1.000.000 soundchips you never heard about

Except for computers and consoles, there are many other machines with real or mimicked soundchips inside. The recent DCM8 drum machine and the amazing Droid3 are examples of the latter, while Sidstation and POKEY.synth contain actual soundchips. But these are all sort of retrospective projects from the past decade or so. But what kind of soundchip-machines was around in the 80’s?

The most obvious example is the YM-soundchips. It’s a confusing field but, basically, Yamaha made these chips for both consoles, computers, keyboards and synthesizers. They mostly used FM-synthesis, which was a big part of the sound of 1980’s (and early 90’s bedroom electronica like µ-ziq). Yamaha synthesizers like DX-21, DX-100 and FB-01 used soundchips that a few years later were found in consumer products like X68000, some MSX-models and plenty of keyboards (ABA-88 lol). Later on, similar chips were also found in soundcards and mobile phones. *

The Remco Electronic Sound FX machine from 1979 was quite the noise maker. It was built on the SN76477-chip, which was popular for arcade games like Space Invaders but also used in ABC80 and Gakken EX. There are a few semi-recent DIY-projects, but I haven’t been able to find old consumer products with this chip. Recently, Panzer Party released a vinyl composed only with the Remco machine though.

It’s surprising that so few soundchips were used for both games and instruments. They continue to be two quite different fields. One consequence of that is that computer/console-based chipmusic was always separated from those who used soundchip-keyboards. For example, the techno-centrics of chipmusic (‘a soundchip is an instrument/medium’) wouldn’t categorize a DX-21 song as chipmusic.

Another consequence is an apparent gap in soundchip research. Many soundchips were never used for computer/game stuff and are (therefore?) not so well documented. Chips like M114SCEM3394 or MC-3 2191 were found in keyboards, arcade games, toys and synthesizers. Some chips were found in speech devices, domestic robots, mobile phones and other thingies. Afaik, there is no thorough lists of such chips. There might not be 1.000.000, but who knows?

Well, there is Cyberyogi of course. He has an impressive collection of old keyboards that he also circuit bends (and makes squarewave music, not chipmusic). Describing the sounds, he often references POKEY (Simba – My MusicWorld, Hing Hon) and SID (Letron, PSS-100) but the hardware inside was either analogue or had obscure chips. There are probably people similar to him around the web, right?

(As some kind of consolation cross-over between synthesizers & computers, check out the HxC floppy disk emulator)

* I haven’t listened a lot to FM-music but to me it’s striking how different these chips were used by pop music producers and game composers. Virt argues that since FM-synthesis was difficult to grasp and had a crappy interface, most pop producers settled with using the preset sounds. (Reminds me a bit of how the TB-303 suffered from bad manuals and interface aswell.) Game composers though, were making far more complex things – sonically and musically. Was that because they were usually Japanese, and FM was very popular there, and they are better at enjoying unpredictable machines?

10 Responses to “1.000.000 soundchips you never heard about”

  1. linde Says:

    I think that the MML-type music drivers that game composers of Japan almost all seem to have used allow more intricate expression than 80s MIDI sequencing equipment. In an MML environment you can easily add musical effects like pitch bend, vibrato, changing patches and parameters with all the benefits sequencing (play/stop/tweak to perfection cycle), something I don’t think was typical of MIDI sequencers of that time. MML also gives you full control of channel assignment and note priority. Without MML, you’d either need a good instrument player or a very dedicated MIDI guru to do some of the stuff that it allowed composers (in the 80s, that is).

    I saw a very big list of YM chips and brief descriptions of their use, btw, complete with obscure chips used in karaoke machines, DSP chips, DACs, for CD players etc. I’ll see if I can find it again when I get home.

  2. Lazerbeat Says:

    A bit of speculation on your last question. I am FAR from an expert but I would guess FM is popular in Japan for a few reasons. In the 80s, I think it was pretty hard to buy a home computer which didn’t have an FM chip in it. the NEC PC-XXXX series almost all had them as did the X68000 and most MSX machines. I’m sure Hally could confirm this, but I am fairly sure there were no, or very few, trackers for the above machines.

    Western early home computers like the Amiga, C64, ST etc either had no release or very limited releases here and there wasn’t really a demo scene. So I guess that leaves you with a lot of talented musicians with a ubiquitous and fairly of exclusive family of FM sound chips in home computers, (made by a local company, the Japanese do love home grown tech) with MML as a cross-platformish method of composing and not much alternative.

    Might explain it?

  3. Seth Sternberger Says:

    Sierra On-Line were some of the first to really dig into the power of the Adlib sound boards for their PC game music around 1986/1987 I think.

  4. chunter Says:

    It’s not too difficult to learn about the chips in 80s tablehooters, see http://www.alldatasheet.com/datasheet-pdf/pdf/103366/ETC/YM2149.html

    The question is, what would you do with the knowledge?

    • goto80 Says:

      Thanks for the link. I think it would be great if it would be documented before it becomes too difficult, if only to help future research.

  5. linde Says:

    Lazerbeat: Hmm, is MML (historically) more cross-platformish than a tracker? It all boils down to the note sequences, I guess, but one flavor of MML can be different from another as much as Protracker is different from Impulse Tracker, IMO.

    As for the ubiquity of FM in 80s computers, on the top of my head, neither the MSX, MSX2 or MSX2+ standards included FM chips (although a few individual models had them). In Japan, MML still seems to have been the preferred way of composing for them, though.

    I agree with your idea about YM FM chip ubiquity, though. If a huge and influental local megacorporation with a foot in everything holds a great patent and pumps out dirt cheap implementations that at the time are probably seen as the best and most diverse option for sound synthesis, it’s not much of a surprise that the people pick up on it!

  6. Lazerbeat Says:

    Sorry, you are right about the MSX and MSX2, they had AY chips. Im pretty sure the MSX2+ had a Yamaha YM2413 as an option if not standard and there were a couple of FM expansions that were readily available.


    Still think it is an interesting theory though!

  7. goto80 Says:

    Lazerbeat – yes, I agree that FM-chips were a lot more popular in Japan. And I think Linde is right in that MML was more powerful than other FM-software.

    From my little knowledge, Japanese composers seem to be better at being Expert Masters than European/American ones. The last thing I read that would confirm this idea, is the book Retromania. (iirc, Ryo Kawasaki coded C64-software until he broke his fingers.)

    So — perhaps there was actually quite ‘skilled’ FM pop music aswell, in Japan? Like how YMO was more competent than, uhm, Jean-Michel Jarre. :)

  8. Marco@vrc7net Says:

    Many japanese composers started on MSX and early NEC PC-xxxx homeputers with AY-3-8910 soundchips (or similar). Composing was done with with MML (-> Check MSX Basic “PLAY” command. Its the first “version” of what we call MML today as far as I know – actually invented by Microsoft and also used for game soundtracks for example by Enix). Some famous guys like Yuzo Koshiro also started like this.
    Later on basically every homecomputer had FM Chips (late MSX Models / PC88 / PC98 / X68k etc….) and MML Tools, so I’d say its natural that nearly everyone in japan used them and eventually became good at it.
    I have never seen any tracker for PC-xxxx or X68000 Series computers. There are some old ones for MSX, but these were made by western people again. Never heard about them in japan, if someone used them over there they should be pretty obscure in any case.

  9. Super.licio.us | Superlevel Says:

    […] 1.000.000 soundchips you never heard about hardware music […]

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