An Unsung giant of 80’s Gaming

This company helped define video games throughout the mid 80’s and early 90’s, but you probably wouldn’t think of them as a videogame company.

Don’t believe me? Their tech was used in both the Megadrive and the Japanese Master System, but they aren’t anything to do with Sega. It also found its way into a number of Famicom carts, but they aren’t really linked to Nintendo.

In fact, this company wasn’t just restricted to assisting the main console players either. Chips that they manufactured also found their way into  SNK’s Neo Geo, Fujitsu’s FM Towns  systems and Sharp’s X68000 console. Cor.

Indeed, on top of that, their tech also played a crucial role in powering both Adlib and Soundblaster sound cards, as well as making it into a slew of computers built to the MSX. Oh, their technology also made it into almost every notable arcade cabinet from the mid eighties onwards.

Need extra help? Well, at the same time as they were helping to innovate in the games industry, they were also selling one of the most important and wildly successful digital musical instruments of all time, the DX7 synthesizer, AND manufacturing a decent line of motorbikes to boot.

Yep, the company in question is Yamaha, and the FM Synthesis they pioneered single-handedly defined the sound of the 16-bit era.

 

Origins

Historically, of course, Yamaha were a company who started out making making cheap’n’cheerful organs as a niche alternative to more expensive Western brands.”Hang on a second”, you may be wondering, “how on earth does a company go from manufacturing organs, pianos and motorbikes to creating computer chips?” Well, the story is a slightly surprising.

 

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An Early 20th Century Yamaha Reed Organ (credit Miki Yoshihito)

 

Like so many things across the world, the development of Yamaha was permanently altered by arrival of the Second World War. While many Japanese companies were adveresly at Japan’s ill-advised entry into the conflict, Yamaha’s fate moved in the other direction and they actually escaped the 1940’s having been hit by a few remarkable strokes of fortune.

First, their knowledge of mechanical engineering was enhanced by their factories being requisitioned to make air craft parts for the Japanese government. Next, the bombing of Japanese infrastructure left hem as one of the few companies in Japan to have an operational factory. Finally, and quite sadly, the unfortunate incident of their director suffering a stroke had the side effect of providing Yamaha an ambitious new leader in the form of his son, Gen’ichi Kawakami.

These things were all crucial. In the short term, the knowledge they had gained of mechanical engineering led directly to the motorbike business that they are perhaps best known for today, and the survival of their factory meant they were in a position to implement this knowledge straight away.

For the longterm development of the company, however, Kawakami Jr’s arrival was perhaps more important. In 1953 he had taken a round the world trip (at the same time, interestingly, as Sony’s Akio Morita) and, having seen how things were done elsewhere, had returned with both the knowledge of what Yamaha needed to do to modernise their operations and the ambition to turn Yamaha into something that could compete with the currently more tech-savvy American competition. He wanted to ensure Yamaha were an advanced, forward-looking company.

This obsession with modernisation led Yamaha into an entirely new line of business: the Electronic organ. Working together with an ambitious young electrical engineer named Yasunori Mochida, Kawakami unleashed Yamaha’s first electronic organ – the D-1 – in 1959. It wasn’t a great commercial success, but that didn’t really matter: they had designed and manufactured an electronic item that functioned. This was a foundation on which Yamaha could build.

 

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Yamaha’s first electronic instrument, the D1 (image credit: Yamaha)

 

And build is what they did. They developed more and more electronic instruments and, in doing so, ran into product reliability issues which were effecting the electronic organ industry as a whole. You see, electronic instruments in this period were made from analog components whose tuning could be adversely affected by small changes in the voltage coming into the unit. Yamaha realised that, realistically, the best approach was to use digital components: once you program a digital component with a definition of ‘in tune,’ it will stick to it as long as it has enough power to function.

This, however, provided it’s own problems. Semi conductor producers of the time were keen for Yamaha to stick with existing designs components, and were unwilling to work on the custom designs Yamaha needed. This left the instrument company to take one logical but massively risky step:  get into the semiconductor business themselves and design and build their own computer chips.

Though this decision may have seemed dangerous at the time, it was amazingly astute: Yamaha were positioning themselves to be at the forefront of a computerised future.

The origins of the FM Synthesis Yamaha were to become known for actually lay on the other side of the Pacific, surprisingly. In the late 60s, a graduate student named John Chowning was playing around with computers over at Stamford university. At the time, computers were seen as a god-send by music students: Finding an orchestra to play their compositions was hard work, so the Computer’s potential for testing harmonies was an offer that was every bit as practical as it was exotic and futuristic.

 

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FM tone testing at Stamford university

 

Playing around with a couple of very simple, hollow-sounding oscillators, Chowning found out he could create much more realistic and complicated (bells, clarinets) by using the wave form created by one to directly alter the tone of the other. He didn’t know it at the time, but he’d just discovered FM Synthesis.

 

What is FM Synthesis?

So Chowning’s discovery might have gone on to change the sonic world, but what actually is it? Well, at its simplest Frequency Modulation is a form of ‘additive synthesis’, where one ‘modulating’ wave form is used to directly alter the frequency of one ‘carrier’ wave form.

 

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FM Modulation basics – here is how different modulator wave will effect original carriers

 

This is significant because up until this point most synthesisers  – such as those developed by Bob Moog – deployed subtractive synthesis. As the name suggests, this involves taking simple wave forms and using filters to alter them by arbitrarily removing some of their harmonic components.

Subtractive synthesis is great and can create all manner of weird and interesting sounds (just look at the variety of sounds created using Nintendo’s 2a03 and Commodore’s SID chips,) but just as a sculptor is limited by the size of the stone they are carving from, subtractive synthesis leaves the composer at the mercy of the original sound’s harmonic components. You might be able to make a SID patch that is vaguely evocative of an electric guitar, but, sample tricks aside, you’ll never make the SID be able to successfully emulate all of the harmonic properties of the string instrument.

Additive synthesis, on the other hand, works the other way. Where subtractive synthesis creates a new sound by removing harmonic components, additive synthesis combines the harmonic components of its inputs to make new, much more complex sounds. This means that the more wave forms you have available to use as carriers and modulators, the more complex sounds you can create. With FM, your only limit is the amount of wave generators you can physically cram into the hardware.

Chowning had discovered a way of moving electronic instruments away from the abstract and towards being solid emulators of acoustic instruments. This was amazing…but how on earth was it going to be implemented?

 

Implementation

In 1967, there was of course no guarantee that FM Synthesis would see the light of day in commercial products and, if it did, that Yamaha would be behind it. From this point on, Yamaha was able to benefit from a few more good turns of fortune.

The first was that Chowning was able to fine-tune and demonstrate his discovery, unleashing it on the world in 1972’s fully-synthesized composition Turenas. Now the genie was out of the bottle, it was time for Yamaha’s second stroke of fortune: Though Chowning and Stamford were eager for local instrument makers to license their creation, none of the US companies were interested.

Though it’s easy to cast the likes of Hammond and Moog as the guys who turned down the Beatles, it makes perfect sense that they would struggle to accommodate Chowning’s discovery into their business model. Even if they could see the benefits of his work. US instrument producers at the time were creators of analog electronics. What they really wanted was a new component or device, but what Chowning wanted to sell them was essentially a software algorithm. What Chowning needed was a partner who understood the benefits of digital. What he needed, essentially, was Yamaha.

 

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The GS-1, Yamaha’s first FM Synthesiser. Costing nearly $20000, it looks more like a piano than a keyboard, doesn’t it?

 

Even when Yamaha and Chowning eventually found each other, however, everything wasn’t plain sailing. Though Yamaha quickly acquired the patent, one of the conditions baked into their license was the need to make the technology economically viable almost immediately, with the rights reverting back to Stamford if they failed.

This was a problem: Though Yamaha now had both Chowning’s algorithm and a theoretical understanding of how to implement it, their current circuit designs were simply too basic to allow them to build a practical FM synthesiser. This conundrum led to the creation of their first FM Synth, the massively impractical GS-1. Released in 1978, this mammoth  Weighed in at 200 pounds and looked more like a grand piano than a synthesiser. Rather than a single processor, the GS-1 used 50 chips lined up in parallel and consequently cost between $16-20000. Eek.

It may have had a lovely sound and a surprisingly full feature set, but it’s extreme cost and huge bulk made it impractical for all but the richest of musicians and studios. No matter: With the release of the GS-1 Yamaha had their foot in the door, and could now spend time perfecting a consumer-ready synthesiser.

 

FM for The Masses

After the GS1, it took a further five years for Yamaha and Chowning to perfect their hardware and software designs to the point where they could create a single affordable FM chip. Once completed, this would lead to both unparalleled success and also a remarkable and most fortuitous failure.

First the success: In 1983, Yamaha released the DX-7. Available at a highly affordable $2000. this synth may not have been Yamaha’s flagship model, but by managing to find the sweet spot between price and capability it was an overnight success. Featuring enough sine wave generators to create rich, complex sounds (6,) plus full size keys, a huge bank of useful presets and the ability to easily save your own sound creations, the DX-7 was a sensation that sold over 200,000 synths over the course of its lifespan and became the most successful electronic instrument of all time (if you want to benchmark this, the successful Minimoog sold around a tenth of this.)

 

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The DX7. You may not have heard of it, but f you’ve listened to an 80s pop song you’ve definitely heard it.

 

Now, the failure: in June 1983, Microsoft Japan and the Ascii corp announced the MSX Computer standard. Built around common off-the-shelf parts such as the Zilog z80 processor, the concept was a good one: MSX manufacturers would create computers with a set list of shared central components, operating system and expansions, while also having the space outside this to add their own spin and features.

Yamaha’s vision of an MSX computer was a strong one: Aside from being a standard MSX capable of running all MSX software and games, their CX5M would be a multimedia PC, aimed at music creation.

Not only would the system itself contain an FM sound chip and have the ability to be used as an FM sound module, but Yamaha released cartridges that could be used to create sound patches which could be saved and used on the DX-7. This last feature was an ingenious move, as one of the only losses musicians had suffered from the move to digital was the replacement of large, tactile switches and dials with pages of numerical information on a tiny LCD screen. The CX5m was a great way to circumvent this limitation, and was a more handsome machine than most of the competition, too.

 

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The Yamaha CX5m – a Handsome beast of an MSX

 

Still, for whatever reason, both the CX5m (and the MSX standard more generally) didn’t find the success its creators would have hoped for. There may have been a niche market in Japan and some European countries, but a profitable just business wasn’t there for Yamaha. Fortunately the man responsible for the CX5m, Yasunori Mochida, saw this early on  and by the end of 1985 Yamaha had pulled out of the business entirely. Yamaha were going to have to find a new side project to support their growing FM sound chip business.

Chips with Everything

This failure was important. Had Yamaha stayed in the computer business, a lot of their surplus FM chips might have been sucked up there, limiting their interest in working with outside partners. With the CX5m’s failure, however, they were suddenly left with more of the computer’s YM2151 chips than they knew what to do with.

 

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Yamaha’s arcade powerhouse, the 2151 ‘OPM’ chip

 

Thankfully, there was a market that was ready and waiting to take all of the spare the FM chips that Yamaha had – along with a hell of a lot more to boot. Though the 8-bit Zilog Z80-based arcade machines of the early 80s were still effectively streets ahead of any technology available in the home, arcade machine manufacturers were still eager to one up each other with the flashiest, most attention-grabbing machines they could possibly build. With the bar about to be raised by the arrival of machines built around cheap 16-bit CPUs, Yamaha were well placed to cash-in by offering arcade manufacturers exclusive access to the next generation of realistic sound and music.

Consequently, the first arcade machine to be equipped with an FM sound chip arrived in 1984. The game that took the accolade of being first was classic gravity-defying maze’em’up Marble Madness. Many, many more were to follow though, as in the following year, arcade manufacturer Sega opted to include Yamaha’s OPM chip in their System-16 arcade spec.

This was a massive coup: Built around a fancy 16-bit Motorola 68000, the System-16 was an affordable powerhouse designed to act as a platform for the next generation of arcade games. Over the next few years, more than 40 individual arcade titles were built using System-16 variants, and these included famous titles like Golden Axe, Shinobi and Fantasy Zone. Naturally, every single arcade board that rolled off the production line needed to contain one of Yamaha’s sound chips.

If that sounds good for Yamaha, things soon got even better. Not only was System-16  a success in its’ own right, but it soon became a basic spec for the industry as a whole. Not only did Sega use it as a base for the more advanced designs needed to run its ‘super scaler’ games (Outrun, Space Harrier,)  but when rivals Capcom built their own competing platform – the CPS-1 – the result was a System-16 in all but name (including the all-important FM chip.) The CPS-1 would go on to hose games that were every bit as important as Sega’s, including the likes of Strider, Street Fighter 2, Final Fight and Forgotten Worlds.

 

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Strider might have featured a giant gorilla…but it was no monkey in the sound department.

 

It might have been by relative accident then, but by the close of the 1980s Yamaha’s technology was providing the soundtrack to pretty much any arcade game you could find. That might seem an incredible enough achievement on its own but their involvement in the industry didn’t stop there.

 

The Pull of FM

Before we go any further, we should take a moment to ask why FM was such a tantalising prospect for videogame composers. While the answer to this might seem obvious – we’ve already discussed how FM provided all electronic composers with a way of making more realistic and complex sounds – FM had some important extra advantages for composers of videogame music.

In particular, the age of FM granted composers a much larger number of channels (instruments) to play with. When writing music for gaming hardware equipped with simple programmable sound generators like the AY 8910, the composer has just 3 normal channels to play with (PSGs generally had a channel reserved for static/white noise generation.) Even without considering the quality of the sounds you could create, Yamaha’s 8 channel OPM chip already offered composers a greater number of normal instruments than two AY 8910s used together.

In system-16 boards the OPM chips weren’t used in isolation, however. Forming one half of a sonic revolution, the OPM synthesiser was used alongside a PCM chip from NEC that was capable of playing three channels of sampled 8-bit audio. Considering the relative amount of space digital samples used in this period, this was a perfect combination: Sounds that could be realistically synthesised could be handed over to the OPM, while any percussion, voices, and sound effects that needed to be sampled could be deployed in a way that allowed the ROM size to be kept relatively svelte.

Indeed, even in the slightly less glamorous audio set up Sega were to use in their Sega Megadrive, the combination of an FM chip with a more basic secondary sound chip proved to be a winner. Though the Megadrive’s secondary soundchip was the humble Master System PSG, the fact that the FM chip was doing most of the donkey work means you might be surprised at the quality of sound Sega composers were able to extract from it:

 

FM seems to arrived at a crucial juncture for videogame music, then. Though it’d be wrong to say there was no pre-FM vidoegame soundtracks, they did tend tend to lack ambition. An obvious example of this would be something like 1983 shooter Gyrus which, like so many games before it, had a soundtrack that was merely a minimalist arrangement of a classical work ( Toccata and the Fugue in D minor, in this case.)

With the arrival of FM (and, to be fair, other associated advancements such as the creation of the  MIDI – Musical Instrument Digital Interface – standard,) composers became bolder. Sega’s arcade machines in particular are well known for their ambitious and creative soundtracks, but composers employed by the likes of Capcom and Taito were equally up to the job of creating fantastic and complicated soundtracks too.

The arrival of FM hadn’t simply made the instrument sounds used in game soundtracks sound a bit more realistic, they had helped change the entire nature of game music as a whole.

For home gamers, this was development was equally vital. True, your NES or Zx Spectrum may not have come equipped with a fancy sound chip itself, but the pressing need to convert the latest and greatest arcade releases to the home environment meant there was also a need to find ways to create passable versions of their soundtracks as well. As the 80s progressed, so to did the quality of the soundtracks produced for even the most basic PSG. Everyone was a winner.

Well, I say your home console didn’t have a fancy sound chip. That, however, was about to change.

 

Adlibbing in the PC Market

As they were both based and controlled by the cost of electronic components, videogames and synthesisers actually turned out to be highly compatible business models. Just as the technology from last year’s synthesiser would inevitably be cost reduced to fit nicely into next year’s budget keyboard, there was an equal inevitability to game console manufacturers looking for trends they could borrow from the arcades.

Consequently, the arrival of budget FM synthesisers like Yamaha’s PSS-170 was a big deal. Sporting a cheap 2 operator FM chip – a chip much more limited then the OPMs which had filled the arcades – this was a clear indication that it was time for the home video game industry to move forward.

And move forward it definitely did, as 1986 and 1987 saw the sudden arrival of FM sound in the Japanese console sphere. First, Sega released an FM sound peripheral for their Mark III console, before building it into the Japanese version of the Master System. While this was going on, Konami were experimenting with FM by including chips in numerous MSX game cartridges and, much later, the NES title Lagrange Point. Finally, Sharp released their X68000 computer which came with an arcade ready OPM-chip as standard. None of these frequency-modulated delights made it to the West, but they were important steps forward nonetheless.

 

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The PSS-170. All the FM power you needed at a budget price. Cor!

 

Though adoption into Western consoles was slow, Yamaha had more success in the PC market. In the late 1980s, PC Gaming was in a strange place. Though the games themselves were generally more complicated and impressive than those that appeared on competing platforms, in 1987 most PCs were still only equipped with a basic speaker that was really designed more for BIOS feedback than it was for scoring computer games.

The first company to approach Yamaha looking for a solution was IBM. Though they definitely had a large enough brand to make it work, the sound card they created was based around the expensive OPM chip and cost $500. Predictably, it was a massive flop and sold less than 10,000 units, While IBM and Yamaha were failing miserably, a Canadian fellow named Martin Prevel was having a tough time as well. Prevel was a professor of music and had founded a company called Adlib in order to tr and market his idea for a specialist 8-bit computer that helped train the human ear to hear.

Though Prevel’s Adlib computer idea was as big a failure as IBMs soundboard, in 1987 he reached out to Yamaha with a plan to make a new and much more affordable sound card. Though initially reluctant, Yamaha had recently created the cheap YM3812 chip for an aborted government teletext terminal project.  They had a need to offload their surplus onto someone and, consequently, the Adlib soundcard was born. First utilised by Sierra’s Kings Quest, Adlib support soon ballooned into a widely-supported PC standard.

 

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A promotion for the Ad-lib soundcard

 

Unfortunately, the story didn’t end particularly well for Adlib. though their soundcard ushered in a new era of PC sound, they soon lost the market to competitors Creative. Fortunately for Yamaha, Creative were sneaky: Rather than compete with the Adlib standard directly, they simply absorbed it (and its YM3812) into their own Soundblaster card design.

Consequently, PC audio proved to be a massive boon to Yamaha. Though it’s worth noting that their FM technology had been used in an earlier specification – namely MSX-Audio which appeared in 1986 – the limited geographic reach of the MSX standard and subsequent lack of support meant it was of limited significance to the wider world. Adlib and Soundblaster, on the other hand, were soon standard equipment in PCs across the globe, effectively making them a bonafide Yamaha-powered revolution.

 

Frequencies Modulated: Crowning successes and Inevitable Decline

Of course, all good things come to an end. With FM technology now commonly deployed in a large number of different products that sold for a wide variety of price points, it was perhaps inevitable that the world would begin to look for the next big thing.

Still, with Adlib soon becoming a success, there was actually even more good news awaiting Yamaha in 1987. Though Sega had recently unleashed their Master System console on the wider world, they were already working on a successor. Provisionally dubbed the Mark V. Sega took the wise decision to base their new machine around the existing System 16 spec, as this would put them in the best position to exploit their large library of system-16 hits.

Naturally, Sticking with System-16 meant sticking with a Yamaha-produced FM sound chip as well. In this case, the final design used a highly cost reduced variant of the original OPM chip dubbed the YM2612. Though a relative flop in Japan, the console – eventually called the Megadrive ( Genesis in the US) – did stonkingly well in West and ensured that there would be demand for at least one of Yamaha’s chips for years to come.

However, all was not as rosy as it appeared on the surface. 1987 had also seen the release of one of the Megadrive’s main competitors: NEC’s PC Engine. While the Megadrive depended mainly on one of Yamaha’s chips for its audio, the PC Engine’s audio solution was based primarily around the playback of digital samples. When Nintendo entered the ring in 1990, they too went down the sample-based route (courtesy of a novel sound system designed by Sony’s Ken Kutaragi.) The future of FM synthesis was suddenly not looking so bright.

 

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Soundblaster’s Backwards compatibility ensured the PCs contained FM chips throughout the 1990s

 

In fact, things soon got a lot worse for FM’s future prospects. In 1988 NEC released a CD-ROM peripheral for the PC-Engine, and this was soon followed by similar accessories for the Sega Megadrive – along with a whole raft of new CD-based consoles such as the 3DO and CD32.

At the time of course, such innovations felt like an exciting step forward: There would be no need for the bleeps and bloops and twangs of computerised music anymore. From now on games could have ‘real’ music and become genuine ‘multimedia’ experiences. However, it’s pretty clear now that, with the slow decline of FM, the classical period of game music was coming to an end. Technology was opening one door, but closing another.

Up until this point, the limitations of the hardware had been an important stylistic consideration. Even when composers were reproducing an established work or composing within an established genre, generally the hardware limitations helped to give the music they composed an individual character of its own. CD technology may have given videogame composers greater stylistic freedom (it was now possible, for example, to create a dramatic classical soundtrack using real instruments,) but this freedom came at the price of videogame music’s individuality.

Fortunately for Yamaha, the coda to their adventures in the sphere of Computer music turned out to be a long one. Creative’s impressive success with their Soundblaster meant that the follow up – the Soundblaster-16 – required both full compatibility and, inevitably, an FM sound chip. This ensured that PCs were to continue to contain FM chips well into 1990s  – long after the patent on FM technology had expired. Meanwhile, though Sega’s fancy 3d Arcade platforms had moved away from FM synthesis, their 32 bit home console retained it – despite being a CD-based console. Released in 1994, the Saturn boasted an impressive sound chip that contained a whopping 32 sound generators. Blimey.

 

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The Saturn packed an impressive FM chip, but by the console’s debut FM synthesis had definitely had its day

 

Consequently, Frequency Modulation remained a tidy little earner for Yamaha, right until the end. By 1993, electronic products accounted for almost 54% of the companies sales and, significantly, it was the only area of the company that was experiencing significant growth.

Yamaha weren’t the only winners from their adventures in FM technology however –  I’d say we all benefited as well. Along with creating the definite sound of 80’s pop music with the DX7, Yamaha helped to shape both arcade and living room-based video game experiences for the better. You can’t really complain about that, can you?

If you enjoyed this article, I hope you’ll take a moment to try my album Modulated Frequencies. It’s a love letter to the FM sound chip contained in the Sega Megadrive, and hopefully showcases just how great the little chip can sound when used as a “normal” instrument. You can listen to the Album for free on Spotify, Youtube or Soundcloud.

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About Fatnick

Hello! How do you do? I'm Fatnick, a chiptune-making ZX Spectrum-loving frog from South London. When not skirmishing, you can find me over at Mechafatnick.co.uk or @Mechafatnick and listen to me on Spotify

4 Comments

  1. Fascinating!

    You can get an FM sound chip for your C64, in the shape of the Sound Expander add-on. This has a Yamaha FM chip inside. However, there was little use for it outside the editor or live play. ( A new experimental editor for creating tunes with it is in development).

  2. ha, I didn’t know that – thank you!

    it doesn’t surprise me in the least! the bonkers Russian mod scene even to create an FM expansion for the spectrum as well.

  3. Damn, I love these articles. I don’t understand half of it, but I still leave knowing way more than I ever did about the subject. Great stuff.

    • heh sorry! i’ve to make these accessible from both electronic music and the video game music angles. Unfortunately that means certain assumptions on my part! thanks again for taking the time to read it.

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