The Null Device

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The C64Music! blog has a detailed and quite interesting academic article on Commodore 64 game music, looking at it from technical, cultural, musicological and aesthetic perspectives:

One of the attractions to Commodore's games over those of its competitors was their unique musical aesthetic. With screaming guitar-like square wave solos, full-length songs, attempts to re-create traditional "rock band" line-ups in its use of tone channels, and its increased use of percussion, Commodore music was like rock to Nintendo's heavily looped disco aesthetic.
Martin Galway was the first to use sampled sounds on the C64, in the Arkanoid (Taito, 1987) theme song, as he explains: "I figured out how samples were played by hacking into someone else's code ... It was a drum synthesizer package called Digidrums, ... I couldn't really figure out where they got the sample data, just that they were wiggling the volume register, so I tried to make up my own drum sample sounds in realtime—which is the flatulence stuff that shipped in Arkanoid."

(The hand-coded digi-flatulence technique pioneered by Galway became a standard part of SID composition, to the point where the reFX QuadraSID (a software synthesiser based on the SID chip) has a built-in "Galway Noise" setting, where those with the desire to do so can enter a list of hex values which will be fed into the SID chip's registers in the appropriate fashion. It comes with preset Galway Noise values, which are triggered by MIDI channel 10, though don't sound particularly like a useful drum kit.)

The article goes on to mention that many C64 games used melodies lifted from existing pieces of music, both classical and pop (with scant regard for credit, let alone copyright), the use of looping on various levels, the use of generative music techniques to avoid repetition, the (somewhat limited) influence of the Nintendo game-music aesthetic on C64 game music, and interactive aspects of game music, such as phrases triggered on entering/leaving rooms.

Tetris (Mirrorsoft, 1987), for instance, was very different than the versions released on the NES, showing this very different aesthetic particular to the C64. Not having any selectable music (which was an option on the NES), Wally Beben composed all original music—one very long (about 26 minutes—13Kb) track of many segments. In order to save space (likely), certain micro and mesoloops of the track repeat: for instance the bass/percussion line that begins the song repeats just one bar for about half the track, with different melodies coming over top and being layered with various accompaniments. This accumulative form—the gradual building up of a groove by adding sequential units cumulatively (Spicer, 2004)—was closer to the electronic trance music beginning to emerge in the late 1980s than any game music aesthetic of the time.

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This site lets you play old Commodore 64 games in your browser, without downloading any software. (Assuming your browser has Java and is on a reasonably fast machine, of course.) The experience includes everything, from SID chip sound to cracker-group intro screens, though your frame rate may vary (it feels roughly like C64 emulation on a 486-class machine in the mid-90s). A new game is added every day; today's addition is Giana Sisters, a Mario Brothers knockoff with added 1980s hairspray.

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My most recent softsynth discovery is QuadraSID; this is a VST/AU softsynth which emulates, as the name suggests, 4 SID chips (and emulates them quite thoroughly, down to letting you choose the chip model and whether you want bugs to be emulated accurately or fixed), along with enhancements such as external envelopes, arpeggios and a mini-sequencer. It comes with a batch of presets designed by Commodore 64 game composer Chris Hülsbeck (perhaps best known for the Giana Sisters score), and now there is an additional sound bank by Rob Hubbard, which is full of fuzzy, warbly SID goodness. Of course, it's not limited to C64 game-music homages; a stack of SIDs can have its uses, from Broadcast-style lo-fi to fat pads.

The company which makes quadraSID also has some other interesting products, such as Slayer2, a guitar synthesiser based on physical modelling, along with amp and pedal models; it sounds almost like the real thing; not quite as authentic as sample-based systems, though a lot more flexible. The fact that it can turn randomly pressing keys into an over-the-top finger-shredding cock-rock guitar solo of the gods is impressive enough in its own right. (If I ever end up revamping a certain track from my last year's NaSoAlMo album, I may have to invest in a copy of this).

There's also this one, which seems to be optimised for goa-trance and euro-cheese, and makes making such music ridiculously easy, as well as this somewhat Casio CZ-101-ish unit.

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The Commodore 64 music software industry is alive and well; at least as much so as the GameBoy and Nintendo Famicom music software industries, anyway. Some intrepid hackers have created new music software for the Commodore 64; Prophet 64 is available in 3 flavours: standard, TB (which behaves like a Roland TB-303, or as much as one as the SID chip will do), and TR (which behaves like a TR-909, only with Rob Hubbard-style drum samples, as heard in much video-game music). Prophet 64 is free software, and will run happily on a 64 emulator, though with a real 64 it can be controlled with game paddles and synced to MIDI devices (with a simple add-on interface). To facilitate getting it onto a 64, it's available as a disk image, or as a WAV file to record to cassette for loading. (via MusicThing)

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For those of you who like to know that a Commodore 64 was butchered to make your new synth module, those wacky Swedish funsters who made the SidStation have a new limited edition model, the SidStation Ninja, with "a special set of martial arts patches originating from the domains of chaos". (Wonder how long until someone makes a virtual Commodore 64 synth, based on a fast RISC CPU running a SID emulator...)

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