Meet Ming Micro, the Portable 8-Bit Video and Audio Synthesizer

Synth designer Jordan Bartee talks about his recently debuted 8-bit MIDI-controlled pixel instrument.
February 9, 2016, 9:20pm
The Ming Micro. Courtesy the artist

With tools like Logan Owlbeemoth’s Tachyon+ gear and Alexander Zolotov’s Quantum VJ 8-bit glitch visualizer, we’ve see video synthesis get incredibly mobile. Now, video synth enthusiasts have another piece of portable gear—the Ming Micro 8-bit MIDI-controlled pixel instrument. Created by Jordan Bartee, the Ming Micro allows users to create retro computer graphics in real time. The Ming Micro also doubles as a simple digital audio synthesizer, offering two square wave generators and a dual-mode noise generator. Bartee, a synth lover who has long been interested in electronic art and creative computing, built the Ming Micro out of the Ming Mecca, a modular, voltage-controlled video game console.

“I started as a consumer, putting together a make noise and harvestman dominated eurorack system just for my own enjoyment,” Bartee tells The Creators Project. “But as my doctoral work [at Brown University] progressed I eventually hatched this scheme to connect 2D video game worlds and modular synths. That area of research eventually led to founding Special Stage Systems and designing Ming Mecca, our first product.”

The Ming Micro. Courtesy the artist

The Ming Mecca not only features a graphics engine, but things like simple gravity, physics, collision detection, gamepad interfacing, and so on. As Bartee explains, it was essentially a video synthesizer, but had extra interactivity built on top so that users could make small video game worlds with rules, behavior, and other elements.

“It’s great for a certain demographic and our Ming Mecca users are doing amazing things, but it locks out people who can’t afford the cost of fully modular analog hardware,” Bartee says. “So I had a lot of people emailing me during Ming Mecca’s release saying ‘I love this idea, but what can you sell me for $200?’”

Ming Micro is Bartee’s response to that question. He attempted to take the best parts from Ming Mecca and condense them into something integrated and affordable.

“Obviously the analog interface and voltage control had to go out the window, so we replaced it with a robust MIDI and USB solution,” he says. “We also decided to focus more heavily on pure video/audio aesthetics this time. Ming Micro doesn’t have built-in collision detection or gamepad interaction, but instead it has graphical capabilities that are actually more powerful than Ming Mecca. I think that helps to give it’s own unique identity as a product and not feel like just a cut-down version of something else.”

The Ming Mecca. Courtesy the artist

Bartee says that his work with Special Stage is heavily inspired by academic video game theorists and designers like Chaim Gingold, object-oriented ontologists like Graham Harman, and the writings of Ian Bogost, who stands at an intersection between those two worlds. Indie game designers Phil Fish and Jon Blow, as well as Rand and Robyn Miller at Cyan (creators of Myst) were prime influences, along with anyone who has ever made a weird Commodore 64 game back in the 80s and early 90s.

Bartee is also huge fan of Daniel Lopatin’s work as Oneohtrix Point Never, Lars Lars’ eurorack work with LZX, and Bartee’s friend D.V. Caputo, who wrote the music for the Ming Micro trailer. He also credits friend and colleague Chris Novello’s work with illucia system for directly inspiring Ming Mecca.

Jordan Bartee. Screencap by the author

While Bartee imagines that the Ming Micro will appeal to more video synthesists this time around, it will also still attract a broad range of people interested in 8-bit aesthetics. He sees VJ and chiptune bands as artists who might be particularly interested in the Ming Micro. Bartee also thinks others might build little game engines in environments like Max/MSP, and use Ming Micro as a “kind of retro pixel art graphics card to render everything.”

Click here to see more of Jordan Bartee’s work in video and audio synthesis. And click here to pitch into Special Stage System’s Kickstarter campaign.

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