Fidelity Concerns: Sega Master System (US) vs. Sega Master System (JP)

Show of hands… how many people actually owned a Sega Master System?  Anyone?  Someone?  Are you out there?

Well.  Did you know that your US Sega Master System produced MASSIVELY INFERIOR audio to the Japanese Sega Master System?

Some little known facts about the Japanese system and the Konami VRC7, for some reason, after the bump.

So, I’ve never done an official Meet the System post for Sega Master System.  I will probably do that soon.  For now, I just wanted to point out something that I found about the SMS’s audio.

First of all, the Sega Master System uses a SN76489 Programmable Sound Generator (PSG).  Yey, you can program sound!  Lots of sounds!  That sounds great.

It is not.  The SN76489 features 3 fixed square waves and a noise generator.  The square waves cannot be changed via duty cycle.  You’re stuck with them.  To make matters worse, these square waves are incapable of reaching very low frequencies.

The noise channel, on the other hand, is interesting; it is mildly toned.  If you mess around with it, it can make scales and has noticeable pitch changes across octaves.

The console used the SN76489 for ALL of its sound output.  Oy.

Have you ever experience the SN76489?  Probably.  The Sega Game Gear has the same chip inside.  If you recall, most games had absolutely irritating high pitched sound effects (see:  Sonic, Spin Dash, Game Gear).  We only have the SN76489 to blame.

So… side by side with it’s greatest competitor, the Nintendo Famicom/NES, how did our buddy the SMS stack up?  Uh….



Not.  Good.  Wow.  This is kind of why the Famicom/NES had 90% of the gaming market in 1988.


Whelp, we have Sega to blame for this.  The Japanese Sega Master System contained the SN76489 AND the YM2413.  So what, you say?

The YM2413 contained 9 channels of FM synthesis.  It could be adapted to “Percussion Mode”, which gave it 6 channels of FM Synthesis and 5 percussion channels.  11 more channels were possible!  The chip had 15 preset FM Synthesis instruments and one user defined instrument.  Does this sound familiar, at all?

It’s the Konami VRC7!  It’s the same chip, mostly.  The VRC7 lacked the 5 percussion channels but was in essentially Percussion Mode (6 Channels of FM Synthesis).

To make matters worse, this chip was STANDARD on all Sega Master System systems in Japan.  The Sega Mark III, the console the Sega Master System is based on, actually had a special FM Sound Unit you could purchase and attach to get the better soundtrack!  We did not receive ANY of this.

So what does a fully maximized Master System sound like?  Side by side comparisons:

Fantasy Zone II



Same game, folks.

Out Run:







This all makes me very sad.  What do you guys think?

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

10 responses to “Fidelity Concerns: Sega Master System (US) vs. Sega Master System (JP)

  • ryanvgr

    This seems to prove one thing that remains true to this very day; its never the hardware that makes a good game system, but the software.

  • CWalois

    I know one thing: parents of kids with the US SMS were much more likely to get extremely irritated while having to listen to the video games going on in the other room than their Japanese counterparts.

    I assume the reason for the lack of the VRC7 was that they wanted to spend less money making the US SMS?

  • Alexandra Sendy

    As far as squarewaves go, the SMS ones always seem to have a unique character, almost sort of “whiney”. Perhaps it’s just the lack of timbral variety, or something to do with the pitch resolution. The NES’s chip seems kinda limited, but in comparison, it’s a goldmine, with three different pulse tones, the stairsteppy triangle which let the bass cut through the mix, the two types of noise AND very crude sample playback.

    If the C64 taught us anything, it’s that game audio is incredibly important. Most of it’s games were pretty terrible, but we didn’t mind, because of the awesome music.

  • Marcus Isom

    Aw, that was actually a fairly negative outlook. I’m sad to see such hate for the SN76489 PSG. 😦

    If you used it right, you get very nice unique music. There is something sparkly and shiny about the 3 square channels. And try interlacing the melodic noise with regular noise and square tom toms, like a C64 track. Check out what can be done with the US SMS sound chip in the right hands:

    Listen to Tarzan Boy (SMS Version) by marcb0t #np on #SoundCloud

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