• RandyInLA

  • by RandyInLA

A place to document my collection, restoration, adaptation, and all around love reconnection to 8-bit, Commodore products. _nostalgia, _hacking, _music, _midi


Things that have been... Things To Come...

A bit about me and what I plan on contributing to my CommodoreServer blog space.

Greetings 8-bit Commodore Fans!

My name is Randy and I live in LA.  I have been into Commodore products since my introduction to the Commodore PET 2001 with those teeny tiny membrane keys in 1980.  A math teacher at my high school (Owosso, Mi) bought the PET, took some programming classes at Michigan State University that summer and was so inspired, he convinced the high school board to invest in 8~10 Commodore computers so he could teach a BASIC programming language class.  I was one of the few lucky ones to be part of his first class.  Keep in mind, this was pre-plus/4, pre-C64, pre-vic20.  There were no hard drives available for the Commodore computer at that time.  We had one 9-pin dot matrix printer to share amongst all of the computers and a standard cassette deck that had been altered by the high school electronics dept for saving/loading of our basic programs.  The Commodore PET computers the students clickety clacked on every day (can't recall the model number) had similar graphic symbol capabilities as the as-yet-to-be-released C64, but not the color output.  We stared at green text on a black background day after day and imagined we were working for NASA.  This was the bleeding, cutting edge of the personal computer experience in our known universe.  

Prior to taking this basic programming class, my life was all about music.  Arranging, composing, playing, teaching, conducting, listening.  Post programming tutelage, it was clear to me that I had to find a way to combine my (now) two loves in life.  I had no idea what that looked like, but knew it had to be done.  

Fast forward to approximately 1985.  I had spent just over a year at Berklee College of Music, learning arranging and composition, and was now back in Michigan, playing keyboards in Crowd Pleaser, an R&B bar band.  I owned a Korg Polysix, Sequential Circuits SixTrak, Yamaha DX7, Korg Poly81 and access to a Voyetra 8 and second SixTrak and DX7 owned by some other band members.  MIDI was the latest craze in my life.  Musical Instrument Digital Interface is an 8-bit serial protocol operating at 31.25Khz (thanks for correction AgentFriday!) via 5-pin din connectors.  Whereas later, MIDI was used for much more, in the beginning, most people would simply use it to connect two or more keyboards together for the purpose of layering sounds.  Pressing a key on one keyboard would trigger its own sound as well as the sound on another keyboard.   This was huge.  Suddenly, my two hands could output many more textures, parts and rhythms than possible a year earlier.  Bands with two or three keyboardists could now be reduced to bands with one keyboardist.

One day, while on the road, I was wandering around a K-Mart and saw a Commodore 64 sitting behind a glass case.  Instantly, my Commodore days in high school came flooding back to me and I had to be reunited.  Being a traveling musician was certainly a glamorous, albeit poor life.  I had just enough to afford the pristine brown personal computer and a MIDI interface with sequencing software built into it.  I believe it was the Sequential Circuits cartridge.  I had to forgo not only a floppy drive, but the datasette was to remain out of reach for a few more months.  That didn't matter to me so much because I had enough to connect my MIDI keyboards to the computer and begin creating music in the digital age.  Sequencing is the process of recording the MIDI stream of digital information generated by playing the keys on the musical keyboard.  ie.for every key press, three numbers were spit out the MIDI port on the keyboard; MIDI channel of the note, the number of the note (1-127) and the velocity the note was hit at.  Once the information was in the computer, you had the ability to edit the performance, save it to tape or disk and play it back on the original MIDI keyboard where the sound is once again triggered.  There were 16 MIDI channels, allowing many different parts to be created all in sync with one another, playing across multiple keyboards.  Or, in a word: heaven.  Since I didn't have any storage capability, I spent a lot of time creating songs/parts, recording the audio out of the MIDI keyboard to a 4-track audio tape recorder, losing my digital performance forever when the computer was turned off.  Similarly, if I wanted to play a game, I would spend a few days typing in a basic game (star trek comes to mind) out of some Commodore-centric magazine, playing it with fingers crossed that it didn't lock up or that someone didn't turn the light switch off which was also connected to the power outlet the C64 was connected to.  If you ever wish to learn patience...  

After a few weeks (months?) of this create/lose pattern, I bought a 1530 datasette.  A few more weeks of waiting (and waiting and waiting more) for programs/sequences to save/load off of tape, I bought (I believe with the assistance of another band member) a 1541 floppy drive!  Ahhhhhh sweet, sweet 1541.  I had gone through programming time warp hell.  Spending hours/days typing in programs for a few minutes/hours of play time.  I had earned this.  This 170k per side, 5-1/4" wonder of magnetic technology was my reward.  Since all my money had gone towards hardware, I had little remaining for software.  Hmmmm... what to do?  I did pay for some MIDI software; Passport's MIDI PLUS/4 & PLUS/8 cartridge/software packs, Passport's MasterTracks etc., but there were too many different titles available and I wanted all of it to feed my music creation hunger.  Enter copy programs and learning assembly language.  

I got into a nice routine of stopping by music stores and asking the keyboard sales person if I could "try" to copy some MIDI software; sequencers, keyboard sound editing and backup utilities etc.  We would discuss how copying never works, the copy protection thwarting all attempts at duplication, and how cool it would be "IF" it worked?  I would get them thinking and curious enough that they would almost always allow me to try.  Of course, it would never work.  The copied disk would not load the program, flashing the words "Error - copy" or something similar, proving to the sales person I didn't know what I was doing and I did not have a copy of the software.  Or did I?  By utilizing disk sector editing, I was able to load in a sector of assembly code from disk at home, write down the numbers on a legal pad and spend hours looking up the mnemonic opcodes.  I was able to reverse engineer a few manufacturer's copy protection, saving my changes directly back to individual disk sectors, allowing the copied program to load without issue.  Necessity really is a mother!

Eventually, I was using the C64 to play extra keyboard parts live with the band.  The bass line to Phil Collins' "Susudio" took maybe two days to enter and edit so it would play correctly without locking up, but gave our band a unique "sound" that other bands weren't able to produce:  That sequenced, quantized, 24 pulses per quarter note sweetness locked to our Oberheim DX drum machine!   We didn't try to hide the fact that we were sequencing live.  The click track would be playing through the drummer's on stage monitor for everyone to hear.  Playing live instruments sync'd to a computer MIDI track was hip and cool.  

I left the band, gaining full time sales employment at one of the music stores that so graciously nurtured my hackster beginnings.  Along with an SX-64 for demonstrating MIDI software, they had an in-store electronics repair person who, over the next two years or so, taught me about TTL and CMOS digital electronic design (solely on a hobbyist level).  After a while, he had me etching double-sided circuit boards in my oven that would become lighting control extensions to MIDI via the C64 user port.  I was playing out with local musicians here and there, controlling the lights with my home-brew lighting board that operated from its own track in the MIDI sequencer running on the C64.    

After a few years working there, I was picked up by a popular recording artist to program and play keyboards on the road for his upcoming tour.  That led to me moving out here to Los Angeles and selling keyboards at the Guitar Center on Sunset Blvd.   That, in turn, led to me being picked up by a huge recording artist for her upcoming 10 month world tour.  I spent the next few years programming in studios and on the road for various artists.  Whereas I had moved on to PC/Mac-based audio/MIDI systems, I had successfully combined my two loves, computers and music.

That almost seems like another life to me as I am now a full-time software engineer, using the Ruby on Rails framework to create internal tools for a major multi-media company.   I am looking forward to reconnecting to both my music and C64, letting the experience of that drive this blog. 

I knew about utility cartridges over the years such as the SuperCPU, 1541U, chameleon and the RRnet Ethernet card, but when I found out CommodoreServer.com allowed a C64 to communicate over the Internet via a userport-based RS232-to-Ethernet connection, allowing the cartridge port to be used at the same time, I knew it was once again time to pull the ol' 8-bit C64 system out of storage and give it a new life online.  Over the coming months in this blog, I will be documenting various C64 activities I've experienced over the years, as well as some new ones I've always wanted to try.  I will be covering hardware (both old/new and even some of my own design), software (same), music (original), MIDI and anything else I can think of that can (and should) be done on a trusty ol' C64.  I have been scouring eBay & craigslist for Commodore products I used to have or always wanted but couldn't afford as well as ordered a Comet64 Ethernet card and 1541U-II cart.  I will be providing images of products and projects, and videos of processes, hopefully inspiring some others to do the same.  Long live the Commodore 64!


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