The Commodore 64

17 Dec

As I described in my last article, many people were beginning to feel that change was in the air as they observed the field of videogame consoles and the emerging market for home computers during the middle part of 1982. If a full-fledged computer was to take the place of the Atari VCS in the hearts of America’s youth, which of the plethora of available machines would it be? IBM had confidently expected theirs to become the one platform to rule them all, but the IBM PC was not gaining the same traction in the home that it was enjoying in business, thanks to an extremely high price and lackluster graphics. Apple was still the media darling, but the only logical contender they could offer for the segment, the Apple II Plus, was looking increasingly aged. Its graphics capabilities, so remarkable for existing at all back in 1977, had barely been upgraded since, and weren’t really up to the sort of colorful action games the kids demanded. Nor was its relatively high price doing it any favors. Another contender was the Atari 400/800 line. Although introduced back in late 1979, these machines still had amongst the best graphics and sound capabilities on the market. On the other hand, the 400 model, with its horrid membrane keyboard, was cost-reduced almost to the point of unusability, while the 800 was, once again, just a tad on the expensive side. And Atari itself, still riding the tidal wave that was the VCS, showed little obvious interest in improving or promoting this tiny chunk of its business. Then of course there was Radio Shack, but no one — including them — seemed to know just what they were trying to accomplish with a pile of incompatible machines of wildly different specifications and prices all labeled “TRS-80.” And there was the Commodore VIC-20 which had validated for many people the whole category of home computer in the first place. Its price was certainly right, but it was just too limited to have long legs.

The TI-99/4A. Note the prominent port for "Solid State Software" to the right of the keyboard.

The TI-99/4A. Note the prominent port for “Solid State Software” to the right of the keyboard.

The most obvious contender came from an unexpected quarter. Back in early 1980, the electronics giant Texas Instruments had released a microcomputer called the TI-99/4. Built around a CPU of TI’s own design, it was actually the first 16-bit machine to hit the market. It had a lot of potential, but also a lot of flaws and oddities to go with its expensive price, and went nowhere. Over a year later, in June of 1981, TI tried again with an updated version, the TI-99/4A. The new model had just 16 K of RAM, but TI claimed more was not necessary. Instead of using cassettes or floppy disks, they sold software on cartridges, a technique they called “Solid State Software.” Since the programs would reside in the ROM of the cartridge, they didn’t need to be loaded into RAM; that needed to be used only for the data the programs manipulated. The idea had some real advantages. Programs loaded instantly and reliably, something that couldn’t be said for many other storage techniques, and left the user to fiddle with fragile tapes or disks only to load and save her data files. This just felt more like the way a consumer-electronics device ought to work to many people — no typing arcane commands and then waiting and hoping, just pop a cartridge in and turn the thing on. The TI-99/4A also had spectacularly good graphics, featuring sprites, little objects that were independent of the rest of the screen and could be moved about with very little effort on the part of the computer or its programmer. They were ideal for implementing action games; in a game of Pac-Man, for instance, the title character and each of the ghosts would be implemented as a sprite. Of the other contenders, only the Atari 400 and 800 offered sprites — as well as, tellingly, all of the game consoles. Indeed, they were considered something of a necessity for a really first-rate gaming system. With these virtues plus a list price of just $525, the TI-99/4A was a major hit right out of the gate, selling in numbers to rival the even cheaper but much less capable VIC-20. It would peak at the end of 1982 with a rather extraordinary (if brief-lived) 35 percent market share, and would eventually sell in the neighborhood of 2.5 million units.

With the TI-99/4A so hot that summer of 1982, the one wildcard — the one obstacle to anointing it the king of home computers — was a new machine just about to ship from Commodore. It was called the Commodore 64, and it would change everything. Its story had begun the previous year with a pair of chips.

In January of 1981 some of the engineers at Commodore’s chipmaking subsidiary, MOS Technologies, found themselves without a whole lot to do. The PET line had no major advancements in the immediate offing, and the VIC-20’s design was complete (and already released in Japan, for that matter). Ideally they would have been working on a 16-bit replacement for the 6502, but Jack Tramiel was uninterested in funding such an expensive and complicated project, a choice that stands as amongst the stupidest of a veritable encyclopedia of stupidity written by Commodore management over the company’s chaotic life. With that idea a nonstarter, the engineers hit upon a more modest project: to design a new set of graphics and sound chips that would dramatically exceed the capabilities of the VIC-20 and (ideally) anything else on the market. Al Charpentier would make a graphics chips to be called the VIC-II, the successor to the VIC chip that gave the VIC-20 its name. Bob Yannes would make a sound synthesizer on a chip, the Sound Interface Device (SID). They took the idea to Tramiel, who gave them permission to go ahead, as long as they didn’t spend too much.

In deciding what the VIC-II should be, Charpentier looked at the graphics capabilities of all of the computers and game machines currently available, settling on three as the most impressive, and thus the ones critical to meet or exceed: the Atari 400 and 800, the Mattel Intellivision console, and the soon-to-be-released TI-99/4A. Like all of these machines, the VIC-II chip would have to have sprites. In fact, Charpentier spent the bulk of his time on them, coming up with a very impressive design that allowed up to eight onscreen sprites in multiple colors. (Actually, as with so many features of the VIC-II and the SID, this was only the beginning. Clever programmers would quickly come up with ways to reuse the same sprite objects, thus getting even more moving objects on the screen.) For the display behind the sprites, Charpentier created a variety of character-based and bitmapped modes, with palettes of up to 16 colors at resolutions of up to 320 X 200. On balance, the final design did indeed exceed or at least match the aggregate capabilities of anything else on the market. It offered fewer colors than the Atari’s 128, for example, but a much better sprite system; fewer total sprites (without trickery) than the TI-99/4A’s 32, but bigger and more colorful ones, and with about the same background display capabilities.

If the VIC-II was an evolutionary step for Commodore, the SID was a revolution in PC and videogame sound. Bob Yannes, just 24 years old, had been fascinated by electronic sound for much of his life, devouring early electronica records like those by Kraftwerk and building simple analog synthesizers from kits in his garage. Hired by MOS right out of university in 1978, he felt like he had been waiting all his employment for just this project. An amateur musician himself, he was appalled by the sound chips that other engineers thought exceptional, like that in the Atari 400 and 800. From a 1985 IEEE Spectrum article on the making of the Commodore 64:

The major differences between his chip and the typical videogame sound chips, Yannes explained, were its more precise frequency control and its independent envelope generators for shaping the intensity of a sound. “With most of the sound effects in games, there is either full volume or no volume at all. That really makes music impossible. There’s no way to simulate the sound of any instrument even vaguely with that kind of envelope, except maybe an organ.”

Although it is theoretically possible to use the volume controls on other sound chips to shape the envelope of a sound, very few programmers had ever tackled such a complex task. To make sound shaping easy, Yannes put the envelope controls in hardware: one register for each voice to determine how quickly a sound builds up; two to determine the level at which the note is sustained and how fast it reaches that level; and one to determine how fast the note dies away. “It took a long time for people to understand this,” he conceded.

But programmers would come to understand it in the end, and the result would be a whole new dimension to games and computer art. The SID was indeed nothing short of a full-fledged synthesizer on a chip. With three independent voices to hand, its capabilities in the hands of the skilled are amazing; the best SID compositions still sound great today. Games had beeped and exploded and occasionally even talked for years. Now, however, the emotional palette game designers had to paint on would expand dramatically. The SID would let them express deep emotions through sound and (especially) music, from stately glory to the pangs of romantic love, from joy to grief.

In November of 1981 the MOS engineers brought their two chips, completed at last, to Tramiel to find out what he’d like to do with them. He decided that they should put them into a successor to the VIC-20, to be tentatively titled the VIC-40. In the midst of this discussion, it emerged that the MOS engineers had one more trick up their sleeves: a new variant of the 6502 called the 6510 which offered an easy way to build an 8-bit computer with more than 48 K of RAM by using a technique called bank switching.

Let’s stop here for just a moment to consider why this should have been an issue at all. Both the Zilog Z80 and the MOS 6502 CPUs that predominated among early PCs are 8-bit chips with 16-bit address buses. The latter number is the one that concerns us right now; it means that the CPU is capable of addressing up to 64 K of memory. So why the 48 K restriction? you might be asking. Well, you have to remember that a computer does not only address RAM; there is also the need for ROM. In the 8-bit machines, the ROM usually contains a BASIC-based operating environment along with a few other essentials like the glyphs used to form characters on the screen. All of this usually consumes about 16 K, leaving 48 K of the CPU’s address space to be mapped to RAM. With the arrival of the 48 K Apple II Plus in 1979, the industry largely settled on this as both the practical limit for a Z80- or 6502-based machine and the configuration that marked a really serious, capable PC. There were some outliers, such as Apple’s Language Card that let a II Plus be expanded to 64 K of RAM by dumping BASIC entirely in lieu of a Pascal environment loaded from disk, but the 48 K limit was largely accepted as just a fact of life for most applications.

With the 6510, however, the MOS engineers added some circuitry to the 6502 to make it easy to swap pieces of the address space between two (or more) alternatives. Below is an illustration of the memory of the eventual Commodore 64.

Commodore 64 memory map

Ignoring the I/O block as out of scope for this little exercise, let’s walk through this. First we have 1 K of RAM used as a working space to hold temporary values and the like (i.e., the program stack). Then 1 K is devoted to storing the current contents of the screen. Next comes the biggest chunk, 38 K for actual BASIC programs. Then 8 K of ROM, which stores the BASIC language itself. Then comes another 4 K of “high RAM” that’s gotten trapped behind the BASIC ROM; this is normally inaccessible to the BASIC programmer unless she knows some advanced techniques to get at it. Then 4 K of ROM to hold the glyphs for the standard onscreen character set. Finally, 8 K of kernel, storing routines for essential functions like reading the keyboard or interacting with cassette or disk drives. All of this would seem to add up to a 44 K RAM system, with only 40 K of it easily accessible. But notice that each piece of ROM has RAM “underneath” it. Thanks to the special circuitry on the 6510, a programmer can swap RAM for ROM if she likes. Programming in assembly language rather than BASIC? Swap out the BASIC ROM, and get another 8 K of RAM, plus easy, contiguous access to that high block of another 4 K. Working with graphics instead of words, or would prefer to define your own font? Swap out the character ROM. Taking over the machine entirely, and thus not making so much use of the built-in kernel routines? Swap the kernel for another 8 K of RAM, and maybe just swap it back in from time to time when you want to actually use something there.

Commodore 64 startup screen

The above will hopefully answer the most common first question of a new Commodore 64 user, past or present: Why does my “64 K RAM system” say it has only 38 K free for BASIC? The rest of the memory is there, but only for those who know how to get at it and who are willing to forgo the conveniences of BASIC. I should emphasize here that the concept of bank switching was hardly an invention of the MOS engineers; it’s a fairly obvious approach, after all. Apple had already used the technique to pack a full 128 K of RAM into a 6502-based computer of their own, the failed Apple III (about which more in the very near future). The Apple III, however, was an expensive machine targeted at businesses and professionals. The Commodore 64 was the first to bring the technique to the ordinary consumer market. Soon it would be everywhere, giving the venerable 6502 and Z80 new leases on life.

Jack Tramiel wasn’t a terribly technical fellow, and likely didn’t entirely understand what an extra 16 K of memory would be good for in the first place. But he knew a marketing coup when he saw one. Thus the specifications of the new machine were set: a 64 K system built around MOS’s three recent innovations — the 6510, the VIC-II, and the SID. The result should be cheap enough to produce that Commodore could sell it for less than $600. Oh, and please have a prototype ready for the January 1982 Winter CES show, less than two months away.

With so little time and such harsh restrictions on production costs, Charpentier, Yannes, and the rest of their team put together the most minimalist design they could to bind those essential components together. They even managed to get enough of it done to have something to show at Winter CES, where the “VIC-40” was greeted with excitement on the show floor but polite skepticism in the press. Commodore, you see, had a well-earned reputation, dating from the days when the PET was the first of the trinity of 1977 to be announced and shown but the last to actually ship, for over-promising at events like these and delivering late or not at all. Yet when Commodore showed the machine again in June at the Summer CES — much more polished, renamed the Commodore 64 to emphasize what Tramiel and Commodore’s marketing department saw as its trump card, and still promised for less than $600 — they had to start paying major attention. Days later it started shipping. The new machine was virtually indistinguishable from the VIC-20 in external appearance because Commodore hadn’t been willing to spend the time or money to design a new case.

The Commodore 64

The Commodore 64

Inside it was one hell of a machine for the money, although not without its share of flaws that a little more time, money, and attention to detail during the design process could have easily corrected.

The BASIC housed in its ROM (“BASIC 2.0”) was painfully antiquated. It was actually the same BASIC that Tramiel had bought from Microsoft for the original PET back in 1977. Bill Gates, in a rare display of naivete, sold him the software outright for a flat fee of $10,000, figuring Commodore would have to come back soon for another, better version. He obviously didn’t know Jack Tramiel very well. Ironically, Commodore did have on hand a better BASIC 4.0 they had used in some of the later PET models, but Tramiel nixed using it in the Commodore 64 because it would require a more expensive 16 K rather than 8 K of ROM chips to house. People were already getting a lot for their money, he reasoned. Why should they expect a decent BASIC as well? The Commodore 64’s BASIC was not only primitive, but completely lacked commands to actually harness the machine’s groundbreaking audiovisual capabilities; graphics and sound could be accomplished in BASIC only by using “peek” and “poke” commands to access registers and memory locations directly, an extremely awkward, inefficient, and ugly way of programming. If the memory restrictions on BASIC weren’t enough to convince would-be game programmers to learn assembly language, this certainly did. The Commodore 64’s horrendous BASIC likely accelerated an already ongoing flight from the language amongst commercial game developers. For the rest of the 1980s, game development and assembly language would go hand in hand.

Due to a whole combination of factors — including miscommunication among marketing, engineering, and manufacturing, an ultimately pointless desire to be hardware compatible with the VIC-20, component problems, cost-cutting, and the sheer rush of putting a product together in such a limited time frame — the Commodore 64 ended up saddled with a disk system that would become, even more than the primitive BASIC, the albatross around the platform’s neck. It’s easily the slowest floppy-disk system ever sold commercially, on the order of thirty times slower than Steve Wozniak’s masterpiece, the Apple II’s Disk II system. Interacting with disks from BASIC 2.0, which was written before disk drives existed on PCs, requires almost as much patience as does waiting for a program to load. For instance, you have to type “LOAD ‘$’, 8” followed by ‘LIST’ just to get a directory listing. As an added bonus, doing so wipes out any BASIC program you might have happened to have in memory.

The disk system’s flaws frustrate because they dissipate a lot of potential strengths. Commodore had had a unique approach to disk drives ever since producing their first for the PET line circa 1979. A Commodore disk drive is a smart device, containing its own 6502 CPU as well as ROM and 2 K of RAM. The DOS used on other computers like the Apple II to tell the computer how to control the drive, manage the filesystem, etc., is unnecessary on a Commodore machine. The drive can control itself very well, thank you very much; it already knows all about that stuff. This brings some notable advantages. No separate DOS has to be loaded into the computer’s RAM, eating precious memory. DOS 3.3, for example, the standard on the Apple II Plus at the time of the Commodore 64’s introduction, eats up more than 10 K of the machine’s precious 48 K of RAM. Thus the Commodore 64’s memory edge was in practical terms even more significant than it appeared on paper. Because it’s possible to write small programs for the drive’s CPU to process and load them into the drive’s RAM, the whole system was a delight for hackers. One favorite trick was to load a disk-copying program into a pair of drives, then physically disconnect them from the computer. They would continue happily copying disks on their own, as long as the user kept putting more disks in. More practically for average users, it was often possible for games to play music or display animated graphics while simultaneously loading from the drive. Other computers’ CPU were usually too busy controlling the drive to manage this. Of course, this was a very good feature for this particular computer, because Commodore 64 users would be spending a whole lot more time than users of other computers waiting for their disk drives to load their programs.

Quality-control issues plagued the entire Commodore 64 line, especially in the first couple of years. One early reviewer had to return two machines before Commodore shipped him one that worked; some early shipments to stores were allegedly 80 percent dead on arrival. To go with all of their other problems, the disk drives were particularly unreliable. In one early issue, Compute!’s Gazette magazine stated that four of the seven drives in their offices were currently dead. The poor BASIC and unfriendly operating environment, the atrocious disk system, and the quality-control issues, combined with no option for getting the 80-column display considered essential for word processing and much other business software, kept the Commodore 64 from being considered seriously by most businesses as an alternative to the Apple II or IBM PC. Third-party solutions did address many of the problems. Various improved BASICs were released as plug-in cartridges, and various companies rewrote the systems software to improve transfer speeds by a factor of six or more. But businesses wanted machines that just worked for them out of the box, which Apple and IBM largely gave them while Commodore did not.

None of that mattered much to Commodore, at least for now, because they were soon selling all of the Commodore 64s they could make for use in homes. No, it wasn’t a perfect machine, not even with its low price (and dropping virtually by the month), its luxurious 64 K of memory, its versatile graphics, and its marvelous SID chip. But, like the Sinclair Spectrum that was debuting almost simultaneously in Britain, it was the perfect machine for this historical moment. Also like the Spectrum, it heralded a new era in its home country, where people would play — and make — games in numbers that dwarfed what had come before. For a few brief years, the premiere mainstream gaming platform in the United States would be a full-fledged computer rather than a console — the only time, before or since, that that has happened. We’ll talk more about the process that led there next time.

(As you might expect, much of this article is drawn from Brian Bagnall’s essential history of Commodore. The IEEE Spectrum article referenced above was also a gold mine.)


Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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26 Responses to The Commodore 64

  1. Sig

    December 18, 2012 at 12:45 am

    Huzzah! We’ve now entered the era in which I have personal experience!

    My earliest computer memories were of my stepdad’s TI-99/4A (with the physically massive memory/disk expansion thingy) and moreso, my dad’s Commodore 64, which entertained us for hours beyond counting during the summers I’d spend at his house.

    I can still recite the keystrokes used to do various things (list the contents of the disk, load the first game, etc.). Though I had not the foggiest notion what they meant at the time, like arcane incantations, they would bring me the latest wonders from MicroProse, Epyx, or SSI (e.g. the AD&D “gold box” games).

    But yeah, the FastLoad cartridge was a dire necessity.

  2. Captain Rufus

    December 18, 2012 at 11:13 am

    I absolutely loved the C64. But I didn’t get mine till Christmas 87 and it was the C variant so it was both very cheap (about 600 for a full non monitor setup including Okimate color printer), and reliable. Never had a single problem with the computer at all. Except for my grades slipping because I spent so much time on it. (And a lot of that was a bad teacher. When the entire class is doing badly learning 8th grade Algebra something is wrong!)

    One of the greatest computers ever made. Still play with it in emulators now. I just don’t own or collect for the line because there is so much GOOD STUFF out there my bank account would be in more pain than it already is.

    (So I stick to lesser liked machines like Atari 8 bit, Tandy CoCo, and TI. Much cheaper to collect for and lots of cart games. Though if I ever get HERO on cart for the C64 cheap? Well that would change things.)

    The sad part is I never had a Fast Load till like my final 3 months or so of owning the machine. (8th grade-12th)

    I used to read D&D novels while waiting for D&D fights to load in the Gold Box series!

  3. Sniffnoy

    December 18, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    This gets me wondering about the history of cartridges. I mean, Atari’s game consoles were using those before the TI-99, right? Were other computers using it even before this?

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 19, 2012 at 7:39 am

      The first machine to use ROM cartridges was the Atari VCS, released in 1977. That said, the Magnavox Odyssey of 1972 used cartridges that looked essentially the same externally. Because the Odyssey was a discrete logic device rather than a true digital computer with a CPU, however, its cartridges did not contain ROM but rather circuits that were patched into the mother device to make it behave in different ways.

      Cartridges are a fairly obvious way to get programs into a computer painlessly. As such they were used not only by the consoles but by a variety of the home computers that kind of straddled the line between game machine and “serious” computing device. In addition to the TI-99/4A, the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 and the Atari 8-bit line are included in this group. They proved to be a godsend on the 64, where they were used to add to or replace the machine’s slapdash systems software with better stuff: the Epyx FastLoad, Simon’s BASIC, etc.

      • Orion

        December 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm

        The Channel F predated the VCS, didn’t it?

        • Jimmy Maher

          December 21, 2012 at 6:46 am

          Yes, looks like it did. I stand corrected. I obviously know my early PCs much better than I know my early consoles…

  4. Keith Palmer

    December 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    I can imagine users of other home computers telling themselves “at least our disk drive is faster”… but “imagine” it because I must (shockingly) admit I never knew anyone with a Commodore 64. (I suppose I didn’t have a lot of good friends who’d invite me over to their houses…) The Radio Shack Color Computer magazines my family subscribed to were boosterish in their own way, but I don’t remember them saying much about other home computers.

    I have sought to correct this lack of knowledge in recent years, and had been thinking myself that the Commodore 64’s limited BASIC might have played a role in the closing of the “dilettante programmer” era. I’d been wondering too if the 6502 (and Z80) architectures not being expanded beyond 8 bits with any great speed played its own small part in the shaping of personal computing…

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 19, 2012 at 7:45 am

      Oh, it played a major role. MOS/Commodore essentially ceded the market to the 16-bit chips of Motorola and Intel due to a shortsighted unwillingness to spend the money to develop a successor to the 6502. In a real sense Commodore’s management, during and after the Tramiel era, never really “got” computers, persisting with the mentality of (at best) a maker of calculators or (at worst) a maker of toys. They seemed to have a hard time understanding that the 6502 and Commodore 64, huge as they were, weren’t going to sell forever.

      Zilog at least tried, but the Z8000 never attracted the same love as the Z80.

  5. Obbie Z

    December 19, 2012 at 5:36 am

    I’m surprised there was no mention of GEOS, an OS released late in the life of the C64 that added a few years to its usefulness. With GEOS and a RAM disk, the experience of using the machine was vaguely Mac-like.

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 19, 2012 at 7:46 am

      “Vaguely” is the operative word here. :) Not that GEOS wasn’t impressive. But it’s a little out of scope for the time frame of this article…

  6. Martin Stein

    December 25, 2012 at 2:21 am

    My C64 with the disk drive was also quite reliable. Never had a problem. The Basic forced you to learn assembly to access graphics and sound. It taught hacking…
    IMO the successor to the C64 was the Atari ST, also a Tramiel machine. It started out with an okay OS that was supposed to be improved over time with multitasking and better graphics. It somehow never happened. The ST had 1MB of memory (mine came upgraded for free with an additional set of memory chips hand-soldered on to of the existing 512kB).
    You could run a Mac ROM on its 68000 processor and it was way ahead of the then current 8086 and 80286 PCs.

  7. Harbour Master

    January 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Slowly catching on my backlog to read here…

    There was one quote which perplexed me:
    “With most of the sound effects in games, there is either full volume or no volume at all. That really makes music impossible.”

    The POKEY chip on the Atari 8-bit supported volume control for each of the four sound channels (ranged from 0 to 15). Whereas some programmers would have just set things to 0 or 15, particularly for simple sound effects, we were not prevented from experimenting with volume and virtually all of the music in Atari’s heyday used some form of volume to create envelopes that were not just steps in volume. Most of the sound effects in my own games would decay the volume to zero over the life of a sound.

    I would agree that hardware support of an ADSR envelope would have been a boon. But Yannes’ assertion seems to overstate its importance.

    As a disclaimer, I never did a comparison between audio complexity on the C64 vs. the Atari, although my few visits to see friend’s C64 machines never made me think I was missing out in the sound department.

    • Ian S.

      February 4, 2013 at 9:27 pm

      1976’s AY-3-8910/11/12 sound chips (which were super-popular in arcade machines and also used by Intellivision, Vectrex, and Atari ST) did have hardware envelope support. It was used to good effect in Midway’s TRON arcade game to emulate Wendy Carlos’ iconic Moog powered score.

      So yes, Yannes is definitely overstating things. Ultimately the SID sounds not much different from any of the other 4-channel fixed-waveform chips of the 80s. The real revolution in digital audio was affordable wavetable, which Yannes pioneered at Ensoniq.

      • Brian Bagnall

        December 11, 2013 at 6:26 pm

        Ian, it is unlikely the AY-3-8910 came out in 1976–that was the year the year General Instruments introduced the CP-1600 microprocessor, which the AY-3-8910 was designed to interface with. I doubt one of the first peripheral chips they would spend money and time designing for a microprocessor which wasn’t even be used in consumer products at that time would be a sound synthesizer. You’ll find the first documentation on the chip is dated 1979.

        The AY-3-8910 is very primitive. It had a single envelope generator which could modulate the volume of whatever combination of sound sources you selected, and only 16 volume steps (though they were logarithmic, so they provided a wider dynamic range). Basically it could only ramp up from zero to full volume or ramp down from full volume to zero. Better than nothing, but very limited compared to SID, and the three Envelope Generators in SID let you independently modulate the volume of all three sound sources automatically, not just modulate a mixture of the sound sources. That made SID a three-voice system, as compared to really only one voice with the GI chip.

    • Brian Bagnall

      December 11, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      His quote might sound inaccurate out of context, but you need to realize he was referring to the state of things in 1981, when he began designing the SID chip. And he’s not referring to the sound generators in arcade games, but rather video game consoles and home computers. It was certainly possible to generate envelopes in real-time using software, but as the article notes, few programmers took the time to do it because the processor was busy running all of the other game and graphics routines and, if you didn’t update the sound in a timely, consistent manner, it sounded bad.

      Volume wasn’t the only factor, although IEEE Spectrum focused on that. As far as tone color, the GI chip had square waves and the Atari chip had wave modifiers that could produce all sorts of nasty game sounds, but not much in the way of musical tones other than square waves. The nice thing about the SID was it gave the programmer high-resolution control of pitch, tone color and volume and there were no competing products on the market at that time which did that. The large amount of SID music that was produced is a testament to SID’s abilities versus the competition.

  8. Mike Taylor

    February 23, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    Fascinating to get this background on what was my main computer in my larval stage. But a quibble:

    The Commodore 64’s BASIC was not only primitive, but completely lacked commands to actually harness the machine’s groundbreaking audiovisual capabilities. If the memory restrictions on BASIC weren’t enough to convince would-be game programmers to learn assembly language, this certainly did.

    That’s not really fair. There was nothing in Commodore BASIC that actively helped use the graphics or sound, but nothing stopping you from going ahead and using the facilities down on the metal. In other words, there’s nothing you could do in machine language that you couldn’t also do in BASIC, though the magic of PEEK and POKE — which, in the end, are pretty much all that machine language programs ever do. The problem with doing this in BASIC was only that it was slow and expensive in program space compared with the machine-code equivalent: but the same is true of any kind of program, not just audiovisual stuff.

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 24, 2018 at 11:47 am

      Added a clause clarifying the statement a bit further. Thanks!

      • Mike Taylor

        February 24, 2018 at 6:41 pm

        Thanks; I think that’s very well and fairly put.

  9. Nostalgia

    March 25, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    A large chunk of Commodore 64’s early reliability issues was due to its poor external power supply. Not only did they die regularly, they sometimes died and took the computer with it (i.e., smoke coming out of the case!).

    Still, what a machine. If you have never heard Swinth, you really should.

  10. Ben

    September 2, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    circuity -> circuitry

    Day later -> Days later (?)

    DOS 3.3., -> DOS 3.3,

  11. Steve Thompson

    February 28, 2021 at 12:35 am

    Back in 1985, I was about 14 years old. My programming buddy had the first original C64 and it had some issues, especially the way it looked on a TV screen.

    When I got mine, it looked much better on TV. It was the one with the color bars on the breadbin logo. But, I blew the SID chip while connecting it to my stereo. It sparked when I pulled out the RCA plug and had no sound at all.

    My buddy was in my room with me and couldn’t stop laughing. “You blew your SID chip!!!”

    Somehow I found out if I sent it for repairs it would cost about $50. I think it was Protecto Enterprizes. So, I packed it up and sent it. My dad bought it at Grand Central in Logan, Utah as a Christmas present. But, they didn’t have a way to fix it.

    About three weeks later, I saw the UPS truck pull into our driveway. He gave me the box so I knew my life was complete once again. I had the first love of my life back, FINALLY.

    I opened the box, and it was BRAND NEW C64, unopened. They kept my original. That was a pretty large scream of joy that erupted out of me. I still remember the smell that came out of the box. It was not the computer I sent them. It had that unique smell of “new” coming out of it. The box was sealed.

    To this day, I have no idea how they could afford to do that. Only $50 and I got a completely new system with all new manual and cords…everything. Oh boy what a day for me. Maybe they could just refurbish it and sell it to make their money back…but why didn’t they just replace the SID? Maybe they had some deal with Commodore to handle repairs by just sending a new computer.

    If so, hats off to Jack Tr.

    It functioned perfectly for years until I sold it (like an idiot..) I’m now using a C128. It has a much more advanced BASIC language so I went with that years later.

  12. Jeff Nyman

    August 1, 2021 at 7:21 pm

    “…a choice that stands as amongst the stupidest of a veritable encyclopedia of stupidity written by Commodore management over the company’s chaotic life.”

    I try not to be negative in these comments but this is yet another distressing example of the historical writing seeming to give way to a particular bias, which makes a critical reader distrust a lot of what is being said.

    Granted, *now* we can look at the situation and say “Yeah, maybe a focus on 16-bit would have been better.”

    Or we can be a little more historically nuanced and notice that this post actually shows what happened as a result of not having that focus. The engineers had to get quite clever with two chips and the use of the 6510 which showed another way to utilize 8-bit architectures. As such, what this might have proved — at the time — was that there was still life to be had in exploring and pushing the 8-bit concepts. And that could be done cheaper than exploring a full 16-bit approach.

    Was that wise? Was it the worst possible decision?

    Well, given we can’t historically speak about what didn’t happen, what we can say is that the Commodore 64 variations ended up existing until 1994 and the C64 was one of the best-selling computers in the history of these machines.

    So it’s unclear that this would be the “stupidest of a veritable encyclopedia of stupidity.”

    • Tom Cleaveland

      February 10, 2022 at 6:35 pm

      I agree with Jeff. It could be argued that Tramiel made a good decision (even if for the wrong reasons) *not* to develop a 16-bit processor given Intel’s pending dominance and given the failure of other 16-bit designs from the 1970s, such as the TMS9900 and the Z8000.

      Western Design Center began developing the 65C816 in 1982 and delivered it in 1984. The only US home computer of note that used it was the Apple IIgs, which was discontinued a year before the (8-bit) Apple IIe. It was also used in the Nintendo SNES. 8-bit CPUs were simply good enough for a very long time, given bank-switching techniques.

      Btw the IIgs also used a Yannes-designed audio IC. But the 6581 SID is absolutely legendary.


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