The Weird Virtual Worlds of Jordan Bartee’s Pixel Instruments

by Nick Yulman

Jordan Bartee’s early memories of videogames go well beyond the fun factor. The founder of Seattle’s Special Stage Systems recalls that the Commodore 64 games he played as a child were rich with meaning for him — their capacity to create virtual worlds with relatively simple graphics and sound raised fundamental questions about perception and reality:

“That fusion of philosophy with audio-visual art and electronic systems set up a lifelong obsession that I’m still working through. I see the products I’m designing as a direct continuation of that obsession.”

The latest of those products is the Ming Micro: a vintage game-inspired video synthesizer that he’s brought to Kickstarter. We spoke with Bartee about the project and his fascination with the history of machine-generated graphics.

Special Stage Systems’ Ming Micro with a vintage CRT monitor

How would you describe the Ming Micro to someone who has no idea what a video synthesizer is?

Ming Micro is a tool for creating live, 8-bit style computer graphics. It takes MIDI — a protocol designed for electronic musical instruments — and repurposes it to control a videogame graphics engine. It can be controlled via physical devices or computer software, allowing artists a great deal of flexibility. It’s also capable of generating simple videogame sound effects and music. We’ve branded it as a “video synthesizer” or “pixel instrument” because that’s the most unique aspect of it, as well as the most powerful.

Ming Micro

What users did you have in mind when you designed it?

Ming Micro was designed for anyone with an interest in 8-bit era graphics and sound, particularly those who want to work—or play—in live contexts: VJs and experimental artists, as well as people who just want a fun, nostalgic art-toy to play with.

The Ming Micro is based on your previous product, the Ming Mecca. Can you tell us about that and how they’re different?

Ming Mecca combined two areas of intense personal interest to me, analog modular synthesis and early videogame technology. It generates the same kind of retro graphics as Ming Micro, but instead of being controlled by MIDI, it’s controlled through a large tactile interface with knobs, switches, patch cords, and indicator lights. It conforms to a modular synthesizer standard called Eurorack, which means it’s compatible with lots of other gear. Everything responds to analog voltage, so other synthesizer modules can manipulate Ming Mecca by patching into its various jacks.

Special Stage System’s Ming Mecca with other Eurorack modules

What have been the most exciting uses of the Ming Mecca?

Some of the most exciting work I’ve seen is by Darren Blondin. He used the nw2s::b—a programmable, Arduino-based Eurorack module—to essentially design his own proprietary Ming Mecca accessory. It’s allowed him to expand the capabilities of the system beyond what I thought was possible, turning Ming Mecca into a giant graphical sequencer.

Darren Blondin’s Drum Rooms, created with Ming Mecca

Equally exciting has been the work of Andrew Gibbs, aka Simulcast. Andrew’s been using Ming Mecca in his VJ rig for live chiptune shows. It seems a little silly in retrospect, but when I was designing Ming Mecca, I didn’t really imagine it being used in that context. I imagined it more as introspective “bedroom gear” — something used by solitary explorers in their home studios. So seeing it get used for live concert video was unexpected, incredibly cool, and partially inspired the direction I would eventually take with Ming Micro.

Dot.Ay performing along with Ming Mecca visuals by Andrew Gibbs

You first started developing this as part of your doctoral research — what did you study?

I was in Brown University’s MEME program: Multimedia and Electronic Music Experiments. My own research focused on the intersection of musical interface design, object-oriented ontology, and videogame worlds. I was interested in rethinking the modular synthesizer as a general-purpose analog computer — something that could generate not only sound, but images, objects, and systems. Videogames, in as much as they involve the simulation of dynamic virtual worlds with audio, graphics and behaviors, seemed like a good litmus test for that idea.

In your research, did you look at early examples of video synthesis? Were there visual equivalents to the early sonic explorations of Moog and Buchla?

Video synthesis has a surprisingly deep history, stretching all the way back to the 1960s. For whatever reason, it didn’t catch on commercially in the way that audio synthesis did, but that doesn’t mean the work has been any less fascinating. Stephen Beck’s Video Weaver, created in 1974, is a particular inspiration, since it was one of the first video synthesizers to use digital techniques.

Stephen Beck’s Video Weaver

For anyone interested in the history of video synthesis, I’d recommend the book “The Emergence of Video Processing Tools” — it’s pretty much the first time a full history of video art has been compiled.

Are there specific games that influenced the aesthetics of your products?

My parents bought me a Commodore 64 for my eighth birthday, and it got under my skin in a way I’m still trying to unravel, two decades later. Everything about it just seemed intoxicatingly alien — the BASIC commands required to operate it, the crazy explosions of rainbow color and text glitches when you’d load a game, the dark crunchy noises produced by the SID audio chip — it just exuded weirdness.

A lot of the actual games were these strange one-offs created by very small teams, or sometimes even single authors, and they were often pretty rough around the edges. One of my favorite C64 games was The Great Giana Sisters, which is essentially a Super Mario Bros. knockoff. It took all the core elements of Shigeru Miyamoto’s design but remixed them in a way that was a little stranger, more unforgiving, and less polished.

The Great Giana Sisters

As a little kid I only had a basic, almost magical understanding of what was happening, but it left an indelible impression on me. The C64 was essentially my introduction to ontology; it was the first time I ever considered questions about the fundamental structure of the world, what it’s made up of, and how the visible systems we encounter can be driven by invisible or higher-order systems that exist, in some sense, outside of the manifest reality we’re embedded in.

How do you view the connection between playing a game and playing music?

One of the aspects of music that’s always excited me is how responsive and immediate it can be. When you’re sitting in front of a musical instrument, the inputs are very clear, and the system reacts to those inputs immediately. By understanding those inputs and honing your ability to control them, you can produce incredible things more or less out of thin air.

That state of improvisational flow exists in lots of videogames, particularly action games that emphasize virtuosity of player movement, but it’s generally missing from the process of creating videogame worlds themselves. What if we could enable people to play audio-visual systems like a musician plays music? Programming will never be as fast as playing a note on a piano, but it’s a useful way to frame the ambition of something like Ming Micro.

Your project video is a work of art unto itself. What went into its creation?

Thank you! I take our product trailers very seriously, and spend a lot of time (more time than I should, probably) creating them. I shoot everything on actual VHS. It can be a huge pain to deal with tape, but I think the end result is totally worth it. In terms of the actual process, it’s just good old fashioned guerrilla filmmaking. For the Ming Mecca trailer, my brother and I built a pyrotechnics rig out a chicken feed trough and lighter fluid (don’t tell my landlord), and the Ming Micro trailer involved a ton of lights, projectors, and fog machines. Almost nothing is added in post.

I really want all of Special Stage’s media to feel like it could have originated in the late 1980s or early 90s. The question I always ask is: what if Ridley Scott had directed a Nintendo commercial?

Ming Micro Project video with music by D.V. Caputo

Your campaign’s had a great response. What’s it like to work on a complex product like this in private and then get to share it with people?

The response has honestly been overwhelming. I was confident that we would meet our funding goal, but I thought it might be a long slow crawl.

It’s a very strange thing actually, working on things in isolation and then tossing them into the internet to fend for themselves. It’s a total artist cliche, but it really does feel a bit like sending a child out of the nest. You spend so long raising it, caring for it, hyper fixating on all these little details and trying to make it the best it can possibly be. Then suddenly it’s grown up and being beamed into people’s laptops and it’s not just your little project anymore, it belongs to everyone. I’ve been through this cycle several times now, and I still haven’t really gotten used to it.

What’s next for you and Special Stage Systems?

There’s more stuff coming for Ming Mecca and Ming Micro. We’re looking at both of them as platforms, and intend to expand them. For Ming Mecca we’ve got a new module called the Oscillographic Block lined up for release soon. It’s a chiptune audio synthesizer based on the same sound chip used in the Sega Game Gear and Master System.

For Ming Micro we’ve got plans for a controller interface called Micro Mod. That one’s still a long ways off — we’re focusing 100% on Ming Micro itself right now— but we hope to launch it as a new Kickstarter campaign sometime next year.

For more about Special Stage Systems, checkout their website and Facebook page. Their campaign for the Ming Micro campaign is currently live on Kickstarter.