70s wizards: Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, MOD MID


There were some truly amazing pearls in the generally annoying rubble as I like to call the musical landscape of those times. Yet I find myself inexorably attracted to it, partly because my parents were back then not only alive but young. And Herbie Hancock & Bill Withers, these not-known-well-enough giants, stand up.

Herbie Hancock @ TED 2009The 70s are the temporal home of several “greats” who are often lost in the midst of hundreds of cocaine-emboldened musical terrorists. It is worthwhile picking these geniuses out of the amorphous, gelatinous rainbow.

Herbie Hancock

I first found Herbie long time ago. His single “Rockit” had been “mod-ed” (see below) by an unknown enthusiast and I got to play it on my 486 computer.

I didn’t know who Herbie was or that he authored that song. I had few ways of finding out and though I tried, I couldn’t. When I finally managed to find out, I learned that he’s also the author of Cantaloupe Island, the amazing jazz piece that found new fame after US3 sampled it. That’s not all – Watermelon Man (TED version), Chameleon and many others bear his signature.

His life was (and is) just as interesting. He was a musical prodigy, but in college started to study physics. He played with Miles Davis, who considered him an upcoming great talent and recorded a multitude of sessions for Blue Notes with all the greatest of the 60s. In what is probably the only thing he’s got in common with Steven Seagall, he’s a Buddhist. Here’s a rather large selection:

Bill Withers

Though very different – Bill is more of a Soul icon – Bill Wither’s life is similarly interesting. His father died when he was young and enlisted in the army, where he served for 9 years. He worked on the assembly line while recording songs and performing in night clubs in his spare time. When he debuted with “Ain’t No Sunshine”, he did not want to give up his day job, as he felt that his success might not last. He had disputes with both Sussex Records and Columbia Records. Some of his best known songs include Lean on Me, Lovely Day, She’s Lonely, Just the Two of Us, most of them used in movies and commercials. I’ll stop here and let him take you there..


Back in the day, not all windows music players could play *.mod files, so I ended up using Mod4Win, which was just amazing. There weren’t many songs that I would play over and over, but rockit.mod was one of them.

This was in the 80s and 90s, long before MP3s had become the de facto standard. A consumer grade computer (such as a 386 or 486) with an off-the-shelf sound card could only play (other than WAV) MIDI files, which were wholly inadequate for the rich sounds of remixes or vocal samples. Luckily, most computers could also play Amiga MOD files and the MOD scene was part of the Demoscene. Unlike MIDI, (or .mid), which contained a series of instructions for playing actual samples of instrumental sounds stored on the sound card, .MOD files also contained some actual samples embedded in the file. .MOD files were much smaller than today’s MP3 files and required far less processing power, but required a considerably larger effort in production. By contrast, MP3 (and other compression schemes) files are dumb and have no intrinsic logic, but they do not require technical knowledge in creation, only processing power at both the encoding and decoding end.


It is also worth mentioning that though some sound cards claimed to have stored “MIDI” sound samples on-board, in reality these sounds were generated via an algorithm called FM synthesis, which produced the sounds using math formulae. If you had good speakers, you could tell the difference; today nobody really cares about this aspect – it’s been “solved”. WhistlingChatterbox

Sources / More info: wiki-herbie, wiki-withers, fiql-gr8st-breakdance, rockit.mod, wiki-mod-file, wiki-Mod4Win, skreemr-rockit, yt-herbie, yt-bill, yt-demoscene-09

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