Press play on tape: 8-bit composition on the Commodore 64

Kenneth B. McAlpine

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


This chapter explores the music of the Commodore 64, an 8-bit computer that remains the best selling personal computer of all time. By examining its hardware, with a particular focus on its sound generator, the Sound Interface Device or SID chip, and the code that was written for it, the chapter explores the impact of the machine on the musicians who worked on it.
Although powerful for its time, the Commodore’s SID chip was limited in its functionality and offered only limited scope for musical expression. Its limitations were borne out of a need to bring the machine to market quickly and at low cost, and they imposed quite severe constraints, particularly on timbre, polyphony and musical structure. In so doing, however, the constraints defined a series of creative challenges, a set of boundaries against which composers could push, and, ultimately, step across. In response there arose from this digital frontier an explosive period of technical creativity as game programmers and musicians—and often they were one and the same—coaxed the hardware into performing feats that it had never been designed to achieve.
The solutions that were adopted to broaden and expand the musical capabilities of the SID were not, however, without cost, and their application often imparted a unique characteristic to the sound, which, over time, came to define the aesthetic, if not the style, of the 8-bit computer soundtrack, and shaped both the sound and practice of writing 8-bit video game music, something that has continued currency both through retro-gaming and through chiptune, a minimalist electronic style that evolved from that first generation of home computers and video game consoles.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInnovation in music
EditorsRuss Hepworth-Sawyer, Jay Hodgson , Justin Paterson, Rob Toulson
ISBN (Print)9781138498198, 9781138498211
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2019

Publication series

NamePerspectives on Music Production


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