Fidelity Concerns: The Lost Sound Expansion Chips of the NES

So, as I mentioned in my post yesterday  the Nintendo Entertainment System was shipped to the United States without the two pin connector that controlled the sound expansion chips.  Why?

The two pin connector was originally designed to be used with the Famicom Disk System, a peripheral that attached to the Famicom and allowed the use of “disk cards” to play games.  Here’s an example of a Famicom (white console) with a Famicom Disk System (red box):

It basically looks like an old 3.5″ floppy drive from back in the day.  This old fossil actually ran on 6 C-cell batteries.  Yes, batteries.

The point is, since all of the games made for this Disk System were NOT cartridges, there was no way to add any extra sound or graphic booster expansion chips.  A disk, being a disk, doesn’t allow for that.  So, Nintendo provided a RAM adapter.  It was literally just a big cartridge you plug into the top of the Famicom (black box on top of Famicom in picture) that contained a new microprocessor that facilities the use of the Famicom Disk System (a disk controller, 32 kilobytes of RAM, etc).  It also contained a customizable audio expansion known as Nintendo FDS.  You could literally adjust and manipulate the Nintendo FDS to make anything from a sawtooth wave to a square wave.  Very powerful.

So, long story short, when the NES was released in the US, Nintendo decided to put the sound expansion port on the BOTTOM of the console so that, when they released the Disk System in the US, a RAM cartridge would NOT have to be added.  So remember, as a kid, you wondered what this strange box was on the bottom of your NES?

(credit : Techworld )

Well, now you know.  Sorta.  There’s a lot of speculation as to what Nintendo REALLY wanted for this port-  a modem?  Extra controllers?  I was unable to find any reliable information but was able to confirm that indeed, the sound controller pins were moved to this port.

Nintendo eventually found other ways to integrate sound expansion modules without the use of the pins.  That is why in the Castlevania III example from my previous post, the composers were capable of using MMC5, a first party Nintendo sound expansion chip since it was integrated differently (In the case of Castlevania III, the entire chip was used for the game and no extra audio channels were activated).  However, we lost a LOT of the third party sound expansion chips, many of which were very powerful.  Here’s some examples of third party chips we didn’t hear.

Konami VRC6

(credit : ScooterFox1)

Konami VRC7 (arguably the most powerful sound expansion chip ever made for this console)

(credit : Inuyashathe3rd)

Namco NAMCO 106 163 (not many games used this but it was intended to make games match up to arcade game sound chips)

(credit:  RubilacEx)

UPDATE:  The “NAMCO 106” actually does not exist.  It is actually called the NAMCO 163.  The 163 adds an astonishing 8 extra channels of sound.

Sunsoft 5B (an aside – only the game below (Gimmick!) used this sound chip)

(credit : explod2A03)

As you can see, the Nintendo, when using the sound expansion chips, has a vast range of sounds and instrument voices.  A lot of Japanese composers wrote for specific chips (especially the composers from Konami) and therefore, in the US versions, entire voices in songs were lost or changed.  Many VRC6 tracks had to be rewritten to Nintendo 2a03, losing at least a three voices each time.  I hope this was informative.  Any comments are welcome.

About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

9 responses to “Fidelity Concerns: The Lost Sound Expansion Chips of the NES

  • An example of the Sunsoft5 sound expansion chip « Classical Gaming

    […] mentioned the Sunsoft FME-7 that was used in Batman:  Return of the Joker.  However, there was a special […]

  • An example of the Sunsoft5B sound expansion chip « Classical Gaming

    […] mentioned the Sunsoft FME-7 that was used in Batman:  Return of the Joker.  However, there was a special […]

  • Fidelity Concerns: Akumajou Densetsu vs. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse « Classical Gaming

    […] as I said in this blog post, the Nintendo Entertainment System lacked the 2 pins necessary to use the sound expansion […]

  • Research in Game Music: Complete NES Audio Mapper List « Classical Gaming

    […] list of all the mappers used to create NES/Fami audio playback.  If you recall, I spoke about the Lost Sound Expansion Chips of the the NES a while back.  Essentially, the US NES lacked a connection pin that allowed 3rd party software […]

  • bucky

    Hey there, awesome site!

    I run the youtube channel explod2a03 and wanted to share a quick correction on the mappers and sound expansion. The mappers themselves have a range of uses (most of which are unrelated to music), and just a minority of games have sound expansion. Only the Konami VRC6, Konami VRC7, Sunsoft 5B, Nintendo MMC5, and Namco N163 mappers were used for sound expansion (not counting the Famicom Disk System, which qualifies as its own category of sound expansion, as you pointed out).

    The VRC2 is not lending any extra sound to Contra, and same is true for Batman Return of the Joker with the FME-7. Those are comprised of 5 sound channels and have the same sound qualities as other expansion-less soundtracks. Looking up MMC5 can be a little bit confusing, because while it can be used for sound expansion in Famicom games, it wasn’t NES games like Castlevania 3. It’s being used for other purposes.

    A good way to make sure that these mappers are actually being used for sound expansion is to fire up the NSF file and see if more than the original 5 channels are being used. And when it doubt, if it’s for the American NES, there’s no audio expansion.

    Which isn’t to say the the extra mappers aren’t helping the music in some way, because it might be possible that they help indirectly (I can’t verify with any specifics at the moment). The more complicated you want to have your NES sound engine for your game, the more code it requires. Doing something like composing with a macro language that allows an arpeggio-effect to pitch-bend will give you something much more complicated than what Super Mario Bros. has. Because these mappers allow for more capabilities, I’m guessing the mappers in some cases allowed for soundtracks to be a certain size without having to cut other assets. But the mappers are only supplying “sound expansion” if they’re giving you more sound channels than what the Famicom and NES can generate with the 2a03 chip they have inside.

    Looking forward to following your blog, tons of awesome info and game soundtracks here. 🙂

  • beatscribe

    Crazy good tracks here. It’s so weird to hear the SNES making those kinds of sounds. I thought Gimmick used the DPCM channel for the bass notes, maybe they just sampled them since they couldn’t use the expansion pack and then dropped them in the DPCM channel? either way, it sure is cool to hear some of this…i’d love to get my hands on these for creating chip tunes. That Thunder Force one is nasty!!

  • Classical Gaming

    No prob! Yeah, the “bass” notes are DPCM samples. In fact, if you download this DPCM packet and load the Gimmick! files into Famitracker, you can see how they inserted the bass. It’s really interesting – one of the samples is actually TWO notes.

  • Compositional Strategies For Programmable Sound Generators With Limited Polyphony - Ludomusicology

    […] performer to allow access a further set of ten (or more) notes. No such luxury was (in most cases34) available to the sound chip […]

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