Mystery Solved: Aphex Twin On The ZX81

Aphex Twin likes to tell lies. Maybe Richard James does too. I do know when he assumes the mantle of Aphex Twin to meet the press, you’ll probably net a bushel of porky pies. Over a century ago it was called ‘showman’s privilege.’ Richard James has more going on upstairs than your average interviewee, but it’s still a shame he bottles it up on the rare occasions he comes up for air.

So, Aphex has let slip over the years that maybe he has hundreds of songs stockpiled. Maybe owns a submarine. Has a studio is in this power station in the Elephant & Castle. Drives a Ferret Armored Scout Car; (although that’s rather tame when stacked up against Stephen Morris-Joy Divison/New Order and his personal collection of militaria.)

Stephen Morris

I don’t care if any Aphex rumors are true. Except in one instance. From the Aphex Twin Wikipedia page

Richard claims to have produced sound on a Sinclair ZX81 (a machine with no sound hardware) at the age of 11:

    When I was 11, I won 50 pounds in a competition for writing this program that made sound on a ZX-81. You couldn’t make sound on a ZX-81, but I played around with machine code and found some codes that retuned the TV signal so that it made this really weird noise when you turned the volume up

Two things. 1) 50 quid was 50 quid back in 1982. That was real money. And computer magazines were still marginal publications in 1981. Big prize to hand out. That struck me as odd & out of place.

But more-so 2) I bought the magazine that published this program. I typed this program into my ZX81. I played sounds with this program. Aphex Twin did not write this program.

Clive Sinclair’s ZX81 was a micro computer. Made affordable for the masses. You can read about it here.  You could play Flight Simulator. You could buy a magazine and type in script for hours and then you could play Breakout. To run a game you hooked up a cassette tape deck and played tapes into the computer. There was no external sound. Every thing on the screen was black and white. RAM was 16k. Not 16 megabytes. 16K. It wasn’t the future. It suggested the future.

ZX 81 magazine ad. This was EVERYWHERE.

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Solving the mystery: ZX81 was released in, surprise, 1981. In April 1982 the next generation of Sinclair’s computers was released: The Spectrum. That’s about six additional months for programmers to work on the old model before they got wowed by the Spectrum’s 48k RAM. And color. And sound. (Pete Shelley, then solo from the Buzzcocks, had a program for the Spectrum on his great XL1 cassette. The one with the rather good, long dubby mix on the flip side.)

So I trawled through the amazing collection of computer magazines scanned over at the internet archive for that time frame. I had kind of a sense memory of what I was looking for. Typing on the ZX was a pain. You really had to want to do stuff on this slab of plastic. And I had wanted a synthesizer. For free.

Took a while, but I found it. Titled Organic Tunes. Which is very nice. Wish I remembered what the suggested riff sounds like.

ZX 81 Organic Tunes part one

ZX 81 Organic Tunes part two

It turns your ZX into a very buzzy, very poor man’s Stylophone. However, it did not make you John Foxx.

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The only way this program works, and it does, is to tune your TV slightly off signal.  Obviously this requires old analog, rabbity-ears TVs. So doubtful in my mind if a modern emulator will make it work. And like Aphex says, you have to also crank the volume.

The program was written by G. N. Owen. A-ha, a pseudonym I thought at first. No. Next issue he’s back as Garry Owen. And his listed home in Leamington Spa is a long way from the Cornwall of Richard’s youth. Mr. Owen received 6 pounds for his contribution. A long way from the 50 pounds Richard claims he won.

There are other sound producing features and programs published during that year, ie Your Computer of March & September 1982. They have some complex code-speak. And Aphex was 11. At the time, this was a rare program that was practical & simple and created sounds from a soundless machine. I know. I was looking. I believe Richard James was too.

Three follow ups.

1) Would be amiss to not mention the much missed Frank Sidebottom/Chris Sievey had a ZX81 program on the b-side of an 1983 single. I had no idea about this. Little Frank never it mentioned in interviews.

And just so I don’t imply James doesn’t know his tech.

2) Aphex Twin Ascii.

3) And leaving hidden visuals to be accessed via spectrogram is just plain ridiculous.

To end with some music. A nice soul put an HD dupe of Come to Daddy up on youtube. Still astonishes.