• Dr. Evil Laboratories

  • by kentsu

This blog recounts the history of Dr. Evil Laboratories, the creator, manufacturer, and retail sales of peripherals and software for the Commodore 64, including the Imagery! adventure game system, the SID Symphony Stereo cartridge, and the Swiftlink-232 cartridge.

Jul
27

SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge, Part 2

Part 2 of the SID Symphony story details the rise in popularity of the cartridge, engineering improvements for version 2 and version 3, a company relocation, participation in more SIDfest and World of Commodore events, marketing and sales of Enhanced Sidplayer, the creation of SID Basic, and the sale to Creative Micro Designs.

UPDATE 2013-08-11: Added links to magazine articles and pictures of version 2, version 3, and CMD cartridges. Also updated info on RCA jack placement, courtesy of blog reader “core”.

UPDATE 2013-09-21: Added partial CMD sales figures.

UPDATE 2017-02-25: Added link to SID BASIC disk image.

As I described in the Part 1 of the SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge story, the first 50 cartridges sold in a little over a month. So, even though the school year was in full swing at Purdue, Rick and I spent considerable time and effort to ensure there was a steady supply of cartridges. Each of the investors agreed to plow the profits from the first 50 units back into purchasing more circuit boards and components. Given the demand, we decided to manufacture a batch that was twice the size (100). This batch size continued until the end of production.

Some things in any project are too good to be true, and the cost of the 6582 SID chip was one of those things. Jameco gave us a great price ($6.26) but that was because they were discontinuing them. I was unable to find another electronics supplier that offered the 6582. What to do? Fortunately, Ray Moody came to the rescue. He knew Fred Bowen, the lead software engineer on the C-128 and closely associated with the C-64, because Fred had an interest in the Kermit project. I was able to make email contact with Fred, and from there we talked on the phone.

The details are hazy to me now, 25 years later, but I remember Fred being very supportive of the project. It’s a blessing that he was, because without his help, the product probably would have died right then and there. Instead, Fred gave me contact info at Commodore Semiconductor Group (aka MOS Technology), the division of CBM that manufactured and sold their proprietary chips. But more importantly, Fred put in a good word for me with them, which opened the door for Dr. Evil Labs to establish an account and obtain the much-needed SID chips. Looking back, it’s great that a multinational company like CBM/CSG cared enough to help a bunch of crazy college kids, operating on a shoestring budget, be successful. CSG even have let us operate with a Net 30 days account from the beginning. The price per chip wasn’t quite as low ($8.23), but it was quite fair, especially since the Jameco price was a closeout special.

The other components were straightforward to obtain, with no changes in suppliers or significant price increases. Jason-Ranheim even knocked a nickel off the cost of each cartridge shell. The circuit board price stabilized at $4.04 each. Dr. Evil started paying Rick $1.50 per cartridge for assembly. The gross profit per cartridge rose dramatically, to $13.80, almost entirely due to no further setup charges with Bear Electronics. (Had we known we were going to make more than 50 cartridges at the outset, the $175 fee could have been amortized across a larger number of cartridges.)

Also during this time, Pamela Miller helped me improve the setup and use instructions, by adding a hook-up diagram and by including three pictures showing how to (carefully) replace the 9V battery. The latter information was added, in part, because we had begun hearing from customers who had zapped their SID chips. We thought the new directions were so much better that we mailed a copy to everyone who purchased one of the first 50 units, along with a letter encouraging them to treat their cartridges gently. We also began wrapping each cartridge with a paper band, alerting them of the proper handling technique.

Demand for the cartridges accelerated during the winter of 1988 and spring of 1989, as word of them spread. Reviews started to pop up in various CBM 8-bit magazines, as well as user group newsletters. The first mentions seem to have been in the January, 1989 Run (News & New Products, p15) and the January / February 1989 INFO, where the name of the company received as much or more notice as the product! INFO followed up with a capsule review in the very next issue, along with a review of the Enhanced Sidplayer. (More on that below.) Customers also started sharing their love of the product and company with us. Here are some examples:

An homage to the Dark Castle video game on the Mac (identity unfortunately lost to time)

Humorous notes from customers Rick Crowell and Laura Sawyer

Using the number of Stereo SID Collection, Vol. 1 disks as a proxy for the percentage of sales to Q-Link members, about 80% of sales were to people outside of Q-Link during this time. The Commodore User Group of Springfield, Missouri (CUGOS), which had been an early supporter of Imagery!, made a group purchase of 10 cartridges for its members, and received a $1.00 discount per cartridge. At this time, Dr. Evil gave Rick the cartridge he mentioned in Part 1. Rick reported to me that he has never used the cartridge and that it is still cocooned in a static electricity warning wrapper! Kind of like framing your first dollar bill, I guess… The company also experienced its first two bad checks, resulting in two more “free” cartridges.

By the time I graduated from Purdue in May, 1989, Dr. Evil Labs had sold close to 250 SID Symphony Stereo Cartridges, with an average gross profit of $11.38 per cartridge. Regular disbursements to the investors began, and because Dr. Evil Labs had a 40% stake, there was enough money to fund further batches of cartridges.

In June, 1989, we participated in our second SIDfest as a company, in New Orleans, Louisiana on June 23 – 25. Rick represented Dr. Evil Labs, met a lot of nice people, and sold 10 cartridges, again at a $1.00 discount per cartridge. Be sure to read his humorous memoir of that trip. Also in June, Compute!’s Gazette made its first mention of the SID Symphony, along with the Enhanced Sidplayer, in the Commodore Clips column on page 8.

That same month, Dr. Evil Labs relocated to Redmond, Washington, following me as I moved to the Seattle area to begin my career with Microsoft. I made a minor update to the directions, to reflect the new mailing address, along with similar changes to the promo sheet. Rick continued to manufacture the cartridges in Indiana and bulk-shipped them to me, and I filled the orders. I also sent notice of the move to the magazines, and here’s an example from the November, 1989 INFO.

I almost forgot to mention that my move to Washington marked the end of my mom Jean’s active involvement with Dr. Evil Labs. From the first orders for Commodore 64/128 Kermit that we received in January, 1987, until I moved to Washington in June, 1989, she tirelessly checked P.O. Box 190 in my hometown of St. Paul, Indiana, deposited funds in Dr. Evil’s account, recorded each order in the official company ledger, and forwarded me the orders, without ever receiving monetary compensation. Everyone in Dr. Evil Labs owed her a big debt of gratitude, and we made sure she knew how much we appreciated her help.

In July, 1989, Compute!’s Gazette followed up with a more in-depth look at the SID Symphony, by featuring it and the Enhanced Sidplayer prominently in a six-page cover article on C-64 music hardware and software.

In September, 1989, Dr. Evil Labs expanded its product line by beginning to offer Compute!’s Enhanced Sidplayer book and disk package. We found that customers were having trouble finding this book and Chilton Book Company was willing to sell us the books at about 40% below the retail price of $24.95, so we were able to provide a beneficial service and make a few extra dollars too. Here’s the promo sheet that Craig Chamberlain helped me create, and here’s a later, improved version with artwork and streamlined shipping options. At the same time, we began distributing Robert Stoerrle’s free Stereo Editor program (promo sheet, instructions), which extended the Enhanced Sidplayer editor’s functionality to six simultaneous voices.

By this time, articles on the SID Symphony began appearing in local user group newsletters, such as the October, 1989 Ottawa Home Computing and the November, 1989 Quad Cities Commodore Computer Club Bulletin. The first known international article on the cartridge also appeared that same month, in Sweden’s Datormagazin. Anders Reuterswärd, the author, sent me a photocopy of the article, along with a letter. Here’s a translation of the article.

Also in November, 1989, Rick returned to the Philadelphia area, this time to the suburb of Valley Forge, for the second World of Commodore show, and he came prepared to vend this time. Rick sold 42 cartridges for Dr. Evil Labs. In this same timeframe, Dr. Evil experimented with the wholesale channel, selling Floppy House Software three cartridges at 75% of retail cost. As far as I can tell from company records, we didn’t do any other wholesaling.

In December, 1989, Rick visited another World of Commodore show – this time north of the border, in Toronto, Ontario, and sold 16 cartridges for $45 Cdn each ($38.25 USD). Noted Sidplayer author Nick Zelinsky facilitated the necessary customs broker paperwork and even provided Rick a place to sleep in his hour of need. For colorful details, read Rick’s hilarious account of his trip to the Great White North.

As 1989 drew to an end and 1990 dawned, we had shipped approximately 675 SID Symphony Stereo Cartridges. Gross profit per cartridge hovered in the $12.00 range. We certainly weren’t getting rich, but we were having fun! Change was on the horizon, however.

Version 2: #1000 - #1236

Regularly replacing the 9V battery was a source of some customer dissatisfaction, due to the ongoing cost and hassle of opening the cartridge. For the final three batches of version 1 cartridges, Craig, Ray, and I reinvested our share of the profits to fund a redesign effort, and also to build up inventory, in anticipation of even greater demand once version 2 was available. Rick began redesigning the cartridge to not use a battery (see his amusing anecdote about that effort) and to protect the sensitive SID chip from static damage.

Sometime during the fall of 1989, I met Bryan Minugh at a University of Washington Commodore Users’ Group (UWCUG) meeting in Seattle. I also met Noel Nyman at the same time. The three of us went on to design and bring to market the SwiftLink-232 Serial Cartridge, but that’s a story for another blog post or two. With regard to the SID Symphony v2 project, Bryan helped Rick design a charge pump to replace the 9V battery. He also identified a boo-boo in the design where the 74LS244 and 74LS245 buffer chips were not connected to the I/O memory select line—an easy fix.

In February we informed people who had sent in payment that they would be getting the improved model. Getting the version 2 cartridge to market took a bit longer than expected. Since we were facing a one-time setup charge anyway, we took this opportunity to switch circuit board suppliers, to Milplex Circuits, which offered a comparable price to Bear Electronics (slightly lower, in fact), and a shorter manufacturing time. I also managed to establish an account directly with the company that manufactured the cartridge shells, Solakian Mold Company, which cut the price of shells in half. By bringing the SwiftLink-232 to market, we finally created a large enough volume of business for Solakian to be willing to sell to us.

At the same time, Bryan and I took the burden of cartridge assembly off Rick’s shoulders. Assembling 675 cartridges was a herculean effort and a job well done. Rick’s living situation changed when he graduated from Purdue and he no longer had a good place to do this work.

Meanwhile, the SID Symphony was featured in a Run magazine cover article in the April, 1990 issue. The photo was of a v1 cartridge, of course.

During the last week of April and first week of May, I sent letters to eight publications with significant 8-bit Commodore coverage, announcing the v2 SID Symphony, information on the Enhanced Sidplayer book and disk combo plus Stereo Editor, and the upcoming introduction of the SwiftLink-232. The publications were in the US, England, Sweden, and Australia:

  • The Australian Commodore and Amiga Review
  • Commodore Computing International
  • Commodore Disk User/YC
  • Compute!'s Gazette
  • Datormagazin
  • INFO
  • RUN
  • Twin Cities 128

On May 28, we sent everyone who was patiently waiting for their cartridges a postcard apologizing for the delay. Version 2 cartridges finally began shipping in early June and the backlog was quickly taken care of. Naturally, I updated the instructions and the promo sheet to reflect the new design and participated in a 90-minute chat on CompuServe to help launch the new and improved product. I am pretty sure I participated in chats on Q-Link and GEnie too, but I do not have records of those sessions.

Here are some photos of a version 2 cartridge, #1001, which I own:

Interior, showing top side of circuit board and label

Interior, showing top side of circuit board and label

Interior, showing bottom side of circuit board

Interior, showing bottom side of circuit board

The absence of bolt distinguishes a v2 cartridge from a v1 cartridge. Sometime during version 2 production, we apparently moved the location of the RCA jack from the left side to the right. The jack for #1001 is on the left, as is #1037, but #1210 is on the left. I need more data to pinpoint this change, since Dr. Evil’s records are mum on this the timing.

At the same time, I worked with Chris Newman, a very talented C-64 programmer who was home on summer break from Carnegie-Mellon, to create SID Basic 64, which brought most of the C-128’s BASIC 7.0 commands for music and sound to the C-64, plus six-voice support, in the form of a classic machine-language wedge. The program and accompanying article were published in the October, 1990 issue of Run magazine. While sorting through Dr. Evil Labs records, I came across a very thoughtful letter from Art Hunkins, frequent contributor to Compute!’s Gazette, that describes how he apparently had the original idea for SID Basic, plus a couple of other utilities that we did not create. Finding his letter was a great reminder that human memory is frail indeed—I had no memory whatsoever of his letter or his role in getting the project started. I also did not remember that we apparently pitched the idea to Compute!’s Gazette first and that they turned us down.

With production of the version 2 SID Symphony in full swing, Bryan and I made Dr. Evil Lab’s almost-yearly pilgrimage to the Philadelphia area, for a combination SIDfest and World of Commodore show, on September 15 & 16, 1990. We didn’t quite have a full “Rick Washburne experience,” but I do recall that that we were at the rear of a very full redeye flight, that it was really hot in the plane, and that my seat wouldn’t recline properly. So much for sleeping… This led directly to bleary-eyed driving in a rental car (we got lost) and oversleeping at the motel before the show opened. (Bryan set an alarm on his watch but we both neglected to think about the three-hour time change.) Bryan got to have his own World Famous Cheese Steak Experience with a group outing similar to past shows, and I tagged along, of course.

Sales were brisk at this show—we sold 53 cartridges (all that we brought with us) plus two that we gave away as raffle prizes. Dr. Evil accounting paperwork also indicates we discovered three leftover v1 cartridges and that we sold them at the bargain price of $20 each.

The SwiftLink-232 was in production by this point, and we hung out for much of the show with Gary Farmaner, author of Dialogue 128, a wonderful C-128 80-column terminal program. Gary had created a version of his program for use with the SL-232. Here’s a picture of the three of us—the only known picture of Dr. Evil Labs personnel "in action", strangely enough:

Kent Sullivan, Gary Farmaner, and Bryan Minugh

Kent Sullivan, Gary Farmaner, and Bryan Minugh

In the picture above, we’re sporting hats that Bryan had made for himself, Craig Chamberlain, and me when we all visited Victoria, BC a few weeks prior to the show. Craig came out for a visit and we all went to Victoria for fun. I guess Craig left his hat behind and Bryan took it with him to Valley Forge, because it’s clearly on Gary’s head! I still have my hat and wear it at retro computing meetings and events.

Meanwhile, Anders Reutersward made sure the SID Symphony received further publicity in Sweden, in the September, 1990 issue of Datormagazin. This time, Anders included his own translation, which I have included in the PDF.

Shortly after returning from the show, I did a cost analysis and we unfortunately needed to raise our prices, effective with the third batch of v2 cartridges. We sent out a press release to the various magazines and online services and used this form to request adjustments from people who sent in money after the price increases went into effect.

In the November, 1990 issue of RUN, StereoPlayer and the SID Symphony were highlighted in an article about the best free software for C-64/128s.

Version 3: #2000 - #2105

After selling 300 of the version 2 cartridges, we introduced version 3 in December, 1990, with the following changes:

  • Switched to a board-mounted RCA jack, which reduced assembly time significantly
  • Changed a 1N458A clamping diode to 1N5232 zener diode, to fix issues with cartridge port expanders like the Aprospand
  • Simplified the circuit board to reduce the number of hole-throughs

View the schematic in PNG format.

All version 3 cartridges have the RCA jack on the right side instead of the left.

Here are some photos of #2105, which I own:

Interior, showing top side of circuit board and label along with exterior, showing label

Interior, showing top side of circuit board and label along with exterior, showing label

Interior, showing bottom side of circuit board

Interior, showing bottom side of circuit board

I took this opportunity to revise the instructions one more time, removing most of the cautions about static discharge and adding some information about how to use the SID Symphony with MIDI interfaces. Most MIDI interfaces occupied the same page in memory ($DE00) so we enabled the SID Symphony to move to $DF00 by changing a trace on the circuit board. This functionality was first added to the v2 cartridge but, for some reason, was not mentioned in the instructions until v3.

The SID Symphony was featured in the 1990 holiday shopping guide in Run magazine, as one of five recommended stocking stuffers in the “up to $50” price range.

Dr. Evil Labs produced one batch of 106 version 3 cartridges, but sold only 60 of those to customers, because we sold the company’s hardware products to Creative Micro Designs in February, 1991. I will cover this transaction in another blog post at some point. At the time of the sale, we sold CMD 14 complete SID Symphony v3 cartridges and another 32 assembled but without 6582 SID chips (we were out of stock). The highest serial number that Dr. Evil Labs sold directly to an end customer was 2057.

I was able to examine a CMD-produced unit, owned by Al Jackson, President of the Clark County Commodore Computer Club, at CommVEx 2013. The CMD circuit board appears to be identical to the Dr. Evil Labs v3. Some of the components are slightly different, likely reflecting a change in suppliers. Here are some photos of Al’s cartridge:

Interior, showing top side of circuit board and label along with exterior, showing label

Interior, showing top side of circuit board and label along with exterior, showing label

Interior, showing bottom side of circuit board

Interior, showing bottom side of circuit board

And here are photos comparing my #2105 and Al’s unit:

Exterior, showing product labels along with top side of circuit boards

Exterior, showing product labels along with top side of circuit boards

Interior, showing bottom side of circuit boards

Interior, showing bottom side of circuit boards

CMD did a good job of promoting the SID Symphony. Here are some ads that I remember – probably not a complete list. Notice the changes—the amount of space seemed to decrease over time:

Compute! (Gazette section), March, 1991

Run, April, 1991

Creative Micro News, Winter 1991 / Spring 1992

Run, February, 1992

Run, June 1992

The June 1992 Run also included the last known article on the SID Symphony—fittingly, in the short-lived “Curtain Call” column on the last page of the magazine. I included the article in the PDF linked to above. The same PDF includes a review of the SwiftLink-232 Serial Cartridge. Finally, “The Great Cartridge Expanse” in the June, 1996 issue of CMD’s own magazine, Commodore World, mentioned the SID Symphony cartridge.

Conclusion

By the numbers, Dr. Evil Laboratories produced 1017 SID Symphony Stereo Cartridges. 66.3% (674) were version 1, 23.3% (237) were version 2, and 10.4% (106) were version 3, of which Creative Micro Designs produced an unknown further amount. In September, 2013, I uncovered some royalty statements that CMD sent to us, and they indicate that they sold at least 461 SID Symphony Stereo Cartridges, not counting the ones we sold them outright. You can read more about this in the “All Good Things” post.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this history of the SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge! Please leave comments, especially with questions and suggestions for other topics to cover. Also, every SID Symphony that Dr. Evil Labs produced has a serial number, printed on a label inside the cartridge shell. If you own one, please post the number, just for fun…

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Responses

core 8/1/2013

Great talk at CommVEx 2013 on SID Symphony and the bonus talk on Imagery!.

I located my pre-CMD era SID Symphony and carefully pulled it open to see the label...
Dr. Evil Labs
SID Symphony, Ver 2
Serial No. 01210

Couple other points:
1. this 'Ver 2' has the RCA jack is on the right & not board mounted.
2. address traces labeled "e" and "f" (of course solder jumpered to "e").

kentsu 8/11/2013

core--Thanks so much for the info on your cartridge! I have updated the text with this info.

Hey other readers--if you own a SID Symphony, please log in and post your cart's info! As encouragement, I'll post the name of the original owner and the date it was shipped.

core--It looks like you are the original owner of your cartridge. Am I correct about that? It was shipped on October 19, 1990.

wizardnj 8/22/2013

Found one of mine is a version 2 serial # 1116 same as core. I am not original owner this one was bought couple years ago.

kentsu 8/22/2013

WizardNJ, very cool. #1116's original owner was none other than John Brown of Parsec (aka JBEE). It was shipped to him on 12/1/1990.

Thanks for the info about the placement of the RCA jack.

rickwash 8/28/2013

It turns out that my cartridge is SN #592 - I finally opened it :-) I thought I'd have one of the first ones, but this reminded me of how brisk the first run of cartridge sales was (and a few more runs after that) and my memory suggests that I was going to keep one of the first ten carts and chose to ship it instead and keep one later. Or maybe this is an invented memory to cover the fact that I stole this one. Who knows? Hey, Kent, Statute of Limitations for theft is seven years, so there! :-P

Well, glad I opened her up, as the BATTERY WAS STILL IN IT!!! But with no load it reads a solid 7.42VDC so it's ready for several nanoseconds of non-optimal use!

I had originally thought/said that I'd never used the cart, but I know for sure I was a regular user of the cart (especially in '89/'90 when my unrealized goal in life was to become a Q-Link Music SysOp), and so I now realize this one saw a lot of use, but I just always kept the paper warning wrap in good shape and taped it

rickwash 8/28/2013

...back when removed from use. This memory came back to me when I saw that the battery was an Energizer - we were using Pro...something... batteries, the Industrial brand name of a very popular battery that we got at a great bargain. I can't remember the name or the manufacturer, but this is so interesting that I can't wait to search the Internet for...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

This trip down memory lane has been a blast!!!

Rick "I like to create my own blogs in the Comments section" Washburne

rickwash 8/28/2013

Oh, and about that RCA jack on the other side...If you look again at the picture of cart 1001, the first Ver2 unit, you'll notice that brilliantly-engineered circuit board cut-out to provide space for the jack on the OPPOSITE side of the board from the RCA jack. This is an advanced engineering process called "Rick screwed up and drilled the hole on the wrong side, and went with it lest we throw out an otherwise perfectly good cartridge case." D'OH! We were so cute at that age...

Rick "he was actually 100% sober in those days" Washburne

gtaylor 1/17/2016

Hey Kent,
Was nice to read about the history. I believe we made contact in 1989, and I supplied a test program for your production. I was grateful to receive a v1 sid cart for my efforts. Unfortunately, the GND connectors of my cart port weren't connected for some reason, so I thought it didn't work, but you kindly sent me a v2 some weeks later, which I made good use of on a fixed cart port!

I remember wishing I could have a stereo headphone jack, so I mounted one in my machine, but the SID cart was much louder than the internal SID. I wished they had the same output level. I also mounted a line-in that had an insertion switch, to ground the stray noise that came from the SID's line-in. That made it much better.

I also ended up with a Swift232 somehow, I believe it was number 38/58. I didn't realize how rare these were until now.

I might also mention, that it's possible to scroll soft80 text on a c64 with software 9600 baud. The trick to that was given to me by Chris Ja

kentsu 1/17/2016

George, so nice to hear from you! Thank you for sharing your memories.