Dirty, lo-fi, 8-bit, nostalgic. This weeks Ableton Live Rack was created with the sound card of a Nintendo Entertainment System. Maybe it’s just because I grew up spending more time playing video games than I’d ever admit, but the bleeps and blips that come from this magical machine have a warmth and familiarity that hits home. The samples that make up the virtual instrument were made by connecting a MidiNES cartridge to a Nintendo and sampling certain notes.
First, allow me to explain how the Nintendo’s sound engine works… There are five channels in total: 2 pulse wave channels, 1 triangle wave channel, a noise channel, and a sample channel. They are all monophonic, but each can play simultaneously, for a total of five sounds at once. Considering the limitations of the NES, listen back to the music from some games (like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda for example) and I think you’ll agree, it’s quite a show of the composer’s creativity and songwriting skills.
So, what I am giving you are the Pulse wave channel and the Triangle wave channel. The triangle wave channel does not offer much in the way of expression (not even volume control), but the pulse wave has four different duty cycles. I have sampled all four. I should also mention that there’s a lot of buzz that comes out of the Nintendo, so I applied a De-noiser to clean things up a bit. I personally don’t think that the integrity of the sounds is affected; this synth is still pretty gritty.
If you enjoy this rack, consider purchasing your own MidiNES from Wayfar. It’s a homemade project that he charges a little over $100 for. It looks like a regular Nintendo cartridge with a midi cable coming out of it. I think it’s a beyond reasonable price, if you consider you are basically getting a hardware (analog? I guess, right?) synth out of the deal. Also, it includes the unmistakable noise channel (think rocket ship and machine gun sounds) and a sample channel with some very useful and disgustingly dirty drums. I have used my MidiNES for many years and on many productions (check out the “Nintendo” Ep below, it’s a collection of some dirty, distorted songs from a few years ago). It always adds a tremendous amount of warmth and character. I can’t endorse it enough.
AfroDJMac “Nintendo” Ep
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Also, maybe you don’t have a NES around the house, you might want to check out Plogue’s Chip Sounds. I bought this about a year and a half ago, and it’s absolutely fantastic. It emulates many different video game chips, including the NES, and its sound is very convincing. I must admit, I have A-B tested Chip Sounds with my MidiNES, and nothing is quite like the sound coming straight out of the Nintendo, but Chip Sounds has its own advantages and is a worthy piece of software.
If you want to hear a real world example of how the MidiNES and Chip Sounds can be used in a song, listen to “B and C Down in History,” SuperKid and I used both on the song. (The bass line is a MidiNES Triangle wave and the outro/fade out synth melody is a Chip Sounds synth. I put some comments on the SoundCloud player to illustrate).
“B and C Down in History” from the Cowboys and Synthesizers EP: