The Road to my First SID Tune in 25 Years

Publishing my Computer Chronicles lately gave me a lot of positive response and it dawned on me how much the C64 scene still remembered and respected me for the editor and music I did back in the day. Not that I had been totally oblivious to it. That has been almost impossible on Facebook. I now have more than 750 friends there, and of course most of them have befriended me because of my past on the C64. I have been practically dragged into several C64 and Amiga Facebook groups, whether I wanted to or not. I just accepted it. Maybe there would be some nostalgia to check up on from time to time.

All these years, however, I always considered the C64 a thing of the past. A closed chapter. Now we have computers that are so much faster and produce so much better material, it’s not even funny. I considered the C64 a product of its time and instead spent my years making web sites and playing a ton of PC games. I had high hopes for some of the web sites and fan game sections I wrote, but none of them created much of a stir. It was pretty much letdown after letdown. There were a few dedicated visitors, but actually spawn discussions and spreading the word all around? Almost non-existent.

Just rolling tumbleweeds.

Especially my latest endeavor, the GameDeed web site, was almost always a major disappointment. I was actually arrogant enough to believe that a table layout would make it a strong contender among the likes of Backloggery and Howlongtobeat. Instead it immediately went for a small niche corner with less than half a dozen visitors per day. I even tried to fix this several times. Maybe if I added Steam synchronization? No? Perhaps if I added an export function? Still nothing? Then how about if I add a ton of C64 games?

Epiphanies

All these fiascos really got to me in the end and I finally decided to freeze all further development on the GameDeed web site. I played some more PC games instead and wrote a lot of blog posts about them, but again the feedback was somewhat sparse.

The hell with it, I then thought. Now I’ll do something for myself for once.

I had this idea that I wanted to create a blog post with stereo MP3 versions of those SID tunes by Drax I liked the best, with red heart icons next to the top of the crop. Something I could return to from time to time and enjoy on my own. Whether anyone else liked this project too wasn’t that important. So I started browsing his SID tunes, converted a ton to MP3 files and made a blog post. Then I announced it on the social media. If anyone else liked it too, fine by me.

But much to my big surprise, the C64 scene on Facebook loved it and responded in big numbers.

This reception was unexpected. Lots of praise and nostalgic comments popping up from everywhere. It encouraged me to continue adding more blog posts with stereo MP3 conversions of other C64 musicians from back in the day. I got the idea of releasing my computer chronicles in five parts, and that created an even bigger stir in the social media pond. Even on Twitter, I started getting more followers and retweets. That almost never happened with any of my other blog posts or my web site stuff.

It was during the correspondence with the C64 fans on Facebook on the subject of my chronicles that I started seeing things in a new light. Several smaller incidents lead from one epiphany to another. How dedicated the C64 fans still were. How much they still squeezed new effects out of both the SID and video chips. Better quality sampling. Music changing to the demo effects that was streamed from the disk instead of waiting for a key to be pressed. So many C64 composers still producing new stuff, like Drax, Laxity, Jeff. Old timers returning, like Rock and Scortia. Even Bonzai made a new demo.

One of my biggest epiphanies actually came as a result of something my old friend, Henning, said in the middle of all this. He compared me to an actor that had been typecast to a role, like Leonard Nimoy as Spock. And as a clever guy once said – it’s better to be typecast than not cast at all. It finally made me think that perhaps I should shift my focus back to the C64 again. Coincidentally, I was also starting getting tired of playing PC games anyway. They all looked too similar. The same rules, the same tropes.

I needed a change, and then – why not try composing SID tunes again?

CheeseCutter

If I were to start composing SID music again, I had a few preferences I wanted to stick with. The most important was that I didn’t want to edit SID tunes in an editor on a C64, even if I could do it in an emulator such as VICE. I knew that SID emulators were now close enough to the real thing and I wanted the luxury of a Windows application with safe saving and the use of my mouse.

So, no old JCH editor, no SID-Wizard, no SID Duzz’IT, etc.

On PC, there are a few good editors that offer editing directly on Windows. The two most prominent ones at this time seemed to be CheeseCutter and GoatTracker. Both uses the faithful reSID emulator.

GoatTracker has been in development for the longest time. Unlike CheeseCutter, it uses the standard tracker sequence system where all three channels are glued together. This didn’t scare me away since I had done a lot of FastTracker II tunes in a similar system. I downloaded and fiddled with it although only briefly. For what it’s worth, GoatTracker seemed perfectly fine and I might even have given it a proper try if this world didn’t also have CheeseCutter.

But CheeseCutter always seemed to be the most obvious choice straight away, for several good reasons. It’s based on the principles of my own C64 editor and uses the same independent sequence stacking system. It even uses almost the same color scheme. The first versions of it also accepted my own player, although this was changed later as the editor was expanded. It had all the features and requirements necessary, such as a packer, sensible CPU time, multi-speed, sub tunes, etc.

And it obviously had a look and feel of home.

One of the first users of my original C64 editor, Carsten Berggreen (Scarzix), completely fell in love with CheeseCutter in 2013. He created a Facebook group for it and invited a ton of composers into it, myself of course included. He made video tutorials, documents, helped everyone asking for help, and uploaded a lot of tunes. CheeseCutter did have a bit of a steep learning curve and it helped watching all of Carsten’s YouTube tutorials. I even read all Facebook posts from 2013 and all the way up.

I took note of a lot of tips and tricks while reading these posts. How Ctrl+Shift+Insert in the track view inserts a sequence in all three voices at once. Why it’s a good idea to use the first instrument as a silencer because it saves on commands. Using Ctrl+F in the track view to use the next freely available sequence instead of keeping track of numbers myself. That it is prudent to start attacks with $3 in 4x tunes.

The only thing I didn’t like was how Facebook sometimes reset to the top and I had to lazy load browse down through the many posts to get back to where I was. Facebook can indeed search a group, but I was often yearning for some sort of go to functionality.

After a few gauging instrument tests and a test tune, I switched the editor to calculate effects four times faster than normal (200 Hz instead of 50 Hz) and started editing my first SID tune in 25 years.

Electric Toothbrush

I really surprised myself when it came to quickly remembering the inner workings of the SID chip, the waveform numbers, how the pulsating and filtering worked, test-bit noise locking, and how hard sync and ring modulation worked. Like riding a bicycle. But at the same time I also quickly embraced new effects such as commands for changing ADSR on notes, portamento versus sliding whenever it made the most sense, the separate chords table, multiple hard restart modes, and so forth.

It was a good thing because 4x really required me to be on my toes.

Right from the beginning I went for a lot of excessive test-bit locking to get percussion instruments that sounded atypical for SID. I believe I succeeded at this, but it was also a whole lot of trouble. It seemed that 4x speed made it impossible for the SID chip to lock and then unlock the noise waveform fast enough, so I had to invent a dedicated test-bit lock instrument and scatter its notes around. This in itself introduced clicking and I had to adjust a lot of ADSR and hard restart effects to counteract it.

Another problem I had was that my mindset was a bit too much in FastTracker II country. I wanted to fade certain pieces in or out note by note, but as SID doesn’t have a volume for each channel, I had to use channel commands for affecting one of the ADSR parameters. Usually the attack. Since this was not a true volume change, it sometimes required me to gate off notes in a timely manner to get the right effect. I also had a tendency to use too many channels just for percussion. More baggage from the FT2 period.

CheeseCutter

But that’s when I discovered something wonderful about myself when composing in CheeseCutter. I was completely immersed. I forgot all about digesting the usual bout of snacks and drinks. It was also so much fun. CheeseCutter created just the right kind of atmosphere and zoned me in, making me the right kind of persistent. Some of the instruments required experimenting with waveform tables in iterations that would drive everyone else close by entirely crazy.

But fine editing the SID chip at this level is part of the charm, and I could feel it again.

Not everything was totally awesome, though. Right from the beginning I was very much in doubt about my compositional abilities. I was unsure of how to structure the tune. I tried having silent passages to make the subsequent passage have more impact, but even so I was still not sure how to put things together. Also, the melody itself was far too simple. I kind of painted myself into a corner with a simple bassline combined with way too much percussion. I knew the chords and leader probably wouldn’t win any contests.

So apart from being rusty in that department, I also really needed a keyboard to test things out. Actually I have already ordered one at a shop. I expect to get back to this in a future blog post.

I started February 5 and eventually completed it yesterday, so it also took a bit too long to finish for my liking. But my shiny metal ass goodness did the news of me returning to SID create the biggest stir yet on Facebook. Even the commotion for the chronicles seemed minuscule in comparison. Hedning from Genesis Project even added a screen for CSDb which was great as that was the only part I didn’t have at the ready. Carsten also went pretty much bananas in Facebook chat. I guess it was worth the trouble of making it.

So, to finish off this blog post about the road to my first SID tune in 25 years, here it is:

And here’s the SID tune: Electric_Toothbrush.sid

Update: Here’s a YouTube video recorded on real C64 hardware:

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