David Etheridge, Atari MIDI Musician Since 1988

David Etheridge MIDI Music Studio

Meet David Etheridge, Atari MIDI Musician Since 1988

Inside the graceful hills, English villas, and slow paced charm of Malvern, UK, David Etheridge, lives a busy, technological lifestyle making music. Outside composing, arranging, and playing bass, David teaches music technology at local school's and colleges. Over the past three decades, David has stayed on top of the newest and coolest music products writing reviews for Performing Musician, Music Mart, Sound on Sound, Bass Guitar, and Home Studio Recording magazines. And that's just the beginning - David has a music studio to die for!

According to David's beliefs on what makes a good studio, his recording rig rivals those found in this month's EQ magazine. You know the kind – Studio Logic running on an overclocked, liquid-cooled, 16-core Mac recording to a warp-speed solid state drive on the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise. But David's studio computer can do more than warp speed – it cantimewarp back to 1987.

David's Atari MIDI StudioMeet David's 4MB Atari STe running C-Lab's Notator 3.21 in black and white 640 x 400dpi video. Connected to his Atari are 12, yes that's right, 12 Kurzweil K1000 synth modules plus various other 20 year old synths and modules including a well used 8 track. But David is no stubborn techno hermit stuck in the past. 16 years since Atari left the home computer market, there are still tens of thousands of active Atari music users and developers scattered around the world - so many, in fact, that in 2009, Donovan K., a fellow Atarian from Toronto, Canada, decided to create a social networking portal, Atarimusic.net, to unite them all together. But what posses people like David and Donovan to use Atari for music creation? As David says “I like the sheer perversity of using 20 year old programs and technology that's reliable and dependable. You may think that I'm nuts to do this, but for me, this works”.

David's first principal in choosing equipment boils down to one question: “do you like what this piece of equipment does? If so, buy it”. He continues, “It doesn't matter if it's ten days or ten years old. If it's right for you, it doesn't have to be right for me, or the guy down the road. It's your gear, your studio and your music. Write, record and mix for yourself, not for anyone else.” Even as a music technology instructor who uses the latest software on both Macs and PCs, David has continued using Atari since 1988 when he first built his studio. But why?

David claims that there are still valid reasons why Atari for music is superior to Macs or PCs, “(I) get great results in a fraction of the time it takes on you 'know who's computers'.. the last time I had a major crash was 1996”. Unlike the computers that constantly break down in his schools' music labs from viruses, driver conflicts, registration issues, and cluttered hard drives, he believes Atari is more stable. “The MIDI response timestillbeats the hell out of PCs”. But this seemingly outrageous belief is common among Atari music forums.

When comparing C-Lab Notator's capabilities to Sibelius, David says “I still find Notator much better and easier to use. Sibelius' MIDI handling is still in the dark ages by comparison. Earlier this year a cellist friend asked me to do some MIDI work for her, and she came over to the studio. She used to use Notator, and had 'traded up' to Sibelius some years ago. Seeing the original in action, she became all misty eyed and wished she'd stuck with her Atari! She finds Sibelius can be a proverbial pain in the neck to work with”.

David's gripe against PCs and Macs is as such: “They are so laden with features you could almost go out and have a three course meal while waiting for the desktop” Pertaining to modern sequencing and audio software he says, “they offer too much in the way of options. Do you really need to customize colors, settings, and 1001 other
things?” He continues “anything that gets in the way of music making, which is what we're here for after all, must be non essential.” David demonstrates his point by referring to the multitudes of music tech mags laden with articles on why you need to keep tweaking and upgrading your PC and software. This type of time-wasting is further exemplified in a recent article from Sound on Sound magazine, Sept 2009, where another columnist says he's knows musicians with every plug-in known to mankind and still have yet to write so much as one song.

“We Atarians are pampered beyond belief compared to the PC market. We don't have to enter serial numbers for programs, we don't get asked for passwords every time we boot up, we're not asked to download an upgrade that might render the program unusable because the upgrade just happens to have a bug that the end user discovers, and we are never told that 'this program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down'. We just boot up, load up and away we go”.

David's love for Atari centers around the philosophy thatless is more. “The Atari is supposedly (by today's standards) pitifully lacking in memory and features, but it's that very limit of 4MB that is its very salvation for the Atari musician. Less is more, simply because it does one thing -MIDI- and that's it; and it does that economically, smoothly and most importantly of all without superfluous add-ons that can get you lost for weeks in a side issue invariably making you forget what it was you wanted to do in the first place!”. This philosophy also extends to his hardware studio.

Connected via MIDI with a Unitor and Log-3 module, David's Atari drives some of the most memorable and imaginative hardware synths of the past. “I love hardware synths for a variety of reasons. I have units from a variety of manufacturers that all use different systems of sound creation, and that's the important point. I find that the late 70s and 80s were a golden era for new types of synthesis, with seemingly every manufacturer coming up with something different from their neighbors. In the 80s, I didn't subscribe to the 'this is the all in one solution' marketing blurb. Even now, I don't think that one box does everything.' David also believes virtual instruments lack depth and authenticity in their sonic properties. He points out the irony of virtual tape saturation emulation, where he still uses an M80 8 track from 1986 for a fraction of the cost and with better results.

One thing is for sure, Atarians are a special breed. They go against the grain of hyped-up marketing and cling to practical ideals. Like David, they believe that computer based music production should be as easy as turning the Atari on. Of course, there is also the sense of nostalgic geekiness too. David sums it up best: “we tend to get pigeonholed and forced into boxes in all areas of life: use this, wear that, think this, listen to that. If you're an Atarian, you've obviously rejected the herd mentality and are your own person. Congratulations!”

Listen to "Devon Sound Track", a soundtrack sequenced by David Etheridge using an Atari ST
David moderates the Atari forum at Sound on Sound andhosts an excellent Kurzweil K1000 and K1200 site.  He's also published an excellent article on the merits of Atari MIDI vs. You Know What