If the world's only Tandy Deskmate computer music specialist Ben Zimmerman didn't exist, would nerds like Dan Lopatin have to invent him? Emily Bick looks at making music with the shonky and frugal budget computer
Software Records’ new release of Ben Zimmerman’s The Baltika Years claims to be the first ever collection of music recorded on Tandy Computer Deskmate software, which is quite a feat, just for existing. Tandy stopped making computers at the end of its model 486 era, before the arrival of Pentium processors in the early 1990s, which probably says all you need to know about the learning curve for Deskmate compared to, say, bandcamp. The interface was fiddly and slow, and storage limited. As Zimmerman says, “There was a limit of 1500+ notes that a .sng file could hold. The kicker was the three second delay from when you add a single note, rest, tempo change or repeat.” Even repeating phrases or sections of a track was tedious: “I used copy and paste frequently, which could take up to 20 seconds to add or erase. An average piece took one to three days to complete.”
None of this would matter if Zimmerman’s work were not so extraordinarily rich and contemporary sounding. His compositions of samples and mangled drum loops, recorded between the early 1990s and 2002, and assembled on a “sound card [that] is proprietary, three-voice polyphonic and monaural”, conjure memories of lo-res video game consoles and cable horror films replayed on stretched out VHS tape — sharing a nostalgic feel with some compositions by Daniel Lopatin, who oversaw this compilation, not to mention the time that such nostalgic textures evoke. Unearthing Zimmerman’s Tandy works is like digging up a lost ancestor to give evolutionary and historical weight to the music of Lopatin, James Ferraro, Tim Hecker et al. He’s the low tech missing link to that sort of sound, and if he didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him, in the same spirit as Jan Jelinek’s ‘rediscovery’ of synth pioneer Ursula Bogner, or artist Jamie Shovlin’s equally fictional German noise band Lustfaust, and its attendant fanzine and cassette-sharing culture. But the focus and approach of Zimmerman’s composition is substantially different: not only would he have been closer in time to some of his textures and samples than today’s artists, he also had to piece each of his tracks together over much longer timescales, his concentration interrupted by loading time and lag.
And working on a Tandy! Tandy computers were never cool. Slightly shonky, practical, maybe, and frugal, they were the own-brand, DOS-based computers of the American electronics store chain Radio Shack, mostly based in shopping malls, with overcrowded racks filled with all the resistors and soldering irons and circuit boards and alligator clamps any garage enthusiast — this was well before anyone used the term makers — could ever want. Musicians would drop by for cables and parts to build pedals or cabinets from scratch, and the hacker quarterly 2600 magazine would recommend which shelves to visit to build tone generators for making free calls from payphones. Just being there was a colossal pain in the ass: if you can imagine the worst service from the most sneering old-school record shop assistant crossed with an intense, almost Asperger’s, focus on technical minutiae over usability, increase that by an order of magnitude. Tech support? Ha. Anyone using a Tandy to compose would have needed a strong sense of self-direction, invention, patience and perseverance. In addition, it’s not the obvious tool for anyone working collaboratively. But Zimmerman made it his own. “During the first year or so, I only used Deskmate’s three or four stock sounds – piano, cello and clarinet – for scores and sketching music for performers,” he says. “However, as I began acquiring a taste in electronic music, I began sampling records. That experience opened up a whole other world of creativity. Tandy’s unique workflow appealed to me so much that I would mentally compose in its terms. I thought of it as Vladimir Ussachevsky’s ultimate musical tool, because of the limitations of early tape music”
Ordered chronologically, the collection opens with “Phyllis”, 21 minutes of distorted, almost demented ranting that sounds like it could come from a wacky sitcom neighbour, by way of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. “My mother’s name was Phyllis,” expIains Zimmerman, “and on the very first day I plugged a microphone into the Tandy, my mom came home and I asked her to say what was on her mind. For some reason, that particular sample glitched and I decided to leave it in.”
Transferring all the Tandy .sng files for each piece to editable contemporary formats took days, and the mesmerising yet creepy “Phyllis” almost ended up in the digital graveyard. “I ripped all the remaining floppy disks in the early 2000s for archival purposes, as they were pretty beaten up during various moves, and I thought they would just get worse.” says Zimmerman. “That is why I have the 543 .snd files converted to .wav, and all the .sng files converted to .mid. Point of fact, I no longer had a copy of “Phyllis”, and I would not have gotten back "Phyllis" had my friend Danny not returned it to me in 2007.”
Archiving early digital material is increasingly difficult for digital music, especially tracks made in older formats on obsolete systems, which is why it’s so rare to come across a composer with such a large collection of Tandy-produced material to hand. “I had three Tandy computers, which are all now in landfills,” says Zimmerman, “When the RLX1000 my uncle gave me died, it took my best piece to its grave. I listened to a lot of my music in my car in the 90s. I put some of my tracks on cassette for that purpose. My friend let me make a Tandy to PC sound-card CDR in 1997. I also gave a few cassettes out to friends, and had a few marathon sessions of recording the Tandy, as backup.”
With its breakbeats, layered distortion and occasional vaporwave-thin slices of repeated time-warped samples, the album’s epic six part “Pausebreak” is the best example of Zimmerman’s advanced workarounds of the Tandy’s limitations to create unexpected sounds. “In the 90s pre-internet era,” he says, “I began collecting a ton of experimental and dance music on vinyl and cassettes. I then started sampling them by connecting the turntable to the back of the Tandy. I even experimented with a bit of turntablism as I recorded these samples, and this is how “Pausebreak” was created.”
Today, of course, such tracks could be assembled with a few clicks and uploaded to the internet in minutes. This is what The Baltika Years asks its listeners to really think about: how music is made – and how much that matters.