared bankruptcy in 1994, the legacy of these achromatic slabs lives on.
Thirty-five years after the debut of the Amiga 500, a new generation of retro-curious musicians will have the chance to experiment with the machines, as the A500 Mini has recently launched. Perhaps it could be as loved as the original – King’s Amiga may now go unused in his studio, but it’s too difficult for him to say goodbye. “I was using it right up to 1997, even after Commodore went bust,” he says. “I just loved it.”