Atari Video Music - The Demo

The Hardware. The Demo. Dick Dent: "Click Of The Finger".
machine with trophy

What Is The "Atari Video Music"?

According to Wikipedia, "The Atari Video Music (Model C240) is the earliest commercial electronic music visualizer released." It takes music as input and "draws" a video signal that visualizes this input much like the visualization plugin of Winamp or Windows Media Player. Only that the Atari Video Music was created in 1976.

For configuring the visualization, there are six different parameters (top left to bottom right):

It also features an automatic mode which can be also configured using on of the "Shape"-switches. This mode only changes the parameters that are configured using the buttons, but not the dials. The "Horizontal" and "Vertical Display" button groups get different functions in auto-mode.

user interface

Gain (purple marking)

The larger the gain, the bigger your objects. For "Hole" and "Ring" the left audio channel drives the inside of the objects, the right audio channels always drives the outside.

Color (yellow marking)

The input signal also changes the color of the object displayed. The color is run by a palette which starting point can be configured using the "Color" dial.

Contour (cyan marking)

At maximum you get clean, almost mathematical shapes. Turn these dials to the left and the shapes are not so well-structured anymore. Also here left and right behave similar to "Gain".

Shape (red marking)

Here are three modes available:

Horizontal Display (green marking)

Defines how many objects are drawn in one line: 1, 2, 3, or 5.

Vertical Display (blue marking)

Defines how many lines of objects are drawn: 1, 2, 4, or 8.

How Do You Get One?

This is probably the hardest question. There is no PAL version of the Atari Video Music, so I got mine from (USA) for a pretty fair price being in an unknown condition. Right now (April 2017), working units are sold for over $400 there.

I originally wanted to repair mine myself at the local hackerspace, but I was lacking the time to do it. Talking about that with Dr. Stefan Höltgen of Humbold University Berlin, he made an interesting proposal: one of his students will repair it, and the institute gets it as a loan for one year. A nice deal for both sides. So it was fixed by Shockwav3 around the same time Ben Heckendorn did his fix of that machine.

What is "Atari Video Music - The Demo"?

"Atari Video Music - The Demo" is the idea to get something more structural out of this hardware. Videos you find on YouTube are shot in random mode. That's not what I wanted. First of all I needed music composed for the machine, a job made for Skyrunner. I showed him the machine and what it was capable of. For the track itself I had a few ideas: it had to be danceable, and the words "Atari Video Music" needed to be in it. Also the classical Atari commercial jingle would be a nice addition. Soon after that I also came up with the idea of having vocals done by a child. This place was taken by Hanna, the niece of Miss Ctrl who organized a fifteen minutes recording of her trying to get it said correctly. We ended up using the not so perfect parts from that session.

Once all the basic parts seemed to fit, we met to record the introduction.

After the final mix was set, it was up to me to come up with a "choreography". I listened to every part in a loop, deciding what pattern I want to put in that specific spot. There were also some patterns that needed to be in there, and for these I needed to find a sweet spot as well. The "mesh" at the end falls into that category. The result of this was a script called "The Code" typed into libreoffice calc. That was the easy part.

The hard part was getting that script done correctly in realtime. That was like trying to record a perfect run of Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Dance or something like that... but even the recorded run wasn't perfect to me, it was well enough to try the post-production steps like getting it into Movie Maker. There some more problems showed up, so after I had a first video up and running, I decided to call it a day. It also shows that it was done "live on tape" in one run.

Other Resources

P.S.: Thanks to all the people, who voted this little fun project to second place on Revision 2017. I'd never expected this.

Dick Dent - Click Of The Fingers

In October 2020 the following mail hit my inbox:

Hi there,

I hope this email finds you well.

I've just seen your website and the stuff you've written about the Atari Video Music. I'm not sure if you still have possession of it, or you even use this email address anymore, but I thought I'd give it a shot anyways.

I'm currently in the process of releasing a new album and it's got to the point where I need some visual stuff for my music. As I'm not likely to be able to get my hands on one of these beauties anytime soon, I was wondering if you would consider giving up some of your valuable time and capturing some video of the Atari reacting to one of my songs?

If you'd like to check out any of my previous work, you can find it here:

It's also all on Spotify etc...

I'd be hugely grateful if you'd consider this and of course we could discuss some sort of payment for your time/effort.

All the best,

Dick Dent

I haven't turned on the Atari Video Music for more the two years, so this really was a welcome break from the Corona routine. The first efforts were not so promising: the adhesive of "blue dots" was not so good anymore, and also at least one of the potentiometers was not responding well enough to be considered "working".

This lead to some repairs. All the cables from the dails were replaced to something looking more trustful. The bad dial just needed a lot of turning to be working again.

The song itself, I really liked, so coming up with an idea was rather easy: instead of going for a precise "to the bar" breakdown of the song and to set a specific configuration at an exact time, I separated the song is a couple of sections, and decided beforehand which mood I wanted to try to visualize. This was then noted down together with a rough timeline.

Then I played the song a couple of times while looking at my cheat sheet and improvised each section to get a certain mood. Rewatching those, I came up with two favorites, as in "didn't suck and no major faults in". Those then got the audio signal mixed in. (Remember: the Atari Video Music only outputs video and audio is only taken as input. Also, my setup couldn't feed the audio to both the speakers and the recording.)

Showing Dick the results, it was what he had hoped for. So everyone was happy.

Upon release of the album containing "Click Of The Fingers", I bought his back catalogue on Bandcamp, and didn't regret it since.

And if anyone was wondering, this was my payment:
Disk Dent tapes
and stickers
(Two audio tapes and three stickers.)

A short afternote: in September 2022, I was driving in my car. The radio picked "Click Of The Fingers" from the playlist. And I went thinking: "Hey, I know this one. I created the official video clip for it." Growing up watching MTV (at a time the "M" really stood for "music" only) and other similar channels, I wondered what it would've been like if somebody told me back then: "You will also create an offical video clip one time." It felt a bit strange... but very, very uplifting. Thanks for that, Dick!

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