SID: Music of the 8-bit Generation

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I’m a gaming oldie. I started out playing Flight Simulator on the ZX-81; it was a fabulous experience landing a jumbo jet on a runway that consisted of eight or ten white blocks for the first time. It was unbelievable almost when the Atari 2600 allowed you to play Space Invaders in your own home, with 101 variations no less. It was a mini-miracle the first time I heard the music pouring out of the Commodore 64’s sonorous SID chip – and it’s that I want to reminisce on today.

At the time it was a marvel. Whilst everyone else had been plodding along with simple beeps and clicks, Commodore blew everyone out of the water with its three independent audio oscillators, each with an eight octave range. Talents such as Martin Galway and Rob Hubbard made the computer sing like a honey coated Nightingale, making the most of ADSR control and 8-bit A/D converters. It’s safe to say that the hardware the Commodore used for sonics was light-years ahead of any other home computer at the time.

Back in the 80s, gaming wasn’t instant gratification as most games came on cassette and took an age to load. You think you’ve got it bad now as you wait thirty seconds for a Forza track to pop-up on screen, back then a simple game like JetPac could take as long as five minutes to load or more. Daley Thompson’s Decathlon even had to load up the events in parts. If you were a Sinclair Spectrum owner this process included a noisy and painful scream – those fortunate enough to have the C64 got to sample the delights of game loading music.

One of the most famous of these was known as the Ocean Loader 2 (downloadable on this page), created by Martin Galway, who went on to compose many of the C64’s loved classics. Martin Galway put his talents to great use on games such as the bonkers Wizball, the almost psychedelic Parallax and Rambo First Blood Part II – killing in the jungle had never been so accompanied.

Less well known but no less impressive was a Matt Gray’s composition that complemented the game called Driller. Not only was this Freescape 3D game glorious, but the music, which started low-key and humbly transformed in to a firework crescendo over its nine minute length, gave the game an eerie suspense.

But it is perhaps Rob Hubbard who is the most revered out of all the chip-tune composers. In the C64 era the man was legendary. Classics such as Monty on the Run with its winding fiddles, Thrust with its up-beat rhythm, the melodic space-shooter Lightforce and the memorable Sanxion shooter theme. Without him the Commodore 64 music scene would never have been the same.

Getting the music in to the computer was a far harder process than it is today. Everything was done in machine code within some very strict memory limitations. Forget your Windows PC and its 2GB of RAM, the 64 in Commodore 64 came from the total on-board memory count of 64KB, and the musicians were only able to use a fraction of this. Now it’s more about the composition and melody, and a simple file playback, much as your MP3 Player does.

Fortunately these memories are not lost in the archives of time as there a number of ways you can still listen to those classic chip tunes. The first is by streaming the dedicated C64 music station over at Slay Radio, much of it is remixed synth giving the old tracks an interesting sound whilst staying true to the original. The second is to download the SID emulator SIDPlay along with a huge library of tracks (all legal honest guv). Head over here and check it out. Alternatively you could just click through to YouTube and search for C64 Music, you might even find Press Play on Tape, a band that does covers of the classic SID tunes.

I shall retire now to some One Man and His Droid. Let the music play.

Marty Greenwell

Marty Greenwell

Marty has been gaming since the heady years of the ZX-81 and still owns most of the gaming systems purchased since those days, including the Atari 2600, ZX Spectrum, SNES, Jaguar, Dreamcast and GameCube. Being a collection junkie (or more accurately, hoarder), he buys more games than he can possibly play, far too many of which are still sealed in their packaging. Marty favours RPGs and Driving games when it comes to genres, and is possibly a little bit too addicted to Disgaea. When not gaming he’s out frightening OAPs on his motorcycle, clad in black leather.

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