Like its rival, the Commodore Amiga, the ST (short for Sixteen/Thirty-two) was a series of home computers released in 1985, the kind that politely hid under the keyboard. Also like the Amiga, it was built around the 16- and 32-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 MIDI 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 1990s, 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-1 or FZ-10M; to add a splash of effects, an Alesis QuadraVerb; and finally, to combine the sounds together, a cheap line 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.
As Teddy Riley pointed out, the standardisation and lack of internal storage made home computers like these interchangeable, which could be very useful if one broke, as you could simply swap it out with an identical replacement and carry on as if nothing had changed.
520ST tech specs
The 520ST was the first in the series. Like its rival, the Amiga, it included half a meg of RAM — a lot at the time.
Later on, Atari released the 520STE, an enhanced version with more colours, genlock support, a blitter coprocessor, and 8-bit PCM audio with direct memory access... very Amiga-like features.
1040ST tech specs
The 1040ST built upon the 520ST, adding a few minor improvements. Most notably, the RAM was doubled from 512 KB to 1024 KB (1 MB).
You've seen them on the Michael Jackson project, I had seven of 'em. And every time one broke, all I did was took my floppy disk in the next one, I'm good to go. You can't do that with a Mac. If a Mac breaks, you've gotta fix it. On the Atari, bring another one in.
— Teddy Riley, producing Michael Jackson, 2014
- "Silica Shop" Silica Shop (Vendor), Sound On Sound, Feb 1989, p. 99
- "Silica Shop" Silica Shop (Vendor), Sound On Sound, Nov 1993, p. 179
- "Music Producer Teddy Riley — Pensado's Place #169" Pensado's Place, Jun 2014
- "Atari 520ST" Simon Trask, Electronics & Music Maker, Jul 1985, pp. 84—86
- "Atari 520ST MIDI Computer" Jeremy Vine, International Musician & Recording World, Nov 1985, pp. 98—99