Ear candy: the SID chip and the birth of chiptunes

Newman, J (2016) Ear candy: the SID chip and the birth of chiptunes. In: Ludo2016: Fifth Anniversary Conference on Video Game Music and Sound, 8 - 10 April 2016, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK.

Official URL: http://www.ludomusicology.org/ludo2016-programme/


The MOS6581, more commonly known as the Sound Interface Device, or ‘SID chip’ was the sonic heart of 1982’s Commodore 64 home computer. By considering its development, specification, use and abuse by composers, alongside its continuing legacy, this paper argues that, more than any other device, the SID chip is responsible for shaping the sound of videogame music. The importance of the SID chip is partly a consequence of Bob Yannes’ chip design (Bagnall 2011). Compared with the brutal atonality of chips such as the Atari VCS’ TIA (Montfort and Bogost 2009), SID offers a remarkably complex 3-channel synthesiser with dynamic waveform selection, per-channel ADSR envelopes, a multimode filter, ring and cross modulation. However, the limitations and flaws of the chip are just as significant and the compositional, sound design and programming techniques developed by 1980s composer/coders like Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway are central in defining the distinctive sound of C64 gameplay.. While noting a specific approach to looping that distinguishes many C64 compositions from those created for the Nintendo Entertainment System (see Collins 2008; Schartmann 2015), the argument here centres on the inexorable link between the technical and the musical. Hubbard et al. developed their own bespoke low-level drivers to interface with the SID chip in order to create pseudo-polyphony through rapid arpeggiation, Pulse Width Modulation, ringmod, drum synthesis, portamento, and even sample playback. In this work we note the indivisibility of sound design, synthesis and composition in the birth of the forms and aesthetics that would go on to be defined as ‘chiptunes’.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Divisions: Bath School of Design
Date Deposited: 31 Aug 2016 15:56
Last Modified: 21 Dec 2023 19:16
URI / Page ID: https://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/id/eprint/8189
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