December 17, 2006 1:10 AM   Subscribe

Let's hear it for SID.
The MOS 6581 SID was the voice box of the famed Commodore 64, and an inimitable speck of silicon that to this day sparks musical imagination and techno tinkering (YouTube). Reborn as a commercial synth, and remade in software (PC|MAC), the original SID chip is still employed by musicians for its 8-bit crunch, and a retro warmth that may charm you back into childhood.
Have an old Commodore in the basement? Know how to solder? As a project for 2K7, why not DIY a SID box with MIDI?
posted by kid ichorous (29 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Also, the SID is notorious for providing the background tunes for the C64 audio-visual demoscene, which was discussed in this thread by JZig.
posted by kid ichorous at 1:20 AM on December 17, 2006

Aaah, Chiptunes.

I'll just say that again...

Aaah Chiptunes.
posted by Jimbob at 1:28 AM on December 17, 2006

Don't forget that Bob Yannes, who designed the SID, went on to cofound Ensoniq, which was acquired by Creative Labs in 1998; presumably, their IP was used in designing the EMU chips, which power modern Sound Blaster cards. So, there is definitely more than just a niche lineage there.
posted by blenderfish at 1:34 AM on December 17, 2006

As a fan of old C64 music, can I point out that there is an orchestra playing music by Rob Hubbard and Jeroen Tel? Check some samples on their myspace page.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 2:09 AM on December 17, 2006

Unf! God yes that's the stuff.

*rolls and thrashes around on the floor, moaning loudly*
posted by loquacious at 2:31 AM on December 17, 2006

Wow. The orchestral rendition of the music from Cybernoid 2 on the page swordfishtrombones linked to is probably the coolest thing I have ever heard. I remember when I was 11 years old, loading up Cybernoid 2 on my SX-64 just to listen to this (the high score table had great music as well). I really hope that the C64 Orchestra is not teasing us with its promise of a CD in early 2007.

I have fond memories for the music from X-Out as well, but that one's a bit more obscure.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:21 AM on December 17, 2006

They should really be called the C6Fourchestra, but still.....oh. I've just realised "Four Tet" is a bad pun on "Quartet", probably. Still. Anyway, my favourite C64 tune is probably "Mutants", which can be heard in this podcast. The broadcaster sort of sounds like got a weird mutated Northern England/Bristolian accent, but he's apparently from Denmark - strange.

Excellent post!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 4:42 AM on December 17, 2006

Man, at first I thought this was at thread about Sudden Infant Death. This is much better.
posted by antifuse at 4:56 AM on December 17, 2006

Nice post.

Also on topic and worth noting: the HVSC is perhaps the "definitive collection" of SID files, with thousands of files from games and composers.

And recently some DIY programmer guy(s?) set up a computer to automatically convert the entire HVSC collection off of SID chips into MP3 format. You can follow the progress here; it's currently at 17% of close to 100,000 tunes.
posted by p3t3 at 5:24 AM on December 17, 2006

If anybody knows the techno hit "Kernkraft 400" by Zombie Nation (Much played at sports stadiums), the melody was lefted from a C64 game called Lazy Jones.
posted by empath at 6:27 AM on December 17, 2006

I've got a Sidstation Ninja - amazing, amazing synth. It goes beyond video game bleeping into all kinds of digital chaos.
posted by Spacelegoman at 8:24 AM on December 17, 2006

I've been listening to these excellent chiptunes by Dubmood from Razor 1911. Dubmood is more into the Atari ST than C64, so check 'em out if ya got a moment.
posted by foot at 8:53 AM on December 17, 2006

A bit (or eight) of nitpicking: since the SID has digitally controlled analog oscillators, it doesn't really have "8-bit crunch." But it still was the reason to love the C64. :)
posted by Foosnark at 9:28 AM on December 17, 2006

Doh. Good catch, Foo. I'd read that some of the distortion was the byproduct of A/D circuitry in the chip, and figured there was 8 bit conversion somewhere in the signal path.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:17 AM on December 17, 2006

I've just realised "Four Tet" is a bad pun on "Quartet"

I always thought it was a pun on "forte," but I've never heard it spoken.
posted by aaronetc at 12:08 PM on December 17, 2006

Holy crap, I had no idea that people were doing such awesome music with C64s -- that last link rocks. I remember buying mine in 1983 and carrying it home strapped to the back of my moped.

In the Youtube link, of course I love it when he kicks in the intermod at about the 3:00 point ...
posted by intermod at 12:17 PM on December 17, 2006

it's funny to think how important the chip is in the sound characteristics of electronic music. I love this. takes me back to M.U.L.E.
posted by Busithoth at 12:54 PM on December 17, 2006

Foosnark: A bit (or eight) of nitpicking: since the SID has digitally controlled analog oscillators, it doesn't really have "8-bit crunch." But it still was the reason to love the C64. :)

Hmm.. Not according to the designer of the chip:

Since all of the waveforms were just digital bits, the Waveform Selector consisted of multiplexers that selected which waveform bits would be sent to the Waveform D/A.

It was a 12-bit D/A.

A well known bug with the design was that, when you enabled multiple waveforms simultaneously, it was supposed to generate the logical AND of the wave forms, but did not. That makes no sense in an analog context.
posted by blenderfish at 1:53 PM on December 17, 2006

The SID was a fascinating bit of engineering, but it would've been a footnote in history if not for the people who composed for it and the social phenomenon they became.

Of course there's a revival band playing new music inspired by the old classics. I've recently been listening to a lot of Demoscene Radio which features a lot of SID tunes in with the tracked (mod/s3m/etc) music.

For folks who miss the old demoscene, or are just jealous of Europeans since so many demoparties happen over there, I should point out that Blockparty's inaugural year takes place next April at Notacon. It's so much fun, you'll forget you're in Cleveland.
posted by Myself at 6:49 PM on December 17, 2006

SID: Very cool
Ensoniq: Very much not cool. In fact, utterly craptastic. So bad, in fact, being bought by Creative was a big improvement.

Oh, and yes, I've owned both. The ASR-10R is still sitting here, hardly used. It reminds me to be more careful with my money.
posted by Goofyy at 9:53 PM on December 17, 2006

The unique sound of the SID comes not from some fantastical analog oscillator -- the waveforms are all pretty much fixed down to the bit level -- but from the analog filters. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the 6581 is in fact its nearly complete lack of "crunch," compared to the audio features of its mid-80s mass market contemporaries.
posted by majick at 9:54 PM on December 17, 2006

The ASR-10R is still sitting here, hardly used

Hmm. bad user-experience-wise, or bad audio-quality-wise?

And, to be fair, Sound Blaster has always been crap, too, IMO. I've had 3 sound blaster cards of various generations, and none of them ever worked completely right.
posted by blenderfish at 10:59 PM on December 17, 2006

blenderfish: Creative sucks, for certain. Bad user experience? Well, yea, there is that. Signals come out at too low a level. Fussy floppy drive constantly rejecting disks. Poor user support. Insuffiecient memory capacity (at maximum allowed). I bought the thing new, too. Best thing I can say for it is the onboard fx are awesome. I risked it, being aware of Ensoniq's reputation (quite poor). I was charmed by the specs. (to be fair, my previous such major purchase was extremely sucessful, being a Korg M1, bought in 1989. So I was confident in my choosing.)
posted by Goofyy at 3:30 AM on December 18, 2006

And part of the SID's unique charm is that the filters differ between chips -- it's a hybrid digital/analog IC, produced on a digital process, so the filter components vary a lot. If you listen carefully you can hear the difference between two chips.

Of course the 8580 has a very different sound, and fixed a few "bugs" in the 6581 that were being used by musicians and programmers. Oops! The HardSID Quattro will let you install both chips and select between them, if that's your fancy. Personally I just use the LittleSID plugin for WinAMP and that's good enough for everyday listening.
posted by Myself at 6:14 AM on December 18, 2006

You may not like NIN so much, but he's got a lot of nice gear. Check out the SidStation in this shot.
posted by four panels at 6:18 AM on December 18, 2006

If you don't want to buy any gear, get yourself a copy of QuadraSID, a VSTi (VST instrument). Basically, it's a software emulation of up to four SID chips. It makes all of those amazing and lively sounds :)

Considering how complicated it is to make patches even with the nice user interface, you'll gain a new appreciation for old C64 music. Whatever tools they used to make those old songs had to be so much harder to use.

It's such a fun plugin.
posted by redteam at 8:24 PM on December 18, 2006

Remade in software is stretching it a bit, sadly - the software emulation of the filters is poor at best (particularly the 6581 varient - things aren't so grim for the 8580, actually), and they're the part which really give the sid it's charm and unique sound. There are mp3's around the net showing the difference, which I'd post if I wasn't at work and could actually hear things - but the gritty sounds i made in this or the filters in this (disclaimer: musically terrible. it was an editor test tune...) for example don't work in the emulators at all.

(That said, for real c64 feeling, quadrasid is not the way to go - Goat tracker ( is. It makes real c64 music on windows and linux. Also, speaking of the mention of HVSC above, they just celebrated their 10 year anniversary with a disk full of exclsuive music)
posted by jaymzjulian at 9:29 PM on December 18, 2006

I spent a few happy years playing with SID, although after 25 years of synth evolution it sounds a little quaint.

Create Digital Music recently did an article on the HardSID Quattro PCI card, which costs considerably less than the SidStation.

Considering all the modern synths available out there now though (including some great free softsynths), I'd want to be sure why I wanted to spend $250-500+ for a SID chip. It's ... pretty basic.

One place to hear what's being done today: SLAY radio streams.
posted by Twang at 9:29 PM on December 18, 2006

The Sidstation isn't just an instrument. It's ALIVE! Only those who have one or have played with it will understand. But suffice to say you may need a gate to shut it up.
posted by Sukiari at 12:31 AM on December 19, 2006

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