Thus spoke Dave

Computer programming came into my life by pure accident. In fact, as a 14-year-old that had just finished primary school, I didn’t plan to have anything to do with computers: I wanted to study agriculture. The actual reason escapes me now; was it because I’d been in the Scouts and wanted to work close to nature? I no longer remember. Anyway, for my next round of education I chose a local secondary, which at that time was a catch-all type of school offering specializations as disparate as Agriculture, Physics, and Information Technology.

I sat the entrance exam and waited for the results, feeling hopeful as I thought I’d done fairly well in the test. After a few weeks I received an official letter saying that I had indeed passed the exam with flying colours. And then it went on to explain, and apologize, that due to low candidate interest there would be no Agriculture class in the upcoming school year – but they’d be very happy to offer me a place in the IT class!

I should have kept the letter because as a joke it was priceless. But my parents thought differently and insisted that I accept the offer, which in the end I did.

You can imagine that in the class I entered in September 1988, I was an oddball right from the start. And not only because I’d made an illogical switch from agriculture to IT. Computers were a rather fancy thing to own in then-Communist Czechoslovakia, a social status thing, so the class was full of children of the local upper crust – doctors, vets, lawyers and company directors. With my working-class background (my dad was a mining machinery mechanic, my mum worked at the railway station), I had little chance to fit in. Luckily, the uncanny forces of social gravity had me seated next to a guy who soon turned out to be an oddball as well. Dave, a shy acne-ridden village teenager who, unlike our pretentious classmates, wanted to study IT simply because he was born a nerd.

In a typical school Dave would have become an obvious target for bullies, but in ours he instead got in the crosshairs of the head teacher. As a die-hard communist bearing an amazing resemblance to Lenin, the head teacher had introduced a school rule not allowing students to wear t-shirts that featured slogans or logos. And I mean any slogans or logos because, you know, what if they were potentially subversive? Now just a few weeks into our first year, Dave was caught in the school corridor wearing a Perestroika t-shirt, a souvenir his father had brought him from the Soviet Union. Facing suspension, Dave defended himself with unexpected grit. He claimed that nothing was wrong with his t-shirt because it promoted the official political doctrine of the Soviet Communist Party. Which in a way it did, so the school board had no other option than to rule in his favour. But he was labelled a dissident, which further cemented his weirdo reputation. (He must have impressed the bullies, though, because they left him alone.)

Through our shared outsider status we inevitably became pals and allies: two friendly ships navigating hostile waters. And soon my life changed beyond recognition! Trying to understand now what was so special about Dave, I see a wonderful contradiction between his reclusive personality and the enthusiasm he beamed with when he was talking about things he loved. More than anybody I knew, he was defined and constantly redefined by his many interests, which included science-fiction, fantasy, cartoons, Dungeons & Dragons, Woody Allen films, Eastern philosophy, rock music, and of course – computers. Not the ones we used at school, horrible and constantly overheating junk! Dave had an Atari 800XE at home, a machine that was in a different league by comparison. A real computer in the technological dry land of Communist Czechoslovakia. Of course we spent hours playing games on it, and just for the record, my favourite was Whomper Stomper, a now-forgotten gem in which you and your trusty aardvark tried to prevent swarms of hungry ants from stealing your picnic lunch. (Why not try the game out on your Amiga using the Atari800 emulator?)

Some serious ant squashing in Whomper Stomper.

But although the games were great fun, I was more impressed by the fact that Dave was able to program it. I saw that even a pimpled teenager could tell a computer to make sounds, show graphics or move sprites, and I began to feel a desire to learn the witchcraft as well. Agriculture was forever forgotten. I wanted my own computer! I didn’t care if it was an Atari, a Commodore or an Amstrad – I wanted to be able to do things with it. But the programming classes at school were uninspiring, taught by a converted maths teacher who didn’t understand computers, and who rarely seemed to be more than one lesson ahead of his students. Dave instinctively sensed my need for a mentor, and it was him who helped me take my first steps in BASIC and, later, Pascal. I still remember my first ever “program”, which I typed over from Dave’s Atari XE Owner’s Manual:

In case you’re wondering how I could possibly quote a piece of code I last saw 35 years ago, there are two reasons. First, the program actually displayed a poem on the screen, and I find poems easy to remember, especially when they rhyme. Second, the unofficial Czech version of the manual had a mis-translation there: contrary to the English original, it said that the program Bozon continued running after the user turned off the computer switch. Which was a charming nonsense we had a lot of laughs with, so it stuck with me.

The four years with Dave at the secondary school were great and (as I now see) extremely formative, but we parted ways after the school-leaving exam. I took up English studies at the university, and then I went throught a string of teaching and translation jobs, which included a three-year lecturing stint at my alma mater. Dave made a few attempts at studying Economics and then IT, but he always dropped out. We lost touch completely for many years. I heard that he had moved to Prague, where he lived a solitary life and programmed databases for a living. During the three decades we only bumped into each other once. In a typical Dave fashion, my friend refused to go for a pint and instead suggested that we go and see Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit at the cinema. So much for catching up after a long time no see!

Wallace and Gromit are at it again.

Dave had never been to any of our class reunions, so I was stunned to hear that he should be making an appearance at our 30th graduation anniversary earlier this year. In all honesty, I didn’t believe he would show up. I thought I stood a better chance of meeting my classmates who now live in California or Montana than having a chat with Dave. But to everyone’s surprise, he lived up to his word and did come to join us. His many years of social absence lent him a “special guest” status, so he was in high demand throughout the evening. It took a while before I could steal a moment with him and drag him aside so that we could talk in private. After a slightly awkward introductory exchange, during which he confirmed the rumours that he had never married or had kids, I steered the conversation towards what I believed was a safe common ground: computers.

— “Weren’t we lucky that we got a chance to be there when computers were just beginning to be a thing?” I kicked off. Strumming the nostalgia string often makes for an easy way to reconnect.

— “What do you mean?” Apparently, the string didn’t sound right.

— “Er… I mean, wasn’t it great that we had computers in the early days, before everybody and their uncle got a PC?”

— “What exactly was so great about it?”

— “I mean, we were there, right? We were part of it, making it happen. We had to find ways and discover things for ourselves. Learn stuff and all. We did great things others couldn’t. It was exciting to have a computer back then, unlike now.”

— “Was it?” Dave kept replying by asking questions, and I felt that this chat had become unexpectedly difficult to navigate.

— “Don’t you ever miss your little Atari?”

— “Hell no, why would I, for God’s sake? Those old computers were all false starts and dead ends. None of them are relevant any more, so what should I miss about them?”

Thus spoke Dave, and I was dumbfounded. I really didn’t know what to reply, or what else to say next, and so the conversation dwindled away, leaving me with a lot of food for thought (and a few more drinks to finish). Don’t get me wrong: Dave didn’t break any news to me. I’m not a naive simpleton who needed a reality check. But until that evening in late February, I had never questioned that the computers my generation had grown up with were important stepping stones to the technology of today. And now, by a wicked irony of fate, none other than my old partner in crime comes and says such a blasphemous thing!

Believe it or not, I wasn’t able to get over his words for several months. I felt so low that I didn’t touch any of my Amiga projects, including this blog. Overtaken by scepticism, I couldn’t see a point. “Did I just spend thirty years defending something that doesn’t matter?” I asked myself. “Do things become irrelevant when they come out of use? Is there really nothing to be missed about them?”

But as spring progressed towards summer, my usual self began to get the better of me again. And after a while I realized a possibility which, for some reason, I hadn’t considered: that my old mentor was simply wrong. Or that he was being overly pessimistic. Yes, the Amiga and others – including Dave’s Atari – lost the computer race and became a closed chapter, a part of history. But history is something one can hardly call irrelevant. We study history, we reflect on history, we go back to history because it has formed and informed our present. Every closed chapter sets the scene for the chapters we’re reading at the moment. I find the book metaphor quite fitting because in our lives, more often than not we go back a few pages and re-read parts of the story we remember as particulary interesting or inspiring. And sometimes we find that the things we did and the solutions we found were actually quite smart and thrilling, free of the dull complexities that the world imposes on us today. When I use my Amiga, I often feel like the reader in Brian Patten’s poem which starts:

Late at night I sat turning the pages
half-looking at the words I had once read,
astonished at their simplicity

For me at least, this kind of reading makes a lot of sense!

A day at Amiga37

I’m not a frequent Amiga party-goer. I had my fair share when I was younger, but I no longer see much point in going to far-away places only to find, typically, a dozen tables with old machines running old games. So the Amiga37 party announcement in April left me somewhat indifferent, all the more so when I realized that the venue was located over a thousand kilometres from my hometown. However, I began to have second thoughts when it became clear that it was going to be the largest Amiga gathering in years, and when many of my online friends have confirmed their attendance. The actual moment of decision came with me learning about the Setpatch Aftershow Party, which was supposed to round off the Amiga37 with live performances of the legendary Chris Hülsbeck and of the Norwegian cover band FastLoaders. With the latter featuring in the line-up, I knew it would only take a single phone call to persuade my old pal Human Factor to take me there in his car: on top of being Amiga addicts we’re both huge FastLoaders fans!

Human Factor was thrilled when he heard the idea.

On Friday 14 October, we set off in the morning because Human Factor had estimated the journey to take pretty much the whole day. We made regular stops every two hours or so, to recharge the car and to take a rest, which became increasingly necessary as we progressed towards our destination. Well into the German territory, we stopped at downtown Kassel for a late lunch, and had a lot of fun in a local restaurant called Alex. I was in the mood for some craft beer and had one recommended, only to find strawberries floating in the glass as the waiter proudly served it. An adventurous drink to say the least! I had barely fished out the poor drowning fruit when our meals were brough and we had to bite our lips again, seeing that Human Factor’s bowl of spaghetti was covered by two unsolicited Wiener schnitzels the size of my hand! But the meal was delicious and my chicken curry came with no further surprises, so we left the Alex as satisfied customers with bellies full to the brim.

The clock was chiming 10pm when we finally arrived in Mönchengladbach and checked in at the T3 Cityloft Hotel. The receptionist on night duty couldn’t help raising his eyebrows when, instead of our accommodation and sightseeing opportunities, we rather inquired about a pub nearby that might still be serving draught beer at this hour. But that’s what you get when you send Czechs abroad: we’re a beer-drinking nation, and we’ll always be the first to admit it.

In the morning, after breakfast that either was mediocre or we were still hung over (I couldn’t tell), we called a taxi to take us to the Amiga37 venue. The Kunstwerk was located about five kilometres from the hotel, so we were there in no time and happily joined the registration queue. After a moment we realized that the two guys queuing right in front of us who looked like Dave Haynie and Ron Nicholson of Commodore were indeed Dave Haynie and Ron Nicholson of Commodore, so it was clear that the show was going to be big.

The registration queue: Ron Nicholson and Dave Haynie on the left.

The registration didn’t take long and soon we found ourselves in, wearing stylish red wristbands indicating that we were respectable paying members of the International Amiga Brotherhood. We also received a free copy of the Amiga Future magazine, a special issue dedicated to the event. Although just a few minutes past 10am, the large hall of the Kunstwerk was already fully occupied with tables showing various Amiga as well as non-Amiga hardware. We really didn’t know where to start, so we started at the bar.

The party hall as seen from the bar area.

Upstairs above the hall, in a section called The Red Crocodile (Rotes Krokodil), interviews were held throughout the day featuring various Amiga luminaries past and present. The Crocodile was a very nice place, with a posh red leather sofa and armchairs on the stage. According to the schedule, David Pleasance formerly of Commodore UK was supposed to speak at eleven, but when we took our seats the man was nowhere to be seen. After a few minutes it became obvious that he wasn’t coming, also because the table down in the hall where he was supposed to promote his books was still empty. So we continued exploring the hall. I spent a few minutes at the table right next to David’s, where the director Steven Fletcher was stationed selling his documentary films and other stuff.

Me, Steven Fletcher and his wife Dawn doing business.

I had briefly met Steven at the 2017 Amiga Developer Conference in Cardiff, where he was filming material for The Commodore Story. Having seen this feature documentary two months previously, I wanted to say hello and well done to the very man who had made it. Steven told me he’d recently finished a new film, Amiga: Alive and Kicking, which he also had for sale on the table. The deal was sealed and I ended up buying three films on BluRay, plus a book that accompanies the Commodore Story film. We had a funny moment when I found myself in a photo as I was browsing through the book; Steven said that my face did look familiar but he had no idea he was talking to one of his impromptu “actors”!

So many treasures for 40 euros!

Lunchtime approached and David Pleasance appeared in the hall; we felt lucky that his talk had only been postponed rather than cancelled. Unfortunately, as we were told by one of the organizers, he wasn’t going to share his Commodore-time stories but present his latest project, the so-called Commodore Amiga Global Alliance. Having mixed feelings about it we eventually decided to give the presentation a miss, and instead we popped into a nearby restaurant to have a small lunch and a few pints. The place served a decent lager called Bitburger – as computer freaks we found the name very appropriate, and even proposed a few Limited Edition variants such as the 8-Bitburger and the more powerful 16-Bitburger.

Two Amigans waiting for lunch.

When we returned, the hall had noticeably more visitors and the event was in full swing. I visited the combined AAA stand to say hello to AmigaKit owner Matthew Leaman, and saw that they had two AmigaOne X5000 computers on display running various AmigaOS4 (and later also MorphOS) stuff. Compared to that, the ACube table located nearby looked much more static and, frankly speaking, left a lot to be desired. Considering that ACube currently has two OS4-compatible hardware models in the works (the Sam460LE and the A1222), I expected a vibrant presentation with several computers offering hands-on experience, in order to lure prospective buyers. But that didn’t happen. When I came over, ACube’s representative was just standing there looking at a few disconnected PCBs. Later, a Sam460 computer was brought in to at least show AmigaOS4 running on it but, I hate to say it, they could have done a better job presenting their products (and our platform).

In front, the AAA stand with two AmigaOne X5000 computers.

One thing I love about such parties is that you get an opportunity to meet, in person, people you only know from the online world. So it was nice to finally put actual faces to names and nicknames from the AmigaOS4 forums: George ‘Walkero’ Sokianos, David ‘Skateman’ Koelman, Paul ‘Sananaman’ Koster and others. Some of the platform’s movers and shakers were present, too. I exchanged a few words with A-EON’s Trevor Dickinson (always the social animal!), I played a bit of Tower 57 on Daniel Müssener’s AmigaOne, and I’m sure a few jaws dropped when Mike Battilana (Amiga Corporation and Cloanto) was spotted in conversation with Ben Hermans of Hyperion. I wonder what the unlikely pair were talking about? Weather, or their never-ending court case?

Of course, Next-Generation Amiga computers represented a minority at the Amiga37. The event was largely about Classic systems, which were on display in numerous shapes and forms. Original Commodore hardware sat next to modern machines based on emulation or FPGA reimplementation; professional production mingled with DIY. The event oscillated between a computer fair, a games convention and a flea market in the most natural manner. It had a bit of everything for everybody, including Commodore 64 fans. For those who had no idea how big the retro thing had become, this show must have been an eye-opening experience!

Visiting the corner.

Arguably, the most popular stand was that of the Apollo Computer team. It was also the most professional-looking, in my opinion. The guys put up quite a display to promote their computers and accelerators, with colourful roll-up banners, company t-shirts and, of course, a battery of Vampire V4 Standalone systems running games to play. Not that I would buy one myself (as a non-gamer I’m rather hard to please) but the team definitely deserves a mention for their stylish and well thought-out presentation.

The Apollo Computer stand.

Rambling around the hall, I also stopped by the iMica Ltd. stand and had a brief chat with the company’s owner Stephen Jones. I’d had my eye on his Checkmate cases for some time, thinking about getting the smaller Checkmate 1500 Mini for the upcoming AmigaOne A1222. But I decided against it, seeing that the case is actually quite large for a Mini-ITX board. It’s funny how misleading pictures can be because the case looks tiny in promotional materials, while in reality it’s not much smaller than its larger brother, the Micro-ATX sized Checkmate 1500 Plus. Two of these cases had a Checkmate Monitor prototype sitting on top of them. Although still waiting for their Kickstarter launch, the prototypes were fully working and attracting a good deal of interest – Stephen answered questions all the time! I normally wouldn’t care much about an LCD monitor that tries to look like a CRT model of yesteryear, but this monitor has one great thing about it. There’s an opening at the back of the chassis in which you can install a MiSTer or a Raspberry Pi board, turning the setup into an iMac-style computer-in-a-monitor solution. I can’t think of a more practical system to take to Amiga parties, so I’m sure Stephen will sell a lot of these.

A rear view of the Checkmate Monitor (and case).

With slightly different Amiga inclinations, our two-man crew spent part of the event separately, each of us going after the things he enjoys. A few times in the afternoon we would reunite upstairs at the Red Crocodile for interviews we wanted to see. We caught a bit of Amiga Bill’s Community Meet-Up, and although the show was mainly about thanking Bill’s fans and supporters, it was refreshing to experience the man’s infectious enthusiasm and positive energy. Some of the interviews were held in German, a language we’d only mastered to the point of being able to order a beer, so we skipped them and instead ordered a beer downstairs. An interview we had been looking forward to was that with former Team17 members Martyn Brown and Andreas Tadic. I hadn’t played many of their games back in the day, but Human Factor used to be a big fan and wanted to see his teenage years’ heroes (even more so now that he works in the gaming industry as well). As for me, I’ve always admired people who managed to turn their Amiga hobby into a way to make a living, and I really enjoyed listening to Martyn and Andreas sharing their stories from behind the scenes.

The Team17 interview on the Red Crocodile stage.

Having already seen most of what was happening downstairs, we decided to stay at the Red Crocodile to watch whatever was next on the programme. The online video interview with Jim Collas was apparently a last-minute addition because it wasn’t listed in the original schedule published in the Amiga Future Special. It was a welcome surprise, though. Jim talked about his bumpy ride as director of Amiga Technologies, and mentioned some of the opportunities lost during the Gateway years. His answers were open and sincere, and it seemed that his past involvement with the Amiga and its community had left some impact, because his voice was clearly getting emotional towards the end of the interview. Although Collas embodies one of Amiga’s many failures, he certainly made an impression on the audience, and the eventual round of applause was more than just a polite courtesy.

The Jim Collas online interview.

The final item on the list of talks scheduled for Saturday was the announcement of the Amiga Community Award winner. I was among the nominees, so one half of me thought it advisable to stay and wait for the results. But it was already 6pm and hunger was getting the better of us, so I made a realistic assessment of my chances and suggested that we better go get something to eat, and take a rest at the hotel before we head for the Setpatch Aftershow Party.

Mönchengladbach is a city of about 260,000 inhabitants, so you can imagine that it can get quite busy on a Saturday night. When our taxi dropped us in the centre shortly before 10pm, the streets were literally swarming with people! It took us some time to find the Projekt 42 nightclub, mainly because we couldn’t see any signs or banners betraying its existence. Finally we spotted an inflatable boing-ball hanging above the entrance door, and a queue of what we presumed to be Amigans patiently waiting for the club to open.

Nightlife in Mönchengladbach: at the Projekt 42 club.

When we got inside, the club was shaking to the sound of DJ music and the staff at the bar were already busy serving drinks. After about thirty minutes of dubstep torture we noticed that there was no stage or instrument rigs around, and we got a suspicion that we were in the wrong place. And of course, there was another room at the opposite end of the club, which we discovered just in time because the Chris Hülsbeck concert was about to begin. The games music legend performed alongside his collaborator Patrick Nevian on keyboards, Chris himself controlled a very efficient setup that consisted of a small MIDI keyboard connected to a tablet running a software sampler or similar. The gig didn’t disappoint, they played the usual hits and some more, but of course it felt a little static: two guys on keys can hardly bring the club down.

Chris Hülsbeck and Patrick Nevian.

As a hard-rock outfit, the FastLoaders were a different kettle of fish of course. The band from Bergen rose to subcultural fame thanks to their energetic cover versions of the Last Ninja game soundtracks. Since their breakthrough Ninja Musicology triple album, released in 2016, they have covered many more Commodore 64 as well as Amiga classics. FastLoaders concerts usually combine the best of both worlds, but this time their performance was based entirely on the Amiga Rocks album. Quite understandable given the occasion, but we couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that none of the great Ninja music made it onto the set list. Anyway, they played enough hits to rock the audience and create a fantastic atmosphere: Shadow of the Beast, R-Type, Turrican II, Lost Patrol, you name it. But I think most will agree with me that the highpoint of the gig was when Jon Hare, the original author of the Cannon Fodder music, climbed onto the stage to play and sing alongside the band. Together they played “Narcissus” (the game’s melancholic menu theme) as well as the famous intro music – and we all sang along that “war has never been so much fun!”

The FastLoaders featuring Jon Hare on guitar and vocals.

The concert ended well past 1am, and although it left us highly energized, we knew we had to leave the club instead of staying for more fun. The prospect of our journey back (which would again take the whole day) was looming above us, and we simply needed to get some sleep to make our travel safe. We were sorry we couldn’t attend the Sunday programme, but our in-and-out visit was still an unforgettable experience. Amiga37 was a well-organized event full of interesting moments, and I’m really glad we went although we could only give it one day. The experience has worked wonders for my party-going appetite, so chances are I’ll meet you at another Amiga get-together very soon!

Thanks for the memory

When Hyperion Entertainment announced in a 2014 blog article that AmigaOS4 was going to get support for accessing memory beyond the 2 GB limit, the reactions were mixed. Predictably, the most abrasive comments came from people who had never owned an OS4 system; but the camp of supporters didn’t seem over the moon, either. Perhaps the title of the article (“Breaking the Memory Barrier”) sounded too promising, and the reality couldn’t live up to the raised expectations. But there would likely have been less disappointment if people didn’t read too much into the title and, instead, took the feature for what it actually is. Because Extended Memory Objects – or ExtMem, as the feature is popularly called – was never advertised as more than a stopgap. Or did anyone seriously expect that AmigaOS would somehow miraculously adopt 64-bit memory addressing?

However, stopgaps in AmigaOS have a tendency to silently become permanent features (take AHI, for example), so eight years after the Hyperion announcement, we still don’t have a better solution. Worse, the adoption of the feature appears to have been quite slow: the system RAM Disk (adapted for ExtMem by Colin Wenzel) and Andy Broad’s SketchBlock are the only real-world applications of the feature that I’m aware of. The main reason why programmers don’t rush to use it is probably the inherent limitations because, as the critics like to reiterate, ExtMem is basically a return to the old practice of bank switching we know from the microcomputer era. Corny and technologically inane, right?

Like most audio software, my Rave sound editor can get quite memory-intensive. Popular compressed formats such as MP3 and the practice of streaming have taken our attention away from the fact that today’s audio data can easily take hundreds of megabytes when you decompress it into the computer’s memory. This may be a problem on a 32-bit system such as the Amiga. So I was naturally curious if ExtMem could help me with some of the challenges I was facing. And it didn’t take me long to start looking in one particular direction.

After I released the first version of Rave, the user feedback I received showed quite clearly that the number one wanted feature was Undo – the possibility to revert changes you’ve made to the waveform. Not a great surprise: honestly, if I were in my users’ shoes, I’d be among the first to point out the omission of such an important feature! But it’s interesting to see how much we’ve now come to take Undo for granted because, believe it or not, an Amiga sound editor with such functionality is far from being a given. I recently fired up a number of audio manipulation programs that were popular back in the day. I was curious how my new-born baby Rave compares with them, and I specifically wanted to see how they implement Undo, hoping to find some inspiration.

Aegis Audiomaster and Digital Sound Studio were my go-to sample editors in the 1990s.

The results of my little research were surprising, to say the least. Of the ten programs I looked at, only three featured a dedicated Undo – and only one of the undo implementations I’d call useful. To cut a long story short, I’ve summarized my findings in a table:

Aegis Audiomaster IV1.01991No undo.
Megalosound1.351993Single-step undo, the data is stored in RAM.
GVP Digital Sound Studio3.0d1994No undo.
Samplitude Opus3.5 R9-51997No undo.
SoundProbe2.111998Single-step undo, the data is stored in RAM.
SampleE4.082000No undo.
SoundFX4.32004No real undo: modified samples are stored as new projects (which is memory-intensive and increases screen clutter).
Samplemanager1.62005Unlimited undo, the data is stored on disk as temporary files.
AmiSoundEd0.122009No undo.
SampleZ0.15 alpha2021No undo.
Undo implementation in various Amiga sound editors.

And the winner is (drum roll): Samplemanager by Thilo Köhler!

While I don’t feel like showing this table to my PC friends, the results cheered me up because I’ve realized that many of my predecessors scratched their heads over the same thing as me. They also confirmed my little theory that the implementation of Undo is not actually straightforward from the developer’s point of view. The user may think that all you have to do is dump the sample data into a memory buffer and recall it when needed, but it’s really not as easy as that, especially if you want to do it right.

On the other hand, I knew that I was in a different position with the next-generation hardware possibilities. I was thinking: if it worked for Samplemanager on a Classic Amiga seventeen years ago, why should I be worried on an OS4 system with a much faster memory and disk access?

Thilo Köhler’s Samplemanager, a companion to the author’s HD-Rec sequencer.

Preliminary tests on both of my Amiga systems, an X5000 and a Sam440ep-Flex, showed that a disk-based solution would be more than adequate, so I decided to go that way. I ruled out the idea that the Undo function would store data in regular system memory. Imagine a session with ten high-definition audio projects opened, each keeping a separate editing history, each eating a chunk of RAM every time you make a destructive change. Just thinking about the memory footprint makes me shudder! (Of course I could limit the history to, say, ten steps to prevent things getting out of hand. Surely a great improvement compared to having no Undo at all, but as I try to make a strong case for AmigaOS4 and its software, I have little mercy for half-baked solutions.)

Still, with 4 GB of RAM installed in the X5000 I was intrigued to try out ExtMem because what I had read in the documentation sounded encouraging, despite the “ugly” limitations that spoil the party for the purist. What are they, actually? By nature, AmigaOS cannot address more than four gigabytes of RAM, leaving roughly 2 GB of addressable space for application use. The ExtMem framework allows applications to store more data than that, by dividing the data into blocks (ExtMem Objects) that are stored in the physical memory beyond the addressing limit. The trade-off is that not all of the memory blocks will be available at one particular time. This is because such a block first needs to be mapped in the system memory, acquiring an address within the 2 GB range for the time the block is being used. If there’s not enough RAM to map the other blocks, they have to remain unmapped (and inaccessible) in the electronic void.

I wasn’t really bothered by this limitation because due to the way Undo works, only one piece of data is needed for each step back. In fact, as Andy Broad explained to me, the key to using ExtMem efficiently is to make sure that a memory block is never mapped unless it’s immediately needed for reading or writing. So the programmer must think ahead and keep memory things organized and prioritized.

Knowing this I had all the information I needed to write two analogical pieces of Undo code, one for ExtMem and the other involving disk storage. The result is a dual system, which brings several advantages. Above all, AmigaOS4 users with more than 2 GB of RAM installed in their computer can make use of the extra memory, which would otherwise remain a dead place. They also gain some speed increase because although mapping an ExtMem Object comes with an overhead, it is still faster than writing to disk. At the same time, the disk-based solution is good enough and provides unlimited Undo even on low-end systems such as the Sam440. It also works as a fallback in situations when saving into extended memory fails because there’s not enough free RAM to map the block: in such a case Rave will simply store the data on disk.

So now with version 1.3 out in the wild, I wish you all happy undo-ing! Also, I hope that the ExtMem framework will get more real-life use to prove its potential, and that OS4 programmers will find ways to usefully adopt it in their programs. I think it’s time to dispel the fallacy that there’s no software to make use of the extra power and resources found in machines such as the AmigaOne X1000 or X5000. Now there is, and I’m sure more will be coming in the future.

The question of motivation

Shortly after I released the first version of the Rave audio editor I received an e-mail from a fellow user, Daniel Reimann of the team. He asked me where I find motivation for my Amiga projects. We exchanged a few rather general words about things that give you drive and energy in life, and then we went on to discuss other topics such as the family or holiday destinations. But the more time passed since our little conversation, the more I wondered myself: “Why do I keep doing the things I do, spending time with a computer system that only has a few hundred users?”

It’s a well-known fact that different people get motivated by different things. And it’s probably good to know what these things are: not only because they ask you at job interviews but, more importantly, to avoid making efforts that won’t give you the necessary spark anyway. Really, expecting motivation from things that motivate others (but not you) is a waste of time. So I sat down and came up with a short list of what typically makes me engaged – and as I was getting through a particularly fine bottle of Pinot Noir my wife gave me for Father’s Day, the list ultimately turned into this blog post.

For starters, I do things because I enjoy the process. Yes, I’ve realized that I’m a process-oriented person, rather than a goal-oriented one. My harddrive can testify to this. If you look into my development drawer you’ll see that it contains a lot of abandoned projects. Similarly, my old Protracker drawer has a good deal of material that are mere sketches of ideas for music. Many people would say that I’m not a finisher, that I need to set my eyes on the prize and see the ultimate result. But I can’t help it: I simply love it when I start my computer, make a cup of coffee, put on some music, and get cracking on whatever my current project is. I believe that “enjoying the creative process” is a perfectly valid reason why we do things, and in fact, it’s often a prerequisite to achieving other goals. Trying to produce a result in frustration because the creative process feels like a burden can’t come to any good.

The second item on my personal list of motivation factors is learning. While I may have decades of Amiga experience to rest on, I always learn something new when I work on a program or a piece of music. Heck, I could write a full book about what I’ve learned in the past few years working on Rave! Programming in particular may seem a mundane and repetitive activity but in fact, you rarely get the “been there, done that” feeling. The creative process always makes you face new challenges, bringing in return deeper insight and new skills.

By nature I’m not a noisy person, so I wouldn’t find it appropriate to express my inner self like the guy in Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream. Instead, I use creativity as an outlet. Not that I fire up MilkyTracker to compose a brooding song every time I feel a bit on the low side, or a club banger when I need to let off steam! But the various psychological aspects of creative work can also act as great motivators. I personally like the idea that we leave a bit of ourselves in the things we make; a personal imprint if you will. It’s obvious in music and other artworks, which often stem from emotions and thoughts of a very private nature. But it doesn’t stop with art: I strongly believe that programming is a form of expression too, and as such it bears traces of your thinking, attitude, decision-making and solution-finding. I don’t care that the end user most likely can’t see them: knowing that the software will contain something that is uniquely mine helps me see my efforts as worthwhile and rewarding.

And of course, speaking of psychological aspects, we all know that work can be a great way to take your mind off things. The activities I like to do on the Amiga require a lot of patience and concentration, so when I start working on a software project or a tune, I soon realize that my mental capacity is fully occupied with what I’m doing. This often feels very relaxing, paradoxical as it may sound. So I don’t find it particularly hard to jog myself into working on an Amiga project, because I know that I’ll be in fact taking a little break from the troubles and pressures of the world.

Next on my list is what I think psychology calls social approbation: the notion of being valued by the community. Between the years 2000 and 2009 I was a normal Windows user, and I tried to build on my Amiga hobby by running a small home studio for music production. Far from a professional affair but still, some ten thousand euros sank into it over the years, so I was able to do things I wouldn’t have imagined in the old Amiga days. But nobody seemed to care what I was doing because there were thousands of people like me. Thousands of bedroom composers trying to reach an audience! The situation was no less frustrating in programming. Whenever I thought of a project I could do, I found out that a similar piece of software already existed, with a dozen competing alternatives.

On the PC, I got very little feedback on my work, which ruined my sense of achievement. In the end I didn’t get any joy from my hobby because I felt I wasn’t making any contribution to anybody. And so I realized that I need to feel that I’m useful to get motivated. The Amiga gives me that feeling: the community is small, so it’s much easier for your work to get noticed and appreciated. It doesn’t take ages to establish a reputation if you’re good enough. Unlike on Windows, a lot of software is still missing, so as a programmer you never get short of ideas for new projects. The Rave editor came into existence because I felt there was a gap to be filled, and that AmigaOS4 was losing to its Classic counterpart in the music department. I wanted to change that and give people one more reason to use their system. I wanted OS4 to have something unique.

Which takes me to the last item on my list: bringing innovation. I know that the word “innovation” is somewhat relative on our platform, but still, my motivation levels run high when I know I can bring something new to the old Amiga table. Although still in its infancy, Rave can already boast a number of “Amiga firsts”, and not only because it’s the first native AmigaOS4 sample editor in thirteen years. The program’s I/O module is based on industry-standard libraries, providing the widest range of audio formats ever supported by an Amiga editor. For the latest version, I went to some trouble to introduce preview playback in the file requester – something I always missed on the Amiga. I have a massive library of samples (we’re talking several dozen gigabytes), and looking for the right sound has become a tedious process, much like seeking the proverbial needle in a haystack. There’s still room for improvement, but I can honestly tell you that the new feature really improves workflow and saves a lot of time.

Now all we need is more AmigaOS4 musicians and sound tinkerers. Oh, that would send my motivation levels right through the ceiling! 🙂

Amigas on the lake

Sitting at my old demo group’s 30th anniversary party (which I mentioned in this blog post), I had no inkling that we were in fact reviving a tradition. I’m happy to say that since that first reunion, we’ve been meeting on a fairly regular basis to compare notes, play with our machines and discuss all things Amiga. We’re now a mixed bunch consisting of retro hardware collectors, next-gen enthusiasts (yes, me) and occasional emulation users, but the meetings are always great fun!

Although the hotel that hosted our anniversary get-together was great, we felt that for future meetings we had better look for a less formal venue. And it didn’t take much brainstorming to come up with one. High on our mental list was a cabin at the shore of the Vranov Lake, a place near the border with Austria where we last stayed in mid-1990s. At that time, the Czech Amiga demoscene was having its finest moments, and the poor cabin saw the leading scene groups coming down for annual summer parties (which we now like to present as legendary). “Is the cabin still available for hiring?” we asked Lagya of the Guru Team, who used to organize the parties. He promised to find out with the owner, and in a few days the answer came that we got the green light. This was last September, and our very laid-back revival weekend at the cabin left no one doubting that we’d hit the lakeside again this year.

An aerial view of the Vranov lake, town and chateau. (Photo by Lagya)

I took a day off work so that I could arrive on Thursday evening, because weekends in the countryside always feel too short. Erm… okay, I’ll own up: the real reason was that Human Factor (our group’s graphic artist and co-founder) offered to drive me in his Tesla. As a non-driver I don’t care about cars very much, but I must admit that the Model S is a slick and comfortable vehicle – and more importantly, the rides with Human Factor are always good value because of the talks we have. The two of us really go way back! In the Amiga days we tried to make a name in the game development business, and like many other sceners dreamed of turning our creative skills into a paid job. But while I chickened out after a few unsuccessful projects (and instead pursued a safe, salaried career), Human Factor didn’t give up trying, and after a few bumpy years his company Krieg Games started making some serious bucks on mobile platforms. I’m really happy for him – especially as he never hesitates to acknowledge that the Amiga played a key role in his professional upbringing.

Upon arriving at the lake, I realized to my horror that in the hustle of packing (combined with the darkness of the storage room) I had grabbed the wrong monitor stand, which wouldn’t hold my 24″ screen. The ugly DIY that I performed to make it fit would surely cause some raised eyebrows at Hewlett-Packard, but at least the situation was saved and I could finally hook up my X5000. The Classic section was represented by two MiSTer FPGA computers – a new thing at the party but one that quickly won us over. The sheer number of systems this little box can emulate is very impressive, and the level of Amiga compatibility is so high that nobody seemed to miss the two genuine A500s we had there last year. At one point I was seriously considering putting the MiSTer on my Christmas wish list, but second thoughts crept in as I pictured the look on my dear wife’s face. You know, the look that says “Is this power brick really a computer?!”

Human Factor’s white MiSTer FPGA computer.

None of my pals in our group owns a next-generation Amiga system, and I’ve never tried to coax them into buying one. They haven’t experienced the turbulent excitement of Amiga’s PowerPC transition, so they might not see a point in getting a toy to which – unlike to the Classic Amiga – they have no emotional attachment. Still, I always like to take the opportunity to demonstrate OS4 and the latest developments on the platform. One reason is that when my X5000 boots up and shows the Workbench screen, people often tend to regard it as little more than a prettied-up, high-resolution version of AmigaOS running on PowerPC. It’s good to show them that despite its troubled history and uneven development, OS4 brings more than just eye candy. So at last year’s Vranov party I previewed the Emotion media player with hardware-accelerated video playback, put the finishing touches to my Mindsurfin’ demo tune in the OS4 version of MilkyTracker, and played some games that had recently been ported to the platform thanks to the new 3D enhancements.

This year I didn’t have any heavy-hitting stuff to surprise with, so my system got less focus than it normally would (also thanks to the heavy competition from the two MiSTer machines). But it was heard all right, for during meal times and talks I streamed various online radios with the help of George Sokianos’ new tuner application MediaVault. The SID Station, a chip music-oriented radio based in Holland, became an instant favourite, so there was a lot of bleeping in the room. The incredible works of Matt Gray, Rob Hubbard or Chris Huelsbeck cannot hope for much airplay at home when your wife’s around, but among computer geeks with 8-bit roots, the music always reaches the right ears.

Anyway, back to MediaVault. It really is one of those under-appreciated little programs that spice up your computing life – and I’m very proud to have contributed a small bit of code to it in its early stages. MediaVault is also one of the things I’ll want to show next time somebody asks, “So what can your glorious OS4 machine do that my Classic Amiga can’t?” George has recently updated his freeware program to cover podcast support, which brings a whole new level of fun and makes MediaVault a perfect solution for your online listening. He has also set up a page on, a Patreon-like website where he frequently posts news and development progress updates. We all know that talented AmigaOS4 programmers don’t grow on trees, so why not buy George a nice cup of coffee to support his efforts and show your appreciation? Hell yeah, let’s turn him into a caffeine addict!

Oh, the smell of fresh brew, the smell of morning! I’m an early riser, which gave me about two hours of peace and quiet before the other guys crawled out of their beds. I made good use of this solitary time (and the coffee) to further work on my Rave audio editor, specifically, on the new Process menu, which is shaping up very nicely. At the cabin I was able to add a Fade plugin, which at this point is still very basic, but as it sits on top of Rave’s object-oriented plugin framework, new functionality can easily be added without touching the main program code. My very short-term goal is to add support for logarithmic fading. Essential in professional audio, this feature is in fact a rare find in the Amiga world. Now that I think of it, of all Amiga sound editors I’ve ever used, Stefan Kost’s SoundFX is the only one that can do logarithmic fades – but like everything else in SoundFX, they’re rather complicated to set up there. I’m sure AmigaOS4 composers and sound designers will find them a welcome addition once my Fade plugin gets updated. Other Process menu functions I’ve recently finished include audio channel swapping and conversion, the latter featuring 64-bit floating-point precision mixing for stereo-to-mono conversions.

Me showing the latest development version of the Rave audio editor.

But the morning time I spent tickling the Rave code was just a nice little extra, a few private hours in which I deliberately allowed work to prevail over fun. There were many great moments at the party – and not just because we had beer on tap and you could self-service yourself to oblivion. Or because you didn’t need to feel awkward watching quirky demos you made quarter a century ago. Thanks to the emulation capabilities of the MiSTer, I was able to correct some of my Amiga-centric views of what other historical computer platforms had to offer, which was an illuminating experience. With quite some trepidation I watched Lagya’s efforts to bring a dead A500 back to life, and I felt a lot of relief that my X5000 saves me from this kind of hardware voodoo; an illuminating experience again. I made a lasting impression on my mates by cooking my trademark goulash, which some of them had the opportunity to see one more time after a bumpy car ride; this experience was not illuminating at all.

Party attendees (still digesting my goulash; left to right): Snappy, Jofa, Defor, Lagya, me, and Human Factor.

But the high-point of the party was our Saturday afternoon visit to the Terra Technica Time Travel Museum in Hatě. I hadn’t heard of the place or visited a similar one before, which added to the power of my experience and turned our trip into an unheralded gem of the weekend. Located just a few kilometers from the Austrian border (and owned by an Austrian guy called Ronnie Seunig), the museum presents itself as “the world’s largest museum of jukeboxes and pinball machines”. Such a description would leave me perfectly cold if, in fact, the place weren’t much more than just that. While the jukebox and the pinball halls were cool with their flashy, deliberately overdone American feel, we preferred to spent more time in the Pixelworld. This video games section of the museum had all the retro computers we love, plus over a dozen machines we had never seen in real life. There were several Amigas including two rare A500 models from Commodore Germany’s 1989 “New Art Limited Edition”, featuring trendy cases designed by the late Stefanie Tücking. I bought my first Amiga in Germany, and I remember I almost went for the ball design A500 because the computer shop was eager to drum up the sales of the Limited Edition, but after some internal struggle I bought the regular one. Silly me. If only my visual taste had been less conservative: I could have a collector’s item now!

The ball design Amiga 500 on display at the Pixelworld.

When it comes to video games, I must not forget a battery of arcade cabinets they had in a separate hall. Some of these were very old, predating the late 1970s/early 80s arcade game boom, and you simply had to marvel at the resourcefulness of the people who were able to design such wonderful machines through purely electro-mechanical means. Many (if not all, I didn’t check) cabinets were token-operated and playable, just like the pinballs in the other hall. How could we possibly pass up on such an opportunity to relive a bit of our childhood days? I can tell you that a lot of hard-earned cash fell into the token dispenser before we moved on to the last (and newest) section of the museum. The Sound & Vision room, while much lower on the hands-on factor compared to the games hall, was a great place to round off our visit. As the name suggests, this section is dedicated to the history of audio-visual technology. And as if the museum owner thought we hadn’t seen enough interesting gadgets, we found ourselves surrounded by a plethora of historical devices, tools and media, from Edison’s phonograph through shellac discs to early digital recorders. You bet that my audiophile heart bounced with joy!

With Laurel and Hardy in the jukebox hall.

And then it was Sunday and it was time to put our computers back into their transport boxes, finish the keg, and wrap the party up. Interestingly enough, although we extended our lakeside weekend by one day this year, we were still in the mood for more. Must be some kind of Amiga paradox because this is a feeling I get from almost any Amiga-related event I attend. Another paradox is that I needed almost two months to cover our four-day party, but this is because family matters got in the way unfortunately. I nevertheless hope you’ve enjoyed this belated report as much as we enjoyed our geeky get-together. There’s every indication that it will turn into an annual fixture, so Amigas on the lake are there to stay!

The Polish lesson

Cieszyn is a quiet border town in Silesia, a historical region that now spans parts of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. It is in fact two towns, for fate and politics had it that after World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Cieszyn got divided between Poland and the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. It wasn’t a very fair split and it’s quite understandable why: with the majority of the local population being Polish, the larger part of the town including the nice historic centre went to Poland, while Czechoslovakia acquired the industrial suburbs in the west.

I remember that at the end of the 1980s, Czech Cieszyn was a run-down place where apathy and despair could be sold in quantity. Grey suburban ugliness shook hands with the communist town-planning butchery, and the ubiquitous feeling of decline was augmented by the grim border guards who, armed to the teeth, patrolled the two bridges separating the town from its Polish sibling. Far off the sightseeing map, the place gave you little reason to come for a visit. Yet I found myself travelling to Czech Cieszyn on an almost monthly basis, and so did many home-computing fans from my area. There was one particular reason why we would happily suffer two hours on a slow train and two hours back – and it certainly wasn’t the snack in the salmonella-infested railway station bistro. The reason was that the bookshops in Czech Cieszyn sold Polish books and magazines.

Now, that probably needs some explanation. At that time, Czechoslovakia was ruled by an authoritarian communist gerontocracy that neither welcomed nor understood modern technology. While in the West the home-computer revolution was in full swing, Czechoslovakia literally sneaked into the new era along the sidelines, thanks to enthusiastic individuals and local communities that found ways, often illegal, to fill in for the non-existent computer market. Surprisingly enough, obtaining hardware wasn’t the biggest problem (although the Iron Curtain was still firmly in place); in fact, by the end of the decade many Czech households owned a Sinclair, an Atari or a Commodore. But information was a precious commodity. The country’s only off-the-shelf magazine devoted to computer technology, Elektronika, largely focused on industrial applications in the Soviet Bloc, and provided little material on home computers. As a teenager with a shiny C64 on your desk, you really didn’t want to read about a bulky mainframe from Bulgaria.

Things were very different in Poland, where computerization was taken more seriously. While also ruled by communists, the country actually had adopted a nationwide computer literacy programme, which went under the official slogan “The Game for Tomorrow.” The Polish government believed that encouraging young people to use computers productively would bring, at a later point, highly skilled workforce that would make an impact on the country’s ailing economy. Among the results of the official policy were two computer magazines that made us Czechs green with envy: Bajtek (which was mainly home-computer oriented) and Komputer (which focused on users from the professional sphere). Compared to our puny Elektronika, both magazines contained far less ideological fluff, and happily covered the latest technological developments in the West. And as a Slavic language, Polish represented a much lower barrier than the German we found in magazines occasionally smuggled from the neighbouring Austria or West Germany. So Bajtek and Komputer provided a good reason to hop on the train and take the lengthy Saturday trip to Czech Cieszyn. The refreshing read made the journey well worth it.

Dusted off: some of my Polish computer mags from the late 1980s.

I know that history makes a point of repeating itself, but I’m still finding it hard to believe that – more than thirty years later – I’ve bought a Polish computer magazine again. Why did I bother, now that I can choose from about half a dozen different titles in my native language? Well, this particular mag has one great thing about it: it’s an active, Amiga-oriented print magazine that focuses on the next-generation branch of the platform. Which came as a surprise because for a long time the post-Commodore systems had, at best, shared pages with the classic Amiga in the remaining few magazines such as Amiga Future. This suggested that things had never been peachy enough in the next-gen quarters to justify a dedicated mag. Well, that’s what I thought before I heard of Amiga NG.

Four years ago in Poland they decided to take the plunge and start a magazine to cover the three NG flavours, that is, AmigaOS4, MorphOS and AROS. More importantly (because starting a mag is easy), they were really serious about it. The brainchild of Adam Mierzwa went from a simple PDF-only pilot publication to a full-colour 64-page printed magazine that, at one point, became a regular quarterly and earlier this year made it to issue #10. (This is the part where you say wow!) The efforts of editor-in-chief Mierzwa and his small team have been supported by the Polish publisher Adam Zalepa, whom you may also know as a prolific author of Amiga-themed books and user manuals. Initially unconvinced, Zalepa gradually warmed to the idea of a new magazine, and Amiga NG became part of the impressive range of computer mags published by Zalepa’s company Bitronic. And although I doubt it brings the publisher any profit (considering the low print run, which doesn’t exceed 100 copies), from the buyer’s point of view Amiga NG is certainly not a let-down.

In your hands, the magazine feels unusually heavy with all of its pages printed on thick glossy paper. Very thick in fact – the paper weight surely exceeds that of Amiga Future or Amiga Addict. One cannot help asking if such luxury material is really necessary for a hobby mag, and whether a bit of money could have been saved here to spend it on something else. For example, on page design and typesetting, which is a little crude and basic in Amiga NG. Because quite predictably, the project cannot afford to employ a regular graphic designer, leaving the chief editor responsible for graphic chores on top of his editorial, writing and organizing duties. Someone really ought to come and take the load off the back of that busy Mr. Mierzwa!

Is your Polish a bit rusty? Time to brush it up!

As for the magazine content, Amiga NG brings the usual: news, hardware and software reviews, tutorials, reports, interviews, and of course the occasional ad. The 64-page format is rather generous and provides plenty of room for screenshots; it also allows the interviews to go into greater depth. Indeed, I’ve found it is the interview section that is my favourite. The magazine team makes good use of their podcasting experience, so the interviews are well-conducted and bring a lot of interesting information, often spanning several pages. What I especially like is that zeal and optimism do not choke the critical mind. Instead of painting a rosy picture, the mag is often very blunt about the various problems that plague the next-gen Amiga world. I appreciate this realistic mindset, which I think is more beneficial to the platform than self-delusion.

All right, so shall we all now start learning Polish to be able to read Amiga NG? Is that what I’m trying to say here?

No, of course not: the lesson mentioned in the title of this article is purely metaphorical, and has nothing to do with language learning. The educational point is in something else. I’m writing this text because I realize that, for the second time in my life, my Polish neighbours have shown me that a can-do attitude is the perfect recipe for bad times. I can see that whether your computing fun is spoilt by the communist grip or by the frustrating legal mess that is currently ruining the AmigaOS4 ecosystem, you can still have your way if you put in hard work and enthusiasm. From this viewpoint, it appears rather ironic that the international next-generation Amiga scene hasn’t even started contemplating a dedicated periodical to represent itself through – now that we know that users in Poland have had one for several years. Some food for thought perhaps. At any rate, the Polish lesson teaches us that things can be done if the rope is pulled in one direction. Thanks for the reminder, Amiga NG!

A word on project synergy

Outlining my programming activities in the previous blog post I also mentioned that I had been involved with the Amiga Developer project for quite some time. After the post went live a few people asked me whether it meant that I would work less on the project now that I develop my own software. The answer is no, not really. In fact, there is a good deal of synergy between Rear Window and the work I do for Amiga Developer, and the two efforts have benefited from each other.

I for sure am biased because of my personal stake, but I’ll say that one of the better things the Amiga Developer initiative has produced is the Enhancer Software Core classes: a free collection extending the standard GUI toolkit provided by the operating system. Indeed, the main reason why I like to promote the Core is because it brings new possibilities to Amiga GUI programming. So when I started working on my Rave audio editor, I knew I wanted to use the new classes on top of the traditional ones. What I didn’t know was that Rave would soon become an important test bed, a trial of fire in which the Core classes would have to prove themselves.

Regardless of how thoroughly you design it, a software component only reveals its true colours when used in real software. By which I mean not only that real-life use exposes bugs and drawbacks that went unnoticed at design stage or during beta testing. Actual use in software also tends to throw new light on how the component could work and what features might be missing. I’ll hazard a guess that a lot of the AmigaOS gadgetry has seen progress because a developer working on particular software was short of a particular feature. Or is it pure coincidence that the GUI toolkit received major updates while Simon Archer, one of the key OS developers, was working on his CodeBench IDE suite? I don’t think so. And that’s just one case in point.

Having access to the Amiga Developer source code repository I was, similarly to Simon, in the lucky position that I could shape the classes I’d decided to use in my software. As a matter of fact, all of the recent updates I have made to the Select Gadget (originally written by Massimo Tantignone) and the InfoData Gadget (Mark Ritter) were motivated by something that cropped up while I was working on Rave. And it won’t come as a surprise that my audio editor is also directly responsible for the very fresh addition to the Enhancer Software Core: the ToolBar Gadget class, which I have recently covered for the Amiga Developer Blog. Here’s how it all came about.

I have a habit of starting my projects by designing the GUI. Although in the end it usually bears little resemblance to the original version, I prefer to do it this way because seeing something tangible on the screen jogs my creativity. (It also tricks me into feeling a sense of accomplishment, despite the fact that the program doesn’t do a thing yet.) So I was sitting there designing an early toolbar for Rave when I once again realized how much I hate the standard SpeedBar Gadget, because it takes ages to set up. In an ensuing act of bravado I decided to put the work aside and write a custom toolbar gadget class: one that would be basic in features but extremely easy to get going. I thought, few programs use their toolbar for more than triggering action, so why not focus on the primary function? It turned out to be a relatively quick job, and it would have remained a one-off affair (and I would have no article to write now) if I hadn’t made a classic mistake: I shared my work with others.

In a way, I shot myself in the foot by offering the ToolBar Gadget as a contribution to the Enhancer Software pack. I fell prey to semantics, not realizing that if something is called “Enhancer”, people will invariably expect more features from it. Well, my gadget class didn’t have more features than the SpeedBar, it just represented a simpler alternative – which apparently didn’t come across as added value. The subsequent reactions ranged from indifference to downright scorn, and they were a painful lesson to learn. One fellow developer kindly sent a list of features my class absolutely needed to have before he even bothered to use it; isn’t team spirit great? But we Amiga programmers are renowned for our resilience (on top of the fact that we can cook a decent curry, which puts us in constant demand at registry offices), so I didn’t give up that easily and continued working on the class alongside the Rave project. This turned out to be a very sensible decision because as the program evolved, so did the ToolBar Gadget in response to my growing needs. Thus one feature led to another until one fine day (whew!) I finally felt that my dear little creation could no longer be blamed for not enhancing the Enhancer enough.

My Workbench screen showing various configurations of the ToolBar Gadget.

A brief look at the screenshot above may suggest that there is little visual difference between the ToolBar and the old SpeedBar. And yes, when the ToolBar Gadget saw its first public release, a few users seemed disappointed that the two classes didn’t look any different. On closer inspection, however, you’ll notice certain details that go beyond the default look and hint at the advanced configurability of the ToolBar. Most prominently, the new class features a borderless mode, which arguably looks more modern and helps reduce clutter in crowded GUIs. There are also smaller and less conspicuous improvements such as support for multiple image sets (and easy switching between them), adjustable inner padding of the toolbar buttons, or configurable style of the separator bars.

One feature I’m really proud to have implemented is overflow handling. What is that? Well, some toolbars can be quite long and take up a lot of space in the program window, which may complicate use (especially where screen estate is limited). Therefore, toolbar classes are typically designed as “collapsible” GUI elements, to allow shrinking the window to a smaller size. When the window becomes too small to fit all of the toolbar members, we get a situation called overflow. How this situation is handled depends on the particular class. For example, the SpeedBar Gadget employs a scrolling mechanism that is triggered by holding the SHIFT key and then dragging the mouse left/right (or up/down if the gadget is vertically oriented). I’ve always found this behaviour rather quirky and unintuitive, so I preferred a smarter solution. As the image below shows, the ToolBar Gadget reacts to overflow by displaying a selector button on the right. Clicking on the selector invokes a pop-up menu the individual items of which correspond to the toolbar members that are currently out of view. So even in a minimum-sized window it’s really quick and easy to access the program functions. (Potential naysayers will be happy to know that overflow handling is optional, so if you prefer to have a “static” toolbar that is always displayed in full, you simply don’t turn the feature on.)

Toolbar overflow in MultiEdit.

Having finally released the updated ToolBar in October 2020 I though I’d give the Enhancer classes a rest for a while and fully concentrate on my audio editor, but as every seasoned programmer knows – man proposes, software disposes. Soon after I got down to business, working on Rave provoked another idea. Now, unlike in other spheres of human activity, ideas in programming can be really dangerous because they often lead to feature creep and, ultimately, projects that never get finished. Large software companies even hire professional hunters to locate staff programmers with ideas and shoot them on the spot. But as a humble freelancer I didn’t need to worry, and because the Christmas period promised some extra free time, I decided to have one more go at the ToolBar Gadget. So, what was this idea about?

Well, the main program toolbar in Rave contains a section with buttons that control the zoom of the waveform display. Originally I had the current zoom level indicated in the status bar at the bottom of the GUI, which was OK but somehow didn’t feel right. From the viewpoint of user interface design, I believe that if a GUI element controls a particular value, the value should preferably be displayed in the proximity of the controlling element, to have clear visual correspondence between them. So I started thinking: what if the zoom level value were displayed in the same toolbar section, i.e. next to the zoom buttons, rather than somewhere far below in the status bar? Of course, the ToolBar Gadget wasn’t exactly up to this: you could create a text-only button, you could even change the text on the fly, but it would still look and act as a button. What I needed was a new type of toolbar member, a read-only display area streamlined for dynamic text content. Luckily, the internal design of the gadget allows me to add pretty much anything (as long as it’s a BOOPSI object), so before the New Year chimed in I had the textbox member type ready and on the job. This is what it looks like in the current development version of Rave:

Notice the zoom section in the toolbar that now shows the zoom-in level.

For good measure I also threw in support for colours and text styles, because it was clear to me that someone would ask for these features sooner or later. Now that I’m thinking about it, in the end I must have made the ToolBar one of the most versatile and configurable classes of the entire AmigaOS4 BOOPSI set. Why do I suddenly feel so tired?

All right, it’s getting long (and late), so time for some closing words. An old Slavic proverb says that you can’t sit on two chairs at the same time. And there’s a good deal of truth in it: working on two simultaneous projects often means that one will rob the other of your time and focus. On the other hand, projects can also inspire each other, grow together and produce a synergistic effect between them. This has worked very well for me: both the Enhancer classes and the Rave audio editor have greatly benefited from the synergy. I’m quite sure there will be more in the future. And I’ll be here to tell you, so keep an eye on the Rear Window!

The crest of a Rave

I realize it’s high time I shed some light on my Amiga programming activities and on the software I’m developing at the moment. Pressed for time before Christmas I originally planned to write just a short heads-up note but because there’s a bit of a story behind it, I’ve decided to turn it into a regular blog post in the end.

The story begins in late 1980s. I took my first steps in programming on the infamous IQ 151, a bulky personal computer that was produced in the Eastern Bloc back then. The manufacturer of the machine must have had a weird sense of humour to name it this way because there was nothing intelligent about the computer in terms of technology, features, or the user experience it provided. But it was there at the right time, and the excitement and sense of adventure programming brought to my life stuck with me. To cultivate my newly-found passion my parents bought me a second-hand Commodore 64, where the marvellous Simons’ BASIC provided everything a budding programmer could possibly hope for on an 8-bit computer. It was great fun while it lasted.

Fast forward to the 90s. Unheard-of at the time, the multimedia capabilities of the Commodore Amiga blew my generation away. It was such an eye-opener that for a few years I kept my programming pretty much on the back burner; instead I got involved with music making for the demoscene, as I already explained in a previous post. But for various reasons my demo-making flame dwindled down towards the end of the decade, and I found myself more and more interested in producing something that others could use as a productivity tool rather than just watch for pleasure. This is when I finally learned the C language and delved into documentation on Amiga system programming. Yet with hindsight I can see I was still merely fooling around, and it wasn’t before I acquired my first AmigaOS4 system that I started producing real software for real users.

Encouraged by positive feedback on my first OS4 release, an English dictionary built upon Princeton University’s WordNet database, I went on to write the preferences editor for Thomas Wenzel’s AmigaAMP audio player. I also developed several plugins for the popular CD ripping software ADRipper, and when its author Adrien decided to quit the Amiga hobby, I took over the entire development and produced two major updates to the program. (Some achievement, considering that the original code documentation amounted to a dozen comments written in French!) Not long after that I was contacted by A-EON Technology, who invited me to join their new Amiga Developer initiative, a project that brings you the Enhancer Software and that I have been part of for more than five years now. My main responsibility on the team is the development and maintenance of new GUI classes – building blocks that extend the functionality of the AmigaOS Intuition system.

The Amiga Developer team at the 2017 DevCon in Cardiff, Wales.

There’s no doubt that working alongside some of the most talented Amiga developers of today is a great learning experience, and I find my involvement rewarding in many ways. But while I have definitely enjoyed contributing to a team effort, I gradually realized that given the time constraints of family life, working on the project keeps me away from the productivity tools I wanted to make in the first place. At this point I started contemplating the idea of my very own, independent project that ultimately became the Rear Window.

As you would expect, the first question I asked myself was: “What kind of software do I actually want to develop?” Well, my academic and professional background is in languages and translation, so I initially thought I’d write something in the vein of WordNet – that is, a new dictionary, a lexical analyzer, or perhaps a translation tool. But then I remembered it was the multimedia aspect that drew me to the Amiga, and as a musician I could see logic in developing something related to audio. Incidentally, my old music-making passion was warming up again at the time and I was looking for an audio editor to use with my sample library. It didn’t take a lot of research to see that the current offering is not great: the existing editors either showed incompatibilities with OS4, choked on modern audio file types, or were otherwise too limited in features. But frustration often brings about good ideas, and so I finally had a plan and a sense of direction.

I’m now happy to report that after some eighteen months of mostly late-night work the new AmigaOS4 audio editor has progressed to a stage where I can present it as a working piece of software. The program is called Rave, as I wanted a short name bearing strong associations with music and freedom. (It is also close enough to wave in both spelling and pronunciation, which I find playful.) It’s still rather basic in features but a lot of work has gone under the hood, allowing me to easily extend the program within the modular framework it is built upon. And although it’s a little early to promise a particular release date, I’m pretty confident to say that the program is currently in beta rather than alpha stage. I might also add that I expect to be able to publish a sneak-peek preview in the first quarter of 2021. And of course that I’ll cover some of the program features in more detail in the subsequent blog posts!

For now, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so why not have a look at a few preliminary screenshots?

And of course: Merry Christmas, Amigans!

Rave’s tabbed interface allows working with several projects within a single program window.

Applying amplitude level gain using the Level plugin.
Loop-playing a sample selection.
Opening a sample using Rave’s dedicated file requester.

Back on track(ing)

Much of my creative activity in the 1990s was related to the Amiga demoscene. I was lucky to live in a city which, albeit small, concentrated enough local talent to have formed a full-fledged demo group called Vectors, which I joined in early 1993. Unlike many other demo groups, the members of which were often scattered across different cities or even countries, we could easily meet up in person to discuss things, work on our projects, or just have some serious fun with our Amigas. This gave us a strong sense of belonging, and I dare say that our creative endeavours were driven by the fact that we were pals, above all.

Last year some good soul remembered that Vectors would soon turn thirty, and we organized a get-together to celebrate the anniversary. Most of us hadn’t met for good twenty years, so I expected a brief and rather subdued social occasion attended by life-worn, pot-bellied family guys. To everyone’s surprise the event extended into the small hours, well past the time our function room was hired for. Demos ran rampant, monitors flickered, beer flowed like a river, so it was inevitable that someone would eventually stand up and say, “Yes, we can! Let’s make a new Vectors demo!”

Vectors & friends at The Thirty Party, June 2019

The drunken idea would have been all buried and forgotten were it not for our trusty coder Defor (the tallest guy in the photo above), who sent us an e-mail a few months later saying “All right boys, so I’m working on the demo, remember? How about you make some graphics and music for it?” I immediately knew I was in trouble because I hadn’t composed any demo tune since 2000. So I first thought I’d just fish out some unused music I made in the 90s and be done with it. But as others picked up speed and kept showing new stuff, my cowardly decision became more and more embarrassing. I also couldn’t help noticing that my old Protracker modules sounded really horrible, considering today’s standards. So it was clear that my AmigaOne X5000, which I had mainly used for system programming and occasional gaming, would soon get a new task to prove itself.

AmigaOS4 is not short of music trackers, although the choice is naturally not as wide as on classic Amigas. After some experimenting I finally opted for MilkyTracker, which is actually a FastTracker 2 clone but can export songs in the Protracker format. Good – I had the right tool and now it was time to bite the bullet and do my piece of work. It’s not that I hadn’t composed any music in the previous two decades; in fact I ran a small production studio for a few years, but it was all PC-based and very MIDI-oriented, with the Steinberg Cubase sequencer being my staple software. So it naturally took me some time to put all my trust in the Amiga again and get back into the tracking mood. “Will I still enjoy it?”, I asked myself. “Will the final result be worth the effort? And will my wife not kill me when she sees what I’m doing?”

At work
Left: AmigaOS 4.1 Final Edition running MilkyTracker and AmiSoundEd.
Right: Me at work. The “Make Amiga great again” cap is courtesy of Steven Solie.

As it turned out, neither the Amiga nor the tracker paradigm were the roadblocks. But I had completely forgotten how limited Protracker was with audio samples! Although MilkyTracker was more than happy to import material from my sample collection (most of which are 16-bit stereo .wav files sampled at 44100 Hz), when working on a tune to be eventually saved in the .mod format you want to keep an eye on the Protracker specification right from the start, to avoid unwanted surprises at a later time. I learned something of a bitter lesson there before I finally decided to play it safe and just converted everything to 8-bit mono at 22050 Hz (i.e. half the original sample rate), which seems to have worked well. Compared to the sounds I used in my old songs, none of which were sampled above 16 kHz, I can hear that this project has really benefited from the increased sample rate and got the extra spark in the higher frequency range, allowing the drum track to stand out and making synth sounds more vivid. The individual instrument parts are more defined and the overall sound is less muffled. Apparently, good old 8-bit sound can still cut the mustard.

The Rear Window Studio
Left: The 2020 incarnation of the Rear Window Studio.
Right: My AmigaOne X5000 tucked away at the bottom of the rack case.

Once I got the samples in it was time to brush up my tracking skills, knowledge and techniques. To my surprise, after a few late-night sessions using the tracker was like wearing old shoes. It was still there! I even remembered many of the Protracker effect and control commands, which only testifies to the fact that human memory has a tendency to keep the most useless things of all. Anyway, to cut a long story short: I had the tune pretty much complete in about two weeks of burning the midnight oil. I spent some more time optimizing the song in order to get under the size limit imposed on me, for we had agreed that the demo would be a true retro piece running on a lowly Amiga 500 (with a 512 KB Fast RAM expansion as an afterthought). During the entire process MilkyTracker was a pleasure to work with and never crashed or locked up, which suggests that the port is a job very well done. I can certainly recommend the program to any AmigaOS4 user interested in making music for demos or games.

With all the artwork and code in place we finally released the demo at a local Amiga party held in late September, a real close shave because the government’s Covid-19 restrictions hit back the following week. We decided to call the demo Mindsurfin’, which I find a particularly apt name not only because of the laid-back atmosphere but also for the reason that working on the demo was one big trip down the memory lane. And there was one more thing in it for me personally. I was excited to see our labour of love run on a classic Amiga, knowing that my next-generation Amiga was so instrumental in the project. It felt like two worlds shaking hands in a much-delayed reunion.

Enough said, enough done. You can download Mindsurfin’ as an .adf image from the demoscene portal Pouë (which also hosts old Vectors productions, in case you were interested in what we did in our years of youthful folly). The demo has been tested on a genuine Commodore Amiga 500, on a Vampire V4 Standalone, and in various emulation environments including Amiga Forever and E-UAE. You can also watch it on YouTube as an alternative. Last but not least, a few people have asked me if the music .mod can be downloaded from somewhere, so I’ve made it available here for anyone interested.

Enjoy and spread the word!

Opening the Rear Window…

Browsing through old diskmags always makes me notice how much Amiga-related writing I did in the 1990s. But of course: the Amiga was my computer of choice back then, I used it throughout the decade as my main productivity tool. I used the Digita Wordworth for all my written coursework, including the master’s thesis; I composed several dozen tunes for demoscene productions in Protracker; I took my first programming steps in GFA Basic and, later, Storm C… So there was a lot to write about, and writing about it was great fun.

I haven’t written anything since I rekindled my interest in Amigas around the year 2009. The usual pressures of life are largely at fault of course, but now I realize I’ve been using “next-generation” Amigas for longer than I actually used the classic ones – so I find it quite absurd that I’ve never tried to share my experience. In a fit of self-honesty I also admit to myself that I’ve secretly missed my writing all the time, hence this little blog.

The name

There are three reasons why I decided to call my blog Rear Window. First of all, I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name – it’s just pure cinematic class! Second, my Amigas and I spent many years in small rented rooms with a single window looking out on the backyard. Over time, this had become such a predictable coincidence that, at some point, I started calling every man-cave I moved into after the rear window it had. And third: a backyard full of old junk and memories is an arcane place, neglected and out of sight but calling for adventure and inviting explorers; a perfect metaphor for the Amiga world today!

I am, therefore, opening my Rear Window on the backyard. Let’s see what we can see there.