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how NES music was made


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#1 bucky

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 02:29 PM

Eventually I plan on writing some sort of article on the matter. I don't think there are any detailed publications on the subject, but I believe that early computer and video game music will eventually be examined in a legitimate, historical context if the right information is out there.

In the context of electronic music, it'll always be some sort of underdog, but it'd be impossible to trace the roots of electronic music and leave out the history of vgm and early computer music. You can only focus on Moog synthesizers and Wendy Carlos for so long, you know? ;) There's very little information on the subject of 'how it was made', and I feel like there's lots of speculation and misconceptions, so I'll do my best to make that my contribution to the internets.

I'll be editing this post with more findings, here's the foundations of what I have so far-

We have detailed information from-
1 - Neil Baldwin
2 - Alberto Gonzalez
3 - David Wise
4 - Tommy Tallarico

1. Neil Baldwin - link
Composer of Magician, James Bond Jr, Lethal Weapon 3, Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge, The Jungle Book, Dropzone, and Hero Quest + Erik the Viking (both unreleased).

In short - He wrote most everything out in text files that were subsequently compiled with Eurocom's own 6502 assembler. A Yamaha keyboard and graph paper were some of the physical tools that assisted in the composition and transcription process, although the keyboard was in no way actually interfaced with the system.

Detailed explanation-

NB: There were no tools to speak of so everything was entered as numbers in the assembler/editor. Later on I turned the numbers for command codes into macros to make entering and reading the sequences of notes a little easier but that's as sophisticated as it got. I worked out tunes on a little Yamaha keyboard and typed in the pitches and durations. Often I'd work out timings on some squared graph paper, mostly by trial and error.

- - -

Dennis: 'My big question is what kind of software you eventually fell into using, and if it resembled a tracker of any sort?

NB: All of my music was entered in text files and compiled with our own in-house 6502 assembler. I'd messed around with tracker-style programs on the Amiga but it's not a format that I ever really got on with. I did write some simple MIDI-to-text utility later on but it's use was very limited so 90% of the time I just typed everything in.


Further anecdotes on working with the NES-

NB: We had no development hardware just half-a-dozen Famicom consoles and a badly photocopied hardware specification that was 99% written in Japanese! What we lacked in resources, we clearly made up for in boundless determination.

Luckily for us, our parent company (at the time) employed the skills of a really talented electronics engineer, Richard Alton, who managed to reverse engineer (and build) some flash-ROM cartridges and together with an old 6502 editor/assembler, "PDS", we had ourselves a rudimentary development kit!

I remember myself and Tim Rogers (now Technical Director at Eurocom) visiting the languages department at Sheffield University with the photocopied Japanese NES manual and with the help of two Japanese girls we deciphered a lot of the technical information. They're uncredited in the history of Eurocom but looking back, I'm not quite sure how we'd have progressed without their help!


2. Alberto Gonzalez - link
Composer of Asterix and The Smurfs.

In short - He wrote his own tracker for the ZX Spectrum, titled Compact Editor, and sequenced out the basics of the music (notes, lengths) on there. Then after it was converted to source code most of the percussion, instrument details, and other nuances were all done in a plain text file. Data was transferred across platforms using a piece of hardware known as the P.D.S.

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Detailed explanation-

B: Wait, so you even wrote NES music, for example, on the ZX Spectrum! Tell us a little bit more about your program Compact Editor, and how it basically functioned. Was it capable of tracking / composing a complete song from start to finish for the rest of your non-ZX 8-bit soundtracks?

AG: Compact Editor was a simple music sequencer, based on tracks, blocks, and instrument definitions, inspired by some Amiga computer trackers like NoiseTracker. A complementary PC program named “The Sourcer” was used to transform the binary data created with Compact Editor into raw source code, as a text language that I could understand (basic notes, lengths, etc). This way I could then edit the songs into its fullest detail.

- - -

AG: My entire process of making music for 8 bit consoles can be elaborated as such- First I used the Compact Editor to compose the basic idea of the song, with its different parts. Later the song was transformed into source code using The Sourcer, and then as a plain text file I put the small details and riffs into the song, as well the drum track and the final sound for each instrument. This process was done by changing the source code, compiling, sending it to the console, listening, and so on again and again until it sounded as I intended (or I ran out of time!). Finally, if required (most of the time), the compression stage took place, which consisted of finding and reusing small fragments of the song to make it use the least amount of memory possible.

Many times I adapted the sound driver for each game, adding new commands and effects, drum sounds or whatever. It was an evolving thing. I don’t know how the other musicians did their soundtracks, I’m still wondering, but don’t think it would be much different.


Further anecdotes on working with the NES-

AG: ... The NES had something special. The triangle wave channel was a good source for percussive sounds and boomy basses, although it wasn’t very usable for other kind of sounds. I really enjoyed doing the music of Asterix & The Smurfs. Solstice by Tim Follin was my inspiration at that time. I had to learn 6502 and I liked it much more than I would have imagined.

AG: ... When I was writing Asterix for the NES and learning the sound chip, I didn’t find information about the right frequency values to use for the notes (the frequency table), and the values of my Game Boy driver didn’t work. So what I did was create a small program for the Game Boy to play each note (12*8 notes if I remember correctly), and another program in the NES to lower and raise the sound frequency with the controller. Then I played each note in the Game Boy and tried to mach its frequency on the NES “by ear”, to find the right value for the registers. How brute is that? Well it worked, but now when I listen to my NES soundtracks I notice that some notes are a bit out of tune.


3. David Wise - link
Composer / Sound Design for Battletoads, Wizards and Warriors, Marble Madness, Ironsword, Taboo: The Sixth Sense, Pin-bot and many others.

The explanation is a bit short to summarize, so I'll skip the 'in short' here and go straight to the quote-

OCR: What was the first week on the job like?

DW: Good - interesting. Video games were still in their infancy, and learning that the sound chip on the NES - the Nintendo Entertainment System - was somewhat compromised, compared to a Roland D-50, certainly made things challenging. But I like a challenge!

OCR: What was the most difficult thing to learn?

There was no MIDI, instead, notes were entered data style into a PC. I typed in hex numbers for pitch and length and a few commands for looping subroutines. And this method of writing video game music continued right through to the end of the SNES development.


4. Tommy Tallarico - link 1, link 2
Composer for Color a Dinosaur (NES), as well as many more post-NES soundtracks.

In short - Working with a limited sound driver, and approaching the NES from more of a musical background than a programming one, Tallarico used a midi (.mid) -> ascii (.asc) converter. The converter was programmed by Virgin vice president Dr. Stephen Clarke-Wilson. Music was initially sequenced with Cakewalk. The sounds were edited and finalized using a custom NES cart- a gutted copy of what was formerly a test version of Golf Power, replaced with "Tommy T's Play Me Sound Editor"-


(note that the video is about the discovery of the item, which is why the speaker didn't know much about it at the time)

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Detailed explanation-

TT: I had never done music and sound fx for an NES game before...

The sound driver for the NES was horrid!! Before the G.E.M.S. tool for the Sega Genesis you pretty much had to be a computer programmer in order to do sound for video games, especially the NES. [Dr. Stephen Clarke-Wilson] who was not only a talented musician and programmer in his own right created a small conversion program in Cakewalk which enabled midi files (.mid) to be converted to ascii (.asc) files. With .asc files I could get the NES to sound like something as long as I stayed within the proper note ranges. As far as sound fx went I could tweak a bunch of numbers and make some interesting albeit annoying sounds...

I created the simplest midi files I could in the time I had and ran them through the midi to ascii converter...

There were all sorts of tweaking tricks one could do to get it to sound “not horrible”. Composer/programmers could write their own tools and incorporate things like vibrato and pitch bend. I mean lets face it the most memorable and popular songs in the entire history of the video game industry were created and performed on the NES! Of course I’m talking about the music from Mario Bros. Well, when it came to the NES I was no Kojii Kondo!! Especially considering I had a beat up piece of crap audio driver and a day to learn it and compose for it.


Further anecdotes on the NES sound editor-

TT: I saw the pics of the carts in a forum. Yeah... those were my carts from almost 20 years ago. And the "Tommy T." label is my handwriting. The "Golf Power" was an old cartridge casing that I erased over... I was a game tester for Golf Power so when the game was completed I used the cart to put an NES sound engine on it for when I was working on Color A Dinosaur!


Edited by bucky, 13 March 2012 - 07:23 PM.

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#2 Norrin_Radd

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 02:48 PM

Annnnnnnnnnnnd brilliant!

Awesome post Bucky!
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#3 Classic-wolf

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 02:59 PM

Holy Sh*t! That is awesome beyond most of the reading I've done in the past 3-months.
I feel better, now knowing some of the provided information, because I personally enjoy video-game history.
Thank you Bucky.
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#4 Daemon9623

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 03:02 PM

Wow, that is seriously awesome to read.
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#5 Spookmeister C

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 03:35 PM

Bucky is a master researcher. More proof right there.
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#6 SSS key

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 03:39 PM

What has always made me wonder is what the work environment on computer looked like back in the day.
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#7 ShawnPhase

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 03:40 PM

cool stuff! im actually planning on doing a q&a with kev about how the .nsf format came to be if you think you would want to tie that in with the later parts.
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#8 bucky

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 05:23 PM

just added david wise to the op!

cool stuff! im actually planning on doing a q&a with kev about how the .nsf format came to be if you think you would want to tie that in with the later parts.

sounds good! definitely keep us posted on that.

What has always made me wonder is what the work environment on computer looked like back in the day.

Yeah! It'd be cool to get a bit more detailed information on the actual programs and operating systems involved. Although you could likely replicate a decent stretch of Alberto Gonzalez's process with a ZX Spectrum or ZX emulator. His tracker Compact Editor is available for download- http://www.worldofsp....cgi?id=0018925
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Although after you finally converted the music to source you might be stuck at the step where'd you'd need this guy, a bit of hardware from 1987:
http://www.worldofspectrum.org/infoseek.cgi?regexp=^P.D.S.$&pub=^P.D.+Systems+Ltd$&loadpics=1
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#9 Corax

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 05:28 PM

bucky, I just want you to know in advance, that I will buy multiple copies of your ineveitable book. And make sure they are passed down generation upon generation within my family.


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#10 cetera

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 05:28 PM

only on the shizz.
its like wonkas candy factory for game music. BUT DADDY I WANT AN DUTY CYCLE NOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW
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first of all, funky fm music just really does it for me.  Even if it's something corny like early mariah carey I can get way into the music with the fm bass and keys going on.   Then, there's everything else in this song.  The enigmatic title.  The synth programming brings out all the right emotional responses in me:  leads that remind me of thunderforce (even if the portamento isn't quite as exaggerated), chording synths that remind me of very old and charming genesis osts like super monaco (except somehow they don't sound as flimsy here), and of course a solid bass.  Great original motifs, interesting harmonies, good melody, rhythm.. everything that can make a song great is here!

 

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#11 jmr

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 05:35 PM

bucky, I just want you to know in advance, that I will buy multiple copies of your ineveitable book. And make sure they are passed down generation upon generation within my family.

this.
Really interesting read thus far.
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#12 mercatfat

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 05:52 PM

I have another one to add to the list- George "The Fat Man" Sanger who I've had some dialogue with recently regarding Maniac Mansion. He's also done too many other games to list.

I was trying to find out more about the creation of the music in Maniac Mansion, and possibly the original demo recordings. It was done by Sanger, and converted by David Warhol. I had assumed it was done with live instruments first, but not the case! I inquired on a tape that is in the musical archives of University of Texas, called "NES Demos," which Sanger created. I'd inquired about making a digital copy of the tape, but it turns out Sanger already had one!

I do have a digital version of the Nintendo demo cassette. (there are two sides--"Nintendo" and "MT-32.") I would post it to you but my ftp is being stubborn.

We sent Dave Warhol MIDI files that we wrote using an MT-32, usually orchestrated for "two boops, a beep, and a Phhhhhtht." He analyzed the MIDI files and translated them, using his own software, into synthesized tones of his own creation that were played on the internal hardware of the NES or Gameboy.


Eventually, he came through with the upload:

Ah, got the FTP working, and the demo is posted for you.

http://fatman.com/ftpguest/nintendo

This might clarify the thing you were curious about. What you hear on the demo is what Team Fat would write--parts for the "two beeps, a boop, and a THTHTHTHTHpt" but played on a nice synth (an MT-32) but without using any fancy features. The tones are basically chosen to give Dave W. an idea of what we were going for.

The other side of that cassette, however, has not been archived (that I can find around here) so I leave that mission to y'all.

:)
Thanks,
FAT


It should be noted that the Maniac Mansion track on the tape is in the NSF, but not the game. It features a few other games as well.

In short, I'm going to be archiving the Mt-32 side soon, so I may have more to update with soon.
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#13 Ryan8bit

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 06:11 PM

This thread is neat.

I have another one to add to the list- George "The Fat Man" Sanger who I've had some dialogue with recently regarding Maniac Mansion.


Huh, so that sorta explains that missing track on the NSF. What was the story with that?

Also, if you're asking him questions, ask which songs of the characters spoof which particular bands. For instance, "The Boys Are Still Back" by Fat Patty is an obvious play on words with "The Boys Are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy. Others might be Razor's song "No No Never Never Well Maybe Sure Ok" by The Void being "Never Say Never" by Romeo Void, and Bernard's "Comp-U-Nerd" by the Rocket Scientists being "Girl U Want" by Devo (although it's slightly more of a stretch). There's a few I can't figure out like Sid and Michael, but it'd be interesting to know all.
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I think at max length it made it to my nipples.


#14 bucky

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 06:13 PM

This is an awesome contribution! Seriously. Wow. That mp3 is crucial! :D
I love that unused track, so much. Sanger is one rad composer...

You're the man.

I've wanted to get into contact with David Warhol, his NES music has such a particular sound and I've wondered about his process. I assumed MIDI was involved in some way (while I'm aware MIDI was probably not involved in most NES music)... not sure why I've thought that, but something is just different about his music. I knew Maniac Mansion was a collaborative effort, but I didn't know in what fashion exactly.

Someone I spoke with on youtube said they were in contact with Warhol and were trying to obtain his NES software. I'll follow up on that...
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#15 mercatfat

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 06:13 PM

he unfortunately remembers very little. :(

by the way, Bucky, if you're interested in his work, he's EXTREMELY easy and fun to talk to. he's just about the most passionate dude ever when it comes to supporting musicians.
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