A screenshot of Marble Madness

FM Synthesis: Ah, Marble Madness…

DISCLAIMER: this is possibly the nerdiest article you will ever read. If you freak out when entering a Maplin store, stop reading now for the sake of your health.

Any 7 year old kid from the mid 80’s will tell you that as far as arcade games went, it was all about the Atari classics: Marble Madness, Roadblasters, Championship Sprint, Gauntlet, APB, Paperboy and 720. There was just something cool about them – or more specifically, something cool about the sound they made.

It wasn’t just the robotic, metallic speech samples (almost unheard of at the time) – but also the edgy-sounding music and FX – again with a metallic kind of sound.

Play the sound of those machines to an audio / synth geek, and they’ll tell you the type of synthesis responsible is called Frequency Modulation (FM), and was very much a Yamaha thing – FM synthesis powered their legendary 80’s synth, the Yamaha DX7.

FM-based sounds are now back in vogue across the dance and pop spectrum – probably because they sound inherently futuristic (in a Buck Rogers kinda way) but also retro 80’s at the same time.

While a DX7 synth is now a highly-treasured and pricey piece of vintage gear, there’s a far cheaper way to get your hands on the sound behind Paperboy and Roadblasters: the chip found in those arcade cabinets (the Yamaha YM2151… jesus I need to get out more) is also found in the Yamaha FM-01 sound module, which go for a pittance.

So if you’re one of the three UK residents who (a) have a thing for those games, and (b) like producing music, pick up a bargain (but you’ll have to beat me to it).



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