Category Archives: Meet the System

Meet the System: Sega Game Gear

One of the main goals of this blog is to introduce people to each video game console and their sound capabilities.   Today, let’s talk about the Sega Game Gear.

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Meet the System: Nintendo Game Boy

One of the main goals of this blog is to introduce people to each video game console and their sound capabilities.   Today, let’s talk about the Nintendo Game Boy.

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Meet the System: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

One of the goals of this website is to introduce people to the various video game consoles and their sound capabilities.  Let’s talk about the Sega Genesis.

A Brief Description

Known as the Sega Mega Drive in Japan and as the Genesis here due to copyright restrictions on the name “Mega Drive”, the Sega Genesis was the first 16-bit gaming console released in the US, though not by much (it only bested NEC’s Turbografx-16 by 14 days).  It featured a huge library of 915 game cartridges, stereo output sound, and numerous add-on console enhancements including the Sega CD (a CD-ROM drive attachment) and the Sega 32x (a 32-bit gaming console attachment).  It was Sega’s best selling console of all time (though Sega has refused to report how many units were sold officially).  The last Sega Genesis rolled off the line in 1997, when the console was retired.  For more information, check out:  http://segaretro.org/Sega_Mega_Drive

Sound Capability

Technical Stuff:

The Sega Genesis was built off the original Sega Master System motherboard  (an 8-bit console developed by Sega- I’ll talk about this later).  The main processor for the system was the legendary Motorola 68000 which was used in many arcade console machines and Apple Macintosh computers.  Since the Genesis motherboard is actually BUILT from Master System board (like, literally the same board with modifications), the Motorola 68000 is assisted by a Zilog Z80 “coprocessor”…. which is actually just the processor from the Master System.  In this capacity, the Z80 is used almost exclusively to control sounds and audio.  (A nerdy aside – the Motorola 68000 goes on to serve as the sound processor for the Sega Saturn – the proccessor circle of life).

As for the sound chips themselves, the Genesis utilized the Yamaha YM2612 and the Texas Instruments SN76489.  The SN76489 was simply the Master System audio chip that was left over after editing the board.  It had three square waves and a noise channel (very similar to the NES sound chip, the 2A03).  By adding the YM2612, the Genesis gained 6 channels of FM synthesis, with the 6th channel capable of being used as a  DAC (digital to analog) converter.  Through the use of these two complimentary sound chips, the audio system for the Genesis was capable of playing 6 concurrent sounds while using the SN76489 for sound effects (like jumping, bumping, running, grabbing rings, etc).  Very powerful stuff.

Lastly, the Genesis, just like the Nintendo Famicom, had two pins inside the cartridge reader just for sound expansion modules.  Sadly, not a single Genesis game utilized this and no sound expansion modules were ever developed for the Genesis.

Explanation:

Essentially, the 6 FM synthesis channels of the Genesis allowed for many varied sounds.  FM synthesis allows one to customize or modulate the frequencies of the sounds to create almost infinite possibilities (hence frequency modulation synthesis).  In addition to that, the Genesis could always use the 8-bit sound chip to create three pure square waves or noise.  This gave the Genesis the best of both worlds – an arcade-like FM synthesis sound chip AND an 8-bit audio chip.  Let’s take a look at some classic Genesis music.  Here’s Sonic the Hedgehog “Green Hill Zone”:

(credit:  )

Pretty awesome.  How about more awesome?  Noriyuki Iwadare (who I wrote about here) wrote the soundtrack to Warsong (Langrisser in Japan), an awesome strategy RPG:

(credit:  )

I really love the utilization of all the different sound effects.  The drums are impressive for 1991.  Just a great track.  Finally, I’ll post what I consider to be one of the most complex pieces of music for the Sega Genesis- a track from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 – “Final Battle”:

(credit:  )

What I think is so great about this track is the utilization of the 8-bit audio chip for the backgrounds.  We’ll talk more about Howard Drossin later – he’s awesome.

Conclusion:

The Sega Genesis may be remembered for its massive collection of arcade game ports, Sonic the Hedgehog, or numerous unique sports games.  Still, I think people may remember it as being the console they owned that made their NES owning friends jealous.  I chose to remember it for its impressive sound capabilities and a version of Mortal Kombat that actually had blood in it.  Whatever you remember it for, it was an important console in the history of gaming that changed the landscape forever.  I hope you found this informative.  I welcome your comments.


Meet the System: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

One of the goals of this website is to introduce people to the various video game consoles and their sound capabilities.  Today, I choose the Nintendo Entertainment System.

A Brief Description

Known as the Family Computer (Famicom) in Japan, the Nintendo Entertainment System is the 10th best selling game console of all time at 61.91 million units sold.  It featured 8-bit graphics, a library of 799 games, and numerous peripherals including the NES Zapper (a light gun for simulated shooting games), the Power Glove (the first controller that allowed human movement to control a video game), and the Power Pad (a floor mat controller controlled by a player’s feet).  The console was released in the US in 1984 and was discontinued 1994.  For more info, check out the NES wiki : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nintendo_Entertainment_System

Sound Capability

Technical Stuff:

The NES uses a Ricoh 2A03 8-bit microprocessor.  It was based on the MOS Technology 6502, the same processor as the famous Apple II series.  (The MOS Technology 6502 was developed by the same engineering team that built the very popular and successful Motorola 6800.  (A nerdy aside:  the Motorola 6800 is the processor that eventually led to the development of the MC68000 series, the Apple Macintosh chip that competed with the Intel x86 chip for many years and was coincidentally the chip used in the Sega Genesis). )

The 2A03 allowed for two pulse wave channels with 16 volume settings and duty settings of 12.5%, 25%, 50%, and 75%, one fixed-volume triangle wave channel, a white noise channel with 16 volume settings, and delta pulse-code modulation (DPCM).  The console also allowed for sound expansion chips.  These were controlled by two pins on the cartridge connection.  This allowed for more simultaneous sounds, extra channels, and other sound types such as sawtooth waves.  Unfortunately, the two pins were removed from the US Nintendo console so we actually never heard the most powerful and clean sound expansion chips.  I’ll save that conversation for another post.

Explanation:

Essentially, most first generation NES games had only 4 different simultaneous sounds – two pulse waves that could change in timbre from pulse to square with adjustments, a triangle wave, and a white noise channel.  The DPCM is essentially just a really, really primitive audio sampler.  A lot of the sound effects you hear when you play NES (such as punching, kicking, jumping, power ups etc) are just sampled sounds that are fed through the DPCM.  Through creative use of these channels, early NES composers managed to create music.  Here’s a montage of all the songs from Super Mario Bros. for NES:

(credit:  Garudoh)

So, what you’re hearing right now from composer Koji Kondo is the two pulse waves controlling the melody and the triangle serving as the bass.  The noise channel is manipulated to attempt to create something that sounds like or acts like drums.  What is interesting to know is that the triangle wave is fixed volume so while the other channels can technically be louder or softer, the total volume has to be based completely on the output sound of the triangle wave.  A puzzling limitation.

However, as I mentioned before, there were MANY sound expansion modules that were attached to the game cartridges themselves that allowed for extra channels to be added.  Many companies, when producing games, took advantage of this to add many more “instrument” options for their composers.  Here’s of an example Yoshinori Sasaki et al using Konami’s VRC6, a chip that added two pulse waves and a sawtooth wave:

(credit:  Explod2A03 – awesome name)

Conclusion

The NES was and still is an incredibly iconic system that paved the way for modern video game consoles.  Its sound capabilities are impressive and vast due the system’s ability to process sound expansion modules from the game cartridges themselves.  I hope this brief “meet and greet” has been informative and has allowed for a greater understanding of what composers worked with in order to create the music for the NES.