Just over 40 years old, the Apple II computer is considered a landmark machine for a lot of reasons—its cutting-edge color display, its revolutionary consumer friendliness, its transformational spreadsheet program. But one thing it's not known for: its archaic 1-bit sound system.
"It doesn't have a sound board or sound chip, it has a kind of glitch that sounds like a beeper—it just beeps on or off," Seth Sternberger told me on the phone. But that didn't stop his band, 8 Bit Weapon, from setting out to record an entire chiptune album using the computer, dubbing it "the world's first all-Apple II music-based album ever."
Titled Class Apples, the album takes classical tracks from the likes of Bach and Mozart and digitally reimagines them through that 1-bit system, creating a bouncy, synthesized symphony that feels right out of a 80s-era video game.
8 Bit Weapon, comprised of Seth and Michelle Sternberger, has released over a dozen albums since its formation, featuring chiptune remixes and original tracks that use systems like the Commodore 64, Game Boy, and Nintendo Entertainment System. But, similar to many 70s techies, Seth has always felt a special nostalgia for the Apple II—for plenty of people, it was their first home computer. Although he grew up with a Commodore, he remembers using an Apple II at school and friends' houses. About 10 years ago, he got ahold of one and used it to play old games he missed.
Getting the machine to play music was another issue. Sternberger says this is the world's first Apple II album because trying to create music through it is so tough and time-consuming. The software is limiting, and the actual sound quality of that 1-bit beeper—which can only span around six octaves—is pretty poor, he said.
So they relied on a friend, Michael J. Mahon, and his unique "Apple crate" invention. The crate consists of 16 Apple II motherboards scrapped together, creating a sort-of bootstrapped polyphonic synthesizer. From there, Mahon wrote custom digital music synthesizer software that could alter the pitch and push 8-bit music samples—even drums—through the Apple II's 1-bit "window." "That was the first breakthrough, being able to produce sounds of instruments with the Apple II, other than its native beeper," says Sternberger.
The other breakthrough came via another friend, Charles Mangin, who figured out a way to send MIDI commands—the language of digital music—to the Apple II running Mahon's software.
"What you're hearing is real, right-off-the-board Apple II sounds," says Sternberger. "Every note is that same 1-bit sample repitched across the whole spectrum."
As chiptune veterans, Sternberger says it's more than just nostalgia that attracts people to albums like this one: "Of course there's a nostalgia factor for people that are 30-plus years old," he said. "But for all the younger people who had no exposure to the 8-bit world, it's new, it's almost punk rock. It's gritty and not clean and not perfect. It's got that edge."
Next week, the band will put all the materials used to make Class Apples up for sale on its website. That includes the software for pushing samples into the machine, as well as the MIDI hardware and cable. The only thing a buyer would need is their own Apple II.
Class Apples is available now on 8 Bit Weapon's Bandcamp, with an iTunes and Spotify release to come next month.
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