How to be a remixer

Posted by Chris Abbott on

Getting started as a Remixer

You want to remix C64 tunes yourself?

Be aware that there are thousands of C64 remixes out there. Many of them cover the following games:

  • Arkanoid
  • Auf Wiedersehen Monty
  • Comic Bakery
  • Commando
  • Cybernoid II
  • Delta
  • Giana Sisters
  • Hawkeye
  • Human Race
  • International Karate
  • The Last Ninja
  • Last Ninja 2
  • Last Ninja 3
  • Lightforce
  • Myth
  • Parallax
  • Sanxion
  • Wizball

Therefore unless you've got a really new idea, it's probably best to concentrate on something less established, because the Commodore 64 remix audience is quite accustomed to high quality remixes on a regular basis. Releasing your first tune is quite disheartening when the response is a collective shrug.
Unless you're being really weird, the chances are there's already a mix just like the one you have planned: so do something different!
There's over 40,000 SIDs in the High Voltage SID Collection (HVSC), so it shouldn't be too hard to find something that inspires you. 

Now, let's assume you've found a tune to concentrate on: 

What's the Next Step?

Well, it's not "find a sequencer". It's "make sure you know why you're doing this".
Have you got something to say with the original SID? Is it lacking something only you can provide? Has no one touched it before? Is it one of your favourite tunes, and can only flourish in your hands?

If the answer to the above was YES, then you have that all-important thing which will make people respond to your music: an IDEA!
Kernkraft 400 by Zombie Nation (a cover of David Whittaker's Lazy Jones) had an idea.
It was very successful, though of course the legal background to that is decidedly unsatisfactory.
No one is terribly impressed by taking a generic loop and sticking it on a SID recording.
It doesn't matter if you use free softsynths or thousands of pounds worth of hardware: lack of ideas shows through instantly. The days are long gone when the fans applauded any C64 cover. 

Assuming you've made it this far without being depressed, it gets more exciting.
The main challenge in remixing is to master the original tune. A common mistake is to put all your energy into recreating the original tune, and then have no creative energy left over to make it shine.
It's an achievement to recreate a C64 piece, exactly, but it's only the beginning of the process, not the end. 

How DO you recreate a C64 piece?

Get to know the original, its feel and its soul. Load up SIDPlay and listen to the tune. Practice playing it until it's a part of you. Try and hear the differences between what it is, and what's in your head. A lot of artistic choices will be determined by the style you've chosen, though you can often make an impact by putting in the unexpected.
Record individual tracks if you have a SIDplayer that allows it... then if you're still lost, use a tool like SID2MIDI (which converts SID music to a MIDI file, but again should only be used as a starting point). Ear2MIDI is also very popular! ;-) 

Which sequencer do you use?

Any that you feel comfortable with. Remixers on Remix64 have used at various times:

and others (it's not an exhaustive list). Try the demo versions, find one you feel comfortable with, and use it. Get to know it very well with small test projects to avoid having your ideas limited by your knowledge of the technology.#
Software generally divides into MIDI sequencers (which tend to take a linear approach to composition and which are designed to drive external MIDI hardware as well as VST Softsynths), and Trackers, which take a more pattern-based approach. Sibelius is a scoring package, so everything is done with sheet music.
In terms of sounds, they're generally inbuilt, or you would use external hardware through a MIDI interface, or you would plug in soft synths (or a combination). There is a vast range of stuff on the net for free. Just googling "free VST plugins" will keep going for weeks.
Check out this link for a more general production guide.

Needless to say, planning is important in your remix. How does the tune change over time (or not)? What is being added to interest the listener? How do your new tracks combine with the existing SID ones?

If you want to include SID from games in your remixes, you have many choices:
  1. SIDPlay for Windows will save a SID as a WAV: though it will be an emulated WAV, and thus imperfect, though the quality has vastly improved. The JSidplay player also allows you to mute channels, which is perfect for remixing and has an oscilloscope view.

  2. VICE and other C64 emulators will also output sound now.

  3. SIDFX is a cool solution to put into your real C64 to add dual/swappable SID chips, and has noise reduction. It can be used in conjunction with a control panel application downloadable from CSDB. There is currently a waiting list for the second batch.

  4. Record from a real C64 using the video port (though this tends to be noisy), and the quality you gain from recording from a real SID chip is lessened by the noise.

  5. Mssiah cartridge is also worth a look: it turns your C64 into a MIDI synthesizer, 4-bit wave player, sequencer, etc.

Older solutions that are less accessible now included:

  1. Midibox - a DIY midi board with a SIDchip on. The schematics were free, and it had Sid playing. Search it out if you're curious.

  2. Catweasel - a multi-function card for the Amiga and PC which amongst other things allows you to play SIDs through a real SID chip. It was good, but PC technology changes left it incompatible with modern PCs. Individual Computers, the manufacturers, do many other good things.

  3. HardSID card. This card will allow you both to record SID music, and use the card as a MIDI device. It was brilliant, but again, modern PCs left it behind. However, the HardSID 4U is still functional (though drivers are unsigned).

  4. Sidstation: the most expensive SID player ever, now itself part of history.
Real SID is mostly welcome in a remix, especially if treated with FX and used imaginatively. Some fans live for this kind of sound!  :-)

A note from the Legal Side 

What if you want to use your remix commercially? 

Well, many of the original pieces are now registered with MCPS/PRS/STIM/GEMA, whatever. So permission to cover them (but NOT to sample the SID) is already granted, subject to the normal royalties charged by these organisations (which deal with all music). However, all SIDs are under copyright to someone. No one minds if you upload covers to though.

Contact us if you want to use C64 music in a film or TV Programme. 

We'd be delighted to help out.