M.A.R.S.

Musical Audio Research Station (ca. 1992 - 1999)

The studio IRIS in Paliano (near Rome/Italy) got a commission for the development of the M.A.R.S.. The project manager was Peppino Di Giugno. The project was financed by Bontempi-Farfisa Group. Also GEM had somehow to do with it. Actually it was about saving the Italian manufacturers of electronic instruments. The goal was the development of a sound chip and the M.A.R.S. was the open architecture to program applications. It was probably the most unique project I have ever been able to share. Working with M.A.R.S. was to be like 15 years ahead. Many sounds astonished the audience. It was all new.


A DSP machine for real-time applications that was initially configured using Atari Computer with the Edit 20 program. 1993 or 94 came a new host computer (Windows PC) and the connection ran over the ISA bus. The new software was called ARES and meant a quantum leap in usability. In addition, the bus system (hardware) in the M.A.R.S. improved. The most recent M.A.R.S. came as a PCI card for installation into the PC. I did not like the PCI solution so well, because PCs at that time made noise and I expect from a musical instrument that it is quiet when I do nothing.

It is particularly splendid that the configurations created with Edit20 (Atari) or ARES (PC) can be saved as a MIDI file. This capability made the system the lightest and most portable system of its time as the host computer could remain at home during performances. M.A.R.S. is absolutely silent, since it has no fans. She is quite light and she came in an elegant leather imitation suitcase.

The possibilities offered were already unimaginable as such and to this extent, in this small box. The MIDI integration and GUI (Graphical User Interface) were programmed in Max (Apple) and so I was able only to use the M.A.R.S. and a Laptop, an Apple 540c. This facilitated air travel with the complete instrument as hand luggage. It was truly inspiring! The concerts were often exciting, because most of the audience had heard such sounds never before. Such things as Realtime Sampling, Granular Synthesis, Physical Modeling etc.. There was almost magic.

At that time, we looked at the M.A.R.S. as a travel-friendly version of a 4X Computer, that Peppino Di Giugno had previously implemented at the IRCAM in Paris/F - and which had been reduced to Italian financial conditions. For me, this "Italian version" was much more preferred because of its transportability.

Through the "electronic studio of the Academy of Basel", and especially by Thomas Kessler, I came to M.A.R.S. - approx. 1993. Shortly before I joined this studio and felt very comfortable there. Wolfgang Heiniger was an assistant to Thomas Kessler and Wolfgang was already familiar with "DSP" (Digital Signal Processing) and soon became a M.A.R.S. specialist. DSP was still quite new and actually one knew it only by hearing-say, because very expensive computers were necessary for it, which were only in selected universities.

Since I was neither a student nor a lecturer (a bit of both), and didn't want to bind myself to the studios with M.A.R.S. , I sold my big, analogue synthesizers and I managed to buy my own M.A.R.S. - which quickly played a central role and brought great changes into my life. It was also the step, at the highest level, no longer bound to aesthetic or functional decisions of manufacturers - with M.A.R.S. The DSP structure and Max's MIDI control and all the musical decisions were programmed. A heavenly state!

We did in the following years, in the studio, actually everything "important" with the M.A.R.S., the studio had two and I had one. Thus, Basel was perhaps the musical center of the M.A.R.S..


"Max" KEYS Article from May 1996

+ M.A.R.S. Sounds on the CD of that Magazine

Besides me, there was only a handful of private individuals who owned a M.A.R.S. Usually only colleges and studios owned this instrument. The last (PCI) M.A.R.S. I met at the end of the nineties - I was involved in the installation of M.A.R.S. in the Experimentalstudio of the Südwestfunk, Freiburg/D (formerly Strobel Foundation) - under André Richard.

M.A.R.S. sounded so good that even Karlheinz Stockhausen, during a visit to the Basel electronic studio, to which we had programmed Ring Modulators for an upcoming performance of "Mixtur" (with the MARS), said after listening, that they were "just as good as zhe old, analogue Ring Modulators at the WDR, only they have less noise". Anyone who has an approximate idea of Karlheinz Stockhausen's relationship to his Ring Modulators knows what this means: M.A.R.S. was ennobled. The other Titan, Luciano Berio, also worked at the IRIS Studio in Paliano with M.A.R.S. on his own works. I had the incredible luck to be able to witness both.

ARES

Software (Windows 3. and Win95)

The bottom level of the software are the "Algorithms" (screenshot on the left). Here the implementation is programmed in the core. Everything has to be defined somehow. One of the basic problems had been that only "fixed point algorithms" were described in M.A.R.S. - no "floating point algorithms". Fixed point means only values between -1. and 1., everything else has to be generated with formulas that produce the desired curves via tables. The corresponding mathematical formulas are therefore indispensable. The head is spinning.

The Algorithms are bound in "Tones" and the Tones in "Orchestras". Thus, the Tones can be e.g. simply multiplied and provided with different addresses for the control. There are also different levels with tables (for LFO, parameter u.m.).

The "Orchestra" represents the integration of the Tones into the system bus. Even if it looks friendly and seems clear - the programming is to some extent "tricky" and no longer comparable with today's user interfaces.

The small, green "S" and red "D" in the Algorithm are Variables, the black "C" fix Values. Double-click opens "Definition-Windows".



In the left window is a futuristic ingredient of M.A.R.S.: Physical modeling. That was very crazy in the 90s - what had happened in the digital electronics! To test during programming, there are the small loudspeakers (1,2) - they can be set at any point for listening and are only active in the Algorithm level.

In the right window [Orchestra] the bus connection is depicted. From the 4 inputs (microphones with green lines) the signals are drawn into the provided Tones. Alternatively, the output signals (gray lines and loudspeakers) can also be routed into the Tones.


MARS. and ARES also offer every conceivable kind of tools, for monitoring, measuring, visualizing and checking all the resulting values.

Today, it seems normal, but in the early 1990s, this was an overwhelming package that replaced infinitely and expensive hardware, which was also not particularly accessible or widespread.

It was the beginning of "scientific coverage", which unfortunately can now be regarded as quite problematic.


Back to M.A.R.S.: the highlight for "electronic guerilla" - as I signified myself at that time - was, that the "Orchestra"-files could be dumped as a MIDI files. Thus the large and loud PCs had neither to be transported, nor "endured" (or taken into account). That was a huge liberation! The luggage shrank enormously and the set-up times were about 10 minutes (without "start-up" - which at that time also lasted somewhat longer).

From 1995 until the end of the millennium, I was almost everywhere in the world and I lived my electronic guerrilla life - with M.A.R.S.. I had two mini-transmitters and receivers (Sony Freedom Series) with good microphones and even went to concerts to sit in. This was a fantastic time - and the final stage, before (in my view) both, the concert-enterprise and the "artist stand" was finally destroyed by professionalization (perhaps). Performances changed into presentations.


Live Performances with M.A.R.S. were fantastic, because the setup was extremely simple and the concentration remained for the music! I had everything in a 5U Softbag - M.A.R.S., Mackie mixing desk, microphones, laptop and MIDI fader. Everything pre-wired - only power and the connection to the PA had to be connected. Previously, it was a Mac SE30 (cube), two 12HE cases (extremely heavy!) and two (piano) keyboards - the complex cabling lasted about 90 minutes! What progress.

Here is a picture of the Soundcheck at the VCF Festival in Cologne. Wolfgang Heiniger and I (the World Powerbook Orchestra) gave "Hosen aus Licht" ()"pants made of light"). Two M.A.R.S. and much Max. On the monitor and the screen ran a fictitious machine text, which served only to temporarily disturb the audience of the audience by (false) error messages. A reporter of the Cologne newspaper congratulated me on the appropriate title "Rosen aus Licht". I have not corrected it.

After the festival we were branded as "THE outlook in the future of electronic music", in great agreement. Great times!