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Published on Reason Experts

Creating 8 bit sounds inside Reason

Published: 2016-10-12

In this Reason tutorial I will dig in to creating 8 bit sounds in Reason. Most of these files are made using Reason 4. However the work flow is similar for Reason 5 and Reason 6.5. 8 bit sounds or chip tunes (as some refer it too) have their own classic vintage sound. The technique is not mastered that well by newcomers (since they have a hard time understanding how 8 bit actually sounds like). But making 8 bit tunes is a style and technique of its own. And sometimes can be fun to re-create something that sounds old. Since I have mastered the PSG sound chip (MSX computers), making music on the Nintendo Entertainment System (by using a pc hack) and making sounds on the Commodore 64 system I might say that I know my stuff just a little bit. Even though I haven't actually composed anything on those systems since years, I still remember most of the specs and details to create the sounds that are well known from the 1984 area. So, just for the diversity of it all, here goes.. a 8 bit tutorial.

What makes 8 bits sounds?

Today we are using systems which provide us with 24bit samples (High Quality Interpolation setting for the NN-XT advanced sampler, NN19, Dr rex and Redrum). Most common known is 16bit music, since this is the same system which is used by the media best known to man kind: Compact Disc (or better known as CD). Most output systems use a frequency of 44kHz. The output signal has an impact on how high a sound can sound like. The bit system determines how clear a sound can sound like. The difference between 16bits and 24bits sounds are probably not hearable by the human ear. Just "knowing" it is recorded on 24its just makes it sound better by the mind. Back in the old days, most common processors where 8 bits. This means that a single sound was being made with numbers for 0 till 255. With 16bit this becomes 0 till 65535 and the maximum number of 24 bits.. I don't know (I could just use a calculator but I am too lazy). So with 8 bits, every sound itself just becomes a bit more "crispy" rather then being "clear".

The real nice part about 8bit sounds is that "bass tones" usually sound very clear in the 8 bit universe, since the sound is already lacking of any high tones the human ear will not really recognize many stuff that is going on on the low end of the sound spectrum. However with the normal frequencies (500Hz till 11kHz) you can definitely hear a noticeable difference between a sound coming from an 8 bit system or from a 16 bit system.

There is also another important part to understand with the 8 bit systems. The frequency wasn't that high, 11025 Hz in most cases, 22050Hz with some exceptions. This also means that the high tones of the sounds where mostly being cut off. Which also sounds like somebody used dust on the system. It just does not sound clear like a common CD track (which is recorded on 44kHz). You can kind of compare it with using a low pass filter and set the frequency range on 11kHz. Everything above that is being cut off.

Of course we want to use best of both worlds from time to time... Using 8 bit noises, but keep some instrumentations on 44kHz. There are some good examples that uses this technique. Some rock bands use this method for instance.

There is also another factor that is important when creating these 8 bit sound tracks. The common oscillator types where really limited in a way. If you take a PSG sound chip for instance, it only has 15 different oscillator types which are based on Saw, Square, Triangle and Sine form. But with some alternate Pulse width in between. Just for the amusement factor here is the technical data sheet for those who are into this stuff: PSG datasheet pdf

The NES used a combination method for some of the oscillator types, where the algorithm was based on a saw next to a square type. Something that for instance comes back in the Phase Modulation Oscillator of Thor. With the C64, it was more or less the same as with the PSG. You have the limited oscillator set based on analog sounds.

When it comes to "filters" there are none... With the exception of the Commodore 64 chip set. It could handle a limited LP12 filter. This is the only page I could find that gives a bit of a technical specs:

When it comes to the amount of channels, most of them are really limited. I remember that PSG could play 3 channels simultaneously but I can't really recall how many channels the NES and the C64 had. But then again, the amount of channels does not really matter in this case, because we can cheat! Hehe.

So with this in mind, what can we use inside Reason to recreate the old school 8 bit sounds? Well, this one is going to be limited in a way... but then again, 8 bit is limited so here is a short list:

- the Subtractor (first 4 oscillators)
- the Malstrom
- Thor (analog Osc)
- Scream 4

That is it... There is no NN-XT inside the 8 bit universe since they are really pore at sampling. Just as a reference I will post 2 videos from the Angry Video Game nerd: GameTrailers and this one is from gametrailers too

Those 2 videos have some speech from 8 bit systems. And trust me when I say it: 8 bit and voice samples sucked. Sampling in general just sounded crap. So recreating either voice or real life instruments like pianos or violins would sound horrible too. But then again, we can use best of both worlds. Use 8 bit renders to create the old school vintage sounds, and combine that for instance with a complete orchestra ;)

Ok, thats the theory behind it, lets start making something from it.

Setting up the Envelopes for creating an 8 bit sound

First of lets start setting up the envelopes before continuing. One thing you want to do here, to recreate those nice old school sounds is not to use any filter envelope settings. Therefor increasing the decay and sustain to its maximum value is the best way to do it. Next there is the velocity settings, where most synths inside reason can hook it up to the filter envelope. You probably want to reduce these velocities settings to 0. So changing the velocity won't have an impact the filters.

Chip tunes setup 1

Same way we can do with the Malstrom for instance:

Setting up the Envelopes for creating an 8 bit sound

Just notice that I have set the filter envelope amount to its maximum, and also increased the Decay and sustain of the filter envelope to its maximum. The filter frequency is slightly decreased, since we don't want to cross the 11KHz (to recreate the old school method). Still the sound itself will sound very clean and crisp in a way. Just like the good old days ;). Another method to use the filter knob without using the filter envelope settings, is just have the "AMT" (filter envelope amount) at zero

Chip tunes setup 2

The only envelope settings which are commonly used, are the amplitude envelope settings. Since those can be processed by adjusting the volume. Even though it would be sometimes a bit time consuming to program a simple sid sound chip to make something gradually slide in (in volume), it can be done.

When it comes to re-processing the percussions will usually depend on what kind of "sound output" one want to generate. But most often, inside the 8 bit universe, bassdrums are often created with sine wave forms (for creating something more 'clean' for its time) or square (to make something sound very raw and dirty). Snare drums are often generated with an amount of noise (noise generator) combined with some vintage sound effect like a dying square sound in the background. While hihats are in most cases generated with just a bunch of noise generators or combined with a high pitched sine wave form or triangle form.

To recreate the noise effect, one can use the Subtractor "noise" switch. Please keep in mind that the color changes the 'shape' of the noise. Having it low, all the way to the left, will make the noise generate a less clearer noise effect (pink noise) while having it more higher will make the sound output of the noise sound more 'clearer' in a way (white noise).

Chiptune Noise Oscillator

Another method on generating ping noise or white noise is using the Malstrom. The pink noise is straight forward inside the Malstrom, however to get some other noise effects going, one can use the "game noise" oscillator. Be aware though. The game noise is a granular recorded sound (while the pink noise sounds more like one straight forward noise generator). So one might want to screw around with the knobs as "motion" and "index" to create that specific noise output when selecting the Game Noise oscillator inside the Malstrom.

Chiptune Noise OscillatorChiptune Noise Oscillator

The only problem one might get with the sound output having on 44KHz, while the older 8 bit sound chips have a common sound output like 11KHz, one needs either to down sample the sound, or filter out the high output signals to recreate the 8 bit sound effects (as they were made back in the days). There are 2 different methods on to do down sampling. One method would be using a low pass filter on a single instrument, and set the filter frequency around 11 KHz. Yet, this still may sound very clean in some ways since we are still playing on 16 bit or 24 bit (and not on 8 bit).

Chip tunes Drum setup

Another tip I want to point here is using "Low Bandwidth" as much as you can when it comes to this type of sounds. Low bandwidth uses a lower resolution setting (at least, it sounds like it). It may have a great impact on the sound quality itself, but hey, that is exactly what we are after for these kind of tracks. Low bandwidth is something that can be turned on or off on the Subtractor. While other methods to down sample on a Thor or Malstrom patch will be using the AM filter type (which also 'roughs up' the sound in some way).

Another method to solve the issue is using a scream 4 sound destruction unit and use a setting which is called "digitalize". Use a mid till high resolution, but reduce the bandwidth to make a sound "down sampled" the easy way.A setting between 90 till 127 should be enough to slightly down sample it just a little bit to get back the 8 bit resolution sampling.

Chip tunes Drum setup 2

Chip tunes Drum setup 3

SID Chip tunes

One technique that slightly distinct itself for the basic 8 bit tunes are the so called "Sidtunes". This is more a contribute to the SID Chip set. But nevertheless, any given triangle sound effect can be called a SIDTune, since the triangle form could be created easily since it is one the default oscillators. Well, what makes it "SID" and not? Trembling oscillators, vibrato or so... Take a single square wave form inside the Subtractor, connect the mix to the LFO, and make sure that the LFO type is also set on square. This will make a sound just go tremble on and off really fast (depending what the rate of the LFO is).

A similar method can be achieved by connecting the modulator B from the Malstrom, and connect the volume to the modulator B. The preferred shape will be square or saw wave form again, since this makes the tremble effect more noticeably (while a modulation type like a sine will make it more 'subtle')

With a Thor patch it becomes a little of a different story since we can connect the LFO1 or LFO2 to any given parameter. The 'best' way I personally found is using the LFO connected to the Amplitude Gain (which changes the output volume of the Thor patch).

Chip tunes Sid method 1

Chip tunes Sid method 2

Chip tunes Sid method 3

To conclude

This might be just some start up tutorial about creating chip tunes. At least, how you could build up the sounds from the ground up. Some 8 bit sound chips could handle modulation forms. This is probably something that is 8-bit chip specific, and would also take some time to dig into if you are really into it. Just the simple idea would be using modulation A and modulation B from the Malstrom and use that as a modulator would be one way to go.

Hopes this helps out... And until next time!

Published on Reason Experts
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Published on Reason Experts
Published: 2016-10-12

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10 Apr 2018 


Thank you very much for this great how to/tutorial. Great job and a huge help to get started! <3
16 Dec 2016 


thanks! its so usefull.

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