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From Beeps to Sweeps – Evolution of Music in Games

by: theinkandpen (Robert Mullon) ; edited by: Aaron R. ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

The humble beginnings of video games offered us a less-than-palatable aural experience, mere strident tones in elementary sequences confined to 8-bit worlds. Then came phonic landscapes and canvases rivalling the best of Hollywood’s sound sculptors. Here's a look at how it all evolved.

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    Baby Steps

    Symphonic Fantasies Concert - Music From Square Enix It took nearly forty years, since the first showing of Roundhay Garden Scene, for silent movies to evolve into talkies as Warner Brother’s The Jazz singer was finally released in the 20s. Although there are examples of primitive video games before Spacewar!, if one were to take that as the stepping-stone for the medium’s evolution then it took about ten years for the first blips to appear. Bushnell had bigger plans for the first Pong arcade machine, though he was satisfied with the well-known ringing sound.

    Then came the sub-bass drone in Space Invaders, which is the first example of something resembling a soundtrack in games. Gradually, complexity increased and possibilities opened up, with the C/C sharp triads of Pac-Man announcing the level, or the waveforms and boogie-woogie in Donkey Kong. Then, finally, the birth of the SID chip rocked the three-voiced home computer discotheque, where tunesmiths fiddled and some memorable sounds were made to pave the way for video game music culture.

    Which brings us to the more complex current-era productions, where orchestras are hired to create sweeping soundtracks which often remain engraved in player’s memories. Before rushing ahead though, we will have a look at how music in games became serious business.

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    First Generation Sounds

    As mentioned, the first generation and early second generations of games, during the 70s and early 80s, featured largely unsophisticated sounds and music, the first real examples of themes emerging in Pac-Man Screen  Pac-Man and Frogger – although still nothing more than two-part monothematic 8-bar structures, some sounding like lullabies. These were catalysts for the emergence of video game music culture, where digitized earworms spilled out into pop culture and spurred inspiration for music albums, like Pac-Man Fever, by Buckner & Garcia.

    One early example of movie-to-game music adaptation is found in E.T. for the Atari, though still within the limited capabilities of the machine’s TIA design, which was the chip responsible for I/O and sound functions. The theme is crippled slightly and there are no vertical aspects, being only a single voice, but it is still recognizable as William’s famous 2-bar phrases contained in the 3/2 Flying theme.

    This is not where the relationship between both mediums ends however: Pac-land, for instance, used the original Hoyt Curtin themes from the animated show, while Cobra re-used music in the original film, though somewhat later.

    Other notable titles in this era are Space Invaders, Asteroids and Ralph Baer’s Magnavox console which employed a separate speech-synthesis unit. Most don't rock yet, but they certainly did with the introduction of the SID chip.

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    The SID Chip

    SID Chips Robert Yannes, of Ensoniq, wasn’t happy with the current state of sound in home consoles and decided to design the SID chip, technology which allowed for more complex music-making. The chip featured three distinct voices, four waveforms and a variety of filters to create richer sound palettes.

    A console like the NES was capable of five distinct channels, pitch bending and one white noise channel, all of which allowed for the possibility of background music and effects. However, once the SID came out and the first Rob Hubbard stuff was produced, it was no contest. You thought you were catapulted into outer space.

    It did take some time before digital composers learned the full power behind the chip though, but once this happened things moved forward and helped game music evolve one step further. Indeed, the NES gave us unforgettable hits like Mario, Zelda, or Uematsu’s grand-oeuvre, Final Fantasy, but game music was still somewhat supplemental, emotionally detached from the experience and not yet establishing the same intense link as music for movies.

    The MOS Technology SID was designed by engineers who went on to develop synth-hardware, like the Fizmo or the Halo, which musicians used live and in the studio. With the release of Monty on the Run, Commando or R-type, a port where the music sounded better than the original, gamers begun to feel as if music wasn’t just in the background. It drove the game’s purpose forward and was an integral part of the experience. Something like the Zak McKracken theme has been presented in various forms, and a rocking remix by Razor and the Scumettes is available on Youtube.

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    Fourth Generation: 16 Bits and Paula

    Amiga 500 system After the early consoles, the SID and the Nintendo Entertainment System, we reached the age of 16-bits, consoles like the Genesis or Megadrive and the 8364 Paula chip for the Amiga 500. For the first time in history, the distinct 8-bit quality is abandoned in favor of more realistic PCM samples. Who can forget the booming power-ups of Altered Beast, or Mitsuda’s Chrono Trigger epics.

    Sound became stereo instead of mono and long audio samples are used for some soundtracks, like Sensible’s Cannon Fodder or Chris Hülsbeck Quik & Silva’s intro. The Final Fantasy series goes on to be released for the SNES and the sound experience gets better and better. It's hard to dismiss the screaming organ, pseudo-Bachian prelude or dark tones in FFVI for instance.

    One forgotten console which offered spectacular sound was the Neo Geo, bringing on the funk with Double Dragon, Magician Lord or World Heroes. The console did not enjoy much success at the time (I sold it after less than a year) but the music for the games sounded vastly superior to anything I’d heard. The built-in Yamaha chip was huge, featuring something like 16 different channels, including reserved ones for effects, which speaks volumes about the unit’s quality.

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    More Current Days

    The Lost World - Jurassic Park With the advent of the CD-Rom and more complex chip designs, everything changed and brought us closer to modern day video game music. Distinctive high sample and bit rate brought more flavour to game music and helped video game music culture reach stellar heights, as even compilations of in-game hits were released, like for the game Myst. Something like Civilization II featured the standard Red Book format, which can be played in any CD player.

    The Playstation used the same sampling rate and high quality audio was possible thanks to streaming audio which allowed for less disc space to be used. Classics like Metal Gear Solid, T or the Hammond-funk menu music in Driver were instant hits and the gap was gradually closing. Final Fantasy VII was released on the console and continued Uematsu’s legacy as far as music is concerned.

    Creative’s hugely popular SoundBlaster helped the evolution move on, particularly with the release of the third-gen cards. Notable classics rendered by the card’s synth were Dune, many adventure games like Monkey Island or the mysterious sounds of the Ultima series.

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    Rise of Nostalgia

    As mentioned, the SID was pivotal to creating a proper video game music culture, one which still thrives to this day. DJ’s liEminence Logo ke Lman and Larsec enjoy remixing classic sounds like Fröhn or Ghosts and Goblin while Zelda themes are twisted and repainted on stage for the amusement of audiences. All this is not exclusively limited to working or touring bands of course, as fans happily put out their own piano renditions of Jeremy Soule themes from classic games.

    Lastly, I am not one to say whether such things will ever be art and I don’t want to run into Roger Ebert’s obtuse meanderings. Like movies, it’s difficult to deny that composing for video games has its limits; the music has to, above all, be functional and unobtrusive, hence one cannot delve into themes which are too complex, too forgettable or generally too risky (twelve-tone composition for an FPS anyone?). However, with the popularity that game music enjoys it would be foolish to dismiss it as fluff entirely.