|By Christopher Null
02:00 AM Oct. 13, 2005 PT
When Russian musician Alexei Shulgin takes the stage, he does so with a computer keyboard strapped across his chest, jamming electronica versions of rock standards, from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to "California Dreamin'."
Shulgin doesn't have an army of Macs to back up his unique sound, which combines MIDI audio streams and lyrics delivered via a warbly text-to-speech application. Instead, his keyboard is connected to a single piece of computer equipment: a PC containing 8 MB of RAM, a 40-MB hard drive and a 386DX CPU, a microchip Intel released in 1985.
Shulgin's stage moniker, "386 DX," is drawn from the PC, which he's been using in live performances since 1998. Thanks to the 386's ability to process MIDI and speech simultaneously (unique for its era), Shulgin can play both music and lyrics for a song on a computer made 20 years ago. The PC also outputs music visualizations, projected onto a screen behind Shulgin. Most of what Shulgin does onstage is control the video. The PC takes care of all the music.
There's no good name for what Shulgin does. Alternately termed "vintage techno," "8-bit style" or, in Shulgin's etymology, "cyberpunk rock," a small but growing cadre of experimental musicians is catering to the Robotron set by turning archaic computer equipment into musical instruments.
Shulgin isn't the only vintage techno act to hit the scene in recent years. A band called The 8-Bit Construction Set recently put out a record called Atari vs. Commodore, a vinyl album composed in assembly language on an Atari 800XL (side A) and a Commodore 64 (side B) -- complete with analog-encoded applications at the end of each side that can actually be downloaded to and run on the respective computers.
There's also Bodenständig 2000, a German group of "hard-rocking scientists" that composes all original tunes (imagine the background music loops for Castle Wolfenstein) on low-end PC soundcards.
Big-name musicians even dabble in the scene. The Little Sound DJ is a cartridge for the Nintendo Game Boy that can be programmed to take advantage of the whopping 4 bits of sound the handheld gaming device is able to output, turning it into a crude, but undeniably cool, music machine. It's been seen in the hands of everyone from Björk to Beck.
Thom Holmes, author of The Routledge Guide to Music Technology, first published in 1985 and most recently updated last month, says that 8-bit-style artists basically have been around since, well, the era of 8-bit computers. The early 1980s, he says, brought "the beginning of the composer-tinkerers, people who would salvage audio chips from toys and other equipment and turn them into musical instruments."
Nicholas Collins, head of the sound department at The Art Institute of Chicago, says, "This is actually an idea that started with house music. Electronic instruments had been around long enough that you could finally be nostalgic about them. I can't imagine it's cost-effective. You can probably get a decent Mac for not much more than you'd pay for a decent vintage machine. To imitate the wave forms of these older computers would take like 20 minutes of work. But the fact that it's vintage, that you got it at a Goodwill shop, that's the whole thing: the fetishism of the machine."
In fact, making new music sound old is big business today. The synthesizers of the 1980s -- particularly Moog models -- are seeing a huge revival. For those unable to afford a vintage Roland or Minimoog, the knockoff market is in full swing, with new synthesizers designed to reproduce the sounds of machines made two decades ago. Even the theremin, says Holmes, has come back into vogue. You can also buy, for $500, a rig that's identical to the one Shulgin uses.
Not everyone is smitten with this low-tech walk down memory lane. René T.A. Lysloff, a professor of music at the University of California at Riverside and co-editor of the book Music and Technoculture, notes that MIDI is nothing special and that "the relative low-tech angle ... wears thin very quickly. It just all sounds rather flaccid." He adds, "It certainly isn't techno. I might even add that it isn't even very good."