ay3

8-bit, lo-fi digital, and chip music-influenced sounds have become interwoven with the sounds of modern synthesis. But make no mistake: the AY3 is what you get when you build a desktop synth with the soul of a vintage 80s game console.

Made by Twisted Electrons, who make iPad apps and a Eurorack module, as well, the AY3 is synth hardware powered by a music hip of yore. Inside are two 8912 chips, combined for 6-voice polyphony, which give this instrument the same distinctive sound as classic game scores and other music made on the hardware.

The 8912, you see, is a variant of the General Instrument AY-3-8910 (which also gives the AY3 its name). You know the sound from machines like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Intellivision, and (in a licensed version) Atari ST. Incidentally, you don’t know it from some similar-sounding, competing sound chips and game machines – the NES, ColecoVision, SEGA consoles and others used chips from Ricoh and Texas Instruments. But for a raw game sound, the 8910 series is special. This isn’t warm-fuzzy lo-fi digital that can fit into other contexts; it’s really a game sound.

Price: 197€, built to order.

That would attract some, but what Twisted Electrons have done is come up with a clever control mechanism and modulation. You get the essentials, of course – MIDI control, hands-on knobs for adjusting timbre. But they’ve also devised some surprisingly-powerful features for adding sequencing, arpeggiators, and modulation.

That is, whereas previous chip music instruments demand digging into software to program patterns, this is one that builds that creative control into the hardware. And that retro pair of chips gets some decidedly-modern power wrapped around it – complete with presets for recall – that could make this a more physical, live-improvisation-friendly instrument.

Check the features:

-64 preset memory (8 banks x 8 presets)
-5 pots and 1 endless encoder with push button
-40 blue leds
-16 step sequencer to sequence notes on/off, pitch and noise on/off
-4 Pitch modulation modes (aka lfo)
-4 arpeggiator modes
-ultra fat 6 voice unison mode with detune knob
-6 chords to split the voices
-6 voice polyphonic mode
-Glide mode
-Stereo sound (3 voice per channel/chip)
-intuitive 5×6 mode matrix to access and control:
volume, pitch, noise volume, envelope assignments, arp modes, sequencer assignments etc
-control of all knobs and other features via midi CC
-backlit front panel

Connectivity:

-MIDI in
-2x Audio Out
-DC In

That’s a small front panel with all those features, but the data knob, some buttons, and a matrix let you navigate it. Best to have a look at the illustrated manual to see what they’ve done:

http://twisted-electrons.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/AY3-User-Manual.pdf

ay3-1

Sound samples:

Full site:

http://twisted-electrons.com/ay3

Via Synthtopia, who were definitely on this first!

By the way, their Octopus CV sequencing module for Eurorack also looks rather lovely – it’s a clockable step sequencer with loads of modular I/O built around straightforward pattern storage and editing:

  • zeroreference

    Beautiful.

    • Alex Smith

      Thanks!

  • http://www.sylvainpoitras.com/ Sylvain Poitras

    That Zelda theme music is certainly convincing!

  • pinta_vodki

    All’s well until you realize there are TWO RIGHT HANDS playing at the 4 minute mark.

  • goodman

    Does it always transmit on 14 MIDI channels? Can you alter this? Manual leaves a little to be desired.

  • http://avene.org/ Glenn Thomas

    Yes, it clearly has that Intellivision sound. I heard a bunch of sounds here that brought memories of playing those games as a kid. Just curious though, are those chips still being made, or are they ripping them out of old games consoles, like Elektron did for their Sidstation with chips from old C64 computers?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I’d have to ask them to know for sure, but some of these chips are available overstocked – i.e., you just need a stash of them in order to avoid cannibalizing old machines. None of them, as far as I know, is still being actively manufactured.

    • Alex Smith

      HI Glenn,
      Glad to bring up memories :)
      I have a NOS supplier but not in endless quantities…

  • Aaron

    The AY-3-8910 has always been adored and admired and is extremely interesting/powerful. There are 3 really insane AY emulators for buzz modular that’ve been around for years that I just can’t get away from and I don’t make chip music ;) I’m genuinely interested in this gear, thanks for the heads up.

  • Mark Penrice

    Not sure how to feel about this. I’m an absolute sucker for AY-sounds, and could happily spend entire evenings just *playing* with those arpeggiator features because AY-arps are hardwired to my pleasure centres thanks to a misspent youth… not to mention the combinations messed with at the end that remind me very much of old Jeff Minter games…

    …but I’m also not sure why this and not the same MIDI keyboard you already need to have plus an old ST that you can pick up for buttons, plus one of the existing soundchip trackers that can read MIDI input and play via the built in chip already (and provide additional effects using system timers, drum samples and the like – though this box looks like it can emulate at least some of those). Also, having six channels rather than three just seems like cheating. Part of the sound came from only having three waves plus noise, and the different parts of the soundtrack having to weave around each other. I suppose it’s no worse than just having two Ataris synched together, but… is there a flippable switch to put it in 3-channel mode? And does that also mean two separate noise channels?

    Oh, also – I understand the limitation for live play, in that separate “voices” can only be played simultaneously if you assign them to different sections of the keyboard … but does it have the ability to overlay them at the same register (like you would be able to on a real AY) if, say, you have a prerecorded / presequenced backing track sent to it over one MIDI channel, and your live playing sent over another? Or indeed, two (or more?!) keyboards / a twin-board organ sending on different channels thanks to the magic of MIDI-THRU?
    :-)

    • Alex Smith

      HI!
      just plug in one jack and you have a 3 channel ay3 :)