Obscrua is an Arduino-compatible MIDI synth for creating Nintendo, C64 and Amiga-style chiptunes.
A chiptune refers to a genre of synthesized electronic music which was commonly found in vintage computers, consoles and arcade machines. As its name would imply, the tunes themselves were made by the sound chips within these early gaming systems and microcomputers, with an integrated waveform generator playing an integral role in the process. From Space Invaders to Gun Fight, one cannot help but love the nostalgic 8-bit beats packed inside those classic arcade cabinets.
Not to mention, who could forget the routine of pulling out their Mario Bros. cartridge, blowing into it, slipping it back in, and once successful, being welcomed by its catchy theme song? Well, those looking to spark up some nostalgia will surely get a kick out of the Obscura, an Arduino-compatible synth that allows you to create your own NES, Commodore 64 and Amiga-style chiptune music by simply connecting a MIDI device. What’s nice is that no programming is required — this monophonic MIDI synth comes preprogrammed with software that packs 16 preset patches.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because its creators Arcano Systems recently revealed a similar MIDI chiptune synth on Kickstarter. Taking into consideration the outpouring of feedback and suggestions they received from its early backers, the team decided to rewrite the software to incorporate many of their ideas. Among those upgrades included the ability to configure the synth with the Arduino IDE using only a USB cable, eliminating the need for an AVR-ISP unit or an FTDI cable. This called for a change in hardware as well.
Unlike its predecessor that was based on an ATmega328, the new and improved Obscura is instead built around the mighty ATmega32U4 — the same MCU at the heart of the Arduino Leonardo. The latest synth has gone through a pair of hardware revisions and 12 software versions, with its latest iteration featuring a USB serial monitor mode that is activated by holding down both preset patch control buttons during boot-up. Additionally, this mode lets users view the serial data output from their MIDI machine on either a PC or Mac for debugging and hacking purposes.
“The software for the Obscura is not merely a port of the Arcano Chiptune Synth software, but was written from the ground up and uses wavetable synthesis to generate waveforms, whereas the Arcano MIDI NES Chiptune Synth generates waveforms on the fly using a series of logic statements,” the Arcano Systems crew explains.
Now, users with some programming experience will be able devise their own custom software for Obscura using the Arduino IDE. And thanks to the Arduino Leonardo’s native USB capabilities, the Obscura can be configured to appear as a USB mouse, keyboard or HID, enabling interesting possibilities of unique MIDI-PC interface applications.
Unlike many other MCU-based synthesizers which use PWM to generate weak, noisy and low-quality audio signals, the Obscura employs an auxiliary digital-to-analog converter chip with true 8-bit quantization to produce a clear, high-quality sound. The Obscura is USB-powered and doesn’t require a special wall adapter with a barrel-jack type connector. The simple user interface consists of two patch control buttons, a reset button and a 7-segment LED display. Meanwhile, audio is emitted through a standard 1/8” (3.5 mm) stereo audio jack.
So, are you ready to recreate some of your favorite 8-bit music? Head over to the synthesizer’s Kickstarter page, where Arcano Systems is currently seeking $2,000. Delivery is expected to get underway in February 2016. (And kudos to the team for a rather creative campaign video!)