Over the last few years, for reasons best left to the wastes of time, I’ve dedicated a lot more time on the blog writing about albums that feature FM synthesis, be it on live chips or emulated. It seems like in a sea of Gameboy music, FM often goes by the wayside. Thankfully, some folks in the frozen northlands of
Mapleopolis Montreal are fighting the good fight and have been working to change that. If you’ve used a DAW to make chipmusic in the last 20 years, you’re probably familiar with Plogue and their line of chiptune emulation VSTs. Their latest release, the PortaFM, focuses on the emulation of the YM2413 chip (also known as the OPLL), and the good folks at Toy Company have released a small album to demonstrate just what this baby can do.
So what exactly is the YM2413, and why is it iconic enough to be emulated? You might know some of its more popular uses – it was put in the Yamaha SHS-10 keytar, also known as “that one red 80’s keytar everyone thinks of when you say keytar,” and it made it into the Sega Mark III (better known as the Master System here in the US). It was used as one of the audio expansions for MSX computers along with the Yamaha Y8950. It made it into several arcade boards, and as with many early soundchips it was iterated on and copied and adapted by other companies in such a way that there are few computer and gaming consoles of the late 80’s and early 90’s that don’t have some sort of variation of it hiding within them (see: The VRC7). But most relevant to our interests here, it was the soundchip in Yamaha’s PSS series – the PortaSound series. These synths were budget models (and still are – ebay and Reverb have listings for the PSS-130 and 270 coming in WELL under $100USD, with many under $50), and while not as popular or well loved as the DX7, the ease of access and use made them extremely appealing to those who still wanted the charming sound and versatility of FM without busting out the big bucks.
To quote the good folks at Plogue about their PortaFM Synth: “…Not willing to just copy the past, we designed a NEW synthesizer that features the same sound generation found in these synthesizers, but this time with much more processing power to control and modulate its features, all in a convenient virtual instrument form. PortaFM uses a pair of cycle-accurately emulated OPLL (YM2413) FM chip cores for its main synth engine, and another core dedicated to the the drum sounds, all of which can be layered creatively. The unique ‘lofi’ quality of the OPLL was never recreated this accurately before. Plogue’s experience of more than 15 years studying vintage digital sound generators was pushed to its limit. Brand new mathematical models were built using our custom Hardware-assisted systematic testing procedures by our in house reverse engineering team in Montreal. Oh, and of course, it does not use ANY samples!”
As to the actual album itself, it features musicians from all over the globe and from all sorts of artists – hobbyists, demosceners, game audio designers. While primarily showing off the PortaFM package, several tracks also make use of other Plogue products. The styles of the songs on this album really show off how robust of a program Plogue has delivered here – while several tracks are more standard beep-boopy chip affairs (like John Montoya’s ‘For Plogue’), others make much more use of FM’s ability to emulate real world instruments (like Madbrain’s ‘Green Inferno’). I’m excited to see just how much of a game changer this is in the scene – while the actual hardware that PortaFM Synth is based on remains so affordable that hardware purists can still pick it up and compose with it, this should be a huge boon to anyone who uses DAWs for their workflow, and especially to those of you already well versed in Plogue’s products. Plus, the PortaFM is just the first in a line of chipsynth products Plogue has lined up, so if you like this, be prepared for some particularly spicy times in the coming years. At a modest $30 and with the ability to either run as a standalone program or as a VST, PortaFM should be in every emulation-based chiptuner’s utility belt. But don’t take my word for it! Go listen to the album! It is as always embedded below the links to all the fabulous people who contributed.
…are you still here? Well, if you’re looking for a live demo of the PortaFM, go check out this video.