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A Critical Ear #7: Thinking Outside the Sound Chip


(Author's note: This article was originally posted back during the switch over to the new Destructoid format. When the site was reverted to the old style of blogs, it got lost in the transfer and I only now found the time to re-post it. The previous entry into this series, episode #6, got borked in the transfer as well and I'm currently in the process of fixing the formatting for it. In the meantime, enjoy!)

Games have certainly changed a lot of the years, due to the advent of new technologies that allow for faster processing, more memory, and greater graphical capabilities than before. Game soundtracks have also changed due to these advances and now sweeping orchestral music is practically the norm in the industry, rather than the exception. But sound fidelity isn�t the only thing that has changed with these soundtracks as technology improved; if you pay attention, the way the songs themselves are constructed has also been heavily influenced.

In the early days of game systems, composers had very limited technology to work with. More conventional ways of storing music on cassette tapes or records were too expensive and fragile to use en masse, so developers instead used digital methods. A specialized computer chip would produce the electrical signals that were converted into sounds by the speakers. However, the sounds that could be reproduced by the system were limited by the power of that computer chip, as well as the person who programmed it. Still, many composers found a way to utilize the limited range of possible sounds from early system to create many memorable pieces of music.

The most famous pieces of music from this era probably are so memorable because the technology was so limited. With only five channels available for sounds on the NES (probably less for the actual music, considering that sound effects also used those same channels), composers were forced to focus more on the actual melody and harmony of the songs to make something that was pleasant to listen to. Now that full, live-recorded performances of songs can be stored directly on the game and be accurately reproduced by the game system, composers have infinitely more options available for the songs they create. Some of them still create catchy tunes, but more ambient and atmospheric tracks are becoming increasingly common. Game music can be less strictly constructed and still be enjoyable to listen to because we don�t have to wrangle with chirpy electronic sounds anymore.

The Pok�mon series provides a very good example of this gradual shift in composition style. When it first started on the Game Boy, the composer for the games, Junichi Masuda only had three sound channels to work with: low, mid, and high range. However, each channel was used to create complex melodies and countermelodies that give the music a special intricacy and fullness that easily sticks in the player�s mind. This is especially apparent with the battle themes, which are stuffed to the brim with almost baroque-styled flair. Lightning fast arpeggios and runs, countermelodies, and ornamental flourishes all contribute to make songs that transcended the limited hardware of the day.

Some examples:

RBY Gym Leader Battle

GSC Trainer Battle (Johto)

In the later iterations of the series, the songs began to evolve with the new systems that they were hosted on. By the time the DS generation of titles comes around, the songs now have the benefit of better quality samples, as well as an increased number of sound channels to take advantage of. The different parts of the melody are now spread out between numerous instruments, and the individual voices aren�t nearly as complex when isolated from the rest of the song.


DPPt Battle with Galactic boss Cyrus

DPPt Champion Battle

RSE Elite Four Battle

With more varied instrument samples, the songs even take on different genres of music to evoke different moods for the areas or events that they correspond to. In the Game Boy titles, the melody itself had to be changed drastically to differentiate more between different areas of the region. In Diamond and Pearl, we have a town with a swanky jazz theme, a town with a solo piano piece, and even a town theme that sounds like it was pulled straight out of a western!

This difference in compositional style is even more apparent if you compare the original tracks to their overhauled versions in the remakes, and it shows the reason why the shift in styles occurred over time.

Quite honestly, I don�t like most of the remixed battle themes in FRLG and HGSS at all mainly because they�re far too busy. They take songs that are already stuffed to the brim with intricacies and add even more on top of it all. HGSS is a bit better with this, mainly due to the better quality of sound samples, but also because they somewhat dialed back the extra ornamentation and unnecessary layers. The songs made specifically for the third and fourth gen titles had different voices that flowed together far more organically. These remixes feel more like the original songs have been cut up into pieces and haphazardly stapled together with random materials to make a gaudy sort of musical patchwork quilt.

To illustrate this point, take the Champion battle from the original Red/Blue/Yellow version:

And now it�s remix in FRLG:

This doesn�t mean that the original dot-matrix quality from the Game Boy days is somehow better than the sound we enjoy now though. Great soundtracks can (and have) come from both styles. This just demonstrates the difference in the way songs are composed now that musicians have more options available. One stresses the complexity of each voice within the song, the other focuses more on harmony and sharing the responsibility of carrying the song between all of them.

Soundtracks are not just tied to the narrative flow within the game, they also are integrally tied to the limits of the system on which their respective game is played. The best soundtracks know how to use the range of reproducible sounds for the hardware to its fullest extent to craft an appropriate musical backdrop for the game. However, now that data storage and speaker quality has gotten to the point where composers can do just about anything they want, this point is rendered moot, but it�s still a good way to look at soundtracks from older games. The best ones took limited technology and used to craft a unique experience, and still remain memorable even when compared to the high-fidelity sound we enjoy today.
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About SWE3tMadnessone of us since 6:04 PM on 01.10.2008

About Me

A recent graduate in Biology, neverless my first love in entertainment and media has always been video games, even though I don't get a lot of time to play recent ones now. I still enjoy following the industry and gushing about the latest Nintendo releases.

A Critical Ear: Analyzing Music in Video Games

If there's one thing that I like more than talking about video games, it's talking about music in video games. As a classically trained pianist that has been playing for more than twelve years, I take a look at some of my favorite soundtracks and how they contribute to the gaming experience as a whole.