Video game film score part 3 ++chips: Ay3-8910 & 6581

When it comes to old video game sounds, there’s more out there than the NES. Remember, there wasn’t just the 2600 and ColecoVision, there was also a pile of microcomputers like the Atari 400, the MSX, and the ZXSpectrum. Depending on where you live and what little machine the old folks were willing to have around the house, you experienced very different sounds in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

If you examine the sounds across this wide array of 8 bit machines, you’ll find there are a couple stand out sound chips that found their way into most things you heard.

  • AY3 (or it’s first incarnation, the AY3-8910), a PSG (programmable sound generator), is a series of sound chip variants that were found in a ton of early microcomputers: Intellivision, Vectrex, MSX, Amstrad CPC and quite a few more.
  • 6581 – MOS Technology 6581 is another PSG found in Commodore computers like the ever popular Commodore 64 and its siblings. Given Commodore’s popularity in the early 80’s, there’s a good chance that if you had a computer at home, it was a Commodore and you grew up with these sounds. This chip in particular has a unique sound (and grit) that makes it particularly special in our eyes. You don’t need to take our word for it, this chip is pretty much what spawned the SID synth revolution, people love these sounds.

If we’re going to write video game music as a period piece, we need to understand the music of this era. Today we’re going to take a look at the music and sonic reproduction of these two little gems.

The Sega Master System contains a Texas Instruments SN76489 which is basically an AY3 with an extra noise channel for them beats.

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We love this little chip, we really do. While sure, we could duplicate the wikipedia page above, it covers things quite nicely if you want the technical details. So, as far as this blog goes, how about we look into how it sounds? Sure, we’ve been using the AY3 in our music for years, but how about a couple somewhat more ‘native’ performances:

This title is from the Atari ST which didn’t use an AY3 chip, but used a Yamaha Licensed Variant of it. Certainly this computer was more powerful than an Intellivision and just goes to show the staying power of these chips over many years.
This title is from the MSX2, a computer most commonly found in Japan.
The ZX Spectrum was incredibly popular in Europe.

AY3 Synths

As you know, if it doesn’t come in a hardware synthesizer, it doesn’t go into our spaceship (not even a little). So… is there any ay3 synths out there? Thankfully, yes, but unless you want to build it yourself, there’s .

A central component to our ship’s navigation systems for some time, the Twisted Electrons AY3 is, well, the only option. That’s okay though, because its fantastic.

Inside the AY3 are two AY3-8910 chips which let you play 1 note with up to 6 voices; these sounds can get pretty big/insane. There’s also a bit of modern synth foo with a Twisted Electrons… twist. Packaged up, this more like an AY3++ rather than performing tunes on an Intellivision. Though each chip has multiple voices you sorta always have to use them all at the same time and the types of manipulations you can do with this synth are more unique to this incarnation.

The AY3 as found in our spaceship. We use this synth a lot, though we always play all the voices in unison, never separately. Maybe given we actually have two of these, we should try some 12 channel AY3 action eh?

Well, that is unless you have 6 midi channels around. The voices can be programmed independently, they can – and if you’re going for a truly videogame option, that might be a way to go. There’s also an internal sequencer that can get pretty weird if you can handle synth-sequencers (which we sorta never truly love, but maybe we should change our perspective).

Commodore 64: CMOS 6581

This chip is kind of next level amazing. When traveling hyperspace, we don’t know how to explain it, this chip just hits home in a hard, fast, and punchy way. Don’t take our word for it, try out some tunes. Like before, if you really want the tech details of these chips, check the links above or just fucking google it.

Aww yea, there are those perfect synth sounds from the 6581 we all know and love.
This piece is really fancy for the C64. As programmers learned the hardware, they came up with engineering tricks that extended the capabilities of the hardware.

6581 Synths — SID Synths

A SID is a “Sound Interface Device”, which happens to be the type of chip the 6581 is. There are a few variants of the 6581 and they sound different, too. That said, it was these chips that spawned what we feel is the SID Synth Revolution; once there were no SID synths anywhere, suddenly they were really popular. There are a few synths and some really thought out DIY approaches you can take.

There are literally so many SID Synth variants out there that it’s an exciting time to be alive. We also won’t talk about most of them. But there are two that we’ve played with:

  • Elektron SID Station – This is a single SID synth and we think one of the original sid synths out there. If nothing else, this somewhat bulky metal box played a huge part in making SID Synths the coolest thing ever. We’ve played with one we’ve borrowed for a few months and they are crispy and beautiful.
  • Twisted Electrons Therapsid MkII – This is a dual SID synth meaning it has two chips in it. With two chips the synth can do big 8bit unison sounds that will make dirty dubstep shit the bed. This synth is super dirty with 6581s in it. It’s also glitchy which, you know, can be good or bad depending on your style.
  • Twisted Electrons Therapkid – As the 6581 is ever popular, chips are getting harder to come by. One solutions to this problem is to do wavetable synthesis using these chips as their source. Therapkid models a single chip 6581 though it has modern synthesizer features that allow it to do sounds the 6581 can’t actually do. This is the cleanest 6581 ever. While we do like this synth, it really needs a configurable midi channel, so we can’t use it much synth a billion synths we cherish already have this problem.
Wanna know why we embedded a video of the sid station over the therapsid? Cause our therapsid is in the shop… again and so we’ve been playing a borrowed sid station for a few months. Classic components commonly require maintenance.

Other chips

Of course there are more chips than we’ve covered and no, we don’t mean any of the “clones”. There are really interesting chips out there that many of us listened to on late 70’s and early 80’s consoles and computers, like Atari’s POKEY. The array of 8bit sonic experiences that is available is rich.


Now you’ve got some background on more vintage computing sounds that are available as we compose for the videogame film score. We will leverage sounds, or at least derivative sounds of this era to create a familiar yet new experience for the viewers of the film. These chips are players in our orchestra and we will score to their strengths.

Up next… yet more background. A lot of research goes into this stuff. Anyhow, stay tuned.