"A NEW AUDIO-VISUAL EXPERIENCE FROM ATARI"

During one of my many descents into the rabbit hole of obscure gaming, I stumbled upon a small hobbyist site dedicated to all things Atari. At the time I was trying to find more information on the Atari Cosmos, a portable gaming console that never made it to market. However my attention shifted to the Atari C240, more commonly referred to as "The Atari Video Music."

Released at the peak of Atari's cultural relevancy in 1977, this strange device was the follow up to the Atari 2600 and is considered the first consumer music visualizer. Atari HQ during it's prime was like a massive bender. Drug use was common place, especially pyschedelics. If I had to guess, the idea of The Video Music must've been the result of an acid trip, something where designer Robert Brown must've wondered "we can hear music, but why can't we see it as well?"

It's high price point and its weird niche contribute to it being a commercial failure. I've personally never seen any serial numbers surpassing 80,000, and a fatal design flaw makes the device easy to short out. Listings pop up occasionally on eBay, expect to pay around $400 to get on in good working condition. (Honestly a steal compared to it's price being equivalent to $800 when adjusted for 2022 inflation.)

While getting the audio to be inputed to the video music is easy, getting the video output is a bit of a challenge. The Video Music uses VHF, which was not on either of my TVs (Sony CRT from the 2000's and a portable Panasonic Quintrix II from the mid 80s) nor was it on my VCR. You'll most likely need a conversion cable. I ended up converting it to a coaxial and pumping it into my VCR, which then outputs to the two TVs simultaneously. This allows me to record The Video Music to VHS as well.

And this is what I mean, audio set ups are typically straight forward and can be stacked, but with the Video Music you're going to need to allocate room for a television at the very least.


But you know what, for as much of a pain it is to set up, it sure is fun to interact with. This may sound pretentious, but having the Video Music is a visceral experience. I love physical formats because of the ability to interact with it, to know that I truly own it. And when I have to boot up an audio input, receiver, VCR, The Video Music, and the TV all at once, well it overall really feels like I'm one with the music.

The Atari Video Music C240 has appeared in popular media through the years.
Daft Punk's Robot Rock (left) Devo's The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize (center) and The X-Files Ghost in the Machine S1, E7 (right)

As for the visual themselves, it's very primitive by todays standards. While Windows Media Visualizer blows the video music out of the water, there's still something very charming about what the Video Music is capable of, and there is a decent selection of options to play around with.

The device has 6 knobs and 11 buttons (excluding the power button) to play around with. The knobs dictate the color hue, sharpness of geometrics, and which channel of audio gets priority in the visuals. The buttons allow you to choose what type of shape is displayed, their density, how many instances of it appear, and how often it cycles through different displays. Personally I prefer to keep it on full auto-mode, allowing for a diverse range of visuals to appear in rapid succession. Aside from that, I only ever tweak the contour knobs depending on how trippy I want it to be. However, if one were looking to use the Video Music to react with an instrument, I could see the need for keeping the display consistent rather than random.


The visuals are akin to what I imagine Polybuis may have looked like, and at night it can put you into a trance like state. I often have it going in the background as I work on my computer, but I always end up glancing over and getting sucked into it's display. The distorted input of my Panasonic Quintrix II really adds to the trippyness.



So overall, was it worth the price? For me, yes, but for the average person, or even a general audiophile, maybe. As is the case when this device first released, it's incredibly niche. Whereas any audiophile has a need for a record player, cassette deck, or receiver, this is a strange intersection that may be difficult to integrate into pre-existing set ups.

WVOA-LD, one of the last analogue TV broadcasters in the United States, utilized the visuals of an Atari Video Music until their shutdown in July 2021 -Antenna Man (YouTube)

Alternatives

If you're looking for a more practical alternative, then perhaps check out the Pixel Music 3000. It's a DIY visualizer that one can build much like a Raspberry Pi. However, it appears to not offer as many visuals. Aside from that, there is no proper way to emulate the Video Music at the moment.

The AcoustiColor Audio Kaleidoscope, dubbed "the eighth wonder of the electronic world," this device was released in 1979 and retailed for $99.00. Aside from what can be pieced together from promotional materials (images below courtesy of SwitchedOn and eBay) information on this thing is non-existent, but it seems almost like a reverse modified Atari Video Music in terms of physical appearance and functionality. The audio visuals themselves appear to have their own distinct, yet primitive look.

I have been obsessed with the Atari Video Music for years and only just learned of this thing through an eBay listing (that I unfortunately missed out on.) I would love have an Audio Kaleidoscope running in tandem with the Video Music, so if you know where I can snag one of these please let me know! (I'll set up a general website contact e-mail later.)