What is Digital Trip?
July 9th, 2021 at 9:45 AM by Kugee
Look into that album cover above. What's the first thing you think of? Vaporwave? Sit down, sonny... this ain't no random set of tracks that were arbitrarily slowed down. This is a member of the Digital Trip series, which was on the cutting edge of digital music in 1983! If you've watched a couple of my videos, you've probably heard some tracks from this God Mars album. Needless to say, it's an excellent piece of vinyl on its own merits, and I've listened to it quite a lot as I was first creating this website.
What makes God Mars so fascinating, though, is how far ahead of the curve it was from a technical standpoint when it dropped. Let's put things into perspective here: you may or may not know the legend of the Yamaha DX7, a fully digital synthesizer which used John Chowning's frequency modulation technology to generate much brighter sounds that analog synths like the Moog simply couldn't match. Most composers only used the DX7's preset instruments so excessively rather than trying to program their own, but that was all this thing needed to shred the scene.
But as everyone else was catching up to the FM fever, those involved in the creation of God Mars were already leveraging the power of something far greater: pulse code modulation! Contrary to FM where the synthesizer must follow instructions to generate a certain sound on the spot, PCM sounds are more so pre-recorded from an external source, which could be a real instrument, another synthesizer, or even someone's voice.
PCM samples like those used in God Mars could be compared to any uncompressed waveform file, or a set of samples used in popular tracker formats like S3M and XM. They are the same technology, after all. PCM didn't become widely available in desktop computers until the 90's, though, and because samples take up a lot more memory than FM programming, they required large, wildly expensive computers which could store and address all of them punctually.
Of course, later on Digital Trip would gladly use the Yamaha DX7's presets given how new and exciting they sounded back then; after all, that's what they specialize in - being on the forefront of demonstrating the power of digital music.
I'm gonna be hitting a language barrier here since I can't read much of the album covers besides the katakana, but thankfully it provides some crucial details: at the heart of God Mars is the Fairlight CMI, a digital audio workstation released in 1979. This computer may very well be the ancestor of tracker music as we've come to know. Much as programs like Scream Tracker do, the Fairlight CMI could store very short recorded samples in memory and play them back at different pitches, replicating real world sounds much more accurately than a true synthesizer.
Granted, the Fairlight CMI didn't actually have that much memory, at least when you look at it now. As stated in the Audio Media magazine from January 1996, this computer only had 208KB of RAM  - less than an XT-class desktop could address, but one can infer that for any of this to work, the two Motorola 6800 CPUs and memory also have to be fast enough to play back the samples in real time... and based on my experience, an XT sure doesn't look fast enough for any of that!
Due to the limited memory, samples either had to be very short or recorded in lower sample rates, and the Fairlight CMI was limited in how it could manipulate these samples. It does seem that this computer's memory can be expanded upon to store longer, crispier samples according to an inlay picture in God Mars (coming in the form of "voice cards"...?), which could explain why I haven't heard any such dithering in this music. Or, it could be that the Series II version from 1982 was used here, which was even more expensive but a significant step up in audio quality from the original.
The Fairlight CMI was not the only tool used in creating this album; the LinnDrum II, a sample-based drum machine, also factored into the whole mix along with a Roland MC-4 microcomposer which used cassettes to store sequencing data. While the Fairlight CMI does have its own sequencing capabilities,  I'd guess the MC-4 was used to synchronize that comptuer and the drum machine.
The music in God Mars is not the only technical marvel to come out of sample-based digital music for its time, but it is certainly a shining example of such. It ranges from bright (and kinda cheesy) to deep and ambient, but is super dreamy all around. Play a CD of it in some Program Manager-based Windows with the right wallpaper, and you'll have one hell of a "digital trip"!
In Anime and Manga
This whole time, I've been writing about God Mars as if it was just a normal album. Digital Trip made other similar soundtracks for several anime and manga media... oh yeah, manga with soundtrack, quite an interesting combination, but one that seems to have been forgotten with time. Now, I am oblivious to such things for the most part; I don't watch anime, I don't read manga, and I see it all as a waste of time that I'd rather spend making stuff. BUT, as I've been writing this, I've listened to other Digital Trip albums, and it got me thinking more - these all do sound like they come out of anime, don't they?
Yes, for those who are into this kind of stuff, Digital Trip has been there! I saw they made some music for Gundam, so that led me to infer that a name like "Crusher Joe" was also an anime, and indeed it was. Sure enough, God Mars is, too! Well, the full name is actually "Six God Combination Godmars"... I thought it was just a technical showcase of the future of music, but now I'm gonna have to sit through an episode of this. Hang on...
So, this anime made its debut in 1981 and concluded the following year. This was some time before the recording of the album in question began, so it's more of a supplemental arrangement to the anime's soundtrack. The familiar melody for 1999 Grand Cross is right there in the prologue scene, although it obviously used different hardware in this instance. By no such mere coincidence, the story takes place in 1999. Hehe... this show had a much more optimistic view of the future; all we ended up getting was a Windows 98 rehash.
On the Next Episode...
After watching one episode, what can I say? It's of the giant fighting robots kind, and it has a pretty interesting plot to it. I don't see myself watching the rest of the series, as (cue end of episode music) there are many other things I have yet to tend to. For one, I'd like to write a comment section module of my own for articles like this, as having discussion take place in YouTube community posts is not viable due to how draconian that site has become. Not that I am an advocate for spam and harassment, I just think I'm in a position where I can create a better outlet for people to more fully express their thoughts on what I've written. If and when comments get implemented here, that oughta be a precursor to the forum I've been wanting to make for a long time now.
The last few articles have been really cynical, but so has the state of things inside and out been such a wreck. I'd rather write more things like this where I can just talk about something really cool, but even here I find myself worrying about if this is gonna prompt larger channels to talk about this and make the Digital Trip albums more expensive, and Fairlight keyboards (both kinds) gutted and "modernized".
Well, until that happens, at least you (probably) heard it from me first: the synthesizer fantasies of Digital Trip are magical, and well worth a listen. Six albums are already well protected from the need for price gouging, as Sleeping Cocoon has archived them into FLAC files and high-resolution cover scans!
1 Fairlight - The Whole Story (Reproduced from Audio Media magazine, January 1996)
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