This Dude Makes Better Music in MS-DOS Than You Do in Ableton
Meet Diode Milliampere, the Reddit celebrity who's hacking dance music.
Diode Milliampere. Photos by Caleb Condit.
Behind every bubbly software interface lies a web of internal commands and operations that very few of us can understand. That's someone else's job—we just want to play with virtual knobs and buttons until something interesting happens.
But last week, during a late night, recursive Facebook loop, I scrolled past a video attributed to one Diode Milliampere, with lines of flashing commands surfing across a sea of text in a colorless MS-DOS environment. "HI HAT"; "SQUARE WAVES"; "arpL1," the lines indicated, before being inundated by new stacks of code that shuffled in from off screen every few seconds. The thing that really had me hypnotized was that they were all flashing in perfect synchronization with the beat playing in the background.
After following a few links I came to find that Mister Milliampere is a Chicago-area musician who makes thick, futuristic dance jams that are too rich to simply be called "chiptune." I mean, you could tell me this shit came out of Ableton and I'd still be impressed at its depth and complexity. And whether it's the algorithmic ravers, the Black Midi posse, or any of the myriad musical movements built on hacking and coding, half the fun is watching the insides work while listening to the end product.
Wondering what could possess someone to make such sophisticated work in software that not only disallows the use of a mouse or trackpad, but also traffics in files no larger than a few kilobytes, I quickly tracked him down and, despite the recent frying of his motherboard, we sat down to talk.
THUMP: Are you surprised at the response you've garnered?
Diode Milliampere: Yeah. I never expected that I would make a video of one of my chiptunes and get more than a quarter of a million hits in a day. But I've also been on Reddit for about a year now sharing my songs as I make. It was kind of on a whim to record the screen and post it to /r/videos.
That's what I wanted to get to somehow—why Reddit?
In the fall of 2012 my best friend Konstantine, who I was staying with, was browsing Reddit, and I hadn't really ever used it or realized how much of a "thing" it is. And of course in a week I was hooked browsing it myself. I finally signed up for an account because I had just started making tunes for the first time in my life, or rather, actually finishing ones—and I wanted a place to share them. For someone who has zero fans and zero context for what they do, even the small sub-boards can give you encouragement to keep doing it. Posting to /r/chiptunes or /r/synthesizer got me a few dozen plays on my Soundcloud and even a occasional Bandcamp sale which blew my mind as someone totally new. It's just a great outlet for anyone who wants to find other people that grok their shit.
You list yourself as "professional troll" on some of your profiles, has your activity on the Reddit boards helped you sharpen those skills? And do you think trolling and promoting are related?
Yep, they're like evil twins. Trolling can really get people's attention. For example I got the the front page of Reddit before by posting some seriously weird stuff—nipples in a jar traded for even weirder ephemera—and the lack of context kind of trolled people's imaginations. I realized throwing people for a loop or getting their goat can be powerful. I kind of chuckle when I'm playing a show and it's just 90s soundcard music. That kind of feels like trolling—sometimes you just have to get the ball rolling, so to speak, and everyone comes out of the woodwork with their opinion.
Some of your older stuff was chiptune, or was made using Ableton—how has the shift to tracking software been?
Well, I came to chiptune in a weird way. I'm really into making music via synthesis. That is, I use synthesizers to create all the sound elements from scratch including the percussion... everything.
You use a lot of FM synthesis correct?
Yup, Frequency Modulation synthesis is the oldest form of digital synthesis. Yamaha DX7 is the classic FM synth people might know or remember. Some people loathe electronic percussion and sounds but I kind of found that I actually like the synthetic instruments. I've had people tell me a million times, "Just use a sample," but I've had it in my mind to learn how to make my own sounds using whatever tools because I love the degree of control and modulation you have.
I want to know about your set up! Or is it a secret?
After getting the hang of it over about six months I can say that this way of sequencing really isn't backwards or obsolete, and with enough experimentation the sound palette can be sophisticated—or at least not cheesy. The tone generation side of things is the YMF262, aka OPL3 chip. It's an 18-channel 2-Operator FM synthesizer made by Yamaha. All of Yamaha's FM synths are chips when you get down to it. Each one has a different YM chip in it. The OPL3 intrigued me because it had 18 voices, which is enough to do a whole track with. Initially, I was looking into building a kit called SammichFM or MIDIBOX FM that contains this chip and allows you to sequence it via MIDI but when I found out about Adlib Tracker II, I lost all interest in making a new synth if I can have the Synth Chip and the sequencer all in one. Even though a synth module exists with the same hardware, using AT2 to sequence makes a hell of a lot more sense than messing around with a million CC lanes in Ableton. I can control every parameter of each voice and see everything I'm doing on just a few screens in Adlib tracker and I never have to touch the mouse. The actual computer to do this can be any computer that can run DOS and has a Soundblaster-16 soundcard.
With there being so many soundcards of such greater advancement and capabilities, what is the value/importance of sticking to Soundblaster-16 for you?
There are ways to emulate the OPL3 and DOS and do it on a modern computer, but it won't sound the same because the synth voices are being generated on the chip of the soundcard and going through the DAC of the Soundblaster. It has a very "digilog" quality when you use the real thing. It's raw, unpredictable and you feel like you're playing with a hardware synth when you're doing sound design. When you're tracking with FM, you're more or less sending a crazy math equation at the Digital Analog Converter of the soundcard. Even different models of Soundblaster sound different because of that. Differences in DACs, differences in OP amps. It's digital, but still kinda more physical than just using a VST.
How do you approach live performance? Is it important for you?
I try to approach playing live by having really good tunes that stand for themselves before I even get on stage. That way, whatever I'm doing up there is inconsequential, I hope. The whole phenomena of audiences and their feelings on laptop musicians is a whole 'nother story.
I'm not sure what those feelings are! What do you mean?
Oh, I've heard stuff like, "Nobody wants to watch someone who looks like they're checking Facebook."
Oh ha! Yeah, back in the day it would be "playing Solitaire."
Ha, yes! And surely some folks do and did that. I just try to impress people with what's coming out of the mains so they're not wondering about what I'm doing standing up there. I think performance is important, but I'm kind a low-middle energy dude. I don't have it in me to dress up or jump around unfortunately.
There were some moments in there that reminded me of D4L and Atlanta "snap" music. Have you any interest in strip club DJs? Or your music accompanying that kind of performance?
You know what's funny, the tunes take a while to make so all sorts of stuff creeps into my head. I'm kinda bad at listening to stuff, but I like to think about "feelings" of different stuff—and towards the beginning of composing that I was seriously considering becoming a strip club DJ to make some scratch. I was also trying to experiment with swing a little and see if I could get a little bit of a hip-hop feeling, which I was missing completely over all my music so far [laughs]. It's funny to me how "beats" is such a broad term—a simple drum pattern can change context so much based on timing quirks. I think my next set of tunes is going to be a littler "sexier"... sexy minimal tech that makes people dance is what I'm going for, and I suppose there will probably be an appearance of more ridiculous multi-channel bass instruments. I'm still very new at making music so it's fun for me to have variety versus agonizing over a "proper" bridge section or something.
So any things on the horizon we should be aware of?
I'm playing at Quenchers Saloon in Chicago on February 26, and I try to come out with at least one EP or LP every 2 months. I did four last year—one so far this year so there's definitely more tunes coming. Also I'm making a compilation floppy disk of Adlib Tracker II songs that anyone can submit to. I made an event to coordinate it.
Here's a thread that my good friend wrote. Carl's his name but he has tons of aliases—Oxygenstar, Spunky Brewster, RADLIB, Doomcloud. If people want to learn more, that's a really good resource.
I saw Carl's performance at Blipfest in NYC on Vimeo and it blew my mind. He was performing with two DOS laptops at the same time, both running Impulse Tracker. I've been friends with him online since April last year and he's been incredibly supportive of me. He's really well known as one of the greats in chiptune and it was amazing to have his feedback and interest when I was just starting. It took me a while to realize he wasn't using Adlib Tracker II, so that's part of the reason why I spent so much time trying to make good drum sounds [laughs].
The set just really put a huge fire under me to get better and explore the technology he was using, because he was obviously making dope modern music with 20 year-old gear and killing it in front of a big crowd.
Awesome. Any parting words?
I have a Soundcloud that I use all the time and a Bandcamp where you can get downloads, CD-Rs and I have a handful of 3.5" floppies containing the .A2M files of YMF262 there was well. And I guess I'll say—if you like something really weird just keep on doing and plugging away. Be nice to people, make friends, and share everything.
Diode was kind enough to make an exculsive new video just for THUMP. Check it out below and head to his Bandcamp if to cop some of the CDs and floppy disks (!) he's released.
Devin Kenny is a cross-disciplinary maker, independent curator, and critic currently residing in NYC who has found $20 bills on the ground in Williamsburg and Bushwick. -@devinkkenny