Once upon a time, Atari was best known for two things: Pong and weed. Or so the legend goes. Founded in 1972, the laid-back California firm was famous for its liberal attitudes regarding employee behavior prior to its sale to Warner Communications in 1976. Those attitudes apparently fostered a permissive environment for drug use, so long as it didn’t cause any serious trouble.
This unique company culture goes a long way toward explaining the Atari Video Music, a trippy 1976 electronic music visualizer that looks very similar to a standard hi-fi stereo system component. Such a product may seem strange today, but following the success of its home Pong console, Atari explored all manner of potential applications for its newfound consumer electronics expertise.
To understand Atari’s inspiration for the Video Music, you need only look at a 1970s-era Sears catalog, which routinely devoted an entire page to psychedelic light-show generators. These devices typically consisted of ordinary light bulbs in a box. The light would be projected through a rotating wheel of color film and onto a screen on the front of the box.The result was mesmerizing, swirling patterns of colored light. Some of these devices boasted a little more intelligence and lit various light bulbs in rhythm with piped-in music. It was groovy, man.
The Video Music did something similar, albeit electronically and on a home TV set—it would produce video images that would move in relation to music.
If you’re fuzzy on the whole music-visualizer concept, here’s another reference point: Think back to iTunes. That app (originally designed just to play music—imagine that!), still includes its own graphical Visualizer modes that display various abstract shapes and colors that move and pulse in sync with the music you’re playing.
Atari Video Music is the great-great-granddaddy of that concept, and as such, it eschews a computer and uses custom analog circuitry that generates a video signal. Hook up the Video Music to a TV, turn on the device, and connect a music source to the back of the unit, and you’ll be presented with pulsing, hypnotic, abstract geometric images on the screen. Ideally.
I happen to own one of these rare devices, and I thought it would be fun to get it working again. I bought this particular Video Music unit some time within the past decade, and it arrived packaged in a wonderfully groovy 1960s-era floral overnight case.
It didn’t take long to hook it up to my handy workbench TV set with an RF switch, but then I needed a source of music. For that, I pulled out an old portable cassette player and found a collection of my brother’s old cassette tapes from high school. After popping in a copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind, I pressed play.
Nothing happened. “Perhaps it hates grunge,” I thought. Or maybe the tape was bad. So I put in a copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Still nothing.
Then I fiddled with all the knobs until I finally saw something on the screen: a series of colored diamonds that pulsed larger and smaller in time with the music. I couldn’t actually hear the music because I didn’t have a speaker hooked up—and the Video Music apparently doesn’t pipe the music through the TV set. (Or, if it’s supposed to, that feature isn’t working on mine.)
While fiddling with the controls, I found that the various buttons on the front change both the shape and the frequency of the symmetrical patterns on the screen.
Overall, the video experience isn’t dynamic enough to be impressive. The shapes remain in place and completely symmetrical no matter what music is playing. They don’t really change that much. And while I’m sure it was novel to see a TV set react to music like that in the mid-1970s, I don’t think the effect was all that exciting by 1970s-standards either, which might explain the product’s rarity. Sales of the Video Music were obviously poor.
But man, what a cool collectible. I’d like to say that, like Atari’s early engineers, I lit up a joint and enjoyed the show, but in reality, the Video Music itself began smoking—literally; after about five minutes of constant use I had to shut it off. Someday I’ll open it up and fix it, but until then, at least I have those neat brown buttons to look at. Mmmm, brownies.
I’m joking. Don’t do drugs, kids. It can only lead to the formation of a multimillion-dollar electronics company ripe for acquisition by a behemoth media conglomerate.