The OSC Toy-Box - Chiptune Corner
Updated: Sep 13, 2021
The "OSC Toy-box" articles look at some of the instruments and equipment I use when making my music. My ethos regards equipment is always to avoid getting the latest product, or whatever is fashionable at any given time. Instead, aim to get something that's more of a long term investment and/or a little bit quirky and unusual. Learn this equipment like the back of your hand and really exploit its every potential.
Whatever you do, don't break the bank or get in to debt. You can make very cool music that's distinctive and uniquely your own sound without spending a fortune on the latest hardware or software. As you read these articles, please remember, this collection of instruments and equipment has been amassed over the course of 15+ years, and wherever possible, I've avoided paying full retail prices, instead opting for second hand, ex-demo, or in some cases even rescuing from the trash!
I have a couple of devices in the corner of my home studio that I like to call "Chiptune Corner". One is a synthesiser based on the Nintendo Entertainment System's sound chip, and the other is a modified Commodore 64.
Arcano Systems NES Synth
This was a Kickstarter project I saw one day on Twitter and I simply couldn’t resist. A tiny little thing with MIDI-in and 3.5mm stereo audio out. It’s a NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) sound chip replica with about 30 presets. That’s it! No editing, just up/down buttons to scroll through presets. Don’t let that fool you though, it’s a super cool little Chiptune synth and despite it being Nintendo, I used it extensively on my Sonic The Hedgehog homage album, Zoned.
Arcano Systems continues to make updated and varied versions of this cheeky, little synthesiser. There is a newer model with USB support to allow for tone editing via a computer. There is also a version of the synthesiser encased in a plastic shell that's reminiscent of the old NES controllers. I strongly recommend checking them out here and giving them a follow on the social network.
Commodore 64 with Mssiah Modification
The Commodore-64 is an old 8-bit family computer you can plug into your TV (I use mine with a little, old LCD TV with an S-Video input). With the Mssiah cartridge in the back, the computer boots into an operating system that provides the user access to the SID chip (the iconic sound chip used in the Commodore-64). There are several software synthesisers onboard to choose from, as a well as a Wave File Editor and software sequencer. You can read all about the Mssiah here.
The Mssiah cartridge has MIDI-in and L/R audio-out is taken from on the Commodore's original audio outputs. The black box you can see fixed atop the computer in the above pictures is a modification I made. Using the joystick connector circuitry, I wired up four potentiometers that I can be assigned to filter and envelope controls in the software. This modification is a very basic one, but get googling and you'll see some people have made fantastic metal and wooden constructions to house their Commodores in order to look like Moogs; real things of beauty.
I was given this on my 30th birthday by some close friends (one of whom is an amazing Synthwave producer) and it has been a project I’ve been meaning to get around to at some point. I’ve played with it a bit, however to really learn it and get the most out of it will require days of work and I’ve yet to find the time (although I fully intend to make full use of this in a future project at some point).
There is a large and friendly online community surrounding the Mssiah who's brains I'll undoubtedly be picking in the future. To hear what can be achieved with this amazing little 8-bit synthesiser, I strongly recommend searching “Commodore 64 Mssiah” on YouTube and bask in the awesomeness of what this humble family computer is capable of.