Telling the story of game and computer audio isn’t an easy task1. It’s not even easy to know where to start. Does it begin with the first electronic music? Early pioneers like Otto Luening, Wendy Carlos, Vangelis, Jon Appleton and Karlheinz Stockhausen began producing electronic music nearly five decades ago and caused quite a controversy among professional musicians and composers. There was fear that electronic music would make professional musicians obsolete and reduce the cultural value of music—living, breathing human performers would be replaced by soulless machines. Even tape recorders were viewed with suspicion. In 1982, Victor Fuentealba, then president of the American Federation of Musicians, tried to have synthesizers banned from recording studios2. The new technology was feared by academics as well. Electro-acoustic composer Jon Appleton, a professor at Dartmouth College, says the prejudice against electronic music has always been and will likely continue to be strong even in university music departments, which are the very places that should be embracing experiments and exploring new ideas. Nevertheless, brave composers were willing to break their dependence on traditional instruments and embrace new technology. They were quickly followed by pop composers. Through the early to mid-80s, electronic music dominated the pop charts, and artists like Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Tangerine Dream, Devo and countless others set the tone for a “totally wired” generation. And who could possibly forget the inspiring melodies of Jean Michel Jarre? Taking into consideration all of this talent, it’s hard to imagine that electronic music would ever fall out of chic. As technology progressed and talented composers grew better at harnessing its power, the innovation was never going to end.
Yet it did.
At some point in the late 80s, electronic music fell out of vogue. It seemed as though electronic music had been nothing more than a fad, and the fad was dying. Suddenly, a work like Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene was as uncool as Atari’s Pong or fanny packs. People cried out for a return to traditional instruments and “vintage” sound. Pop musicians who were formerly obsessed with the latest cutting-edge synthesizer technology were now combing pawn shops and flea markets for the hallowed guitar amps of the 1950s and 60s. Classic music buffs abandoned their Korgs and Kursweils for grand pianos. Digital music was recast as something distinctly “80s” and quite unfashionable. Hair-metal, grunge and other non-computer based musical genres knocked the sultans of synth off the charts. The synthesizer was out, the guitar was in. Appleton blames the fall of synthpop on the lack of creativity on the part of the artists—“It all started to sound the same,” he says. A new generation wanted a new sound, and the electronic bands weren’t going to provide it.
Today, the only the electronic music most of us hear is the repetitive, simplistic beat of dance or industrial music piped into clubs and dubbed over with offensive lyrics and banter. The synthesizer-heavy bands still around, like Depeche Mode and Ministry, have traded most of their electronic sounds for guitars and other “real” instruments, though they (like almost every artist today) rely extensively on computers to record and mix their albums3. Some musicians have even gone a step further, unplugging their amps and playing acoustic sets of their repertoire, touting the “authenticity,” “purity,” or “naturalness” of non-electronic sound. Now that the computer has rendered guitars and drums obsolete, we see little else but sweaty guitarists and drummers on MTV. Perhaps there is some “performance value” in watching young men and women power chording away on guitars and beating on tubes and metallic plates with pairs of wooden sticks, but I have long lost my fascination for these silly spectacles. I consider our reluctance to put aside the performance tradition shameful, and our turn from electronic music devolution.
I had this belief that if you could play electro-acoustic music live, if people could see you do it, they would be more attentive. What turned people off was that they didn’t understand that it could be made by a human being; they didn’t see the connection between the music and what they’d known all their lives.
In many ways, the story of the rise and fall of game and computer audio is the same as that of electronic music in general. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
I will begin my treatment of computer and game audio by retelling an endearing fairy tale. You’ve heard it before, I’m sure, and possibly even told it to your children, but let’s hope that it hasn’t lost its charm. It’s “The Story of How Much Better Games Sound Now than They Did Back Then.”
Once upon time, the story goes, there was only very primitive audio in videogames if any at all. The venerable old classics that established the genre were either silent or limited to beeps, buzzes, and the occasional wocka-wocka. These sounds were, at best, cute and at worst annoying, as any parent of a formerly Atari 2600 or Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) addicted child is painfully aware. Even top-shelf computers were limited to a tiny internal speaker about as musical as the buzzer in a cheap digital alarm clock. Thankfully, highly skilled engineers were soon able to improve the sound capabilities of gaming hardware. Game and computer systems began to feature multiple channels of sound at higher bit rates. Soon it was even possible to incorporate recognizable human speech and make a guitar sound like a real guitar. Games stopped sounding like games and started sounding like real life—the sound was just as good as that produced for Hollywood films and compact discs. Finally, granted a substantial budget to hire full orchestras or license the latest pop track, game audio professionals have reached the pinnacle of quality, and gamers can listen happily ever after without fear that their games will sound like something composed by a robot operator with a pocket calculator.
“We’ve come a long way from the bloops and beeps of yesteryear,” says the modern game professional. As if coming away from electronic sound was a desirable goal in the first place—as if games “sounding like games” was a bad thing4. I’ve always thought these sweeping generalizations were rather like a film enthusiast declaring, “Oh, how much better movies are today now that we have color and surround sound!” Yet most film critics and directors still cite Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest movie ever made. The problem with modern game audio (and, as some would argue, the problem with modern games in general) is the same as the problem with modern films: The medium has evolved, the art, arguably, has not. Perhaps because the medium has evolved so quickly, artists simply have not had the time to catch up. Perhaps pressure from big business stifles creative energy and forces game audio artists to stay narrowly within the confines of the “tried and true” rather than engage in costly, risky experiments.
George Sanger, more commonly known in game audio circles as “The Fat Man,” describes the three mistaken assumptions of novices, intermediates, and advanced game audio programmers. The novice mistakenly believes her music should sound “like game music.” The intermediate feels that game audio must sound like movie sounds, even if it means producing slavish imitations of John Williams. The advanced nitwit feels he must “write game music that sounds like the radio or those guys on MTV. Better yet, I have to license those songs4.” At this point, the game and computer audio professional feels he must follow the latest music fads and achieve rock star status—composing mere game audio is certainly beneath him. If these are mistaken assumptions, what are the proper goals of game and computer audio?
Let me establish at this point, for those for whom it is not obvious already, my attitude towards electronic music (and videogames in general). I see electronic music tools as a way to liberate composers from the constraints imposed by tradition; any effort on the part of electronic musicians to mimic the sounds of older instruments is, in my opinion, a step in the wrong direction. I’m not arguing here that electronic composers should avoid samples or forget all of their classical training; what concerns me is when they ignore the abilities unique to the electronic medium. It makes no more sense for a game audio programmer to mimic a string quartet as it does for a flutist to make his instrument sound like a kazoo.
Technological innovation and artistic innovation are two often unrelated things, and they do not necessarily follow one another. Indeed, perhaps the second (the computer being the first) most versatile musical instrument ever created, the piano, required half a century before talented composers like Johann Christian Bach and Franz Liszt were able to write memorable pieces for it. Other composers and musicians (including Johann Sebastian Bach) felt that the piano’s keys were too heavy, and others argued that no one would ever master this difficult instrument. What people so easily forget is that innovation in technology does not imply innovation in artistry. Indeed, one of my points in this article is that advances in game audio hardware have actually led to a decrease in artistic innovation, though the hardware itself is not to blame.
Without exception, computers offer composers and musicians the finest musical instrument ever constructed—but it can also be difficult to master and hopelessly confusing to musicians accustomed to traditional instruments. Any other musical instrument, be it a piano, violin, or guitar, can produce only sounds enabled by their physical architecture. The sound of a guitar string, for instance, is determined by its length, diameter, and material (nylon, steel, or brass). Though guitars and pianos have a wider octave range than many other instruments, there are always limits. Furthermore, even the best performers are limited by the dexterity of their fingers and their overall endurance. More importantly, traditional musical instruments dictate the sound and quality of music that can be produced on them. No matter how creative a composer may be, she cannot make a triangle sound like a bass drum or a clarinet blare like a trumpet without electronic equipment. A synthesizer and a harmonica are both musical instruments that allow musicians to express themselves musically; the difference is not one of kind but of degree. In the same way that a painter could produce a painting with three colors and her fingers, a composer can choose to artificially limit her palette to simple instruments. However, other artists will not be satisfied with such limitations; they desire the widest possible palette of colors, the largest possible vocabulary of sounds, even those that may be unfamiliar to the public. Classical composers required a wide variety of instruments to enrich and add depth to their musical expression. Performing these pieces requires a small army of highly-trained performers, many of whom have dedicated their lives to the mastery of a single instrument. Modern electronic composers have at their command a variety of instruments and sounds that the classical composers could not possibly have imagined, yet can perform their music without a single human performer.
Artists need not stop at the familiar electronic tones we associate with DEVO, switched-on Bach, or dance music--there are still infinite possibilities for new sounds, and those possibilities increase every year.
--The Fat Man
From an economic perspective, things have never looked better for amateur electronic composers. Most concert instruments, like cellos, tubas, and upright basses, are far too expensive for a casual purchase. A would-be musician can expect to spend at least $300 to acquire a decent used guitar and over $2,000 for a used piano. Even a single cymbal for a drum set can cost over $400. Of course, even if an amateur composer could afford to buy all of the instruments in the average orchestra, he or she would likely need decades to learn to play them. The only answer would be to write a full score and hire professional performers to play the instruments, but now the costs have far exceeded the budgets of all but the largest game companies. On the other hand, there are name brand sound cards selling at the local Wal-Mart for $30 that feature 128 voices and CD-quality audio. For $200, would-be digital Mozarts can pick up a 24-bit soundcard with 7.1 channel sound that can produce infinitely more sounds than a whole arsenal of guitars, pianos, or drum sets. Simply put, modern audio technology enables composers to produce any sound that the human ear can hear, in any sequence, at any speed, for very low cost. No longer are composers restrained by monetary expenses, the physical capabilities of a human performer, or the acoustical capabilities of traditional instruments—the only restraints are imposed by the composer’s lack of skill and knowledge.
We have the technology. What we need now are artists with the talent and bravado to take advantage of it—musicians who are willing to quit trying to make their computers sound like they’re not computers. Of course it will be scary to step away from the familiarity bred by thousands of years of listening to the human performers and traditional instruments—yet, who can truly call herself an artist who is not willing to take that step?
Let me tell you a little about my own musical tastes. I bet I’m the only guy in Tampa who listens to classic Commodore 64 SID tunes at moderately high volume while cruising around downtown—with the windows rolled down and his fiancée in the passenger seat. My favorite musical genre is “chip tunes,” a term that Wikipedia defines as “music written in module formats where all the sounds are synthesized in realtime by a computer or video game console sound chip, instead of using sample-based synthesis.” Granted, I didn’t enjoy this music the first few times I heard it; indeed, like most of you, I was long conditioned by the music on the radio and movies. Acquiring a taste for electronic music, be it a smooth work like Jarre’s Oxygene or Hubbard’s Monty on the Run, does not happen overnight. Still, as any wine connoisseur will tell you, the pain of acquiring good taste is something you will never regret.
Dear reader, please buckle up. I am about to set once again to find/replace “common sense” with “herd mentality” and do my best to convince you that I’m not as crazy as I sound. Maybe by the time we’re finished, you’ll even burn a chip tune CD for your own driving pleasure.
I will begin by describing some of the extensive history of computer and game audio—we’ll talk about the pioneers like Rob Hubbard and the technology they had to work with (or around!) to make decent sounds. Then we’ll talk about the perilous state of the future and how, sadly and inexcusably, talented electronic composers are being steadily replaced by old-fashioned orchestras or commercially successful pop and rock bands. Hopefully, it’s not too late for true fans of computer and videogame audio to make a difference!
The Pioneers of Game and computer Audio
Some parts of the “fairytale” I told earlier are certainly true. The first arcade machines, personal computers, and home videogame consoles were quite limited in terms of memory, storage capacity, and processor speed. All of these factors seriously affected what electronic musicians were able to accomplish on these platforms. Of course, we should bear in mind that audio has never been as important for game developers as graphics and animation. According to The Fat Man, “Audio is always the lowest priority for game developers. Always has been. Probably always will be5.” Nevertheless, audio hardware has progressed steadily, becoming ever more efficient and affordable.
The first videogames, Spacewar! (1961) and William Higinbotham’s video tennis game (1958), made no effort to incorporate sound, and neither did the first arcade machine (Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space) or the first home videogame console (the Magnavox Odyssey). The first videogame with sound was apparently Atari’s infamous Pong arcade machine released in 1972 and designed by Al Acorn. Nolan Bushnell wanted Pong to feature the sound of roaring crowds when a player scored a shot—and Ted Dabney (Bushnell’s partner) asked for a “boo and a hiss” when players lost. Acorn did the best he could: “I said, ‘Screw it, I don’t know how to make any one of those sounds. I don’t have enough parts anyhow.’ Since I had the wire wrapped on the scope, I poked around the sync generator to find an appropriate frequency or a tone. So those sounds were done in a half a day. There were the sounds that were already in the machine” (qtd. in Kent, 42). The result, while not exactly what Bushnell and Dabney requested, was nevertheless a success, and most players thought the “resonant ping-sound” was anything but accidental. At least we can say that the first game audio was truly innovative!
Glenn McDonald writes in his excellent “Brief Timeline of Video Game Music” that Milton Bradley’s Simon (1974) was the first videogame to “incorporate music as a game element,” though it is perhaps arguable whether the tones (in random sequence) can truly be considered music. McDonald also lists Taito’s Gunfight (1975) as the first game with a CPU—and a one-channel, mono amplifier to synthesize the sound of gunshots.
In 1982, a company named Commodore released the best-selling personal computer of all time, the venerable C-64. The Commodore 64’s SID chip was the answer to many aspiring digital musicians’ dreams, and the C-64 remains the programming platform of choice for many modern chiptune composers6. Bob Yannes, the creator of the SID chip, said in an interview with Andreas Varga that he felt compelled to invent a better sound chip because he “thought the sound chips on the market (including those in the Atari computers) were primitive and obviously had been designed by people who knew nothing about music.” The SID chip was his attempt to create a chip as good as any available in professional synthesizers. In many ways, the Commodore 64 marks an important turning point in the history of game audio, and is still celebrating its audio some two decades after its release. New SID tunes are being added regularly to the massive High Voltage Sid Collection.
In 1985, Nintendo released Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpiece Super Mario Bros. for the NES. In addition to being one of the finest run-and-jump platform games for any system (and often hailed as the game that resurrected the home video game market after the great crash), Super Mario Bros. features one of the first memorable musical soundtracks. The game's soundtrack contains several hopelessly catchy tunes and variations, all of which very much add to the atmosphere of the game world. Indeed, how many young men and woman under the age of 30 can hum the rest of the title theme after hearing only a few bars? The music is consistently upbeat and meshes perfectly with the goofy, cartoonish Mario world. McDonald points out another fine feature of the music of Super Mario Bros.—it literally becomes a part of the gameplay, as players must use it to gauge when a power-up is expiring; one might almost call it “interactive audio,” a term that surfaces often as the holy grail of game audio programming. Though the Nintendo’s sound hardware is technologically primitive compared to the Commodore 647, it is nevertheless responsible for producing some of videogame history’s most famous tunes. A collection of Nintendo music files are available at Zophar’s NSF Archive.
Still, no matter how catchy and memorable the tunes of Super Mario Bros. may be, they remain distinctly chirpy and fruity—saccharine for hyperactive adolescents. Please don’t think that I’m trying to undervalue the superb work of its composer, Koji Kondo. However, I am suggesting that what was needed to truly revolutionize game and computer audio were compositions that could inspire an adult audience; music that could provoke insight and stimulate regions of the brain and spirit hitherto unreachable by those “bloops and beeps” and colorful cartoons reminiscent of the earliest videogames. What was needed were mature games and mature compositions by masters like Hip Tanaka and Rob Hubbard.
Tanaka is the composer responsible for the excellent music of Nintendo’s Metroid (1986). Few indeed are those who have played this game in their youth who will not recognize its music if they hear it today. Metroid is a good example of a game whose music doesn’t merely add to the atmosphere produced by the graphics; instead, the graphics add to the atmosphere produced by the music. In an interview with Alexander Brandon for Game Developer, Tanaka describes his mindset for creating the music of Metroid: “I had a concept that the music for Metroid should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as if they were encountering a living creature. I wanted to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects. The image I had was, ‘Anything that comes out from the game is the sound that game makes8.’” To accomplish this feat, Tanana did not rely on specialty music software—he wrote his own. “I always created my own sequencer and used assembly for the programming language. Being a programmer and a composer using my original program was a strong element of my uniqueness,” says Tanaka.
While Tanaka and Miyamato were demonstrating the musical might of the NES, other legendary figures, like Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, David Whittaker, and Ben Daglish were showing off the power of the personal computer. Rob Hubbard is known for several incredible game tunes for the C-649, including my all-time favorite piece of game audio, the “loader” music for a somewhat obscure C-64 “shoot’em up” game named Sanxion. This game will probably always be remembered more for Hubbard’s innovative “loading music” than for its gameplay. I suggest that you download this tune now and listen to it a few times before reading onward. Remember, you will need Sidplay2 to listen to .SID files on your computer. I would also recommend Hubbard’s other famous tunes available at HVSC.
Okay. So what’s so great about the Sanxion loader music? There are no samples, digitized voices, or even a reasonable proximity to that omnipresent “techno bass/drum loop” that saturates modern electronic pop music. I can almost hear someone complaining, “But it doesn’t even sound remotely like rock! It doesn’t bear the faintest resemblance to what you hear on the radio or in films! For Pete’s sake, it doesn’t even sound like real ‘game music’!”
Exactly. That’s because you can’t innovate by only doing what’s been done before. Imitations may be entertaining, but they are hardly creative. If it doesn’t sound like anything else and still sounds good—well, that’s a level of talent only reached by dedicated masters. Hubbard’s work is innovative precisely because he isn’t trying to mimic “real” music or make his computer sound like something besides a computer. The music is neither a random production of noise nor lacking in careful structure or attention to detail. He is adapting his music to the medium in which he’s working—the C-64—and he plays that instrument with the same love and skill a master violinist would take to a Stradivarius. Hubbard is no pianist trying to convince people that his music is worthy simply because he can make a piano sound like a harpsichord.
Andrea Vargas: Have you heard the tunes by Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, Tim Follin, Jeroen Tel, and all the other composers ?
Bob Yannes: I'm afraid not, are recordings available in the US?
--Interview with the creator of SID
I had the honor of talking with Hubbard during my composition of this article. As one might expect, Hubbard came to the game audio industry with a background in synthesizers, piano, and saxophone. However, Hubbard wasn’t simply a musician—like Hip Tanaka, Hubbard is an assembly programmer, and programmed all of his own musical routines and wrote his own software. “That’s why it became unique,” says Hubbard. “You became a programmer and wrote your own software to control everything. That’s where the creativity came from.” Hubbard, like Tanaka, was poised perfectly between the two creative horizons—programming and composing. This position gave him the unique ability to control his instrument, the computer, with a knowledge and skill that precious few digital musicians have possessed.
Clearly, there is a connection between being a good programmer and being a good game audio composer. The musicians of the earliest game and computer audio were required to have both sets of skills—there simply wasn’t any existing tools that could do what they needed and wanted to do. Perhaps the relationship between programming and composing is similar to that relationship between playing a piano and writing music for it. Ostensibly, someone who knows how to write and read music can write compositions for any musical instrument, but this is not the case. Each musical instrument, be it a flute, piano, or synthesizer, requires a special knowledge. A master composer must be conscious of how a given note will sound on a given instrument—and even if such a note will be playable on the instrument (since most instruments have a limited range). Furthermore, a composer must be aware of the performer’s limitations—flute players can only a hold a note for so long, guitar players are limited in terms of the speed with which they can play notes or change chords. Many masterful compositions were written especially to showcase the skills of a well-known singer or talented player. Finally, a composer must be aware of the overall acoustics of the situation; will the roaring tympani overpower the delicate piccolo?
Famous composers, such as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, or Handel, possessed tremendous technical knowledge about musical instruments as well as artistic knowledge about musical composition. This is why, according to Otto Luening, their compositions were able to endure so many bad performances—none of these men had access to a recording studio. The only composition tool available was pen and paper for writing down notes to be interpreted by human performers. In other words, these composers were programmers, though of performers rather than computers. If this terminology sounds a bit strange, consider that even today visitors to a classical music event may be given a “Program” that lists the pieces to be performed that day.
Game audio composers like Hubbard and Tanaka were able to produce such excellent and well-suited computer and game audio because they were excellent at writing code for computers as well as human performers. Their music was naturally adapted to the new medium and took full advantage of what it had to offer a talented composer. They used their computer as a musical instrument in its own right, and they gained the knowledge and skills to properly play it. As we will soon see, however, this “perfect storm” of technical knowledge and artistic ability was soon to end. computer and game audio hardware would soon become little more than a fancy CD player, playing back recordings of music produced by traditional means.
It was at school that I realized I could get the BBC Micro to play tunes by lining up the notes as numbers in DATA statements. Additionally, the BBC's operating system is laid out such that you can easily convert BASIC programs to assembly language. I proceeded to do so.
Glenn McDonald argues that game music only moved into the “realm of true composition” after the arrival of 16 and 32-bit computers and consoles. These later machines featured vastly extended storage capacities. The Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo (SNES) released in the US in 1989 and 1991 respectively, featured 8 channels of stereo sound and much more memory than their predecessors. Likewise, personal computers saw dramatically expanded audio technology. The Commodore Amiga system, released in 1985, sported 4 channels of 8-bit stereo sound, powerful music composition software, and up to 1 megabyte of system memory at the time. The Apple Macintosh of 1995 featured 16-bit stereo and over 16 MB of system memory. IBM compatible computers, which were quite slow to develop significant audio capabilities, finally emerged onto the music scene with powerful third-party sound cards that offered comparable or even superior sound capabilities over other systems.
A great many of the tunes made for these platforms were built with tracker software, which originated on the Commodore Amiga computer. Simply put, tracker software allows composers to arrange digital samples on a timeline to form songs. The tracker software automatically transposes the samples into different notes. So, instead of digitizing samples of each key on a piano, a tracker musician can take one sample and let the software transpose the other notes from it. The finished file, often called a “mod” file, was considerably smaller than a fully digitized song, yet, with clever sampling techniques, could closely mimic songs heard on the radio or in films. The Amiga, Atari ST, and PC soon developed large, thriving “mod scenes” which are still surviving today. To my knowledge, the largest online repository of mod files is the Mod Archive, which contains over 29,000 mod files. Though early mods contain only 8-bit samples and use only four voices, later mods (in newer formats like .xm) allow 24-bit samples and as many voices as the latest soundcards can support.
The development of the mod format and tracker software introduced a new division of labor into the computer and game audio scene. Though music-editing software had been available for some time, it was too crude for most professional game audio applications. Tracker software, however, enabled musicians to compose and produce well-compressed songs with little or no knowledge of programming or the intricacies of their computer’s hardware. A tracker music file could easily be incorporated into games by a professional programmer—the musician could focus on her music and not get involved with the programming. What began was the gradual separation of composing and programming—which had hitherto enjoyed a close and very rewarding relationship. A composer like Rob Hubbard was accustomed to writing new software routines for effects he desired but were not already available—he knew enough about the hardware to create truly innovative audio. Later composers, especially those with little to no knowledge of programming, had to rely on their music editing software to provide effects and give shape to their compositions—a classic tail wagging the dog scenario. The new composers worked at a greater and greater distance from the programmers who were ultimately responsible for a game. The upshot of all this is that the quest for the holy grail, interactive audio, was relegated to some indefinite point in the future, and hordes of new computer and game musicians entered the scene who lacked the skills possessed by their predecessors that made their music so creative, artistic, and innovative.
The thing that was so attractive about this business in the 80s was the fact that so many publishers and software developers were on the forefront of exploring new ideas with the software.
Later generations of consoles included the powerful Sony Playstation, the Nintendo 64, and the Sega Dreamcast, all of which were unquestionably technically superior to the consoles that had come before. The ground was ripe for a new type of computer and game audio that was virtually unlimited; game audio composers now had access to more channels, more voices, better processors, and dramatically increased storage capacities.
How did game audio composers respond to this sudden technological boon? They began to imitate. Rather than innovate, they only did what had been done so many times before.
For most modern critics of game and computer audio, the chief advantage offered by the newer systems was the ability to create whole digital tracks of music produced by traditional instruments. This began by replacing computer-generated sounds with samples of other instruments which could then be implemented by game audio programmers into game scores. The samples were like marshmallows in breakfast cereal; not very healthy, perhaps, but sugary sweet to tastes long conditioned by analog and acoustic music. Eventually, though, memory and storage capacity grew to the point where an entire song could be recorded from a live source and simply dumped into a game; a few digital samples interspersed with electronic music were not enough. Jack Wall of Game Developer magazine writes that “It is the composer's job to add as much realism to game music as possible to bring the player into the experience. I can't think of a better way to not achieve this goal than to produce orchestral music solely with samples10.” For Wall, “The result of live performance is so much richer and more satisfying to the player.” Record old-fashioned musicians and dump the finished product into a game. This lack of imagination betrays an almost industry-wide belief that videogames should be more like Hollywood films, both in terms of graphics and sound.
The Fat Man accurately sums up the “Golden Six” styles of modern computer and game audio11:
Orchestral imitations of John Williams’ or Danny Elfman’s film scores.
Techno/repetitive beat dance music.
Atmospheric Beatless Music. That’s Beatles with an extra “s.”
Whatever was currently on the radio, but not composed by a game musician. Rather, this music is to be licensed from big artists for a small amount of money or licensed from small artists for nothing.
Music made by a friend of theirs.
And I’m sure there was a sixth.
The Fat Man’s satire is surely appreciated by those of us who are disappointed by nearly every new piece of game audio we hear. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, the fault is not entirely with the game audio composers, but also with the game developers.
It’s cheaper to use live orchestras than synthesizers. At first this statement may be hard to believe, but it’s certainly no secret to professional game developers. Andy Brick, a professional videogame producer, writes in an article for Game Developer, “On the composer's end, by dismissing the synthesizers, you have eliminated hours and hours of extremely labor-intensive (and hence costly) work ... Provided you have a composer that can make the transition from MIDI to live orchestra, it is well worth $14,000 both to eliminate 400 hours of work and to have a live orchestra recording at the end of the day12.” Brick reaches this figure by estimating that professional synthesizer artists require up to four to five days to “program a four minute cue in a manner that would yield an almost-real-sounding MIDI orchestra.” The goal is to produce game audio that can compete with popular film soundtracks or even popular music recording artists. According to Jeremy Soule, another writer for Game Developer, “If the music in your product isn't worth a stand-alone $10 to $15 soundtrack purchase price, then it's not as good as it should be, and definitely not as good as it could be13.” Comments like this, presented as they are in an industry fixture like Game Developer, at first seem sensible enough. If you’re going to imitate a movie soundtrack, then use the same methods as movie producers. If you’re going to compete with commercial rock and pop artists, use their methods (or, better yet, license their tracks).
These statements presuppose, however, that game and computer audio ought to be about imitation, not innovation. Using a computer as a simple audio playback device may be easier now than ever before, but it is hardly innovative. As The Fat Man puts it, “Using computers to imitate real-life instruments makes for some convenient efficiency, but to limit one's concept of electronically produced audio to such uses can be a lot like using the Royal Seal as a nutcracker.”
The orchestra is a wonderful instrument—perhaps the greatest of them all. However, I am suspicious that many composers and many, many game developers like to be associated with the live orchestra because of the status it seems to bring them. Many of our people are secretly ashamed to be in gaming, and wish to prove to their dads that they are in a legitimate business, and so they reach to various game-irrelevant artifacts of Film and TV in order to gain some legitimacy by virtue of their association with things like SAG actors, famous personalities, and orchestral music.
--The Fat Man
During our interview, Rob Hubbard, who formerly worked for one of the world’s largest game developers, Electronic Arts (EA), made some insightful comments about why so much current game audio is lacking in innovation:
I was at EA for about two years. It was a great place to work, but then the industry changed. It was dominated more and more by the executive management trying to make all the creative decisions. It’s part of a wider picture. A trend started in 1996. Game budgets go up, length of time goes up. Companies take less and less risks. Everything sinks to the lowest common denominator—a much wider audience.
If the videogame industry has imitated anything from the movie industry, it is the latter’s preference for imitation at the cost of innovation. It’s not that great music is not being produced; it’s just not being paid for by the few all-powerful companies that dominate the industry and modern videogame scene.
Imitate or die.
Aaron Marks, author of the widely popular The Complete Guide to Game Audio, lays down the law: “Never give away any of your music or sound effects for free. In the beginning, it is very tempting to do just that, in order to add a project to your resume. But what it does instead is let a game developer take advantage of you and cheapen our profession14.” This “never give it away for free” attitude sounds more fitting for advice about a career in prostitution than musical composition. Of course, to be fair, Marks is talking about a hardworking game audio composer being taken advantage of by a commercial game developer, an act that we should all condemn. Still, if the cost of making a living in game and computer audio is that composers restrain their artistic impulses for the sake of a marketing analyst’s report, it is probably best that we have no game and computer audio at all.
Ironically, as game and computer audio hardware improved, the music grew less and less innovative. Unfortunately, there are precious few composers left who aren’t slavishly imitating film music. The fault lies not only with composers, but with cowardly industry leaders, who are unwilling to experiment or support new creative projects. The result is shelf after shelf of near-identical sequels and clones. The artists who must earn their living in this market have long ago sacrificed their artistic integrity for the sake of a paycheck—and who can blame them?
As the settlers come to this frontier, it is incumbent upon us pioneers to make sure that this becomes a place that is free and open for musical expression. It is Team Fat’s intention that the music in this place be expressive, touching, and made for the sake of the human spirit, not repetitive, imitative, mechanical by convenience, nor needlessly enslaved by styles imposed by fashion or limited machinery.
--Team Fat’s Manifatso
Modern Pioneers and Innovators: The Chip Tune Maestros
Despite having to “give it away,” there are still plenty of game and computer audio composers still making and releasing exciting electronic music. One such artist is Jan Diabelez Arnt Harries, also known as “Rambones.” Harries, a citizen of Denmark and long-time member of the Danish “demoscene15,” still writes music for his favorite musical instrument: A Commodore 64 computer. “For me, the computer is a musical instrument,” said Harries in an interview with me. “It’s been like that always. When I bought it, it was to play games. But after only a few days I saw that I could play on it like a piano with a program I had. And I always wanted to have a piano. The first year, I spent all the time playing games. The second and third year, I tried to make some music.”
Jan Harries, a.k.a. Rambones
Why would anyone want to make new music for a so-called obsolete system like the Commodore 64? For Harries, the reason is simple: “Because I have not reached my goal on it. My goal is to make something that is so good that I will go down in history like the other names.” Like a guitarist striving to make music on par with Eddie Van Halen or Eric Clapton, Harries knows he’s up against some near god-like figures. Unlike lesser men, though, Harries has never considered greatness beyond his reach. You can hear his older tunes at HVSC and some of his most recent work at Sound Monitor.dk. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Rafal Kazimierski, another modern SID tune composer. Kazimierski, better known in SID circles as “Asterion,” feels that the technical limitations of SID music inspires him to be more creative:
The great thing about chiptunes is that they are a challenge for the authors. Sid-tunes can play only three channels. When creating an original composition, the low number of channels forces you to make frequent changes in song structure, inventing melodies, improving the “instruments.” If not, the tune will not arrest attention.
For Kazimierski, the advantage of composing for SID is that it allows him to focus on composition rather than arrangement. Kazimierski is also a skilled C-64 programmer, and has designed a sophisticated music editor. You can view his work at the Tinnitus homepage.
One of the most impressive websites showcasing and celebrating the work of innovative computer and game audio artists is Chiptune.com, which advertises “Blipp Blopp for the Masses.” A few clicks will bring you to the “Jukebox” feature of the site, which not only plays some of the best chip tunes ever composed, but displays visuals reminiscent of the early demoscene. Nectarine Radio is another great resource for those interested in early and latter-day work, particularly the Amiga scene. Finally, Kohina radio offers “pure old school 8-bit and 16-bit game and demo music.” Those interested in modern remixes of old game tunes will likely enjoy SLAY Radio.
A few readers may be unfamiliar with the term “demoscene” and unaware of the vital role that it played in the development of computer music. The truth is, many of the older chiptune maestros were heavily involved in the illegal circumvention of software copy protection, a process known as “cracking.” Usually small groups of crackers would form into groups that would compete with other groups for the honor of cracking a program first. These groups were proud of their work and often displayed messages on cracked products to let the user know who was responsible for the release. At first these messages were limited to text, as in, “CRACKED BY THE TRADER” and so on, but then other groups began coding tiny, incredibly innovative graphical and musical demos that would not only identify the groups, but demonstrate their creative talent. These demos, often called “intros,” were by necessity very small programs since most of them had to fit on a single sector of a floppy disk (the “boot sector”). Sometimes the graphics and music in an intro were superior to that found in the game—a situation that undoubtedly aggravated commercial game developers. Eventually, the coding of intros and demos by these groups took precedence over cracking software; many artists abandoned their illegal activities and refer to themselves now as part of the “demoscene” rather than the “cracking” or “warez” scene. Probably the best websites to visit for more information about this topic is Scene.org and Orange Juice.
Modern demoscene and chiptune composers need not artificially limit themselves to the sound capabilities of early systems. Many of the top artists at Chiptune.com take full advantage of the advanced sound technology available in modern computers. Nevertheless, they do not rely on samples of traditional instruments to compose memorable music.
Most new computer games - including major releases - don’t take advantage in any significant way of the capabilities of the latest generation of audio cards. Many don’t even support the EAX standard (Creative Labs’ Environmental Audio Extensions, which modify audio to replicate the effects of specific environments), or any form of hardware surround sound.
What I hope to have accomplished with this article is to alert gamers, critics, and (most hopefully) composers to the need for serious innovation in the computer and Game audio genre. This will mean abandoning efforts to make game audio more like film audio. We have grown too comfortable with convention and tradition in music and have ceased to require true creativity and innovation from our artists. Instead, we have asked them to deliver more of the same, albeit in a new package.
What can you do with a computer that you can’t do with an orchestra, and why aren’t more people doing it? This is one of the questions I bounced off The Fat Man in an email interview. He replied, “Even at our best, we the ‘new breed’ [a Rob Hubbard-ism] can still often come off as a bunch of tepid John Williams impersonators. If game audio were my life's work, and I suppose that it is, I would look very hard at dipping into our interactive audio engines, our strange sounds, sonic roots, unique humor, our character as Nerds, computer experts, etc., all to the end of trying to find out how we could bring something to the table that John could never hope to.”
The secret to outdoing John is hidden deep within our computers and game consoles. There, lying amidst the microchips are the sounds and music that no human ear has ever heard. The time has come to wean ourselves from the hallowed traditions of our ancestors and let new angels give voice to those forever unspeakable expressions of the pure and courageous souls of our artists. The computer will take its rightful place as the most sophisticated and perfect of our musical instruments, not some cheap mimicker of ancient wooden contraptions.
If we videogamers and computer enthusiasts are truly on the forefront of technological progress, we should also be on the forefront of artistic progress. This may mean re-training our ears and developing taste for new types of music and sound. Mimicry and imitation are not the skills we should be requiring and cultivating in our electronic composers. We must try our best to fight our prejudice against new music and consider what the computer medium really has to offer—a whole new world of sound.
The picture above is of Rob Hubbard during his C-64 days. Try clicking on his Commodore 64's function keys (the four buttons on the right of the unit) to hear some classic SID tunes. Hit the C-64’s SPACE BAR to stop the currently playing tune.
Barry Leitch, known as “The Jackal” on the C-64 SID scene, is probably now the most widely-heard of all former SID composers, but not for his SIDs (which include the infamous “Chicken Song,” which I promised I would not mention here). Leitch left the game audio scene to join the audio division of Fisher Price, the famous toy manufacturer, and quickly put his skill into upgrading the almost embarrassingly bad audio capabilities of Fisher Price’s toy line. Leitch designed the audio for Fisher Price’s Pixter device, and he now estimates that his music is heard by “ten million people everyday.” Barry is now a freelance composer.
Bill Loguidice has identified two episodes of Computer Chronicles that concern computers and music: Computer Music (1984) and Midi Music (1986). The historical value of these programs is considerable.
1 In this article, I try to distinguish between “Game Audio” and “computer Audio.” “Game Audio” will refer to music specifically created for use in a videogame, whereas “computer Audio” includes musical compositions like SID and MOD files that were made on and for computers, but may not be associated with a videogame.
3 Though a few German bands, most notably Kraftwerk and the Belgian band Front 242, remain dedicated to their futuristic roots. There are also plenty of underground bands producing electronic music, but I’m more concerned here with the mainstream. Kraftwerk is particularly dedicated to furthering the electronic music frontier, and their musical ideology is identical to my own.
4 Though as Bill Loguidice pointed out in his review of this article, whenever television shows or movies portray videogames, they usually sound quite 80ish. It seems the general public still associates game audio with the primitive sounds of the earliest arcade machines.
5 Sanger, George Alistair. The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness. Indianapolis: New Rider, 2004. The Fat Man’s book is loaded with hilarious anecdotes and sage advice; it’s definitely worth purchasing if you are interested in game audio culture.
6 Ibid, page 23.
7 Another computer system with a significant music community is that surrounding the British computer, the ZX Spectrum. I am not personally familiar with the system or this community, but I encourage you to visit Project AY to learn more about it.
HOW do the NES' and C-64's (SID's) sound capabilities compare?
Well, there is very little comparison. The NES has more sound channels, but is highly primitive. The SID has synchronization, ring modulation, filtering, resonance effects, etc to its benefit. The NES has 5 sound channels: 2 square wave, with only 4 selectable duty cycles; 1 triangle wave; 1 noise channel; and 1 DMC sample channel. These assignments are fixed. Frequency is controlled through an 11-bit combination of registers, and volume is controlled through a 4-bit volume register. To its advantage, the NES can play 7-bit samples through its sample channel.
The SID has only 3 sound channels, but each can be selected to play any combination of square, triangle, sawtooth, or noise waveforms. Frequency is controlled through a 16-bit combination of registers; and pulsewidth is controlled through a 12-bit combination of registers. The SID has a sophisticated ADSR method of controlling a note's volume and shape as it is being played. Added to that is an 11-bit highpass, lowpass, or bandpass filter, which through subtractive synthesis can produce very complex and realistic sounds, like an electric guitar, string bass, techno-bleeps, you name it. Furthermore, channels can be combined to produce modulation effects such as vibrato or tremolo. The SID also has a way of producing sampled sounds, though I believe they are only 4-bit.
Covell added later in a personal email, “I guess I should add that several Japanese NES (Famicom) games added extra sound chips to cover over these limitations. They range from the simple (1 or 2 extra PSG channels) to the complex (several sawtooth-wave and digital channels, or even a full FM sound chip.)”
9 Brandon, Alexander. “Shooting from the Hip: An Interview with Hip Tanaka.” Game Developer. Oct 2002. Volume 9, Issue 10, Page 12.
10 Hubbard is also known for compositions for many other platforms, including the Madden games for the Sega Genesis.
11 Wall, Jack. “Using Living, Breathing Musicians in Game Music.” Game Developer. Mar 2003. Volume 10, Issue 3, Page 30.
12 Ibid, page 68.
13 Brick, Andy. “The Live Orchestra Recording: A Producer's Awakening.” Game Developer. Dec, 2002. Volume 9, Issue 12, Page 28.
14 Marks, Aaron. The Complete Guide to Game Audio. Lawrence, KA: CMP Books, 2001.
@Matt, that is one great article! I actually read it listening to Slay radio. here my thoughts on the matter of (game music)....
I have always viewed musical instruments as enhancements or replacements of the one instrument most people have, 'the human voice'. Musical instruments made it possible to expand the range of notes and types of sounds and composers have adopted their compositions to the new capabilities of those instruments. But classical/traditional musical instruments have basically been the same for hundreds of years. But not the compositions, they have evolved and have changed despite the fact that the instruments basically stayed the same. And it's possible to hum or whistle along with most compositions, maybe because most composers still 'think' from within that human-voice/whistle framework.
Of course there are modern composers who make dissonant compositions which are hard to reproduce humming or whisteling. These composers try to create a sound athmosphere, something that synthesizers can do very easily.
Electronic synthesizers make it possible to expand the range of sounds and create sound athmospheres because they can alter the sounds of the 'instruments' in almost any way. A harsh guitar-like sound (sawtooth with noise) can alter into a strange echoing block or sine wave and back... Still most of them are hummable/whistle-able. I just love those chiptunes, is it true innovation or are they the traditional instruments of the future?
On music in general....
I am always surprised that people still can up with new melody lines, I would expect more repetition....er... well some popular music sounds very alike and I often hear little bits of old hits in new hits so maybe the repetition has already started.... Time for some other innovation...
Good article. However, you missed many important events on the videogame music history, especially about 80s arcade, the forefront of the video game music of those days. Namco in 1982-1985 is truely important as their advanced sound custom chip called C30 really amazed Japanese videogame freaks/composers. Well, 80s arcade might not be important if you focus just on Western game audio. Anyway let me say.
> Super Mario Bros. features one of the first memorable musical soundtracks.
That's not the case. Maybe New Rally-X (1981) or Mappy (1983) was the first, at least for Japanese. So Namco is remembered as the innovator of video game *music*. Of course Super Mario soundtrack is popular too, but was not special. Conscious vgm listeners didn't mind Nintendo so much. In fact Nintendo's record releases were much fewer than Namco's, Konami's, Falcom's and even Sega's. Namco was the key company who had let other companies be aware of the importance of video game music. Japanese vgm market could not grow up so large without their effort.
There are much more to be mentioned, but for now...
This was a great article, and it was quite inspirational. Hopefully electronic musicians will see this article as a call to arms and take back their rightful place in the game music industry.
On top of being more flexible, "chip tunes" generally take up much less memory/disk space, so it makes logical sense (to me) for such music to be used more in games.
As far as taking more risks and being more experimental with game music, realistically it probably not happen for a while (if at all). Perhaps videogaming is not an area where the general populace wants to be challenged in this manner.
Excellent research and observation. Serious game music fans have known for years that modern video game music is weak and too symphonic sounding, but you have elogantly articulated the reasons for this crisis.
I did download Ron Hubbard's Sanxion SID file and prepared my ears for a possible nasty electronic assault of weird beeps and bonks with no real semblance of order. I was pleasantly surprised on the quality and the originality of the music. Musically it flowed like any traditional song but the sound was unique, at least to me. My exposure to "electronic" (as opposed to MIDI) music were what I heard in video games (which pretty much set themselves on a loop to be pretty unobstrusive), some techno soundtrack for a game on the CoCo (most of the code I had to type in was for the machine language to make the music, which was cool but very repetitious) and MOD music years later when I purchased a Pro Audio Spectrum 16 card.
MSX stands for (MicroSoft eXtended). It was big in Japan and had a presence in Europe, but never made an impact in the US (despite some hoopla in publications like Electronic Games about the possibility). It was essentially a series of compatible 8-bit computer systems from different manufacturers. It was actually home to the first great Metal Gear game. The capabilities of the specification on the high-end were competitive, but of course software often targeted the lower end technology. For a rough idea of the capabilities, check out the System Ranking Matrix and the Spectravideo entry. It's not an MSX compatible system, but its feature-set is almost identical to many of the systems.
An excellent article, you certainly know your game audio.
One amazing thing about many of the SID tunes is that they were played while loading the game. Most Commodore 64 games came out on cassette tapes that, due to their sequential nature, took a very long time to load. Waiting for a tape to load is boring, and programmers didn't have the resources to do anything with that screen while loading. To compensate for this, SID composers created tunes that really worked and stretched the chip to its limits. Instead of people going to the bathroom while a game loaded, they would listen to the music instead.
I believe this was unique in the history of computer gaming. With every other system you had to stare at a blank screen while the game loaded. The only plus was that disks did not generally take as long as tapes to load. Many other computers did not have the hardware to reproduce high quality music.
The loading music was usually great. The in-game music was another story. If the game was an arcade port, the game would usually replicate the arcade's music, which was often repitious and simplistic. Many games did not have in game music to speak of, so your musical joys were limited to the loading screen. For many uninspired games this was probably the highlight of the game itself.
Finally, much of this SID talent was confined to Europe. Because of Commodore's poor marketing strategy the disk drive was out of reach for most consumers. They had to make do with cassette tapes, which did a lion's share to encourage budding SID composers and companies to hire them. In America, text based adventures, RPGs and turn based strategy games did not generally have in-game music of note and they were the dominant genres of games for the Commodore 64. Bob Yannes' comment about the SID composers is highly instructive.
While the Atari 8-bit computers were the only other computers of the pre-crash era to show any musical aptitude, the hardware was somewhat primitive and better suited to sound effects. The NES's sound hardware was hardly more advanced, but it had two distinct advantages. First, it could produce strong, audible tones without difficulty. Second, it had the Japanese video game industry behind it, many of whom had cut their teeth on arcade game hardware. The sheer talent at Nintendo at this time really helped raise the bar.
But I believe the decline came earlier than Matt does. I believe that during the time of the Sega Genesis, the Super Nintendo and the Ad-lib there came a tendency to "midi-ize." As these sound chips could, in theory, replicate existing instruments. There was less incentive to shape and manipulate sounds when you could select an instrument bank and patch that sounded good and move on and with more realistic sounds came pressure for music to resemble "real" music. Even in this era there were still many good tunes that did not ape Hollywood's musical product.
A late addition...This is an interview with the fabulous chiptune composer "Radix," still hot on the charts of most chip tune sites.
Sorry for the big delay.. I've been travelling for a few weeks. I'll do my best to answer your questions. Here goes...
1. As I see it, game and PC audio has left its "electronic music" roots and now consists mostly of fully digitized songs and arrangements performed by professional musicians. Why? Also, what do you think of this movement? Is it good or bad?
Progress is good, and I think we'd be pretty frustrated if we had the same limitations as 20 years ago.
We have been raised to believe that the only way to make professional music is to spend a small fortune on studio equipment, synthesizers and effect units.
Today that isn't true, as PC hardware have reached levels where it outperforms audio equipment, and people can put together amazing tracks using a laptop and a pair of headphones.
2. Why did you write chiptunes? Do you or did you have a musical philosophy that persuaded you to write chiptunes rather than use samples or simply record and mix traditional instruments? What got you interested in composing chiptunes?
The thing that got me hooked on chiptunes is how things can be kept very clean and simple. You can focus 100% on a melody, without ever worrying about the quality of samples or equipment. I guess this philosophy was very compatible with my own style of composing back then, as I've always been fond of melodies.
3. What got you out of it?
After having composed chiptunes and small modules for 8 years, I got bored with it and felt I needed to do something new.
Although, the simplicity of chiptunes can be applied on other ways of composing as well, so I guess I'm scarred for life
4. Which platforms do/did you enjoy writing music for, and why?
I was really amazed by the sounds coming from my old C64, and my friends thought I was a bit crazy. When I got ahold of my first Amiga in 1991, I started learning my ways with Soundtracker and Protracker, and I really enjoyed "tracking" music.
This brought me to Fasttracker on PC which was one of my best companions for years.
5. Why were you willing to compose and release music for free, rather than try to charge for it? What do you think of Aaron Marks' advice in "The Complete Guide to Game Audio" that aspiring game music composers never give away any of their music for free?
It's a personal choice.
If you are a new and aspiring musician, my advice is to find other musicians like yourself, and learn from each other by spreading your work around.
It happened to me a few times that someone "stole" one of my tunes and claimed to have composed it, or tried to make some sort of profit without my approval. This never bothered me, as I'm aware of how much I have learnt from other musicians spreading their music (for free), and from valuable feedback I got from all over the world on my own tunes.
6. Who would you consider to be the strongest chiptune composers around today? Who do you consider to be the best all-round composers of PC and game audio in general?
Well I hardly know any of todays chiptune composers, so I can't really say.
One of the greatest chiptune composers of all time must be Heatbeat. An old chiptune favourite of mine is "Lost Scrotum" by Paso, a track which is responsible for getting me into chiptunes in the first place.
I hope you will be satisfied with my answers. And again, sorry for the delay.
You know, I was criticized heavily on slashdot and a few other sites for not "doing any research on this article." Yeah, right. Just for comparison's sake, check out this show that appeared on the G4 network. According to them, there wasn't a note of music in gaming prior to 1991.
Hmm... G4 interview some guys, like Fat Man who started in 1982, and then write game audio doesn't exist until 1991 ?
Offcourse you can go deeper into many things, but for an article that tries to tell how it started, and how it is today sort of, it's great. Professionals who know the history, don't need to read this - it's for the masses I think, and so a great piece!
Unfortunately, I think this form of myopia is fairly common. If you started gaming during the NES era, you tend to think of the NES as a fundamental starting point for gaming. The same is true for the current crop of kids who started on the PS1--anything pre-PS1 is so obscure and primitive that it is barely classifiable as a game. I think it's hard for guys like us to appreciate how primitive a C-64 game must seem to a kid who started on a PS1 and knows of earlier systems only from a few screenshots.
My gaming experience started at the arcades in the very early 80s. My dad would hold me up and let me push the fire button on games like Sinistar while he manuevered the ship. Later on, he brought home a Vic-20, but it really wasn't until we purchased a Commodore Amiga that I was finally old enough to appreciate the bigger picture--the technical aspects, commercial aspects, etc.
Anyway, I never owned a game console until last year, when I purchased a Dreamcast and then later a PS1. I have had minimal exposure to Atari products, Apple stuff, and pretty much anything that didn't appear on the Commodore. Of course, around 96 I finally purchased a Windows box and grew familiar with that scene, but you can see where there are huge gaps in my "experiential knowledge" of gaming systems.
The result is that I tend to think that really monumental moments in gaming history took place on the machines I'm most familiar with, namely the Commodore 64 and the Amiga computers. I tend to think that nothing much could have been happening on a unit like the ColecoVision or even the NES, since they didn't happen where I could see them. Upon careful reflection and study, however, I can learn to appreciate these events. It's hard to fully appreciate a wonderful piece composed for the PC speaker, for instance, when I was used to hearing SIDs and the Amiga's 4-channel stereo sound.
Anyway, the short of it is that it IS possible to acquire an appreciation for machines that one has no experience on, though it is mostly by reading about them and trying emulation. I'm sure I'll never ever appreciate the Atari 2600 as much as a kid who grew up with one, but I can at least appreciate it from a historical perspective.
Still, there are sooo many game systems, games, and accessorise that I can't imagine anyone really getting a chance to experience all of them. Sure, there are guys like Bill who own a huge number of systems and games, but I wonder how much time he spends actually playing them (we've often talked about that strange event that takes place when your interest shifts from playing games to collecting them).
Well, I got the C64 in the first place, only because I wanted to play Boulderdash and Falcon Patrol.
Then I discovered music, then after all the composing, I started the ripping business, and because of doing that, I ended up playing more and more old C64 games, because I have to check if I get all the music out from it!
I still have loads to play/rip, and most modern games bore me. I only buy 2-3 new games every year, and play them over and over - I get what I pay for!
In 2004 I got Duke Nukem Manhattan Project, Emperor (Rise of the Middle Kingdom), and on Friday I go get Doom 3 - and then I really think that's it for 2004!
I haven't got any other ancient machines, well yeah, the Amiga, but I'm out of a power-supply, so it's not used since 1996. I really don't care. There were many great games on it, but I've no partners to play with, and that was the best thing about Commodore machines, the 2 player games, the friendship, the fun. I don't get much of that with my PC - too much network play with strangers I think.
I have a Nintendo Donkey Kong (the orange one with 2 screens), and that's it!
It's probably the pioneering C64 musicians who are responsible for my current taste in music. It would certainly be very different if I hadn't experienced the delights of Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, Matt Gray and Jeroen Tel.
If there's anyone out there who wants to try out some the very latest, cutting edge electronic music artists, but have no idea where to look, then check out the following:
Warp's roster reads like a Who's Who of many of the big names in contemporary electronic music: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Brothomstates, Chris Clark, Richard Devine, LFO, Mira Calix, Nightmares on Wax, Plaid, Squarepusher, Two Lone Swordsmen, Luke Vibert, etc. If you're not entirely familiar with any of these artists' work, then head over to Warp's web site pronto. You can preview every single track from their entire back catalogue in their entirety, as well as download entire albums and eps through their Bleep.com service.
Various Warp artists provided tracks for the soundtrack to Gremlin's Hardwar.
Ninja Tune is home to a very broad, eclectic range of artists covering just about every sub-genre of electronic music. Artists of note include Amon Tobin, Bonobo, Coldcut, Kid Koala, Mr Scruff, Sixtoo, Skalpel and Wagon Christ. You can also preview all of the label's releases through their web site.
A few Ninja Tune artists had tracks in Tony Hawk's Underground.
German artist with a great melodic ear. Albums to look out for: Atol Scrap, Tides and Lilies.
AKA Robert Henke. He has an uncanncy ability to weave gorgeous, atmospheric soundscapes through the fusion of rhythm and ambience.
I could be here all day recommending artists, but I think that little list will suffice for now!
Thanks so much for providing this list, Sonance. Actually, one of the main complaints I received about the article was that I didn't take enough time to research the great electronic music still being produced. Unfortunately, that was precisely my point--such music, as good as it may be, is NOT well-known to the masses and requires some effort to hunt down. Out of the bands you mentioned, the only one that I have heard before is Aphex Twin, who did a marvelous Powerpill Pacman song. I'll gladly check out these bands and hopefully help spread the word; perhaps it really is up to people like you, Sonance, to help introduce new listeners to great new electronic music.
Having just recently discovered your magazine, I'm trolling through the back issues. This is quite a good article, but it's worth noting that electronic music goes further back than Wlater/Wendy Carlos's Moog synthesizer arrangements of Bach, et al. The Theremin was invented much earlier and the first electronic soundtrack is (so far as I know) the one for The Idea done in 1932. Then there are the several people who composed for player piano, making music that could not be replicated by a musician.... Admittedly, not germane to the article, but fun nevertheless.
FYI, the sound chip in the Atari, Intellivision, MSX, Spectrum (and a few other devices like the Orchestra 90 cart for the CoCo) was the General Instruments AY-3-8910 (or 8912/8913 variations), hence the Project AY site name. Yamaha was a second vendor.