For those who grew up with video games, the legendary sounds of consoles past are an instant nostalgia hit. [Thea Flowers] first got her hands on a gamepad playing Sonic the Hedgehog, so the sounds of the Sega Genesis hold a special place in her heart. Decades later, this inspired the creation of Genesynth, a hardware synth inspired by the classic console. The journey of developing this hardware formed the basis of [Thea]’s enlightening Supercon talk.
[Thea’s] first begins by exploring why the Genesis sound is so unique. The Sega console slotted neatly into a time period where the company sought to do something more than simple subtractive synthesis, but before it was possible to use full-waveform audio at an affordable price point. In collaboration with Yamaha, the YM2612 FM synthesis chip was built, a cost-reduced sound engine similar to that in the famous DX7 synthesizer of the 1980s. This gave the Genesis abilities far beyond the basic bleeps and bloops of other consoles at the time, and [Thea] decided it simply had to be built into a dedicated hardware synth.
It always sounded a bit crunchy, but crunchy in a good way. SEGA’s 16-bit console, whether you call it the Genesis or Mega Drive, always had a unique sound thanks to it’s Yamaha YM2612 sound chip. The chip’s ability to reproduce shredding guitars and blasting bass drums was a joy to hear when placed in the hands of capable game developers. Games such as Toe Jam & Earl, Streets of Rage 2, and Sonic the Hedgehog 3 provided some of the most incredible game soundtracks of the ’90s; and while the retail shelf life of those games may have passed, their influence on sound design should not. One individual that is seeking to preserve that quintessential SEGA sound is [Artemio] whose MDFourier project seeks to capture it for future generations to hear.
MDFourier is a crowd sourced project. Users are asked to use two pieces of software to first generate common audio through a videogame console, and another to analyze the output as to form an audio signature of that machine. Of course SEGA were not always known for their stellar manufacturing record. Throughout the dozen or so board revisions of the Model 1 console there were factory bodge wires, there was also the Model 2 console, Model 3 console, Nomad handheld, Mega Jet, CDX/Multi-Mega, and Wondermega karaoke machine. Each new revision of machine created a slightly new soundscape, and no single piece of emulation software takes them all into account. [Artemio] wants to aggregate all of this data in order to improve SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive emulators, FPGA implementations, or whatever else the future may hold.
Fans of the suite of SEGA consoles, or even fans of great documentation, can take a look at some of initial results as well as the written procedure for contributing to the MDFourier project. For those seeking a more visual step-by-step approach there is this video from YouTube channel RetroRGB below: If you’d like that Sega sound for your MIDI instrument, take a look at this MIDI synth using a Genesis sound chip.
There’s plenty of juicy reading material here. There are palette hacks to produce high-quality greyscale images, rendering tips to produce the smooth 3D rendered sequences, as well as optimizations to create the best possible sample playback using the onboard YM2612 sound chip. It’s a tour de force of development, and it’s astounding to look behind the curtain to see just what can be achieved.
The Sega Genesis, or Mega Drive as it was known outside North America, was a popular console for the simple fact that Sega did what Nintendidn’t. Anachronistic marketing jokes aside, it brought fast scrolling 16-bit games to a home console platform and won many fans over the years. You may find yourself wanting to interface with the old controller hardware, and in that case, [Jon Thysell] is here to help.
[Jon] has done the work required to understand the Sega controller interface, and has shared his work on Github. The interface is an interesting one, and varies depending on the exact console and controller hardware used. The original Master System, with its D-pad and two buttons, simply uses six pins for the six switches on the controller. The 3-button Genesis pad gets a little more advanced, before things get further complicated with the state-machine-esque 6-button pad setup.
[Jon] helpfully breaks down the various interfaces, and makes it possible to interface them with Arduinos relatively easily. Sharing such work allows others to stand on the shoulders of giants and build their own projects. This nets us work such as [Danilo]’s wireless Genesis controller build. By combining the knowledge of the Sega protocol with a few off-the-shelf Arduinos and Bluetooth parts, it makes whipping up a wireless controller easy.
Chiptune is a musical genre built upon the creation of music through the use of chip-based sound synthesizers, found in early game consoles. The Commodore 64’s venerable SID chip and the Game Boy Sound System are the by far the most popular on the scene. However, the Sega Genesis took a different path at the end of the videogame chipmusic era, packing a YM2612 FM synthesis chip to deliver fat basslines and searing solos. [Thea] has always been a fan of these electric 90s sounds, and thus decided to build the Genesynth.
The synth initially allowed only for playback of existing video game scores, but its capability has been expanded as [Thea] took the project from breadboard to protoboard to custom PCBs – with anime artwork, to boot. The synth uses a Teensy 3.5 as the brains, speaking USB to enable the synth to receive MIDI commands from music software. All parameters are exposed over the interface, and [Thea] has several videos showing the Genesynth under control from an Ableton Push.
The sound capabilities of the YM2612 are of an entirely different character to most chiptunes, by virtue of the FM synthesis engine. FM synthesis is a little less intuitive then classical additive synthesis, but we still see it crop up now and then.
During the 80s and 90s it seemed like Japan got all the good stuff when it came to videogames. In the US there were consoles called the NES, the TurboGrafx-16, and the Genesis. While in Japan they had cooler names like: the Famicom, the PC Engine, and the Mega Drive. The latter was incorporated into a plethora of different form factors, including the little known IBM PC/Mega Drive combo known as the Sega Teradrive. Finding a rare Japanese 1990s PC stateside is a feat in and of itself, and thanks to an electronics hobbyist named [Ronnie] there is at least one Teradrive out there still running strong thanks to an upgraded CPU mod.
In theory, the Sega Teradrive was a dream-machine; combining the utility of an IBM PC with the fun of a Sega Mega Drive. The dual functionality extended to the video modes where both VGA and composite video were supported. However, the reality was that the final design was less than desirable. The Teradrive shipped in 1991 with an Intel 80286, 16-bit processor which was already two processor generations behind at the time. The meager 10Mhz clock speed was on the lower end of the performance spectrum which meant that many DOS titles ran poorly…or not at all.
Not satisfied with those specs, [Ronnie] modded his Teradrive with an adapter board containing an Intel 80486 processor clocked at 66Mhz. The upgrade, accompanied with a complete re-cap of the motherboard, brings the IBM PC to 486DX status. This opened up a few new possibilities including the Thundercats Demo in the video below:
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.