Giving The Amstrad CPC A Voice And A Drum Kit

Back in the ’80s, home computers weren’t capable of much in terms of audio or multimedia as a whole. Arguably, it wasn’t until the advent of 16-bit computers such as the Amiga that musicians could make soundtrack-quality music without having to plug actual studio gear up to their machines. [Michael Wessel] is trying to bring some of that and many more features to the Amstrad CPC with his ambitious LambdaSpeak 3 project, an expansion card built completely up from scratch and jam-packed with features.

First, and likely giving it its name, is the speech synthesizer. [Michael] has made an emulation mode where his card can act just like the original SSA-1 expansion, being able to be controlled by the same software as back then. By default, the card offers this mode with an Epson S1V30120 daughterboard (which is based on DECTalk synthesis), however for further authenticity you also have the option of fitting it with an SP0256-AL2 chip, the same one used in the original Amstrad hardware in 1985.

As for the more musical part of the project, the board supports 4-channel PCM playback, much like the Amiga’s sound offering. This can be used for a drum machine sequencer program, and it has an Amdrum mode, emulating another expansion from the original Amstrad days. Sample playback can also be used alongside the speech synthesis as shown here, with random allophone beats that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Kraftwerk recording. Finally, by using the UART interface included on the LambdaSpeak, you can also turn the CPC itself into a synth by giving it MIDI in/out and interfacing a controller in real time with the computer’s AY-3-8912 sound chip.

If you like modern expansions giving old computers new life, did you know that you can get just about any retro computer online, perhaps a TRS-80, an Amiga and even a Psion Organizer? And if you’re interested in just using old systems’ sound chips with modern USB MIDI controllers, it’s easy to make a microcontroller do all the heavy lifting.

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Chiptunes Via USB MIDI With The AY-3-8910

There are many venerable soundchips in the chiptune pantheon, of which the AY-3-8910 is perhaps one of the lesser known. Having not served on active duty for Nintendo or Commodore it’s somewhat unloved in the USA, but it made its name in a variety of arcade and pinball machines and has quite a European following due to its appearance in machines bearing the Amstrad and Sinclair names. [TheSpodShed] decided to whip up a USB MIDI interface for the chip, with the help of the Arduino Pro Micro.

The Arduino Pro Micro is a Sparkfun creation, using the ATmega32U4 microcontroller. Its USB MIDI functionality makes it a perfect candidate for such a build, and it also packs enough digital IO to run the AY-3-8910, with 13 lines required to get things going. [TheSpodShed] whipped up the project on protoboard, with only a few passives needed along with the sound chip and Arduino.

The Arduino code was written with an eye to making the most of the chip’s limited polyphony. The synth prioritises the most recent received notes, while also aiming to keep the highest and lowest of the currently requested notes still playing where possible. This gives the synth the best chance of keeping the expected bass and melody intact when playing a wide variety of MIDI content.

It’s a tidy build, and one that shows some love for a soundchip some have forgotten. Of course, it’s not the only option – we’ve also seen the SAM2695 and YM2612 given the same treatment. Video after the break.

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Hackaday Links: July 28, 2019

It looks like Apple is interested in buying Intel’s modem chip business. Seriously interested; a deal worth $1 billion could be announced as early as this week. That might look like a small potato purchase to the world’s biggest company – at least by market capitalization – but since the technology it will be buying includes smartphone modems, it provides a look into Apple’s thinking about the near future with regard to 5G.

It turns out that Make Magazine isn’t quite dead yet. [Dale Dougherty], former CEO of Maker Media, which went under in June, has just announced that he and others have acquired the company’s assets and reformed under the name “Maker Community LLC.” Make: Magazine is set to resume publication, going back to its roots as a quarterly publication in the smaller journal format; sadly there’s no specific word about the fate of Maker Faire yet.

The hoopla over the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 may be over, but we’d be remiss not to call out one truly epic hack related to the celebration: the full restoration of an actual Apollo Guidance Computer. The AGC was from a test model of the Lunar Module, and it ended up in the hands of a private collector. Since November of 2018 the AGC has been undergoing restoration and tests by [Ken Shirriff], [Mike Stewart], and [Carl Claunch]. The whole effort is documented in a playlist by [Marc “CuriousMarc” Verdiell] that’s worth watching to see what was needed to restore the AGC to working condition.

With the summer sun beating down on the northern hemisphere, and air conditioners at working extra hard to keep things comfortable. [How To Lou] has a quick tip to improve AC efficiency. Turns out that just spraying a fine mist of water on the condenser coils works wonders; [Lou] measured a 12% improvement in cooling. It may not be the best use of water, and it may not work as well in very humid climates, but it’s a good tip to keep in mind.

Be careful with this one; between the bent spoon, the syringe full of amber liquid, and the little candle to heat things up, this field-expedient reflow soldering setup might just get you in trouble with the local narcotics enforcement authorities. Even so, knowing that you can assemble a small SMD board without a reflow oven might prove useful someday, under admittedly bizarre circumstances.

From the “Considerably more than 8-bits music” file, check out the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra’s “8-Bit Symphony.” If your personal PC gaming history included a Commodore 64, chances are you’ll recognize songs from titles like “Monty on the Run”, “Firelord”, “Green Beret”, and “Forbidden Forest.” Sure, composers like [Ben Daglish] and [Paul Norman] worked wonders with the three-channel SID chip, but hearing those tunes rendered by a full orchestra is something else entirely. We found it to be particularly good background music to write by.

This Chiptune Player’s Got What Nintendon’t

When it comes to chiptunes, the original Nintendo Entertainment System and the Game Boy get all the accolades. The OPL synths have all the fun. But there’s another chip out there in dusty old machines that is at least as interesting with a repertoire at least as influential as the Mega Man 2 OST. It’s the YM2612, the chip in the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis.

[natalie] created a portable device capable of playing back the files targeting the sound chips in this venerable machine. It’s the MegaGRRL, and it’s the iPod for the original Genesis sound tracks.

Inside the MegaGRRL is an ESP32 in the form of an ESP-WROOM-32 module. There is, of course a YM2612 chip in there, along with a headphone amplifier and a battery charger. The display is a fairly standard and cheap affair that’s 240 x 320 pixels in full color, and there are seven buttons on this device, because of course you need an A, B, and C button.

Combined with a 3D printed enclosure, the GameGRRL does exactly what it says it will: it plays all the music from old Sega games. Now, when you’re in the inevitable argument with someone over the fact that Michael Jackson wrote the Sonic 3 soundtrack, the proof is right in your pocket. Of if you want to jam out on the Toe Jam And Earl soundtrack, that’s right there too. You can check out the video demos below.

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Spectrum Chiptunes On An STM

Some of us here at Hackaday are suckers for a bit of chiptune music as the backdrop for many excellent times. The authentic way to create chiptunes is of course the original hardware, but in 2019 it’s far more common to do so with an emulator on a modern computer. That computer doesn’t have to sport a high-end processor and desktop operating system though, as [Deater] shows us with his ZX spectrum chiptune player on an STM32L46G Discovery board.

The impetus for the project came he tells us while teaching students to code simple sine wave music players, having code already in the bag for emulating the classic AY-3-8910 sound chip on the Raspberry Pi and the Apple II he decided to port that to the STM32L476 dev board. An earlier version used the internal DAC, but this was refined to send I2S data to an external DAC. The code can be had from GitHub (confusingly buried among code for an LED driver), and we’ve attached a video below of it playing some chiptune goodness.

Of course, Sinclair chiptunes don’t grab all the limelight. There have been plenty of Nintendo and Sega players too. You might also recognize [Deater] from his non-chiptune work, porting Portal to the Apple ][.

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It’s (Almost) Two Keytars In One!

All the best retro-1980s chiptune acts should possess a keytar. It’s the Law, or something. [Theremin Hero] has reminded us of this with a new video we’ve shown below featuring an instrument he had a part in creating alongside [Sam Wray] and [Siddharth Vadgama] a few years ago. The Blade is a 3D-printed keytar featuring two Guitar Hero necks and an integrated pair of Game Boys to provide the sound from the authentic silicon.

To describe it in those terms though is to miss a wealth of other components and featured. The keyboard itself is from a Rock Band keytar which feeds MIDI to a Raspberry Pi running PD Extended that handles all the button press mappings. An Arduino Mega performs the same task for the two Guitar Hero necks. Midi from the various sources is processed by an Arduino Boy which then feeds the Game Boys that make the sounds. Oh – and there’s a Leap Motion 3D motion controller in the mix as well, though that doesn’t seem to be used directly in the chiptune synth functionality.

We’ve had a few keytars here over the years, but this one makes us think of the Commodore 64 instrument created by [Jeri Ellsworth].

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We Got Your Sega Chiptunes Right Here

Chiptunes are cool, but when you get into it, you realize you’re mostly dealing with Commodore SID tunes, Atari POKEY tracks for the cool kids, bleeps and bloops from a Game Boy, and maybe some NES tracks thrown in for good measure. There’s another option out there – the sound chip in the Sega Genesis. This thing could do drums, man, and [Aidan Lawrence] built the perfect player for the tuneful silicon tucked inside the classic 16-bit console.

[Aidan] had previously built a tiny little music player based on the YM3812 chip, the Yamaha chip found in SoundBlaster and Adlib sound cards. The chip inside the Sega Genesis, the Yamaha YM2612, is a bit different. The killer feature of this chip, PCM waveforms, aren’t stored as simple, small bits of code. These are massive blobs of binary data sent to the chip’s DAC. The SEGGGGAAAA intro of Sonic the Hedgehog, for example, used an eighth of the the cartridge space. You’re not going to build a Sega chiptune player with a tiny little microcontroller and 20kB of RAM.

The solution came in the form of an external SPI RAM device. The 23LC1024 is a full 1 Megabit in size, and since it’s SPI, it’s more than fast enough to keep up with the sample speed. The rest of the circuit including the mixer, preamp and power amp are based on the Genesis’ actual schematics, with an SD card and OLED thrown in for good measure. How does it sound? There’s a great video below the break and yes, the soundtrack from Sonic 3 sounds just as good as it did twenty years ago.

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