The 8 Bit Harmonica Blows In From Japan


From [Basami Sentaku] in Japan comes this 8bit harmonica. [Basami] must remember those golden days of playing Famicom (or Nintendo Entertainment System for non-Japanese players). As the systems aged, the contacts would spread. In the case of the NES, this would often mean the infamous blinking red power light. The solution for millions of players was simple. Take the cartridge out, blow on it, say a few incantations, and try again. In retrospect, blowing on the cartridges probably did more harm than good, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We’d always assumed that the Famicom, being a top loading design, was immune from the issues that plagued the horizontal slot on the NES. Either [Basami] spent some time overseas, or he too took to tooting his own cartridge.

Blowing into cartridges has inspired a few crafty souls to stuff real harmonicas into cartridge cases. [Basami] took a more electronic route. A row of 8 microphones picks up the players breath sound. Each microphone is used to trigger a specific note. The katakana in the video shows the traditional Solfège musical scale: do, re, mi, fa, so, la ti, do. A microcontroller monitors the signal from each microphone and determines which one is being triggered. The actual sound is created by a Yamaha YMZ294. The ‘294 is an 18 pin variant of the venerable General Instrument AY-3-8910, a chip long associated with video game music and sound effects. While we’re not convinced that the rendition of Super Mario Bros’ water theme played in the video wasn’t pre-recorded, we are reasonably sure that the hardware is capable of doing everything the video shows.

18 thoughts on “The 8 Bit Harmonica Blows In From Japan

  1. You really can’t beat that troubleshooting method though, just blow in the cartridge. Gets me every time. Literally magic lol. Sometimes I nearly made myself pass out from an “extended troubleshooting session” haha.

    1. There has been numerous semi-scientific studies that show that while blowing into the cartridge may create a temporary connection, it also helped oxidise the contacts making the next connection harder. You’re essentially covering the contacts with moisture :)

      1. Oh believe me, I blew all up in the cartridge port lol. And yeah, my original NES just quit working but still worked like oh 4 years or so ago; if I get some free time I need to diagnose the prob. The SNES still works (just beat MegamanX2 over christmas break) and had to use ye ole blowin’ technique. :)

    1. I’m not sure if people’s nationality really matters here .. the “spent some time overseas” but is another one of those things that just don’t make sense but hackaday editors feel the need to add to make their copy seem more interesting.

      There were loads of top loading consoles in the US, Europe and Japan and *everyone* used to blow into the carts and cart slots of those. The edge connector of a board not mating well with the socket is hardly something that is limited to just the US/Europe top loader NES.

      1. The US version of the famicom (the NES) used a front loader design which is well known for degrading. Nintendo eventually built a top loading NES for the USA. There were other top loaders in the US of course – but most people don’t remember blowing in their Atari carts. Atari definitely used a sliding dust cover on the 5200, The 2600 had a much smaller slot than the 72 pin NES, so poor connections pins weren’t nearly as big of a problem.

        1. Certainly the early Atari brand 2600 carts had a retracting cover mechanism. Other 2600 carts I’ve seen just have the bare edge connector, maybe they were made post-crash, to save money. Or maybe the users took it off cos it jammed.

          NES problems were unique to the stupid push-down connector they insisted on using, the story goes that they wanted it to look like a piece of AV equipment, “home entertainment”, rather than a computer game console, which everyone was sick of after Atari and The Crash.

          The Great Videogame Crash of 1984 is well-known to American old-gamers. In Europe we didn’t have it. Computers were what we used from the start anyway. Partly to do with the ludicrous prices manufacturers charged for 4K of ROM in a plastic box, partly to do with them not bothering with exchange rates, just slapping a pound sign where the dollar was, making stuff up to twice as expensive.

          As late as the mid-1990s this was a problem even in PC gear, hard and software. They just changed dollar to pound. Eventually it came right as competition eroded at this heinous ripoff.

          But with computer games on cassette selling for 2 pounds, or even 1 pound, up to about 9.99 for a very good 48K game in a nice box, 4K of ROM, horrible blocky sparse graphics (especially the 2600 with it’s non-bitmap on-the-fly program-generated screen) for 40 pounds with simple gameplay just couldn’t compete.

          The same pricing applied to disks and disk drives too, which is why the Euro market stuck to tapes for so long. Stupid greedy 1980s companies! Stupid stupid! Still at least the Atari ST and Amiga came along later, overpriced as they were too. And we had the massive piracy scene, which made it practical to own the machine in the first place, which led to some sales. Until the scene got a bit too big and games would stop selling after a week.

  2. I am full of hack ideas that reuse new or old tech. I have torn down e-cigs to see how they work, several types. They all use what looks like a electret mic. They have reused the mic fab into an IC ,LED, and power control to the heater in the vapor part. Three correct coloured wires, black-gnd, red-plus, and switched power to a relay or interface to fake a harp. Two of these in a Y channel with valves could give suck and blow per “note” in a strip. There is enough power switched by one of these tiny little things to do some real work like solenoids or pump motors. No “duino! The slim size of these e-cigs are disposable (think of the waste), just about the size for a harp.
    Also handicap mouth control, with out extra components.

  3. I always told people with an NES “Get thee hence to Radio Shack and BUY A CLEANING KIT!”, one of those with the bit that slid back and forth after inserting just like a cartridge. Would they? Noooo. Couldn’t spend $5 on preventive maintenance for Nintendo’s stupidarse non-wiping contact design.

    1. Those didn’t work that well either. NES pins weren’t dirty but rather the cart socket on the nes itself was funky due to the fact that it had to tilt 15 degrees as you clicked the cart down. 90% of the time issues were caused by the spring pins in this connecter flattening out over time. You can buy a replacement connector for as little as 8 bucks that’ll fix the issue.

  4. The Katakana for ti looks like a smiley face. It seems to me he could have made it simpler if he’ed used a couple of contacts instead of microphones to make the notes, play it with your tongue. (Just like your wife.)

  5. But what is the “COIN” chip, because at some point in the video he is doing 100 note to get an “extralife” sound.
    If some people are interested by the project I’m looking for help to redo it.

    1. Hi,
      I’m currently retaking the idea of making it. I identify most of the component and was think to start to draw a pcb. But I’m totally not knowledgeable in electronic. Just doing that with observation. Want to try to do it?

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