Computer Music Chronicles: Modern Chiptune Synthesizers pt.2

US 8 & 16-bit sounds in modern instruments      12/03/24

Computer Music Chronicles: Modern Chiptune Synthesizers pt.2

Chiptune is HUGE. As soon as computers started to make bleeps & bloops, people were coding them to produce music.

For many, using original, authentic hardware is key - there are certain effects that require CPU manipulation at audio rates to pull off; e.g lofi sample playback, faux-polyphony and all sorts of SFX sounds, meaning that specialist tracker style programs or custom playback "routines" are required.

General Instrument AY-3-8910

Today we're going to look at one of the most humble soundchips, the AY3 (aka YM2149F - a later Yamaha version*). It's a simple design, featuring:

  • 3 square wave sound channels with pitch and volume control
  • 1 digital noise channel (again, with variable pitch, crunchy down low!)
  • 1 amplitude envelope, which can loop at audio rates for ringmod tones!

That's pretty much it! But from these humble beginnings, so much beautiful music sprang forth. Variants were used in many computers; the Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum 128 and the MSX, so those composers got busy! Two of my favourites include the haunting Robocop theme (beautiful dynamics work!) and the catchy, rousing opening song of Platoon.

*There were many slightly different variants of these chips, designed for different boards.

Twisted Electrons AY3 MKII

It's Twisted Electrons again! The (currently out of stock) AY3 is an accessible, well-specced groovebox featuring two AY3 chips with three voices each.

Each chip has 3 voices allowing a total of 6 voice stereo polyphony.

AY3 has a sequencer, arpeggiators, noise, volume and pitch envelopes and modulation per voice.
All of the parameters are within easy reach thanks to the intuitive user interface and powerful modulation matrix.

It also features a 16 step sequencer, 4 Pitch modulation modes (AKA LFO's - with various multipliers), 4 arpeggiator modes and an ultra fat 6 voice unison mode with detune knob. Even with these modulation options, you're going to generally end up with simpler sounds than say, using a dedicated AY tracker where you can set up more complex "patches"; chains of microscopic envelope, noise, pitch and volume sequences, and then swap between these per step. (Imagine a parameter sequencer that's moving very quickly) - You can do a bit of rhythmic FX stuff though, as each preset can store a 16 step sequence of 3 parameters: Note, Voice on/off and noise on/off.

So, for a tweakable taste of AY with greater polyphony, the AY3 is a good bet, if you can find one!

Midibox AY V2

Another article, another DIY behemoth! Featured in our article's opening picture, the Midibox AY has full control over the chip's square waves, noise and envelopes, but there are some nifty control features added such as velocity control over each tone, and a 31 step FX table that allows you create more complex tones (ie, the fast-moving parameter sequencer idea I mentioned above). For full flexibility, each tone can even be separately addressed by it's own MIDI channel!

ZX Spectrum Next

ZX Spectrum Next

This one's a bit special! Initially released in 2017, the ZX Spectrum Next is a modern Spectrum-compatible computer designed to "encourage a new generation of bedroom coders". With industrial design by Rick Dickinson (the designer of many a Sinclair product!) the Next sports a slightly beefier CPU (that can run at 28Mhz instead of 3.5!), more colours, hardware sprites and 3(!) AY3 sound chips!



That's a lot of sound channels, and, in order to give musicians the chance to fully utilise them; NextDAW was created. It allows musicians to use a familiar piano-roll environment for sequencing, including a comprehensive patch editor.

And really, anything that can playback a decent rendition of Yazoo's Don't Go is a winner in my book! See you next time!

Posted by MagicalSynthAdventure an expert in synthesis technology from last Century and Amiga enthusiast.

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