Commodore 64 Music in the real world & other related SID stories

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Commodore 64 DAW

by Michael Braisher

The Commodore 64, to my mind, truly introduced ‘real’ music to the world of home computing. Its impressive inbuilt SID synthesizer was capable of much more than the bleeps and pops common to other machines. As a musical tool, the Commodore 64 could boast an impressive array of add-ons, which included Commodore’s SFX Sound Expander synth’ cartridge and keyboard, MIDI interfaces and sound sampling devices. Even today, new products are available, such as the Cynthcart and the Prophet 64. But despite the generous selection of hard-and software, it has only been during the past few years that the unique sound of the Commodore has been utilized professionally.

The Commodore 64 could, and can, notate, sequence, play and automate (the Studiomaster Series 2 recording mixer was controllable via a 64). During the ‘80s the C64 acted the semi-pro’ machine with great potential, but the only people who could truly use it to the full as studio tools were likely to purchase ‘proper’ machines such as the Atari ST anyway. The Commodore 64 could, to an extent and for cheaper, perform tasks similar to machines such as the Fairlight CMI but the professionals always chose professional machines for their increased reliability and tailor-made specifications and capabilities. In the end the Commodore 64s were usually used as instruments rather than controllers, one of the new crop of retro bands to do so being Press Play On Tape.

Though in most senses pointless, there is somehow something quite awe-inspiring in sequencing your own 24-bit drum samples when they are regulated by and from an ancient home computer with its dainty MIDI interface. Similar is being able to use said ancient computer as a master clock to sequence two ultra-modern recording PCs together. It kind of gives the C64 a sense of contemporary relevance. True relevance, of course, is gained when you are able to use the C64 to do what no other machine can seem to – which is why I use it as part of my home recording studio setup.

Though details can be found on my site here, to be brief the epicentre of my hobbyist recording kit is a PC used for audio and MIDI sequencing. Around this gathers the mixers, MIDI and effects PC, open-reel Tascam 4 track tape recorder, Fostex 8 track digital recorder, CD recorders, synthesizers, compressors, Equalisers and effects. And the two Commodore 64s.

There is everything and nothing to differentiate between sequencing and notating on a C64 and a PC or Mac. Whilst many Commodore-based packages may be very similar in terms of inputting notes, editing and manipulating scores and printing out the pieces, programs for today’s computers offer a vast array of features and fixtures which would have been simply impossible to incorporate into any 1980s sequencing computer, let alone the C64. And, of course, being able to record, edit and mix audio to a professional standard within a computer is something which users 20 years back could only look upon as a pipe dream.

I flatter myself that my main forte is jokes. Musically, I am an unashamed dillitante, which is why I like to feel I’m defying any musical snobs by effectively using music software pitched on that level. When composing the accompanying tunes I often use a piece of software called Instant Music, though it does crash a fair bit. Being a bit of a duffer when it comes to music, its unique auto-corrective composition method of dropping coloured blobs onto the screen appeals to me very much. I have never seen anything quite like it and 1987 seems to be the one and only time such a type of sequencing utility was coded.

Myself, I have always stayed away from the kind of fiddly composition programs like the assembler, choosing instead to use the most user friendly programs I could find. There has been quite a nice selection of WYSIWYG programs out over the years, such like the famous Music Studio notator and MIDI package.

By virtue of my Commodore MIDI cartridges, the Instant Music pieces can be recorded on the main sequencer as both MIDI and ‘real’ audio from the SID. By repeatedly amending and chaining, many layers of MIDI and SID pieces can be sequenced. Something called General MIDI compatibility allows outboard synths (including the other Sound Expander-ed 64), or other sequencers and samplers, to be connected and used before the task of adding ‘real’ instruments begins. A breathtaking array of virtual instruments (VSTs) can be used with my 64 thanks to MIDI, including sounds and samples of pianos, guitars, horns, strings, drums and classic synths (including this one of many SIDs available). Intercompatiblilty via MIDI is a matter of plug-and-play and there are also no generation gap differences to hinder connectivity, communication or ease of use between any MIDI equipped system here.

I have also recorded without the aid of MIDI, though the music has been much simpler without using Instant Music. Drums, bass and keyboard make up the basic ingredients of my pieces whichever method I use and the Commodore 64 has been a positive boon to my creativity and the variety of sounds at my disposal.

The music of Concept Singles 9 and 10 are small examples of what I can record using a C64 with not a lot of effort on the synthesizer side.

The Commodore 64 is enjoying a musical respectability not fully enjoyed even during its heyday. Rejected as ‘just a toy’ by the professionally minded, the ‘retro’ charm of the Commodore and what it can do has finally raised its appreciation (However, novelties did always exist, such was the Tubular Bells software). Though wanting for expansive system resources and true professional support, The Commodore 64, its software and peripherals are still capable of much and can deliver a great deal. Though to get the very best from its SID chip one has to be a crack programmer, many pieces of software exist which can utilize its musical capabilities with little or no knowledge of number-crunching. Though the user interfaces and functions of most programs would be considered very crude or basic by today’s standards, enough has been provided to allow anybody to make music regardless of approach.


Michael Braisher


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