If we’re really honest with ourselves, there are certain kinds of chiptune that are more visible than others. If I walked up to a random Joe at MAGFest and asked who their favorite chiptune musician was, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that they’d bring up an artist known for either Game Boy or NES music, or if they’re over the age of 30 they might mention some demoscene artists and their love of the Commodore 64. But unless you really go looking for it, it seems like it’s hard to find anyone making music on the venerable Sega Genesis, or at the very least made with the YM2612 soundchip. It seems that way – but nothing could be farther from the truth. I’d like to take a few minutes and bring to light some real gems out there of an under appreciated console and, if you’re inspired by the end of it, give you the tools you’ll need to make your own original content to take to the club.
[3/18/16 Edit: Thank you to the community for reaching out to help with a few missing points/bad links in the article – these have been amended/added.]
The YM2612, found in the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive as well as the Fujitsu FM Towns gaming computer and some Sega arcade cabinets of that era, is an FM synthesis soundchip known for having six FM channels with four operators per channel and finally gave home consoles a comparable soundchip to what was available in the arcades. Notable composers for Sega during the period in which they used this soundchip include Masato Nakamura (Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2) and Yuzo Koshiro (Bare Knuckle/Streets of Rage franchise, The Revenge of Shinobi) who you may remember seeing live at MAGFest in 2013. In the roughly twenty years since the console has passed on, several groups have arisen dedicated to encouraging and showcasing artists who choose to use this particular aural palate. These are groups like…
The beauty of the Internet is that when you’re knowledgeable about something, you can curate a list and people will come to it to enjoy it. Enter 6 Channel – a Soundcloud channel dedicated to keeping up with all things YM2612. Curated by Toni Leys, Groovemaster303, CosmoBG, Jredd, Dropbit and robugaa – all champions of this chip in their own right – this playlist has over 400 tracks and more added regularly. While many are remixes and covers, there’s a fair amount of original content coming through there as well. Check it out here!
BATTLE OF THE BITS
Going strong since 2005, Battle of the Bits has been the place to be for people who want an online community that not only lets you share your music and talk about it, but also enter your tracks in competition against other people! Start poking through the list of users and you’re bound to find dozens of artists you already know – but you’ll find so many that you don’t, and that’s the coolest part! And since their battles encourage all kinds of chips, there’s a healthy heaping of Genesis tunes hanging around. Of note, friend of the blog ap0c recently took first in the YM2612 category for his track ‘Vitriol Hammer’ on their 11th Winter Chip battle. Despite what it sounds like right at the start, this isn’t an a-Ha cover – but if you’re familiar with with ap0c’s style, his love of dark sounding pieces with strong basslines and fun with pitch bends, you’ll love this track.
I’d be willing to wager that few, if any, groups have done more to keep music on the Genesis alive than Telefuture: You may remember their commissioning of well known visualist Batsly Adams to produce a Genesis cartridge with selected tracks from Eternalist (including some secret tracks which may never be heard again, according to Mr. Adams himself), but several of their albums – Linde’s ‘Stone Soup‘ and the Pterodactyl Squad collaboration ‘Blazing Force‘ – are pure Sega goodness. They’re also a one stop shop for all your 80’s synth needs, so if you need to listen to music in a genre with the -wave suffix on it, you’ll probably find it right here.
Having curated lists is all well and good, but there are many artists who don’t necessarily find themselves beholden to a label who still put out amazing content of this flavor. While I won’t retread my own words on him, Hunty is the first to come to mind. He was also kind enough to release a Sonic 3 soundfont pack for all your music crafting needs – but we’ll get to that in the next section. Inverse Phase has recently dropped a whole new album of YM2612 tracks called ‘Biteration I: Genesis of Consequence’ which also appears as the soundtrack to the new poop-centric runner game “Where’s My Mommy?” I’ll spare you the crappy jokes that abound about this release, but I can say that this is one of the best albums Brendan has put out so far, and I’m not just saying that because our Commander in Chip Brandon Hood is sampled on one of the tracks. If you’re in public, maybe give the second track a miss unless you want people to look at you strangely, but seriously, give it a listen. (There’s also talk of releasing this album on a Genesis cartridge, but you can read more about that on the album page!)
Also, how could I forget about Mark Homayouni, that MAGFest staple better known as DJ Super Sonic? From parties to remixes, Mark has been doing things here and there with the MAGFest family for years – but his recent works have been absolutely amazing, and his next album is all about that classic Genesis sound. Mark was kind enough to throw up a preview track for his album coming out later this month. More information on the Soundcloud page!
Hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you’re feeling inspired to make some Genesis tunes of your own. While there are many ways to accomplish FM synthesis, if you specifically want to make this kind of music, there are a few options for you – and thankfully, you don’t have to be a tracker wizard to do so if you don’t want to go that route. The two traditional routes are via Deflemask and VGMMusic Maker. VGMMM has been long since taken down from the internet by its original creator (although MANY people still use it today, and will probably share with you if you ask), but Deflemask is still up and running just fine – it’s a multipurpose tracker which emulates the 2612 as well as a handful of others which means you’ll get a lot of use out of it no matter what you decide to do. It is currently running unopposed in the specialized tracker realm with regards to 2612 emulation – although there is Chaos Tracker, formerly YMDJ, that has been in development for quite some time and promises to be an LSDJ-styled Genesis tracker.
“But Adam!” you cry. “I don’t want to learn trackers! They’re scary! I just wanna make sick beats in Ableton and be like the pros!” Never fear, friend, because there are plenty of VSTs just for you. Of note, FMDrive is a great option – and it apparently has the Yuzo Koshiro seal of approval, so you can’t beat that. There is also the extremely accurately named YM2612 VST which…well, you know. But the YM2612 VST is free whereas FMDrive is not, so try out whichever one fits your budget. And as I mentioned earlier, Hunter Bridges has compiled a database of Sonic 3 samples which are intended to be loaded into a DAW of your choice, and while it is offered free of charge to all those who need it, donations might convince him to do more sample rips.
Lastly, if you want to actually play music using an actual Sega Genesis because this is chiptune and REAL HARDCORE CHIPTUNE DUDES PLAY ON THE HARDWARE, little-scale has you covered. While preorders on this batch of GenMDMs are currently closed, this MIDI to USB adapter for your Sega System allows you to trigger it through a DAW like you would with any other MIDI device. Additionally, freezedream has been working on a live performance tool for the Genesis which is absolutely blowing my mind right now, and while it’s currently still in the testing phases, he’s looking for people to help him test it! Follow the thread linked above to get in contact and stay updated.
In case you don’t want to hunt back through the article to find links to the things I’ve mentioned, I’ve added those as well as the homepages for the trackers and VSTs I mentioned in the links below.
Okay, look, I couldn’t do an article about the YM2612 without talking about Genesis soundtracks. I asked Inverse Phase to come up with a list of the five most under-appreciated Genesis soundtracks, and his recommendations (in no particular order) are as follows:
1. Thunder Force IV
3. Midnight Resistance
4. Robocop 3
5. Elemental Master