A Brief History Of Video Game Music - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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A Brief History Of Video Game Music

Chris Morley goes 8-bit.

Not only did video gaming really take off in the 1970s, the music behind the games did too. As a solution to the problem of just how best to actually store the monophonic masterpieces, synthesisers were included in some vintage arcade machines, computers and video game consoles. These eventually made way for the programmable sound generator (PSG) sound chips to play chip music, also known as chiptune, a style of synthesized electronic music that appeared during the early 8-bit gaming era.

Chiptune in its earliest form allowed for electrical impulses to be converted into analogue sound by means of a specific chip, one of its earliest uses occurring during 1975s Gun Fight, though at this early stage it was only ever used occasionally at the beginning or between levels of the majority of games.

The first game to have a continuous soundtrack playing throughout was Space Invaders, which gaming scholar Andrew Schartmann hailed as a turning point.
 “The well-known four-note loop [played][ throughout, uninterrupted by sound effects. It was thus the first time that sound effects and music were superimposed to form a rich sonic landscape. Not only do players receive feedback related directly to their actions through sound effects; they also receive stimulus in a more subtle, non-interactive fashion through music."
That same four note loop also works in a similar way to recurring motifs in film & television.
"That seemingly pedestrian four-note loop might stir us in the most primitive of ways, but that it stirs us at all is worthy of note. By demonstrating that game sound could be more than a simple tune to fill the silence, Space Invaders moved video game music closer to the realm of art."

Within two years of Space Invaders 1978 release, though, music in a gaming context would have moved on from those four bass notes. Space Invaders creator/composer Tomihiro Nishikado was possibly more than a little miffed following the release of Namco's Rally-X which featured actual properly melodic music. Even if it was only a simple tune...

Home consoles weren't quite there yet. If you went into your local electronic store and said...
"I'd like an Atari 2600 system please and everything that goes with it"...

...musically, everything that went with it was only two notes! However, pop to the local arcade in 1981 and you'd have heard up to eleven if you went for a game of Frogger.

The following year's Dig Dug went that little bit further to draw the player in with music which only stopped when you yourself did, a triumph for Namco once more as well as Yuriko Keino, the man behind it.

Backing up before we go forward, we return to 1979 for the both curious & perhaps overlooked contribution of the Yellow Magic Orchestra to video game music. As pioneers in the use of synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, drum machines, computers, and digital recording technology, they are widely considered influential and innovative in the field of popular electronic music. Credited with playing a key role in the development of several electronic genres, including synthpop, J-pop, electro, and techno, the Yellow Magic Orchestra were one of the first to have their musical creations included in a video game. Almost like completing a perfect circle, YMO created music on a computer, and that music was recreated and sampled for use in a computer game.

Take, for instance, their second album Solid State Survivor. It contains a track called Rydeen, later rendered in chiptune fashion for Sega's Super Locomotive.

Northern Irish composer Martin Galway also incorporated it into his work on Stryker's Run and Daley Thompson's Decathlon...

Galway became one of the first to work samples into his music for several Commodore 64 games, including Arkanoid, as home computer game soundtracks, didn't exactly catch the arcades but, stretched their respective machines capabilities. How did Galwayt do so?
“It was a drum synthesizer package called Digidrums, actually, so you could still say I was the first to include samples in a piece of music. [...] Never would I claim to have invented that technique, I just got it published first.

In fact, I couldn't really figure out where they got the sample data, just that they were wiggling the volume register so I tried to make up my own drum sample sounds in real-time – which is the flatulence stuff that shipped in Arkanoid... After the project was in the shops I gained access to some real drum samples, and I slid those into my own custom version of the tune. The one that's in the shops is kind of a collage of farts & burps, don't you think?”
Certainly a different perspective!

Incredibly if you had wanted to sample your own bodily functions to create game music of your own you could do just that a mere year on from the release of Arkanoid, providing you owned an Amiga machine as the German composer & software developer Karsten Obarski made his Soundtracker available to all in 1987.

You were able to use 15 samples/instruments over the course of a piece of music - though it was quickly dismissed & glossed over in favour of alternatives.

The man who can probably be given the credit for doing most to bring game soundtracks in line with conventional pop music is most likely the late Richard Joseph, whose work for Sensible Sofware often found room for lyrics & vocals - think War Has Never Been So Much Fun from 1993s Cannon Fodder & Goal Scoring Superstar Hero from the fillowing years Sensible World Of Soccer.

All of which is a far cry from what we hear as we play today, even orchestras outside the Yellow Magic variety willing to dip in. Ron Jones was the first to bring in a larger ensemble to work on a video game score. Not only did he provide music for the first four seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, his arrangements for the Star Trek tie-ins Starfleet Academy & Starfleet Command bodly went where no video game soundtrack had gone before...

Of course, for the last couple of decades there has been no line between video game music and any other composition produced - technology and advancements in storage/processing power marrying the two perfectly to provide, for example, full compilation style soundtracks for titles like Grand Theft Auto or the ability to mix your own music in DJ Hero games.

The ability to create music and, indeed, your own video game has never been easier, with sequencing and drag and drop packages readily, and freely, available. Allowing anyone with the time and determination the ability to create in-game music that has the same breadth and complexity we associate with television and film scores. Technology has now made the creative possibilities of video game music limitless.

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