Here’s an article on midimutant we did with Aphex Twin for MagPi Magazine, written by Sean McManus. Most of the work on this project recently has revolved around exploring custom hardware using old FM synth chips from games consoles, but with any luck there should be some more evolved DX7 sounds around here soon.
So I’ve been getting a into FM synthesis lately, and after giving the TX7 a spin I’ve been really wanting to try evolving sounds for the later synth chips Yamaha made for games consoles and soundcards. At that point in history FM was one of the only realistic ways you could synthesise complex sound as there wasn’t enough time (processing) for general purpose DSP, and there wasn’t enough space (memory) for sample playback to be an option.
One of the most famous of these range of synth chips was the YM2612 which was used in the Sega Megadrive/Genesis consoles. I got hold of a few to try, but it’s been quite a challenge to get them working so I thought probably worth documenting the process. The YM2612 is programmed using 5 control pins and 8 data pins. You send one byte to the chip at a time – first an address to write to, then the data to write, which allows you to set a couple of hundred parameters that define 6 separate sounds. The memory on the chip is organised into a map of the global settings (top left) and the voice settings in two banks:
There isn’t much documentation for these things, the main reference is for a similar chip which is written in Japanese. More usefully there are software versions in emulators, and quite a few bits and pieces online from other people’s projects and some translations of the docs. Usefully the Sega documentation included a piano test sound which is great as you have something that *should* actually make a noise as long as everything else is working.
The first problem was figuring out the timing – despite having some examples it took me a while to realise that there is a specific order that you have to set the status pins, and that there is one change at one time that actually triggers (latches) the data transfer to the synth:
This is a timing diagram, I’m used to seeing them in datasheets, but it’s the first time I’ve needed to understand one properly (with a bit of help from David Viens). It tells us that for writing, the data (D0-D7 pins) are actually read shortly after the WR pin is set low – to add to the fun, some of the pins (denoted by the line over them) are 0v for on, 5v for off. You can also read data from the synth, but whatever address you supply you only get a single status byte that tells you if it’s currently busy, and if either of it’s two internal clocks have overflowed. The idea I assume is that you would use them for timing music accurately without the need to do it in your main CPU.
The audio coming out needs to be amplified too – if you connect it directly to a speaker there is a danger of overloading the DAC and causing it to burn out, so you need a bit of analogue circuitry to do this. Here is an example of triggering and glitching (by writing to random addresses) the example piano sound:
I started off using an Arduino Nano, but didn’t have much success so switched to atmega328 which was a bit easier to set up. One of the problems is that ideally you need to be able to control the 8 data GPIO pins in one go (to set the 8bit value), which isn’t possible from the nano as none of the ports have 8 bits. You also have to supply the YM2612 with a clock pulse at around 8Mhz – which took me a while to get right, I tried both dividing the atmega’s 16Mhz clock by 2 and outputting it on a pin as well as a separate external oscillator and both eventually worked – except the oscillator leaked quite badly into the audio output (there is probably a fairly simple fix to isolate this).
One potential problem is dodgy vintage chips, I tried two suppliers on eBay, one Chinese shop and another in the UK – all the ones I’ve tested so far worked fine, I’m happy to say. The best way of testing them is to use a second hand Sega Megadrive console and replacing the YM2612 it has with a socket you can easily plug in candidates for testing – I managed without but it would have come in handy sanity wise to know for sure that the chips worked.
One thing that I wasted a lot of time doing was ignoring the output entirely and just trying to get the status bit to change by setting the internal timer – the idea was to make sure the chip logic was working before worrying about the audio amplifier circuitry. However, this requires the read sequence timing to work as well as the write timing – and as soon as you can listen to the output you get small clues from the DAC noise, which actually indicates the chip is running or not even if there is no sound triggered.
Here are some links I found helpful: the wikipedia entry for the pinout, full software documentation (for the registers) and a great blog post about putting it all together, with schematics – in French. Here is a hardware synth module with similar YMF262 chips.