Robot Elephant Rec. V.A. : Sid Chip Sounds: the music of the Commodore 64
In the development of computers there are certain products that should be archived and to a degree should remain for the common good and remain available in some form or another. A few of the methods of interactive programming on some of these older types of computers, for some specific goals, were much more practical than how we work on todays computers. For the association with music, it is the sounds produced on the popular Commodore 64 that have become some common standard, etched in our memory, even so well that people even started to call it a “style”. There exist lists on the internet of the tunes and composers with the associated games for which they were made. The majority of the tunes were mostly associated with Arcade games that could be played on these computers. Similar versions could be found on these vintage café game console TV games and joystick-button controlled large boxes in cafes. The foundation for this very specific sound of music was based upon the use of the SID chip, once devised by engineer Bob Yannes (who later co-founded the Ensoniq digital synthesizer company) in 1981. He originally had planned a much more complex device, but because of time limitations it became a tool where the music to be programmed could only consist of three layers, with independent oscillators for each voice, they were often divided into fast melody-driven arpeggio’s, some bass lines and use of rhythmic clicks. The composers set on the accompaniment of the games had to work with a fast deadline. Some of these composers also became known for their works on still popular games like ‘Arkanoid’ or ‘Last Ninja’. If you really don’t have an idea of what kind of type of games and music I need to mention the still popular game called ‘Pacman’. We’re talking about composers like Martin Galway, Rob Hubbard, David Whittaker and Ben Daglish. Strangely enough nobody ever considered before compiling and re-releasing their tunes on LP or CD, or even a digital download, but here they are. This double LP/CD must be in fact just the tip of the iceberg, because many more tunes worth hearing, to be found on these old C64’s, that should one day see the light again on these formats. Therefore, I hope the label will consider this only as part1.
Because of the limitations in the programming and also in its sonic restrictions it is amazing to hear how some of these composers use also the limits of the equipment to produce these specific clicks-sounds. While experimenting with these limits so much they even found ways to create totally new and originally unintended sounds, while others delve completely into the best use of how to make popular sounding electro-pop tunes. The most easy use is to use the contrasts at its best or some layers would become a bit blurry to the other in combination, limiting the total sound. Organising with what is possible in this way still gave a great variety and vision while using this limited sonic pallet.
First we have Ben Daglish’s tunes from “Last Ninka”, which show changing descending/ascending volume in sound, with a very effective, almost psychedelic electro-groove layer added to the rhythmic accents, with some happy tunes on “Wastelands”, while his tune “Trap” is from a much slower and moodier development, as real electronic music with a mysterious and somewhat filmic association, without the “be-danceable” make-it-so-tune association. The melody or tune that appears in this last track is nearly classical in nature, which becomes a bit more playful, and is still a bit different in nature than other C64 tunes and played with its own spatial development/movements.
Chris Huelsbeck’s tunes are attractive and happy sounding electro-pop tunes with some variations in its approach. Also Jeroen Tel’s “Cybernoid 2” fits well with that approach, with instrumental versions of 80s electro-pop, with a steady rhythm and a simple attractive melody on top of it and some disco effects.
Also included are Martin Galway’s “Arkanoid” tunes, which are almost danceable and fit very well with the Arcade gaming idea of pushing buttons and progressing forward, while increasing the pleasure-hormones when achieving rewards during the supposed actions. The track has interesting variations with more attention to clicks in the rhythm, then again to the melody with fuzz bass and its happy attractive melody on top. Really groovy ! Also included of this composer is a longer 11-minute track, which develops a bit like an electronic music story with the use of arpeggio’s mostly, but still with a surprising and sonically interesting ending overcoming the use of the machine.
Next is Matt Gray (who worked on the games “Dominator” and “Last Ninja”), with two up-tempo Commodore dance music electro-pop instrumentals. Also Rob Hubbard’s tunes of “Commando” are well balanced electro-pop tunes.
The last two included tunes are associated with Tim Follin, who’s tunes seems to be much more composed, still like rather rhythmic electronic music, with unusual sounds being used in various parts on “ Gauntlet 3 “. The same vision can be heard on “Led Storm” which almost sound like rock music with a flute imitating synthesiser, heavy fuzz bass and more subtle rhythms and the more recognisable synth tunes in two layers. Very clever !
Of course this is a highly recommended release. I wonder how much the games themselves with the music should be saved for future retro-use too, because in a way they were supposed to have been interconnected. When people were used to the Commodores few people might have realised how unique, a totally different world of experience in music they created. This compilation is a reminder to share and remember !
After the Commodore age some new machines were produced that took over the use of the SID chips, like the SidStation (1997), or the Monomachine (2004), there also have been some reworks of the original ideas and effects, in a more programmed way on newer computers (with the so called SID Chip emulators), the SID chips themselves are becoming more rare, and it is not even clear which type would work fine.
According to Sebastian from the label the heritage of the chip “can especially be heard in the arpeggiated and quantized sounds that have been created out of improvisation and circumventing limitations of the chip. They are used more than ever by modern electronic music composers from Broadcast over Zomby, Rustie, Joker, Crystal Castles and even in pop music as for instance in Kesha's TiK ToK where you can find the arpeggiator sounds that have been shaped by this chip.”