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Square Ears: The Sound of the NES

The Nintendo Entertainment System has had an astounding impact on the gaming culture of today.  It's popularity and abundance of games (both good and bad) made it probably the most recognisable console in history.  Many iconic games such as Super Mario, Contra, Zelda, Punchout, Megaman and many more were born on this system, each of them engraining themselves into the minds of many children and adults alike. There's no doubt that people still yearn for the games of old, with games inspired by the NES's 8-bit graphical style and with chiptune music having a large presence both within and outside of games.  So what makes the NES sound so special? Let's find out. 

Part of the NES charm is it's simplicity. The NES produces sound through only 5 channels:

1. Pulse 1
2. Pulse 2
3. Triangle
4. Noise
5. Samples

The pulse channels are usually the main sound you'll hear in NES music. The ways the waveforms are manipulated means there are 3 main timbres these channels can create through duty cycle modulation (what percentage of the waveform is the signal "on" for). These range from the more nasal sounding 12.5% pulse through to the pure sounding 50% pulse (AKA Square Wave) with the 25% pulse sitting somewhere in the middle. 

The triangle channel produces a triangle shaped waveform, which has a more airy timbre and is often used in the lower register, as it's sound is not too intrusive on the main melody, but is loud enough to be heard (It also has another key use, but we'll get to that later).

The noise channel is responsible for the static-y sounds that often make up the percussion of a piece. Usually mimicking the sound of a hi-hat or snare drum it adds a unique layer to any piece. 

The final channel was not often used, as samples on the NES were hard to handle and took up what little space the game cartridge had. Samples were a good way to make music on a NES feel unique, or give it a different kind of flavour that the standard 4 channels couldn't give. 

There are various techniques however, that make composing for NES a very different beast than composing music for traditional instruments. Rapid arpeggiations give the illusion of many notes on a single channel, intense pitch bending can allow the triangle channel to basically become a kick drum. These tricks allow for the deceptively simple infrastructure of the NES sound chip to output some really impressive stuff. 

But the way the NES produces sound is also conducive to the catchy melodic pieces we're so used to hearing in 8 bit games.  The two pulse channels give strong options for melodies. For example the 1st pulse channel can play the main melody, the composer then has two basic options for the second pulse channel: direct melody harmonisation, or chordal harmonisation. The first option will reinforce the melody, but may leave the overall texture of the piece to be a little empty, the second gives the piece more integrity, but means the melody must stand strongly on it's own.  

The triangle and noise (and sample occasionally) channels often work in conjunction as a rhythm section.  This focussed integration of these channels means that the rhythmic parts of most pieces are often very strong.  Along with this, because there are only 4 main channels, each often occupies a specific range. This means there's little overlap in pitch and makes the pieces sound more full and varied. When put all together, it's not hard to see why music composed for the NES is so catchy.  Not to mention the repetition, Castlevania's incredibly memorable Vampire Killer is only 16 bars long!

Even the music of Metroid is melodic and catchy, despite it's somewhat ambient and haunting sound. 

The NES has held a place in many developers' hearts, and they show that in their games. Polytron's FEZ has a strong pixel art visual aesthetic and the music is very much 8-bit inspired, but takes many modern liberties to take it to a new place. Yach Club Games' upcoming Shovel Night has a strong 8-bit visual style and music by both Jake "Virt" Kaufman and Manami Matsumae (composer for the original Megaman) is composed in direct parody to the musical capabilities of the NES. 

I don't believe the sound of the NES will ever die. It's constant reference and deep roots in gaming culture have given it a status unreachable by any other machine. The sound of chip music is also a direct product of gaming culture. Nowhere else could the restraints and unique sound be created, and it has certainly made but game and musical culture much better for existing. 

What are some of your favourite tunes from or inspired by the NES? Are there any other consoles that have a sound as iconic as the NES? Are there any other modern soundtracks that use ideas rooted in chiptunes? I'd love to hear what you think. 

If you want to get more intimate with the NES sound chip, check out the Youtube channel EXPLOD for some sweet soundtracks and great videos on how the NES sound chip works. You can also check out the accompanying blog for even more stuff!
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About Oscarnoone of us since 5:23 AM on 02.25.2014

Hello I am Oscarno and welcome to a rad Video Game Music blog on Destructoid!

I'm way into Video Game Music, and with these blog posts, I hope to provide an investigation into and discussion about Video Game Music and how music affects video games as a creative medium.

I write weekly, usually posting on Thursdays. Most weeks will be OST Case Studies, looking a the music of a particular game and pulling it apart to find why it works so well. Sometimes, however, I'll just post a shorter opinion post or perhaps an article looking into other areas of Video Game Music.

If you wanna talk to me or follow me on Twitter ,you can.(but tbh it's pretty boring)

Also you can check out some of the music I make on my Soundcloud!