In this installment of guest blogger Frank Klepacki’s series on music production Frank examines how the low-tech sound of early video games is making a comeback. If you missed Frank’s previous post, you can read it here.
When I first began my career, the first video game I worked on was called “DragonStrike” for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The limitations of music playback I had to work with on that system were three monophonic channels and one white noise channel. So I used one channel for the bass lines, one channel for lead melody, one channel for harmonies, and the white noise channel for snare drum rhythms. That’s like telling a composer they have to create a whole score with only a bass guitar, a flute, a clarinet, and a snare drum.
It forces you to compose with the bare minimum, and focus on only the most important things that will drive the music forward along with the gameplay. The years to come after that would rapidly expand our composing options on newer systems, to the point of being able to score with live symphonies and have it on par with all other media, only for a retro-gaming culture to emerge and start creating music with these old sounds and limitations again. Commonly referred to as “chiptunes,” the character of these types of instruments and sounds were generated by certain “chips” that provided audio in older consoles and sound cards.
So after having climbed the whole technological ladder in my career, I found myself in 2016 being hired to create music for a series of games called “8-Bit Armies,” “8-Bit Hordes,” and “8-Bit Invaders.” The music would be “in the spirit” of these retro styles, and, oddly enough, I found myself ironically using new technology to get the older sounds.
At first, I started searching around for any type of VST emulation of NES sounds, and I wasn’t surprised to easily find a few basic free ones. However, one that stood out as the mother of all of them – one that I had to have – was Super Audio Cart from Impact Soundworks, a Kontakt-supported VST that has full-blown content and sounds of all the old consoles. And seeing as how Native Instruments Kontakt is my main source for sample-based instruments, I would use this as my go-to for those types of instruments moving forward. I enjoyed being able to easily add effects, dial in the ADSR to my liking, tweak vibrato, or even play arpeggios on each instrument, if I desired.
However, since I wasn’t limited by any amount of channels in this day and age, the challenge was how to make something that bridges the best of both retro and modern in a fun way.
For “8-Bit Armies,” the subject matter was fun military factions, so I dialed up some modern synths such as Massive, Razor, and Serum. Then I added some live rock guitars with my custom Tagg guitar through an Empress heavy pedal on a Rivera Knucklehead reverb, with an AT5045 mic. On bass I used my custom Tagg bass through an Aguilar Tone Hammer 500, with a BP40 mic and direct signal combined. With a bit of mid-’90s era influence from my “Command & Conquer” soundtrack styles, and the Super Audio Cart instrument as the featured 8-bit sounds on top of that foundation, it worked rather well together, and the game, along with its soundtrack, was well received. After all these years, it amazes me how much of a following this style of music I’ve done still has.
For “8-Bit Hordes,” the subject matter was fantasy. I did something I had personally never heard done before – at least not in the capacity of a whole game’s soundtrack. I did a traditional orchestral score as the foundation, featuring Cinesamples Brass, Woodwinds, Strings, and Drums of War, and used Super Audio Cart’s 8-bit instruments as not only leads on top of it, but sometimes as standalone sections that interweaved with the realistic sections. I wasn’t quite sure if that would work since it’s such a drastic contrast and juxtaposition. But what I did to really make this work was to treat these sections separately with limitations. The 8-bit-only sections were written with minimal channels intentionally so that the orchestra variants could carry those important melodies forward and serve even as a dynamic element that goes from small-sounding to large-sounding. When put in the context of gameplay, it really worked and was even that much more enhanced with the action.
For “8-Bit Invaders,” the subject matter was sci-fi. But being that I’d already done modern rocktronic-meets-retro, and modern orchestra-meets-retro, I wanted to give a unique set of sounds to this one so that it would stylistically stand apart from the others. I decided it was time for a new synth for the centerpiece of this one to help define it. This is another great coincidence. Long ago, I had worked on the first real-time strategy (RTS) game ever made, called “Dune 2.” It was based on the Dune books, and again, in the old days I was using the FM synthesis cards that PCs could use in the early ’90s. Fast-forward to 2016, and I’m doing a new retro-inspired RTS game, which is also sci-fi, and I happened to come across a new VST synth called “Dune 2” – how could I not use this? It was fate! It has a great character to it and seems to get everything from old-school sounds to new and modern – and really whatever you can tweak out of it; the effects it has, alone, are really atmospheric. I wrote just about all the music with that synth alone, and would occasionally add in some of my others if I was looking for something specific, and then, of course, used Super Audio Cart again as the cherry on top. Because of the heavy reliance on the synth sounds, it was easy for me to blend it all to sound more seamless.
I had previously tackled some of these chiptune styles in my solo album “Conquering 20 Years,” where I started the album with the track “8-Bit Dragons,” which was intentionally limited to how I wrote back in the day, then going through all the technological sounds of my career with each song so that you hear the progression, until it’s a rocking symphony.
But to be able to revisit this 8-bit style once again after 25 years for these new video game soundtracks, and put a modern spin on it, just took me on a really fun, full-circle journey that reminded me of my roots, while still allowing me to be creative with it.
“8-Bit Armies,” “8-Bit Hordes,” and “8-Bit Invaders” are available for download on Steam, along with their individual soundtracks, as a bundle deal here: http://store.steampowered.com/bundle/2247/.
Frank Klepacki is an award-winning composer for video games and television for such titles as Command & Conquer, Star Wars: Empire at War, and MMA sports programs such as Ultimate Fighting Championship and Inside MMA. He is the audio director for Petroglyph, in addition to being a recording artist, touring performer, and producer. For more info, visit www.frankklepacki.com