[Editor's Note: This two-part series fell into my lap rather serendipitously. I reached out to Jeremy W. Kaufmann, who you may know as the host of the hilarious Destroy All Podcasts DX show, as he dabbles in the chiptunes world with I'm Insincere and Violence Mars (he's also one of the creators of the upcoming Homeless Dinosaur comic). He replied with a pair of epic e-mails that were so chock full of goodness that I decided to use them more of less in their entirety. I now turn you over to Jeremy for part II. You can find part I here.]
COMMODORE 64: THE QUADRASID
There’s a more extravagant way to do it–without an actual C-64. You can do it entirely in software emulation, which frankly is all I do anymore. Most modern tracking/programming software, as well as MIDI software, supports VSTs, which are Virtual Synth instruments. These are downloadable little modules that you can download, which represent virtual versions of real synthesizers. The one I use most is a pay VST called QuadraSID which offers a lot of control over the C-64 chip (better control than I ever had on the real C-64), and up to 4 virtual SID chips running at once on one channel– way, way better than you could get on a real SID. You can also have multiple VST instances running at once so you can have basically unlimited SIDs going at once which is extremely handy.
I generally use FL Studio Pro for my programming because I find it easy to use and I can understand it visually in a way I just can’t get with tools like Logic or whatever (I hate all that dragging of pretend wires and pretend patching). Unlike a lot of tools, you can actually just precisely click one note and make it as long or short as you want and you can make notes overlap which easily gets the slide between one note and another that I love about the SID chip. The other cool thing about FL Studio Pro is that you can use it for MIDI so you can basically get a MIDI keyboard “playing” a SID.
COMMODORE 64: THE QUADRASID ALTERNATIVES
There are some other decent SID VSTs that I use to complement QuadraSID though they are NOWHERE NEAR AS GOOD. They are mostly good because they have some good presets whereas QuadraSID only has a bunch of “instruments” for the SID that you would be able to access on the C-64 (basically the C-64′s presets that are on the computer itself) and not presets of its own. Unknown 64 is one of these and it’s okay. Quantum 64 is also alright. SE64 is “inspired” by the SID so it’s kinda meh. Not very authentic, but may be slightly useful.
I also use some NES synths from time to time, but the NES kind of sucks in comparison. I’m not as up on the NES as I am on the C-64 technically, but I believe the Ricoh 2A03 processor that runs it was almost a system on a chip (with a MOS Technology 6502 core) and the sound hardware is part of the same chip as the main processor, so the NES doesn’t even have a dedicated sound chip.
The 6502 is one of the most common 8-bit processors from the ’70s and ’80s and was used in the Apple I and Apple II (the Atari VCS had a dumbed down one, TTOO). The NES version from Ricoh just has some crap tossed on it including the sound. (The C-64′s CPU was a descendant of the 6502 called the 6510.) Still, there are some distinctive NES sounds I like to use once in a while and there are some decent NES VSTs out there.
COMMODORE 64: EVEN MORE SUGGESTIONS
Also look for the PSTs named Peach and Triforce which I use sometimes. There’s probably a VST out there for Atari VCS/2600 sound, but it is really, really poor sound so I rarely use it. A friend of mine hacked an Atari to have stereo soundput and I played with that a little bit and used it on a couple of sounds but not very extensively. Mostly I stick to the C-64 mixed with some sampling, more modern sounding VSTs (I use Crystal and Sytrus sometimes) and actual hardware synths like the MicroKorg (great for realtime vocoding) and a shitty ’80s Casio.
If I was going to suggest something to get you started right away and you didn’t have any hardware, just a PC, I’d say download the demo version of FL Studio, grab some of the VSTs I mentioned (QuadraSID is really the best and my favorite but costs money) but for free, Quantum 64 and Unknown 64 are okay. Also, here’s Toad, an NES drum synth.
Warning: NES drums totally suck. From percussion I tend to use a combination of samples of real drums, really light C-64 percussion (generally I recommend avoiding using the C-64 for kicks and snares as it’s quite tinny and hollow sounding), and someone playing an actual v-drum kick like the Roland TD series or whatever. You may also want to get an old school drum machine like the very popular ’80s machine the Roland TR-808 or just a VST emulating it.
COMMODORE 64: THE WRAP
If you want sources on the C-64 technical information it’s all in the C-64 Programmer’s Reference Guide and other such technical documentation. Here’s a digital copy. I have a hardcopy and that’s how I found out how to program the SID with basic back in the day. It also includes a big foldout schematic.
Chapter 4 is all about sound on the C-64, and Chapter 6 handles output including video output stuff. It goes into really deep technical detail though, so I dunno how useful it is to non-programmers or non-engineers. If you want a quick example check out the C-64 game Penetrator from the ’80s. Totally fucking cool music an NES can in no way match. People made cool stuff with the NES sound, don’t get me wrong, but the C-64 is just way more versatile and sounds cooler.