(not so) Brief history of sound in computers, pt 2.

This part covers the 70’s era – the time of early video games and home computer revolution. A number of significant machines appeared in this era so read on for some fascinating facts 😉

In 1971, just a couple months apart, two first coin operated arcade machines were created and both were ports of the original Spacewar!.

The “Galaxy Game” was really funky – it housed an expensive DEC PDP-11/20 minicomputer (one of the most influential machines ever made), HP’s electrostatic display and some extra logic inside a walnut-veneered fffcase. Up to eight consoles were driven by one PDP-11. Unfortunately (for the article ;)) the machine didn’t generate any sound. This article presents the fascinating story of this marvel.

The second machine was the “Computer Space“. Created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney (now, remember these important names, would you 😉 ), the machine was made of the discrete 74 series TTL chips (no dedicated CPU, RAM or ROM chips). It generated a one channel bleeps and noise sounds. It was the first widely available video/arcade game, though too difficult for an average Joe to be successful. The company sold about 1500 machines. You can see the (simulated) gameplay on the video below:

The Magnavox Odyssey console appeared in 1972. Designed by Ralph Baer in the late 60’s, it produced no sound whatsoever, but it was the first commercial home video game console ever made. It featured analog game controllers, first ever game console peripheral – a light gun, and introduced the concept of cartridges (PCB’s with jumpers only, no logic inside). More info on that fine machine on Wikipedia.

Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney created Syzygy Engineered with a young UCB graduate Al Alcorn as a design engineer. The company was officially incorporated as Atari, Inc. They created the first commercially successful arcade game – Pong. This site tells the story of this machine. It used 74-series TTL chips – no dedicated CPU, RAM or ROM. By looking at this schematic (see page 15), and this excellent blog, you can see that the sounds were generated using discrete logic chips as well. You can see the beast in action here:

The game was extremely successful and, of course, me-too clones appeared afterwards. In 1975, General Instrument Microelectronics released a revolutionary AY-3-8500 chip series – a Ball & Paddle style games on a single chip. Home video game console could be created with only a few external components and an RF modulator. It featured one channel sound output with bleeping soundtracks :). First console to be built around this chip was the Coleco Telstar, released in 1976. The chip was eventually used in hundreds of different home video game consoles (yet with the same or very similar games onboard). Here’s a good article about these chips. The TV advertisement of Coleco Telstar:

There is one more very significant machine that appeared in 1975. Featured in the January issue of Popular Electronics, the Altair 8800 was the first affordable microcomputer. It was immensely popular and is believed to have started the microcomputer revolution of the 70’s. Although the machine had no sound capabilities, there were some later add-on music cards for its S-100 bus, made by ALF Products Inc. In 1977, the ALF AD8 Music Synthesizer was brought to the market. The system was designed for professional use. It incorporated a controller board with its own CPU and one or more (up to eight) one-voice synthesizer cards – complete synthesizers with two wave generators, an envelope generator and a low pass filter – pretty impressive feats for a computer board at the time. The other available ALF Product device was the Quad Chromatic Pitch Generator – also an S-100 bus board that could produce up to four simultaneous voices (pitches) that could drive analog synthesizers of the time or be connected directly to the amplifier. Magazine advertisement of the ALF products can be found here.

In 1976 the first second generation home video game console became available. Fairchild Channel F system was the first home video game system to utilize a microprocessor (Fairchild F8) and the first one to be based on programmed ROM cartridges. It featured 1 bit sound through the internal speaker or the RF modulator in later models. Matt of ReplayRetro channel has done a nice review of this system:

In 1977 Atari unveiled the Video Computer System, later renamed Atari 2600. Jay Miner (another very famous name in the industry 😉 ) conceived the heart of this machine – the TIA chip. The chip allowed RAM-less video signal generation, which was very desirable at the time, as RAM chips were very expensive. This chip also provided two channels of pulse/noise generation as well. You can listen to one of the best Atari VCS/2600 music examples – watch the video below. And remember – the beast had only two channel audio with selectable noise/pulse wave generation on each 😉

Atari VCS/2600 was immensely popular – according to different sources, 30 or 40 million devices were sold. It is believed to have started the video game boom of the 1980’s, and it is still very popular among the homebrew game developers.

The year 1977 saw the release of “The Trinity” – three highly successful general purpose microcomputers that were essential to the home computer revolution of the era, Commodore PET, Apple II and TRS-80, were sold in hundreds of thousands each. The Commodore PET (short for Personal Electronic Transactor) was based on the 8-bit MOS 6502 microprocessor and a dedicated video chip – MOS 6545. It had 4kB or 8kB of memory. It featured a built-in monochrome monitor and a compact cassette recorder for data storage. Original model had no sound capabilities whatsoever, whereas later models were equipped with 1-bit pulse beeper. This machine was the first Commodore computer and was the basis for it’s entire 8-bit line. You can watch it in action right below

The next one of The Trinity was the Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80. It was based on the Zilog’s Z80 microprocessor and had only 4kB of RAM. Due to its mediocre quality, it was nicknamed “Trash Eighty”. Despite that,  it was very popular among hobbyists and home users. It was sold through the Radio Shack electronic stores network. It had no dedicated sound capabilties, however, as similar to its counterparts of the 1977, it could play some sounds via cassette output. The TRS-80 Voice Synthesizer module was available in the early 80’s. It used Votrax International voice synthesis chip. Terry of the Tezza’s Classic Computer Collection channel has, as always, a fantastic review of this machine (including a sound presentation)

The last but not least is the Apple II. It used the same MOS 6502 microprocessor as in Commodore PET, could be equipped with 4kB up to a whopping 64kB of RAM and could be hooked up to a standard TV. It had 1-bit pulse beeper for sound, but, due to the design, a cassette output could be used for sound output as well – 1 bit pulses as well. You can hear some of the music played by the Apple II (polyphonic music was generated by software) here:

Thanks to Steve Wozniak’s  ingenuity, the machine had some interesting features. One of these features was a system-specific disk drive controller that was built with far fewer chips than the other systems of the era. This made Apple II disk drives way cheaper than the drives for the competing systems. The system was extremely flexible – there were eight (!) expansion slots on the mainboard – memory expansion cards, Z-80 processor cards, 80-column display cards, and sound cards were available.  Watch the terrific review of the Apple II (europlus model) from Tezza’s Classic Computer Collection channel:

ALF Products, Inc., known for the music interfaces for the Altair 8800, created two expansion boards for the Apple II, designed for music production. The first one was initially known as Apple Music Synthesizer and later renamed Music Card MC16, could generate three voices using voltage controlled oscillators – 74LS624 TTL logic chips. Up to three cards could be used in the system, thus providing a total of 9 voices. It featured the first graphical music software ever. This board became available in 1979. The other board was Apple Music Synthesizer II, later known as MC1.Available in 1981, this one used three TI SN76489 Programmable Sound Generator chips on one board, providing 9 voices and stereo sound. You can read the product brochure for MC16 and MC1 following this link
The Mockingboard was available around 1981 as well. It featured the famous AY-3-8910  PSG chip (one or more 😉 ) and the optional SC-01 speech synthesis chip by Votrax. You can hear (and watch) the card in action here:

However, the most impressive one was the Mountain Computer Music System. A two-board solution featured sixteen 8-bit oscillators that could generate any arbitrary waveform. You could even draw your own ones with proper software. The system was eight part multitimbral and could produce 8 simultaneous voces. A light pen was included for music editing. See this system’s operating manual here. You can listen to the emulated version of this system here:

Passport Designs Sound Chaser kit used Mountain Computer Music Systems boards and added musical keyboard, a keyboard controller board and some extra software. Here is a fine description of the system.

Alpha Syntauri by Syntauri Corp. was similar to the SoundChaser – it consisted of a musical, piano style keyboard, a keyboard controller and sound synthesizer boards – Mountain Computer Music Systems boards were most commonly used. Software was geared towards live performances. It was dubbed the first really affordable digital synthesizer – with the list price around 1500$. Here is a good review of the system:

The AlphaSyntauri was supposed to compete with the high-end, professional synthesizers like Farlight CMI or Synclavier.

Fairlight CMI was particularly impressive at the time – being extremely cutting-edge, it was among the first digital samplers on the market (8-bit, 16kHz sampling rate for the CMI Model I of 1979, 8-bit 30.2kHz for the Model II of 1980). It featured an arbitrary waveform generator and a light pen for drawing and user interaction. Basically, it was a dedicated computer featuring dual 8-bit Motorola 6800 processors, 8 inch disk drives, 64kB of RAM, 16kB of dedicated video RAM and a bunch of specialized extension cards for the specific parts of the system. Model II costed about  25000 GBP in the 1980. It was very commonly used by arists like Jean Michel Jarre, Keith Emerson, Herbie Hancock, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, Yes, and many, many more. Here’s how it sounded (and looked) like:

New England Digital’s Synclavier was another extremely expensive and cutting-edge digital synthesizer based around a dedicated microcomputer. This machine was driven by a custom, 16-bit mini-computer named ABLE. Synclavier Model II of 1980 featured an 8-bit FM and additive synthesis, 32 track memory recorder, 64 voice polyphony, a VT100 video terminal for user interface and a keyboard controller. A stunning amount of 32MB of RAM could be expanded to gargantuic 768MB, and direct to hard disk recording was available. This giant could cost as much as 200,000$. It was a very prominent instrument in the 80’s music scene, used by Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Michael Jackson, to name a few. Here’s a demo of its sounds and looks ;):

Atari Corporation, an undisputed leader in the video game industry at the time, decided to enter the home computer market. The design of its home computer machine began right after the release of the Atari VCS/2600 in 1977. The company unveiled its home computer systems line in 1979. Atari 400 and Atari 800 were basically an evolved versions of the 2600. They all featured MOS 6502 8-bit processor clocked at 1.77 MHz(PAL) or 1.79 MHz (NTSC), up to 48KB of RAM and the new set of custom chips – Alphanumeric Television Interface Controller – the ANTIC chip, Colour Television Interface Adapter – the CTIA, and the POKEY chip – Pot/Keyboard Integrated Circuit. The POKEY chip was a digital I/O chip that handled paddle input (ADC function), keyboard scanning and serial I/O. It was also a full-fledged programmed sound generator. It had 4 semi-independent channels, with noise, frequency and amplitude control on each one and could generate square waves or random noise. It was highly configurable and allowed combining two of its 8 bit channels to create a 16 bit one. Multiple “distortion” values were possible to create its distinctive, easily identifiable sound. Three of its channels could also be used as timers generating IRQ’s and its noise generation feature could be used to generate random numbers for applications. With clever programming, it could handle some basic waveform output, a feature used in some games (e.g. Ghostbusters game intro), and software speech synthesizers (e.g. Atari SAM). Here is a good review of Atari 400/800 systems by Gamester81:

The Atari 400/800 systems were the basis for the whole Atari 8-bit family. These machines were  largely unmodified and retained compatibility across the whole lineup from 1979 up to 1992, when the production ended. Atari 8-bit family was extremely popular, over 2 million machines were sold during its lifetime. I was the proud owner of the Atari 65XE with CA12 tape recorder ;). Here are just a few examples of POKEY chip sound:

  • M.U.L.E. – music by Roy Glover
  • The Extirpator – music by Rob Hubbard
  • Panther – music by David Whittaker
  • Gyruss – an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, game licensed by Konami
  • Zybex – music by Adam Gilmore
  • International Karate – music by Rob Hubbard (features digitized in-game sounds )
  • Draconus – music by Adam Gilmore
  • Fred – music by Janusz Pelc

That concludes the second part of the (not so) brief history of sound in computers. Feel free to comment the article, any help of developing it further will be most appreciated :).

Stay tuned for the next part.


2 thoughts on “(not so) Brief history of sound in computers, pt 2.

  • 23rd December 2016 at 19:30

    Enjoyed the reading.

    • 23rd December 2016 at 20:33

      Thanks, much appreciated! Comments and suggestions are welcome! 🙂


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