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Electronic Sounds - Beautiful Music on the ST?

Whatever video game you may have played, be it Pac Man or Mario Sunshine, I'm sure you have enjoyed that experience.  But how many of you notice the music?  It's an element of a computer game that is either inconsequential to your experience (but important never-the-less), or it is something you view as integral to the gameplay and visuals.  Just as music plays an important role in the movies, being in some cases as critical as the moving images, music in video games can be as vital an element.

Music means different things to different people, and music in games may not warrant the appreciation that say, the music of Beethoven does.  Music created on the consoles of today is very different to that produced on home computers and consoles of the 80's and early 90's, and I suspect many of you would probably agree that its much better!  Today's consoles utilise highly advanced CD and DSP combinations which produce studio quality reproductions, and game music that is even good enough to receive a commercial release of its own.

In the early days, consoles could only "beep".  Later, they produced different levels of "beeps", and soon, as transistor technology moved on, companies such as General Instruments, Casio, Yamaha and others, began producing silicon chips purely for sound applications.  These early chips, or Programmable Sound Generators (PSG's) soon found their way into arcade machines, home computers and video consoles.  In the late 70's and early 80s', companies such as Atari and Commodore actually designed and manufactured their own sound chips, sometimes with multiple purposes and not purely for sound.  Of these, the most famous are the Commodore (MOS) 6581SID, and the Atari POKEY (Ports and Keys, invented at Atari by Steven T. Mayer, Ronald E. Milner).  Sound from these dedicated sound chips was above average, especially for the time.  It took the PC another 10 years from the early 80's to make any noticeable sound other than a beep...

In the early days of computer games, the music was an afterthought, if it was even thought of at all.  But soon, computer games began having "loading" music, or a tune on the main menu.  People began to take notice of these tunes, and as time went by, games reviewers also paid more attention to these sound elements, spreading the word that yes, computers could make music too.  With the reviews, came an innocent stardom for the early game "musicians".  Names such as Rob Hubbard, Chris Abbott, Martin Galway, David Whittacker, Wally Beben and Ben Daglish to name but a few, became famous for their pioneering sound work.

But was this "real" music?  Personally, I know very few people who enjoy these sounds, as their opinion of music perhaps differs wildly to mine.  Those of you who enjoyed playing games in the early 80's and 90's, is it possible you just didn't stop to appreciate the music?  Was the actual game more important?  Or, you just plain hated this so called music?  Its hard to gauge who enjoyed this music, but certainly many people did, and still do.   Perhaps you can break it down to those who knew the skill required to make such music and thus appreciated the sound a lot more, and then there ware those who just enjoyed the music for what it was, a catchy tune.  Whatever the reasons, music (or whatever you may call it) produced on these pieces of silicon is an important part of computer gaming history, and to many, it still sounds as good as any "tune" knocked up by Beethoven... probably.

We will concentrate on the Atari ST sound chip for this article, the famous (or infamous) Yamaha YM-2149 SSG (Software-Controlled Sound Generator).  The chip also drives the Atari ST Parallel port (in conjunction with the Multi Function Peripheral (MFP) 68901).  It is a 3-Voice (or channel) sound processor, capable of 8 Octaves and has other features such as a 5-bit envelope-generator and 5-Bit Digital-Audio convertor.

Having had the pleasure of listening to the sounds produced on the Atari 8-Bit computer (POKEY), I was looking forward to even better sound on the ST range.  Unfortunately, as I was reading all about this new wonder machine from Atari, it seemed sound wouldn't be its strong point.  Those in the know, were slating the sound chip Atari had placed inside the ST, a Yamaha YM-2149.  Technically, this chip was used in part to reduce costs, and to aid the Atari ST Parallel port device, in the end, Atari was pushing the MIDI capability of the ST rather than the internal sound abilities.

Of course, this meant nothing to me.  Until I saw a graphics demo in a store one day.  It was called "The Little Sound Demo", and had a graphic picture of Rob Hubbard, with the words "wow" coming out of a speech bubble.  I knew of Rob Hubbard from the Commodore 64 games, and was a fan the very first time I heard the music "Warhawk" on the 8-Bit Atari.  This demo, would be my first introduction to the sound of the ST, and at the time, I thought it was fantastic, little did I know that the new Amiga would have a sound chip (called "Paula") that would put the ST's YM-2149 to shame.

The Amiga had a sound chip that not only produced 4-Channel stereo sound, but could do so with higher clarity, with a wider array of voice features and the ability to drive high quality sampled sounds without hogging the main CPU.  The Amiga won hands down in the sound department, but was it really the end for decent music on the ST?  Its common knowledge that the ST became the market leader for sound applications through its on-board MIDI ports, but this was academic when it came to game music or sounds.

So what happened?  Well, without going into too much detail about the "my computer is better than yours" saga, the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were to be the staging post for a long running debate about each computers ultimate technical capabilities.  We're not talking about word processors or spreadsheets here, were talking about how many colours you could display at the same time, or how many graphical objects you could move on the screen - we're talking about real geeky stuff!

For fans of computer generated music, these were great times.  Commercial games were not the place to hear ground breaking use of the ST sound chip, no, you had to get the demos!  Demos were, for want of a better description, sound and graphic demonstrations.  A whole host of "groups" became known for their work, and they competed to push each demo to a higher technical plain.  Initially, ST Demos started out to prove what could be done on the Amiga could be done on the ST, and it was argued that the level of coding being produced on the ST was easily better technically than anything been produced on the Amiga, because the Amiga "could already do these things"...

Both machines were capable of effects never seen (or heard) before, and many were probably not even conceived by the original hardware designers.  Unfortunately, the internal sound on the ST was still its weak point.  But these clever "coders", soon pushed even the original limits of the YM-2149, and over the years, sound that was once thought impossible soon began to radiate from the Yamaha silicon.  In the ST world, names like Jochen Hippel, Nic Alderton, Frank Seemann, Gunnar Gaubatz, were (and some still are) just a few of the top sound programmers on the YM-2149, producing amazing musical arrangements for games and demos.

The ST sound chip was similar to the AY-3-8910(12) from General Instruments (it was also pin-compatible with the YM-2149), and this chip was used in computers/consoles such as the Sega Master System, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 128, Amstrad CPC range, the Mattel Intellivision and the BBC (Acorn) Microcomputer.  Other computers such as the MSX range, also used derivatives of these chips.  Their popularity was due to their simplicity of design and integration with the more popular CPU's of the time, they were also extremely cost effective and negated the need to design a proprietary sound processor.

Most of the early sound and music was programmed in pure assembler, with the more complicated sounds being created by the programmer who accessed the sound chip directly.   Eventually, these sounds were available through dedicated sound editors that provided graphical interfaces for easier music composition.  But you still needed to understand the sound processor (and have a basic understanding of sound theory) to produce anything above average.  The majority of the sound editors were proprietary programs written by the sound programmers themselves, and it wasn't until recently that some of these programs became available through the internet.

ST sound progressed in the late 80's to include more than the three flat voices and noise effects it was basically capable of.  Soon, sampled sound was encoded through the YM-2149 to produce what became known as "digi-drum" effects, a much more believable range of drum and snare sounds which added greatly to the overall music which was being created.  An even grater step was made in the early 90's, when a form of SID voice was produced, a wave-form voice based on the sound of the Commodore SID chip.  New reply routines were produced, and ST sound was coming of age, and although more powerful "sound cards" were being produced to enable PC's to produce much more advanced sound, the authenticity and honesty of real "chip" music couldn't be imitated.

So, what is the essence of this electronic sound? These are purely synthetic sounds, a creation of the chip musicians themselves.  The chip is obviously a man-made device, like all the great traditional instruments, but based on the advances of silicon chips instead of wood, strings and ivory.  A great deal of skill and dedication is required to produce music on these sound chips, and it is generally excepted that the heady days of computer chip music is over, apart from the last remaining devotes of the art.  In the last few years, a small renaissance has begun in the sound chip community, with live shows playing to hundreds of people reliving the retro-culture of synthetic sound, and employing the still famous compositions of the early game musicians.  Demo coders of old are still playing host to new productions on the once great home computers, and a small "scene" still thrives at local coding "conventions" all over the world, but particularly in Europe.

People who have grown up with the Playstation as their first foray into video games have missed an era of experimentation in sound, a time when everything was new, and when computer music was growing up.  Soundtracks today are composed in studios, or through sequencers, with the end result recorded straight onto the CD, real-world sounds that are as closer to orchestral sessions and with no assembler required.  The internet allows those interested to hold an ear to the past, and figure out if this sound is something they like or dislike, but I would hazard a guess and assume they don't really care, because Mario and Luigi have grown up as well.

So, what type of sound was it?  Its very hard to convey the sound that comes out of the ST in words alone, so AEX has provided various example files, plug-ins and players to download for your own enjoyment (available from the side-bar menu).  You can also get a comparative example of a track produced on the YM-2149, and it modern day equivalent, so you can compare a normal sound-chip file with a "digi version", and a "SID" based version.  You will need WinAmp to play the SC68 files with the plug-in provided, but the sound quality from this YM-2149 reply routine is the closest your going to get to the real thing!  ST Sound is another fine YM-2149 player, and we've also included sample files for this.  Just unzip and play.  If you haven't listened to music like this before, I urge you to give it a try (as Jochen Hippel once said!).  No disrespect was meant to Beethoven during the writing of this article ;-)

Copyright 2003 KM/AEX - Do not reprint without permission.


 DHS (ST Scene) website
 ASMA (Pokey) website
 SC68 (YM-2149) website
 ST Sound (YM-2149) website
 maxYMiser Chip Editor

 ST Sound and YM Files (PC)
 SC68 WinAmp Plug-in (PC)
 SC68 Music Files

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