Zoë Blade\'s notebook

Atari ST


Like its rival, the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST was a home computer released in 1985, the kind that politely hid under the keyboard. Also like the Amiga, it was built around the 16-bit Motorola 68000 chip, and sported a graphical user interface, making it a more affordable alternative to the Apple Macintosh. Unlike almost any other computer, it had built-in MIDI ports.

A lot of musicians swore by the ST's tight timing. While I have no opinion on this particular matter, it certainly had a lot of sequencers written by various companies, chiefly two in Germany: C-LAB and Steinberg.

If you read a lot of interviews with British electronic musicians in the nineties, you'd see a popular combination emerge: to sequence the music, an Atari 1040ST (the big two sequencers required a whole meg of RAM) running either C-LAB Creator or Steinberg Cubase; to make the sounds, a sampler, usually the Akai S900, S950, or S1000, or perhaps the more affordable Casio FZ-10M; to add a splash of effects, an Alesis QuadraVerb; and finally, to combine the sounds together, a cheap mixer.

Comparing the two rivals on their own, the Amiga sounded far better. It had a sound chip with such good PCM capabilities that people wrote tracker software for it, which combined the functionality of the whole studio setup, minus the effects, and with only four channels to play with. But because it could control professional musical instruments, the ST sounded as good as whatever you connected it to.


To use an ST to make music these days, you'll need a few things:

As far as the ST is concerned, the drive is a hard drive. In reality, it uses microSD cards, formatted to FAT16. You can use those same microSD cards with 2020s computers just fine, allowing you to copy programs and music back and forth. Modern microSD cards have far more storage space than an ST will know what to do with, and both the programs and music files will be tiny. (A contemporary article recommends buying a hard drive "between 30 and 60 megabytes" in size.[1] UltraSatan acts as multiple drives, each over 500 megabytes.)

If you can only find a controller keyboard with MIDI over USB rather than DIN MIDI ports, you'll also need an adapter, such as Kenton's MIDI USB Host. Note that as the adaptor itself is the host, fulfilling the role of the computer rather than a peripheral, this is more niche and more expensive than the usual kind of MIDI to USB adapter.

Lastly, if you plan on using either of the big two sequencers, Creator or Cubase, then you'll also need the appropriate dongle. Otherwise, there were plenty of budget sequencers which have since been released as freeware.

In use

Most of the interface should be pretty familiar from similar operating systems. Something that caught me offguard at first was how to go up a directory, when loading or saving a file within an application. You simply close the current directory's window, as if revealing the directory behind it.

The hard drives will appear with the identifiers C, D, E, F, and so on (A and B are the floppy drives, even if you don't have a second floppy drive). On the desktop, select Options then Install Disk Drive..., enter the appropriate letter, and give it whatever name you'd like. You can rename it later on with the same command. If Install Disk Drive... is greyed out, just select an arbitrary drive first. You can add as many drives onto your desktop as you'd like. To remove any drives cluttering up the desktop, go to Install Disk Drive... again, and this time select Remove instead of Install.

To summarise, as it's pretty unintuitive: Install installs a drive. Install also renames an existing drive. Remove removes a drive. All three options are located within Options then Install Disk Drive..., which you can only get to by highlighting one of the existing drives. (I have no idea how you'd add the drives back if you got rid of all of them, so don't do that.)


See also


  1. How To Become An Atari ST Power User Sound On Sound, Aug 1991