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Classic Computers
   MOD, S3M, etc, Music
   PC Demos 1987-1998
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Classic (Legacy) Computers

MOD, S3M, STM, MTM, FAR, 669 Music Modules

Way back in the dawn of time (late 1980s), someone wrote a music tracker for the Amiga that used wavetable synthesis to play MIDI-like music files (this was waaaay ahead of its time, the Gravis Ultrasound didn't do wavetable synthesis until a few years later, the SoundBlaster AWE series didn't do it until the mid 1990s, and it didn't become standard on PCs until the early 2000s).

You can download module players here:
  • MODPLAY v2.19b [286AT 12MHz or better] [DOS16]
    A great little MOD player, but only plays MODs. Tonnes of features (by that era's standards). Will play back on a PC Speaker (using PWM), a DAC plugged into a LPT (parallel/printer) port (will play in stereo if you hook up a DAC to two ports), Disney Sound Source, Sound Blaster, or if you know Assembler you can write some code to access whatever sound hardware you have (this was long before the advent of drivers).

  • DMP v3.00 [386SX 33MHz or better] [DOS16]
    An excellent module player, supports all the formats I've talked about. Tonnes of features, but no user-interface, it's command-line operated. However I also include a little menu I wrote as a front-end for DMP, called DMPMENU. Supports over a dozen sound cards, chances are if your vintage sound card existed in the mid-1990s DMP can use it.

  • WinAmp [Pentium or better] [WIN32]
    My preferred audio player for Windows. Most people use it for MP3s and such, but it's also always had the ability to play modules.

Unlike MIDI files, the wave samples were imbedded in the file, so the music sounded pretty much the same everywhere (of course not all platforms were of the same quality back then, you were lucky to have 8-bit 22KHz stereo, unlike today's 16-bit 44KHz stereo (CD quality), or even 48 or 96KHz at 24 or 32-bit on some higher-end machines). They became known as Amiga Music Modules, with the file extension MOD (of course on the Amiga the file type is the prefix, not the extension). Due to the limited processing power of the time, MODs were limited to 4 channels (or tracks, voices) - channels 1 & 4 played on the left speaker, channels 2 & 3 on the right. To save on storage space (the module couldn't be larger than a floppy disk) samples were usually recorded at 8KHz, giving modules a distinctive "soft" quality, sort of like a voice phone connection (not nearly as atrocious-sounding as that suggests though).

It wasn't long before a guy named Mark Cox ported the MOD format to the PC. I first encountered MODs on dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) which I connected to using a 2400bps modem in a 286AT 12MHz PC, running DR-DOS 6. I located a PC player called MODPLAY, which really was a technical marvel, considering what it did with the resources available to it. Not only does a 286AT 12MHz have less processing power than my Sandisk MP3 player, PCs didn't ship with a sound card as standard until the mid 1990s, and we weren't among the few who opted for one. The PC had what was generously called the PC Speaker (mockingly called the PC Squeaker by many), typically a 2" 0.25 watt tinny-sounding speaker driven by a dirt-cheap square-wave oscillator. Using exquisitely coded timing loops, MODPLAY played wavetable music through it by modifying the width of the pulses sent to the PC speaker, essentially creating a Pulse-Width-Modulated (PWM) Digital-to-Analogue Converter (DAC). (Today uncompressed sound is usually stored in Pulse-Code-Modulated (PCM) format, where every pulse (or sample) is a 8, 16, 24, or 32-bit number specifying the level of the signal at that point in time) Despite all the PC's drawbacks, MODPLAY somehow managed to play listenable music, even if rather quiet and virtually bass-free.

It wasn't long after the 386 came out that teenagers with silicon in their veins started expanding the MOD format to take advantage of the extra processing power and the almost-affordable sound cards that were entering the market. Someone released the MultiTrackerMod (MTM) format, essentially the MOD format with 8 channels. Something called 669 appeared, a somewhat primitive 8 channel format. Future Crew released the Screamtracker (STM) format, also 8 channel, but you could now assign a channel to any point between left and right speakers. Not long after that they released the Screamtracker 3 (S3M) format, quite advanced with 2-to-32 channels and some really nifty features, in some ways more advanced than General MIDI. FAR was a latecomer to the scene, but introduced 16-bit samples for the first time.

On my 386SX 33MHz (now running Novell DOS 7), using a new program I had found called DMP (for Dual Module Player), and using my pride and joy, a Sound Blaster Pro (8-bit, 44KHz-Mono, 22KHz-stereo), I listened to MODs as if with new ears, and discovered the new world of better formats (S3M mostly). As an early teen, it was one of the coolest things I'd ever managed to get a computer to do. Sure, a lot of modules really aren't written that well... but I didn't really care, I had music on demand that sounded way cooler than the artists of the time (many module artists went on to become industrial, techno, acid techno, dance, trance, psytrance, and goatrance artists).

These formats thrived for a few years as more and more teens and preteens played with them... but the dawn of the MP3 age arrived in the mid 1990s, and slowly MP3s took over... the modules' death knell was sounded when broadband had spread to enough homes that the larger file size of MP3s didn't matter anymore.

Page last modified 2008-04-03
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