• 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.


SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge, Part 1

To help celebrate the 25th anniversary of this popular hardware peripheral for the C-64/128, read the untold story of its development, by going behind the scenes with Kent Sullivan and Rick Washburne.

UPDATE 2013-08-11: Added pictures of version 1 cartridge.


As I explained in this blog post and this one, the roots of the SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge are intertwined with the Imagery! adventure game system that Roy Riggs created. It all began with our desire to use the nifty Sidplayer engine to play a theme song during the program’s introductory (splash) screen, which led to an outrageous offer by COMPUTE! Publications, the formation of a friendship with Craig Chamberlain (Sidplayer’s author), and attendance at the first SIDfest in Columbus, Ohio on June 26, 1987. I met Mark Dickenson, creator of the StereoPlayer program, at that event. I saw and heard lots of amazing Sidplayer music that day.

One thing those blog posts did not explain was how I knew about Sidplayer in the first place. I have QuantumLink, the national bulletin board for Commodore 64s, to thank for that. I remember purchasing my first modem, a 300 bps CBM model 1660, at K-Mart. I think there was a Q-Link offer in the box, and I signed up. I think this all occurred while I was home for Thanksgiving during my freshman year at Purdue, after having been exposed to BBSes for the first time that fall via my then-new pal Craig Barnhart. Roy Riggs was a steady Q-Link user while Craig frequented local BBSes and became a SysOp himself. My home was in a small town and we didn’t have any BBS local access numbers, but Purdue was in a much-larger city, so local access was plentiful.

I discovered the Sidplayer community on Q-Link in short order, and enjoyed downloading and playing many of the amazing tunes that people were creating. There was a huge amount of energy surrounding Sidplayer on Q-Link. About the time Imagery! became a reality, I discovered Mark Dickenson’s StereoPlayer and the amazing world of six-voice, stereo Sidplayer tunes. According to a history of StereoPlayer that Mark wrote after he released version 7.0, Q-Link quickly became home base for stereo Sidplayer song and player development. Version 3.0 was the first version of StereoPlayer that Mark uploaded to Q-Link, and version 6.0 was what he demonstrated at the Columbus, Ohio SIDfest in 1987. After hearing stereo Sidplayer music at this event, I was hooked!

Like many people who wanted to enjoy six-voice Sidplayer tunes, I downloaded and read Mark’s instructions detailing how to add a second SID chip. In those early days, adding a second 6581 SID chip directly to the motherboard, piggyback style, was required. Hand soldering 28 pins of a static-sensitive, heat-sensitive, and expensive SID chip, and running the risk of damaging two of them in the process, was not for the faint of heart!

Version 1: #0001 - #0675

Enter another episode of “Wouldn’t it be cool if… ?” As I described in the first Dr. Evil blog post, many of the ideas for Dr. Evil Labs’ products began with wanting to benefit from cool functionality for the Commodore 64 that someone else had created, but which was relatively hard to access in its original form. Because the Commodore 64 provides comprehensive expansion capabilities for hardware via the cartridge port, it was not difficult to come up with the idea of putting a second SID chip on a plug-in cartridge.

From reading previous blog posts, you probably have ascertained that Roy, Ray, and I, along with other friends such as Craig, were software guys, while creating a SID chip cartridge was definitely a hardware project, especially since the software already existed. Enter Rick Washburne. I don’t recall exactly how I met Rick, but a good friend and band mate of his, Dave Stemler, was my next-door neighbor in the Wiley residence hall at Purdue, so I’m pretty sure that Dave introduced us sometime during the 1987-88 school year.

Rick was majoring in Electrical Engineering Technology at Purdue, was a C-64 enthusiast, and loved a challenge. I handed him a copy of Mark Dickenson’s second SID chip installation directions and he dove in. (Note: I still have a pristine, dot-matrix printed copy of those directions after all of these years. They are dated 1987 and are an earlier version of the file I linked to above, which was updated in 1988 and published in C= Hacking magazine.)

Mark’s instructions provided helpful information about filter capacitors and the output jack, but his instructions assumed easy access to +5VDC and +12VDC power. Unfortunately, the C-64’s cartridge port only supplies +5VDC. What to do? The 6582 SID chip to the rescue! As described in the comprehensive Wikipedia article on the SID chip, the 6582 was the retail version of the 8580, the SID chip used in the C-128DCR and some C-64c models. This chip was released in 1986, so was on the market when we started our project, and it required +9VDC instead of +12VDC. To keep things simple, Rick designed the first version of the cartridge to use a replaceable 9V battery.

With school and part-time jobs taking most of our attention, we didn’t have a lot of time to devote to designing and manufacturing the cartridge during the school year. The project shifted into high gear during the summer of 1988. In June, Rick finalized the design and in early July, the first 50 circuit boards were ordered from Bear Electronics in Chicago. Two California companies, Jason-Ranheim and Jameco Electronics, provided the plastic cartridge shells and the electronics (including the SID chips), respectively. Bear Electronics did a very nice job on the circuit boards, but because we were a small account, service was not speedy. The boards shipped to us on August 30, after school was back in session.

As Rick explains in this hilarious account, Bear Electronics was just the right kind of vendor for Dr. Evil Labs in many ways—no frills and operated using CBM 8-bit equipment! However, this meant that their operation was prone to problems and sometimes we needed to apologize to customers.

Also during the summer, I worked with my friend Pamela Miller, who managed me during my internship with Pritsker & Associates, to design a label for the cartridge. Pam donated her graphic design expertise and her extensive skills with Aldus Freehand. I majored in technical writing at Purdue, so I enjoyed the challenge of explaining how to hook up and use the cartridge. What I don’t remember after all these years, oddly enough, is who came up with the name “SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge.” Rick is pretty sure it was Craig Chamberlain, which makes sense. Craig said he has the “barest inkling” that perhaps he did, but he is far from certain.

The introductory price of the cartridge was $29.95. A few of them were sold at a slightly-higher price of $34.95, which became the regular price. Sales of the SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge were pretty brisk. It appears that the first order was received on September 29, 1988 and the 50th was received on November 9. I don’t exactly recall what the marketing plan was, but I am sure it was pretty basic. Given that only three of the first 50 cartridges were sold with the optional music disk (front side, back side, instructions) featuring StereoPlayer v10.3 and a selection of stereo Sidplayer tunes, my guess is that I announced the availability on Q-Link and that most of early sales came from that source. We did sell a few through the CBM users group that met in West Lafayette, the home of Purdue. I created a single-page promo, similar in format to the ones done previously for Imagery! We got a nice boost in credibility from Craig Chamberlain, who wrote a thoughtful endorsement.

Here are some pictures of SID Symphony #0002, 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

If the SID Symphony had a coming-out party, it was the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania SIDfest on November 3 – 6, 1988. Rick and I made a whirlwind trip, to not miss too many classes at Purdue. We rode together in his trusty Toyota pickup, driving straight through from West Lafayette, Indiana to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we crashed for a few hours at the home of his brother Bob. We picked up an ’85 Honda Civic there that he wanted to transport to Indiana. We pushed on to Philly and had a blast at the show. Dr. Evil Labs’ records are silent about selling cartridges at the show, and my dim memory is that we promoted them and took orders, but did not sell any, because we did not have a vending license. Rick and I both recall driving several miles from the show site to get World Famous Cheese Steaks. His story is much more entertaining than mine would be, so here’s Rick:

There was a late-night road trip for cheese steaks, where we left the hotel at about 9:00 PM, got to the downtown area about 10:00 PM, and drove around looking for parking until 11:45 PM. Well, that's how I remember it. Write your own journal. :-)

I must have said something wrong, or I'm just an elitist (maybe both), but while everyone was making happy NAUM NAUM NAUM sounds while they enjoyed their Geno's (or the other one's; I can't remember), I apparently had ordered the Large Gristle on Stale Bread with Very Little Cheese Whiz special. In hindsight, I might have made a bad joke in line (who, me?) and got a bad sandwich on purpose, but after years in various jobs within the food service industry, I NEVER made fun of food, even in the school cafeteria. And, by the way, there is only one food joke I ever heard that I found funny: I was serving Turkey Tetrazzini at Cary Quad food service and my friend Roger Emund smiled politely and asked for the “Turkey Tetrachloride.”

I also remember a nearly-endless trip back to Purdue on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstates 70 and 65. If I remember correctly, Rick and I were going a bit faster than the posted 55 MPH on the Turnpike and got caught in a speed trap. Well, one of us at least. There was only one trooper writing tickets, and they motioned Rick over since he was in the lead, while I slithered on by and waited for him at the next rest area.

The costs associated with this project were far above anything Dr. Evil Labs had tried before, so I did very careful accounting. The first 50 cartridges cost $1136.19, which included some sunk costs, such as a $175 setup fee for Bear Electronics. The most-expensive item, unsurprisingly, was the SID chip, at $6.26 each. The circuit boards were $3.66 each (not counting the setup charge). The cartridge housings were $1.90 each, and the 9V batteries were $1.35 each. All of the other components were less than $0.50 each, except for the bubble mailing envelopes, which clocked in at $0.57 each. Cartridge assembly was ably completed by Rick, and he did Dr. Evil a favor by comping his time for the first 50 units. Rick's memory of our understanding is much more vivid than mine:

"Because of the setup charge for the boards, we talked about it and decided to take such initial expenses out of the first 50; in this way we didn't have to be psychic to know how many carts we'd sell in total and spread the cost across all of them, and moreover, since we weren't sure where the selling price was going to end up, it made more sense to just get all the costs out of the way up front, even if it meant losing a few bucks in the first run. You know, you can lose $1 on each unit as long as you make it up in quantity :-)  Anyhow, I was indeed paid for the first 50 - I was paid the handsome sum of one SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge!"

Total income for the first 50 cartridges was $1455.60, for a gross profit of $319.41, or a modest $6.39 per cartridge. The largest provider of seed money for the cartridge was Dr. Evil Labs, with 40%. Craig Chamberlain and I both chipped in 23%, and Ray Moody contributed 14%.

This concludes Part 1 of the SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge story. Don't miss Part 2.

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Bobbye 7/25/2013

Great read! I remember those SIDfests well, hard to believe it has been so many years.

jwhoag 8/12/2013

Cool history!

kentsu 8/12/2013

JW, thanks! A friend alerted me to a couple of broken links in this post and in part 2, which I have now fixed. I also changed the cartridge photo links into inline photos (duh!).

NickZ 6/1/2014

It was a long time ago. I can remember Bobbye and I loading up my van and driving to Canada for C64 expo and meeting up with the guys to sell sid disks and stereo carts at the show.

NickZ 6/1/2014

I can also remember the night Mark asked the late Jerry Roth (DrJ5) and I about doing stereo sids. We laughed at first. Then Jerry wired his C64 and it worked. A couple of days later I was at Jerry's house and he wired mine. The good old days.

kentsu 6/2/2014

Nick, great to hear from you!