Chip Music, Featured, Game Music, Music Production

NES Sounds as Instruments

July 29, 2015 | | 5 Comments Share thison Facebook NES Sounds as Instrumentson Twitter

The classic, simple sounds of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) from the era of 8-bit video game music are for many, including myself, very nostalgic and heartwarming. This is where it all began! Video games have come so far from these original beeps and boops; now there are live orchestras performing this music, sometimes in the game itself, and they even tour around the world to perform. Many people love these sounds and music for the memories they hold, but even so, they may not want to listen to them regularly when they’re not playing these games. And if you play an original NES tune for anyone who doesn’t have similar cherished memories of sitting around playing video games while their mothers begged them to go outside, they’ll probably cringe at the cacophony of fake, electronic noise that you’re subjecting them to. Chances are they will be bewildered that anyone would enjoy such a thing or find value in it, even if they’re too polite to say so.

I am one of the folks who believes that there is a lot to be admired about the music from the 8-bit era of video games, and I believe that there is a lot that contemporary composers can learn from this body of work. If you listen closely, you can hear how composers writing for the NES learned to treat these sounds as instruments, not just sounds, and how they managed to create music, instead of just noise.

To be clear, sounds from the 8-bit era can include other consoles beyond just the NES, and some of those consoles even had more robust sound capabilities than what I will be discussing (the Amiga would be one example). For brevity’s sake, I’ll be focusing on sounds from NES games, and I will only be covering a few examples.

Let’s start with the landscape that we’re working with. The original NES hardware had pretty simple audio capabilities: it could support up to five channel of sound at a time, including two pulse wave channels, one triangle wave channel, one white noise channel, and one differential pulse-code modulation (DPCM) channel for sound samples. The two pulse wave channels would typically be used for melodic or accompaniment lines. They support three different types of sounds, based on the pulse width of the wave used. The triangle wave channel was usually used for basslines, and could sometimes also be used to emulate percussive sounds. The noise channel was typically used for percussion sounds, and offered a total of 32 different voices. The sample channel uses 1-bit samples encoded as DPCM. This would often be used for percussion (for instance, timpani and bongos in Super Mario 3), but some games did use it for melodic purposes, such as for bass samples.

You could spend a whole article talking about this topic by itself, so I will just cover some of the important limitations that composers would have had to keep in mind when writing music for an NES game. For starters, none of these channels could generate more than one sound at a time, so ultimately you are limited to chords of no more than three notes.

Volume is another issue. The triangle wave channel has no volume control at all, so with that one you are limited to either having it be on or off. For the other channels, they only have 16 values to control volume, 0-15 (quiet to loud). So while something like a fadeout would be possible if you start at a high volume, it would not be possible from lower volumes, since there are so few volume values to work with; having a fadeout starting on value 4 and going down to 0 would sound choppy, simply because there are only three discrete steps between 4 and 0.

Let’s look at some examples of how composers worked around these issues and how their music developed. Listen to the “Overworld Theme” from Final Fantasy I:

You can hear that’s it’s pretty simple. It’s using both of the pulse wave channels, and the triangle wave channel for the base. So you get the melody, one accompaniment line, and the bassline. They each have their own sound, so they’re easier to tell apart, but ultimately they are just straightforward wave sounds.

Now, listen to “The Boundless Ocean” from Final Fantasy III

On the surface, this one is even simpler; it’s just a melody and a bassline doing an arpeggiated accompaniment. So what makes this one different from the Final Fantasy I “Overworld Theme”? Listen closely to the melody; there are actually a couple of things going on here. For one, that second wave channel that you might think is not being used at first, is actually being used to double the melody line. Each note of the melody on the second wave channel comes in ever so slightly after the first one, which creates a subtle echoing effect. This technique is very common is music in video games, and can be observed in many games even in later consoles; take a listen to “The Sanctums” composed by Motoi Sakuraba for the Gameboy Advance game Golden Sun for a (relatively) more recent example. The woodwind melodic line is repeated by a second line exactly one sixteenth note later to create an echo effect.

Back to “The Boundless Ocean”, the second wave channel is also using a different wave sound then the first one, which gives the melody a different character. This technique would be akin to a composer giving the same melody to a flute and an oboe in an orchestral context to create a new sound. These two techniques are used purposefully in this particular track to create a mysterious ambiance for this new part of the overworld and help set it apart from the main overworld of the game.

There is also some attention to detail here that should be noted. The composer Nobuo Uematsu added vibrato to the melody line. It’s a little subtle, but you can hear the first sustained note swell slightly, then pull back before going into a faster vibrato. This is a great example of how composers would really think of the sounds as instruments and write for them and program them as such. This level of detail helps bring life and character to what would otherwise be fairly flat compositions.

Another track that I’d like to examine is the battle music from Dragon Quest IV, composed by Koichi Sugiyama. Take a listen here:

One of the most simple but actually very notable aspects of this track is that it features a crescendo! If you’re an experienced musician, this might not sound at all exciting; after all, most music features some kind of change in dynamics. But with the NES’ limited hardware, changes in dynamics were really quite rare, so this was one of the few tracks to really try to push the limits of what could be done with the NES’ limit of 16 dynamic values. If you listen, at 19 seconds in the music begins an upward run very quietly, and it gradually gets louder and louder before reaching a climactic chord.

This track also showcases another technique that was common in this type of music to help create richer textures. Though each wave channel can only produce one note at time, they are able to switch between notes very rapidly. The various runs written in this track make use of very rapid switching of notes to help create a sound that feels like a larger a larger texture, something on the level of an orchestra, rather than just three voices. Essentially, each channel is playing several musical lines at one, and it is doing so not by playing them at the same time, but by switching between the two lines so rapidly that it creates the illusion that both of them are being played almost simultaneously. This is a little bit similar to the echo effect we looked at in “The Boundless Ocean”, with the two lines repeating another another, and the two techniques can be used in conjunction with one another to create some surprisingly complex and rich musical textures, despite the fact that there are ultimately only 3 voices (plus the noise channel and the sample channel if they are being used). This is one way in which the mechanical nature of the sounds can actually be advantageous; actual performers would not be able to play most of these lines strictly as written for the NES sound channels, but the NES doesn’t run into those same limitations.

Since so many people have nostalgia for these old games and sounds, there are actually new music scenes that focus on incorporating basic wave sounds very similar to the NES sound into their music. Different philosophies and approaches have come up in the chipscene as it is frequently called. Some musicians use the actual hardware of old consoles such as the NES or Gameboy, etc, to write music. They use software to control the console and play music directly from the original hardware, which means that they work within the same constraints that I’ve outlined above to an extent. Many will also add other parts to the music, particularly if they are performing live. One example is from Nullsleep; take a listen to his track “Her Lazer Light Eyes” here:

This particular example could sound like it is actually from a video game if you weren’t familiar with some of the limitations that I’ve discussed here. Others will use wave sounds similar to the NES wave sounds in their music, but incorporate them into a totally different style. One of the most popular styles in this area is electronic dance music. This is basically tapping into the nostalgia that people have for these sounds, but putting them into a new musical context. For an example, you could take a listen to Square Punch’s Cheese EP:

Still others will use predominantly or solely wave sounds like the NES, as an homage to the music, but will not do so with the original hardware. This is often referred to as “fakebit” music. On the surface, it may sound like something that could have come from the NES, but because it is produced on modern hardware it usually involves other sounds or techniques that would not have been available on the NES, and thus the music circumvents many of the original limitations of the hardware. For an example, take a listen to Ulfhedn4r’s cover of Square Punch’s “Charge Shot” here:

Regardless of if you are a purist or a pioneer with this music, it’s worth taking some time to understand the original context of the music and how and why it was written the way it was. If you write music, it can be a good way to think about new techniques to use in your own compositions. And the next time you run into someone who accuses this music of being “just noise”, you’ll know exactly how it can be seen as so much more.

Disclaimer: Music and videos featured are property of their respective creators

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