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An Interview with James Newman

Dr Kenny McAlpine interviews Professor James Newman, an academic from Bath Spa University who has a particular interest in the Commodore 64.
Welcome back. I’ve come to the National Video Game Arcade in Nottingham, where I’ve been joined by Professor James Newman, an academic from Bath Spa University, who has a particular interest in the Commodore 64. So James, what was special about the Commodore 64? So yeah, the Commodore 64 has a really important place in the history of video gaming and home computing in general. It was never really designed as a video games machine. It was really designed as a business machine, and that was certainly how it was initially marketed, but it had some features that make it really suitable for gaming. One of them is the graphics. It has really advanced graphics.
It has a VIC chip, a video interface circuit, the VIC-2 chip, inside the Commodore 64. The other thing is the sound capabilities that come from its sound interface device, or SID chip, as it’s known. So the Commodore 64 is a very, very popular machine. Sold – estimates vary, somewhere between 10 and 17 million – so there were lots of these machines, and lots of them were being used, and lots of them were being used to play games. And it was sold in places that maybe home computers weren’t being sold at the time, so in department stores, maybe newsagents, and alongside other things, like toys, that made it feel like, you know, really this was a home computer.
This was a home computer that you would have in your home. So it was comparatively easy to buy and very high powered, and so it ended up being in lots of people’s homes. And that sound interface device, the SID chip, that was one of the things that really set the Commodore 64 apart from the competition. What was special about that? Yes, and the SID chip is really one of the most distinctive features of the Commodore 64. It’s sound interface device, or SID chip, as it’s affectionately known. To really understand it’s significance, you have to know a little bit about – I think it’s worth thinking about what came beforehand.
So if you think about home computers, they generally had sort of bleepers, if they have sound at all. It was just a bleep that, maybe – it was an error message. You typed in some code, made a mistake, and the computer would bleep just to tell you you made a mistake and you have to go and correct your code somewhere. Or maybe a video game console or arcade machine previously had a sound chip that generated sounds that were ready more for effects and explosions and laser sounds.
Certainly early video consoles around the same sort of time as the Commodore 64, their sound chips had often really been designed for the kind of sound effects that would accompany gameplay, not really for music. So the Atari 2600, the Atari VCS, is a case in point, really. It’s sound generating capabilities are really designed for sound effects, designed to accompany gameplay. So the sound effect that – the Atari VCS is very good at making engine noises. So you have a Formula One car that’s racing along a straight, it has a really good engine sound. You have explosions, things, you know, lasers blasting and planets exploding. The sound chip’s really good at making those noisy, exploding sound effects.
It’s not so good for music, and it wasn’t really designed for it. The way the chip is designed, you can’t play a sort of reliable number of pitches. The pitches are out of tune with each other. The way the pitches are calculated, generated, is mathematical. It’s done by division. So there’s sort of various ways around that. Composers took maybe just a few of the notes that did form a usable scale and created a piece of music that worked within those restraints. Or you just ended up with music that was out of tune, which does have a certain charm, but maybe it’s not the foundation to build game music upon. So the SID chip approaches this problem quite differently.
The ambition of the SID chip was to design a synthesizer, a musical instrument. So not so much a sound chip, but a musical instrument that would then end up inside a home computer. And the design of the SID chip owes more in common to the kind of synthesisers that we might see be played on stage by pop bands, rock musicians, or are being used in studios than it does really to those sort of earlier sound chips. So the architecture of the SID chip would be sort of familiar to somebody who was using a synthesiser at the time. So there’s a bunch of oscillators that can create different waveforms.
It has envelopes that can shape the contours of loudness of sound over time. There are fairly sophisticated modulation facilities so you can change the pulse width of the pulse waveform, for example. You can do ring modulation. There’s even a multi-mode filter as well that can shape the tonality of the sound. So there’s lots of features there that would be very familiar to somebody who was coming from the world of electronic music. And so for the first time in computing history, we’ve really got a computer platform that can do more than just musical bleeps and bloops. We’ve got something that can create really quite authentic sounding electronic music. What impact did that have on video game soundtracks?
That impact is enormous, but it’s worth saying it doesn’t happen straight away. So it takes time for people to really understand what the SID chip is capable of doing. So the SID chip is still capable of making bleepy bloopy music, and because it doesn’t have the most accessible interface, it doesn’t have those faders and controls, you need to really understand it and delve into it and dig into its capabilities. And so that takes some time, and it takes a particular combination of skills. It takes musical compositional skills.
But it also takes programming skills as well to really understand so this SID chip here, this sound chip, is capable of doing these things, but you have to program it in such a way that it unlocks that potential. It doesn’t necessarily make it easy for you. It doesn’t present it to you with a musical keyboard and with those kind of easy controls that are all nicely labelled that we might find on a musical instrument.
So what happens over time is you find either composers working with programmers or, in perhaps more unusual cases, a composer that is a programmer and really understands how the SID chip can work, those sort of skill sets coming together to start to create music, which is not so much music which has been taken from somewhere else and translated, converted to the SID chip, but rather music that is made with the SID chip, for the SID chip. And it’s that that changes what Commodore 64 music sounds like, and it’s that that changes what game music sounds like. So it’s really digging into the things that the SID chip can do.
So we’ve got a situation where as video game musicians and composers started to learn the capabilities of the SID chip as an instrument. You then started to experiment at the boundaries of its capabilities, and that in turn started to drive the development of the music and really give the SID its own unique voice. And now, that taps into quite a rich tradition. Composers have always composed for the instruments that were familiar to them. You know, Bach, for example, when he wrote his Partitas for Solo Violin, really pushed what the violin could do as a solo instrument. Are there any specific examples from SID musical history that really exemplify its characteristic sound? Yeah.
So that’s a really important point, that idea that the SID chip as we understand it today is revealed through that play. So composers and programmers playing with what it’s possible for the SID chip to do. So it isn’t all sort of laid out in the documentation. There are things that are revealed that the SID chip was… perhaps it was unanticipated that the SID chip would be able to do, even by – even by those people that designed it and specified it. So a really good example of that is the sort of sample playback. So the SID chip is a synthesiser. It has three voices, three monophonic voices,
with a variety of different waveforms: sawtooth waveform, pulse waveform, triangle and noise. It doesn’t have the capability of playing back samples. It wasn’t supposed to. It wasn’t designed to. But various programmers, composers, worked out ways of effectively forcing the SID to play back sampled sounds, and it was almost like a ghost fourth channel that becomes possible to use. So alongside the three ordinary SID channels, by really rapidly modulating part of the output of the SID chip, you can play back – often it was for drum samples. So it comes, sort of, later on in the SID’s development, and it’s a technique that gets discovered in a couple of different places and gets… and gets used by composers.
So the sound of the SID chip changes enormously after this, where you have sampled drums, and they’re quite lo-fi, which is part of their charm, I think, looking back at them now and hearing them now. They are quite low fidelity, but nonetheless, samples they are. And they’re not within the palette of the SID chip’s ordinary three voices. So by revealing this capability, which is almost a kind of by-product of the distinctive way in which the SID was designed, or even a characteristic that perhaps you might even think is a kind of glitch that’s really exploited, we get this whole new sound palette that opens up and this fourth channel of what’s often sampled drums.
So listening to something like Martin Galway’s Arkanoid, for example, that the sample drums that start off that track wouldn’t be possible to generate had that trick, that technique, not been found sort of lurking within the SID chip. So it reminds me a bit of the way players play video games. They exploit the kind of rules and transgress them, push at the boundaries of them, find glitches that open up new ways of playing. So you can see the approach to composition as being one of – one that has parallels with gameplay, as well as other forms of music and composition, really exploring both the limits and then pushing beyond the limits of what the device is capable of doing.
James, thank you. Thank you.

Professor James Newman is an academic at Bath Spa University, and spends his days teaching and research creative computing.

James is particularly interested in the Commodore 64, and in this video we discuss some of the things that made it unique, and its influence on video game music.

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Video Game Design and Development: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music: Video Game Sound and Music

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