Let Retronauts Fill Your Ears With the Futuristic Sound of FM Synthesis

Jeremy explores one of classic gaming's most popular and iconic audio formats (as seen on TV, via SEGA Genesis!).

Column by Jeremy Parish, .

As promised (or threatened?), today brings the first of two consecutive episodes of Retronauts Micro hosted by yours truly. For those who are just tuning in, "Retronauts Micro" is the "sleepy-voiced NPR monologue" edition of the show rather than the standard group roundtable.

Fortunately, you'll find my somnolent voice livened up considerably this time by the inclusion of a huge variety of excellent video game tunes. For this particular episode, I decided to discuss the wonders of FM synthesis audio: A decidedly ’80s sound technology most commonly seen (or rather, heard) by Americans in arcade games from the late ’80s and the SEGA Genesis console. If you've ever wondered, "What's up with the way some games of the 16-bit era sounded like a robot orchestra jamming in outer space?", well, the answer is: FM synthesis.

Naturally, this means I've spliced in a whole lot of relevant audio. This episodes topic was prompted in the first place by Ship to Shore's recent release of Konami's Lagrange Point soundtrack on vinyl. Having contributed liner notes to that project, I can't really review it here, but I will say that it's a phenomenal game score that, I think you'll agree once you listen to this episode, doesn't sound like it should have been possible on the NES. And, technically, it wasn't. This episode gets into the logistics of bringing such rich audio to an 8-bit console and then springboards into a look at the larger concept of FM audio — in brief, its history, its workings, and its most popular implementations. That's a lot of ground to cover in a 15-minute episode, but hopefully you'll find it informative (if a bit of a layperson's explanation).

Download Links

Libsyn (16:09, 11.4 MB) | MP3 Download | SoundCloud

Episode Description

Let's get technical! With this, the first of a series of Micro episodes focused on specific technologies and how they shape the games we love. We begin here with a podcast-appropriate aural treat: The iconic sound of FM synthesis.

My hope is to make this the first in a semi-regular series of Retronauts Micro episodes focusing on the particulars of classic game technology. Again, in layperson's terms. Whaddya think this is, Digital Foundry? Anyway, unless I hear that everyone totally hates this episode, expect more, similar looks into the nuts and bolts of retrogames in the future.

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Comments 30

  • Avatar for SargeSmash #1 SargeSmash A year ago
    Great episode! I've always been really intrigued by the different soundchips and their idiosyncrasies. :)
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #2 kevinbowyer34 A year ago
    Gotta Protectors FM music pack
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  • Avatar for Knurek #3 Knurek A year ago
    Yuzo Koshiro totally did more than ActRaiser on SNES.
    He also did ActRaiser 2, Super Adventure Island and... Miracle Casino Paradise.
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  • Avatar for Lane #4 Lane A year ago
    Cool series; I'd love to hear one on the mod tracking format - Amiga, Unreal, Crusader, Deus Ex, etc.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #5 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @Knurek Ah, mea culpa, then.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #6 riderkicker A year ago
    Jeremy, if only you recorded a VGEmpire on this topic while still in SF. Such is life, I await your Japan Haul in the coming month.Edited December 2016 by riderkicker
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  • Avatar for LizardDude #7 LizardDude A year ago
    Just FYI, since Lagrange was a Frenchman his name is pronounced "La-graw-nge". It's like garage or savant.

    Lagrange the way you say it is the town in Illinois.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @LizardDude Thanks for being the pronunciation police — always a delight.
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  • Avatar for LizardDude #9 LizardDude A year ago
    @jeremy.parish Just ain't no respect for us boys in the force these days.

    Oh well. At least it's my last day before retirement.
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  • Avatar for boxofficepoison #10 boxofficepoison A year ago
    Kind of surprising Koshiro hated making the actraiser soundtrack so muvh given it wound up being among the top 5 soundtracks of all time.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #11 SatelliteOfLove A year ago
    FM is such a very neat thing. It's great that you mentioned the format having a futuristic sci-fi lean to us 80s kids, as so much of it was so ingrained in every techy thing during that decade. It was robots, it was the future. That's why the Genny to me was so strong, it was forshadowing to the 1991 ears of mine THE future, not the "not quite yet now" future of the SNES' Sony chip.

    Anywho, yeah, I'm an FM fanboy lifelong. It's still never quite out of style as evidenced by Koshiro using this wonderfully ancient music-making method to craft Gen 7's best soundtrack:

    God that thing just KICKS.


    There's a rumor spreadin' round in that TEXAS town
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  • Avatar for LizardDude #12 LizardDude A year ago
    @SatelliteOfLove That's La Grange. Totally different thing. ;P
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  • Avatar for Knurek #13 Knurek A year ago
    Koshiro had to have hated early Nintendo SDK, since AFAIK the first version used for launch titles didn't allow for sample set switching - all songs had to use less than 64 kB for them.
    Even with Sony's amazing (for the time) ADPCM compression, that's still roughly 400 kB of PCM samples you had access to for all of the songs.
    That Actraiser sounded so good is a testament to Koshiro's technical genius.
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  • Avatar for moroboshi #14 moroboshi A year ago
    Good episode Jeremy, but too short!

    I've long been a fan of FM Synth. Of course it was popularised with the Mega Drive, but its distinctive sound is to me, the sound of arcades.

    It's also a real missed opportunity that the current indie love in with pixels and chip tunes doesn't extent to FM. 8-bit style chip tunes are fine, especially if they're Commodore 64 tracks, but FM is where the real gold is.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #15 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @moroboshi It's a Retronauts Micro episode. They're only supposed to clock in around 10 minutes or so.
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #16 SIGGYZtar A year ago
    @LizardDude I learned how to pronounce it on the Toonami Gundam episodes.
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  • Avatar for yuberus #17 yuberus A year ago
    I'm always so torn on FM synth. I find it very fitting on the Genesis (and even the Master System - went out of my way for the mod on that). But I've never been a major fan of it on arcade games, much preferring the beeps and boops of the gen preceding it or the audio of the games that followed that run of FM. That's not to say I dislike all the arcade FM out there or anything, but whenever I hear that distinct sound my first reaction is to think "oh, this is going to be a charmless and forgettable soundtrack/game, isn't it." It is nice whenever I'm proven wrong.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #18 Vonlenska A year ago
    Eee! This is my favorite soundchip. I've always described it as, "what the past thought the future should sound like." It's a very "80s future/dance/house/electro" sound, and with all the "New 80s," synthwave, vaporwave, analog synth, outrun type music trying to recapture that aesthetic in different ways right now, I'm hoping someone will incorporate a little FM synth into all that soon.

    Meantime, there's stuff like this.

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  • Avatar for moroboshi #19 moroboshi A year ago
    @jeremy.parish Yep, I know. Would be a good topic to revisit in the future perhaps?
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  • Avatar for amightysquall958 #20 amightysquall958 A year ago
    I'm so happy about this episode! I had been waiting on you to nerd out about FM synthesis.

    One thing to add: During Yamaha's early FM dominance via the 6-Operator DX7, one of their competitors that did not get mentioned was Casio and their Phase Distortion synthesis.

    Anyway, good episode! If anyone wants to mess around with sound chips (including Yamaha's) for chiptune stuff, check out Plogue Chipsounds. I have it and it is fun to play around with.
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  • Avatar for sloth-machine #21 sloth-machine A year ago
    Grateful for this episode, I had no idea what I was missing out on. That chip is so awesome.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #22 SatelliteOfLove A year ago
  • Avatar for ping33 #23 ping33 A year ago
    @jeremy.parish where did the Metroid FM come from? (tbh I actually liked it better, maybe because I was a Sega kid)

    I never knew about the FM add-on for the SMS

    after watching this:
    I feel hard done by :(
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #24 SIGGYZtar A year ago
    @ping33 I guess some fans decided to test it out.
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #25 SIGGYZtar A year ago
    Listened to this episode in the morning. We need more DJ ToastyFrog!
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #26 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @ping33 I keep hoping the SEGA 3D Ages series will get around to Phantasy Star. When M2 brought the PS collection to PlayStation 2, they included the FM synthesis option for the original game.
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  • Avatar for ping33 #27 ping33 A year ago
    @jeremy.parish Totally agree, everytime they have a release it's the first thing I look for.

    They should also do an Alex Kidd one. The Lost Stars clip above made me want to play it with the better sound even though it was one of the greatest let-downs of my childhood videogaming life when it came out.
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  • Avatar for utopianemo #28 utopianemo A year ago
    @DesignedChaos here's a more hi-fi one that gets it mostly right.

    It's missing the dark, muted textures of the original, but it comes closer than I thought possible.
    @jeremy.parish I agree with your statement about the Super Metroid cover lacking that certain something. That said, check out the same guy's cover of Simon's Theme from Super Castlevania IV:

    The SCIV soundtrack is my favorite overall for the SNES, and I would have laughed at you had you told me the above cover was as good as it is. That cymbal crash notwithstanding, I think it captures the tone and gravity of the original.

    Just as impressive is his treatment of Ken's theme from SFII:
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  • Avatar for pol- #29 pol- A year ago
    As a huge fan of FM synthesis I really enjoyed this. Would've liked to hear you touch on the GEMS driver, which I think you can largely blame for the common misconception that the Genesis had horrible sound capabilities compared to the SNES.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #30 donkeyintheforest A year ago
    Great mini episode! Listened to it twice!
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