A Brand New Chipsynth
By James Grahame
Yes, there's a new lo-fi sound chip on the market. But more about that in a moment.
Pop music evolved at an unbelievable pace in the early 1980s, thanks to the arrival of affordable personal computers, digital sampling and low cost polyphonic synthesizers. It didn't take starving musicians long to figure out that their computers were quite capable instruments all by themselves, and the chipmusic scene evolved to explore the distinctive capabilities of computer audio chips such as the three-voice SID chip (Commodore 64) and the Yamaha YM2149 (Atari ST).
The quirky analog charm of these early chips gradually gave way to digitally sampled sound (the Paula sound chip in the Amiga is one brilliant early example). Things weren't quite as rosy in the PC world, which was dominated by the harsh metallic plinks and ploinks of FM synthesis thanks to millions of Creative Labs Sound Blaster cards. The magic had been lost.
Nevertheless, the classic 1980s chiptune sound survived and flourished and the recent arrival of the Prophet 64 Commodore-based music system was an unexpected boost. But even the slick Prophet 64 environment relies on a vintage Commodore 64's sound generation circuitry. The chipmusic world desperately needed a new sound chip -- and it has finally arrived.
The Soundgin is a 6-voice "synth on a chip" designed by Scott Savage. It's based upon a custom-programmed Microchip PIC microcontroller to keep costs low. Unlike the digitally controlled analog circuitry of early 1980s designs, the Soundgin is completely digital. That means you'll have to do without the charm of analog filters, but the Soundgin offers an impressive array of tricks including frequency modulation, ring modulation, hard oscillator sync and even the ability to synthesize English speech sounds.
Of course, you'll require some programming and DIY hardware skills to make one of these little wonders run. It features a convenient 2400 or 9600 bps serial interface and comprehensive Windows software is available for programming. The price? A very reasonable $24.99, available from several online retailers.