Is Commander Keen music weak?

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Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by Hisymak »

Hi. Even since my earlier gaming times, I always thought, that Commander Keen music was rather inferior/weaker/not that great, compared to music from other games I played that time (speaking only and exclusively about Adlib/OPL-based music). Well, I actually liked Commander Keen music in the sense, that it fits the game pretty well, of course, and is not annoying or sounding any bad, just a fair and simple fitting background music for a game like Keen. But that's all about it. What is my point, that the music, on its own, for stand-alone listening, is just too much simplistic and not any special and distinctive, just... plain. While the Adlib/OPL-based music in many other DOS games was more interesting and had something special and recognizable about it. And was much more fun for stand-alone listening.
Here I can give some example of a few other platforming games which I played the most in my life, as well as some other games than platformers, where I find the music being more interesting:
- Jill of the Jungle
- Hocus Pocus
- Vinyl Goddess from Mars
- Lemmings
- Wacky Wheels
- Dune 2
- Legend of Kyrandia
- Rise of the Triad

What are my main issues about Commander Keen music:
  • The length of the tracks. I always thought that the music tracks in CK are ridiculously short. Well, the majority of the tracks are shorter than a minute, and some tracks are even shorter than 20 seconds, and rather than a music, feel like some audio or sample loops (Too Hot to Handle being the best example). Other games commonly offer music tracks that are several minutes long. Technically, I'm wondering whether limited length arise from the memory limitation (as the game probably does not have enough spare memory to hold longer tracks), or the inefficiency of IMF format (compared to MIDI-based formats, I don't know which is more or less space-consuming for the identical tracks). Or the composers just thought short tracks are enough to serve the purpose.
  • Simple and uninteresting instruments. Soundtracks of some other games can be really distinctive and have their own personality, due to use of really interesting and original OPL-based instruments. The most significant example is Jill of the Jungle, which uses really "strong" bell-ish instruments, and some instruments sound quite crazy. Hocus Pocus music sounds "deeply" and features some ear-candy Fat Man instruments. Oh no More Lemmings uses really neat and well-sounding electronic piano and organ instruments. Listening to Dune 2 intro music gives me goose bumps. And more examples like that. While Keen music instruments are... generic, not any special. I was again thinking whether it's limitation of IMF format, but that's not the case. With IMF format you can practically make any instrument you like. And in some Keen mods music I recognized for example some instruments from Doom (Bernie's CK58-59?).
  • Simple melodies. The melodies of Keen music sound quite simplistic and with few polyphony (probably not even utilizing full capabilities of 8 available voices of OPL chip). For example Vinyl Godess from Mars provides catchy, rhytmic fast-paced tunes, Rise of the Triad has really nice jazzy tunes that can be definitely listened to as a stand-alone soundtrack. Here, again same issue as with point 1. comes into my mind. However, some of the other games (like Hocus, VGFM) utilize only conventional memory (both say they need 580kB), but provide much richer music tracks. Probably Keen consumes more memory for graphics and other stuff, leaving less for music?
So all in all, that's just my subjective view on Keen music. I'm reminding that I really do not dislike Keen music, just say, that it just serves purpose of being background music.
I also wanted to mention, that I feel the same issues I described here, also apply to other games, using IMF music format. Like Wolfenstein 3D or a few other games made by ID/Apogee (althrough music in some other games made by same producers is great). One example I could highlight is Hocus Pocus Beta IMF music VS. Hocus Pocus final MIDI music with Fat Man patches. I'm really not sure whether the Beta IMF music was ever intended to be officially released, or was just some temporary placeholder, but the difference is like day and night. So here comes my question whether IMF format is inherently weaker, or it's just about how well the music is composed.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by K1n9_Duk3 »

You can't really compare IMF music to MIDI music unless the MIDI music is played back in AdLib mode. The main reason for MIDI music sounding better on some soundcards is that the later SoundBlaster-compatible sound cards used OPL3 or dual OPL2 chips chips to perform the FM synthesis. That basically means the chips(s) can play twice as many notes at the same time as a regular old AdLib card (which only had a single OPL2 chip) could play. And one additional thing to remember is that some of the early games using IMF music also supported AdLib sound effects, meaning that one voice/channel of the OPL chip had to be reserved for sound effects and couldn't be utilized by the music.

Technically, an IMF file can sound excacly the same as a MIDI file, as long as the MIDI file is played in single OPL mode by the playback program. This is usually achieved by selecting the AdLib option in the game's setup as your music device. That's because the IMF file is just a raw dump of the information that needs to be sent to the OPL chip, with timing information added after each command. My MIDI to IMF converter is basically just a MIDI player that saves the commands as IMF files instead of sending them to the OPL chip.

As long as the game plays the MIDI music in OPL mode and not General MIDI mode, you can use DOSBox to record the music of that game as .DRO files (DRO = DOSBox Raw OPL capture) and convert it to IMF with DRO2IMF - but converting to IMF will only work if the DRO capture contains single OPL2 data (AdLib mode).

As for the simple nature of the music in Keen, you have to remember that Bobby Prince was still relatively new to the world of AdLib/SoundBlaster stuff at the time. Bobby posted an old letter to Scott Miller on his blog which makes that pretty obvious if you ask me.

File size would definitely be a constraint for the IMF files, since id Software sacrificed lots of memory to speed up the graphics of their games. In the Keen games, they stored up to four copies of each sprite in memory so that the game wouldn't have to perform any bit shifting each time the sprite is drawn. In Wolfenstein 3-D, they actually generated tons of different scaling routines, so that for each height that a wall could have in the 3D window, the program had an optimized routine that would scale one column of pixels in the wall texture to exactly this size.

And to some extent, the IMF format is based on the same principle: using slightly more memory to make the playback faster. Since IMF is the most basic format imaginable for OPL music, the game doesn't need to perform any complex tasks - those were already performed by the program that generated the file. Just a comparison: I have written a fully functional implementation of IMF music to replace the MIDI routines in a DOS game. The MIDI routines used over 5400 bytes of machine code and over 900 bytes for variables (like instrument settings and such). My IMF code had about 800 bytes of code and 25 bytes of variables and was still orders of magnitude faster than the MIDI code, which means the IMF player used less than 14% of the memory the MIDI player required AND ran faster. In this case, the MIDI files were actually using the MDI format (which stores OPL instrument settings in the MIDI file), and converting the MDI files to IMF resulted in 103 KB of IMF files vs. 112 KB of MDI files. Some IMF files were bigger than the MDI files, others were smaller. So at least in this case the IMF files ended up smaller on average, but with more complex MIDI files (that don't contain any OPL instrument data) the IMF files are usually a lot bigger than the MIDI files.

This could also explain the rather simple structure of the music in Commander Keen. If you have a simple melody where the instrument on an OPL voice doesn't change over the course of the song, the resulting IMF file will be a lot smaller, since the instrument settings only need to be sent/stored once for each voice used in the song.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by Mobiethian »

I've never understood the tech aspects of music but the Keen soundtracks were always catchy to me. But after some time can be a bit repetitive especially on long levels.

Lemmings and Oh No More Lemmings soundtracks were amazing, I must say since you've mentioned them. Lemmings 2: The Tribes was really good too. As for Keen, I really enjoyed the Keen 6 tunes most of all, particularly "mamba snake".
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by Hisymak »

K1n9_Duk3 wrote: Mon Jan 14, 2019 22:40 ...
Thanks for some technical explanation. I was kind of expecting a response like this, now I know someting more about IMF format as you put some light on all this.
Commander Keen is really a superior game, mostly about the gameplay and originality, and good graphics. Now I also understand better, than ID software tried really hard about optimization of the graphics and music routines so that the game would run fast on really slow computers. Our first computer when I was about 4 years old was something like a 486 and most games like Keen, Hocus Pocus or so, ran flawlessly on it. So I was never thinking about computer being too slow to run games when I was a kid.
So as I understand, they did lot of trade-offs and sacrifications, that there was not really much room to hold some more complex music tracks. That can be also seen, when you have not enough memory, the first thing that stops working is music playback.
Still, I was always not the biggest fan of Bobby Prince's music, not that his music was particularly bad, but rather, that music from other games just sounded more superior to me.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by 55Aavenue »

I thought the music got a lot better in Keen 5 and 6. In Keen 4 there are less songs and the tracks tend to be shorter loops so it gets very repeatative.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by Benvolio »

To me the Keen music forms a collection of culturally seminal tunes and I regard them as essential parts of video game lore - that doesnt mean they are excellent in quality. I have particular fondness for the music from the Keen6 demo levels including the rarely mentioned bluesy tune from the Guard Post One (which I learned as a "banjo-position" pizzicato song on violin a long time ago) , as well as Bloogwaters Crossing which I consider the catchiest Keen song. Maybe objectively the music is weak (even compared with rivals made in its own time) but it certainly played its part. Ultimately soundblaster largely failed to work on my main keening computer leaving me to curate my own vairied soundtrack of Beatles, ABBA, Cream and ultimately a non stop playlist of Nirvana.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by XkyRauh »

Bobby Prince did a lot of twelve bar blues. In Keen, it was Bloogwater Crossing, Guard Post(s), and Omegamatic. But lots of the Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure and Bio Menace stuff was twelve bar blues.

For me, the best Keen songs are the ones that evolve the melody/pattern of the song. Sphereful with my Diamonds, Tropical Ghost Oasis, and Mambo Snake are really Keen, to me, because they take an idea and play with the accompaniment behind it, or jazz up their melody on the second/third iteration.

The worst Keen songs are the ones that don't have enough change within them. Too Hot, obviously, but then Out of Breath for whatever reason really really bugs me (and I don't know why--because it really does a nice job of changing up its melody in a way I praised other songs for earlier), and A Land of Wonderment and Awe... just too short. My least favorite Bobby Prince song, period, is Teck2 from Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure. Wow, what a tedious, repetitive melody. :barf

I think Hisymak makes a good point about the shorter songs being weaker, though I disagree about the lack of polyphony being a detractor. I enjoy the purity/simplicity of the compositions, and find myself enjoying them years and years later! Overall I'll agree that the *instrument* choice plays a huge role in how annoying the song is to hear for extended periods of time. There are some Oh No! More Lemmings songs that are really great tunes, but their instrument choice makes hearing them for longer than two repetitions a chore. There are some Creepers songs that are really uninteresting, but have pleasant enough instrumentation that you can let them loop for the better part of an hour and just trance through. To each their own. :)
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by XkyRauh »

I will add that there were levels in Oh No! More Lemmings and Creepers that drove younger me to tears of frustration (I loved the games but was not great at them) and those songs STILL make me angry, hearing them years later... but I still enjoy them, just as much as they drive me insane. :)

I'll throw out there that Highland Tribe and Beach Tribe from Lemmings 2 are also twelve bar blues! haha
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by Toomuchsparetime »

Seems to have already been discussed but because I fancy myself a shareware game music aficionado I just wanna add that I agree with a lot of this. Keen music always did seem a lot more minimal than in other games, but other games were made later. While the Keen 4-6 music was good and at times really great, I think you can really hear Bobby Prince step up as more games used his music - Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure and Duke Nukem 2 come to mind.

But Bobby's genre preferences are where he and I part ways, so most of his work I can't put higher than Jill of the Jungle's music by Dan Froelich. Dan's choice of adlib instruments in Jill and Kiloblaster really defined that iconic "Epic Mega shareware" sound, and the fact that you can always rely on Epic Megagames from that era having consistently awesome soundtracks is due, I suspect, to Dan having set the bar so high so early on.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by Quillax »

IMO, Keen music isn't weak. I think they're really good, I can even play Keen with Too Hot playing in the background for quite a while without going insane. :) Sometimes, I find myself humming You've Got to Eat Your Vegetables (I know I definitely was when I did one level for The Sunnylands). I do think they got better with Keen 5 and 6.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by XkyRauh »

Hey TMST, what other Dan Froelich music do you recommend? His Jill stuff always struck me as inspired and really willful.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by Gernot66 »

Uh - music, what can one judge except the technical quality? All the rest are personal preferences.
From the side of compositions i see them as good, very good for the limitations.
I would say i love them each one, but that's my opinion.
Over all i like Roberts compositions and honestly i discovered Keen for me thanks to his music, i came here in a long run over vgmpf because of Doom.
While i know all of my comrades in RL don't understand my addiction to the simplistic music, they rather wonder about this dude which else is listens often very complex music which also spoils them.

Hard to tell it in words but there is something in his music which attracts me much.

Let's saddle up the Horse from the back, everybody knows and (most) like "Für Elise" by Beethoven, this is a some sort simplistic yet complex composition, quite short and very repetitive (in general one could define music as repetition and pauses).
Roberts tracks for Keen aren't far from this quality to my ears.
Another example is what he did to Holst's "Mars", he catches the spirit of the whole movement in one single minute, and this is simply brilliant!
I love "The Planets" for several reasons and there is a good reason and a lot of guilt of mine that it is to find in Pioneer Space Sim, i offered it first as a mod, a comrade played it on his synth to make it legal to us (thanks Dan, great fellow, Yep i guess Dan would support me in my opinion).
Since i claim to love the Planets i could easy say "Mars" is crippled, but it isn't.
A catchy composition needs far more effort as one could guess.
Btw, sure "für Elise" is part of Pioneer as well as the inevitable "Blue Danube" for the orbiters and docking scene.
The latter is the track everybody will remember and connect to "space".
The guilt of Kubrick.
But another good example for what i like to point out, a "simple" waltz.

Sure i respect much the complexity of the Dune II score, great stuff but very complex, not the kind of music you will whistle at work (while the MT version is to find on my phone, in case i am in the mood for it).
Roberts tunes for Keen haunt me - in a positive way for sure, i whistle and hum them quite often (even if i don't work anymore on the construction site).
To compose something such simple sounding and catchy isn't easy i think, it's what many like to reach but never reached.
Perhaps they search in the wrong place for it.

Still and most of all music is matter of choice.
i'm able to claim i like a three voice tune from my intellivision.
Sometimes one could guess as simpler it is the more i will like it.
Which for sure isn't true.

Maybe let's peep into each track,
"skating over the ice" isn't it just a great tune? It immediately reminds of "skating over the ice", everything is winter in this tune, great!
(i have to admit that i interpreted the tracks quite different as most AND pardon me but i interpreted the title always as "skating over the thin ice")
"too hot to handle" i've read not much good here about it while i like it, i mean i had a reason to add the XMI loop to them, i could listen endless - almost. (honestly i can't write anything bad about any track).
Always take to account that this "gran'pa" is new to Keen, it isn't biased what i say, i'm no "fanboy" (yet), i wouldn't claim it sounds good to me if it wouldn't.
"welcome to a kick in your pants in good ol' hillville" at first bite i didn't liked it to well, but well if you live in "good ol' hillville" you must like it and kicks in my pants i received many. Thumbs up it always puts a smile in my face, because it reminds me of "Wattwil" (Ulisbach even?)
That is i'm a stranger in Wattwil even when i was born only 30km far from it! Such small is switzerland.
They talk the same allemannic language as me but they won't understand me, i'm from a different valley and that we had a war 500 years ago is still present.

Roberts tunes are almost all very singable, in the composition of him for Doom you can almost hear the words they are there but just not sung.
But we talk about Keen.

Right on commander Robert, i don't have to lose many words about "you've got to eat your vegetables" i fine example for what i've claimed above, every single word is to hear and if that isn't fun i don't know what fun is.
Dunno how you hear the song i hear it with muted trumpets and trombone, that is hmm.... you know the peanuts? for sure you do!
Do you remember how the teacher and all grown ups was interpreted?
With muted trumpet, to me if i don't listen attentive the voices of ppl often turn to muted trumpet. "bua bua bua" :)
Well it seems i like the trumpet as much as my dad and guess what i like most
(2.oN otrecnoC - etreznoK ehcsigrubnednarB - hcaB S.J.)
"you've got to eat your vegetables" just the perfect way to "emulate" every mothers voice. (while i like veggies, i have to say there isn't any vegetable i don't like but meat i don't like all, but for sure i'm totally addicted to sugar, there was no way to hide it from little Gernot, it's pure brain food one must love it) Gernot you are a liar you lost quite some words about it.

"in a land of wonderment and awe" twice! short indeed, even not the one i liked best at start but it seems in despite of as simplistic they are they still can grow. The mood is great in this snippet of music.
Another moody track of course "having tea with little ampton" this i liked at first bite, a lot of oboes and bassoon (to me).

Talking about mood, "A Shikadi Aire" A TARANTELLA how great is that?! This dude is a huge composer!
It's a favorite of mine.

Let's move to my first love ROCK 'N ROLL this greaser will like it! them are just great rock 'n roll songs "rock me but don't stone me", "robo red rock".
shuffling feet included.
The ROCK will follow later on.


Perhaps one shouldn't look at each snippet and take each score as a whole composition, the snippets are just like the movements in baroque music.

Let's go for the marching band, i loved as child and you found me always dancing along in front of a marching band whenever they played, so it is no wonder that i like "This Is Where I Came In" because "This Is Where I Came In". Belongs also in this genre "into the future".

The ones which attracted me at start most was "just snoopin' around" and "Almost Out of Breath" both great jazzy tunes which i interpreted with trumpet, trombone and tuba as second bass for "snoopin'", the marimbas in it gives it a scary mood, i can see marching skeletons when i listen to it.

The most childish of all "wednesday on the beach", one must'n like this it sounded very kindergarten to me but i like it as well.
I guess or if i remember right from working on them he used the ocarina quite often, for most songs i replaced this with another instrument but not for this tune it suits perfect. it is one of the tunes which took a little time to like it.
And imagine to make the "thingy" and to record the clips over and over because i'm always displeased with some tidbit i listened more as just often.

"Tropical Ghost Oasis" some sort of tropical a different tune sure again trombone what else would fit better to it?

"please don't metal with me" "ominousity" "space funk" now he shows off who he is for real, i know it's claimed he leaned out a lot but never blatantly copied. But can you tell me where he leaned this out from? I would love to have it in Phoenix to release and not only for my personal pleasure.
This is outraking, and he shows really off to what he will evolve to.
Psychedelia, it's just tripping! (or trapping?)
There was a good reason for and it was the proper decision that Robert composed the score for Doom (about this i could fill whole thread, what a great feeling for rock and classical music).

"Faster and faster yet" again ocarina but in a quite different way, not exactly to tell what mood it has it reaches from fun to scare and i don't know when to stop the loop when i listen to it.
"end of specialities"

"brother tar ain't gonna get me" a plain blues number, i like it.
"aliens ate my babysitter" to me it belongs to same as the above which didn't makes it less good, it's just if something is just good you can't tell much about except that you think it's good.

"the mambo snake gonna eat you boy!" i guess that's one of the tracks with the best reputation?
say YES! (or you will be threatened by commander jameson, he will hunt you until he gets you)

"playing bagpipes nearly kilt me" not only you bro'! nonetheless it's good how can one single guy catch so much music in its essence?
Everything fits, the pipes and the beat, if it wouldn't be Robert one would say it's a Scottish bagpipe tune no question.
Well i wouldn't be surprised if he has Scottish ancestry, not especially because of this but because of his versatility.

See i can't say anything bad about his compositions.

"be very sphereful wit my diamonds" now we move to jazz-rock and it's crafty as always. The tumbling sort of break beat makes it to a great tune.
give it a fat bass drum and you will dance along the alley. What?! yes of course can you hear it? "Flight of the Bumble Bee" - "Green Hornet Theme" crossover. (where is batman?)

"Shadows Don't Scare Commander Keen" the title implies it as usual, a great opening tune for a game, as i feel.

I guess i covered most of ck4-6 except "fanfare" this is just a Fanfare and it is what it is, no real track and for this reason the only which i don't loop.

to answer the question of this thread in no way is commander keens music weak, or you must have weak ears.
I'm no musician, maybe a versatile whatever and foremost a listener of music, i love music.
I do know music well, i have my preferences but i can even judge what i don't like i'm no fool.
If you grew up with Bach in your ears you will understand music different, but never it's something sophisticated to me, even not "music for long hairs" (classical music). Music is for pleasure and i can't understand ppl who lift it in the skies where it doesn't belongs to.
I do like "moldy figs" (blues) as much as a complex jazz tune.
I learned to like heavy metal which i disliked in my youth (stupid no? but on the other hand i was a regular reader of "heavy metal" comics)
i defend hip-hop wherever i can (just some sort of jazz).
I can like a swiss accordeon tune as well as a "schottisch" (scots music is a sort of folk-dance music in switzerland. Not that bagpipe thing it's the typical rhythm of a schottisch which is to find in all of them. others dance polkas - we dance schottisch).

One could say each genre is a language you have to learn before you can understand it.
And dammit Robert speaks a lot of languages.
That is how short the snippets in Keen might ever be what makes the difference and i would claim it's better as most what has been cited here as comparison.

Again keep in mind i'm no Keenealogist, i didn't knew my brother commander until last year and that is somewhat surprising to myself because i'm already 54 and i lived the computer revolution - but i lived it on my miggy.
Pops was a great hobby electronics engineer and i was not only gifted with the Pong and Lightgun game by him.

End of transmission.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by RoboBlue »

I always thought it was catchy and well-suited to the game settings.
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by Gernot66 »

Well my blueish friend, in fact i didn't played Keen yet for real, what attracted me first was the music.

But i didn't played (m)any game in the last couple of months, to me the tinkering is a game of it's own.
Sure i like the style of the whole game series, i like the sprite graphics they match my own style.
That is i often said that i think it's lame to copy the Japanese, i don't like the manga stuff, it is calculated, it abuses the lowest level of human desires.
You remember that they had troubles with epilepsy provoking frequencies and colors? It was done willingly to see if this can be abused for merchandising, we know this at least since the '30s of the last century, i learned it in my education it's nothing new to a textile technician, it wasn't occasionally.
It was the very first question of my boss if i can stand the heavy saturated colors and the "flashing" frequency caused by the transport of the printing machine, if it would provoke headache or nausea i should tell this to him immediately. For sure not Gernot loves heavy saturated colors.
And maybe i wasn't aware of it but i chose the proper education for me, even if i didn't worked long as textile technician and moved to the construction site because of income and freedom. The craft of printing itself for sure is something creative but to work in an industry is braindead.
You can maybe like a story, but then i see into the underwear of a 6 year old girl and i start to ask my self why they choose such camera positions, it's willingly done and most of all why does this belong to a cartoon for kids? Keep that junk at home, we don't need that!
(on the other hand i watched a couple of pre WWII japanese cartoons and they are of a different texture, it seems they didn't only lost the war they lost and sold their heart and soul, to rectify them there exist crafty japanese cartoons but they don't belong to the typical we know from television).

We can do it better!

Commander Keen is from a different galaxy, he expresses our style, european or american (which are europeans still to me), i like it much.
Sure Commander Keen reminds me a lot of "Calvin".
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Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Post by XkyRauh »

Gernot, do you write music? :)

I have to admit, the train-of-thought transmissions you share are a bit hard to follow at times.
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