Racing the Beam and Dropping Some Beats

The heart of the Atari 2600 wasn’t the 6502 (or the 6507 for the pedants), it was the TIA chip. This is the chip responsible for drawing graphics on the display, racing the beam, and extremely limited support for sound generation. We haven’t seen many attempts of using the Atari 2600 for chiptunes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. [John Sutley]’s Syndrum, a take on an Atari 2600 drum machine is nearly a work of art. It’s a custom cartridge for the wood-paneled Atari, and an impressive input device that turns this classic console into a beat machine

Did the Atari 2600 ever come with a drum machine cartridge? Maybe. Probably not. [John] originally built this project to experiment with the TIA chip, but found it was less tonal than a kazoo. That struck ‘Atari synthesizer’ off the list and replaced it with an ‘Atari drum machine’. There are two key parts of the build here, the first being a repurposed Asteroids cartridge that had the PROM replaced with a ZIF socket. This allows [John] to easily burn new code to an EEPROM, stuff it in the socket, and run it on the Atari. All the code was developed with batari Basic, a BASIC-inspired language that spits out .bin files for the Atari.

But running code on the Atari is just one half of this build. To do a drum machine, you somehow need to tell the Atari when to play each sound. Given the lack of expansion capabilities for the Atari, [John] turned to the controller port. The Syndrum uses Arduino Nano to bridge the DE9 controller connector to a MIDI port. Yes, it’s real MIDI, on a machine that could probably never do MIDI natively (although we’d love to see someone try).

Need a video of this mind-blowing hack in action? Here you go:

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