It started and ended in 2008. The Sound Card, I mean. Dale North started the series many years ago, and while it had a very short run, I was always a fan of the column which featured zany lists that included “the 8 most f*cked up vocal remixes” and “the top ten most obnoxious game songs.”
I wanted to bring the series back, and while I just noted that it focused on a lot of lists, the introductory post was an excellent primer to game music, most of which is still applicable today. What Dale didn’t touch on, however, was game music on vinyl. This is where it all began, and we’ve recently been seeing a resurgence, so I wanted to delve into this long-forgotten chapter in the history of videogames and show off some release both new and old in some unboxing style videos.
Let’s give a warm welcome back to The Sound Card, and look forward to more coming soon… I’ve already got some top ten lists brewing in my head!
So, what the hell is vinyl?
I think this is a pretty valid question. My first experience with the medium was coming across a copy of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Use You Illusion and Appetite for Destruction in my parents' closet. It had some pretty provocative artwork, which is probably why it was in the closet, and probably why I never asked about it. It was big, bulky, and looked cool, but I had no idea what it was.
Being born in the mid-1980s, the audio cassette tape had largely taken over, so I was enjoying my music on that medium. I remember seeing a turn table on top of my grandfather’s stereo setup, but even having seen the record in my parents' closet and the turn table at my grandfather’s, I didn’t put two and two together until much later. Probably when seeing some sort of DJ shenanigans on television.
Anyway, vinyl still, to this day, has some benefits which may be countered by some pretty severe negatives. They’re essentially large discs of wax with grooves cut into either side. They come in different sizes, and can be played at different speeds to produce interesting effects (they can also be played backwards, which some artists used as a neat gimmick to hide things in their music).
In terms of benefits, the audio cut into a record is all analog, or, in other words, not digital as you’ll find in compact disc (CD) or, obviously, digital files. Digital files approximate the original sound waves that were generated by the artist, so in a sense, what you hear on a vinyl record is the true, purest sound as if you were hearing it performed live. However, music written in a digital format (on a computer) is already digitized, so while you might not get that complete analog sound on vinyl, if the music is prepared properly, can still benefit from the medium. In that case (as is the case with most recent vinyl releases), I think the major attraction is that they just look cool, and there’s this romantic notion about a forgotten medium from the past.
About those negatives though. Due to the optimal spacing of the grooves on the record, you can’t really squeeze more than 20-25 minutes of music per side. Additionally, due to the fact that a needle has to be in physical contact with the record to produce sound, over time, the grooves erode and the sound quality is reduced. Think of that grainy sound that you associate with vinyl, and that’s what you’re looking at. The fact that there’s a finite number of times you can enjoy it, however, adds a sort of rustic charm to the medium. I guess this also applied to cassette tapes, but cassettes aren’t nearly as cool as vinyl, right?
Game music on vinyl
Now, it’s pretty difficult to explore the history of game music on vinyl. There aren't a lot of resources, and some of the early stuff was pretty obscure. However, VGMdb, a fan-updated resource, is probably your best bet and is what I’m using extensively for this feature. To take a look for yourself, go into the advanced search, check “game music” and “vinyl,” and hit search. Then sort by date. There should be about 8 pages of releases.
The limitation, however, and a disclaimer before I launch into this, is that if it’s not in fans’ hands, it’s probably not in the database, so if anything, there’s more music out there on vinyl than VGMdb would indicate.
According to VGMdb, however, one of the first instances of game music on vinyl was in 1978 with Yellow Magic Orchestra’s self-titled record. It contained remixes from Circus and Space Invaders and paved the way for other releases through the late 1970s and early 1980s that included lots of Pac-Man, Asteroids, Yars’ Revenge, Missile Command, and others. These even got their own drama albums complete with read-along books that told brief stories from these games. Jump forward to 1983 and you have Do the Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong proper. Through the mid-1980s, Namco came on board with Xevious followed by their compilation album, Namco Video Game Graffiti which featured Dig Dug, Sky Kid, New Rally-X!, Mappy, and more.
From here flowed a golden age of game music on vinyl. There were releases for Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda with original and orchestra versions and a Famicom music collection with tons of classic NES hits which were followed by Konami, Capcom, Hudson, Sega, Taito, SNK, and Tecmo releases through the mid-1980s.
Enix was one of the pioneers with Koichi Sugiyama bringing a live orchestra to game music (his Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite series was actually the first orchestral game music concert ever back in the 1980s, but that’s a topic for another time), and in addition to live orchestra, brass ensembles and electone arrangements were also produced on vinyl.
Everything from Ultima and Ys to Contra and Final Fantasy came next to round out the 80s and get us started into the 1990s. There were literally hundreds of vinyl releases during this decade, and the volume of releases dropped precipitously from there. To give you a sense of the changes that occurred, let me give you a quick count (again, from VGMdb with its known limitations):
1970s – 4
1980s – 119
1990s – 43
2000s – 41
2010s – 27 (in just three years!)
With CD taking over in the 1990s and the launch of the new platforms by Sega and Nintendo, there were fewer but still some amazing releases. Sonic the Hedgehog made his debut on vinyl around this time, along with Tetris, the much deserving Pulseman, and Street Fighter II. There were also a slew of remix albums around this time, including this funky Super Mario Land: Ambassadors of Funk release:
After only a few releases to celebrate our beloved SEGA Genesis and Super Nintendo, it was on to the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. Wipeout, a series seemingly made for vinyl, was released, along with Tekken, Ridge Racer, and the amazing Parappa the Rapper. I also got my hands on these rare remixes from stage 4 in Rez which aren’t even in VGMdb:
Squaresoft made an appearance during the mid-1990s with Front Mission Alternative, a fantastic arrange album, and later with “Eyes on Me” from Final Fantasy VIII, along with Konami’s Dracula X / Vampire Killer from Symphony of the Night and beatmania, Capcom’s Biohazard 2, and Sega’s Sonic R and Burning Rangers. While the packaging for many of these releases was pretty minimal, I found the following dual-record GHOST IN THE SHELL MEGATECH BODY.VINYL.LTD release to be pretty amazing in the packaging department:
Another reason we’ll never really know how much vinyl is out there is because of releases like this one:
Squaresoft prepared this dual-record release of Parasite Eve Remixes as a promotional tool for DJs to start messing around with their material. This was never released commercially, and so with things like this, we may never know all of what’s out there.
There were slightly fewer releases in the 2000s. By this time, vinyl was rare and more promotional than commercial. There was seemingly nothing sexy about the format by this time, and aside from a few releases like Grand Theft Auto III, Doom 3, and a nifty red Super Street Fighter II Turbo Battle release. There were some interesting fan remix albums (also rare and not in VGMdb) that can be seen here:
A friend, Haroon “FFMusicDJ” Piracha (who also sent me many of these rare vinyl releases to include in this feature) sent me this interesting animated graphic showing percentage of music sales from 1980 through 2010, which is quite telling in what happened to vinyl during this period.
Then came the 2010s. We saw a resurgence of the medium both in underground circles and from big name publishes. I think what’s partially responsible is the enthusiastic underground communities that comprise the indie game scene. The atmosphere is one that makes it seem as though anything is possible, and some great music is being created for these titles. One such release, and the first to hit in 2010 was the excellent soundtrack to Machinarium, which is actually still available to fans who are interested:
This was followed by a slew of both promotional and commercial releases from game companies including 2K (BioShock), Square Enix (Final Fantasy XIII), Blizzard Entertainment (StarCraft II), Rockstar (Red Dead Redemption), THQ (the rare de Blob and de Blob 2) and even Microsoft (Halo: Combat Evolved). Check some of these out below:
Indie releases also kept things going with the popular Sword & Sworcery LP hitting vinyl, and a title that I think is the single most deserving soundtrack of a vinyl release, 2009s Shatter (the vinyl was released in 2011), which is easily one of my favorite soundtracks of all time:
I think what Jim Guthrie, composer of Sword & Sworcery, has to say about why vinyl and why now is quite telling of the indie scene’s desire to get things like this done:
“For as long as I've been making records/music the ultimate goal has always been to release stuff on vinyl. It's never been a question of should I press vinyl. It's ‘can I press vinyl and not lose my shirt?’ It's the perfect format to experience music and it's out-lived every medium that's come since. Sound great. The art is nice and big and you have to interact with it in order to hear it in a way that is very satisfying. I don't want to sound like a broken record (pun intended) but CDs and mp3s don't provide the same experience. They are convenient and easy to store, rip and steal but that's about it. No matter how high tech things get I believe vinyl will always have a place in this world.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Not since the 1980s have we seen so many vinyl releases per year. This year already has seen releases celebrating the Commodore 64, the Music of Retro City Rampage (get that blue one while you still can!) and the upcoming Botanicula from Minority Records (the same label that put out Machinarium). It’s a good time for fans of vinyl, and after a turbulent history, it’s time to dust off (or in my case, go out and buy!) a turn table and relive a piece of musical history.
Where to find vinyl
Unfortunately most of the stuff released up through 2010 is nearly impossible to find at this point. Even the most recent releases are only printed in limited quantities, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. With that in mind, it’s best to hit up auction sites like eBay to find older stuff. Haroon Piracha, who was responsible for finding a lot of the stuff featured here, also recommends Juno Records where he’s seen some pretty cool stuff, including “Heavenly Star” by the Genki Rockets.
Some companies still do offer their vinyl releases for sale. Here’s a quick run-down:
Square-Enix (Japanese only): http://store.jp.square-enix.com/
You can pick up two from Final Fantasy XIII, one from Final Fantasy XI, the Myth: The Xenogears Orchestral Album, and the SQ Trax remix album for relatively cheap (about $30 USD), although it’s exclusive to the e-Store and must be purchased from within Japan.
Blizzard Entertainment: http://us.blizzard.com/store/details.xml?id=1100001265
You can still pick up Revolution Overdrive – Songs of Liberty, a collection of original music created for the jukebox in StarCraft II for $25.
Sumthing Else Music Works: http://www.sumthing.com/itemDetails.aspx?id=5495
You can still pick up the limited edition Halo: Combat Evolved vinyl for a mere $24.99, which comes with a free download code for the soundtrack.
Minority Records: http://www.minorityrecords.com/
Machinarium has gone through a reprint due to high demand. Pick it up now if you want it; it’s a great soundtrack and the packaging is stellar. Botanicula is their latest release coming out in May.
Retro City Rampage: http://retrocityrampage.bandcamp.com/
We already noted that these are extremely limited, with 100 blue, 100 green, and 300 black. Green is sold out, and there are very few blue remaining. There’s also a sale directly through Lotus Audio right now for $4 CAD off: http://lotusaudio.com/retrocityrampagevinyl.htm
Easily one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, signed by Jeremiah “module” Ross himself. Pick this one up before it’s gone!
Sword & Sworcery LP: http://jimguthrie.bandcamp.com/album/sword-sworcery-lp-the-ballad-of-the-space-babies
Hugely popular soundtrack. Jim Guthrie is swimming orders right now, so pick this up soon if you want a chance at it.
The Minibosses: brass 2: http://minibosses.bandcamp.com/album/brass-2-mouth
I want to highlight the fan remix/band scene as well. The Minibosses are the pioneers responsible for a lot of what we enjoy at events like MAGFest today. Support them and pick up a nifty vinyl release while you’re at it.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the medium. When Square Enix started up their vinyl series starting with Final Fantasy XIII and upon hearing that Shatter was getting a vinyl release, my interest was sparked. I hadn’t explored vinyl before this, and this was only a year or two ago! Anyone can get into this as a sub-hobby of game music, and I think you’ll find it’s very addictive trying to track down your favorite releases on the used market. I guess it’s also frustrating when you can’t find what you’re looking for, though!
Still, I’d love to hear if anyone out there has a ‘game music on vinyl’ experience. I think we’re going to be seeing more of this moving forward. Even if the CD format gives way to digital, as that animated graphic would suggest, I think the true benefit of pure analog sound is an attraction that’s unique to the medium, not to mention the sheer size of these records makes the sleeves great display pieces (although the small vinyl releases are also cute!).
Welcome back to The Sound Card, and welcome back to vinyl!