Commodore 64 Music - Design Process

Design Process

The SID was devised by engineer Robert "Bob" Yannes, who later co-founded the Ensoniq digital synthesizer company. Yannes headed a team that included himself, two technicians and a CAD operator, who designed and completed the chip in five months, in the latter half of 1981. Yannes was inspired by previous work in the synthesizer industry and was not impressed by the current state of computer sound chips. Instead, he wanted a high-quality instrument chip, which is the reason why the SID has features like the envelope generator, previously not found in home computer sound chips.

I thought the sound chips on the market, including those in the Atari computers, were primitive and obviously had been designed by people who knew nothing about music.

— Robert Yannes, On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore

Emphasis during chip design was on high-precision frequency control, and the SID was originally designed to have 32 independent voices, sharing a common oscillator. However these features could not be finished in time, so instead the mask work for a certain working oscillator was simply replicated three times across the chip surface, creating three voices with a unique oscillator for each voice. Another feature that was not incorporated in the final design was a frequency look-up table for the most common musical notes, a feature that was dropped because of space limitations. The support for an audio input pin was a feature Yannes added without asking, even though this had no practical use in a computer, although it enabled the chip to be used as a simple effect processor. The masks were produced in 7-micrometer technology to gain a high yield: the current state-of-the-art at the time was 6-micrometer technologies.

The chip, like the first product using it (the Commodore 64), was finished in time for the Consumer Electronics Show in the first weekend of January 1982. Even though Yannes was partly displeased with the result, his colleague Charles Winterble said: "This thing is already 10 times better than anything out there and 20 times better than it needs to be."

The specifications for the chip were not used as a blueprint. Rather, they were written as the development work progressed, and not all planned features made it into the final product. Yannes claims he had a feature-list of which three quarters made it into the final design. This is the reason why some of the specifications for the first version (6581) were accidentally incorrect. The later revision (8580) was revised to match the specification. For example, the 8580 expanded on the ability to perform a logical AND between two waveforms, something that the 6581 could only do in a somewhat limited and unintuitive manner. Another feature that differs between the two revisions is the filter: the 6581 version is far away from the specification.

Read more about this topic:  Commodore 64 Music

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