Saturday, April 18, 2015

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 deep 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 thing, as you will hear.

I have three 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 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 next 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 the same time (no delay 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, 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.

Finally, here's Whirlwind from Shinobi III. I think this might be emulated, but if so, it's a really good emulator. This does the same as the Sonic games. There's an FM/PSG double melody, with multiple PSG channels all teaming up to make the PSG more luscious and rich sounding. I presume once again that the addition of the FM voice is to help bring the lead to the forefront a little better.

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):


Jredd - Pixel Protector - Soundcloud


  1. One thing to keep in mind, the balance between FM and PSG on real hardware varies quite a bit on different motherboard versions. If the PSG sounds very drowned out, it may be because you have VA2 or VA2.3, which have weak PSG. Some motherboards have pretty strong PSG, though they may still be weaker than most emulators. As far as the doubling in Sonic 2, that puzzled me for a while, but after comparing the sound with the PSG and/or FM disabled, along with the full mix, I noticed that the doubling does in fact produce a chorus like effect. Yeah, you can do chorus with just 2 PSG voices, but it's usually a very strong, thick chorus, due to the tuning limitations of the PSG. Doing it with PSG and FM allows a softer chorus effect.

  2. Hi Russell! Thank you for an excellent response, and I'm sorry for noticing it so late.

    The blog, like all things Nerd Noise Radio had gone dormant. Now as the Twitter page has come back to life and I've recorded the first episode of the upcoming podcast, I'm looking to bring the blog back on-line too. In that process, I discovered your reply!

    It doesn't surprise me to know the PSG level varies from board to board. What I'm still a little confused by is what it is about the boards that cause the PSG levels to be different, and why seemingly none of the emulators appear to do anything to account for this.

    As I may or may not have said in the article, what I have is a VA6 which replaced a VA7 that I had been rocking for years. The PSG is noticeably fainter on my VA6 than in emulation, or even on the VA7.

    When I first started getting seriously into YouTube'ing VGM, I listened to a lot of Genesis/32X, and being quite a lot less savvy back then, I never realized how "off" the videos sounded (because emulation), or that there was this kind of difference between them. So I just took the videos as "sounding proper". So when I first really started listening to these same tracks on the actual Genesis "just for listening's sake", I was startled that the PSG was so quiet and immediately jumped to the conclusion something was wrong with the Genesis....I eventually came to, though. :-)

    So, outside of Model 3, which Genesis unit "with good audio" would you say is most PSG heavy, without being too much so, and again, what makes this board special so that it is that way?

    Thanks again, Russell!!!