To make things more interesting, I was going to attempt something special for this post, and write using the third person once removed. However, when I spoke to the blog author about it, he said that Stew doesn't like the idea; that at best it would only be "vaguely amusing" (his words apparently), and then wear thin with "tedious rapidity". Oh well, I'll just resort to those twin pillars of factual reporting: Exaggeration and Lies.
Bee in a jam jar
Here's an annoying thing: Programming for joystick control in a Dragon/CoCo game. It's annoying because some of the audio hardware is shared with the joystick hardware, requiring care to get the two working together.
It's possible to demonstrate the problem in Dragon BASIC by enabling audio before reading joysticks:
20 PRINT JOYSTK(0);
That makes a loud buzzing sound. The joystick read routine needs to mess with the DAC to figure out the joystick positions, and modifies the sound source select bits in order to select the joystick axis. If audio is enabled, you can hear all this happening. (I should mention that the above code snippet only has an audible effect on Dragons and possibly older CoCos. Newer CoCos appear to be smart enough to disable audio on joystick read.)
So the main thing is to make sure audio is disabled while reading the joystick. It is also important to restore the DAC to its original value and to reselect the DAC before enabling audio again. This is the list of steps:
- Save the current DAC value
- Disable audio
- Read joystick
- Ensure DAC is selected
- Restore DAC value
- Enable audio
Some effort can be saved by reading the right-hand joystick x-axis last, as selecting this axis also selects the DAC. (Assuming you want the DAC selected of course. If you were instead using cartridge audio, then it would be more efficient to read the left-hand x-axis last)
It is helpful to make the joystick read routine as fast as possible, to minimise the time that the audio is off. My routine is relatively fast as I'm not interested in converting a precise joystick position, just left-centre-right on the x-axis and up-centre-down on the y-axis.
Without going into too much detail, this is done with four writes to the DAC at $FF20 and four reads from the comparator bit in $FF00. One pair of writes for the y-axis and the other pair for the x-axis. After each DAC write the comparator bit is shifted into the B register, resulting in a number representing the joystick position that can be further processed when the audio has been turned back on. I use a lookup table to convert the value into an angle, but it could just as easily be a jump table.
I've had that in place for quite some time and had been happy with it until fairly recently when I recommended the same method to someone else and it didn't work so well: They were getting a buzzing sound.
In my mind I imagined a capacitor somewhere in the audio circuit that would hold the voltage while the audio was disabled. The assumption was that if the audio was off for a short enough time, then the voltage wouldn't change enough to make a noticeable click when the audio was enabled again. However, after a fair bit of digging, taking measurements and running circuit simulations it turns out that is only part of the story.
The first thing I discovered was that connecting different things into the audio output each gave very different results with my joystick code:
- Audio via the RF modulator gave the cleanest sound
- A composite monitor gave a buzz that decayed to silence in about a second on the tail end of each sound effect. Strangely, I hadn't noticed it before until I started listening for it and now it seems obvious.
- A set of powered speakers gave a continuous buzzing sound
It's starting to look like there's a complicated interplay of factors, but it's surprisingly simple to understand once you learn what is happening. I hinted that capacitors are only part of the story. What was missing is the fact that a capacitor is connected to a circuit via some resistance and this introduces a property called a 'time constant'. This defines how long the circuit takes to reach a steady state after something changes, for example after a new value is written to the DAC.
Use dumb luck. It's super effective.
In the case of the RF modulator, there is a combination of capacitance and resistance giving a time constant such that it takes about 5 milliseconds for the circuit to settle down after the DAC is updated. If the audio is disabled during this time, then you get a click because you're interrupting the current flowing in the circuit and that causes a jump in voltage. The shorter the gap between DAC update and audio off, the louder the click.
It just so happens that my joystick routine was so far away from the last DAC update that I couldn't detect any disturbance. Dumb luck in other words. When I get round to improving the sound engine, the DAC update will be getting closer and closer to the joystick read, so I may start hearing interference.
In the case of the composite monitor, this has a much larger audio input capacitance. This gives a time constant that means it takes a whole second for the circuit to stabilise. After each sound effect, the circuit is out of balance for approximately 25 game loops, each with a joystick read producing a click slightly quieter than the previous one.
The powered speakers are a bit different. There is no visible input capacitance on these. Instead there is a relatively low resistance to ground through the volume control. What this means is that the voltage on the audio output drops to a low level within microseconds of disabling audio. This results in a click on every joystick read giving a continuous buzzing.
Taking all scenarios into consideration, it would seem that the best defence against joystick buzzing is to leave audio disabled after reading the joystick, and to only enable sound at the start of a sound effect. But even then, clicking may still be audible, particularly for quiet or fading sound effects. If possible leave a few milliseconds after a DAC update before reading joysticks and that should at least keep things quiet as far as audio via the RF modulator is concerned.
Of course, this all results from investigation on a Dragon. Things may be a little different for the CoCo as the various models have custom ICs which may not be the same as the heap of discrete parts in the Dragon. Your kilometrage may vary.
And now for something completely similar
Previously I discussed my initial attempts at producing music for the SN76489, as used in the CoCo Game Master Cartridge. In particular I speculated about modulating the attenuation registers as a way of superimposing lower frequency tones that are below the sound chip's normal range.
To test that idea I would need some real hardware. I ended up making a small sound card that could be piggy-backed onto another cartridge and plugged into my Dragon. In the process I found out just how bad my eyesight had become and wished that I had the luxury of magnifiers and bright lights that I'm used to using at work. (And that I hadn't stupidly left my reading glasses at work)
Fortunately, I still ended up with a working card without too much trouble. The SN76489 audio output appears to be highly prone to unwanted oscillation, making it hard to see the audio waveform on an oscilloscope, so I added a high frequency bypass to ground on the audio output pin. The bypass consists of 100nF + 10R in series, values suggested on the datasheet for a similar part, the SN76496.
|I don't always make my own cartridges, but when I do I attach them to other cartridges with tiny bits of wire|
Some quick tests proved that the modulation idea worked in principle, so I extended the music player to modulate two of the SN76489 tone channels with software generated waveforms. These have a programmable pitch offset from the hardware tone and also have variable duty cycle. This results in the following sound:
It's not quite the same kind of sound as the variable duty pulse waves that I was playing with before, largely because the phase relationship between the soft and hard waveforms jumps every video frame while the next sound fragment is set up, but it does add a great edge to the sound. Definitely a keeper :)