tracker and old video-game music

August 1, 2011

A friend of mine shared a clip of music on facebook about a month ago. It was from the old Sega Genesis video game The Adventures of Batman and Robin. Cool track. Yes, it may have had a “cheap” sound – all old video games do (just like substandard sound toys) but there’s nothing substandard about such video-game music. It’s simply artists and composers using what is available to them – i.e. the (limited) sound board of the video-game console – to make music to accompany a video game, to make for as complete an experience as possible.

So, don’t discard such music, and not just because of the hard work put into it (Yes indeedy, it’s hard work. Some video-games, like in the case of the mainstream professional music scene, have instances of some really good music. The above clip would be a case in point. And you can bet your ass it’d be hard to make a tune in such a ‘cheap-sounding’ world of sound, because its so unnatural to hear!) – because you see, if you let go of the bad first impression of the sound, if you let your ears sink in, you enter into a whole new world of music. A world dominated by samples of sound at various pitches, finely captured (Yep. More on this below) or synthesized, with minimal effects of panning and volume applied on top, all layered up, and looping into and out-of patterns or sections of music. I think I’m safe in saying that all this kind of music can be lumped into the label of “tracker music” or “MOD music”.

See, the music from TABR I’ve linked above had a link in its description to Project 2612. What these crazies are doing is, they are storing lots and lots of module/tracker files of music from Sega Genesis video games, thanks to the VGM module format that the Genesis emulator Fusion can ‘rip’ or log music to.

Now, what happened was, that after listening to Flying Over the City, I had a slight tingling to go back and just hear music from some of the old video-games I’ve played either on the Genesis, or the NES or SNES. I check out the video description, and I’m quite pleasantly surprised to see Jesper Kyd, the famed music composer of the Hitman series (among others), to be the composer for the track. I read further down the description, click the Project 2612 link, and a few seconds later I’ve wet my home-shorts… there’s a whole bunch of people who not only treasure this retro music, but they’re cataloguing it too! And then I jump into a spree of mouse clicks and searches, and I’ve downloaded a bunch of old video-game music and stumbled onto the wikipedia entry for MOD music. And then, past experiences begin to connect together:-

Ever used a crack tool/patch? I’m sure you have, you filthy, thankless, poor-as-dirt pirate. Remember how a lot of them had music attached to them? Yep, tracker music. (sometimes even visuals too)

Ever wondered, after experiencing the mp3 format of sizes ~3 MB, how old video games of sizes ~2-3 MB used to contain music? (Most probably) tracker music.

I remember how I used to really dig the music of some old video games – Comix Zone, Fifa 97 Gold, Road Rash II, Robocop 3, Jazz Jackrabbit (PC-DOS), TMNT HSH, TMNT TF, and of course the giants of that time – Sonic and Mario (clever punks were the mascots of their individual consoles, so developers exploited them fully to showcase the aural and visual capabilities of the console… meaning, they were always one of the best-looking and most fun-sounding games on their respective machines!). They always added to the video game.

I remember how I was recommended by an internet friend, several years ago (~2004) to try a software called “modplug” to make some music. I did. Never made any frikkin’ sense out of it. But now, I have an idea at least – it was a tracker software! It’s all adding up for me! Maybe I’m dumb, but I never realized these things before.

But what is a tracker software? And what the heck is a module file??!

A tracker software is a small sequencer – a pattern-maker of samples (clips) of audio. You synthesize or record small samples of music (like, say, a single note of a bass guitar, a snare drum, a note of a piano) and make ‘patterns’ which would be a section of a song. When you’ve made a couple of patterns, you put them in order and assign looping attributes. So what you have is a complete song – it keeps going into one pattern after another and the patterns could be repeated, and each pattern has its own sequence of ‘calling’ the samples into action and to a particular volume and pitch/frequency. All the file has to contain is the samples and/or the synthesis algorithms; and the sequence, pitch, volume and panning (left, centre, right..) of all the notes of the song, which it plays in real time. And all this lends to the small size of these tracker/mod files. (It’s very similar to MIDI I’m sure, only MIDI files contain JUST the compositional information and not the sounds/samples themselves – those are synthesized live by the individual soundcard or driver) And that is the reason they had fit into early video games so nicely. (Although there are some bigger sizes present around now. Probably due to lengthy and/or quality sampling.)

But there’s more. Making (good) MOD music is not so simple, and this is 1/3rd the reason of the ‘hard’ part of retro video game music IMHO – Your samples, although cheap sounding to the amateur ear, have to be very well-recorded or well-synthesized in their own right, such that they can ‘blend in’ well with the rest of the song, almost anytime during the song. This is called getting a ‘good mix‘. A good mix is music prepared such that it sounds good not only on the sound system you are currently using, but on as many other sound systems as possible. This does not happen very easily because, for one, samples of audio, lots of times, overlap and muddle up other pieces of audio, giving an unpleasant sound (rough example: too much bass from both the bass guitar and bass drum, due to both belonging in the low frequency domain and overlapping there) – this is all the info I can put into words with the limited knowledge I have for mixing. So you have to have very well-prepared samples of audio and that is no easy feat. You may get lucky like I have once or twice, but it takes practice and experience (and a good sound studio).

The other 1/3rd of MOD music being hard? Programming/sequencing it! Synthesizing samples! – the Sega Genesis seems to have sound sound chips which synthesized sound samples on the fly. They too had their constraints that composers had to work along with. (The first 1/3rd I’ve already mentioned above as being the unnaturally synthetic sound.)

So dive into old video game and tracker music. Go past the first impression of the sound and really see into the song and its aural experience. Eventually you’ll come to take the unique sound as a unique, positive, signifying characteristic rather than a hindrance. Check out OpenMPT (the successor to ModPlug, and its FREE!) and Renoise and try to make some tunes. Revisit old video games and enjoy their music. Go download plugins for MOD music playback (for all of you who are intelligent, educated, computer-literate, a little geeky, and possess some sense of aesthetics – winamp users in other words – here‘s a link for WA5 plugins) for your favorite music player and get music from Sega Genesis games from Project 2612. Go visit The Mod Archive and start checking out mod music that others have uploaded (There’s genre-browsing available AND a builtin player to test out the tunes), there are definitely cool ones to be found (some almost equal professional electronic music IMO). Download ’em! Listen! Load them into OpenMPT and tinker around!

On the ending note of this most-lengthy, happy post is me sharing my thought that the TMNT Tournament Fighters music for the Sega Genesis by Miki Higashino is pretty sick. It has so much heavy bass to it, so much rythm! Check out this bad-ass theme to Raphael. Hear it start from that trippy stereo arpeggio, then dive headfirst into an urgent, percussive atmosphere:

The Adventures of Batman and Robin is pretty damn good too. Only I haven’t had the patience yet to delve into the lengthy songs.

And Jazz Jackrabbit (Robert Allen and Joshua Jensen) is just a classic. Wish I could enjoy all its songs equally…

And Comix Zone (Howard Drossin) was possibly the first one to really amaze me with its grunge-y, rock music. Still does. Great, fun video-game too.

Aug 3 Edit: In hindsight, one of my mistakes may have been to mix up chiptune music with tracker/mod music. If so then I would guess that the VGM format doesn’t store any audio samples but instead synthesizes sound samples on the fly, emulating the sound chips of the Sega Genesis.

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3 Responses to “tracker and old video-game music”

  1. Taimur Says:

    These video game tracks are quite under-rated, just because they sound cheap, agreed. It’s the more reason to listen to them imo, because if despite the limitations they made the impact then its awesome. I still remember the old Castlevania and Doom soundtracks.
    I like the fact several new indie games have the faux retro sound influenced from these old gems. And there are some handheld console circuit bending and fm modifying artists who still keep the genre alive. It requires a fair degree of dedication and expertise to compose using chiptunes and resisting the urge to not just tack it on to cliched pop sounds and reverbs.
    Its a deep world to go into.

    • aerial_meds Says:

      Hmm, I’ll check out the music for those two.

      Yeah, and it seems to be a tough world to get into. And most likely un-rewarding too.

      Personally though its still hard for me to listen to this kind of music for too long. Wears me out.

  2. Taimur Says:

    and comix zone was real fun


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