"These are the elements of life/"

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Video Game Music

Here is an email I sent to the ClassicGaming.com mailbag back in 2000. I like the essay I wrote, so I will share it with you here, as it's lost forever in archive-land right now, and may even eventually be deleted:

From: Froggymee
Subject: Video Game music

Yea, I am finally writing to the mailbag after reading it for a very long time! This is in regard to video game music. I love the music from games. That is, the real, synthesized stuff. I'm not really into Redbook (CD) Audio. I like to be impressed by the computing power of the sound chip and the technical virtuosity of the composer/programer.

The first music from a game that I was impressed with was the music from "Digger", a Mr. Do!/Dig Dug clone by Windmill Software in 1983. The song was a cover of "Popcorn" by Hot Butter. All other sounds from my PC at that time (and for a long time afterward) were beeps and boops, but somehow Windmill was able to create multitrack sound that sounded like real instruments out my PC speaker. Later, games I got with the RealSound (tm) technology, were able to put digital sound out of my PC speaker too, but this method required a more powerful system then what I had (an 8088). To get past this problem, I would start the game in turbo (8 MHz!). This would trick the software into thinking that I had a more powerful system, and would start the game with the sound going, but then it would quickly stall, so I would be left with a jukebox. To actually play the game, I had to be in 4.77 MHz mode, which would bypass the sound procedures and be silent. Early on, I was also impressed with the music from Zelda on the NES, and I would like to play Rad Racer just to pause and listen to the "radio" (also on the NES).

On the SNES, I found it very cool that the composer used the same reoccurring theme through out the game "Super Mario World". On PC's, Adlib/Soundblaster FM Synthesis can create some awesome music. Especially check out the music from Tyrian, which even comes with a jukebox, and Continuum (also known as Alpha Waves in Europe). All of the instruments are programed as opposed to sampled, and I think that the composer is limited to 9 single voice tracks. Of course it doesn't sound real, but that is how it is supposed to be. The computer is the instrument. Another awesome PC method of music making is the MOD, originating from the Amiga. Unlike FM Synthesis, this uses sampled instruments. I personally enjoy making MODs.

I don't really like MIDI though. If I'm playing it out my keyboard hooked up to my computer, it is ok, but for the most part, they sound crappy. (How many people have a keyboard hooked up to their computers? Probably not many.) They lack the technicality that MODs and FM synthesis require, and on the hobbyist side of things, most MODs are exciting originals, while most MIDI's are crappy covers of pop tunes.

Lately, I have been getting deeply into the Commodore 64 music scene. The 6581 SID chip is one amazing synthesizer! Limited to just 3 channels, the composers still create masterpieces that are fully orchestrated and arranged. And it is very versatile, with a filter, infinite volume levels, and the ability to play both (analog?) programed instruments as well as digital samples. I am blessed to be in reception range of the only Commodore 64 music show on the radio in the world. I listen to KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis, CA, USA. But if you live too far away from Sacramento to get KDVS, never fear, they broadcast on the internet! You need to go to http://www.kdvs.org/ and listen to Hard Hat Mack's show "6581 SID". It airs every Tuesday from 8PM to 9PM Pacific time. This is some GOOD music. On a good, booming stereo, it sounds really neat! And he uses real SID chips as opposed to emulation. But emulation is not bad at all. In the meantime, while waiting for his show, I still enjoy SID music via an emulator. Please download a SID player and the High Voltage SID Collection. The High Voltage SID Collection is a very huge collection of 12,500 SID files arranged in subdirectories by composer, and is ever expanding as new songs are written! (the C64 scene is very alive!). It includes songs from demos, intros, games, and just for the sake of writing music. Go to http://www.hvsc.c64.org/ for more info and to get it (the download is only 20 MB zipped and expands to about 80:) And most of the *.SID files will have sub tunes for different parts of the game. Like "Commando" by Rob Hubbard has 3 songs in it. So there is a lot of music to listen to. And most of it is good.

I am getting tired (it is 3:30 AM! :) so I will close by listing a few arcade games I like the music from: Do Run Run, Gemini Wing, that short, single voice intro at the beginning of Phoenix, and (not classic, but good) the music for the London stage in Crusin' World (very early 90s British house:)

The email, along with other readers' submissions to the mailbag is located here: