The Mysterious Legacy of the SNES Soundchip

 

It’s a pretty obvious statement that, when it comes to streaming and writing about old video games, some vintage consoles definitely are more popular than others. It’s also true that, when it comes to the chip tuning scene, some hardware platforms are inevitably more popular than others. Speaking as both musician and retrogamer, what really interests me is that when you take them together, the consoles which are the most highly regarded among players don’t inevitably have the liveliest and most active chip scenes.

Take the Super Nintendo, for example. As a gaming titan it shifted upwards of 49 million consoles and acted as the petri dish from which a number of Nintendo’s best loved characters and franchises were spawned. Consequently, you’d expect it to be among the elite of the chip-tuned consoles, right? After all, If you head over to OC Remix It’s not as if there’s a shortage of iconic SNES soundtrack remixes.

 

 

snes-soundchip

SNES mouse! Surround sound! This is the future.

 

 

Weirdly, however, the SNES’ audio capabilities don’t seem to be that widely discussed or exploited. True, they might briefly be raised in a playground-style “What console is better?” thread over at Neogaf, but that’s generally it. You’re definitely not going to find the small mountain of compositions that have been produced for hardware in the Game Boy and C64. What gives?

It’s a really interesting one. If we look back to it’s 90’s prime, the SNES’ audio capabilities were most definitely a big deal. From the comparatively perfect (though now hilariously tinny) rendition of famous compositions like the Star Wars theme, down to the fawning coverage of the (faux) surround-sound capabilities utilised by the likes of King Arthur’s World, sound on the SNES was always pretty important.

So why don’t we hear more about it today then? An important reason might very well be the architecture of the chip itself, so we should probably start by having a look there.

What do you think of this post?
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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

13 Comments

  1. I’m sure I didn’t understand half of this, but it was informative as hell and I really enjoyed it. VERY well done.

  2. Fascinating article, really impressed!

    I recently interviewed a programmer who wrote a SNES sound driver… Would be interesting to see if he would share the code…

  3. Thank you for the kind words fellas. I had a lot of fun putting it together. Going over all of the details just underpins how inevitable Sony’s entry into the market was…

    That would be really interesting Merman! That side of things still eludes me – I’d love to know the exact details of you put a sound driver like that together.

  4. Cool. I’ve recently been emulating SNES the best I can with MMX samples and an 8 track limit in a modern DAW. I just learned about the C700, so I might switch to that to get the iconic reverb/echo that you hear in most Capcom games. | https://soundcloud.com/metaphist/sets/snes-style

    • Yes I can definitely recommend it! The versatility it gives you is remarkable and you can even import actual SNES instruments if you want absolute authenticity! Make sure to play with the sample rate though – sometimes things are brought in too fast/slow.

  5. Nice article, though you might want to research what wavetable synthesis is and what sample synth is and then rewrite a large part of it. Snes uses sample synth. Wavetable is used by the of engine. Sample!e synth uses full sample!es of notes played at different speeds, wavetable uses a sample of a single cycle of a waveform (like a single square wave) that is repeated at different frequencies for different pitches. Wavetable synth does not use full note samples, just a sample of the waveform.

    • Thanks for the feedback Elliot.

      This is where the trouble with writing stuff for lay audiences. When you say “wavetable uses a sample of a single cycle of a waveform” this of course correct. The problem, however, is that single cycle. Though the waveform in question can be a simple one (like, as you say, a single square wave,) as Wavetable synths have always been software based there’s no reason why it can’t be something more complex (like an entire note) as well – infact The waveforms used in Wolfgang Palm’s original PPG synths demonstrate quiet nicely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc5orbnQHEw

      I do see where you’re coming from though – what to actually class the S-SMP as turned out to be a rather tricky subject than i imagined (was it a straight wave table setup? or closer to Linear Arithmetic synthesis?)

      • Software based? I was under the impression that there was usually a hardware oscillator that repeats the wavetable. Is there any set speed that the individual wavetable is played at on the PCE? Interesting. I think you would usually just call the s-smp a sampler because as far as I know it just plays a full sample of a note, no traditional wavetable synth or any hybrid between samples and another synth. It’s just a sampler I think. If wavetable is software based, then how can the PCE be said to have a specifically wavetable?

        • Yes! You need a hardware oscillator to physically create the sound, but the oscillator is controlled by software which basically reads the wavetable from ROM then tells the oscilattor how to recreate it (worth noting the prototype wavetable synth was called the wave computer:D )

          (Actually, have you seen my companion piece about the role of Yamaha in the games industry? The big US synth manufacturers could have had the license for FM synthesis, but they couldnt get their heads round the move from synthesis via hardware to synthesis via algorhythm!)

          I have to confess im not 100% on the exact details of the PCE’s solution when it comes to sample rates etc. Im definitely going to explore writing some music for it at somepoint though, as its a really interesting piece of kit (especially because you can mix low-res wave forms with rudimentary FM-synthesis.)

          It is hard to define the SNES. On one hand you are right: In the Super Star Wars ROM, for example, sound like the light sabre and the jawa cry are stored as long, self contained samples. On the other hand alot of the instrument sounds are pure wave-table synth territory, as the entire soubd is recreated from a tiny attack wave form.

          A better comparison woukd problem habe been the Amiga, but that didnt fit tge 16-bit showdown narrative quite so well.

          • What’s the point of an oscillator if the CPU has to send each sample of the waveform itself? You could just have a DAC And have the CPU do everything in that case, and I’m sure that the CPU can do the timing, you can’t need an oscillator for that, can you? The Snes is meant to be sample synth I think but because you can program the spc700, I’m sure that a wavetable sound driver is perfectly possible and some games (such as maybe star wars) might use one. Can you actually do FM with the PCE? I thought it was just LFO.

            • The original Wavetable synths are worth looking at as they were weird combination of analogue and digital technology (they had digital oscillators combined with voltage controlled amps and filters.) I get the impression DACs probably weren’t an option at the time 🙂

              (that, of course, had all changed by the time the PCE came about which is why the 6280 can do everything itself)

              The PCE does only have LFO in theory, BUT you can apply vibrato to channel 2 and then use channel 2 as a modulator for channel 1. As to how well this works in practice…well it’ll be interesting to find out!

              • I came across some of your YouTube videos and saw one with the super star wars samples. I see what you mean now, though the PCE would use much smaller samples only about as big as a single wave. I suppose, the SNES chip is meant to “manipulate” samples and not just play them at different speeds like say Amiga music (which still sounds just as good usually) so they can have only parts of the sample play on repeat for a single note and it can apply different filters and stuff and be used as a subtractive synth?

                • Sorry i forgot to reply to this!

                  The SNES has quite a simple set of features for a sampler. Outside of the hardware echo, the ADSR controls have some quirks, and sample looping can only been done in 16 sample chunks.

                  The samples in that video are quite interesting, as though plenty are fully formed (like your light sabre sounds, plenty of other have their loops enabled – you cant really tell what they are without.

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