FM Synthesis

I have been toying with AdLib Visual Composer, a 1987 tool from the makers of the AdLib sound card, the first widely supported sound card for the IBM-compatible home PC. The Ad Lib had a Yamaha OPL2 sound chip, an FM synthesizer roughly similar to the OPN2 chip in the Sega Genesis. FM Synthesis has a distinctive sort of metallic, twangy sound to it. If you’re looking to replicate a real-life instrument you’re probably out of luck, but if used sensitively (for instance by Sega composer Yuzo Koshiro) one of these chips becomes an instrument in itself.

As I wrote earlier, Dan Froelich did a splendid job with the FM chip grandfathered into Creative’s Sound Blaster cards. His work was long my mental benchmark for PC-based game music. Earlier this month I visited his site and learned what he used all those decades ago. I then sent him a hello-and-thank-you note, and went to exploring the software.

It’s pretty easy to use, if you have a head for turn-of-the-’90s DOS programs. It lacks some obvious features like Undo, or the ability to automatically stretch or compress notes. It does support now-standard hotkeys like CTRL-X and CTRL-V, and even the Shift-click selection that some modern sound programs mysteriously lack. It really comes off like a Deluxe Paint for sound, complete with the odd native file format and blanket industry support.

Indeed Visual Composer was so widely used that I wonder why I only heard of it recently — especially since for 20 years I was actively looking for something like it. Now that I know of it, I seem to be tripping over references to it.

Here are some of my early experiments with the program. Mind you, I’m hardly Béla Bartók. I’m also unsure that I’ve learned all of the program’s facets. Still, I rather like the results so far.

(Now updated with higher resolution recordings, plus one new track.)

Dan Froelich and his Yamaha FM chip

If I were smart, years ago I would have tracked down Dan Froelich and asked him what he used to write his funky CMF soundtracks for Jill of the Jungle, Solar Winds, Xargon, and other early Epic MegaGames stuff. Turns out I no longer need to, as he has written about his experience on his website. It seems he tracked his early game music in AdLib Visual Composer, a program that spoke to AdLib’s Yamaha FM chip (not dissimilar from the Sega Genesis chip) using a combination of piano rolls and FM instrument banks. Those elements were later crunched together into .CMF files for use with early Sound Blaster cards. To give a rare peek at the raw AdLib sound, Froelich has included clips of his Jill of the Jungle score, exported into ProTools. Cool beans!

So for anyone who wants to write early 1990s shareware music, that’s how the experts do it. Or rather, how an expert did it. I’m sure there are other methods.

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