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Sound Chips and Chiptune

Before you get your hopes up, the image below is a concept design made by Cem Tezcan of a Handheld Retro PC - Commodore HX-64.⁣ Just a concept, but cool nonetheless. You can check out more images here.

⁣Chiptune is synthesized electronic music made using programmable sound generator sound chips found in vintage arcade machines, computers and video game consoles.⁣

Think of a sound chip as a little synth within your Game Boy or Commodore 64. A sound chip is an integrated circuit designed to produce sound. Since the 90s, the standard way to do this is through Pulse Code Modulation or PCM - a method used to digitally represent analog signals.

The Commodore 64 in particular used a sound chip called “SID”, or Sound Interface Design, or to put it even more intricately, MOS Technology 6581. The SID was devised by engineer Robert "Bob" Yannes, who later co-founded Ensoniq.⁣

The Game Boy and Commodore 64 use a waveform generator to produce different sound waves. The Game Boy uses two pulse channels (a channel for 4-bit pulse-code modulation (PCM) playback, and a pseudo-random-noise generator). The Commodore 64 uses the aforementioned SID chip and uses three channels (switchable between pulse, saw-tooth, triangle, and noise).⁣

Since you couldn’t really make polyphonic music (more than one note at a time), a lot of early video game music featured arpeggios (notes that compose a chord played in a rising or descending order). My favorite example of a video game soundtrack that features an arpeggio is “Track 1” from Top Gear on Super Nintendo - although being from the 90s, the SNES used a more advanced sound chip, “S-SMP”.⁣

The first video game to implement a continuous background soundtrack with Chiptune was Tomohiro Nishikado's 1978 release Space Invaders, which had four simple chromatic descending bass notes repeating in a loop.⁣

Pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra started using computers to produce synthesized music in the late 1970s. Within their 1978 self-titled debut album are samples from arcade games like Space Invaders. Sega's 1982 arcade game Super Locomotive even featured a chiptune cover version of YMO's "Rydeen".⁣

Off to play some video games.


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