Retrospective - Karsten Obarski 03/01/98

Karsten Obarski is possibly THE most elusive Grandfather of the Amiga. With such important contributions as practically inventing the concept of the Soundtracker to his credit (not to mention the composition of some of the most memorable Amiga game music ever), Obarski simply disappeared, without trace, some years ago.

In 1987, promising German software developers EAS were writing and producing original games software for the still infant Amiga. Obarski was a part of that team, working as both a musician and programmer. In that time, development and creative programs were still geared very much towards the "professional" user, few utilities existed which allowed for easy creation of graphics and sounds for manipulation by programmers.

As a consequence, most teams found that they had to write their own systems and programs to aid them in the making of sprites, bobs, graphics, music and sounds (hence the proliferation of tools and small applications which found their way into the public domain). At EAS, Obarski was responsible for a program which was later to be named "The Ultimate Soundtracker".

Intended as a simplistic means of creating music (based in part on the many Commodore 64 sound-editors that existed at that time), Soundtracker would make use of the Amiga's unique ability to play four simultaneous samples at a time, and would be written in assembler so that the resulting sound "module" and code could be easily integrated into the final game.

In fairness, the idea was a simple one. Indeed, other sound systems existed. Darius Zendeh, for example, had devised his own "Mark II Sound System" in which music for various demos and games (including the R-Type in-game music and Katakis title music) was composed. David Whittaker also had his own editor. But none had the simplicity and scope of The Ultimate Soundtracker.

Realising its merits as a viable creative tool, EAS decided that The Ultimate Soundtracker was of merchandisable quality and so released it commercially in mid-1987. The response was not good. The words "illogical", "difficult" and "tempremental" featured in its reviews, with programs such as Aegis' Sonix and EA's Deluxe Music, still stealing the musical limelight.

However, Soundtracker was to quickly find its niche. Other programming teams adopted it as their own music creation system and, once EAS had given up on it and released the source code to the public domain, the legend began.

Suddendly there were Soundtracker variants, clones and updates pouring out - virtually overnight. Demo programmers discovered the ease in which Soundtracker allowed them to add full musical scores to their productions, and amateur demo-scene musicians set upon sampling sounds and making their own Soundtracker instrument disks, thus lending a unique sound to their compositions.

The miracle of Soundtracker was now available to anyone and everyone. The public domain was awash with music disks and demos ranging from the incredibly poor to the genuinely amazing. Compared to everything else that had gone before, the Amiga quickly earned a reputation for having the most impressive array of both music composition software and demonstrations of it.

The Ultimate Soundtracker, in its initial carnation, coaxed its users into writing music in a very methodical manner. Obarski himself followed the suggested guidelines of assigning "percussion", "bass", "lead" and "accompaniment" to separate channels. His style was difficult to emulate, though. Many early composers used the same standard instruments that came with Soundtracker (the notorious "ST-01" sample disk) but failed to rekindle the magic that Obarski had conjured.

It's impossible to mistake Obarski's work - witness the unique yet familiar feel of "Amegas", "Rally Master" and "Sleepwalk". They all have a similar style and spirit. Karsten Obarski had done for Amiga music what Rob Hubbard had eariler done for C64 music. But there were contenders for the crown, and in the subsequent years, a variety of now respected musicians cut their teeth on Soundtracker.

The claims that Soundtracker was irksome and tempremental were justified, and well known. Even up until just recently, Soundtracker would crash at the drop of a hat, losing all of your work in the process. Frustrated programmers found a way around this by devising a simple program that would "rip" the song from memory after a reset. These "ripper" programs were later developed to such a level that they are now capable of ripping music from just about anything at any time, no matter what it's written with. At the last count, there were over 100 different Amiga music formats.

The first noteworthy update to Soundtracker arrived in 1989. Swedish programmers Mahoney & Kaktus released "Noisetracker" to a rapturous response. Many of the more worrying bugs had been ironed out and the program was vastly more configurable. The real major enhancement, though, was the removal of the "15 Instrument" limitation. Noisetracker allowed for upto 31 instruments to be used in any one composition.

With the arrival of the Amiga's 2.0 Operating system, thousands of users were disappointed and outraged to find that EVERY incarnation of Soundtracker (except the original Ultimate Soundtracker) now crashed instantly. Within weeks, updates and patches were knocked out which professed to fix the problems causing these crashes, although still leaving its users with a very volatile system.

By now, Obarski had moved on to writing another program, sadly only ever used once and never released. Incorporating synthesised "chip" sounds together with samples, the theme to the game "Dyter 07" was to be Obarski's last known work.

However, the Soundtracker legacy continued. In 1991, the release of the "Pro Tracker" saw yet more bug-fixes and additions to the ever-evolving system. The interface changed many times, new effects and optimized playroutines were introduced, and there were now more clones than ever before to choose from.

Other music programs sprang into existance that weren't simply born out of the original Sountracker code - Teijo Kinnunen's MED (Music EDitor) found grace with many users thanks to its reliable and friendly user-interface. Andreas Tadic's Game Music Creator made a brief appearance, as did Linel's never-released Sound FX (a worthy system and one I used for many years). The idea of introducing synthesised sounds was also expanded on by the likes of Future Composer, Scoopex's SIDMON (later "The Musical Enlightenment"), Brian Postma's Sound Mon and Chris Hulsbeck's capable TFMX.

Soundtracker's concept and popularity spread to the burgeoning PC market, too. In the early 90s, and with the advent of the PC "sound card", programs that would play Amiga MOD files started to appear which later culminated in the release of the "Scream Tracker".

The original Amiga program still attracts a cult following - even now there are regular updates to the Pro Tracker, the latest version of which is set to support multichannel mixing. However, vastly superior programs now exist such as the unsurpassed Amiga trackers Digi Booster Pro and OctaMED Sound System, and PC programs such as Fast Tracker 2 and Impulse Tracker - still the most popular demo-scene music program on the PC.

Obarski's disappearance and inactivity are a real tragedy for those that are ardent supporters of the demo music scene. Without guidance from its original instigator, it has taken nearly ten years for the Soundtracker concept of "tracking" to evolve into what is considered by many as a definite culture.

What Obarski might have done with a 64 channel Soundtracker remains to this day, the stuff of a mad man's dreams. Mark Wright