A Brief Look into the History of Game Audio Technology: Part1

A Brief Look into the History of Game Audio Technology: Part1

Creativity Driven by Limited Resources


To explore the history of sound and games, we need to go further back than you might think. Unlike the film industry, we can't say that games had a particularly quiet period. The earliest examples of games and sound were found in gambling machines in the United States.
Liberty Bell, a symbol of freedom in the United States, was a large broken bell. It was also the name of the first widely successful gambling machine. The machine was designed to live up to its name - when you inserted a coin and three symbols lined up, the bell rang. Ding... and you received your 50 cents. Yes, we're talking about just 50 cents and the early 1900s.


The mechanism was quite simple. When you supplied electricity to a coil, it became magnetized, attracting a metal rod in front of it. When the electric charge decreased or disappeared, the rod connected to a bell was released, and a spring pushed the rod against the bell, just like old doorbells.
Pinball machines, which were popular in many states in the USA until the 1970s, were also brought together with sound through similar technologies in the 1930s. 


The Advent of the Digital World

The release of digital game machines and their convergence with sound, dates to the 1970s. "Computer Space" was the first commercially released arcade device and, therefore, the first video game (1971). The game featured rocket-like noises and beeps.
Before "Computer Space," there was a silent game called "Spacewar!" that was widespread among universities and developed for computers, although it was not commercially released. In a way, Computer Space can be considered an arcade adaptation of this game, turned into a coin-operated machine. It is also possible to find various game devices made for scientific purposes and exhibited in different places during those times.
Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, who developed Computer Space, asked Al Alcorn to create a simple game as an exercise, but the success of their collaboration opened the door to a major game, Pong! Pong was an arcade machine, a simple ping-pong simulation with basic sounds. Unlike Computer Space, Pong achieved great commercial success.


The Early Steps of Sound in Home Consoles

"Magnavox Odyssey" was the first home video game console released in 1972. Alongside Pong, it played a significant role in popularizing video games. The console included several built-in games; you could also buy additional games. Magnavox Odyssey was a silent game console, while the home version of Pong, from the same generation, had a sound like the arcade machine. The first sound-capable home video game console, Home Pong, used a simple circuit to produce sound.
In 1976, the Fairchild Channel Fun introduced a different system compared to other consoles of its generation. Instead of using the TV's audio system, it had built-in speakers specifically designed as the sound source, capable of producing three sounds at frequencies of 500 Hz, 1 kHz, and 1.5 kHz. While these frequencies were not ideal for making music, they were functional for sound effects.


The Early Steps of Music in Games

In the mid-1970s, short musical phrases like stingers began to be heard in arcade machines (e.g., Gun Fight). Gun Fight was also the first arcade machine to use microprocessors instead of hardwired circuits. The first continuous soundtrack appeared in 1978 with "Space Invaders."The continuous soundtrack of Space Invaders consisted of a 4-note loop. Although the soundtrack was not composed by a composer and was not fully melodic music, it marked an important milestone in the history of game music. As you shot the invading aliens, they decreased in number and increased in speed, and the music sped up in sync. It can be considered one of the first "adaptive" music applications in video game history.
Adaptive music means that the music changes according to the player's decisions and environment. This change can involve transitioning the music to a different sequence (horizontal) or adding/removing layers to/from the music (vertical). For a perfect example of one of the first adaptive music applications, you can look at "Frogger," developed by Konami and published by Sega in 1981. As you guide the frogs across the road, the music transitions to a different sequence with each frog crossing.


Trends of the 1980s

Although various game music tries were made in the 1970s, true soundtracks, good applications began to appear in the early 1980s. We can point to the soundtrack of Namco's game "Rally-X" (1980) as one of the first continuous, melodic soundtracks. Toshio Kai composed the music for this game where you drove a Formula 1 car in a maze and avoided red cars. Toshio Kai was also the sound designer and composer of the famous "Pac-Man" (1980). As you may know, Pac-Man had a significant impact on popular culture. For example, the song "Pac-Man Fever" (Buckner & Garcia), released two years after the game, climbed high on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in March 1982.


Nintendo, which released the console "Color TV-Game" in Japan in 1977, launched the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) internationally in 1985 (released in Japan as Famicom in 1983). The 8-bit console achieved great success with many music-oriented games such as "Super Mario Bros.," "Tetris," and "The Legend of Zelda." The sound chip allowed for 4-channel mono audio, providing an architectural design suitable for interactive music.


Following the NES, the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive (1988) offered 16-bit architecture and 6 channels of stereo sound. In Sega's game "Moonwalker," Michael Jackson’s songs were recreated using a synthesizer. This game was an early example of using globally recognized pop music within the game.


Widespread Sound Chips: SID, POKEY, and YM3812

The Commodore 64 was one of the first home computers produced in the early 1980s. It used a sound chip called SID, which had two versions. The device allowed the use of three independent sound channels (with separate waveforms, volumes, and pitch settings). It was possible to apply simple frequency filters to the channels.

Atari, founded by Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell in 1972 after they invented Pong, achieved significant success with its first-generation consoles. The "POKEY" chip, designed by Atari employee Doug Neubauer in the early 1980s, became a milestone. POKEY allowed the independent production of sound in four channels. While this may seem simple today, it was a significant achievement for the 1980s. Atari even used multiple chips in some arcade machines for more sound. You can listen to an example made with 2 POKEY chips from recent times here.



Yamaha took the concept a step further with the YM3812. This chip allowed the production of up to 9 channels of sound simultaneously. By giving up the adjustable 3 channels, the device could be used with 6 adjustable channels and 5 ready-made percussion channels. The chip offered highly detailed control over waveform generation and the ability to add various effects to the sound. It was used both in arcade machines and IBM-based computer sound cards. Here's a music example produced with the chip.


Even today, music is still being produced through discontinued console or computer chips, and the trading of these chips continues. Producing music through chips requires technical knowledge and effort. In addition to that, software emulators are simulating the sounds of these chips, and devices like MIDINES that turn game consoles (like NES) into instruments.


Bit Music Culture

The technological advancements of the 1980s brought game music and the music genres that have been continuously produced until today. The term "bit music" refers to music made using sound chips. This genre encompasses music produced with chips specifically for games in the 1980s and music made today using synthesizers or software that produce similar sounds. Sound chips from the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), Atari 8-bit POKEY chips, and Commodore 64 SID chips are commonly used in this music genre. Game music and sound chips played a significant role in the emergence of various music genres in the 80s and 90s, including Dungeon Synth, MIDI Music, Chiptune, Doskpop, 16-bit, and Nintendocore. To provide a recent example of bit music, we can showcase the music composed by Chipzel for the independent game developer Terry Cavanagh's game "Super Hexagon."


MIDI Technology

MIDI is a protocol for communication between devices. MIDI data contains information about how the sound will be produced when it will be played, and more. At its inception, MIDI data had limited sound quality due to the digital sound-producing capabilities of computer sound cards. In the 1990s, games like "7th Guest" successfully used MIDI, but it took many years for the protocol to become standardized.

No comments

Leave a comment
Your Email Address Will Not Be Published. Required Fields Are Marked *