The C64 was the best-selling computer in history, largely due to its SID sound chip, but who would have imagined, 20 years later, a thriving C64 remix community would exist? We spoke to Chris Abbott, of C64audio.com and High Technology Publishing fame, about C64 remixes, Zombie Nation, and the importance of Finland in the C64 remixing scene.
PIXELSURGEON: What are your earliest memories of the C64, and what did you like best about the computer?
Chris: I remember visiting a friend in 1983—he’d just got a C64 and several games, which were very impressive, but the music in Jeff Minter’s Hovver Bovver just blew me away. Prior to that, I’d only heard computer music on the Atari 400. I decided the music to Preppie and Shamus was the best I’d heard in my life, but then I wasn’t acquainted with pop music, having led a bit of a sheltered life—my dad thought Grease was too rowdy!
So, music was something you particularly loved as part of the gaming experience?
Pretty much, but then I was crap at the games! A sense of humour also helped in those days: I fell in love with Jeff Minter’s games because of the humour and the scrolling messages.
What was it that made the C64’s sound effects and music so unique, and why is there such interest in this particular retro platform in terms of remixing?
The quality of the music and uniqueness of the sound is why SID sounds have stood the test of time. From the triangle wave to the mixed waveforms and filters, the output can be gentle or raunchy, rather than just beepy.
The chip had just three voices, but you initially had to design the sound and the synth OS yourself. Although the chip was complex enough to encourage complex music, it was simple enough that you soon hit its limits and had to work creatively to overcome them. The SID chip sounded different to each programmer, and was the first that attracted real musicians. This eclecticism and passion for the work is what people respond to, even now.
Unlike other sound chips, the SID is an instrument—something you play. More recent chips merely reproduce sounds created elsewhere—and that includes the Amiga’s. The SID’s analogue nature means listeners must interpret tunes in their own way, in order to translate them into a frame of reference that fits with everything else they call music. Of course, this affects remixing: when I first started, I tried reproducing SID tunes as I heard them in my head, which meant keeping them intact while filling in things around it that my brain had added while I was listening.
When did you start remixing C64 music?
When it was first released, using an old four-track, and reproducing it on an Atari MIDI sequencer (that’s an Atari 800XL, not ST!), and then playing back through my Casio CZ-101. In 1994, I upgraded my kit and Michael Schwendt wrote SID2MIDI for me. It was suddenly possible to reproduce the SID performance in MIDI—a big deal, since much of the charm in SID tunes is in the performance of the sound driver in modulating the waves.
When did you realise this might become a feasible commercial entity?
Some of my MIDI files were uploaded to Compuserve and caught the ear of a German record producer, who wanted to do create The Commodore 64 Anthology, comprised of pop covers of several well-known C64 tunes. It’s probably lucky for him that I took the project away when it became clear that he was being economical with the truth (to say the least), since the result didn’t sell anywhere near the 30,000 copies he was expecting.
How did the project progress once you’d taken it over?
I renamed it Back in Time and began negotiating for rights with liquidators and software companies, but soon realised the composers actually owned their work (software houses had lost the basis for claims, or rights were never signed in the first place).
This was something of a relief—many companies that I thought owned the rights were extremely unhelpful—although it was still difficult to persuade the composers of the feasibility of the project. After that hurdle was crossed, the main problems were practical ones. I was paranoid about getting the tunes beta tested and to their best within the limits of the available technology.
Since I’d never done anything like this before, everything was a big deal: getting licensing from the composers and MCPS, getting the mastering done, and having to remaster when a bassline was wrong and when there were glitches in the DAT.
You later became a publisher for other C64 remix CDs. What was the thinking behind this, and what do you think of other people’s C64 remix CDs?
Other people created them and asked me to sell them. It seemed a good idea because there were certain styles and tunes that I’d shy away from, and it seemed unfair not to cater for the people who didn’t like my work.
As far as I’m concerned, if I promote and sell something, it has merit. In terms of specific CDs, Sidologie is my favourite—unsurprising, seeing as I’m such a Jarre fan. Instant Remedy is also inspiring, because it gives me ideas for further development.
What reaction did you get to the Back in Time albums?
Most were in favour; those that weren’t were pretty hardcore, although, frankly, up their own arses a bit. It became more confusing later on as the series progressed, since people who didn’t originally like it changed their minds, and some early fans thought I’d strayed too much from my original ‘mission’.
The composers were generally flattered. Rob Hubbard was pleased with the first CD, and although Martin Galway wasn’t, he became happier after the second one.
What role does nostalgia play regarding people’s reactions to the CDs and what’s produced?
It’s hard to sell someone a tune they don’t know, which is why radio force-feeds you singles every minute of the day. It’s the same for us: it’s easier to sell the audience something they already know, but you must get the quality right. The C64 remix CD producers do pieces because they’re nostalgic for them, because of the inherent musical challenges, and partly because it’s a historical thing. Of course, someone’s musical challenge is another’s nostalgia.
Nostalgia plays its part, though. Without such memories, a C64 remix sounds like any other music, except when it has SID in it, because then it has a flavour of its own. This tends to excite A&R; people, although they sometimes get so obsessed with sound that they miss the point of the music.
Some C64 remix CDs seem to be heading for niche territory. Is this a good thing, or is there a danger of releasing niche records within what is already a niche industry?
There is no mainstream C64 remix listener any more. When Back in Time 1 was released, it was the only game in town, and defined what a C64 remix CD should be. When the number of remixes increased, people felt able to pick and choose, and their natural musical tastes reasserted themselves—something that was always going to happen as the scene matured.
All we can do is to make sure there’s something for everyone and that the CDs are created because of love of music rather than for some specific market segment. There’s also little point worrying about the performance of any one CD: overall, the market worth of the C64 remix CD market has slightly increased over the years, but sales of each CD are lower.
I do worry that the natural audience for Back in Time 4 is so segmented that many of them may be disappointed. All I can do is ensure the music comes from the heart and hope people feel it that way. Trying to impress is not a good way to create remixes, because the resulting work is all pomp and no circumstance.
Are there any plans to improve exposure of C64 remixes to the public at large?
If a CD is stylised, it should appeal like any other CD in that genre and will therefore be applicable to a wider audience; in practice, I don’t have the advertising budget, PR or energy to fully appreciate that. We need to create pop songs, sell them to artist managers and record labels, and get acts to perform them. Other than that, some of the CDs we create naturally have a bigger target audience than just C64 fans—for example, Sidologie and Crystal Dreamscapes.
Zombie Nation was in that space, and mostly comprised of a hook from the C64 game Lazy Jones. What did you think of it?
I didn’t like the track much, although the concept was clever, and Kernkraft 400’s choice of track was inspired: there’s almost nothing else in SID history that’s as catchy, iconic and ‘singable’ by drunk people.
There were reported problems with the way the licensing was handled. Did this prompt you to look after the interests of other C64 composers?
I was already looking after quite a few tunes and C64 composers when the whole Zombie Nation thing kicked off, although it did add some urgency.
What happened was DJ Splank had been hanging onto the tune since his childhood—it wasn’t in the High Voltage Sid Collection at the time. He got a SidStation, did the song, and it was remixed and became a hit. Under a thousand copies were initially pressed, so Splank felt no need for honesty, since he didn’t think he’d be caught out. Once the track was a hit, he had to admit to his wrongdoing, since there were three record companies and a lot of lawyers around.
In the end, the track’s original composer, David Whittaker, cut a deal with Splank. I think the entire situation could have been handled better: Splank was interviewed multiple times and didn’t mention David or Lazy Jones once.
Along with working on CDs, as a producer, and looking after the rights of C64 composers, you’ve been involved in various live events. Where did the live idea come from?
Finland! Someone ran a successful club night, and I thought we could run one here—after all, we’d loads of dance mixes, and it had the potential for success. We originally planned a roadshow, since the original idea was just C64 dance mixes played very loud. The idea evolved into Back in Time Live and things snowballed once C64 composers Mark Cooksey and Ben Daglish agreed to come. Indeed, the event has changed in character every time it’s been held.
How successful have these events been?
So far there’s been lots of promise, lots of hard work, and the feeling that we’ve not accomplished all we can. We’re surprised at the lack of support from much of the C64 community, who seem happier wallowing in retro games rather than supporting things that are still going on. Luckily, we’ve got the support of plenty of other people who support the events.
So what are your plans for the future with regards to C64 remixes?
As I said earlier, we’d like to take some into the mainstream and get them sung by commercial artists, and perhaps use the vacuous nature of the pop industry to subsidise what we really want to do! The size of the active audience is borderline, in that we always find our plans are too big for our return—this is why Back in Time Live actually ends up costing me lots of money. But then, if you believe in something, you should put your money where your mouth is—if you don’t, you’re not a real believer.