Archive for the 'knowledge' Category

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.


this is…

July 23, 2010

…clever. Very clever.

Portland band Dirty Mittens, when searching for a unique way to both ramp up fan interaction and say thanks to their loyal following, stumbled onto an idea that struck them as so simple they couldn’t believe they were the only band doing it: punch cards. “We’re making VIP punch cards, like you get at the coffee shop,” says singer/guitarist Chelsea Morrisey. “If you come to 5 shows and get us to punch your card each time, you can redeem the card for a super awesome prize. Basically whatever you want: a copy of our album when it’s released, drink beers with us at practice, a shirt, make-outs with any eligible band member, a free show, we come over and make you dinner, whatever.”

They had the cards designed by a friend and handed them out inside demo CDs they distributed for free at shows. They’ve found that not only does it encourage repeat visits to their shows, but it has also shown their fans that they appreciate them enough to give something back. “For the band, it’s our way of saying thanks to the people who come out to our shows and help make playing music something that we love to do,” says Morrisey.

acumen fund & jacqueline novogratz

July 13, 2010

Seth Godin recently gave away a free ebook “Insubordinate”, in which he talks of “linchpins” (yeah, I didn’t know what they were either). In it, he calls Jacqueline Novogratz his idol, and mentions the name of her organization, “Acumen Fund“. That name seemed familiar – I found out that it was one of the websites I checked out after reading this article of STEP. I checked out the Acumen Fund blog, to have it bookmarked, and found out that she gave a talk recently, right here in Pakistan!

I’ll just quote her wikipedia page about Acumen Fund: “Acumen Fund seeks to prove that small amounts of philanthropic capital, combined with large doses of business acumen, can build thriving enterprises that serve vast numbers of the poor.” The idea is pretty cool I think, and it makes sense to me, you know. As kids we’re always taught of the importance and value of charity, but as of the past couple of years I’ve diverged a little. I’ve found in my own experiences that there are no shortcuts, that you get out of something only what you put in. And charity, or at least blind charity, doesn’t mean much. I mean, you’re just giving away money in a blink. You may argue that the money itself has value, and you’re right, but the only effort involved here is to convince yourself to give it away, and that’s not much effort at all. It’s just a decision, that’s it. You think about it for a while, you decide, and that’s it, your work is done. It involves no effort, no pain. So charity alone is not the answer, you need to do something extra to help the unfortunate, you have to get involved, spend time, break a sweat… only then will the fruit hold well. And if Acumen Fund is doing what it claims to do, its doing good. Its putting in effort by visiting the poor, getting to know them personally, and help them set up small businesses…not just throwing money at them. Jacqueline says the poor need to be able to make their own decisions, solve their problems by themselves and we simply need to aid them in it. She calls it “dignity”, and I think I agree.

The STEP article also mentioned of Micro Drip. Not only is micro drip associated with Acumen Fund, but Jacqueline also talked a bit about its founder, Dr. Sono Khangarani. Now how cool is that? Guess we have more intelligent good people around than I knew.

So here’s her the talk she gave:-

On a side note I’m pretty sick of all the popularity TED has acheived. I mean, its a good endeavor and all that, but they way people are going around sharing talks on facebook you’d’ve thought we’re all standing it a huge-ass pit of world-changers and a revolution is about to begin. It’s not…unless the effort is actually put in. TED talks have simply become “fashionable”, they’ve become “in”, they’ve gotten hip. I loathe that.

Monopolies in western media

July 2, 2010

Here is an article (found viaSeth Godin wrote for a Fast Company issue back in 2002. Remember, this is way back when most of us pakistani elite-urban youth were happy just playing Red Alert 2 on our computers. We had no internet access, heck we barely knew what it was. Though Kazaa had probably gained, or was in the process of gaining, momentum, but that was outside of Pakistan. All our music and TV entertainment came from Indus Music, FM 101, cassettes or audio CDs. So its interesting when this man speaks about media giants – big TV, movie or music organizations/companies/labels – being cut down in size, because it’s something we weren’t experiencing (and still aren’t I think, but that’s another topic). But in case you are unaware, the developed countries’ were starting to face that problem then, and they are facing them even more severely now. I’ll quote, with minor edits, to give a shorter version of the article:-

It must be hard to be a one-name mogul, burdened with the task of meeting so many of the public’s entertainment needs. I’m writing to let you know that I feel your pain. On one hand, you hate your customers. On the other hand, you hate the talent who actually make your products.

Todd is a criminal. Every time he uses the computer in his dorm room at Tufts (not his real university) to download a DVD, he’s violating the law.

Lois isn’t a criminal, but every time she goes to the movies, she risks being kicked out. Uniformed guards search Lois and other movie patrons as they come in, confiscating energy bars (not her real snack), bottled water, and other contraband that cut into sales at concession stands.

So how do you and your cohorts respond to such threats? It appears that you believe that the best thing to do is to make more criminals. Make Steve Jobs a criminal for selling iPods.

Why can’t Nike charge $500 for sneakers? Because there are easy substitutes. In almost every industry, consumers have countless choices. And unless a product is truly unique, they can take their money elsewhere.

The media business was built on scarcity. Scarcity of spectrum. Scarcity of hits. Scarcity caused by copyright and limited shelf space. Consumers hate scarcity. But you and I know that monopolists love scarcity. When consumers have fewer choices, a monopoly thrives.

And now there’s no scarcity of easy ways to duplicate something that has already been purchased. It’s easy to share with friends (and strangers). The result: Just because media companies enjoyed an 80- or 90-yearlong ride doesn’t mean that it will last forever. It’s over.

This must really piss you off. So let me be the first to welcome you to a new century. In this new century, all businesspeople have the same goal: to establish a direct and positive relationship with the end user.

You monopolists appear to believe that you have a right to business as usual. You believe that if the rules of the marketplace change, it’s not fair. You believe that you somehow deserve the private planes, the great parties, and the obscene profits. You also seem to think that if your monopoly were to go away, so would all of the good ideas.

The truth is, the supply is in terrific shape, thanks. In fact, there’s never been more to choose from. The only thing that would go away would be your profits. Ouch.

Steve Jobs must be torn. On one hand, he makes iPods. On the other, he makes Monsters, Inc. Think about that for a second. Steve Jobs has two jobs, and one of them could bankrupt the other (if your rhetoric is to be believed). He’s not dumb. He gets it.

And Jobs isn’t really torn. Why not? Because he has learned not to think like a monopolist. He learned the hard way. Apple had a monopoly on the personal computer. After just a couple of years on top, it started acting like it was the only game in town. With Apple playing the bully, IBM and Microsoft snuck in and trounced the Apple II with their own version of the PC. Apple could have immediately created a better computer. Instead, it whined and moaned, like all monopolists, and watched as the industry it built got taken away.

Microsoft can teach something to you and to all of the other monopolists. It’s not about Washington lobbying or long court fights. It’s about attitude. Microsoft is great at being a paranoid monopolist. It is delighted to extract every penny it can from any market it can monopolize. But as a company, Microsoft is insanely paranoid. It expects every monopoly to disappear at any moment, and it always has a backup plan. Microsoft is happy to embrace the new and to encourage a market, because it knows that if it starts now, it has an even better chance of monopolizing that market when it grows.

One last thing: I’m not saying that I want the markets to be the way they are. I’m not saying that pirating is right. But I am saying that it exists and that it’s going to become more widespread. So here are your basic choices: You can whine, lobby, sue, and then cripple your product so that it can’t be copied. Or, maybe, just maybe, you can stop thinking like a monopolist long enough to find new business models, new markets, and new strategic plans.

Think about it. The internet has, with it, broken all chains of entertainment. You can now get for free, on youtube, rapidshare, and, what you would’ve had to pay for before. And that is scary for the people who were making insanely big money before, and so they fight (and lose).

But this is not yet true here, of course. For instance, Geo still rules the news with its crap, and new channels just keep cropping up one by one. When the hell will they die? When will we find local, intelligent alternatives of these, free of BS? Progress is being made already in the west, at least in the musical aspect from what I know. When will it be our turn? The internet, and along with it, file-sharing, is here to stay yar.