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Classic Games (Games) Media Music

The Rise And Fall Of Game Audio 111

Thanks to Armchair Arcade for its article discussing why new game composers should look to classic game audio for pointers and inspiration. The author argues that classic Commodore 64 composer Rob Hubbard's work "is innovative precisely because he isn't trying to mimic 'real' music or make his computer sound like something besides a computer", before arguing of newer game audio: "How did game audio composers respond to this sudden technological boon? They began to imitate. Rather than innovate, they only did what had been done so many times before." The author concludes: "What concerns me is when they ignore the abilities unique to the electronic medium. It makes no more sense for a game audio programmer to mimic a string quartet as it does for a flutist to make his instrument sound like a kazoo."
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The Rise And Fall Of Game Audio

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  • yuck (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 07, 2004 @10:30PM (#9911426)
    I like playing those old games, but I always mute the audio. Those simplistic noises are painful for even a short period of time.
  • Thoughts from 0x0d0a (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 0x0d0a ( 568518 ) on Saturday August 07, 2004 @11:14PM (#9911567) Journal
    Interesting thoughts. However...

    The gentleman writing this article seems to hold as his primary goal pushing forward the field, advancing the arena, conducting experimentation, and then complains that game producers are too "cowardly" to produce such music. The problem is that this is *not* a game producer's goal. His goal is to impact the emotions of the player as much as possible to increase the effect of the game.

    Perhaps if I want an epic scene, I would choose choir singing, and perhaps with an action scene metal. That's because people *have* formed associations in their head between music and the meanings associated with that music. To ignore those associations is on par with ignoring other learned languages, like English, and simply making random sounds because they are "experimental."

    I tend to dislike most synth sounds. I think that people dislike identical stimuli very much -- our brains seek to avoid it, be it from boredom or whatnot, it is clearly not something that we have evolved to consider good. Try listening to a medium-volume sine or square wave for ten minutes or so. It's maddening and unpleasant. Much synth music suffers from the same effect, because it is similarly repetitive -- identical, even.

    My guess is that the reason we like traditional analog instruments (aside from the longer evolutionary period than the handful of years that synth has been around) is that each sound is very different. The volume, pitch, hold, and tiny variations crop up. That's important to making music appealing -- it constantly exposes us to unknown stimuli.

    I'm also guessing that we tend to like identifying patterns, and classical music is full of apparent patterns for our brains to discover.

    I simply find the sound of an analog guitar more appealing than a synth guitar, or of a simple sine wave.

    That being said, I do agree with the general argument that video game audio has moved too close to traditional audio, and is not really taking advantage of modern technology.

    First, I was very disappointed when Creative beat out Aureal in the short sound card wars a few years back -- we were looking at a GPU-like era of new ideas and rapid improvement. Creative pushed EAX, basically a reverb model. Aureal pushed A3D, modelling 3d environments and actually bouncing sound around. If a wall is close to your right year, sounds are different than if there is simply empty space there. We are very capable of picking up on spatial hints from sound, and there are currently no such hints provided in game audio.

    It will increasingly become possible to do this sort of thing in software -- we now enjoy software-generated Doppler effects, and I look forward to 3d modelling.

    Second, we are only now seeing anything other than a linear track of audio that plays. Game audio is intended to accompany a changing environment. Events and the game environment change at different times. Unless you're playing Dragon Warrior, that probably means that a suitable soundtrack is not the same each time!

    We implemented a simple version of this early on, when music tempo increased to indicate a warning in many video games. Later, games like Total Annihilation had two tracks that they could switch between depending upon how "dangerous" the environment is. Since then, we've taken the step of slightly more intelligent transitions (transitioning from the first track to the second on beats and the like). In general, though, our composition techniques and tools are poorly suited to anything but a single, static sequence of music.

    A proper modern game audio engine should include a set of, say, states. Once I change states (from, say, STATE_NORMAL to STATE_FIGHTING), the audio engine waits until the first transition point in the audio and then kicks into the STATE_FIGHTING audio). There should be the ability to add a transition sequence of music associated with the transition between those two states at this point in music. So I'd store a bunch o
  • by dancingmad ( 128588 ) on Saturday August 07, 2004 @11:26PM (#9911606)
    Both the article and the comments so far seem to suggest that electronic style music works best for computer games. As an fan of Uematsu Nobou, I tend to disagree - Uematsu does the score for Final Fantasy (every game in the main series, except the upcoming 12). For the most part, Uematsu's often brilliant composition seems stunted, especially if you listen to any of the Final Fantasy orchestra CDs (which replay the FF music with real instruments - either piano, full orchestra, or in the case of FFV an electronic album, or Song Book or IV Celtic Moon, in celtic style).

    However, even Uematsu presents a challenge: I didn't like FF8, but Laguna's theme is electronic music. Of all the major themes in recent final fantasy games to be translated into orchestra, The Man With the Machine Gun is almost always the poorest - it was best as a thumping electronic theme, with a lot of looping.

    While electronic music may seem obvious in a game, it often isn't. Take a medieval game - Fire Emblem or even Lord of the Rings. Thumping techno beats don't sound right with those titles. Orchestra work has to be gameified. Star Wars did this well in X-Wing/TIE Fighter/Alliance - it dynamically loaded themes during missions according to what was going on - if new Imperial ships came in, the Imperial theme would cue. Another theme would come in when your reinforcements did.

    The really interesting thing after playing both were my reactions to the music - after X-Wing I would cringe when I heard the Imperial theme, as it always meant more enemy ships. But after TIE Fighter, the Imperial theme began to sound noble.

    As some games get closer to movies, they will get more orchestral soundtracks (Final Fantasy). Some games will continue to have loopy techno music, like puzzle games. Games like TIE Fighter will creatively straddle the power of orchestra and looping nature of gaming.
  • Re:Missing the point (Score:2, Interesting)

    by AdamPiotrZochowski ( 736869 ) <> on Saturday August 07, 2004 @11:38PM (#9911647) Homepage

    \ But why would you want bouncy theme music during a tense scary
    \ moment in a game?

    Someone mentioned this earlier in another thread, KOTOR has tons
    of tense scary moments in the game, but it uses its orchestral
    Star Wars music that everyone can recognize, that people can humm

    Game music in the tense scary moments should not downgrade itself
    to being ambient wolf howl, wind and the wind chime like sound

    Why cant scary tense moments rely on music, that has own climaxes
    that has own growth. Why cannot we have something like Vivaldi's
    Bolero, it takes a good 15 minutes for it to get up to speed,
    in a game one could prolong it, and leave the climax for the
    fight with the boss.

    There is so much potential in games, so much in music, yet for
    many games this is left wasted.

    I inderstand that for a game that is 80hours long it is hard to
    create 80 hours music that is at the same time non boring, not
    repeating, not too annoying, rememberable, and that any part of
    the tune can melt into any other tune (to change with the mood
    of the game). Actually, not just hard but very hard, however
    much too often companies seem to totally skip looking into the
    music as an added bonus to the game, and just slap on any ambient
    tune that is forgotten before it moves from ear drump to brain.

    /apz, why does scary must mean looped wind samples?
  • by dstillz ( 704959 ) on Sunday August 08, 2004 @01:14AM (#9911964) Homepage Journal

    Some chiptune fan the author is...

    Still, no matter how catchy and memorable the tunes of Super Mario Bros. may be, they remain distinctly chirpy and fruity--saccharine for hyperactive adolescents. Please don't think that I'm trying to undervalue the superb work of Shigeru Miyamato.

    He doesn't know the difference between Koji Kondo and Shigeru Miyamoto, and even if he did, he wouldn't spell their romanized names correctly.

    As a big chiptune fan, I have to say that this guy's SID bias is appalling and that his writing is even more frustrating. He needs an editor.

  • You can roll dice [] to compose a minuet, however.
  • by speeDDemon (nw) ( 643987 ) on Sunday August 08, 2004 @03:01AM (#9912154) Homepage
    I just have to say that as much as I loved my commodore 64, I still loved my amiga 500 more! ahh the games, the demo's! was amazing stuff. This article was great as it helped me remember some of my favourite games tunes.

    My all time favourite is from the game "Lotus Turbo Challenge 2" and is the 'loader' music.

    I just downloaded it from HERE []

    This is 'mod' / protracker format music as used by the amiga, so maybe not quite so groundbreaking as the c64 and its SID chip were, but it was still brilliant.

    So what is your favourite music from the good ol days. ?
  • Hogwash. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Domini ( 103836 ) <> on Sunday August 08, 2004 @04:23AM (#9912312) Journal
    This is just another case of "the old games were better". Not true! Again!

    Game music is there to create an atmosphere, and thus has to be in the domain we are familiar with to be able to illict a human response.

    Something as arbitrary as Rob Hubbard whose Sanxion and Delta music was admitedly memorable does not promote the genre as a whole to be 'better'. He simply was good at creating atmosphere, and that's all he had to work with.

    Take Doom III and Quake I for instance. It's the best in-game music ever! Why? Because it got it's desired effect like few other games ever has.


    Now stop flogging a dead horse!

  • by thrash242 ( 697169 ) on Sunday August 08, 2004 @04:58AM (#9912366)
    ...kinda, anyway. I have no idea how actually practical this would be, but it might be neat to have some game music actually synthesized in realtime. A lot of game music now is dynamic, but it's basically (as far as I know) just mixing between different prerecorded songs. Keep in mind before reading further that this is purely speculative and probably not very practical.

    It would be neat to have things synthesized on the fly and the parameters could be adjusted in various ways depending on what's going on in the game. Old video game music was obviously synthesized in realtime, but not dynamic as far as I know.

    As a simple and retarded example off the top of my head, a main bass line or whatever could become more distorted and harsh the more damaged the player gets. The drum part could change and become faster or something. The only kind of game I can think of where this might be vaguely useful would be in a horror game or other game where atmosphere is very important. I could see--er, hear--a Silent Hill type game using a technique like this to possibly cool effect.

    Of course, this would be a lot more processor-intensive than just playing MP3 files or whatever. Modern softsynths can use up lots of CPU power. But there could be options for quality of sound, like there is now.

    So it probably wouldn't really be practical at all, but it's a neat idea, I think. I like dynamic music in games, as it can greatly facilitate a mood and a movielike feel, but most I've heard is just fading from one background music to another depending on whether you're in combat or exploring or whatnot. It begins to sound kind of silly if you get close to a monster, then move away, then back close, so forth. "Doo de doooo.... DUM DA DUM DA...doo de...DUM DA DUM...doo..." What I was thinking about would allow for much more gradual and subtle changes in the music.

    For the record, I'm an electronic musician that uses all kinds of software and hardware, so I know what this would entail on the music end.

    As for whether or not realistic or electronic sounds are better for games, it depends entirely on the game. Some need one kind, some the other, some both. The technique I'm thinking about could be used with either.
  • by Databass ( 254179 ) on Sunday August 08, 2004 @11:24PM (#9917417)

    As Audio Director for Flashbang Studios, I have been happy to grab some fame and recognition by taking precisely the approach so opposed in this article. In Beesly's Buzzwords [], we managed to receive a nomination to Finalist in the Audio Innovation for Web/Downloadable at the Independent Games Festival [] at Game Developer's Conference 2004.

    While one can never truly get in the minds of the judges, I believe we made it to Finalist precisely because we made our music sound MORE like a symphony orchestra and less like $20 Casio-tone keyboard. The web/downloadable category in large part represents the emerging "casual games" market. The audio budgets, both in cash and file size, can often be quite tiny. As such, synthy, repetitive pseudo-techno is often the norm. A similar game, Pop Cap's Bookworm [], has a single in-game loop that's maybe two minutes long. It's synthy and happy and kind of nice, but after playing, I mean "researching" the game for an hour, I wanted to scrub my mind clean of that song.

    Keeping that in mind, we gave Beesly four distinct songs, taking a cue from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. Winter and Spring are light and airy piano songs on sampled grand piano, and Summer and Fall are full (sampled) orchestrations that sound a bit like Copland if I want to be generous. Which I do, since it's my own project. At the time, my friends Paul and Jon [] and myself were working on a shoe-string budget. We couldn't afford an orchestra (if we could I would have gone for it), but we could afford a few hundred dollars of sampled Akai CDs. The majority of people who commented on the music for Buzzwords said that they find the it "soothing" and "nice". Some have even gone as far as to say it's the first casual game they haven't simply turned off the music in a few minutes.

    There's a reason many people like the sound of the symphony instruments more then synth-phony instruments. (Zing!) That reason is that the mainstays of the symphony orchestra, the brass (Trumpet, french horn), the woodwinds (clarinet oboe bassoon), the strings (violin viola cella bass) are all time-tested in a brutal darwinian competition for survival. For centuries composers have competed for funding and commissions, and in that competitive environment, only the sounds with waveforms and harmonics most naturally suited to some kind of average human ear have survived. Different cultures might find different timbers more appealing, but the surviving instruments have had centuries to settle upon overall pleasing sounds. (I am drawing heavily on a book called Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy here by Robert Jourdain. Slashdot is having trouble with the link.)

    Synth instruments are relatively new, having mere decades of darwinian refinement by comparison. Let's take food and wine as an example. Not everyone knows how to cook, but everyone knows what they like. Chefs have had thousands of years to study what human neurology will like in the way of food. Now let's add in the metaphor for synthetics. Tang is vaguely like orange juice, but few people would say it is somehow as tasty or as rich as the real organic thing. Grape Kool-Aid can be tasty in its own right, but wouldn't most people with refined tastes would prefer a fine wine or at least real fruit juice?

    Someday artificial foods may somehow surpass real foods, but they'll have to do really well to fool our highly evolved tastes. Take the Replicators on Star Trek- they could in theory replicate any food anyone could want or imagine. Thousands of tastes all at once that leave your taste buds reeling. So what do people usually replicate? Simple and familiar things. Steak and potatoes, coffee, or their old favorites from whatever planet they're from. And we'll use our cheap, flexibile digital hardware to try and make the best symphony sound we can for our next games. With luck,

Someday your prints will come. -- Kodak