Retro chip music appeal and the occasional Super Mario Bros. game aside, you probably think of the Nintendo NES and Famicom system as something collecting dust at garage sales. You probably don’t think of this NES running as a self-contained music production workstation, syncing to MIDI and Android, or exploiting new software for producing elaborate musical sequences, drum and bass lines. Think again.

What might to outsiders seem like the nostalgic draw of video music has become something else entirely – the NES is taking its place as a serious, studio synth.

Via Keaton Shurilla (Theta_Frost) comes a number of helpful updates on recent developments for the NES.

Your NES, a music workstation

Pulsar is the next-generation successor to NTRQ, a tracker for sequencing and synthesizing sounds directly on the NES. You don’t use a computer; you do all the work directly on the game system. (NTRQ image above; see the video of Pulsar at top.) Full details:
Pulsar: Audio at NTRQ blog

Your NES, a drum and bassline machine

PR8, from the creator of Pulsar and NTRQ, turns the NES into a groovebox. It’s almost like having an NES take on ReBirth, complete with bass and drum pattern generators. Again, it’ll run directly on the NES system, making an NES a silly-cheap instrument you can add – and as the video hints, the results may not sound anything like retro game music if you don’t want them to.

Rihanna Rude Boy NES 8-Bit Cover from thefox // Kalle Immonen on Vimeo.

Your music, on NES cartridges

PornoTracker is the latest PC-based tracker solution. Here, the idea is a bit different: sequence your musical ideas from the comfort of your computer (in this case, Windows-based), then export to a format that can be played on cartridges. PornoTracker as a result has some powerful musical features, but it still lets you repurpose vintage NES systems for playback. If you think about it, that’s a pretty great deal: you save toxic hardware from the landfill, and at an absurdly cheap price.

PornoTracker (the Finnish developer has other crazy projects, like custom libraries and his own NES game engine)

PornoTracker write-up from our friends at TRUE CHIP TILL DEATH (ed.: Peter Swimm)

DIY cartridges for antique game systems? In case you’re wondering how all of this is practical, you can thank the…

Flash memory on a cart

…PowerPak. This custom cartridge allows you insert convenient Compact Flash memory so you can run anything you can load from a computer onto an NES, no special hardware required. An upcoming update for the popular NES tracker Famitracker will mean extra sound expansions that the Powerpak can play, on top of those already supported. Updated: You can also play directly through the NES using the Arduino interface and Famitracker; now with the Powerpak, some Famicom cartridge soundsets can be emulated, too.

Retro USB product page

Your NES, connected via MIDI

Arduino NES-to-MIDI is an Arduino-based project for MIDI communication with the NES, and it’s open source (GPL). The result: connect your NES via MIDI without the need for proprietary hardware. This mercifully stands in for the abandonware MIDINES project. (Sadly, I regularly get comments on a years-old story with people wondering what happened to that.) I’d love to see the use of a dedicated, open source USB-MIDI project so that you wouldn’t necessarily even need a full Arduino board, since it’s overkill for the project. But as it stands, it’s already a terrific step.

Updated: For more on connecting to MIDI, don’t miss Andrew (Batsly Adams’) site:

Your NES, connected to an Android

Not music-specific, but it could be: there’s an Android project that makes use of the Arduino bridge, too. (Could be a good starting point for a wireless, Bluetooth-based solution.)

Game Boy? Game Man/Woman

The NES gives you some seriously grown-up, fun sounds on a dime. I think it’s an encouraging return to basics, all for the cost of some of those iPad cases. So, while the NES and PowerPak didn’t make our inexpensive holiday list, they sure could — or they could be a 2011 New Years’ Resolution. I’d love to hear what you do with them.

More Projects – Updated

Be sure to check out:

A build-your-own NES synth design, ready for live performance, by Jarek Lupinski, interfaces directly with 2A03 synth chip. Dev Blog covers modular synth modules for using vintage synth chips, including the Pokey — brilliant!

  • here's some other neat NES development reads

    also Neil Baldwin the guy who created PTR8 and pulsar has a really interesting blog about his history with NES music

  • ok wow. i am getting an NES. add it to the 200 items christmas list thingy!

    also, anyone ever use a max patch called something like ccore64 – it was an 8-bit sequencer with a tiny little video game built in. also great. super-simple and good sounds.

  • Deep Purmanan

    "next-generation" LMFAO. good luck with that.
    I like 8 bit sounds but the description is a bit overboard, also it's hardly the most portable as either synth or sequencer. There was contemporary gear that is way more capable and just as cheap.
    If you MUST have the classic game sound of NES or like to mince about with retro gear this is great news, otherwise not so much.
    Personally, samples of such gear have been fine for my use since the early 90's.

  • Random Chance

    Great article and resources. I love my NES. The mere thought that someone could just throw away such a thing (as is suggested more than once in the article for whatever reason, it certainly does not help make a point) is totally alien to me. The NES is certainly one of the best gaming systems ever built (except for the moments when getting your catridge to work properly feels like docking with the ISS in terms of patience and precision). And what do you know: It has a lot of life left.

  • Thanks for reviving the desire to make 8-bit music again, Peter. This is all extremely relevant to my interests.

  • 8bit sounds start to get a bit overexploited but these things still make me drool a bit! I have a MSSIAH cartridge for the C64 and that's absolutely brilliant, you have a complete studio on your C64… so I imagine the various solutions for the NES probably are just as interesting! 
    It probably has been said many times but one thing I really like about all this is the fact that devices get used way past their "date of expiry", which is both sustainable, and shows how our relationship to technology is sometimes a pretty hysteric one. Changing our computer every 2 years has become normal… while, if you really think about it, it's total crap.

  • m d

    can anyone point me in the direction of the patch mentioned?

    "also, anyone ever use a max patch called something like ccore64 – it was an 8-bit sequencer with a tiny little video game built in. also great. super-simple and good sounds."

  • has there been any development in exploiting console emulators into music devices?

    I use several and as far as I can tell, the music and sound effects are 100% authentic. I think it'd be an obvious platform to develop a ROM for..

  • @M D
    The app is called CBasicore64

    It can be found here:

    Guess the maker is Echotone, there are a bunch of other crazy plugins.

    Go to "Stuff" –> "Softs"

  • Theta_Frost

    Awesome! Thanks for the write up!

  • This could be worth cross posting to Create Digital Motion as I have been considering getting a NES and PowerPak for this and LiteWall the amazing community built open source VJ software for NES (not to mention GlitchNES)
    LiteWall full production diary in a forum
    Litewall Official Page

  • I guess I'm a little confused now. When comparing "Arduino NES-To-MIDI" to "MidiNES" I always thought that MidiNES is a kind of Midi-Interface for the NES, so one can play it like a synthesizer. NES-To-Midi seems to send Midi from an NES controller to any Midi device. Am I missing something here?

    Anyhow, is there anything to control the NES soundengine in realtime (does not necessarily need to be Midi)? I found this… (looks promising). Anything else?

  • Yea, the Arduino NES-To-MIDI project doesn't seem to do the same thing as MidiNES at all…it looks like it works the wrong way.

    The other link, provided by jensoliver, does seem like it does the job, though.

  • If you guys want a midines alternative, you should follow the batsly adams links Peter just added.

  • pdawg

    i want to turn an old nes controller and joystick into a midi controller for ableton live running on mac os X. any suggestions for this would be greatly appreciated.

  • shiftmore

    I have been working on an Arduino Uno powered NES synth based on Jarek Lupinski’s original design for the Mega:

  • shiftmore

    I have been working on an Arduino Uno powered NES synth based on Jarek Lupinski’s original design for the Mega:

  • shiftmore

    I have been working on an Arduino Uno powered NES synth based on Jarek Lupinski’s original design for the Mega: