386DX - The Best Of

(from http://www.freq.freeserve.co.uk/t.html)

386DX is proclaimed as the world's first Cyberpunk Rock Band; what it really is is an ancient Wintel box playing MIDI files complete with song-synth software vocals. Programmed by Alexei Shulgin, the PC has stood alone as a busker, and played live across Europe and America, which seems like a fun conceptual idea, as most of these files (or similar enough MIDI versions) can be downloaded off the internet (without the key ingredient of the vocals though) and played on pretty much any soundcard available. Oh, and the cover is a nice ASCII art version of the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers cover. Anyhow, hearing it play through a big PA would be quite entertaining, especially to an audience not knowing quite what to expect. Conveniently, the CD includes an MPEG video of the machine playing "California Dreaming" live (complete with lightshow), on the street and with Shulgin leaping around, keyboard strapped like a guitar to show the effect 386DX has on passing crowds.

And it sounds like cheesy MuzakTM, with warbly preset sounds doing their best to emulate Hendrix's guitar screams on "Purple Haze" for example. Likewise, the system's attempts at vocalising "Imagine" or "Anarchy In The UK" or any of the twelve other Rock standards like "Light My Fire" or "Smells Like Teens Spirit") is very, very amusing; for a while. Before long, it grates, but then the disc demands playing again to buttonhole any unsuspecting visitor, soon becoming one of the most played CDs as a result - until the novelty wears off. DJs could get a lot of mileage of of dropping the odd track into a set here and there to watch the crowds' collective draws drop and grins appear too, no doubt.

On one level, this is really a work about the technology of reproducing art in the age of digital reproduction, or circa 1990 given the age of the machine involved. It acts too as a pointer to the future, when computers will compose and sing their own songs (though Eno's fractal generative music software has already had a good stab at this), though the subtext seems to be that they might only be half-good at making the effort sound good, and probably still terrible at communicating human warmth and emotion. The Best Of 386DX is funny, it is entertaining, and the 386DX website is worth checking out too. All this and the CD contains the software required for further experimentation - provided there's a Winbox and Creative Labs soundcard handy to run it on of course. This could provide some kind of use for all those ancient PCs cluttering up office back cupboards, charity shops and skips everywhere - now imagine them all playing at once...