Engineer Spotlight: Jordan Bartee on the Ming Micro 8-Bit Synthesizer and Retro-Style Games

February 10, 2016 by Tim Youngblood

An interview with Jordan Bartee, the designer of the Ming Micro portable 8-bit video synthesizer.

People are so excited for the Ming Micro project that it reached its funding goal during this interview!

We got to talk with Dr. Jordan Bartee, the owner of Special Stage Systems about his Kickstarter campaign to fund the Ming Micro project. The Ming Micro is a portable 8-bit video synthesizer that allows you to tweak 8-bit graphics in real time, the same way that a DJ can manipulate sounds with a mixer! Jordan is an interesting guy who has taken an unconventional philosophy when it comes to his inventions. Check out his Kickstarter video and interview to get to know the retro-futurist who’s taking 8-bit synthesizers to new heights!

Dr. Bartee appears at 1:30 of this video, in case your eyes start hurting 


AAC: Congratulations on getting funded for the Ming Micro! Is this the first project that you’ve attempted to get crowd funding for?

JB: Yep, it is! Our previous products were funded through good old fashioned investment and commission. Ming Mecca exists mainly because Shawn Cleary, who runs the analog synth store Analogue Haven, believed in the product enough to cover our manufacturing costs up front.


AAC: We have a few indie game fanatics on the AAC team. Have any games been made on the Ming system that we might have heard of?

JB: One of the interesting things about Ming Mecca is that your creations only exist while the machine is patched/programmed in a particular configuration—that’s part of the legacy of analog modular hardware. There’s no way to compile Ming Mecca games to an executable or save the code for reworking later, and if you want to share something you’ve made, you’ve got to invite people over to experience it firsthand. As soon as you move a knob or unplug a patch cord, the game world is forever altered.

We like to think of it as being a little bit like Tibetan sand painting: an experience that emphasizes the ephemerality of our labor and makes you focus on the moment instead of getting bogged down thinking about posterity. For me personally, using Ming Mecca is almost meditative in that regard.

Ming Micro is a little bit different. Since it’s USB- and MIDI-controllable instead of voltage controllable, it will be possible for people to create patches in programs like Max/MSP or Pure Data (or our dedicated editor), and distribute them to other Ming Micro users, along with any custom graphics packs needed to render them. People will still need Ming Micro hardware to run them, though.

(Also worth mentioning: Ming Micro is less focused on interactive game design than Ming Mecca. It trades the integrated collision, gravity, and gamepad interfaces for increased graphical features, making it more useful as a general video synthesizer/pixel art instrument. There’s nothing to stop people from reimplementing things like collision externally, though, again in software packages like Max/MSP or similar tools.)


Unlike the Ming Mecca, the Ming Micro is USB- and MIDI-controllable

AAC: Most of the projects on Kickstarter are usually trying to push the limits of new technology: more pixels, more processing power, etc. What was your inspiration to break the mold and put a new spin on something retro?

JB: I’m not sure really, I just find myself gravitating towards projects that have an element of pop history, culture remixing, pastiche, and so on. I guess it's partly to do with my personality. I’m a very nostalgic person, and my childhood was filled to the brim with videogames and computers, so they’ve gained a kind of magical, totemic importance for me in my adulthood. But I also think that revisiting elements of our technological past is a useful strategy for framing discussion about our technological future. There was a brief period in the early history of creative computing and video game technology where this radical utopianism was being proliferated through companies like Atari and Commodore, and that utopianism was coupled with an experimental impulse that I think we’ve lost through the ever-expanding iOS-ification of our tools (i.e., more and more closed systems, standardized systems, and general purpose—rather than specialized—systems).

It’s more complex than that of course—commodore was this massive capitalist enterprise as well, and we play with that aspect of the period too. The mythology we’re trying to build around Special Stage is sort of this bizarro-capitalist mega-corporation that, somehow, in an alternative 1980s timeline, made their fortune producing avant-garde art tools instead of consumer electronics.

It’s a weird thing really, using retro tropes as fuel for some kind of new futurism, but I think it’s happening a lot in the culture right now, not just with Special Stage.


AAC: Your Kickstarter says that the Ming Micro will be the first device that Special Stage Systems will ship directly to users. What platforms will you be selling them on?

JB: We’ll be shipping Ming Micro directly to backers, primarily, but we’re also in talks with a couple distributors to make units available for general purchase (after fulfilling our backer obligations, of course). Too early to say anything more concrete about that but we’re definitely exploring options.


An old poster for the Ming Mecca

AAC: We saw that the Ming Micro and Ming Mecca work together enabling users to make edits without having to deal with exporting and converting file types. Was making a system that you can use to make an entire game always the goal or was Ming Micro more of a serendipitous discovery?

JB: The goal with Ming Mecca was always to build a system capable of making interactive video game worlds. The latent world-building potential of analog interfaces was the crux of my doctoral research really, and it why I spent so long refining Ming Mecca’s collision and gravity systems.

Ming Micro is basically an attempt to focus more purely on 8-bit audio-visual aesthetics and condense the core Ming Mecca experience into something integrated, affordable, and portable. Ming Mecca is a very luxurious, spare-no-expense sort of device, so its audience is limited. Even though Ming Micro is a powerful tool, we’re hoping it can also appeal as a high-end geek toy and bring in a slightly broader demographic of users. And I think for those users, the emphasis is going to be more on making things that look and sound interesting/artistic/evocative, as opposed to the very abstract sort of video game ontology that’s possible with Ming Mecca. We streamlined Ming Micro's design accordingly, to extend its graphical capabilities and make it as fluid to use as possible. Although both paradigms are, in a pinch, achievable on both systems.


AAC: What made you decide on the name Ming for the system? Our guess is that it was based off Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon. (Were we close?)

JB: Very close! it’s a similarly dorky pop culture reference. The name "Ming Mecca” comes from Darren Aronofsky’s indie film Pi, which was about chaos theory and the quest to represent nature through mathematics. In the film, Ming Mecca is a super computer chip that the protagonist uses to crack algorithms for predicting the stock market, and ultimately for understanding god itself (it’s a really weird, awesome movie).


AAC: Tell us more about your company Special Stage Systems. What was it like starting your own business after graduate school?

JB: I sort of overlapped the two so the transition was as painless as possible. Ming Mecca doubled as my dissertation project, so I was able to design my first product and complete my Ph.D. more or less at the same time.

Financially, running the business post-school has been and remains a struggle; people sometimes complain that our stuff is priced too high, but they don’t really understand economy of scale. We’re making really weird, niche stuff in very low quantities, and essentially hand-building everything here in my apartment. Ming Mecca was profitable, but just barely—a total labour of love. The upside is that I get to pursue my art practice (which is what Special Stage ultimately is, at least personally) and work on exactly what I want to, which has been incredibly rewarding creatively.


Even recent photos of Dr. Bartee look like they're from the 1980s

AAC: One of our favorite things about the Ming system is that it makes video game creation affordable and accessible. Do you think that this is something that could help get kids into computer science at a younger age?

JB: Possibly! One of the things we’ve tried to prioritize is fluidity of creative expression. Conventionally developed video games are obviously vastly more powerful and diverse than the strange little etudes Ming Mecca / Micro can produce, but it’s also a very segmented process, where you start designing stuff on paper, come up with code to implement it, compile that code, test, modify the design, recode, and so on. Part of the idea with Ming Mecca was to make something much more immediate, closer to improvising music than writing code. Ming Micro inherits that same philosophy. I think for kids that kind of immediacy can be particularly important since the slow organizational crawl of traditional development can be really daunting.


AAC: Now that you’ve got the funding to produce the Ming Micro, what would you like to see happen with it in the future? Would you like to grow a user community? Would you like to see them in schools and universities?

JB: I would love to see a robust user community grow around it, but I don’t have much of a preconception for what that community would be. Getting some into universities could be amazing. So could a community of video artists or VJ’s using it in their creative work. I’m really excited to see anything and everything people use them for!


AAC: Crowdfunding can be very challenging. Do you have any advice for people who want to attempt crowdfunding for a hardware project?

JB: I’m probably not the best person to offer advice, since this is really my first rodeo in terms of crowdfunding, and the rapid outpouring of support was honestly a big surprise to me. But I think a lot of the success came from already having a strong community in place, which we built up during the last couple years with Ming Mecca. It’s hard to just launch something into the void, but if you’ve already got social networks built up it’s a lot easier.

We had our Facebook page, our YouTube subscribers, Twitter, a fairly large mailing list, etc., so there was a base of hardcore fans that were there day one. We also got the Kickstarter "Project We Love” selection right out the gate, which increased our visibility. There’s a ton of unknown variables there obviously, but I think appealing to the Kickstarter staff came down to not only having an interesting and unusual product, but also running a really considered campaign that fired on all cylinders. No detail is too small, especially when it comes to your video presentation.