The URI! Zone - 02/2002
There's an important lesson I've learned from the assorted presentations I've given since the beginning of the school year. Even though my presentations may not contain fillips of unbridled ingenuity, hot damn, people sure do like my fonts. Except for its letter "e", the Technical font which has been my standard font for about seven years seems to evoke universal admiration from professor and student alike. Not that I had anything to do with it, other than installing it, of course.
I was reviewing some works for the jazz history listening exam yesterday and found that some of the performances are horrible. People, especially jazz-oriented people, tend to blur the distinction between historic recordings and good recordings. Yes, that tenor sax chart may be the first recorded instance of bebop, but the performance sounds like a cat choir vomiting hairballs in unison.
"Wagner did not like the saxophone. He said 'it sounds like the word Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge'." - Nicolas Slonimsky
Today's been a productive day, as far as school work goes. I've allocated this weekend for catching up on work and getting ahead in a few classes so I can devote more time to composing later in the month. I still haven't started on the third movement of my string quartet, even though I'd planned to commence immediately after my last lesson. I think it still hasn't had quite enough gestation time in my head, so anything I might write down now would be stillborn. I think I'll definitely finalize the second movement by tomorrow though, and crank out a score.
As a clarification in my search for a title word, I'm looking for one with less negative connotations; one that says "I don't give a damn" in the context of someone who would be dancing at the end of the world. The word needs to be noun-ifiable so it can classify a group of people, like "the realists" or "the optimists". The overarching title of my string quartet is Outlooks, with the first movement "The Cynics", and the second, "The Optimist". I bet you can see where this is going...
Dr. Wingate tries to sell the board of grant folks on his grant proposal this week, so I've been minorly busy gathering information for that presentation, and cataloguing the interim equipment that arrived at the end of last semester. It also turns out that another professor found out about my lack of full-time duties and wants to add me as a second assistant to his stable. I think there was a miscommunication between him and Dr. Wingate about the permanence and extent of the switch so I'm not sure how things will turn out. If there is disagreement though, that's definitely one area I know better than to take sides in. I just hope the issue doesn't become a proverbial pissing match with myself as the target log.
"I don't know how, with no vibrato, Bach could have so many sons." - Paul Hindemith
"It's a shame he didn't have electricity -- he would have built a bomb." - professor, on the mathematical genius of Bach
A random visitor found this site through www.looksmart.com yesterday. It's a little unsettling to think that, out of the entire Internet, my site is the third highest match for the search, "animations of squirrels".
Now that the first two movements of my quartet are done, I'm going to temporarily post MP3s of both, as mixed on the SC-8850. Since that module has sounds that aren't part of the General MIDI standard, an MP3 is useful for the accurate reflection of snap pizz's and spicc's (insert your own racially inappropriate punchline about mirrors here). As always, I'm looking for any honest feedback -- I even consider "It sucks." as worthwhile, as long as I get a couple reasons in support of it.
- Outlooks, I. The Cynics (6:00) (5.6MB)
Outlooks, II. The Optimist (4:40) (4.3MB)
"I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you're such a good Gershwin already." - Arnold Schoenberg, when asked for lessons by Gerswhin
Everything's going well in the trumpet department. Since I don't really have a set agenda anymore, I've just been trying to maintain and improve by working up a variety of works I did as an undergrad. Recently, I've been working on the Flor Peeters and Halsey-Stevens sonatas, as well as the two Brandt Concertpieces and Gottlieb's Theme and Variations. If all goes well, I'm hoping to perform Badinage on a Composers' Concert on March 21.
Today in Pedagogy, we had a student presentation which culminated in the student admitting that they didn't really understand the author's definitions (which were the core of the presentation) and then laughing it off. I can only hope that mine will go so well.
Last night's Super Bowl had a pretty lackluster collection of new commercials. However, the constant repetition of mLife commercials reminded me of the game two or three years ago, where every new dot com company in America had some sort of ad (and then promptly went bankrupt).
"He makes me sad because he is really a cultured, agreeable man and yet composes so very badly." - F. Mendelssohn on Hector Berlioz
The full-sized pool table that Mike bought is supposed to arrive on Friday afternoon -- It's too bad he lives on the third floor of his apartment complex. With the introduction of this pool table, no doubt his pad will become the social hub of the theory/comp department. Alternately, it'll be the same five or six people that always show up. Pow!
The new federal budget allocates 369 billion dollars towards defense and homeland security while cutting back on growth and social programs . Bush probably saw the wartime anxiety as the perfect setting to bring back that magnificent anti-missile system that couldn't hit anything. Next year, we'll probably hear renewed support for anti-missile moon lasers. I think the vast majority of money being spent on security and defense is wasted. In an age where a single terrorist with a nuclear device is more likely than a frontal war with a superpower, even the strongest borders in the world won't protect us effectively. If Bush would stop running his mouth about "evil" countries in his attempt to trigger another arms race, and devote those same resources to making Americans smarter, more well-off, and with less pollution, maybe we could make some progress.
Interviewer: "I'm intrigued by one title from 1951, your Grand Symphonie Militaire Op. 69."
Ligeti: "Oh that was a joke. The Opus number refers of course to the sexual position."
I've never understood the appeal of extended drum solos in jazz. Although drummers demand equal footing as a soloist in many groups, their lack of pitch really hinders their improvisatory work. I'd rather hear a concise 12-bar drum solo, rather than one of those drawn-out tumors of music that sometimes crop up, especially in combos. I think the worst case of overdone drum soloing is Buddy Rich's playing on Channel One Suite. The version made for commercial recording is brief and to the point, but in a live edition from 1977 I have, the drum solos (and a poor misguided sax) stretch the twelve minute piece to over twenty-five minutes in length.
The secondary assistantship assignments I have now really aren't so terrible. Somehow word spread that I can make CDs, so I'll be converting old tapes and records to CD format in the remainder of my ten hours per week. Since recording tapes and LPs must be done in real-time (not including the extra for the actual burning), I highly doubt I'll be able to do more than a couple per week before hitting my ten-hour ceiling. It sure beats grading papers...
If they ever retitle classes in the FSU course catalog, I bet they'll call this one MUS 5752: Graduate Survey in Tonal Forms.
"Harmony! Harmony!" - A. Schoenberg, last words
Netscape recently released Netscape 6.2.1 which, apparently, is more bloated and resource-intensive than 6.0. I still use the old Communicator 4.76 for web work, as I'm waiting for a worthwhile version of Netscape to upgrade to. I've tried all three of the major browsers (NS, IE, and Opera), and I've become most comfortable with Netscape, but I bet by this point, Internet Explorer has evolved into a much better browser. I'm still loathe to make the switch, just because IE has a much larger footprint than Netscape. Good ole' Netscape. Nothing beats Netscape.
You could always tell that Finale was written by programmers for programmers, but it becomes even more obvious when you start reading the manual. Many of the tools bear the stamp of a computer science major who was so excited about his way of solving the problem, that he never quite considered the end user, who probably isn't a computer person. A case in point would be the method of creating crescendos or accelerandos. In Finale, you design a graphical line with a scale like 2 eighth notes to a pixel, with the slope of the line equal to the change in dynamic or tempo. After the shape is created, the effect is modified by scaling the slope of the line by a variety of multipliers.
Wouldn't it have been easier and more intuitive to have a dialog box such as "Change tempo from bpm to bpm over beats"? Of course this wouldn't cover slopes with curvature, but it would cover the vast majority of day-to-day changes with more ease.
"I don't like my music, but what is my opinion against that of millions of others?" - Frederick Loewe
This afternoon, four guys grouted, leveled, nailed, and assembled a pool table with their bare hands (and a few tools) in just under seven hours. There's going to be a pool party tonight, and I'll post pictures sometime this weekend. Since there's still felt and tacky glue on my hands and I haven't been home all day, it would probably behoove me to take a shower now instead of providing a more meaningful update to the page. Friday through Sunday updates are generally lightweight anyhow. Why buck the trend?
"Nothing can be more disgusting than an oratorio. How absurd to see 500 people fiddling like madmen about Israelites in the Red Sea!" - Syndey Smith
I've posted a few pictures from the impromptu pool party on the Photos page -- just click on Photos, and scroll down the list to the very end of the Uri! Pictures section (they're in chronological order). To get there faster, go to the Cat section and back up a few lines. I didn't get any good action shots because of the two second delay on my camera's image-capturing. My old camera did a much better job with quick shots, although this one has a higher resolution.
I haven't progressed much on my third movement, although it's not from lack of trying. This week I've been fiddling with a recurring extended melodic line that I want to perfect before writing anything else. I have a feeling that if I begin the movement without ironing out its flaws first, it'll either throw off everything that I write after it, or I'll never get around to modifying it to perfection. The second movement came out much faster, because I had a starting and ending point in mind. In this movement, I have to strike a balance between reusing old material in interesting ways and being boring.
"A piece for orchestra, without music." - Ravel, on Bolero
And now for something a little bit different...
To break away from the tedium of updates about my real-life escapades, and to reach a balance between my computer-related and music-related news items, I'm devoting this week's News page to the music of video games and computer games. I'll trace the evolution of game music from the Atari to today's common PC games, with more emphasis on highlights from my own gaming past.
A Giant supermarket in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania recently put up an advertisement reading, "In honor of Black History Month, we at Giant are offering a special savings on fried chicken" . There's nothing appropriately relevant in the month of February to game music, but it's a topic that I've been meaning to write about for quite a while.
The original video games of the arcade scene and the first home entertainment consoles didn't place a great deal of emphasis on music in games. In an age where the Atari 2600 had "adult-themed" games with Neo-Cubist pixular phalluses, it was a struggle enough to create recognizable graphics without worrying about music as well. Primitive sound effects were usually generated from simple wave generators, so the shooting gun of one game would be the barking dog in another.
The first gaming system in our household was a later model of the Atari, which had a numeric keypad on its controllers. By this point, games usually featured a catchy tune at its startup screen or when your character died or won. Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of Donkey Kong, composed the Donkey Kong theme on his own on an electronic keyboard. He would later become famous for the Mario and Zelda franchises which are still popular today.
PCs at this time were still monochromatic wonders in varying shades of ochre, magenta, and green-yellow. The most popular games were those that didn't require flashy media to enjoy, with Infocom's text adventures topping the list. Rather than try to convince players of an experience aurally and visually with such primitive tools, Infocom relied on what computers did easiest - text - and created compelling stories without mediums that would cause more hindrance than help. Those games that did use sound used the internal PC speaker for beeps, and music was still just a pipe dream.
There were musical innovations on minor platforms, like the Apple, Macintosh, and IBM PCjr, but I never had much interaction with those systems, so I can't pretend to know what they were. Know of anything I've missed here, or something you'd like reported on later in the week? Send me an e-mail with the icon on the upper right.
Tomorrow: Nintendo Entertainment System and Early PC Music
Following the video game crash in 1984, the Nintendo Entertainment System trickled into the US in 1985, and was the first major system to feature continuous soundtracks throughout its games. It's widely recognized as the console which elevated game music from simple beeps and whistles to an art form composed of beeps and whistles .
The anthem from Nintendo's launch game, Super Mario Brothers, continued to appear in variations throughout the Mario series and even spawned lyrics when it became the theme song to the horrible television show based on the game. "Swing your arms from side to side. Come on, it's time to go. Do the Mario!..." (MP3, 203KB)
Early Nintendo games could play four separate tracks of sound or music simultaneously, and most developers devoted three full tracks to music (melody, bass line, faux percussion) with the fourth track reserved for sound effects. When more sounds were required, they were often provided at the expense of the music. In one memorable example, The Legend of Zelda played a constant beeping noise when the player was near death. Since the regular sound effects were still important, the developers played the beeping by temporarily covering what they considered to be the least important track of music with the beep track. If you still own a NES and this particular game, and are a musical geek, it's an interesting exercise to wander through the various parts of the game with very little health, to hear the incomplete versions of the soundtrack.
The vast majority of NES soundtracks were also continuous loops. Developers would write music that was a direct accompaniment to the level, and end in a way that would seamlessly allow a jump back to the beginning. The Legend of Zelda had a blatantly brief example: its underworld theme, which played in eight dungeons throughout the game, was just seven bars long. Gamers today tend to have a great sense of nostalgia for memorable tunes of the NES. This probably has more to do with the constant repetition of music during those long hours spent playing games, rather than any musical genius.
On the PC side, music was still a mono-track affair. The PC's internal speaker was capable of playing one beep at a time, at a variety of pitch levels. Rather than focus on music, this ability was spent on sound effects more often than not. By varying pitch levels and repeating extremely short beeps, you could almost create a sound that was close to recognizable. Today's new gamers would undoubtedly hear nothing but bursts of flatulence at a series of pitch levels in those archaic sounds.
In the late 80s, this manipulation of the internal speaker was actually accessible through the BASIC computer language (in which I wrote several childish, incomplete games). Writing music consisted of entering a series of pitches, octaves, and durations, much like using the Command Line plug-in in Finale. For example, the beginning of Three Blind Mice would be notated as "L4edL2c L4edL2c L4gL8ffL2e L4gL8ffL2e". Though I didn't know much about composing or notation at the time, I remember decorating my little BASIC games with short original melodies for each "room". The medium was very limiting, but I do recall hearing someone's realization of the complete William Tell overture, which was quite incredible when you consider that every chord had to be rolled.
Tomorrow: Later NES Music and the Advent of Soundcards
1989 brought a remake of Pinball Wizard in the form of the awful Fred Savage vehicle, The Wizard. The movie was essentially a ninety-minute commercial for Nintendo's biggest selling NES game, Super Mario Bros. 3. SMB3 was also one of the first NES cartridges to boast a larger internal memory chip. Since upgrades could not necessarily be performed on the system itself, Nintendo made its games better over the years by packing more processing power into its cartridges. Musically, this allowed for primitive canned samples of various percussion instruments, which made the soundtracks more realistic (MP3, 267KB).
As you can hear from the sample, Nintendo music was still organized according to the original spec, with melody, a bass line, and drum sounds on separate tracks. The limitations of this format did nothing to hurt the music of 1990's Final Fantasy, which many gamers rate as the best game soundtrack ever written for the NES. Composer Nobuo Uematsu, who wrote the original cinematic-sounding score continues to compose music for the Final Fantasy franchise today.
On the PC, game music took an incredible leap forward with the introduction of sound cards. Sound cards around 1988 fell into three general categories: Ad-Lib, Sound Blaster, and Roland. Ad-lib was the original FM synthesis card, which recreated instrument tones through mathematical adjustment of pitches. This method was inexpensive, and powered many of the electronic keyboards in the 80s, and sounded amazing after spending years with the PC's internal speaker.
The Creative Labs Sound Blaster was a latecomer to the sound card market, and attempted to break Ad-Lib's stranglehold on the market by incorporating digital sound as well as FM synthesis on its card. Given that Creative Labs is essentially the only mass-market soundcard manufacturer around today, it's apparent that their early attempts at proliferation paid off.
The Roland MT-32 had very little foothold in the consumer market, but it was on every musician's wishlist. Instead of relying on FM synthesis, the MT-32 stored a variety of recorded sound samples which gave instruments a new level of reality. This wavetable synthesis idea is still used today in modules like the SC-8850. With a price measured in hundreds of dollars, it was the module of choice for game developers to write their music on, even though the FM recreations of those scores could never match up.
Sierra On-Line, the prominent graphical game designer of the time and makers of all the "<insert noun here>" Quest games struck a deal in 1988, adding music that utilized sound cards in all their games after King's Quest IV. As more and more gamers realized how much real music could enhance a gaming experience, soundcards became more standardized, and now they're generally included in any new computer.
The plight of those who couldn't afford sound cards worsened. As game developers used their new sound toys to their fullest advantage, they were also responsible for making their music backwards compatible with the internal speaker. This resulted in great songs being reduced to the "one note at a time" variety. After soundcards became popular, music that was written specifically for the internal speaker actually sounded better than the new transcribed music. After several more Quest games, Sierra finally decided that they would no longer use the internal speaker in new games. Gamers either had to play in silence or go sell their cat for a soundcard.
As game music gained acceptance on the PC scene, a game's soundtrack became as important as art direction and animation. Composers with computer skills were brought in to write a game's music during its development cycle. Gone were the days of the developer tossing his own tunes into the mix at the last minute.
The early 90s saw a wide array of fresh and inspired soundtracks. LucasArts (then LucasFilm games) has always had a reputation for strong games and even stronger music. When they released The Secret of Monkey Island in 1990, it was the first game with a strongly-cohesive musical feeling, helped by its fresh reggae beat (MP3, 265KB).
LucasArts also created the imuse system of game music composition, which was unfortunately discontinued after a few games. In games featuring imuse, like Monkey Island 2 in 1991, the musical soundtrack never stopped. Instead, the theme from one room of the game smoothly transitioned into the next theme when a character walked around. This is amazing, when you consider that for any given song, a transitional phrase must be written for every bar, so that there's a musical phrase for every possible instant that the player could move around. I remember spending quite a bit of time just wandering between rooms, to hear the ingenuity of composer Michael Land's transitions.
Another company known for its great soundtracks was Origin Systems (which has since been bought and destroyed by conglomerate, Electronic Arts). The 1990 game, Ultima VI, had the protagonist attempting to restore peace between two fantasy races, humans and gargoyles. While traveling in their respective homelands, players heard each race's theme, fully orchestrated. At the climactic moment, when both races had made peace and joined together, I was startled to hear both themes played simultaneously! The joining of melody and countermelody was not only refreshing, it was significant to the underlying theme of the game.
Following Ultima VI, Origin released Savage Empire, which spiced up the game music world with tribal-themed music. It was with this game that the limitations of music technology began to show their seams. The theme from one section of the game depicts an alien city that became too powerful and fell to chaos (MP3, 1.5MB). The music, which must have sounded great in the composer's mind, almost falls flat on its coda in FM synthesis.
Tomorrow: Super Nintendo and General MIDI
After years of pretending that newer and better consoles didn't exist, Nintendo finally released the 16-bit Super Nintendo in 1991. With its launch title, Super Mario World, it was clear that music synthesis had evolved greatly since the NES. Gamers were treated music as complex as that found on the PC, but with sound quality better than any of the mass-market soundcards. Full orchestral scores were now possible, with no loss of tracks when the action became intense.
Actraiser, released in late 1991, set a new standard for video game music, and remains in my mind as the best soundtrack ever composed for the SNES. While most other games still employed cookie-cutter variations on old arcade standards, the music in Actraiser was a unique blend of rock, classical, and techno elements. One of the most attractive tunes was from a late stage in the game (MP3, 1.2MB). After multiple levels of constant arcade action and pumping beats, the music of the snowy wastes in Northwall is forlorn and wistful. At first, the music seems at odds and completely out of place with the action on-screen, but it ends up working better than any rock theme could have in the same setting.
The Super Nintendo was also responsible for creating the genre of music dubbed "Japanese Jazz" by some. These tunes tended to be upbeat caricatures of American styles and forms, as if Japanese developers were writing music that gamers would be familiar with, while not being completely comfortable with it themselves. It was like an English poet writing his first works directly in French; the music wasn't bad at all, just unique and not quite familiar. A good example of this is an overworld theme from Super Mario World, which is probably the only action game theme to employ faux ragtime played with a honky-tonk piano patch (MP3, 640KB).
In the PC world, gamers were confronted with a smorgasbord of proprietary standards and competing synthesis methods among different soundcards. Besides the MIDI standard used by Ad-Lib and Roland, which used note-by-note instructions on how to recreate a song (akin to sheet music for a computer), the Gravis Ultrasound entered the fray by supporting the Tracker standard, which focused on the quality of the sounds used. This resulted in better sounding music, but forced every song to also include all the sounds it needed to play. To add to the confusion, Creative Labs (which was now the dominant market force) would occasionally modify its architecture slightly, keeping competitors on their toes and preventing third-party soundcards from truly being "Sound Blaster compatible".
The biggest complaint about MIDI by game composers and electronic musicians was the lack of standards. A song written for a Roland MT-32 might sound horrible on another soundcard, because the ID numbers for each instrument could vary from card to card. For example, Instrument #1 on the MT-32 might be a grand piano, but the poor gamer who bought a lesser known soundcard might hear an accordian instead when he played the song.
The General MIDI standard solved many of these problems. Most important for game composers, the ordering of 128 main instruments were standardized across all cards. Although there was no control over the quality of the sound, or patch, used in a card, gamers could at least be ensured of a reasonable facsimile of the music, and the grand piano would always be instrument #1.
General MIDI really came out of its shell in 1993, at about the same time that double-speed CD-ROM drives were hitting the market. One of the first games to really take advantage of CD-ROM was the puzzlefest, 7th Guest, by Virgin Interactive. Though it wasn't necessarily the best game ever, it had great graphics and music, and sold CD-ROM drives by the hundreds. The music for the 7th Guest was composed by George Sanger, known as the "Fat Man" in the gaming world. His name is hidden in the credits of many games, including several from the Ultima series.
The amount of data that could fit on a CD was about 600 times greater than floppy disks. Budget-strapped companies who worried over whether their game would ship on 23 or 24 disks the year before now sought ways to fill up this extra leg-room. Usually this was accomplished by creating "shovelware", or shoveling tons of ancient games onto the CD and calling it a historical collection. With its game, Sam and Max Hit the Road, LucasArts decided to use that space to the advantage of the gamer.
Since one of the biggest limitations of soundcards was the great discrepancy in sound quality between Roland and the mass-market varieties, most gamers never really heard game themes as the composer heard them. LucasArts solved this problem by recording the game's major themes as played on a Roland module, and then storing them on the CD as extra tracks. (MP3, 657KB). When those themes arrived in the game, the CD would play, instead of the MIDI music. The jump in sound quality of this method would eventually lead to use of CD audio as a replacement for MIDI music. Sam and Max Hit the Road was also one of the funniest computer games of all time, but the topic of good games will probably fill up its own Special Week sometime in the future.
The use of General MIDI as a viable music format probably peaked with the music in Origin's Ultima VIII in 1994. Although much of the soundtrack was ambient sound effects, songs like the theme from Tenebrae capture the mood of the game perfectly (MP3, 344KB).
Tomorrow: Sampled Music, Commercialization, and Game Music as a Legitimate Art Form
As PC sound quality improved, game composers increasingly sought recognition of the legitimacy of their art. Throughout the early 90s, various attempts were made at making game music more mainstream and accepted. In some cases, composers attempted to create more serious music. LucasArts' Loom, which was released in 1990, sported a MIDI soundtrack with nothing but arrangements of Tchaikovsky works, culminating in a final section played to the tune of Swan Lake. Michael Land's music for The Dig (LucasArts 1995) was almost a movie soundtrack, with a blatantly apparent (and intended) Wagnerian influence.
Some companies weren't so successful in their attempts to legitimize or commercialize their music. Sierra On-Line released King's Quest VI in 1992, and wrote a pop song with the game's romantic couple singing a duet, akin to "Somewhere Out There". They launched a massive marketing campaign linking the song to the game, and then sent CDs of the song to disc jockeys all over America. I don't think I heard the song played a single time in the months around the game's release.
This attempt to disseminate game soundtracks in spite of their games continues today. Since 1998, the senior music producer at Sierra has been petitioning for the addition of a "game music" category in the Grammy Awards, although I'm not sure how far that has progressed. In 2000, Blizzard Entertainment took an animated cutscene from its game, Diablo II, and played it in the previews of various mainstream movies. This allowed its animation, graphics, and music to be considered for awards as a video short.
Meanwhile back in the 90s, the expanded storage capabilities of CDs brought about the end of mass MIDI use. When gamers heard how much better game music sounded as CD audio, more and more companies followed the LucasArts method and recorded their music as extra tracks. This procedure had two major flaws. First, the music had to fight for space with the actual game data, which was growing exponentially larger every year. Most CDs with real games on them only had enough extra room for about a half hour of CD music. This brought back an interest in looped themes, and limited the scope of soundtracks within games.
CD music also destroyed music played on the fly. Where MIDI music could segue or alter based on in-game events, CD music was limited to starting, pausing, and stopping. It was best used for games where a constant theme played in the background, like real-time strategy games such as Blizzard's Warcraft II in 1995.
MIDI music's popularity was briefly prolonged with the introduction of inexpensive daughter-cards by Roland and Yamaha, which attached to an existing card and provided support for wavetable synthesis, the high quality sampling method used by Roland's more expensive modules. Wavetable synthesis is still used today as a musician's tool, but the large disparity in quality of daughter-cards kept MIDI from remaining the primary musical tool. Today, most soundcards come equipped with wavetable synthesis right out of the box, but it's rarely used except in the demo MIDI files that come with your computer.
Instead of MIDI, game composers turned to real recorded music, often recorded in a traditional studio with a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments. The first popular game to break away from the MIDI mold was Origin's Crusader: No Regret in 1995. It used sampled sounds to create a pumping techno beat for its arcade action. The action-techno style of music was first popularized with the Doom series, and has been used in numerous shooter games since.
Also in 1995, LucasArts released Full Throttle, a game about a misanthropic biker named Ben. The soundtrack for this game featured music by the heavy metal band, Gone Jackals (MP3, 813KB), obviously recording the music in its entirety, rather than recording just the sounds used to create the music. 1998's Grim Fandango also used this approach, creating a soundtrack of swing and bebop influences that perfectly complemented one of the most sophisticated adventure games ever written (MP3, 406KB).
Finally, in the "pretty but stupid" category of games was Origin's Ultima IX in 1999. Although the game itself doesn't warrant much attention, the soundtrack is notable for utilizing the efforts of a full orchestra. Because the songs of the Ultima series have so much history, very little leeway was permissable for the composer, resulting in lush but traditional songs. This soundtrack marked the next peak in game music, when sampled and recorded musical scores had reached a plateau of quality.
Tomorrow: Nintendo 64 and Ambient Music
The Nintendo 64 console was released in 1996, although I didn't buy one for myself until 2001. Although it boasted exceptionally improved graphics and sound, it really didn't have much to offer over the SNES in the music department. Soundtracks written for the N64 were very reminiscent of the old MIDI tunes on the PC, with decent but unspectacular sound patches. Because this was the last console system I bought, I don't know where music stands on the other major consoles, like the Dreamcast, Playstation line, xBox, and GameCube.
Meanwhile back on the PC, game music tended to fall into two major categories: traditional scores and ambient music. With ambient music, composers try to create an uninvolved composition with sound effects and minor musical effects that don't steal attention from the onscreen action. Much like movie scores, these soundtracks couldn't be whistled and emphasized a feeling rather than a melody.
The first major game to eschew a traditional musical score was Myst in 1995, known as "the game that killed the adventure genre". Music was virtually nonexistent, and most locations in the game were supported only by the occasional sound effect or white noise. Although its lasting appeal is questionable, it can't be argued that Myst reached a good portion of mainstream computer users (mostly through promotions and tie-ins). This set a bad precedent; apparently games didn't need much music to be a commercial success.
Following the success of its Doom series, id software decided to entrust the music of its next hit game, Quake (1996), to Trent Reznor of nine inch nails. This was mostly a marketing gimmick, and resulted in a forgettable array of unmusical "atmosphere music". Almost every shooter game since then has avoided real music religiously.
The most recent game to improve sound effects at the expense of music was Black and White in 2000. After a brief chorus in the introduction of the game, the vast majority of levels play out with only the ambient sounds of the world. In fact, it's even possible to remove the game CD in mid-game and play your own music instead. It seems as if video games have come full circle from their sound-effects-only ancestors...
The games that did continue to use traditional musical styles have shown little of the ingenuity found in soundtracks of the early 90s. Wizardry 8, just released in 2002, has a soundtrack of fantasy music clichés (MP3, 281KB). Luckily, the soundtrack is stored as MP3 files, so you can replace the particularly bad tunes with some of your own. Return to Wolftenstein, the first-person shooter game released in December of last year, uses a soundtrack of battle-themed songs that could be the movie soundtrack to any B-movie about war and/or zombies.
Of course, there's always exceptions to the rules. Blizzard Entertainment, for example, has consistently maintained a high level of quality in its musical output, from its bestselling Diablo series to the electronically orchestrated soundtrack of 1998's Starcraft. The Diablo series uses a mix of ambient and tuneful music. Although much of its underground music is ambient, other tunes like the theme from Tristram are hauntingly memorable (MP3, 1.1MB), and continue to appear on lists of musical favourites.
Out of Norway came The Longest Journey in 2000. This adventure game was unique because it was mostly a one-man effort, from design to music, and because it was just as good as any effort by an established game company. The soundtrack, which is also available as a massive MP3 download, is a mix of standard fantasy fare and modern styles, with a strong European tencho-dance influence (MP3, 453KB).
Tomorrow: The Future of Game Music and Related Links
There are no major advances in game music technology on the immediate horizon. Since sound effects stole the spotlight, the major hardware improvements have been to achieve clearer sounds at higher sampling rates, and to standardize three dimensional sound positioning. In an interview with Blizzard composer, Andrea G. Pessino (see link below), he expressed his desire to make game music more interactive, and went on to describe, almost exactly, the imuse system abandoned by LucasArts in the early 90s.
In the meantime, game music is in a "more of the same" valley, where music comes second to flashier graphics and more realistic explosions. One reason for this could be the general decline in popularity of adventure games. This genre was one that really depended on a strong score to complement its slower pacing, where the popular 3D shooters rely mroe on keeping your adrenaline pumping.
When Doom II was released in 1995, I spent hours playing it online with a high school friend over our 14.4K modems. Following the release of several level-editing tools, I created a set of twenty multiplayer levels, all well-balanced for two player games. The editing tools I used had the option to embed original MIDI music in place of the music that came with the game, and allowed me to create my only major entry in game music since the BASIC days (MP3, 2.9MB).
This particular song was modelled after the original Doom soundtrack, and written in eleventh grade, before I was doing all this composing nonsense. The main goal of the tune was to be looping, unobtrusive, and exciting enough to play during a multiplayer game. it's painfully apparent from the Baroque-sounding guitar counterpoint at the end of the loop that I didn't have much experience in rock composing, but I think it came out well nonetheless.
This concludes Game Music Week, the first special feature of the URI! Domain. This summarized look at music history will always be available in the Archive under "Yesterdays' News", and I may turn it into a single-page essay on my Writings page at some point. I hope my recollections brought back old memories or new insights, even if you aren't a fan of video games. As always, feedback is welcomed.
Below are some links that you may find interesting for further reading on the subject.
History of Nintendo
Gamespot's Timeline of Video Game Music
A History of MIDI
mobygames.com: Indexed information on older games
Quest Studios: Reproducers of classic Sierra On-Line game soundtracks
Bard's Library: MIDI files of soundtracks from the Ultima series
Soundtrack from The Longest Journey
Andrea G. Pessino interview on game music and the Sibelius music notation program
Diablo II Soundtrack: MP3s by composer, Matt Uelmen with development notes
LucasArts composer, Michael Land
The Fat Man
I'm a little relieved that Game Music Week is over; with all the extra graphics and fact checking, it took me a couple hours each day to do updates, rather than my normal twenty minutes. However, I did get good feedback from folks taking a trip down memory lane, so hopefully it was worthwhile. As an addendum to Game Music Week, here's the theme song from the Sierra game "Jones in the Fast Lane", as played on the PC internal speaker, an Ad-lib card, and a Roland SC8850.
- PC Speaker (MP3, 625KB)
Ad-Lib compatible (MP3, 625KB)
SC-8850 (MP3, 625KB)
Now it's time for tons o' fun, as there's a pedagogy test tomorrow, and other miscellaneous events throughout the week.
The pedagogy test this morning was nothing unexpected. Actually, the questions on the test were probably more straightforward than any class discussion we've had all year. I'll probably start working on my "Concerto form" presentation sometime soon -- the presentation date is about a month from now.
This past week was a pretty listless one. It was one of those weeks where I didn't have the motivation to do anything for more than a few minutes at a time. It's something that happens a couple times a year for me, and usually just takes a renewed interest in some major project to get me back out of it. Alternately I go buy a game and play until deadlines can no longer be safely pushed off.
I got a new CD last week, Chick Corea's Now He Sings, Now He Sobs from 1968. It's trio work, and it's interesting because it has Chick on an acoustical piano. I'll have to listen to it some more and see how I like it.
Gosford Park was last week's pick for Movie Night. It's one of those movies where things just happen, possibly without any bearing on the main course of the movie. When you finally get up two and a half hours later, you look for some grand point but find that it just peters away, as unobtrusively as it started. Maybe I'm just an ethnocentric American, but I just didn't grasp or appreciate the subtleties of the movie, and definitely don't see how it earned a nomination for Best Picture. It wasn't bad in an "asphyxiate yourself to avoid more of The Thin Red Line" way, but more of an "impatient American needs more Clue and less Jane Eyre" way.
"The modern composer is a madman who persists in manufacturing an article which nobody wants." - Arthur Honegger
I think the next topic in my yearlong learn-fest will be MIDI orchestration -- taking advantage of the full capabilities of the format rather than using it to perfectly recreate acoustical music. It's been awhile since I wrote anything for straight MIDI. While I was doing some research on the SC-8850, I was surprised to see that the MIDI composition world is still alive and thriving. Ever since its inception, "real" musicians have tended to scoff at MIDI, but it can be fun and creatively-inspiring, since you're removed from the constraints set by classical composition and serious music.
I found a new copy of Conker's Bad Fur Day for the N64 in a bargain bin. It's the game that gained notoriety last year for being rated Mature in an age where Nintendo was (and still is) known for its kiddie-oriented titles. Other than the shock value, there's really not much about the game that's offensive, and there's actually a decent game beneath the gimmicky exterior. It's a little surreal to hear a bunch of cartoon animals swear at each other in a Nintendo game though.
Tomorrow is another round of incipient pedagogy class.
"Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you." - Gustav Holst
I've arranged to rent a room at the home of one of my old roommates this summer in Chantilly, since it's about eight miles from FGM in Dulles, and completely avoids the Beltway. On weekdays, I'll stay there, and on weekends, I'll drive all the way to the real homefront, which should shave forty miles daily off my commute, and allow me to work a more reasonable shift than 5:30 - 1:30. It does seem rather extravagant to rent a room twenty miles from home while also keeping my place in Tallahassee unoccupied, but I think avoiding the Northern Virginia commute is worth the extra expense. It also helps that Florida has no income tax, so I'm being crafty by heading north for summer employment.
Istarted tutoring a girl in a non-majors music theory course today. It may be a little rough getting her on the right track to start with, but I think I may just be able to help her out. I've always thought it fun to teach music theory, because while the conventions of music may not always be logical, the procedures within it tend to be easily quantifiable.
"In the first movement alone, of the Seventh Symphony [by Bruckner], I took note of six pregnancies and at least four miscarriages." - Thomas Beecham
"Three Mo' Tenors" are appearing at the Leon Civic Center this week. If I ever end up a successful freelance composer, maybe I can have a touring production of my works and call it "One Velly Good Composer".
Many composers define the urge to create something as their overarching reason for writing music. While that's true to an extent in my case, I think my need to complete something is much stronger than my need to create. That is, I've always been motivated by seeing an unfinished work which is past the stage where it has a clearly defined direction. I have no problem at all working on a piece when the end is in sight, but it can take me weeks to start a fresh piece from a blank slate. The exact opposite is the case in every other hobby discipline I have... I can start millions of projects but very few ever reach completion.
The first two Indiana Jones movies were on TV the other night, although I only caught the end of the first. I still think the third was the best of the trilogy, but that may just be because my personality likes puzzly plots with sequential steps that fall into place. I hear they're making a fourth movie now, with Harrison Ford reprising his role, and making tired jokes about being old. By the way, for those who were interested, the kid that played Short Round in Temple of Doom was Ke Huy Quan, and the only other movie he starred in was Goonies.
I've been listening some to the Debussy and Ravel string quartets recently (they tend to appear together on CDs), and I'm really struck by the similarities between the two works, especially gestures in the first two movements. An uneducated listener might easily conclude that they were written by the same composer.
I know that game music week is over, but yesterday I stumbled across another article on game music, tracing much the same path that I did, but with less verbosity . It's on GameSpot and was written last September.
I've always wondered how anyone can consider spam a viable form of advertisement. With the number of filters and Net-savvy people online, I don't see how any mass e-mailer can generate enough traffic to be successful, unless they send all their spam to AOL accounts.
I got a 102 on the last Jazz History exam. Classes like that lend credence to the not-studying approach to test-taking. I guess I should start on the final project soon, since it's due at the end of March. Hopefully there'll be an alternate test date for the final, since it's currently scheduled for the final day of exam week at 3 PM. Since I have no other exams this semester, that would be a week of sitting around doing nothing that I could spend up North getting rich and buying everyone presents.
Here's an interesting exercise for you: Below are two sound files of the same sections in a movie score for Disney's Dinosaur. One of them is straight MIDI and one of them is an actual orchestra. See if you can tell which is which. An answer will be posted tomorrow.
- Sample One (MP3, 937KB)
Sample Two (MP3, 937KB)
"Finally, these ideas may not apply very well to the student intending only to bang rocks together randomly. That sort of thing may well be of interest, but such a composer is unlikely to be in an academic context." - Thomas Benjamin, On Teaching Composition
I've been listening to two CDs of Don Sebesky this weekend, Moving Lines and Giant Box. The first is a nice, inoffensive jazz CD which reminds me of Sammy Nestico's big band favourites CD, but the second is a little more meaty, with jazz fusion arrangements around the solo work of folk like Freddie Hubbard. Sebesky is an arranger who did some nice charts for Doc Severinsen in the 70s, and also wrote the saxophone concerto Bela and Bird in Bb, which is an interesting work in its own right.
Of the two MP3s posted yesterday, the first was straight MIDI and the second was the actual orchestration. All three people who guessed got it right, and I don't think it was too hard to figure out with careful listening. What was interesting was what gave it away for each person. Everyone said that the MIDI become painfully obvious based on the sound of their own personal instrument, trumpet, horn, and suspended cymbal.
I had a fairly productive weekend of composing, although not much was written last week. I'm trying to go for a feel of "spinning out" from beginning to end of my last movement, while still retaining a sense of concinnity throughout. It's hard for me to not write in a completely sectional manner, and its the transitions that are giving me the most headaches.GameSpot: Melodies, Where Have You Gone?
The Wayne Brady Show is returning to prime time on March 4. It had a limited run last summer and was pretty entertaining, if highly derivative. Speaking of TV, my cable was out tonight although Comcast central found no signs of an outage in my area, so I missed Boston Public. I ended up composing instead. Oh, the horrors!
I've been slowly teaching myself MIDI manipulation when not doing other things. Nice effects are possible, even for a neophyte such as myself. Here's a before and after of a flute sample that I've tweaked with Finale and Orchestrator (MP3, 327KB).
There's not much news to report today. Obivously it wasn't one of my usual high octane days filled with wild women and cowboy adventures. Anyhow, the world is exciting enough without me when Britney Spears gets her own video game .
"A three-voice fugue . . . resembles a family of identical triplets in perfect agreement, or a madman talking to himself." - Ned Rorem
Leave it to my dad to cut everyone off at the pass by sending an e-mail out pre-thanking us for our birthday well-wishing. It's definitely the efficient way to go. Happy Birthday!
In the 2003 budget at Virginia Tech, it's been decided to cut the Arts budget by 10-14% across the board. Among the changes initiated by the VT Music Department in response to this was the firing of two new professors, the jazz professor who replaced Chip McNeill this year and the choral director who replaced Kevin Fenton two years ago (Fenton, by the way is now a professor here at FSU). The jazz program was essential kaput last year when Chip left to head the department at Florida International University and took his wife, jazz vocalist Lysanne Lyons, with him, but the choral department was just getting off the ground. Under the new director's supervision, the two original choirs were expanded into three of varying sizes and focuses, with constant tours on the East Coast and Europe, as well as lots of recognition on-campus. By firing this director, the school loses recruits that apply specifically to study with him, destroy the chance of having a choral education or choral conducting program, kill the third choir, and leave the other two in the hands of a performance professor with no specific study in choral conducting. The reason for firing these two? They had the least amount of tenure.
This is one great argument for doing away with the tenure system. Like any respectable university, Tech has its cavalcade of tenured professors past their prime who still sport impressive resumés. They get paid high salaries (sometimes three and four times higher than an associate professor) to lend prestige to the program through their name, and have minimal teaching responsibilities. With smart use of those wasted dollars, I bet the department could not only keep the professors it needs, but also hire another one. Professors who no longer put the interests of their teaching to the fore should not be able to hide behind the protection of tenure -- the reason you save money all your life is so you can retire in peace when you've become useless.
Harsh words, yes, but I bet everyone can name at least one tenured professor from their college careers that no longer gave a damn about teaching, but kept on getting paid until they were gently nudged into retirement. With this one move, Tech's gone from one of the best well-rounded music programs in Virginia to one that's not bad for instrumental education, and all because of tenure.
It's like the Serial approach to Arts Administration -- do evertyhing in accordance with the established rules without caring about the appeal of the outcome.
Today is Paige's twenty-third birthday. Happy Birthday!
The head of the VT music department, John Husser, sent an e-mail out to all music majors today. Here's some excerpts:
This is to report to you on the status of the departments current situation. As you know, budget cuts are here and real. The College of Arts and Sciences was given their target reduction for the next two years, and the college then gave the department's their reductions. We were assigned a 10% reduction. This is different from department to department and this is what I was expecting we would be called to do. This amount has nothing to do with our "value" to the college or the university, only our ability to "pay back". This percentage amounts to us having to cut $150,000 from our budget as it was this year. The other departments I have talked to are being required to cut from 6-10%.
The "rules" for these cuts included:
- 1. no firing of tenure-track professors
2. no firing of continuing instructors
3. no firing of full time staff members
This means in our department we had to draw our cuts from Dr. Polifrone's retirement, [an] already planned departure, [the jazz professor's] one year appointment, and [the choral director's] one year appointment. There are a number of complicated details about funding that I can not discuss because of confidentiality issues, but this is bottom line. This is not good news, and if you are in my MIDI class, you will have heard me ranting a few times over the past few weeks about politicians, and citizens who don't think they should have to pay taxes. We Virginian's are reaping the results of our past fantasy that we can have top 10 services, but pay taxes in the bottom 10.
I have had notes from a number of you and I wish I could tell you that you could do something about this situation. However, I think the reality is that the University is going to be short an enormous amount of money next year, and there is no way around it. If you wish to complain to someone above me, I report to the Dean of Arts and Sciences, he reports to the Provost, and he reports to the President who reports to the Board of Visitors. But, we get our E&G, (Education and General) funding from the legislature of the state of Virginia. And unfortunately, they do not have the needed money to keep the state running the same as it did this past year. This means either government services are cut, or taxes are raised.
If you would like more details about this situation, I would be happy to have a meeting with anyone, or everyone. I'll be upfront about this, and give you all the information I am allowed to disseminate. We are all in this together and the department will try to have this situation impact on your education as little as possible. Also, we will try to be sure everyone gets what they need to complete their academic programs.
Hopefully, this will be a short term problem. We are being asked to return money, not faculty positions. It could be worse.
I've already heard people who still attend Tech voice concerns over the long-term effect of these cuts on the program, as well as the qualifications (or lack thereof) of professors being assigned interim duties. I guess we'll see how things turn out in the future.
"What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin." - Mark Twain
This week's Movie Night feature was Moulin Rouge, which was a very good and interesting movie. The combination of classical musical sensibilities and pop music had the potential to be horribly campy, but it was very well-executed. The only big flaw in the movie was the singing of Ewan McGregor, who apparently felt that belting out all of the lyrics at the decibel level of a lawnmower would make him more of a heartthrob. Nicole Kidman had a surprisingly good voice though, and helped to temper the edge of Ewan's voice.
My cable is still on the fritz. Comcast seems to have lowered the signal strength so it's no longer strong enough to be split between the TV and my computer. I bought a signal amplifier which acts as a partial solution, but I may just have to sacrifice the double setup.
And February comes to a close. The last day of classes is just seven weeks away, and one of those weeks is Spring Break. I have no big plans for the break; I'll just be staying in town and hopefully doing a lot of composing.
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