'Ode to Joysticks' excerpts part 1: The early pioneers of video game music


We teased out some choice quotes from the experts interviewed in the video game music podcast series Ode to Joysticks. Part 1 explores the musical creativity of the leading ’80s chiptune composers.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

Ben Eshmade, the chap behind the fortnightly Barbican Contemporary Music podcast (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast), recently had the opportunity to interview a VIP list of video game composers and game music experts (and yours truly from Laced Records) about all sorts of topics such as the chiptune roots of the medium, the science of ‘the earworm’, and the proliferation of VGM performers and live concerts. The result was the fascinating three episode series Ode to Joysticks, aired between 28th February and 13th March 2018.

With Eshmade’s blessing, we thought we’d pull out a few interesting quotes from the stellar line-up of people who, quite simply, know their shit; interwoven with examples of pioneering game music from over the last 30 years.

In part 1, we explore the origins of chiptune, the audio limitations and sonic signatures of gaming systems like the Commodore 64 and the NES, and the compositional techniques used by the likes of VGM legends Rob Hubbard and Koji Kondo.

Part 2 is now live — "How game composers create other worlds" featuring Austin Wintory, Jesper Kyd, Eímear Noone and others musing on the value of game music in immersing players in otherworldly settings.

I’ll have chiptunes with that

Mathematical musician/musical mathematician Dr. Kenneth McAlpine outlined the appeal of early video game music:

“It’s a fun, upbeat sound that you can’t help but warm to. More importantly, the limitations of 8-bit chiptune can be very liberating… Modern computers and software have given us access to music tools that [can lead to] creative block — the tyranny of choice [resulting in] creative procrastination.

“Chiptune is an antidote to the overproduced sound of contemporary music. You’ve got no option but to go back to basics and address the fundamentals that make music engaging and entertaining. There’s nowhere for half-baked ideas or weak arrangements to hide; it’s electronic music in its rawest, most fundamental state. It’s all about simple ideas expressed well.”

Board member of the UK's National Videogame Arcade, Professor James Newman, weighs in:

“Video game music has evolved, both as the [production] technology and the [types of] people who produce it have changed over time. It isn’t really a single thing — it’s an evolving story, which is a combination of technology, craft and artistry.

“It’s important to remember that video games were a visual and interactive medium first [since early games and consoles didn’t have sound.] Once we get into the arcade, game music performs a number of different functions: catchy melodies [you come to] associate with the game; and sound effects that help you understand what’s happening. [You get that wonderful] cacophony of every arcade cabinet shouting at you saying ‘play me, play me, put your 10p/quarter into the slot.’”

In terms of very early consoles, the general goal was to bring the arcade into the home and create as true a facsimile of a game as possible — although the home conversions were often inferior. In terms of sound, 1977’s Atari 2600 “was great at making engine noises and raspy explosions [but it wasn’t] a composer’s dream… There are various techniques that composers start to use to overcome the limitations of those systems.”

Rob Hubbard and the So SID Crew

Along came more capable gaming systems, whether consoles or home computers, which had more sophisticated sound chips. Says Prof. Newman: “What you start to find is composers starting to be drawn to game music, and writing [tracks] that suit the abilities of the systems.”

He cites the Commodore 64 (1982) and its Sound Interface Device — AKA the ‘SID chip’ — as a perfect example of this: “It’s essentially a synth — it just doesn’t have a wooden box and a [keyboard] so you have to programme it using hexadecimal code. Composers start to write pieces of music for the chip... rather than taking a piece of music and trying to translate it into three channels of square wave.”

Which brings us to one of the early titans of video game music, Mr. SID Chip himself, Rob Hubbard.

Rob Hubbard

Rob Hubbard, legendary chiptune composer of the Commodore 64 era (and beyond).

Hubbard recalls: “I used to sketch out ideas on [musical manuscript paper] as [quickly as possible] so I didn’t forget the idea. I also needed it as a reference because of the way that I had to code [the music].” He and other composers had to hand-code music tracks for the C64 to play back, but “it wasn’t as bad as what you think it is — you get into the swing of things. In general, it would take maybe three days to do a project.”

As well as a few different music tracks, Hubbard would have to create sound effects, which he found to be “a bit of a pain in the arse. Sometimes you got lucky [and] stumbled across a sound was that was actually quite reasonable; other times it was just knuckle down and do the best you could.”

During his most prolific period of work, Hubbard scored 75 or so games between 1985 and 1989: “I didn’t know if the work was going to dry up or the games business was going to fold. My mindset was: ‘I’ve gotta keep going with this for as long as it’s going to last.”

His compositional process involved coming up with a melody and a bass line first, “and the melody was basically something that could be sung… You’ve got various sequences and phrases, answer phrases, common tone modulation and all that kind of stuff. I was conscious that somebody would load these games and the tunes [would] drive people nuts [through repetition]. So I deliberately [composed] complex tunes that had A, B, C, D, E and F sections [rather than A, B then A again]. Some of these things ended up being 10 minutes long!”

A particular fan-favourite soundtrack that Hubbard didn’t think much of at the time is Sanxion’s:

East versus West

Dr. McAlpine tackles a tricky question: how did the early video game music from the UK stack up against that by Japanese composers like Nintendo’s Koji Kondo?

“I’m not sure you can directly compare the Japanese and UK composers of that period because the mindsets and their approach to composition were really quite different. It’s a bit like trying to compare the very best of punk with the very best of prog rock — they’re both fascinating but in very different ways.

“Typically in the UK, the approach was to create complexity by pushing beyond the constraints of the hardware. Composers like Rob Hubbard and Fred Gray developed an array of different compositional techniques and crucially, bespoke machine code to do just that: [for instance] they would arpeggiate or toggle chords, switching rapidly between the different notes of the chord on one single channel to create harmonic depth whilst still leaving room in the composition to have melody, bass and percussion happening round about it.

“Koji Kondo took the opposite approach. Rather than push the hardware beyond its limits, he wrote music that would make a feature of its strengths. In particular he stripped the harmony back to its fundamentals using ‘shell voicing’: a technique that’s got more in common with the jazz piano music of Bill Evans and Art Tatem than it does with the music of Rob Hubbard. He also focused on getting the most out of just two or three channels. Instead of trying to create harmonic richness, he looked to the rhythm to create complexity, introducing sophisticated syncopations and polyrhythms, similar to those of Debussy.”

Koji Kondo

Koji Kondo, the man behind the iconic music of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda series.

Dr. McAlpine:

“On top of that, Kondo was one of the first composers to explore the idea that video game music might work functionally like film music: tightly tying in the action to the gameplay, which is a far from trivial task when you throw player interaction into the mix. You can’t predict in advance what music cues might be needed and when.

“His approach to light open orchestration and rhythmic complexity was really as much a function of the technical requirements of getting the music to work effectively with the gameplay as it was any sense of personal musical style. It’s no less innovative or musically interesting [than Rob Hubbard et al], it’s just different.”

That Nintendo sound

As a next step from the C64, Prof. Newman mentions the Famicom (1983) / Nintendo Entertainment System (1985). He points out that, because it didn’t have speakers and relied on the television for audio output, there isn’t a definitive reference point for what the console sounded like — your mileage varies depending on the TV’s speakers. The console essentially had four channels of audio, meaning that a game like Super Mario Bros. breaks down to melody, counter-melody, bassline and rhythm tracks. However, sound effects also have to fit in there, hence why, whenever Mario jumps and the jumping sound plays, the other aspects of the music momentarily cut out.

Prof. Newman points out: “[On the one hand] it’s easier to say what a Game Boy sounds like because it has a dedicated speaker and a headphone out. [However] it’s harder to say what it sounds like because there are so many different iterations of the Game Boy, and they all sound a bit different. A lot of people say the first big grey edition sounds the best.”

He concludes: “Those musical motifs are at the heart of defining what ‘Nintendo-ness’ is. It’s very difficult to imagine what Super Mario Bros. would be like without hearing that soundtrack back in your head — it’s so much a part of what that game is and how we’ve come to understand it. There are stories of [Super Mario Bros. composer] Koji Kondo having written a piece of music and then, seeing the gameplay, realising that it doesn’t work at all. Even the style of composition is something distinctive to Nintendo, and it’s something that [the company] references to this day.”

Game composers were always celebrated

Of the early composers, Prof. Newman guesses that “they weren’t necessarily expecting their work to be played in concert halls in 20 years’ time — [for tracks] to have the longevity, or be repurposed and reused.” That said, “those musicians were bringing craft and artistry, and were very aware that they were producing pieces of music that were in many ways much more sophisticated than they needed to be.

“In the magazine culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s, [game] musicians would be interviewed and talked about in much the same way as game designers. There was always an interest in game music and a fandom surrounding their work. Many is the player who purchased a game for the soundtrack alone. I’ve bought a game with a soundtrack by a composer I liked — my first reaction was put the game in and record it onto my cassette recorder so I could listen to it on my walkman!”

Driving things forward whilst looking backwards

Prof. Newman explains that the next major change came with consoles sporting a CD-ROM drive, including the PlayStation (1994), which allowed the playback of standard CD audio “opening up a whole raft of different possibilities. You’re not really beholden on the abilities of the system.”

This led to the advent of licensed music in games. A famous early example was PlayStation launch title WipEout, which helped Sony forge a “connection between video games and club culture.” The soundtrack featured The Chemical Brothers, Leftfield and Orbital.

Fast forward to the present day, and we find that “there are large span of platforms now. The current generation of PCs and consoles have moved beyond that period in the ‘80s and ‘90s where each sound chip offered something that the previous one didn’t, [and each] had a distinctive sound. [We now have] the ability to play many hundreds of channels from a sound chip or to directly stream multi-channel audio from a disc.”

The last few years have also seen surround sound becoming more prominent, not just in cutscenes but in real-time during gameplay. This has become especially important in VR: “It’s typical to think about VR as being a visual medium, but it’s often the sound that’s used to direct players’ attention. [VR is as] exciting in terms of sound as it is in visuals, [but techniques are] still being improvised and made up.”

He points out that everyone involved with game music, whether creators or fans, is constantly looking to the past as much as the future: “[In 2018] what’s interesting to see is the revisiting of the 8-bit aesthetic [and] the permanence of that – it has never really gone away.” He suggests that the fan culture around older game music is becoming more mainstream. “Popular music [has been] infected by game music aesthetics, whether that’s compositional styles or the sound of old gaming hardware. This stuff is part of the lexicon of modern electronic music [thanks to the] emulation of those devices in software or the ripping out of chips from home computers and putting them inside pieces of modular equipment. It’s not nostalgia when we think about the Commodore 64 because it’s still a music making device today!”

“Music that originated in the ‘80s and ‘90s still has a life and a meaning today. People are listening to it, re-working it; those compositions are inspiring new composers today. Those sound design techniques are inspiring new sound designers and synthesists. Those systems and platforms are as meaningful today as they were — in many ways more meaningful and more usable.”

“It’s tempting to think of game music as being cheap ‘blippy bloppy’ stuff. [But then] you hear a composer like Rob Hubbard talking about [taking] inspiration [and composition techniques from minimalist composer] Philip Glass… game music is often a gateway to thinking about other kinds of composition and other forms of sound design.”

Be sure to check out Ode to Joysticks via the Barbican Contemporary Music podcast feed (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast) — the first episode was published on 28th February 2018.

Read part 2: "How game composers create other worlds"