AMIS 2022: From Datasheet to Dancefloor—The Elektron Sid Station

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

From Datasheet to Dancefloor: The Elektron Sid Station
David Jones

David Jones holds Master of Information (Archives and Records Management) and Master of Arts (history) degrees from the University of Toronto. He has published his research in the Canadian Journal of History and contributed articles to the Routledge Online Encyclopedia of Modernism. He has performed as an experimental musician and video artist at hundreds of events in North America, including a live collaboration with members of the Tafelmusik baroque quartet. His creative work has been featured in MacLean’s, Exclaim, Musicworks, and Now magazines. David is currently the Project Archivist for the EMI Music Canada Fonds at the University of Calgary.

The Elektron Sid Station is a pioneering Swedish synthesizer from 1997 built around the sound chip from the Commodore 64 computer. The MOS 6581 SID (Sound Interface Device) chip was designed by Bob Yannes in 1981 and featured three digital oscillators and a single analog filter. Nonetheless, it was the first chip that allowed computers to create musical sounds beyond the monophonic beeps no better than those emitted by consumer appliances like ovens or washing machines. Throughout the 1980s the SID chip earned a reputation for its musicality and unique sound. While extremely limited by today’s standards, the design of the chip gave rise to new composition techniques that strove to push the primitive options to their limit. These creative techniques, which developed over time, gave rise to the first lauded video game soundtracks and video game composers. It also gave rise to a genre called “chiptunes,” which developed over the decades following the popularity of the Commodore 64, when the hardware was long obsolete. Today, chiptunes and retro-themed or “8-bit” sounds are a popular part of electronic music. The Sid Station was one of the first devices to bring the technology and limitations of the early-1980s to electronic music producers more familiar with synthesizer composition than programming at a Commodore terminal. Production of the synthesizer ceased in 2003, when the supply of original SID chips was depleted. Accompanying the presentation will be performance elements with an original Sid Station synthesizer demonstrating the sonic character of the SID chip, including “data burp,” crosstalk artifacts, frequency dependent filter distortion, and other peculiarities. The live performance will also feature an overview of the “tracker” implementation in the Sid Station—which emulates the compositional environment of the early 1980s, where musical data such as pitch and timbre are plotted on a data grid. This part of the presentation demonstrates how hardware limitations were squeezed to produce more complex and rich compositions, how digital glitches were used to implement unintended sonic possibilities, and how the Sid Station implemented more traditional synthesizer programming features to make the chip more familiar to electronic music producers.

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.