M.A.R.S.

Musical Audio Research Station (1992 - 1999)

In 1987 Peppino Di Giugno agreed in a commission for the development of the M.A.R.S. at the studio IRIS in Paliano (close to Rome/Italy) and in 1992 the first units were presented. The M.A.R.S. was an open "architecture" to program applications. The project was financed by the Bontempi-Farfisa Group and the goal was the development of sound chips for commercial electronic instruments. It also was about saving the Italian manufacturers of electronic instruments. It was probably the most unique project I have ever been able to share. Working with M.A.R.S. was like being 15 years ahead. Many sounds astonished the audience. Everything was new and much never heard before.


A DSP machine for real-time applications that was initially configured by using an Atari Computer with the Edit 20 software. A new host computer (Windows PC) was introduced, connected via ISA bus. The new software ARES (Audio Resource Editing System) 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 ISA card for installation into the PC. I did not like the Card-solution, because PCs were noisy and I expect from a musical instrument to be quiet when I do nothing.

Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that the ISA card also brought enormous benefits. Initially, the sampling frequency was 32 to 44.1 kHz and it offered digital AES I/O - the first M.A.R.S. Generation had 39.625kHz and only analog I/O. Even more profoundly, the MARS ISA Card could be equipped with 64MB sample RAM and up to 8 M.A.R.S. ISA Cards could be operated in one PC - i.e. up to 512MB instead of 32MB. Nevertheless - I preferred the old version!

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. It is light weighted and it 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 to use only 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 never ever heard such sounds before. Realtime Sampling, Granular Synthesis, Physical Modeling etc. - there was almost some kind of magic.

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

Shortly after joining the "electronic studio of the Academy of Basel", lead by Thomas Kessler, I came across the M.A.R.S. - approx. 1993. Wolfgang Heiniger was the assistant to Thomas Kessler and already familiar with "DSP" (Digital Signal Processing) - soon he became a M.A.R.S. specialist. DSP was still quite new and actually most people only knew it by hearing-say, because very expensive computers were necessary, which were mainly found 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 managed to buy my own M.A.R.S. - which quickly played a central role and brought great changes into my life. M.A.R.S. also allowed, at highest levels, no longer bound to aesthetic or functional decisions of manufacturers. The DSP structure and Max's MIDI control and all the musical decisions were programmed. A heavenly state!

In the following years we did actually everything "important" with the M.A.R.S., the studio owned two and I had my own. Thus, Basel was perhaps the musical center of the M.A.R.S..


"Max" Interview from KEYS May 1996

+ Audio Example I did with Max and M.A.R.S. (Keys-CD)

Besides me, there was only (not even) a handful of private individuals who owned a M.A.R.S. Usually only colleges and studios owned this instrument. The last (ISA Card) M.A.R.S. I met end of the nineties - I was involved in the installation of the M.A.R.S. in the Experimentalstudio of the Südwestfunk, Freiburg/D (formerly Strobel Foundation) - directed by 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 the old, analogue Ring Modulators at the WDR, just with less noise". Everyone who has an approximate idea of Karlheinz Stockhausen's relationship to his Ring Modulators knows what this rather 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.




A View to the Inside:


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 - from my view - unfortunately can now be regarded as quite problematic.




M.A.R.S. TEXT AND BROCHURES (OPEN AS PDF IN NEW WINDOW):

    MARS - BROCHURE with specs (1995)

    MARS ISA-CARD - BROCHURE with specs (1997)

    New MARS Workstation (1997) - text with illustrations


    My time with 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. Also the M.A.R.S. was a record-breaking lightweight! The control was done with an Apple notebook (540c, Wallstreet, Pismo).


    Live performances with M.A.R.S. were also fantastic because the setup was extremely easy and the concentration remained for the music! I had everything in a 5U softbag: M.A.R.S., Mackie mixer, microphones, laptop and MIDI fader. Everything pre-wired - only power and the PA had to be connected. Before, it was a Mac SE30 (cube), two 12U cases (extremely heavy!) And two (piano) keyboards - and the elaborate wiring took about 90 minutes! What a blessed progress!

    Here is a picture of the Soundcheck at the VCF 1 Festival in Cologne (1997). Wolfgang Heiniger and I (the World Powerbook Orchestra) gave "Hosen aus Licht" ("pants made of light"). Two M.A.R.S. controlled via Max. On the screen a fictitious machine text could be seen, which only served to temporarily disturb the audience by (false) error messages. A reporter of the Cologne newspaper congratulated me on the appropriate title "Rosen aus Licht" (roses of light). I did not correct it.

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


    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 miniature-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 (perhaps) finally destroyed by professionalism. Performances changed into presentations.

    At the end of 1998 the studio IRIS suddenly "disappeared". It simply was closed without notice. No news, no legacy, no documents, no spare parts or technicians who could repair the M.A.R.S.. A shock! As well online: nothing! And there came the time of my separation from the studio in Basel. The 5 years with M.A.R.S. were a "game changer". Max and MARS had opened many new doors for me, I had been able to work with some of the great living composers, and the step from jazz piano to the "insecure world" of computers and digital electronics in New Music was made.


    Moving to London forced me to use M.A.R.S. as a carry-on hand luggage to transport. And I got temporarily used to flying. That's how it went to the USA. Our base was a property in La Jolla (San Diego, California). We played in concert halls, on a roof, at Camp Pendleton (Marines Base), in the desert and even in the solar eclipse shadow.

    Since the time in London (from 1998), the PC remained "on the continent" and since then I hadn't programmed any further, new configurations on M.A.R.S. - I only used my existing MARS patches (I just wanted to play). I had the existing configurations as MIDI sequences in the Apple Powerbook - in the respective GUI I could send the sequence as a MIDI dump to the M.A.R.S..

    On the right is a photo from La Jolla, USA from 1999. Everything on the table was my plane hand luggage - at that time you still could take something more than today. As a contrast to the digital MARS, I added a Sherman Filterbank to the setup (as a "dirt spinner").


    Peppino Di Giugno presenting the 4X/001 to IRCAM/Paris in 1984 and Pierre Boulez is privileged to open the package.