Sid Chip Sounds – The Music of the Commodore 64

Sid Chip Sounds: Music of the Commodore 64 is available on the 320/2/2012 here.

Ok!  Just a LEETLE bit excited about this one!

I was first introduced to Martin Galway about a year ago and listened to a bit of his video game music in the 12 months of so that have been lucky enough to feel his tunes. Unlike most of the fans of the music (males in their mid 20’s to late 30’s) I don’t have the nostalgic feel for the games themselves. For me it’s all about the music. I came to these tunes with a new-found love for electronic music, and a passionate interest in their origins.

Martin Galway (at age 45) is the grandaddy of this style of music. In 1984 he was searching for a way to legitimise his interest in making computer games. By Legitimise I mean earn more than the pittance he was being offered prior to this period as a student. He was offering Pac-man ripp-off, and in his search for a relationship happened upon Ocean software and David Collier, their development manager.  He decided to offer his skills as a musician and Ocean were seeking to bring the source of their music closer to home (their current music supplier lived in Portsmouth) so a new relationship was born. After this, they let Galway borrow a complete  Commodore 64 assembly language development system, and he started analysing the system and composing right away.

During the 1980s, Galway made music for many of the popular Commodore 64 games, and became one of the most famous SID (sound interface device) artists. Galway is best known for his soaring, anthemic compositions, for making heavy use of the SID chip’s ring modulation feature, and for compositions which made unconventional changes to SID register settings while notes were playing (producing his trademark echoey sound). Perhaps his most famous song is the title-piece for Comic Bakery, (listen in the link above) a sweeping 3-voice tune. This is also one of the most ripped C64 songs, as it was featured in a number of intros (what crackers (those who modify software to suit their own tastes) used to put before a pirated game to brag) and on music discs. A cover of the Comic Bakery tune was also used for the first level of the game Jurassic Park, released by Ocean Software for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1993. Another song that many Commodore 64 users remember is his adaptation of the Rambo II theme used in the game.

Galway also made music for one of Origin Systems’ first adventure/roleplaying games, Times of Lore, with several tunes that were intended to suit the medieval setting. As he was also a programmer, he wrote an algorithm that randomized the chords that the guitar voice plays, making for a very long and varying piece.

He was also the first musician to get published with sampled sounds on the Commodore, with the theme for the Arkanoid conversion. When asked about how he did it, he answered:

“I figured out how samples were played by hacking into someone else’s code … OK, I admit it … It was a drum synthesizer package called Digidrums, actually, so you could still say I was the first to include samples in a piece of music. … Never would I claim to have invented that technique, I just got it published first. In fact, 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. … After the project was in the shops I gained access to some real drum samples, and I slid those into my own custom version of the tune. The one that’s in the shops is kind of a collage of farts & burps, don’t you think?… Later I was able to acquire some proper drum samples and byGame Over it got quite sophisticated.”

Now, on the 20th of Feb 2012, Sid Chip Sounds will be released (I’ve pre-ordered my copy).  This is a compilation produced by Robot Elephant Records and will be available on gatefold double vinyl, CD and download.

The opening blurb on Robot Elephant Records reminds us that Commodore 64 music is not a style but a delivery mechanism – the reminder informs us of the obstacles that have to be overcome in order to produce something of quality.  RER has this to say on their pre-launch blurb:

“The majority of games produced for the Commodore 64 made use of the machine’s revolutionary SID chip, devised by engineer Bob Yannes who later co-founded the Ensoniq digital synthesizer company, and named by PC World Magazine as one of computing’s most important inventions. Although it was advanced for the time composers had to overcome many challenges. For example, the hardware only allowed three voices at once so composers assigned one voice to play quick arpeggios so listeners believed they were hearing sustained chords. It’s well documented that humans are at their best when overcoming limitations or under deadline, and the classic C64 composers pared music to its essence. They had their own sounds and their own way of playing them.


Revolutionary composers such as Martin Galway, Rob Hubbard, David Whittaker and Ben Daglish rose to prominence during the 80s for their technology defying masterpieces whose sounds ranged from simple clicks and beeps to complex musical extravaganzas. Included on this compilation is some of their most celebrated work including music from games ‘Arkanoid’, ‘Comic Bakery’, Last Ninja’ and ‘Sanxion’.

Influence in modern music is widespread. The sub genres of 8-bit, chiptune, gabba; the lo-fi sounds of DJ Scotch Egg, the rapid arpeggios of Rustie, Crystal Castles’ warped glitches and even the beats of international pop hits such ‘TiK ToK’ by Kesha are all informed by developments made during the early years of home gaming.”

However, as I have said before on this blog, appreciating music is not dependant on context or development of software of any potential constraints in circumstance and time. I know this may add to the appreciation when the moment of the tune has passed, but ultimately Its betwee you and the sound and that is an independent moment of any place in history except your personal experience. This is about a moment of sound. An opportunity to have an experience that moves you beyond your every day reactions to your own environment. To allow a sensory experience like this to form and make you into something not quite like what you were before.

For this reason I’m eagerly looking forward to this contribution.

A1 Ben Daglish – Last Ninja (Wastelands)
A2 Ben Daglish – Last Ninja (Wilderness)
A3 Ben Daglish – Trap
A4 Chris Huelsbeck – Giana Sisters (Intro)
B1 Chris Huelsbeck – Katakis (Song 3)
B2 David Whittaker – Glider Rider
B3 David Whittaker – Panther
B4 Tim & Geoff Follin – Gauntlet 3 (1)
B5 Tim & Geoff Follin – Gauntlet 3 (2)
B6 Tim Follin – LEDStorm (Title)
B7 Jeroen Tel – Cybernoid 2
C1 Martin Galway – Wizball [*vinyl only]
C2 Martin Galway – Comic Bakery
C3 Martin Galway – Parallax
C4 Martin Galway – Arkanoid
D1 Matt Gray – Dominator (Song 2)
D2 Matt Gray – Last Ninja 2 (Song 2)
D3 Rob Hubbard – Commando
D4 Rob Hubbard – Sanxion