I would absolutely hate to be making music for video games in the 1980s.
Don’t get me wrong. I love classic game music. The hours spent playing and listening to classic NES, Super Nintendo, and Gameboy games had an enormous influence on me. However, the restrictions composers such as Koji Kondo, Hip Tanaka, Kazunaka Yamane, and Hiroshige Tonomura (just to name some of my favorites) had to deal with to create the iconic pieces of music we know and love are so mind-boggling, I’m thankful to not have to deal with them. Here’s a crash course on what making music for video games used to be like, as seen through the lens of our recent Super Adventure Box release in Guild Wars 2.
I’ll focus primarily on the Nintendo Entertainment System, since it’s probably what the majority of people think of when they think of classic video games. For a much more technical breakdown, see the Wikipedia page on the NSF Sound Format.
Back in the day, the sound chip inside the NES console was only capable of playing back five channels of audio at one time. There were four very basic synthesis channels and one channel that could be used to play back very low resolution samples. The sample channel was used much less frequently than the other four channels, so I won’t focus on it much.
The remaining four channels were as follows:
Channels 1 and 2 – Square (or Pulse) Wave
These channels do the majority of the heavy lifting, providing the main melody, counter-melody, harmony, and arpeggios. They are the most flexible channels, in that you can play around with the overall timbre, volume, and vibrato for each note as well as do some other fun stuff like pitch bending and even simulated echo and reverb, if you get a little tricky.
Image via Wikipedia
Channel 3 – Triangle Wave
This channel is almost entirely used for bass lines. It’s possible to use it for other sounds, but it’s not nearly as flexible as the square wave channels. You can’t play around with volume or timbre.
Image via Wikipedia
Channel 4 – Noise
This channel generates a white noise hissing sound. It’s possible to alter the pitch a bit, but it never really becomes a proper note. It’s either just “lower” or “higher” noise. It’s used almost exclusively for creating drum/percussion parts.
And that’s it; that’s your total sonic palette. No eighty piece orchestras, no awesome band or electronic artist to write some tracks for you. Just four channels. There was also no polyphony, or multiple notes played simultaneously by one instrument, so no chords. Finally, every piece of music and sound effect had to fit into 128k of memory. Good luck on your adventure.
Next, let’s talk a little bit about how these folks had to actually compose the music. Nowadays, a composer generally writes and records all their music into a computer program called a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), either recording live instruments or using virtual instruments loaded on the computer for each part. There are very few limitations placed on the composer, and they have more to do with time and budget than with the technology available. However, back then, it wasn’t so easy. I’ll pass it off here to my colleague Leif Chappelle, who also wrote some pieces for the Super Adventure Box content.
In the days of the NES and other 8-bit systems, there were no standard ways of getting music into a game. Composers either had to program hexadecimal data that called up the sounds we know, or write their own program to create that data. We call these programs “trackers.”
One of the main tools I use to write chip tunes is a program called Famitracker, which is a more modern approximation of a tracker used by 8-bit-era composers. Because it’s not the most traditional means of composition, let me go into a bit of detail on my process.
What you’re seeing above is just one bar of the Super Adventure Box “Stage Complete” theme. If you’re not familiar with how trackers work, it probably looks nothing like music, or notation, or even a piano roll. Each column represents one of the four possible channels: Square 1, Square 2, Triangle and Noise.
Writing in a tracker is almost like filling out a spreadsheet. The entire piece is organized into frames and rows. Each frame consists of rows and is a singular unit that can be called back when organizing the piece’s structure (see above). So, if you want a repeating drum line, you just need to write it once, and then continue calling the same frame.
Within the frame, a row is an individual beat. If you were to equate it with traditional notation, a row could act like a sixteenth note. In the example above, the downbeats are highlighted every four rows.
When all the instruments have been defined, it’s time to get down to writing! In the case of Famitracker, the keyboard approximates a piano layout, so I just navigate around with the arrow keys and input notes in the vertical scroll.
Tying Your Hands Behind Your Back
So, just imagine: it’s 1986, and you’ve been tasked with writing the music for a new adventure game starring a little elf in a green suit. You have 128kb of memory to use, four instruments, no chords, and you have to write everything in a program that requires a computer science degree in addition to your musical chops. It’s a miracle these men and women were able to pull it off, let alone create iconic music that almost any gamer can hum at the drop of a hat nearly 30 years later.
Be sure to head over to the official ArenaNet SoundCloud page to listen to all the music from Super Adventure Box and more.
It’s a cliché that form follows function, but in the case of classic game music, it’s absolutely true. The style one associates with old game music was mostly a result of the restrictions the composers faced. Despite the freedom afforded to us by modern technology, I wanted the music for Super Adventure Box to stick as close as possible to those restrictions.
Each piece needed a strong melody—some based on existing Guild Wars music and some wholly original. Each piece could only have four channels (we occasionally fudged this, but some NES games had extra sound chips in their cartridges, thereby adding more available sound channels, so technically it’s “canonical”). Finally, each piece had to loop back on itself, unlike the 2-4 minute ambient pieces in Guild Wars 2, which come and go randomly, leaving occasional breaks between the music.
For inspiration, we drew on everything from the obvious—like the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda series—to some other favorites like Battletoads, Double Dragon, and Metroid. Even with the restrictions we worked under, it’s incredible how far that sonic palette can be stretched into a wide variety of styles.
So that’s the gist of it. It was an incredible amount of fun working on the music for Super Adventure Box, and the entire team did an amazing job bringing the 8-bit vibe into the world of Guild Wars 2. Be sure to head over to the official ArenaNet SoundCloud page to listen to all the music from Super Adventure Box and more.
If you’d like to learn more, here are a few resources:
Retro Game Audio: [URL: http://retrogameaudio.tumblr.com/] It hasn’t been updated in a while, but this is a very informative blog on the more technical aspects of classic game console sound chips.
Chipsounds: [URL: http://www.plogue.com/products/chipsounds/] The incredible virtual instrument that we used to create all the music and sound effects you hear in Super Adventure Box.
Famitracker: [URL: http://famitracker.com/] The program Leif mentioned that he uses for his own chip tune compositions