Raspberry Pi AY-3-8910 Chiptuner Player


This is not the most original project; many people have come up with the idea "what if I hook my embedded board to 1980s vintage sound chips."

I started going down this road when working on my Apple II KSP project got me thinking about ancient sound cards, specifically the Mockingboard Sound available on old Apple IIs.

These boards used the AY-3-8910/1/2 sound chips, which can generate 3 channels of square waves with other effects. They were commonly used in some Spectrum and Atari computers, among other places. There is/was quite a scene about generating chiptunes for these chips.

So I ended up spending a lot of time on this project: a Raspberry Pi playing YM chiptune files on actual AY-3-8910 hardware, with LED visualization.

Further info can be found in the FAQ.

Some Videos

Demo showing off all of the "features":

Watch it play "Still Alive":

Playlist with all of the older testing videos:


Full part list, build directions, rough schematics, and some operational details can be found in this pdf file: The AY-3-8910 is fairly straightforward. Three channels of square waves plus various noise and envelope effects. Provide a clock (1MHz in our case) and there are 16 (well, 14) on-chip registers you write to. Just put the address then the 8 bit value on the bus, toggle the 3 bus control pins, and you are set. You'll want to do this fairly fast. A typical YM music file wants you to write all 14 registers every 50Hz.

In order to save GPIOs I use 74HC595 shift registers driven by SPI. I drive the AY-3-8910 control bus with additional GPIOs.

Visualization is done with some i2c LED displays.

The amplifier originally was an LM386 design from Figure 16 of the AY-3-8910 datasheet. I currently am using an Adafruit MAX98306 breakout instead.

It is currently driven by a Pi-2. I tried a Pi-B+ but with only a single core there was too much jitter (possibly caused by the Operating System). I have not tried a Pi-3, I am not sure how the thermal issues would play out.

Yes it is depressing that a modern overpowered ARM board can't keep up in real time with an old Apple II (see the French Touch "Pure Noise" Demo). I plan to modify my bare-metal operating system so it can drive the board, hopefully with less overhead than Linux can provide.



All the code can be found on github: https://github.com/deater/vmw-meter.git

git clone https://github.com/deater/vmw-meter.git

Look in the ay-3-8910 directory.

Programs included:

Future Work

I'd like to turn this into an appliance.

Currently to access the features you connect via ethernet and do things from the Linux command line.

Ideally the software will be such that it boots up and into a menu system, and using only the buttons you can navigate and access all the features. Also you could do things like plug in a USB key with .YM5 files on it, and it will automatically start up the player and start playing them.

Build Log

22 May 2019

I've added code so the player can now play unmodified Vortex Tracker II .PT3 files. This was all part of the work to do the same on the Apple II. I even added support for 6-Channel .pt3 files.

18 October 2017

The music being played was occasionally glitchy. I had written that off to the Pi/Linux not being real-time, but after some e-mails from someone building their own player I realized I was only driving the SPI bus at 60kHz. (Probably because I was initially testing on a breadboard).

The board seems to work the whole way up to 64MHz SPI but that seems a bit high. I'm now running at 15MHz (as that should be in spec for the shift registers), let's see if it sounds any better.

8 September 2017

So why build one when you can have two for twice the cost:

25 August 2017

Have most of a second device together. Updated the manual to fix things I left out.

9 June 2017

Finally get the demo movie together. About time, as there are other things I'm supposed to be getting done this week. See if you can spot the typo in the movie, I don't have time to fix it right now.

6 June 2017

Finally got "Still Alive" recorded. It was a lot of work and turned out more or less OK.

1 June 2017

The hardware is mostly done, work on finishing up the writeup as well as working on the software. Working on the still alive video. The ym5 file I tracked myseful was too boring sounding, so I'm writing a xm to ym5 converter so I can play the more chiptuney version. Also working on a custom file format so I can play 6-channel audio.

21 May 2017

Was drilling holes in the case. Should probably invest in some more modern tools.

15 May 2017

Finally got a chance to post a video of the soldered together board.

I had a student using the Pi2 for a final project so I couldn't connect it to the chiptune player. I tried using a Pi-B+ but it turns out that sadly it can't keep up, at least with the current code you need a Pi2 (more for the extra core to handle OS stuff rather than speed I think).

I really should write a bare metal version of the player software. It's embarassing that a modern day system can't keep up with a 40 year old 6502 implementation.

10 May 2017

Connected the display board to the sound board.

The hardest part was making the connectors to attach the speaker and i2c cables.

8 May 2017

The PCBs finally arrived! Finally had time to put the sound board together.

Here's the front and back mostly assembled but not yet populated.

Alarmingly one of the 74HC595s got really hot when doing bringup testing. It seems like that particular chip had issues, as a replacement one was fine.

So aside from a few clearance issues (the oscillator in particular) the boards are more or less just fine.

Here's the fully assembled board playing some music:

I'm still not 100% happy with the sound quality though :( Need to hook up the scope and figure out if it's something inherent in the chips, or just something stupid in my design. I am following the the reference design in the datasheet though, and even though a Class-D amp might not be the best idea for amplifying square waves, the raw audio from line-out sounds about the same. I'm a lot better at digital design than analog.

22 April 2017

Sent off the PCB, now just waiting for it to come back...

21 April 2017

Here's a picture of the final prototype, including the slider subassembly, an amp cutoff switch, and the real-time clock. It all checks out, so hopefully the PCB matches. I'm adding a ground fill, which I've never done before, so hopefully it all works. I also gave up on trying to autodetect the status of the headphone/line-out jack, ran into lots of complications with that.

14 April 2017

Have the PCB for the sound board about 75% done then realized I had put the Pi-2 flush against the corner where a mounting screw would be in the way. Had to move everything over 300mils. Need to find time to finish this.

22 March 2017

Got the volume control on the max98306 working using GPIOs. The 74AHCT125N chips work wonders, though I'm wasting a lot of gates as I don't have a nice even amount of signals.

Next up is seeing if I can sort out the headphone issues.

21 March 2017

Finally got SPI working! 8ms latency (versus 14ms when bitbanging)! Level shifters made all the difference.

Here's a picture of me debugging the issue with LEDs before reconfiguring the shift registers to use SPI.

20 March 2017

I was doing some timing. To hit 50Hz you can't have more than 20ms of latency each frame. Adding the 3 additional i2c displays (14-seg alphanum) pushes it up to 21ms. So time to see if I can get SPI going for good, as that's much faster than bitbanging the shift registers like I'm doing now.

The parts order finally escaped from New Jersey, which is good, because they contain the key to getting SPI working (at least with LEDs). The problem seems to have been that the 3.3V inputs weren't consistently high enough to drive the 5V serial/parallel latch. And the level converter I was trying to use was optimized for i2c and somehow wasn't working right. A more boring 74AHCT125 seems to be working.

17 March 2017

More or less have the display part working. A demo of it in action:

I need to get some shades for that window, makes it hard to see the display.

Now I need to see if I can get the audio board working. Still having problems with hum, dropouts, headphone detection, high-Z inputs. Analog is so much harder than digital!

13 March 2017

The purple package finally arrived!

Assembling the board wasn't too bad. Most of the problem was various holes not being aligned properly, but nothing disastrous.

And it even worked, first try! Not bad. I need to get a better setup where I can take pictures without glare. The LEDs are so bright they confuse the camera a bit and having a big window behind things doesn't help.

Now to get back to debugging the analog side of things.

10 March 2017

I spoke too soon. Never solder things unless they work in a breadboard first. The level shifter was floating high when the Pi was trying to do high-Z (which makes sense as it's an i2c optimized level shifter). I tried dropping the supply to 3.3V to avoid the shifter. I somehow thought the Pi GPIOs went high impedance when put into "in" mode, but apparently not high impedance enough, as both the headphone detect and gain select were leaking enough current that things weren't working.

Frustrating. Also the 4 Ohm resistors don't sound as nice as the 8 Ohm resistors. And the filter caps add both pops and hum, which is odd because they should be a low-pass filter.

Also the headphone jack isn't working with the filter caps on.

Anyway I ordered some different level shift hardware to see if I can at least get the gain/jack detect working. The package is currently trapped in New Jersey by a blizzard though.

8 March 2017

The PCB for the display board was finally sent off to be made, now it's just a matter of waiting for the purple package from OSH Park.

In the meantime I've been working on the sound board. I've even put together this prototype board that in theory allows software headphone jack detection as well as software volume control (all level shifted down to 3.3V for Pi GPIO). Time to hook it up and see if any magic smoke escapes.

22 February 2017

I've been sidetracked on writing code that does the "Still Alive" demo, with synchronized lyrics. The idea is I can have one chunk of code that will create a Pi-chiptune Demo, as well as one that can target my Apple II code.

Here's Chell watching as I test things out. I need some way to block glare when taking these pictures so the LEDs show up better (my office window doesn't have blinds for some reason.)

Also made some art for the 16x8 display. Getting recognizable shapes in one color is a challenge.

Currently I need to get another Red 14 seg display (looks a bit odd with that blue one), finish the ym5 chiptune, find some way to get SPI to work, and then get line-out audio going so I can record without having all the background noise interfering.

4 February 2017

Still working on things, have been sidetracked trying to write my own ym5 files to play on the device. Learning a lot about synth envelopes, ended up almost writing a tracker.

30 September 2016

Further trying to track down why SPI to 74hc595 isn't working for me. Hooked up a sample driving LEDs and put it on an oscilloscope and the waveforms from the Pi look perfect. Yet the actual LEDs that get lit up do not match the signal sent out. Frustrating.

29 September 2016

Tried driving things with SPI rather than GPIO. In theory this should offload a lot of the bit-twiddling and potentially improve the sound a bit. Sadly I just could not get this to work. Mysteriously, even trying to bitbang the SPI GPIOs directly didn't work.

28 September 2016

Improved the player, now looping works.

27 September 2016

Worked on the player. Can now also play YM2, YM3, YM3b and (in theory) YM4 files. You can also now specify more than one file on the command line and skip through them using the keypad.

26 September 2016

Use libhasa to decompress YM files, now you no longer have to do this manually.

23 September 2016

Added a headphone/line-out jack. It is the type with built in switches to automatically cut off the speakers when a plug is inserted. However the amp doesn't like floating inputs. I couldn't find the type of jack with an independent switch that I could have run to a GPIO and cut off things in software. I'll have to think about the best way to handle this.

22 September 2016

Worked on improving the 8x16 display. Some new features, and the buttons now work.

15 September 2016

Cleaned up the ym_play code a lot. It's almost presentable now. Now there's a hope that if you build a device like this you can use ym_play and get it working.

14 September 2016

This project was posted on the official Raspberry Pi foundation blog, cool.

It would be nice if people let me know things like this. I noticed my youtube views had suddenly doubled overnight so I had to do a google search to find out why.

I admit most of the popularity credit should go to Aleksy Lutsenko's awesome music (I admit it's the whole reason I started this project). All I did was hook up a few wires on a breadboard. I doubt this project would be anywhere near as popular if I had put together a one-channel demo of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Also, disgruntled Atari and Spectrum users, I do realize that most of the cool music comes from your scene. I only mention the Apple II Mockingboard because I actually had a neighbor who had one. For me growing up Spectrum and Atari computers were mythical things that only appeared next to BASIC video game listings saying "to make things work on your ZX81 Spectrum please make these changes".

13 September 2016

Working on getting the 8x16 display able to print things other than just the waterfall display. Have time played indicator working.

Need to put out a new video with the new features.

9 September 2016

Have dual AY-3-8910 working. Stereo! Of course I don't have any 6-channel music files so I'm just duplicating the 3-channels out both speakers.

6 September 2016

Moved from LM386 amp to an Adafruit MAX98306 breakout. The output of the AY-3-8910 is too high to hook directly, you need to put a voltage divider across the output.

Also tweaked the shifter delays, and now we auto-delay the proper amount. Now we're having no problems hitting 50Hz consistently.

Also worked on the waterfall display. A bit nicer. Was trying to make it logarithmic but that didn't really work very well.

4 September 2016

Article on this project posted on Hackaday. The video was possibly also trending on Youtube somehow.

2 September 2016

Have sound and LEDs going!

Here's the above, annotated:

1 September 2016

Fixed issues with sound (off by one error, loose address wires). Working on the visualization. Also dropped down to a 1MHz clock, as at 2MHz upsampling 1MHz and 1.7MHz YM files was causing overflows.

30 August 2016

First sound with this setup! Still some issues though

29 August 2016

Testing to see if I can use a 74HC595 shift register. Simple test getting output on LEDs worked great (once I figured out upstream Linux [yes I am running 4.8-rc3 on my pi2] wants you to add 970 to the GPIO number).

shift register leds

26 August 2016

Final batch of parts arrived!

25 August 2016

Wrote some code to decode YM file format. The LHA compression and the interlaced format is a bit of a pain.

23 August 2016

Printed out manuals, reading them.
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