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Microtonal chiptune music with One-SF2 VST

Sonic the HedgehogI grew up as a gamer. Luckily my aunt was into games too, so I got the chance to play oldschool systems from before my time such as the Atari 2600 and the NES. All of this cemented my interest in electronic music from a young age. (For what it’s worth, my ongoing fascination with drum & bass probably came by playing Rage Racer on the Sony Playstation).

Some years ago, fueled by the nostalgia of umpteen million nerds, the chiptune music genre took off and is still going strong today. For some, the only way to make this music happen is to record from the original hardware itself. For others, it’s good enough to cheat and use VSTs which recreate the sound. Today I want to share one method of writing microtonal chiptune music using a VST called One-SF2.

OneSF2 - SNES Secret of Mana gamelan tuned to slendroOne-SF2 is a free soundfont player VST for Windows, and it has microtuning features baked right into it. Actually, it supports the MIDI tuning standard, so it can load all of the crazy scales I’ve been collecting in my tuning packs.

  1. Download One-SF2 and extract it to your VST folder. It’s about 30MB because it comes with a bank of sounds.
  2. Download the top soundfont “Famicom” from this collection. The Famicom soundfont contains many sounds recorded from the NES. Save it to your One-SF2 folder.
  3. Load up One-SF2 in your DAW!
  4. Let’s get a nice NES synth sound first. Look for a button that says “SF2” and click it. Now you can load the Famicom soundfont downloaded earlier.
  5. This soundfont contains multiple instruments. Find “SF2 Patch Name” and click the left and right arrow icons to scroll through the available sounds. I quite like #2 “Square Wave 25%”
  6. Switch the synth to mono mode. Now when you play a melody, it will sound more like the actual hardware and less like a polysynth. To do this, find the menu labelled “Control Edit”. Select “MIDI” from the list. Now you will be able to find an option called “Mono Mode”, turn this on.
  7. Here’s the key step, let’s make it microtonal! Find the button that says “MTS”. Clicking this will let you load a scale file.
  8. Write some dope xenharmonic chiptunes.

Remember the NES only had 5 sound channels. 2 are pulse/square channels, 1 is triangle, 1 is noise, and the last was used for low-quality digital sampling. You could recreate this capability by using 4 instances of One-SF2 (each using the Famicom soundfont), plus one audio channel with a bitcrusher effect. Read the technical specifications of the Famicom/NES sound chip if you want to strive for the most realistic result.

Here’s some xen chiptune drum & bass I cooked up a few years ago, in a game boy style.

Now, if only someone would make a version of Clotho from Columns tuned to a beautiful meantone, I could die a happy man…


Where to find more video game soundfonts

Here’s a collection of soundfonts from various game systems.
And here’s a mother lode of soundfonts ripped from SNES games.


Alternative pathways to microtonal chiptune music

Plogue Chipsounds supports Scala tuning files, emulates several oldschool chips, and opens the door to microtonal chiptune on Mac OS X and Windows (32/64-bit). Costs about 95 USD (as of early 2017).

Plogue Sforzando is a free and simple soundfont player much like One-SF2, but it works with the SFZ file format instead.

Pick up a second-hand console system and do it the old fashioned way, with tracker software and a soldering iron. Some trackers support microtones natively!

One-SF2 has a big brother, XenFont. This free, 32-bit Win-only VST adds heaps of synthesis functions on top of the basic soundfont player. A plethora of options exist for creating deep sound designs, so my own work always features XenFont instead of One-SF2.

VSTs for playing and composing microtonal music

Ever wondered how to get various software synthesisers to play microtonal scales? A while ago I added a lot of info about this to the Xenharmonic Wiki. Summarised below.

Many software plugins (VST, AU, RTAS etc.) allow you to create microtonal music. Not all of them, though. The ones that do mostly accept tuning data by one of the following methods:

  • By reading a ‘tuning file’ from the hard disk. (Usually a .tun or .scl file).
  • By receiving MTS (MIDI Tuning Standard) data as MIDI SysEx messages.
  • By letting the user directly input values. Plugins that don’t have support may still be microtuned by systematically using the pitch bend, however this only works for monophonic parts (unless you use multiple instances of the same plugin).

To find out how your synth can be microtuned, look it up in this table of microtunable software plugins. From there you’ll also find a few free VST downloads to experiment with. Continue reading