Saturday, April 25, 2015

GEEKSPEAK U: The FME-7 (SUNSOFT 5B)

Most of you know about the Gimmick soundtrack. Most of you know that it features a special chip in the cart that enhances the sound capabilities and adds more channels. But what exactly does it add to the NES's stock sound system to make it sound so good? Well, believe it or not....it basically just adds an Intellivision sound system.

The SUNSOFT 5B, which was a modified version of the Sunsoft FME-7, contained the Yamaha 2149 PSG, which is functionally identical to the General Instruments AY-3-8910, which appeared in the MSX, several arcade cabinets, and of all things, the Intellivision. It's generally felt that the AY and YM slot in-between the SN76489s and POKEYs of the world on the one hand, and the 2A03s and SIDs of the world on the other...in other words, it's generally held to be an inferior sound chip to the one in the NES.

But what Gimmick proves for us is that even though it's inferior, the inferior, paired with the superior produces something FAR better than what the superior can produce all by itself.

A lot of people, I think, assume that the FME-7 added the sampled bass channel, but no, this is just stock 2A03. NES has a 1-bit PCM sampler that does a really crappy job of sampling...but can do it - without tying up any other resources in the sound chip. You will occasionally hear it produce percussion (think Super C, or Super Mario Bros 3), or it will be used for short voice clips, or for sound effects, but it was VERY rare to hear it used "musically". As far as I know, only Gimmick, Batman: Return of the Joker, and Fester's Quest use it for bass guitar (though the bass is so poor that it's almost unrecognizable as a bass guitar sample, or anything that began its life organically, for that matter)

What the YM adds is three more square wave channels (they can do 25% and 85% duty pulse waves too, but I do not think they're used that way in this soundtrack). Big deal, right? Well hold on. Not only does that bring the total number of channels to eight (same as SNES), but it completely frees the 2A03 up to just use asymmetrical pulse waves on those channels, and not have to worry about plain square, while still keeping those wonderful square tones in the mix - moreover, the square waves on the AY/YM are a little "rounder" and more "haunting" sounding than the purer, but blander squares of the 2A03. So, these three extra square waves turn out to be a huge boon after all!

The typical sound scheme of this soundtrack is 2A03 PCM bass (with the PCM also pitching in a little sampled percussion in-between bass notes), the white noise handling the lion's share of the percussion, with the triangle wave - usually used for bass freed up to mostly devote itself to supporting the percussion with portamento falls "tom fill" drums. The 2A03 pulse wave channels, not needing to produce plain squares can just stay in 12.5%, 25%, and 75% pulse wave mode for tonal diversity and inflection. And then, as I said before the YM brings a trio of their haunting, phasey, wonderful plain square waves.

In fact, the soundtrack doesn't deviate from this scheme til about 2/3rds of the way through, when "Just Friends" starts at 19:23. This track features a square wave bass (provided by the YM), subtle sampled percussion, YM rhythm squares in the melody and harmony register, NES pulse waves, and if I'm not mistaken, the triangle wave is buried up in the squares (it might also just be absent).

Next up, at 21:11, is my favorite track of the whole game, "Sophia". It starts with NES sampled percussion, and a YM bass line with a pair of  square waves (to get the fatness, phasey-ness, and warmth) until the bridge at 21:37, when it drops to just a single square wave, since that one is needed elsewhere. And then, at 21:49, the chorus comes, which features NES sampled bass once again. The chorus also features a double melody of NES triangle wave, and NES pulse wave. Even cooler is the plain triangle wave solo at the very beginning of the track at 21:17. Keep in mind a few things: the triangle wave has a really smooth sound, that kinda meets square and sine in the middle, if not even leaning closer to sine (though it has overtones unique to it that neither sine nor square have), and that it's normally used for bass or drums, so you don't often get to hear its soothing call in the upper register.

Paradox, and Innocent go back to the Gimmick Standard sound font, but Siesta features NES sampled drums, YM square bass, and a triangle/square double melody (a la Ironsword).

Goodnight is close to the Gimmick Standard font, only with the obvious exception of very wonderfully overt triangle wave harmony arpeggios. Also, just before the chorus, the bass briefly goes from NES samples to YM square before going back again right away. And then after the chorus, it goes back to square for a bit before returning once again to samples. Great interplay between the two bass modes. Also worth noting, at no point in this soundtrack is the triangle wave used as the primary driving force for bass, as it customarily is on standard 2A03-only stock NES/Famicom sound hardware. :-)

The very last track, the unused one, goes back to the standard Gimmick sound font. Nice way to round us out.

So, now that you've heard all about it, why not actually hear it? :-D

Gimmick, for the Famicom - who knew NES and Intellivision could sing such a lovely duet (though it's probably more accurate - albeit a whole lot less fun- to think of this as an NES/MSX duet instead).

Enjoy:


Thursday, April 23, 2015

GEEKSPEAK U: The Konami SCC

The Konami SCC add-on chip in most Konami games for the MSX is EXCEEDINGLY comparable to the HuC6280 in the PC Engine / Turbografx16. They're both wavetable synthesis (among the few, the proud). And just as the YM2610 (OPNA used in the NEC PC88 / PC98) is the closest thing to the Sega Genesis outside the Sega Genesis (only a little better in every way), the SCC is the closest thing to the PC Engine/Turbografx16 outside the PCE/TG16 (only, better in some ways and worse in some ways).

SCC has higher bit-rate wavetable (8-bit instead of 5-bit), so the individual voices are a little bit cleaner and more nuanced, but it couldn't sample (PCE can sample on any channel), could only use four distinct wave shapes at once over five channels (where PCE could use six wave shapes at once over six channels). It also had to rely on the MSX's built-in AY-3-8910 PSG for the percussion (white noise), where any percussion, be that sampled, wavetable, white noise, or any combination thereof are all done on-chip on the PCE.

Which chip is better overall is debatable (though most people, myself included would probably give a slight edge to the PCE/TG16). THIS soundtrack though, is not only probably the best argument to the contrary, but is just a TOTALLY KILLER soundtrack qua music!

I hope you'll enjoy it!

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake - MSX (SCC)


To give you a better taste of the SCC vs the PCE, I will include both the SCC and PCE versions of both Nemesis (Gradius), and its sequel Salamander (Life Force). Note the SCC's cleaner, more nuanced "rounder" sounding individual voices (as opposed to the slighter rougher, buzzier voices on the PCE)...but also notice the presence of nice ADPCM sampled percussion on the PCE versions, vs the very NES sounding AY-3-8910 PSG percussion on the MSX...

...but for as different as they are, I'm sure you'll agree they are FAAAAAR more the same then they are different!

Let me know in the comments which chip's sound you like better overall.

Nemesis (Gradius) - MSX SCC version:



Nemesis (Gradius) - PCE version:


p.s. what do you think of the PCE Wavetable version of the Konami jingle as the beginning of this video vs the more famous Genesis FM and the SNES ADPCM versions? I personally like the PCE version the best of the three! What say you?

Salamander (Life Force) - MSX SCC version:


p.s. the MSX version features a few tracks that are not in the PCE version - such as Operation Seedleek, Prophet Fire, and Odysseus. While these may well be the best tracks in the game, keep in mind they're not canon, and make your version comparison accordingly.

I could not a full OST video for the PCE version, but the whole thing is available as a playlist. However, since I haven't found a way for Blogspot to play nice with playlists, I'm including just the url. Please open in a different window and listen.

Here's the PC Engine version (playlist).

I think these videos make the point of the comparison, but just in the name of beating the comparison to death, Let me leave you with just one track from Snatcher "Endless Pursuer" - MSX SCC vs PC Engine. The MSX video is much louder, but that's the quality of the video, and no reflection on the versions themselves. Please factor that difference out.

Here's the MSX version:


And here's the PC Engine version (which incidentally, at the time of this posting is my cell phone ringtone) :


So, what's your verdict on MSX SCC vs PCE? The comments section is open. DISCUSS!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

GEEKSPEAK U: The Konami VRC6

The VRC6 is an interesting little beast. While it's technically still PSG, like NES, and nothing at all like the Wavetable Synth of the PCE/TG16 or SCC, the fact that saw and saw variants, as well as all sorts of asymmetrical pulse waves were pretty commonly used on those wavetable systems still causes the VRC6 (which adds a sawtooth wave channel, and two extra flexable pulse channels - eight duty cycle options against the stock 2A03's four actual, three effectual options) to have at least a vaguely PCE'ish sound. 

In fact, since these VRC6 channels are PSG, they are actually "higher fidelity" than the 5-bit bitrate samples of the Wavetable of the PCE, or even the 8-bit wave of the SCC.

But even if VRC6 does vaguely resemble a PCE sound, two things to keep in mind: a) it's NOT the same technology underpinning those sounds, but rather, the same basic technology which brings us the stock NES chip, and b) there are so many sound modes available to Wavetable systems that this chip only cracks a fraction of them. 

So it's like a student chef mastering 10 of his master chef's 400 recipes, and even improving on them slightly (aka the higher fidelity of PSG). He can do as well, or perhaps even better in that narrow band, but can't even begin to compete with the depth and breadth of the master. Well, that's what it's like for VRC6 vs PCE/SCC/N163 etc etc.

Things to keep in mind as you listen to this both technically, as well as musically magnificent soundtrack - Mouryou Senki Madara!


The Japanese version of Castlevania III (Akumajou Densetsu - lit. Devil's Castle Adventure) used the VRC6 (in addition to the stock 2A03), while the US NES version (you might know it as "Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse") used just the 2A03 by itself. Compositionally, both versions are the same, but of course, the NES version had to be retooled to use just the stock channels.

Technically, the JP version is more advanced...but does that translate to a more enjoyable experience or not...YOU DECIDE!

We'll start with the original, Akumajou Densetsu!


Now, here's the Akumajou Densetsu soundtrack retooled to remove all traces of the VRC6 for US audiences - leaving only the stock NES Ricoh 2A03 -  the version we all know and love....Castlevania III.

Which one do you like better? Let me know in the comments. Initially I still liked the US 2A03-only version better (and again, I go both ways on familiarity vs novelty)...but the more I listen, I think I might be beginning to shift the other way.


Now that we've heard from Madara, and Akumajou Densetsu (as well as its US 2A03-only counterpart), that leaves us just ONE other official release to use the VRC6, Esper Dream II. 

Listen to all three of these, and you've heard every thing that ever officially came out for the chip (though there is a ton of GREAT stuff out there in the chip tune and remix scene keeping the chip alive that I'll leave for you to plumb for yourself).

Esper Dream II:


So, what do you think of the VRC6? Tell me in the comments!

Cheers!

Monday, April 20, 2015

THEME SUNDAY - 04/19/2015!

Every Sunday over on our Twitter page (@NerdNoiseRadio) is something I call "Theme Sunday". It's pretty self explanatory, really. All the posts for that day will be of a theme - either the same system, or the same franchise, or different versions of the same track, or one of any number of other possible common elements.

I think I'm gonna try making a blog post out of them also, see how that goes.

So, for this first Theme Sunday, I decided to go with something super easy and obvious. I'm sure NOBODY will have any trouble figuring it out (though later ones may be super hard, you never know.)

Here are the tracks. What's the theme?

X-Men (Arcade) - Ethnic Cave and Flame



Batman (PC Engine) - HES 7



TMNT 2 - The Arcade Game (NES) - Winter's Here



Spider-Man vs the Kingpin (Genesis) - Peter Parker's Room



Justice League Task Force (SNES) - Wonder Woman



and...


...Silver Surfer (NES) - Level theme 2



...so....any guesses?

Also, give me some feedback. Rebroadcasting the "Theme Sundays" from Twitter on the blog...good thing? Bad thing? What about "Soundtrack Saturdays" and "Replay Fridays"? Let me know!

Prost!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

NERD NOISE RADIO - A VGM FACE OFF PRIMER!

VGM FACE OFFs are one of the funnest things for me, because you get to compare and contrast different tracks, and decide which one you like better. This blog will be A LOT more than just FACE OFFs...but it will be one of the staple features.

A lot of people tend to automatically default to the "familiar" version, and it takes something utterly extraordinary to get them to break pattern. Though much, MUCH rarer, others will default to the "novel", and the version that's new to them has to really be much worse before they'll stick with the old standby. There's not a lot I can pride myself on, but here's one area where I can. I have found in the nearly two years of doing FACE OFFs, I've had a pretty neutral bias on familiarity and novelty. My "voting record", as it were, has also been at least closer to neutral between versions on a system I prefer vs on a system that I don't than my actual biases for the systems themselves.

Anyway, I don't say any of this to brag, I say that to say that when there are very few foregone conclusions, the contests are far more interesting, which only further impels me towards FACE OFFs. These FACE OFFs are something that I've been trying to only modest effect on Facebook (where Nerd Noise Radio got its start in January 2013 - and is still going) since NNRs inception. But I've found that the Facebook medium is, shall we say, less than ideal for them, and for the multi-part focus. Hence, the advent of the Nerd Noise Radio blog!

So, for Nerd Noise Radio, we'll have three distinct types of FACE OFF- TRACK OFF, VIBE OFF, and VERSION OFF (I am totally open to a better name for this last one). Here is a description of each type, and three examples of each:

TRACK OFF:

This is the simplest, most straightforward kind. This is where it's the same game, the same melody, either done on different systems (ergo, different sound hardware), or on very rare occasions, different releases on the same system. The question posed by the TRACK OFF is simple: "Which version do you like better, and why?" The majority of FACE OFFs we will do on NNR will be of this TRACK OFF variety.

Here are a few examples:

Stage 3 Jackie Chan Action Kung Fu (Turbografx16) vs Stage 3 from Jackie Chan Action Kung Fu (NES)



Elec Man's Theme from Mega Man 1 (Genesis - via Wily Wars) vs Elec Man's Theme from Mega Man 1 (NES)



Stage 3 from 1943 Kai Kaisen (Arcade) vs Stage 3 from 1943 Kai Kaisen (Turbografx16)




VIBE OFF:

This is one where two (or more) completely different tracks (usually from different games) are contrasted because either the melody is incredibly similar, or the "vibe, and feel" are. This kind will be more rare, and is more difficult, because it's my subjectivity saying these tracks are kindred, perhaps vs your subjectivity saying they're not. Therefore, when doing a VIBE OFF, in addition to the questions "Which one do you like better, and why?" there are also the questions "Which one do you think pulls off the vibe better?" and most difficult of all "Do you feel like this is a valid VIBE OFF in the first place?

I mean, taking the title screen to Final Fantasy IV and comparing it to the title screen of Thunder Force IV is going to yield an invalid VIBE OFF....but what about the battle theme to Black Belt and Wily's Theme 1 from Mega Man 2? Or Blue Blue Moon from Super Adventure Island vs Dilapidated Town from Streets of Rage? Or what about BGM2 from Arnold Palmer's Tournament Golf vs the Check Mii Out parade music?

These are harder to answer...but I'm going to let you, as I'm sharing all three sets (in the stated order). So again, "Which one do you like better, and why?" "Which do you think does better with the vibe?" and "Do you feel these are valid or invalid VIBE OFFs?"

Wily's Castle 1 from Mega Man 2 (NES) vs Boss Theme from Black Belt (Mastersystem)



Blue Blue Moon from Super Adventure Island (SNES) vs Dilapidated Town from Streets of Rage (Genesis)



BGM 2 from Arnold Palmer Tournament Golf (Genesis) vs Parade from Check Mii Out Channel (Wii)




VERSION OFF:

This is where you have two completely different pieces of music, generally with completely different vibes...but both belong to different versions of the same game. This will be the rarest type of all, most likely. But with a lot of Japanese games getting completely redone soundtracks when going to European gaming computer platforms, there are quite a few examples.

The questions for this kind are again "Which one do you like better, and why?", but also "which one do you think fits the game best?" If you're unfamiliar with the game, you may need to do a little YouTubing of game play videos, but it's still not hard to come to a conclusion.

Here are a few examples of "VERSION OFF" FACE OFFS (again, I'm totally open to a better name for these.)

Ancient Temple from Wolfchild (Genesis) vs Ancient Temple from Wolfchild (Super NES) - context is an old, crumbly, bug filled temple



Stage 1 from Ghouls and Ghosts (Arcade) vs Stage 1 from Ghouls and Ghosts (Amiga) - context is a graveyard during a thunderstorm with all sorts of undead baddies coming out of the ground after you, as well as large birds, killer plants, guillotines, and weather hazards




Collision Chaos Zone Present Theme from the Japanese/European versions of Sonic CD (Mega CD) vs Collision Chaos Zone Present Theme from the US (Sega CD) / PC (Windows 95) versions of Sonic CD - context is you're playing a Pinball world.



Like I said, FACE OFFs won't be all there is to the Nerd Noise Blog. I actually have all sorts of ideas for what I want to do on it...but they will be fairly regular - though I will usually just keep it to one FACE OFF per blog post. I definitely covet your feedback on which versions you like better when I do post them. I'll normally include my verdict in the blog, but I'm making an exception this time since there are so many. Maybe I'll share my verdict in the comments.

p.s. Why do I all-cap every time I say FACE OFF? It's just something we did in the very beginning. It  was meant to invoke the "SKITCHIN" shout from the game of the same name. Anyway, it's just stuck. It's the same with GEEKSPEAK.

GEEKSPEAK U: "Real" PSG Square vs FM "Fake" Square on the Sega Genesis

Primarily to ensure backwards compatibility with the 8-bit Mastersystem, the Sega Genesis, in addition to the six-channel YM2612 FM chip that it brought to the party, still contained the Texas Instruments SN76489 PSG (3 channel + 1 noise channel). The Genesis was able to tap into the PSG for its music, for a total of 10 channels, and often did. You can tell that the PSG is being used by that tell-tale sing-songy square wave tone.....or can you?

As it turns out, the FM chip, while it can't make an actual square wave (sine wave only), it can do an amazing job of "faking" a square wave sound with a 2-op, 2:1 ratio voice (resulting in two full sine curves in the positive, followed by two full sine curves in the negative, ultimately making a very "square-like" pattern). The result is a VERY convincing "square" tone.

Today, I'll share with you a few tracks that exclusively use the "FM fake" for square tones, followed, for contrast, by a few that exclusively use real PSG square waves. We'll also talk about why a composer would want to waste complex FM channels for basic PSG-like tones, when there's a real PSG "right down the hall" that they could use instead (turns out there actually are a few contexts where there is good reason for doing this)

We'll start out with perhaps the most incredible example of FM fake square, the continue theme from TMNT Tournament Fighters. This track sounds like it's made up almost entirely of PSG, when in fact, there is ABSOLUTELY NO PSG in it at all. There isn't even any DAC sampling on the FM 6 channel. Nope, this is 100% FM:


One reason for using an FM fake is if you want "stereo square" since the actual PSG chip is mono, the TMNT track is a great example of stereo square.

Another reason for wanting to use the fake is for deep pitches (since the SN76489 cannot pitch very d
eep at all.) For an example of the FM fake being used for this purpose, here's a track from Contra: Hard Corps.

There's not a lot of "square" going on here. But at the 0:44 mark, you have this big square that starts really deep, and slowly slides up to a high pitch, only to turn around and slide back down to the low one (much lower than the actual PSG can go). That square is fake. It's FM (another hint is how it has to cut out once or twice to accommodate some other FM operation):



The third major reason for using FM to fake a square, rather than allow the PSG to do it is if you want the square tone to slice through the mix and dominate. 

PSG is much fainter in the mix (especially on real hardware, where it's much softer than in
 emulation.) Even on tracks with PSG square leads, the lead sounds kinda soft (as we'll hear next in a few tracks with real PSG lead). So, if you wanted a square sound that's in your face, it's FM for you.

Here's an example of dominant FM "square" (though the square tones are a little less perfect on this one) - The Pit - Mortal Kombat:



Here's another example of fake squares cutting to the front (though these squares are a little more obviously fake than the others.) However, while the "squares" are fake, the sine wave chords (the cheery, happy "doot doot doot doot" sounds) are REAL sine waves - made by the FM chip itself. This is "Woody Land 1 and 2" from Mr. Nutz:


Also, the FM "square" tones tend to be a little more nuanced, and more expressive than the real thing (they're also slightly rounder, which makes sense given they're made with a pair of sine waves). 

But the trade off is they're just slightly less "sing songy" than the real thi
ng, as you will hear. 

I have four tracks for you now that use prominent PSG square (the real thing). You will notice the square tone is a little more sing-song, but you will also notice it is much softer, even in emulated tracks (though I will endeavor to find examples running on real hardware)

The first is "In the Bar" (Stage 1-2) from Streets of Rage 2 (real hardware, I believe):



Here's Whirlwind from Shinobi III. I think this might be emulated, but if so, it's a really good emulator. Most emulators are very obviously emulated, and the PSG maybe sounds a little bit strong to me here, but it's also entirely possible this is real hardware.


Here's Space Walk, from Thunder Force IV (aka Lightening Force - their typo, not mine). I'm almost positive this is real hardware:


And lastly, here's one from Mega Turrican. All the squares are real (and the squares are how this powerful and darkly intense track start out). With as strong as those squares are in the mix, though, I'm almost positive this is emulated.


This is all well and good, but to really get an idea of how close the FM fake can sound to the real PSG (and yet, how different it sounds) perhaps we should hear the two in the same context, so I have for you both the Arcade CPS1 version - YM2151(OPM) FM /MSM6258 PCM (with FM fake square lead), and the Genesis version - emulated (with real PSG lead) of Chun Li's theme from Street Fighter II.

Here's the Arcade version:



And here's the Genesis version:



Now, I've made a lot of noise about how PSG is fainter on real hardware than it is in emulation. Why this is, I honestly don't know. I would speculate that there was some filter in real hardware that was not emulated in, but that's just bald conjecture on my part. If anyone out there can either confirm my hypothesis, or provide us the real reason instead, I'm all ears.

But I wanted to demonstrate for you the difference in sound (most obvious in the PSG levels). I'll be sharing two videos of "King Turtle" from Jewelmaster, the first one emulated, and the second one on real hardware.

The PSG in this track is understated, even in emulation (and almost imperceptible on real hardware). It's the simple droning notes that appear during the "chorus" (starting at 0:04). Even in emulation, they're not dominant, but they're still very obvious.

Here's the emulated version:



Now, here's the real hardware version. Not only does the FM sound just a bit different, but those PSG drones, you REALLY have to strain to pick them out:


One more example of real hardware vs emulation, and its impact on the PSG (this one with much more dominant PSG) - Magician's Domain (aka Stage 10) from World of Illusion.

Emulated version first:



And real hardware:


Now, I'm almost done, but there's one more curveball on this FM fake square vs PSG real square thing, and that's this: What if they're using BOTH?

This first track uses both, but uses them differently. The melody voice is an FM fake square, while the 
PSG is performing a very faint three-part harmony on the melody voice (I LOVE this track, by the way.) 

Federal Patrol Office - Star Cruiser (JP Mega Drive only - real hardware):



My last three tracks are all from the same game, and all do the same thing as each other in regards to our square tone considerations....they do something very strange...

...they have PSG and FM square doing double melody. The same notes...at the same time (no dela
y effect). PSG does add harmony off and on, but the melody voice is BOTH PSG AND FM AT THE SAME TIME!

I don't know why they'd do that. The two voices are similar enough that it would't change the tone much, especially considering the FM would be louder and all but completely drown out the PSG voice anyway. So I'm kinda stumped here. I suppose it does create a little bit of a phasy character since the overtones of both sounds are slightly different, and slightly clash in a pleasing, intriguing way, so maybe that's what they were going for?

But whatever the reason that's what all three of these tracks do. They're all from Sonic 2. We'll start with Mystic Cave Zone (2 player):



Mystic Cave Zone (1 player):


And lastly, Oil Ocean Zone. I you listen REALLY closely at 0:07-0:13, buried deep in the mix is a mid-range plain sine wave (like we heard in three part chords on the Mr. Nutz track - only this is an individual sine). At that moment, it's also only the PSG making square since the FM channel that was making the square took a break for the sine wave and another voice.


Okay! So that's real PSG square and FM fake "square" on the Sega Genesis, and while we were at it, it's also emulation vs real hardware as it relates to PSG. Hopefully 19 tracks (including this last one) is enough to paint a fairly full picture.

Let me know if I missed anything, or if I got anything wrong. Otherwise, I hope that opened your eyes, and ears to this little interesting dynamic in the Genesis' sound.

I'll leave you with a great chip tune called "Pixel Protector" made by Jredd (aka Trevin Hugues), which uses real PSG for the melody, and an FM fake square for the bass):

Cheers!


Jredd - Pixel Protector - Soundcloud