Retronauts Micro 052: For the Love of FM Synthesis

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.

Libsyn (16:09 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)


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13 Responses to Retronauts Micro 052: For the Love of FM Synthesis

  1. not chris antista

    Great ep as always, on the subject of pushing nes audio capabilities, tim fallins score for “solstice” always came across sounding like something from a c64.
    have a listen if your not familiar with it

  2. Great mini episode. I always had a love for that FM Synth thanks to the Genesis. For those that really liked this episode, y’all should also check out Red Bull Music Academy’s documentary series, “Diggin’ in the Carts”, as it goes deeper into the tech that went behind our favorite video game soundtracks of back in the day and even up to modern times!

  3. Nathan Daniels

    Mr. Parish, I wish you could see the ear-to-ear grin on my face right now. I love good FM Synthesis, and you hit all the important points for a competent survey. And not to stroke your ego, but it’s very impressive how you manage to be so incredibly thorough while at the same time so concise. Episode comments:

    Yuzo Koshiro worked on the SNES at least twice: His work on Super Adventure Island, while being possibly the most stylistically datable SNES OST, sounded even more like “real” music than the Genesis could muster with the original SOR.

    For those who may not know, many of Koshiro’s well-known soundtracks are available on iTunes, including an FM version of Actraiser(I prefer the SNES version myself). A word of warning, though: I believe all of his FM soundtracks on iTunes are from his original PC-98 YM2608 files, even the Genesis/Mega Drive compositions. They’re very similar, but the Genesis’ YM2612 sounds warmer, and the samplers in the respective systems are quite different.

    Speaking of samplers, I’m glad you spoke about the SNES vs. Genesis audio debate. In my opinion, there were two factors that created more detractors of the Genesis’ audio than the regressive iterations of sound chips you mentioned. Firstly was(mostly Western) composers’ growing fixation with simulating electric guitar as the 90’s wore on. This is primarily how Genesis audio came to be equated with “razor metal farts”. The problem is that FM takes a lot of tweaking to produce pleasant sounds, and there seemed to be a lot of Genesis composers who couldn’t tell(or didn’t care) what a pleasant sound was.

    But secondly, and in my opinion the most problematic aspect of the Genesis audio, was its grating sampler. While it was sporadically capable of fantastic voices(Space Harrier II’s “Get ready!” is perfect), most sampled sounds on the Genesis sound like they are being played through a ring modulator and a distortion pedal(e.g. Every single sample in Street Fighter II CE). I maintain that had the Genesis had better sampling abilities, the whole SNES vs. Genesis audio argument would be a non-issue. It would have sounded like a Neo Geo.

    But speaking of whether sample-based or FM-based audio is better for games, why choose? The best is a combination of both. Arcade games have been combining FM and sampling to great effect since at least Outrun debuted in ’86, and continuing until Sega and Namco opened the polygonal floodgates in about ’94.

  4. Nathan Daniels

    At the risk of sounding like a shill, those who haven’t checked out both and Pixelated Audio should do so. The Pixelated Audio spends a lot of time going into great detail of each respective systems’ audio capabilities, and has a great deal of love for FM-based systems. In recent episodes, they’ve covered Neo Geo, PC-88/98, Genesis/Mega Drive, and even PC-based FM titles. is doing invaluable work for VGM curation, and has a very comprehensive database that can be searched or browsed according to manufacturer, composer, system, audio chipset, title, or even track name. I found the site a few months ago and I’ve listened to hundreds of OSTs since then that I’d have otherwise not heard. You guys should definitely check it out if you haven’t yet.

  5. Dopeness. FM is king. I also love using the FM7 and VOPM vsts to make tracks. Such a cool sound.

  6. Can’t wait to queue this up on my playlist, thanks for taking the time to go into detail on this! When the Mega Drive was used properly it really could sound amazing, I still remember Koshiro experimenting with positional audio in Story of Thor and being really impressed. Apologies if you already covered it in the episode, but as far as Western developers go, Tommy Tallarico pulled off some amazing stunts on the hardware – Global Gladiators’ soundtrack is really amazing, especially the clarity attributed to many of its samples.

  7. Mooses

    Love FM synthesis, enjoyed the episode. I don’t think it can be emphasized enough how important technical skill, sound driver programming and musicianship is when talking about differences between the two dominant 16-bit sound hardwares, but I think you did a pretty good job hitting most of the important points. That said, the section comparing Super Metroid makes it sound like the Genesis is just not as good at doing certain things musically, but it’s a lot more nuanced than that. I’m not sure where you got the clip you used in the episode from, but here’s geckoyamori’s old cover of the Super Metroid OST:

    This is a really accomplished rendition using real hardware specs that basically matches the original in atmosphere, and the difference is all in technique. Check neogaf for posts from lazygecko, he’s gone into crazy technical detail in the past in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere.

    • Nathan Daniels

      Mooses, I have to respectfully disagree with you about geckoyamori’s Super Metroid cover. I agree that it is truly accomplished, and on its own sits with the best Genesis/MD music(notwithstanding that it isn’t part of an actual game, so we have no idea whether it would have been possible if it had to share its resources with sprites, animations and the like).

      However, it doesn’t match the SNES version’s atmosphere. The thing that separates the two versions is texture; the SNES’s lo-fi samples give the whole OST a breathy, muted feel. The understated, dark tones of the soundtrack combine with the dark graphics of the game to produce a thick, intensely unsettling atmosphere.

      Geckoyamori’s version, while a technical marvel, and really closer to its SNES inspiration than I would have thought possible, still lacks that densely tense feel. It’s not his fault; the Genesis sound is so clean that it almost turns Super Metroid into Contra……which kind of fits the stereotype. I think Jeremy really hit the nail on the head when he talked about the two systems’ chips doing things really well…..but not the same things.

  8. Nathan Daniels

    In the interest of self-contradiction, I just found out about Savaged Regime, who also does covers using the YM2612. Again, he isn’t having to share resources with a game(I’m not even sure if he’s using the chip in conjunction with an actual Genesis/MD). But it’s the best I’ve ever heard from the YM2612. Listen to what he did with Ken’s stage from SFII, and to Super Castlevania IV:

    Super Castlevania IV is my favorite all-around OST for the SNES, so much so that it took me years to appreciate Bloodlines on account of how unlike SCIV it sounded. That’s why Savage Regime’s cover of Simon’s Theme blows my mind; he’s managed to capture even the tone and texture of the SNES version. Check it out.

  9. Nathan Daniels

    Sorry for the excessive posting; it appears geckoyamori and Savaged Regime are the same guy: Daniel Bärlin.

  10. dc12

    Which of the Etrian Games utilize the FM soundtrack or is it a special CD?

    • The standard soundtrack releases for 1-3 include a “clean” version of the FM sources for the tracks from the game (the in-game tunes for those games are sampled, compressed streams of FM sound).