a blast from the past..
When it appeared in the early 80s, the C64 home computer was appreciated particularily for the capabilities of its SID (Sound Interface Device) audio chip.
The SID audio chip featured tree channels, each with its ADSR envelope generator, ring modulation and filter capabilities. Technically it was a small revolution for the home computer domain of the time.
In the more than 30 years since the C64 first hit the shops, countless musicians have created tens of thousands tunes with that characteristic early 80s sythesizer sound (see High Voltage SID Collection). People that grew up with the C64 will certainly still remember some of them.
With the advent of the personal computer people started to program C64 emulators and by now there is quite a selection of more or less complex ones available for different platforms.. so far (i.e. when this experiment was done in 2012) none of these was available for the web browser.
Goal of the experiment: Create a lightweight C64 emulator that allows to playback original “music files” within the web browser (i.e. multi-platform). Lightweight meaning that the program should be fast enough to execute well also on computationally weak devices like smartphones. This certainly qualifies as a technically interesting if practically irrelevant ‘just for fun’ endeavor 🙂
The diagram to the right shows what the emulator is about: Contrarry to file formats like .mp3 or .ogg, .sid music files do NOT represent a dedicated audio file format but are in fact little more than arbitrarry C64 program files.
Within those programs any official as well as any undocumented C64 feature may actually be used to influence the SID chip’s audio output. An example of an official feature might be the program’s use of the SID chip’s independent oscillator register while an undocumented feature might be one of the ways to trick the SID chip into playing a specific audio sample:
The playback of audio samples was never an official feature of the SID chip.
The tricks exploited for the respective playback therefore are usually highly timing critical: While regular audio output is handled quite independently within the SID chip, sample playback must be explicitly handled by the program code, i.e. depending on specific execution times of 6510 CPU instructions, the timing of interrupts generated by the CIA timers or the 6667 video controller chip, etc. (Not to speak of timing interferences originating from the interactions between the different chips, e.g. the VIC may block the CPU during certain tasks, etc..)
Approach: Not having any experience in electrical engineering nor owning the real hardware for analysis, I decided to build on someone else’s existing SID emulation. I picked TinySid created by Rainer Sinsch because it is more compact than the more sophisticated competitors. This choice allowed me to get my ‘proof of concept’ going quickly – however I had to realize later that the existing emulation was limited to only parts of the CPU and the SID and none of the other above building blocks… so there was quite a bit of tinkering left for me to be done.
I did my ‘proof of concept’ with Adobe Flash since I had found that I could cross-compile the existing C code using Alchemy (TinySid is written in C.) This would also give me an opportunity to play with Flash (which I had not done before).
With a bit of extra AS3 code for the UI, the Alchemy compiled emulator code was up and running quite quicky. (It took a while though to then locate and fix the gaps in the existing emulation logic.) You might have a look here to see the completed player in action.
I also reached my cross platform goal, since the player runs about anywhere where Flash is available (e.g. even on my old HTC HD2 smartphone – reflashed to Android.. no pun intended).
It was fun doing some AS3 for a change, but coming from a C++ and Java background, the respective Flash development tools leave a lot to be desired. In particular when using Alchemy. It then helps to not make any programming errors.. 😉