Phat Sounds from your VCS Console!
So you've exhausted the possibilities of all your existing sound generation
then. You've tired of Falcon softsynths, you are suffering from modfile
ennui, the harsh fruity tones of SIDsound no longer inspire you? Not even
the shrill bleepyness of a 'back to basics' good old Mad Max YM-ST chip tune
can stir you from your aural apathy. Well it's time to get on down with the
ultimate combination of retro hardware, and stunning sound creation, the
'Synthcart', which allows you to get all funky with your Atari VCS 2600
Yes, it's real, and it is thanks to a dedicated retro-nutter,Paul Slocum,
who has made this possible. Put very simply, the Synthcart is an Atari 2600
cartridge, which lets you play music 'live', using your Atari 2600 as a
musical instrument, and using the appropriate keypad controller.
According to the website, the Synthcart features the following:
Play using an assortment of familiar Atari sounds;
Use two different sound types at a time, one assigned to each controller;
Intelligent voice management constantly re-assigns the two oscillators for
maximum perceived polyphony;
8th, 16th, and 32nd note arpeggiator;
Can arpeggiate both oscillators simultaneously;
Beat Box with many pre-programmed beats and fills;
Play two beats simultaneously to create custom beats;
Two tremelo settings;
Four attack/release settings;
The user interface is designed so that you can program and play the synth
without a TV. Modify your Atari with an audio out, and you just need your
Atari and an amp.
Waddya expect? Nicely drawn knobs and slider controls?!
In addition to that, Paul tells of an 'Easter Egg' mode, where if you do
bother with using a television, you are treated to a Jeff Mintervision
styled sound-to-light show, which produces patterns onscreen, according to
how you play the Synthcart!
It works with all versions of the 2600, and even the 7800 with a colour
switch modification. The Synthcart contains no extra sound generation
hardware, and just uses the internal sound generation capabilities of the
VCS, nothing more.
At this point, I might like to point out that I don't have a review copy of
the Synthcart, or even a VCS to try it on, but Paul has very considerately
put on his web page, several MP3 Audio tracks of what Synthcart sounds like.
So I set to doing some downloading at this point.
The results are interesting, with some shorter tracks ("Atari-jam 2")
sounding fairly simplistic, with more emphasis on the percussion. There are
also some soundtrack demos which use the Synthcart in a larger music set-up,
"New demo 1" runs it through a filter and reverb, which adds depth to a
harsh squareish sound. Another audio track features two Synthcarts being
played at once, with some extra reverb to hand.
The most impressive, and complete soundtrack, titled imaginatively "Atari
demo song 3" manages nearly three minutes worth, with several tracks laid
down almost exclusively using the Synthcart on its own to make the song. The
end result is a stunningly hard 'industrial' sound, including elements that
some people might think that derives from the Atari 8-bit 'Pokey' chip?
There is a video clip showing the lightshow in action, and there is also a
full manual and ROM image of the cartridge, along with specimen keypad
overlays if you are able to build and burn the cartridge for yourself.
Alternatively, he does put a link to a supplier if you are not into making
your own firmware.
The Synthcart philosophy seems to be pretty wide-ranging. You can mess
around at home, with the lightshow, as a fun gadget. Or you can modify the
VCS to take an audio output, and use Synthcart as a 'live' instrument, or
even incorporate it into your existing studio set-up. Paul does point out
that the VCS memory is too limited for a sequencer or drumbeat editor to be
added, and that MIDI isn't implemented, although someone was rumoured to be
attempting a hardware mod in that direction. If you are minded to find out
more about Synthcart, and maybe try it for yourself, then you can check out
the amazingly easy to find:
If you are curious about the life and other works of Paul Slocum, surf to:
He has written a 'Marble Madness' game for the 2600, that is one of his
saner projects. For those people who are bored even with Synthcart (and thus
tired of life?) he's in the process of turning a dot-matrix printer into a
tape-based playback system, somewhat like the 1960's 'Mellotron' concept!
What a crazy guy!
But that is the sort of thinking that raises your typical Atarian above the
level of mediocre, and makes them great!
CiH, for Alive! Mag,Nov '02.