Sidplayer History and Promotional Information

by Craig Chamberlain 11/17/1988

HISTORY

In 1982 my friend Harry Bratt and I published a music system called Pokey Player in the now defunct "SoftSide" magazine. It was for the Atari 800 and 400, which used the POKEY chip (POrt and KEYboard controller) to produce sounds. Although the editing system was very crude by today's standards, Pokey Player songs became popular downloads on BBS's. I think the main reason for this was that Pokey Player produced extremely compact music files, a highly desirable feature in the days of 300 baud.

COMPUTE! Magazine later approached me with the idea of rewriting Pokey Player and including it in a book about music on the Atari. At that time the future for Atari did not look very bright, so I instead talked COMPUTE! into the idea of a series of books for the Commodore 64, which did look like a bright new star. The first book was "All About the Commodore 64, Volume One," which was a tutorial in the BASIC language. Then I wrote Volume Two, which was to make the graphics and music features of the Commodore 64 more accessible to the BASIC programmer. I intended to convert my Atari graphics routines, and Pokey Player music system, over to the Commodore 64. Well, I got a little carried away in the "conversion" and spent a year basically writing new software for the 64.

The music system was initially called "SID player" because the 64's sound chip is named SID (for Sound Interface Device), not POKEY. I never took time out to think up a "real" name. Today, Sidplayer has become so popular that the name is practically generic. When you hear people talk about "SID songs," they are talking about Sidplayer music system songs.

One of the first decisions that Harry and I made in writing the Sidplayer Editor was to keep the same basic user interface as in the Pokey Player Editor. Harry had written the Pokey Player Editor in BASIC while I had written all of the machine language playing code, and we planned to follow the same approach with Sidplayer. It is important to note that unlike all the other commercial music systems, our user interface did not include a full screen grand staff. I saw that we could spend all our time solving the complicated graphics problems of displaying notes in sheet music form. I thought it was better to invest that time in building more power and flexibility into the Editor, and I still feel that was the correct decision. The fact that people have been able to use the Sidplayer Editor to create over 6000 songs would seem to indicate that the lack of a full screen grand staff display has not been a major problem.

I believe that Sidplayer became so popular for a combination of reasons. First, a song player program was released to the public, so that people creating Sidplayer songs could share them with others. The only other music system that was ever very popular on the Commodore 64 was Master Composer, which was the only other system for which a player program was available. Additionally, Sidplayer files include text lines so that the people can take credit for their work and see their name spread around. And, as with Pokey Player, Sidplayer music files are very compact. Whereas Master Composer music files have a 21 block overhead for the player code, Sidplayer files do not have that overhead, and have the notes and sound information compressed more efficiently, so they can give you a lot of music in just a few blocks.

Finally, and I think this reason is very significant, Sidplayer became popular because Sidplayer songs simply sounded better than songs for other music systems. The reason for this was that Sidplayer offered the person creating a song more flexibility and control over the music. With other music systems, the various sound parameters are generally set all at once and retained for a major block of the song, if not the whole song. Sidplayer lets you change those parameters note by note, and this makes a huge difference in the quality of the music. (A couple other music systems did offer as much or more control over the music, but suffered from poor user interfaces, no player programs, no text lines, and large song files.)

Sidplayer became very popular but there were a few things that had always bothered me. The Editor had been written in BASIC and was too slow. Plus, people had to type it all in from Volume Two if they did not order the disk for the book. And after a couple years of using the Sidplayer Editor, we had a wish list of several features that we wanted to see. Commodore had released the Commodore 128, which was an updated 64, and I thought maybe the time was right to do the same thing with Sidplayer. So I proposed the Enhanced Sidplayer book and disk combination to COMPUTE!, which they accepted and published as "COMPUTE!'s Music System for the Commodore 128 and 64: The Enhanced Sidplayer." The book is over 280 pages of complete documentation for the music system. The disk that comes with the book has versions of the programs for the Commodore 128 (in 40 column mode) on one side, and versions for the Commodore 64 on the other. The differences between the 128 and 64 versions are that the Commodore 128 version can hold larger song files in memory, has a larger cut and paste buffer, and can load files from the 1571 disk drive faster.

The Editor was rewritten entirely in machine language by me, with new screens designed by Harry. The Enhanced Editor is very fast and has tons of new features, many of which make it much easier for a beginner to use. If someone is deciding between using the original Sidplayer Editor and the Enhanced one, there is no question but that the Enhanced Editor is better in every respect.

USING THE EDITOR

We tried to design power and flexibility into both the music playing capabilities of the system, and the Editor program used for entering and editing the songs. A good example of this flexibility is that the Editor gives you a choice of using the computer keyboard or a joystick for entering notes. On the Editing Screen, push the joystick up or down to change the pitch up or down. Or, press the letter keys A through G to select a pitch. Push the joystick left or right to change durations, or use the letter keys such as W, H, and Q for whole, half, and quarter notes. Or use the I, J, K, and M keys like the joystick (I and M are up and down, J and K are left and right).

The Editing Screen displays the current pitch on a small grand staff and on a piano keyboard, and displays the current pitch and duration in written form. This is another example of the flexibility of the Editor. To actually enter a note, just press the Return key. If you make a mistake, you can cursor back to it and replace it. You can insert and delete notes, undelete them, or use a cut and paste feature. You can jump to the beginning or the end of the song, or jump to any measure in between. You can even play the music on the Editing Screen to "preview" how it will sound. The editing is very similar to using a word processor, but with music notes in place of words.

The power of the Editor comes from all of the editing features and the fact that the program is written entirely in machine language, so everything happens quickly. The power of the music playing routines comes from the numerous commands than can be inserted between the notes. The commands are seen on the Command Screen. They allow full control over SID chip settings such as volume, waveform, and envelope. Beyond that, however, Sidplayer offers some software-generated features like portamento and vibrato, transposing, and special modulation effects. These commands operate one level removed from the SID chip and let Sidplayer automatically change SID chip settings over time.

Besides hearing the effects of the commands when the music is played, you can watch the values of all the commands as they change by playing the music on the Display Screen. You can stop the playing at any point and see which notes were playing and which command values were in effect at that point. It is also possible to start playing the music at any point in the song, or play it slowly to listen to a part carefully or fast forward to a later part. You can even load in a song created by someone else and examine how they use the notes and commands to achieve special effects.

A beginner need only use the basic notes and commands for setting the tempo and marking measures. If you want to work from sheet music, you can just change the settings so that the display matches what is on the sheet music. If you don't know how to read sheet music but know the piano keyboard, you can use the piano keyboard display to enter the notes. Some people, like Jerry Roth (Dr. J5 on Q-Link) don't know how to read sheet music and don't know the piano keyboard either, but can enter songs by ear, because the Editor plays the pitch of every note that is entered, and can play any part of the music while you are on the Editing Screen.

Of course, many people have little experience in music and do not know how to read sheet music or play a keyboard, and could not enter a song completely by ear. That is why the book that accompanies the Enhanced Sidplayer disk has a large chapter that explains how to read sheet music, including the meaning of all the various symbols you are likely to encounter. Another chapter describes a sample session that follows step by step the entry of a song from sheet music given in the book. The complete song is also included on the disk. People have told me that these chapters are usable and very helpful. Many of the people now creating some of the best Sidplayer songs did not know how to read sheet music before they started using Sidplayer.

The book goes on to describe all of the features of the Editor, including advanced editing techniques and advanced playing commands for even more control over the music. There are enough features to provide plenty of room for growth. You will certainly not get bored with the system after the first week that you have used it. And as you progress to more complicated music, the Editor will be able to keep up with you. It supports advanced note features such as ties, triplets, double dotted durations, and even double sharp and double flat pitches. In keeping with the theme of power and flexibility, Sidplayer can play any pitch with any duration in any time signature and at any tempo.

You should also find it easy to learn about the advanced features when you are ready, because of the completeness and clarity of the documentation. After all, the documentation is not just a user's manual of a few pages, but a whole book. A lot of time was invested in rewriting the text from Volume Two, and more examples were added. If you really want to get the most out of the Editor and the various playing commands, you will find the book to be very helpful and worth reading.

One other major difference between the Sidplayer music system and other commercial music systems that is important to note is that Sidplayer does not offer a score printing capability. The system is not strongly oriented to a full grand staff sheet music display, and no score printing program has been written to date. However, most people creating Sidplayer songs work from regular piano sheet music in the first place, and therefore don't often have a need to print their Sidplayer song as sheet music.

CONTINUED SUPPORT AND POPULARITY

Since the original Sidplayer was introduced, other features have been added to let you add words to your songs, include pictures with them, or even do simple animation while the music is playing. Mark A. Dickenson has popularized the creation of stereo songs for two SID chips, for a total of six voices and much fuller sounding music. The second SID chip can be added to your Commodore computer by soldering it in along with a little support circuitry, or by purchasing a stereo SID cartridge containing a second SID chip which can simply be plugged into the cartridge slot with no soldering required. (The cartridge I recommend is the Stereo SID Symphony Cartridge from Dr. Evil Laboratories.) I have also recently released a MIDI version of the Enhanced Sidplayer player program, which can play all Sidplayer songs on MIDI-capable synthesizers.

Sidplayer continues to be very popular with the Commodore community. Over half of Quantum Link's file space for downloads is taken up by Sidplayer songs. The songs that people have created cover a wide variety of music styles, from before the Classical period to current hits, so a person just discovering Sidplayer will find plenty of songs that suit their interests. And there are always new Sidplayer enthusiasts trying their hand at creating songs. The thing I appreciate most about Sidplayer is how it has opened up the world of music to people who otherwise might not have tried it.

VALUE

My original intent in releasing a freely distributable Sidplayer song player when Sidplayer first came out was not only to popularize Sidplayer and increase the value of the product, but hopefully to benefit the Commodore community as well. I think Sidplayer has given the Commodore 64 and 128 owners a lot more enjoyment from their computers. The only thing I asked in exchange for people being able to enjoy songs for free was publicity for Sidplayer, and I still think that was a pretty fair deal.

"COMPUTE!'s Music System for the Commodore 128 and 64: The Enhanced Sidplayer," a book and disk combination, sells for $24.95. I believe $24.95 is a reasonable price to ask for a quality piece of software, and the price compares favorably with the prices of the other commercial music systems. Considering the power and flexibility of the song editor, the quality of the music that the system lets you create, and the completeness and clarity of the documentation, I think the price represents a very good value, too.

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revised March 27, 2004 06:31 EST