The Rise and Fall of Game Audio

Matt Barton's picture
Author: Matt Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Artwork: Seb Brassard
Online Layout: Matt Barton
Special Thanks: Jon Appleton, Jan Harries, Rob Hubbard, Rafal Kazimierski, Barry Leitch, George Sanger

Creative Commons License
The following text (not including illustrations) is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


Classic Computer Composition.

Telling the story of game and computer audio isn't an easy task1. Its 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 œtotally wired generation. And who could possibly forget the inspiring melodies of Jean Michel Jarre? Taking into consideration all of this talent, its 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 Jarres Oxygene was as uncool as Ataris Pong or fanny packs. People cried out for a return to traditional instruments and œvintage 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 œ80s 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”œIt all started to sound the same, he says. A new generation wanted a new sound, and the electronic bands werent 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 œreal 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 œauthenticity, œpurity, or œnaturalness 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 œperformance 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 didnt understand that it could be made by a human being; they didnt see the connection between the music and what theyd known all their lives.

--Jon Appleton

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 dont want to get ahead of myself.

I will begin my treatment of computer and game audio by retelling an endearing fairy tale. Youve heard it before, Im sure, and possibly even told it to your children, but lets hope that it hasnt lost its charm. Its œThe 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.

œWeve 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 œsounding like games was a bad thing4. Ive always thought these sweeping generalizations were rather like a film enthusiast declaring, œOh, 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 œtried and true rather than engage in costly, risky experiments.

George Sanger, more commonly known in game audio circles as œThe Fat Man, describes the three mistaken assumptions of novices, intermediates, and advanced game audio programmers. The novice mistakenly believes her music should sound œlike 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 œwrite 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. Im 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 pianos 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 composers 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 theyre 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 Im 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 œchip tunes, a term that Wikipedia defines as œmusic 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 didnt 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 Jarres Oxygene or Hubbards 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 œcommon sense with œherd mentality and do my best to convince you that Im not as crazy as I sound. Maybe by the time were finished, youll 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”well talk about the pioneers like Rob Hubbard and the technology they had to work with (or around!) to make decent sounds. Then well 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, its 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 œfairytale 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, œAudio 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 Higinbothams video tennis game (1958), made no effort to incorporate sound, and neither did the first arcade machine (Nolan Bushnells Computer Space ) or the first home videogame console (the Magnavox Odyssey). The first videogame with sound was apparently Ataris 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 (Bushnells partner) asked for a œboo and a hiss when players lost. Acorn did the best he could: œI said, ˜Screw it, I dont know how to make any one of those sounds. I dont 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 œresonant 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 œBrief Timeline of Video Game Music that Milton Bradleys Simon (1974) was the first videogame to œincorporate music as a game element, though it is perhaps arguable whether the tones (in random sequence) can truly be considered music. McDonald also lists Taitos Gunfight (1975) as the first game with a CPU”and a one-channel, mono amplifier to synthesize the sound of gunshots.

The Atari VCS, released in 1977, featured 2 channels of mono sound. Two years later, Atari released a line of 8-Bit computers featuring 4 channels of mono sound and an innovative sound chip called œPokey. Thankfully, over 1,500 songs produced for the 8-Bit Atari have been archived and made available at the Atari SAP Music Archive. Thanks to a handy plug-in for WinAMP, we can still enjoy these tunes today. The Atari remains a popular platform of choice for many contemporary audio programmers. Other computers and game machines, including the Mattel Intellivision, Atari ST, and Sinclair ZX Spectrum+ 128 incorporated the Yahama YM2149 chip, which also allowed three voices.

In 1982, a company named Commodore released the best-selling personal computer of all time, the venerable C-64. The Commodore 64s 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 œthought 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 Miyamotos 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 œinteractive audio, a term that surfaces often as the holy grail of game audio programming. Though the Nintendos sound hardware is technologically primitive compared to the Commodore 647, it is nevertheless responsible for producing some of videogame historys most famous tunes. A collection of Nintendo music files are available at Zophars 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 dont think that Im 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 œbloops 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 Nintendos 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 doesnt 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: œI 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. œI 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 œloader music for a somewhat obscure C-64 œshootem up game named Sanxion. This game will probably always be remembered more for Hubbards innovative œloading 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 Hubbards other famous tunes available at HVSC.

A picture of Rob Hubbard, game audio pioneer.
Rob Hubbard

Okay. So whats so great about the Sanxion loader music? There are no samples, digitized voices, or even a reasonable proximity to that omnipresent œtechno bass/drum loop that saturates modern electronic pop music. I can almost hear someone complaining, œBut it doesnt even sound remotely like rock! It doesnt bear the faintest resemblance to what you hear on the radio or in films! For Petes sake, it doesnt even sound like real ˜game music!

Exactly. Thats because you cant innovate by only doing whats been done before. Imitations may be entertaining, but they are hardly creative. If it doesnt sound like anything else and still sounds good”well, thats a level of talent only reached by dedicated masters. Hubbards work is innovative precisely because he isnt trying to mimic œreal 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 hes 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 wasnt simply a musician”like Hip Tanaka, Hubbard is an assembly programmer, and programmed all of his own musical routines and wrote his own software. œThats why it became unique, says Hubbard. œYou became a programmer and wrote your own software to control everything. Thats 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 wasnt 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 performers 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 œProgram 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 œperfect 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.

--Martin Galway

Later Generations of Game Audio Programmers

Glenn McDonald argues that game music only moved into the œrealm 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 œmod 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 œmod 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 computers 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.

--Rob Hubbard

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 œIt 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, œThe 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 œGolden Six styles of modern computer and game audio11:

  1. Orchestral imitations of John Williams or Danny Elfmans film scores.

  • Techno/repetitive beat dance music.
  • Atmospheric Beatless Music. Thats Beatles with an extra œs.
  • 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 Im sure there was a sixth.

    The Fat Mans 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.

    Its cheaper to use live orchestras than synthesizers. At first this statement may be hard to believe, but its certainly no secret to professional game developers. Andy Brick, a professional videogame producer, writes in an article for Game Developer, œOn 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 œprogram 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, œIf 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 youre going to imitate a movie soundtrack, then use the same methods as movie producers. If youre 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, œUsing 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 worlds 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. Its 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 latters preference for imitation at the cost of innovation. Its not that great music is not being produced; its 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: œNever 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 œnever 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 analysts 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 arent 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 Fats 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 Fats Manifatso

    Modern Pioneers and Innovators: The Chip Tune Maestros

    Despite having to œgive 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 œRambones. Harries, a citizen of Denmark and long-time member of the Danish œdemoscene15, still writes music for his favorite musical instrument: A Commodore 64 computer. œFor me, the computer is a musical instrument, said Harries in an interview with me. œIts 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.

    A picture of Jan Harries.
    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: œBecause 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 hes 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 œAsterion, 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 œinstruments. 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 œBlipp Blopp for the Masses. A few clicks will bring you to the œJukebox 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 œpure 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 œdemoscene 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 œcracking. 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, œCRACKED 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 œintros, were by necessity very small programs since most of them had to fit on a single sector of a floppy disk (the œboot 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 œdemoscene rather than the œcracking or œwarez 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 - dont take advantage in any significant way of the capabilities of the latest generation of audio cards. Many dont 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.

    --Bob Mandel

    The Future of computer and Game Audio

    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 cant do with an orchestra, and why arent more people doing it? This is one of the questions I bounced off The Fat Man in an email interview. He replied, œEven 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-64s SPACE BAR to stop the currently playing tune.

    Addendum

    Barry Leitch, known as œThe 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 œChicken 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 Prices toy line. Leitch designed the audio for Fisher Prices Pixter device, and he now estimates that his music is heard by œten million people everyday. Barry is now a freelance composer.

    Notes

    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 œGame Audio and œcomputer Audio. œGame Audio will refer to music specifically created for use in a videogame, whereas œcomputer Audio includes musical compositions like SID and MOD files that were made on and for computers, but may not be associated with a videogame.

    2 Source: http://www.freelancemusicians.org/fathers.html

    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 Im 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 Mans book is loaded with hilarious anecdotes and sage advice; its 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.

    8 Chris M. Covell explains why:

    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, œI 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. œShooting 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. œUsing Living, Breathing Musicians in Game Music. Game Developer. Mar 2003. Volume 10, Issue 3, Page 30.

    12 Ibid, page 68.

    13 Brick, Andy. œThe 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.

    15 To learn more about the demoscene, read this entry at Wikpedia