Flat four


Chiptunes - Commodore music

This is a transcript of the programme broadcast as part of the chiptunes series on Flat Four Radio in 2005. The programme can be downloaded from the Internet Archive.

    [goto80 - Intro 1]

PRESENTER: This programme is about people who make music using old computers. 
Specifically, the Commodore 64. Apparently it could make some impressive sounds.

BEN DAGLISH: mmmmnnnnnooooooowwwm...

CHRIS ABBOTT: diddliddliddliddleee...

BEN DAGLISH: bwm - bwm - bwm.

ROB HUBBARD: ...so many wrong notes...

CHRIS ABBOTT: ...and ten years later, you could still hum the tune.

PRESENTER: The Commodore company was one of the major players in 1980s home 
computing. In 1981, they started selling the wonder machine, the Commodore VIC-20. 
Promoted by William Shatner, it sold over a million units. The first 
honest-to-goodness home computer for under 300 dollars, it had a small amount of 
memory and a low-resolution display. Its sound capability was provided by the 
graphics chip. Astonishingly, some people are using such limited devices for 
music even today. This track was recorded in 2001 by Aleksi Eeben:

    [Aleksi Eeben - Arbeit]

PRESENTER: That's the sound of the VIC-20. Then in 1982 Commodore brought out the 
Commodore 64, which became one of the best-selling computer models of all time. 
Here's composer Ben Daglish:

BEN DAGLISH: It was designed as an audiovisual machine. It had the colours, it 
had the memory, and it had a lovely sound chip. Much better than any of the 
other micros that were around at the time. The sound chip is known as the SID, 
known extremely affectionately as the SID - Sound Interface Device, I think. It was 
the first chip to have different waveforms on it. It had three voices, which a 
couple of the others had, like the BBC Micro and stuff like that also had 
three-voice sound chips. But whereas they just did a plain square wave, generally, 
the SID chip did sawtooth waves, triangle waves, square waves, and you could vary 
things such as the pulse frequency of the tones. And white noise as well, it could 
do, so you could do drum sounds. (does impression of drum) But yes, because you 
could vary the parameters of the sounds, then you could do phasing things, you 
could make a sound go mmmmmmmnnnnooooooooooooooowwwwwwmm - like that.

PRESENTER: The C64's enhanced sound chip gave programmers their first chance to
become musicians. The early days of the C64 saw the rise of the first dedicated
game musicians. Rob Hubbard is one of the pioneers:

 [Rob Hubbard - Spellbound]

ROB HUBBARD: I was working as a musician, and everybody said in the music press
that you should learn about computers - so that's pretty much what I did. I 
taught myself programming, and did some educational software, which was the 
wrong thing to do cos nobody was interested in that at the time. And then I 
thought about games, as a way to, basically, help pay the rent. That's how I 
got into it, basically through doing it that way.

You know, the thing that really got me, the thing that made me think about it 
was because the music that was around at that time was generally done by the 
programmers. And it was... it was so bad, that I thought, well there has to be 
an avenue for somebody who can at least get the notes right, and also in the 
right time. I mean, the music had so many wrong notes, and it was just absolutely 

The very first one that I used was the old ZX81 or the ZX80 or something, so I 
had a couple of those, and then I was after the music, that why I started getting 
interested in the Commodore, because that had the best sound at the time.

You write music and you also, well for me I was writing my own assembly-language 
music routines. The music routines were basically controlling the chip, and 
whatever you could do with the software to get some more sounds, or anything more 
interesting, you know, you would write the music to take advantage of that. The 
two basically went hand in hand. You would come up with some idea for software, 
to do a routine that would do something - you would come up with an idea for 
something the software could do, you would write that, and then write the music to 
take advantage of it. In most cases the two things happened simultaneously, you 
can think of something to do with the software and you immediately know what the
musical implication of that is gonna be.

A culture basically grew out of what was going on, in Europe. There became the 
demo scene, and it became like a community that was evolved round the machine, 
and people got to know each other, and a whole culture developed from that. Nobody 
knew that would happen either, but it did. It led to a lot of innovation.

PRESENTER: Other people were drawn to the field of Commodore 64 music by the 
promise of fame beyond their wildest dreams.

BEN DAGLISH: Oh, extremely minor. I'm slightly famous in Scandinavia.

PRESENTER: Ben and others took their inspiration from trailblazers like Rob.

BEN DAGLISH: He was the first, and pretty much the best. When he started writing 
for the Commodore 64, he - well the first thing he did was write a whole load 
of extremely cool sound routines, which did some - well, incredible things with 
the chip, really. Everybody else was just writing plain tones, but he was the 
first guy to start using wobbly chords, phasing square waves, using filters 
creatively, and stuff like that. Certainly for me, it was when I heard a piece 
that Rob had done that I thought ohhhhhhhh, you can do that can you...

  [Ben Daglish - Last Ninja]

BEN DAGLISH: One of the things I quite often say is that just because you were 
working with limited sounds, then it was very difficult to get away with writing
sound-effecty music, if you know what I mean, music that just relies on the way
it sounds itself to make it interesting. You had to write music that was 
musical. You had to write stuff that had a melody, had a good tune, was coherent 
as a piece of music. So that was one of the things that was good about a lot of 
the game music, was that it was very strong as music, it wasn't just soundtrack, 
if you see what I mean.

The piece I'm most proud of myself is a piece we did called "Trap", which was, 
to the best of my knowledge, the first piece of music that had also an animation
that went along with it, the "demo" scene they used to call it. And I think the
Trap demo that Tony and I wrote for this game - it was a ten-minute-long monster.

The one that regularly "gets in the charts", as it were, and the one that I'm 
probably most famous for, is my Last Ninja tunes.

I don't know why people rate it particularly higher than some of my other stuff. 
I mean, I'd say there was a good pile of about 10 or 15 that were as good as the 
Last Ninja stuff. But, it's quite unusual, because I did make an attempt to do 
the, the oriental thing, so it was quite unusual - I don't think many people had 
heard music like it before. I think, yes, that's my most remixed one. I think
there must be, oh, I don't know, hundreds of remixes of that tune lying all 
over the net.

PRESENTER: Another well-known artist was Tim Follin. One of Tim's Commodore 
tunes that is revered even today is the music for the game "Ghouls n Ghosts".

TIM FOLLIN: If anyone knows about the stuff I've done they usually quote that, 
Ghouls n Ghosts, as being the best stuff, which I think it is. And to me that's 
good because technically it's very simple, all the Ghouls n Ghosts stuff, it's 
very basic. I didn't use any flashy synthesis, or anything flashy ... it was just
pure music, just melodies and counter-melodies and basslines, that's all it was
... but that seems to be the music that's endured the most.

 [Tim Follin - Ghouls n Ghosts]

CHRIS ABBOT: I'm Chris Abbott. I produce soundtrack CDs and run live events for
the Commodore 64 scene. It started of as the launch party for one of our CDs, 
and we thought, okay, there are some students in town so they might like a bit of
cheap entertainment. We had some dance mixes of these Commodore 64 tunes and 
wanted to reach a slightly wider audience. And by the time we'd finished, the 
first live event in Birmingham ended up being the biggest retro reunion ever held.

The remix scene's been going a long time. I think it's the tunes - they always 
keep on coming back to the saem classic tunes.

[Rob Hubbard - Monty on the Run (Karma64 remix)]

There are over a thousand remixes of all the major tunes, in many different 
styles. Then the original composers like Ben Daglish started to get interested 
in playing live for the fans, and he's a born performer anyway.

BEN DAGLISH: I play and compere for the regular Back In Time live events that 
Chris Abbott hosts. Myself and a few other people from the scene, we get together
and play Commodore music, but with real instruments. It's great fun. At the last 
Back In Time live show, I did a little audience participation slot, where I 
split the audience into three parts, and we did a reconstruction of a SID chip 
arrangement, of erm... oh actually it was the Eastenders theme tune. I had one 
third of the audience going dum-dum-chick-dum-dum-dum-dum-chick-dum, and one 
third of them singing the tune on top, and one third of them doing chords - it 
was great.

CHRIS ABBOTT: The most enjoyable part of the live event, the first live event, 
was meeting the composers beforehand and all going out for a beer. 

Each composer pretty much came up with his own sound, unless he was noticeably 
derivative. But Rob Hubbard sounded very different from Martin Galway, because 
they had to write their own synthesiser engine, as well as the music.

PRESENTER: There's quite a scene built up around the old Commodore tunes. One 
of the most well-known acts is a rock band called "Press Play On Tape" who 
perform live cover-versions of classic game tunes.

 [Press Play On Tape]

PRESENTER: And a group of acappella singers from Sweden even recorded a full 
album of C64 cover versions.

  [Visa Roster]

PRESENTER: That's the Swedish vocal group, Visa Roster, performing Rob 
Hubbard's music to International Karate. If you visit their website you can 
see the karate moves they perform when they sing the track live.

So the remix scene is obsessed with the tunes written in those good old days. 
But what about the sound of the actual technology itself?

CHRIS ABBOTT: The sound of the SID chip has become quite trendy, but people 
would normally get that either from smaples, or from one of the pieces of 
hardware that has the SID chip in it, rather from the Commodore 64 itself.

PRESENTER: I wouldn't be so sure about that. Some people like to stick with the
genuine article, and to prove it here's some true C64 music by goto80, a 
current star of the Micromusic circuit:

  [goto80 - Exy]

PRESENTER: We weren't able to talk to goto80, but on his website he answers the
question of why he uses old Commodore technology. He says, "Probably some 
nostalgic reasons, but also because I often find that limitations result in fresh 
solutions. And it sounds brilliant."

Here's goto80's partner in crime, Role Model:

ROLE MODEL: He makes very interesting music in all kinds of different direction
s - for almost any mood you can imagine, he made a song for it. He can do like 
very poppy happy pop stuff and also very angry industrial stuff. He has a real 
depth that I don't see a lot in other musicians.

PRESENTER: Sometimes computer musicians like to really limit themselves, by 
making a piece of music which can be stored in a ridiculously small amount of 
memory. In this example the whole piece of music is created with just 256 bytes - 
that's literally just 256 numbers, defining the way it sounds as well as the notes 
that are played.

   [Agemixer - myblock]

PRESENTER: What do the original games-music pioneers think of modern retro 

BEN DAGLISH: All power to their elbow! I wouldn't want to do it myself... but 
the retro scene, as it were, is a great and wonderful thing.

PRESENTER: That's the C64. All power to your elbow.



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