Sunday, May 15, 2011

Yuzo Koshiro: One of the Originals, One of the Greats

Unlike the previous two composers I've posted about, this particular one started even earlier, during the 8-bit era. A compositional legend and a master of FM synthesis, Yuzo Koshiro began his career at Nihon Falcom in 1986.


He didn't stay with Falcom for too long, but he left an incredible legacy. He wrote songs for the games Sorcerian, Ys and Ys II, which although are not very popular outside of Japan, have absolutely incredible music. After his departure from Falcom, he became a freelancer, writing music for games such as Streets of Rage and ActRaiser. In 1990, he helped found Ancient Corp., a game developer which he's currently the manager of.

There isn't too much to be said about Koshiro other than his incredible music. He is, however, a skilled pianist and violinist, and has taken part in various concerts including the premier of PLAY! A Video Game Symphony in Chicago. He arranged music from Sonic the Hedgehog for this event.

Some of his more recent works include the Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune racing games, 7th Dragon, and the Etrian Odyssey series, which he gives a retro, PC-88 FM synthesis style. He also arranged the main theme from The Legend of Zelda for Super Smash Bros. Brawl, as well as Norfair from Metroid. And if you're a Castlevania fan, he did worked with Michiru Yamane to compose some tracks for Portrait of Ruin on the DS.

He truly is an absolute musical genius, and I highly recommend checking out more of his works. Furthermore, I really need to do a post on the Ys series as a whole.

Further reading:
Wikipedia article
Square Enix Music Online profile
Ancient Corp.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Angel's Fear

I'd like to talk about another composer who made his name during the SNES era. That composer is Hiroki Kikuta, the man responsible for the music you hear in the cult classic Secret of Mana.


Kikuta initially applied to Nihon Falcom, but was ultimate rejected. It wasn't until he applied to Square that his career began. During the interview, he had his first encounter with Nobuo Uematsu, the man behind a large number of Final Fantasy soundtracks. The two quickly learned that they shared a passion for progressive rock. Kikuta thought that he was being rejected due to the laidback manner of the interview, but instead, he was chosen out of 100 other applicants.

Initially Kikuta was not composing, however. He was given other tasks, such as debugging Final Fantasy IV and creating sound effects for Romancing SaGa. It wasn't until a bit later that he was assigned game soundtracks, of which he only produced three during his time at Square. Those titles being Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, and Soukaigi.

Chances are, if you played video games during the SNES era, you're already familiar with Secret of Mana. Many people regard it as one of the, if not the best action RPG ever created. I'm not too crazy about the gameplay, personally, but the game definitely has some killer tracks. However, I do hold an extreme love for Seiken Densetsu 3, which is the sequel to Secret of Mana. The gameplay is smooth and solid, the graphics are beautiful, the characters are interesting, and most of all, the music is absolutely amazing. Seiken Densetsu 3 is truly some of Kikuta's best work.

I really don't have anything to say about Soukaigi, however, as I have yet to play it. I don't seem to be alone in this, as I could only find one gameplay video on YouTube. The music, however, seems pretty solid.

As I said earlier, those three games are the only ones he did at Square. After seven years, he made his departure, going on to form his own company, Sacnoth (which later became Nautilus and died). He has also founded Nostrilia, which he uses to publish his albums. But he hasn't stopped composing. Kikuta has produced soundtracks for nine games since his days at Square, including recent titles such as Concerto Gate and Shining Hearts.

If you haven't checked out Seiken Densetsu 3, and you enjoy action RPGs, I implore you to do so. It was never released in America, sadly, but there is fortunately a translation patch.

Further reading:
Hiroki Kikuta's Wikipedia article
Kikuta's Square Enix Music profile
Angel's Fear: Kikuta's official website

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ryuji Rockin' Sasai

Aaaaaaaaaand Blogspot is back! 'bout time. Anyway, I've got to get going soon, so let's keep this a bit short. The mechanics of sound chips are interesting, but I'd like to start talking about the people who make it all possible: the composers. Well, technically, the programmers are the ones who work the sound chips typically (unless the composer is a programmer), but without someone to compose the music, it would be a waste of silicon.

He hasn't been featured in many games, but the work he has created is absolutely outstanding. You may know him as the composer for Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. His name is Ryuji Sasai, and he's a master of sound. Currently a bassist for the Japanese cover band QueenMania, Sasai's work is heavily influenced by both classic and progressive rock. His RPG overworld themes display a multitude of genres, including orchestral, but when the battle starts, your face is melted by fast and furious head-bangin' melodies.

The 80's ain't dead, fool.

His two most prominent works are Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and Rudra no Hihou (Treasure of the Rudra). Some of you are probably already familiar with the former, but the latter is a bit more obscure. Rudra no Hihou was, sadly, only released in Japan. It's an incredibly solid RPG with an engaging story and a cool system that lets you create different spells by changing their names.

Probably my favorite theme from the game is The Spirit Chaser, which is also one of my favorite songs. Period. Do your ears a favor and check it out. If you haven't heard his work from Mystic Quest, be sure to check that out, too. Once again, check out one of my previous posts for information on downloading SNES music.

Hope you enjoy this artist's awesome music. Get ready, because I intend to introduce you to many more!

Artist links:
Wikipedia article
Square Enix Music Online profile
QueenMania

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Super Simple SPC

The Genesis may have had the potential to sound amazing, but its complexity limited those unskilled in the art of FM synthesis. The Super Nintendo, however, sounded better on average (in my opinion) due to its simplicity. Instead of working with over forty knobs, trying to get the sound you want, the Super Nintendo's SPC700 accepted samples, which could be altered to achieve different pitches. In a sense, it functioned much like a tracker, which we'll undoubtedly get into some other time.

The SPC700 was, believe it or not, manufactured by Sony. Of course, this was before their advent in the console scene. The sound chip provides eight channels for composers to work with, allowing complex orchestral scores to be produced like those of Uematsu's.

There isn't too much to say about the SPC700, due to its sheer simplicity. Although you might find it interesting that people have created ways to rip the samples from SPC files, allowing for the creation of SNES music through the use of trackers and digital audio workstations. For information on .spc files, which can be used to play back SNES music, check out the post I made a couple of days ago.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The World of MIDI

Undoubtedly, one of my favorite creations in the world of music is that of MIDI. You're probably familiar with MIDI files (.mid), songs which tend to not sound too great (although I have a soft spot for them). But in actually, MIDI itself is a language, a way for devices to communicate and send messages. For instance, a musical keyboard that's controlling a synthesizer uses MIDI commands to control its sounds. These simple on/off changes have revolutionized how we interface electronic musical hardware. But really, I do want to talk about MIDI files, or more specifically MIDI standards.

In 1987, Roland released the MT-32, the Multi-Timbre Sound Module. Containing 128 different instruments and a drum kit, the MT-32 was a powerful device which began a line of colorful MIDI specifications. Four years later, General MIDI (GM) was brought to the world by the MIDI Manufacturers Association, and the standard was set for MIDI-based computer sound cards. In that same year, Roland released General Standard (GS), a specification which has prevailed 20 years later. If your sound card supports MIDI (99.9% chance it does), it probably has GS on it. Roland also used GS in their Sound Canvas line of tone generators, but the instruments sounded much better than those featured on most sound cards.

But Yamaha wouldn't settle for simply GS, so in 1994, they created XG. Which further improved the number of instruments presented by GS. XG has been extremely prominent among Japanese video game music arrangers. Finally, General MIDI Level 2 was created in 1999, the last specification thus far.

Indeed, there are quite a few different standards! But aside from MIDI files, how are they really used? The answer to that is through tone generators, such as the MT-32 and Sound Canvas series which I mentioned above. These synthesizers provide composers with a plethora of sounds which they can use to create or supplement their composing. Effects are commonly present on these small, musical boxes, such as reverb, chorus, and delay. But I mentioned you have a MIDI-based synthesizer on your sound card already. So why get one of these? Well, aside from sounding leagues better, tone generators also allow you to modify the sounds themselves. Most through ASDR (attack/sustain/decay/release) envelopes, which allow you to change how aggressive the sound is, how long it takes to fade out, and so forth. Others are more advanced, allowing you to make direct changes to how the sound is synthesized.

There are a plethora of different tone generators out there, many of which have been used in video games. Falcom used a Roland SC-88 in their intense action RPG Ys I & II Eternal. If you're familiar with ZUN's Touhou series, the music is made using a Roland SD-90, which is based on GS. Undoubtedly my favorite tone generator, however, is the Yamaha MU-1000/2000 (they're essentially identical). This particular box has an XG-based synthesizer on board, and sounds pretty good by itself. However, what really improves its capabilities are its built in amplifiers, which provide an incredibly rockin' distortion. I heavily encourage you to check out the artists S.S.H. and Ezel-Ash. Both use a MU-1000/2000 and produce absolutely awesome music.

Although these tone generators produce some really awesome sounds, they're slowly being phased out in favor of VSTs, due to costs and efficiency. However, some keyboards/workstations are still in production, such as the Roland Fantom-X series, which has been used by many professional musicians such as Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess.

There truly is so much more to the world of MIDI than the .mid files you find over at VGMusic (which are awesome, too). Hopefully I've sparked some kind of interest in you!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Back in Time

The 2A03 is an incredibly iconic sound in the world of video game music, but there's one that's just as important yet not as talked about (outside of Europe, at least): the MOS Technology SID. This programmable sound generator was used in the Commodore line of computers, and is essentially responsible for kicking off the Demoscene, an entire sub-cultural movement.

The SID is similar to the NES' 2A03, yet holds its differences. Unlike the 2A03, which has specific waveforms for each channel, the SID presents a bit more flexibility. The programmer has the ability to select which waveform each channel (voice) produces (a total of five), and can modulate the voices together.

Even if you're not familiar with the chip, there's a chance you might have already heard it in some of the music you listen to. The SID chip became popular enough among musicians to warrant Elektron's creation of the SidStation in 1996, a synthesizer based around the SID which continued production for 10 years. Artists such as Zombie Nation and Machinae Supremacy (won't give props to Timbaland due to his blatant plagiarism) have used the SidStation in the production of their music. Zombie Nation's Kernkraft 400 is actually a remix of Stardust from the C64 game Lazy Jones, and Machinae Supremacy uses the SID to embellish their hard rock.

With regard to C64 artists you should check out, definitely anything by Rob Hubbard, Jeroen Tel, and Chris H├╝lsbeck. There are a plethora of others, but those are definitely the big three. I especially recommend listening to music from Monty on the Run (Rob Hubbard) and the port of R-Type (Jeroen Tel & Ramiro Vaca). See my previous post on how to find this kind of music.

But getting an original SID isn't easy, and the SidStation was incredibly expensive. So, what do you do if you want to create some C64-based music? You turn to the wonderful world of VSTs, of course! There are a metric tonne of VSTs based off of the SID, even commercial products, such as reFX's quadraSID. I can't recommend a good, free C64 VST (due to the sheer number of them), but you can check out this site for a large list.

Sorry if my writing was somewhat dry, today. I was up late hanging out with some friends. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed it, and learned something new!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Kickin' it to Chiptunes

Man, all this talk about the mechanics of old school video game music, yet hardly any listening of it. Time to change that!

Ever wonder how people on YouTube upload a ton of music from older games? I'll give you a hint: they don't record it from the system itself. In actuality, they're just recording from various sound formats available on the Internet. Today, I'm going to teach you how to play these files, and allow you to enjoy music from practically any older game you desire! Some of you are probably already familiar with this, but for those who aren't, this should prove quite useful.

First off, we're going to need some plugins for our favorite media player. There are a lot, depending on what you want to play, but fortunately some people have made it extremely easy for us. To make this as simple as possible:

Use WinAMP? Install Chipamp: http://www.chipamp.org/
Use Foobar2000? Install Game Emu Player: http://kode54.foobar2000.org/foo_gep.zip

Basically, Chipamp is a package of well-regarded plugins, whereas Game Emu Player is a single plugin that supports a wide variety of files. One really isn't better than the other (although I do feel that SNESamp [included in Chipamp] is a better choice for SNES music, even if it's not as accurate), it just depends on what your preferred media player is. If you don't use either WinAMP or Foobar2000, there are some standalone players out there, although I really can't recommend any off the top of my head.

So now that we've installed a bunch of crap, let's get some music! Probably the best place to start is at good ol' Zophar's Domain: http://www.zophar.net/music.html

Basically, all you do is simply download the file/files, load them up into your media player, and as long as you have the necessary plugin, you'll be good to go. The files are incredibly small, too, making large collections far from a problem.

So now you may be wondering, how the heck does this even work? Well, basically, each file is essentially a frozen image from a rom of the original game. The music is stored into ram, and that part of the rom is captured. The plugin then uses this data to emulate the sound as a traditional emulator would. It's essentially an emulator without the game!

Of course, that raises the question of legality, to which I have some fortunate news. There has never been a request from copyright owners to have any video game chiptunes removed from a particular location. Because it isn't the entire game, it really isn't an issue. Of course, I still encourage the purchasing of original soundtracks (even if some are expensive as hell [Gradius ReBirth]).

One last word for Foobar2000 users: Game Emu Player doesn't support Commodore 64 playback (SID), so you'll need the following plugin if you desire to listen to some C64 music (check out R-Type's port, it's amazing!): http://kode54.foobar2000.org/foo_sid.zip

Other good sites for music:
Hope listening to some of your favorite old tunes elicits some nostalgia in all of you. Maybe you'll find some new music, too. I certainly have (Falsion, Madara, Dezaemon... check 'em out)!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The NES



Before we dive into the incredible sounds of the 2A03, I want to link to another example of FM synthesis:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKP_etVa_EU

The most obvious thing you may notice is that the quality of the sound is incredibly high compared to the more rudimentary stuff produced by the Mega Drive. As awesome as the YM2612 sounds, there really isn't much comparison. Sadly, however, I still have no idea what they produced that soundtrack's music on.

With that aside, let's dive into the glorious 8-bit sounds that we all know and love produced by the Nintendo Entertainment System!

Fortunately, the sound chip on the NES, the Ricoh 2A03, is quite a bit easier to understand than the Mega Drive's YM2612. It does not use FM synthesis, but instead four simple oscillators to create sound. But what is an oscillator? Well, I'm not going to get too far into the details, but it's basically a rudimentary waveform created by a repeating electronic signal. To visualize, let's look at a square wave:


As you can see, it actually does resemble a series of squares! Why over complicate things, right? Of course, now, you're probably wondering what a square wave actually sounds like. To put it into perspective, the two square wave channels are most commonly used for melodies and harmonies. They have a much greater presence than, say, the triangle wave, which we can see here:


The triangle wave, on the other hand, is used mainly for bass. It has a low, resonating tone, which makes it perfect for the job. But what about the white noise? Well, it's not as easy to visualize:


But that's because it's just a bunch of static. I'm sure you're familiar with white noise, the loud sound you hear when you tune in to an invalid channel on your television. But how could that possibly be of any application? By itself, it isn't, except for certain sound effects. But when you change the rate at which the volume fades out, you can create some very nice percussion!

So those are the four channels that create all of the sounds you heard in NES music. Pretty amazing, right? But I mentioned a sample channel earlier, too. That's the DPCM channel, or differential pulse code modulation. The name is only there to confuse you. It's just a sample channel. Ever wonder how they got the voices into Tecmo Bowl? Well, now you know! On that topic, I recommend checking out the music for the game Journey to Silius. The composer actually loaded bass samples into the DPCM channel instead of just using triangle waves. The result is one awesome soundtrack.

But not everyone was satisfied with only five channels. A few developers actually created their own sound chips to further enhance the audio capabilities of the NES, most notably Konami and their VRC6. The device, which was packaged in certain game cartridges, doubled the amount of channels available for use. Sadly, however, anyone outside of Japan was never able to experience this. The Japanese NES, the Famicom, was the only system that had support for the external sound chips. The localized NES did not. So certain games like Castlevania III didn't feature the audio that the composers intended. Compare the following two songs to hear the difference:

US/European Castlevania III
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGq9VjJXVh8

Japanese Castlevania III
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC4fYdrfS64

Well, hopefully now you're a bit more knowledgeable about the wonderful chip known as the 2A03! If you're really curious, you should check out the program Famitracker. It's a music making application that emulates the 2A03, allowing you to create NES music right at your computer! Here's a random video I pulled from YouTube that demonstrates this program:



Hope you enjoyed!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Frequency Modulation Synthesis

I want to talk about something today. That something is FM synthesis.

But what is it, you ask? Ever had a Sega Genesis/Mega Drive? Or perhaps an old Soundblaster sound card? Then you probably already know.

It's a way of synthesizing audio that was discovered by John Chowning in 1973. I won't get into the nitty-gritty, but I will say that you can make some really amazing sounds with it. Example? Thunder Force IV's soundtrack. Probably the best you can find on the Mega Drive. The quality is pure gold. Go look up the song Metal Squad (stage 8) in particular.

But FM synthesis does pose a bit of a problem: it's pretty difficult to engineer good sounds using it. If you can, then you're bound to create some awesome music. If you can't, well, there are quite a few Megadrive games that exemplify this. If you want to try your hand at it, though, there are a few VSTi's that utilize FM synthesis. One of the more popular ones is VOPM, which emulates the Yamaha YM2151, a sound chip that was very much similar to the Mega Drive's YM2612.

And now I'm regretting ever getting rid of my old Packard Bell with Windows 3.1 on it. Forgive me, I was young, and unknowing!

Let's Get This Rollin'!

Ah, yes. The almighty first post. This is where it all begins.

Well yeah, because a simple blog is so meaningful, right?

Anyway, I figured it was time to finally start one of these. Talk about some video games, some music, my boring life, all that stuff.

Will anyone care? There's only one way to find out!