SN76489 Chip-Based Synthesizer

Over the break, I took some time to put together an arduino-driven synth from this “instructable” by Brian Peters.

2015-02-03 17.36.47
Yeah, inside the radio case

This is a synthesizer made from four SN76489 chips. These chips appeared as a cheap audio solution in a number of old computers and game consoles, including the ColecoVision, NeoGeo Pocket, Sega Genesis (although the Genesis had another chip capable of FM Synthesis).

Because these chips are cheap, this ends up being the cheapest synth on my rack:

$19.00 – Teensy 2.0 Board
$4.50 – 4x SN76489AN Chips (includes shipping)
$1.30 – 1.8432 MHz Oscillator
$0.10 – 4x 75k Resistors
$0.10 (or so) – 4x 10µF Capacitors
$5.00 – 4x 1/4″ Audio Jacks (these were way too expensive on Sparkfun)
$5.00 – Breadboard

$45.00 – Total (give or take)

So, it’s been about 15 years since I bought it, but I think that’s even cheaper than my Alesis Nanobass (appears in the background of these photos).

Why did I put it inside and old radio? Because that was what I found a Goodwill for $2 that was an appropriate size.

The aptly named Arduino "Teensy"
The aptly named Arduino “Teensy”

Teensy, SN76489 chips, and quartz clock ready for wiring
Teensy, SN76489 chips, and quartz clock ready for wiring

The rats' nest
The rats’ nest

So what does it sound like? Here’s a quick and dirty demo:

RCA Output on a Super Game Boy

Always looking for an excuse to open something up
Always looking for an excuse to open something up

For my latest “chiptune” project, I’ve put in some RCA jacks on my Super Game Boy.

Of course the Super Nintendo already has the possibility of a component out (via RCA jacks), but, since the Super Game Boy basically contains all the circuitry of the Game Boy, this mod bypasses the Super Nintendo altogether.

If you’re interested in trying this yourself, check out this instructable for step-by-step instructions.

Super Game Boy guts
Super Game Boy guts


Closed back up
Closed back up

So… Does it sound better? I don’t really know, and I don’t really have the time to set up a comparison, but this mod sure makes it easier to get sound to my mixer.

Here are a couple quick recordings of games I had lying around:



Ninja Gaiden


The thing I have to be careful of, though, is that the clock speed of the Super Game Boy (4.295 MHz) is 2.4% faster than the Game Boy (4.194 MHz). A minor change, certainly, but a significant one if I’m trying to keep my music in tune between different devices, and I’m switching between the SNES and a Game Boy.

…like the time I brought my NOPera to Germany, forgetting that Europeans don’t tune to A440.

KISS2014 – What is “Organic Sound?”

Word Lens’s attempt to translate information about our wine

I’ve just returned from a fun and educational week at the Kyma International Sound Symposium in Lübeck, Germany. The conference (like last year’s) consisted of four days of thought-provoking lectures on variety of topics and concerts in a variety of musical styles, all unified in the implementation of Symbolic Sound’s Kyma System.

The theme of this year’s symposium was “Organic Sound.”

I’m a bit ambivalent in the use of the term “organic” in regard to music and sound art, mostly because I never understood what my composition teachers meant when they said that my music needed to develop more “organically.”

I now believe that this was kind of a way of saying: “I don’t know what’s unnatural (uncanny?) about how this piece you wrote progresses, but it’s just not right.”

Of course this understandable, as form and development are possibly the most challenging aspects of composition for many students, due, in part, to the enormous amount of subjectivity in composition and absence of “right” and “wrong” (but, arguably, the presence of “good” and “better”).

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” –Richard Feynman

This is why, for my organic KISS2014 piece, I found the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines, a set of rules and regulations: binary and infallible! Then, I fed the text of these guidelines into an algorithm (another rule!), which produced a wonderfully organic text for my NOPera.

It was a pleasure, then, to collaborate with a number of other organic entities in performing the piece, including mezzo-soprano Kimberly Gratland James, and the young instrumentalists from the Musikhochschule Lübeck


At the conference, though, I found many of my international colleagues had spent a little more serious effort in engaging with the question: “What is organic sound?”

“What is the pattern that connects all living creatures?” –Gregory Bateson

Composers, sound artists, and researchers shared a wide range of ideas over the course of the conference, and there were a significant number of discussions of capacitive sensors, sensors that react to the capacitance of the human body, including a performance by former Oregon colleague Nayla Mehdi, and a presentation on “plantification” (using plants as capacitive sensors) by Damien Grobet, Ludovic Laffineur, and Rudi Giot.


Ms. Mehdi called capacitive sensors a “interdependent symbiotic sensor system” (and thus “organic”), a point I wish I had a greater understanding of last year, when working with a student frustrated by the inconsistency of capacitive sensors.

Of all the discussions of organic sound, however, particularly striking was Kyma creator Carla Scaletti’s talk “What is the Most Organic Sound.” Engaging with the work of researchers in the scientific community, Dr. Scaletti made a compelling argument that the description of “organic”–interdependent, modular, evolving, concerned with change–in regard to sound aptly defines “music” (and perhaps better than the “organized sound” definition commonly used).

So, post-conference, while my ambivalence about the imprecision of term “organic” remains, I appreciate my international colleagues’ engagement with the idea, and I understand that perhaps my ambivalence stems from inorganicism in my own thinking (scientism?).

I mean, since sound is a vibration in a physical medium as perceived by the ear, isn’t all sound organic?


Did I miss the point?

“Academic Music”? OR: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Milton Babbitt

Composers like to say, “I’m not a university composer, I’m a composer who happens to be at a university.” He happens to be in a university because it makes it possible for him to be a composer. Otherwise he wouldn’t eat, and I can’t imagine a more important function than being able to eat occasionally when you’re composing music. – Milton Babbitt

I recently watched this documentary of Milton Babbitt available at NPR Music, and it gave me a new perspective on a composer whose music I often have a bit of a love-hate relationship with.

Watching this film was perhaps especially timely for me because, earlier this year, I had my first experience of someone calling me an “academic composer” in the pejorative sense (at least my first experience being called that to my face). This experience was a bit of a surprise to me because, as a student, I always thought of myself as the populist rebel, what with my melodic writing and triadic harmony.

When people use the term “academic music” with intent to offend, they usually trying to say that (1) the music has no wide, market appeal, and (2) instead of wide appeal, it has narrow appeal, specifically to others in the academy, and this is helps this music to sustain itself, leading to a large-scale emperor’s-new-clothes situation, where, while everyone knows this music is terrible, no one has the courage to say so (except for the populist rebels).

I’ll share a response to this way of thinking from Detritus Review which is far superior to anything I could put together:

…the harm is that this sort of ill-conceived, childish argument perpetuates a commonplace misunderstanding of music. A misconception that music owes something to us. That when we don’t like a piece of music, it has done us wrong, and the composers have lost their way. While everyone is always free to like or not like any piece of music, that music has no obligations to you. Music doesn’t have to make you happy, please you, provide you with emotional catharsis, or look or sound like anything. In fact, it doesn’t even have to try and be popular. – “Gustav”

Of course, “academia is certainly not above reproach.” Whether or not academic music is a real phenomena that holds its followers to a set of expectations (to write inscrutable music and all wink at the same time), it seems that many young composers perceive that there is a set of expectations they must meet for their music to be considered “serious,” and perhaps across all of the different institutions and music professors in the US, there are some who look for particular criteria in evaluating compositions.

Joseph Dangerfield describes his experience in this article, where the composer (whose work everyone should check out) outlines his liberation from the feeling of obligation to please the academy in his work. This article inspired a surprisingly thoughtful and engaging discussion by academic composers in the comments section, as well as an interesting response, aptly titled “Academic Music” – What’s that? by Christian Carey.

Those poor elephants

I like to think I don’t hold my students to any stylistic standards, just technical standards (counterpoint, counterpoint, counterpoint), and I do believe that technique is something that you have to learn and develop.

Otherwise, why offer a degree in composition?

Despite how I hip I consider myself, though, perhaps the second I started teaching composition at a university I became “The Man,” and now its up to my students to rebel against me.

I think I’m ok with that (perhaps another sign of aging) because maybe, as artists, we need to keep rebelling against the previous generation of rebels.

For me, that would be rebels wrote awesome pieces like this:

Milton Babbitt’s Philomel

Electronic Music and the Uncanny

Louis Dufort’s Zenith: Creepy? Awesome? Both?

In introducing electronic music to students, there usually comes a time in the semester where one of my students asks, “Why is all this music creepy?”

I’m not sure I agree with my them about the music being creepy, but, as a specialist (of sorts), though, I’m maybe too close to the subject, and I can sympathize with my students coming to terms with these new materials.

Ok… Stockhausen may be objectively creepy

So, in general, what makes something “creepy”?

In a TIME article a few years ago, Why is Scary Music Scary? Here’s the Science, Patience Haggin suggested that music used in horror scenes of films was similar to animal distress calls, and that these sounds “trigger a biologically ingrained response by making us this our young are threatened…” The dissonant and minor chords, then, are naturally unsettling, due to their “nonlinear chaotic noise.”

Rar! Nonlinear!

Katy Waldman quickly responded with an article in Slate point out the TIME article’s lack of consideration for the cultural components of music. Waldman says the minor chord isn’t something that is “biologically ingrained,” noting different world cultures have difference perceptions of dissonance.

Sidestepping this nature/nurture debate, though, perhaps one of the reasons that uninitiated students think electronic music is “creepy” has to do with Freud’s uncanny, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

The uncanny is the distorted ordinary.

Yakusho Koji encounters his double in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Doppelganger (2003)
A persons doppelganger is familiar, because it’s one’s self, but it’s also an impossibility, an aberration, and therefore a great example of the uncanny

There’s no shortage of uncanny images that exemplify this idea, but we have to take another step to show how audio can be uncanny. A example might be that of “hearing voices,” where a disembodied voice occurs without anyone around speaking.

That said, in the 20th-Century, audio recording makes sound portable across both space and time, allowing us to hear music performed by someone on the other side of the world, or even by someone who has died years ago. Composer R. Murray Shafer coined the term “schizophonia” to describe this separation of sound from its source:

We have split the sound from the makers of the sound. This dissociation I call schizophonia, and if I use a word close in sound to schizophrenia it is because I want very much to suggest to you the same sense of aberration and drama that this word evokes, for the developments of which we are speaking have had profound effects on our lives. -R. Murray Schafer

In recorded audio, then, all of these schizophonic sounds are uncanny, disembodied voices separated from their sound sources, like the severed body parts that Freud describes in his essay:

Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves—all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they prove able to move of themselves in addition. -Sigmund Freud

The Crawling Hand, from the movie of the same name

That said, we don’t perceive all recorded music as unsettling. Schafer points out: “Modern life has been ventriloquized,” and perhaps we’ve become used to the phenomenon of sound reproduced by loudspeakers, visible or not. Speakers and headphones have become the surrogate sources for these sounds and prevent us from feeling all recorded sound is uncanny.

So why is electronic concert music specifically uncanny? Perhaps this perception has to do with a phenomena that has become a cultural trope: the Uncanny Valley

A term perhaps best explained in an episode of 30 Rock (“Succession,” Season 2, Episode 13 for die-hards), which I sadly can’t link here but you can read about it in this blog post from several years ago by Mike Arnzen.

Put simply: Real things don’t bother us, fake stuff doesn’t bother us, but when fake stuff gets to close to being real, there’s a threshold where it becomes perceived as “uncanny” — the distorted ordinary.


a graph showing familiarity over human likeness

So, for example, we can consider vocals in music. To paraphrase the “30 Rock” scene: On the right of the valley, you have a real singer, possibly singing in the room with you, and, on the left you have things like Daft Punk or DJ Q-Bert, but in the valley, you have something like this:


…which is the audio equivalent of this:

Hiroshi Ishiguro‘s “Geminoid-F”

…and maybe that’s a bit creepy.

Of course there are a number of other aspects common in electronic concert music that can make it challenging for new listeners–unfamiliarity, unpredictability, extreme dynamic range, to name just a few–but maybe what gives people the creeps is electronic music’s ability (nay, duty!) to manipulate and distort sounds that we might find familiar. Or, at the very least, put these sounds into new contexts.

Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique

Josh Shalek’s “Falling Rock National Park” (guest comic by Reid Psaltis)


For the past few days, I’ve enjoyed meeting other members of the “cult of Kyma” at the 2013 Kyma International Sound Symposium (KISS2013) in Brussels, Belgium.

The theme of the conference is interfaces (more precisely: “INTER faces”), and KISS2013 used for its symbol Belgium surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s “Les Amants” (“The Lovers”), an image of two people kissing with cloth covering their faces:

Les Amants

This painting illustrates a the role of interfaces as borders, emphasizing the separation between the two lovers (a separation which exists between all people) even in this most intimate moment.

In the realm of electronic music, we most often use the term “interface” to talk about the point of human interaction with a machine, whether through typing on a keyboard, using a mouse, or even the Graphical User Interface (GUI) of a piece of software. The KISS conference’s choice of Magritte’s painting for its symbol, though, re-examines the interface as a border, a concept that Kyma creator Carla Scaletti was also quick to point out in her keynote speech (poorly paraphrased here): without these borders, we would just all be one mass of cells flowing everywhere.

Dr. Scaletti’s image here immediately reminded me of Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk manga and animated film Akira, specifically the scene where the character Tetsuo merges with the mechanical devices around him, and becomes and uncontrollable expanding mass of organic and inorganic matter.


While Akira’s level of human-machine bordlessness is, hopefully, metaphorical (at least for the time being), it seems that we are moving toward more and more transparent interfaces in our human-computer interactions.

Several workshops and pieces involved the Microsoft Kinect (including performances by fellow UO alums Jon Bellona and Chi Wang), an interfaces that understands an impressive amount of data about a person’s body position without requiring any physical contact.

A step further, though, were two piece presented where the performers did not interface with the computer physically, but instead through EEG neural headsets. The performers took the stage, then thought in front of an audience in order to create music. The EEGs then gathered data about the performers neural impulses, which was sonified by the computer.

Of course I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what they were thinking about…


(I think all of my EEG pieces might sound the same.)

Rather than seeking to erase the human-machine border, though, it seems that these new devices are designed to allow us to interact with machines on more human terms. Typing or using a joystick, for example, are actions we have learned for the sake of interacting with computers, whereas the Kinect offers a way of interfacing with a computer using actions that might hold referential meaning beyond human-machine interaction, as evidenced in Bellona’s “spell-casting” actions in Casting, and Wang’s conducting motions in SoundMotion.

Of course, in musical performance, we should remember that performers for centuries have practiced and learned how to physically interface with these instruments in a way that is not necessarily referential to motions outside music, so the transparency of an interface doesn’t not necessarily reflect on its effectiveness (or all musicians would just play the timpani, where one can see from across the room how the performer is playing the instrument).

An interesting question might be, though: does a novel interface, one that has never been seen before and whose performance we have not yet been acculturated to, benefit from a degree of clarity between the performers actions and the sonic results?


an image from Stock Photos of Violinists
Clearly this young woman is not acculturated to violin performance

Finally, here is one more image from Magritte, this time, the artist transgresses rather than emphasizes the interface. The title of the piece seemed rather serendipitous, “Sixteen September.”


“We Don’t Care About Music Anyway”

Taking my first afternoon off in a while, I sat down to see what had been lurking unwatched on my Netflix queue, and I came across a documentary that I added a while ago, We Don’t Care About Music Anyway, a 2009 film about avant-garde musicians and sound artists in Tokyo:

For a better idea of what this film is about, I think this review from the Seattle Times is pretty apt.

While not all of the performances in the documentary are to my taste (a statement that I don’t think would concern the artists in the least), I really enjoyed the film, especially in how it set “noise music” in the context of issues of modernity in urban life. Speaking purely from my anecdotal experience, I’m always impressed at how clear and confident Japanese artists are about communicating their creative impetus, and it was great to hear some of the musicians speak directly about how they feel their work fits in modern Japanese society.

If you’re interested in any of the above, consider taking an hour and a nineteen minutes to enjoy the film (especially if you have unlimited Netflix streaming).


For me, revisiting some Japanese, electronic-musical, cultural anthropology was a worthwhile break before returning to grading some Classical, German/Austrian, tonal analysis assignments.