Old video game music never dies, it just bleeps away…
In this entry I will be talking about the love of oldschool sounds and how they may be useful in modern composing to capture that je ne sais quoi of retro games. Chiptunes, 8-bit effects and synthetic drumkits are the staples of retro composing. Out with the new, in with the old!
It’s important to remember one’s roots, and video game composers have it no differently. My gaming started early with the Apple and the Atari, but the music in most of those cases is best remembered through the foggy glasses of nostalgia. A lot of my personal inspiration came from long nights playing the NES, SNES, Genesis, Amiga, and Turbo Graphix. Games like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana are my favorites, but every game I played affected me and ultimately my career.
Synthesized drumkits are a dead giveaway for this style of music. The lower the fidelity, the better – some of these can be more “noise-like” or sound like an effect rather than an actual drum - however, you may want to double up with a more modern drumkit to save your sanity. Since a lot of older video games were composed via code, they were composed as either simple patterns or sometimes as crazy, near-impossible drum loops. For the complicated, try composing straight snares and kicks in the appropriate beats, but splash in a lot of fillers, such as quadruplet drumsnares rising in velocity to power into the next measure. Alternatively, see if extremely simplistic drum patterns with little-to-no variety is all that’s necessary to convey your retro vibe.
Instruments of Yore
The best thing about this style of music is not having to worry about getting your instruments to sound like a professional orchestra. Synth strings, electronic pianos, xylophones, low quality brass, are all great choices. But the best instrument up our sleeves is the beautful chiptunes. These are the sounds of retro. Since they can be harsh and painful at times, try reverb filters to temper some of the rough edges. You can also EQ the very top and low gritty ends so they don’t damage the ears - the trick is to convey this style, not hit people over the head with it so hard they wake up in 1984.
Some of the charm of this style is the way songs were composed. With limited technology, sometimes songs were composed with only two or three instruments, with the remaining channels dedicated to sfx. That means, a bass, a melody, and a drumbeat, and sometimes the drumbeat and the bass were actually the same thing. To make up for this, sometimes the melodies did ridiculous things to add complexity. One thing to try is to compose a chiptune melody impossibly fast for a filler measure. I'm talking about a triple-speed, bafflingly complex arpeggio. Another way to bring back this style of composition is to have a lower register chiptune plunk out a very simple I-V-I-V-I pattern set soley to a drumkit loop. The idea is that simpler times had simpler music; ah, the good old days.
Parting thoughts… before another generation passes
Listening to older video gametracks should be a national pastime, but is essential for composers today. There’s no short supply of nostalgic games to play and listen to, so do so! Listening to what you like is the best way to learn how to compose what you like. Remember to draw only inspiration from sources; always be creative – and have fun!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. Examples of his latest work and samples are available at www.harrymack.com.