This is the first in (possibly) a sequence of posts covering video game music that I created in the late 80’s and early 90’s. This stuff was typically composed either for a game I was developing at the time, or was done “on the side” as I offered my so-called musical ability to various UK publishers, quite often just to fill a gap where they needed music for a port of an existing game. Most of the stuff on here is original, occasionally I transposed (or created a vague approximation of) some other composer’s ditties (always by ear) and I’ll call out where stuff is not original. The music here is essentially “chip tune” music (albeit PCM chips), in that it was “sequenced” or to use the parlance of the day, “tracked”, rather than being recorded as a single audio stream, as would be typical today. There was an ever present danger of using too much memory (and too much CPU in some cases), and so the music had to work around those constraints.
Projectyle: 1990 Atari ST, Amiga
So, on with the show. The first set of tunes is from a game I’ve mentioned before on this site called Projectyle. I developed this game in the late 80’s for Electronic Arts, and it was published in 1990 on the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. The music was composed using a MIDI keyboard (don’t for the life of me remember which one, but it was a Yamaha) hooked up to an Atari ST running the Quartet software. The ST version of the game used the standard Quartet player (which tricked the AY sound chip in the ST into playing back 4 channel PCM audio by basically setting the volume registers very fast). The Quartet player, by virtue of how it worked, introduced an incredible amount of distortion into the music, and in fact the music was composed with this in mind – it was definitely “balanced high”, meaning that for best results you had to crank the volume in order to hear everything. I’ve always been a fan of a little distortion, so this suited me just fine.
Another thing about Quartet is that you really can only have one sound bank (of 16 samples, shared across all tunes). So, all the tracks share the same 16 instruments. That really shows here and there, but there was simply not enough room to fit more.
As mentioned above, there was also an Amiga version of Projectyle. Because there was no official Quartet player for the Amiga, and, needing to get this music running on the Amiga quickly, I settled down one night with Devpac, disassembled the entire Quartet player from the Atari ST into 68000 assembly language, and made an Amiga player that would accept the same (or similar) data files using the Amiga PCM hardware. After an all-night hacking session the Amiga version of the game was playing all the music by the next morning. There were a couple of problems with this approach, however. First, it turned out that the Amiga, for all of its PCM hardware could not play back the same range of frequencies as the software player on the ST – it could not reach the sample rates needed to get some of the high notes. This meant that some songs had to be edited in order to play back correctly. Second, the Amiga did not distort the sound anything like as much (though I think we were stuck with 8Khz 8bit audio) as the ST, which is actually detrimental to the sound in many cases – there is a certain “density” that is lacking in the Amiga version. This cleaner sound also reveals some tuning problems as the sample rates are pushed to the extremes here and there.
Of course, these songs are not recorded from an Atari ST – in fact they are likely (I don’t know for sure since I did not post the YouTube videos – YouTube user Bryskens takes credit for that) recorded on a PC playing an emulation of the Atari ST sound. So, there’s definitely some generation loss here.
OK, so here are the tracks. There are 8 tracks in the game corresponding to the 8 teams featured in the future sport of Projectyle (or Tribal, as the product instructions insist on calling it). Each track was designed to somehow convey a feel for each particular team. Each track is named for the team.
This track features what was intended to be a thrash metal intro. Not sure it comes off as such. One thing about Quartet is that it did not allow musical triplets, which are basically essential to get a good guitar solo type effect. As such, I had to make do with quadruplets which are of necessity slower and give a clumsier feel. Thus the intro. The main section of the song has a wild beat which was inspired by a couple of things. First, there was a lot of what was being called “house” music coming out, which was usually some distinctive backing beat layered with very simple melodies. Also, there was some scratch mixing happening, along with sampling of other tunes. So, I have the “oh yeah” (which others used in several hits @ the time), and then the section with the really fast hi-hat (which was actually inspired by a Sigue Sigue Sputnik concert I attended where they played a track too fast, somehow). Yes, I mentioned Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
I think the intro is kinda weak, but the rest of it, while repetitive, I think is interesting sonically. For some reason I always picture slaves rowing in the galley when I hear this one.
The main “melody” is basically riffing on the MIDI keyboard, and underneath it all is the metal guitar and orchestral stabs. You can blame ZZ-Top, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi and all the others for that. 🙂
The Eldritch Cats
[Music Track is MIA! I need to dig it out, though honestly its omissions is not a great tragedy]
This track is a tribute to the monotony that was Stock, Aitken & Waterman. It has that “disco” backbeat, and just repeats on and on. That’s about all there is to say about the track, except that the Amiga version has an extra little flourish that the ST version did not. So there.
This track is essentially as many layers of guitar as you can fit with only 4 channels, leaving a bit for bass and drums, with a slight concession to melody here and there. It sounded awesome played on the ST and cranked up load. As it stands, it is not one of my favorites. As are most of these tracks, it is quite repetitive. I have to remind myself that most of my time was spent designing and developing the actual game; it is quite a miracle that I churned out that 8 tracks, and I often wonder why I thought doing one track per team instead of (say) a “main menu” track, and win/lose tracks made any sense at all!
The name of the team, if not the musical inspiration, came from the TV detective spoof of the same name. This track has a 6/8 beat (blame Status Quo), which of all things meant that I could actually pull off a triplet effect, which I labor into the ground in the middle. The Quartet player tuning rears its ugly head, especially on the bass section. This was actually the first piece of music I composed for the game, and exists in a couple of other forms. I really like the main riff, but I am not sure I really pulled it all together here. Certainly, this one is less repetitive, and I quite like some of the bass and drum detail here and there.
This is one of the more melodic pieces, and seems to be one that people like. The main melody is just a riff around the various chords of the key of C major, and I think there’s a nod to Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark going on (unintentionally, I am sure). One of the voicings that I really like out of the set of 16 is the infinite sustain guitar that is used both as a rhythm and solo instrument. I don’t recall off-hand if that is a standard Quartet sound, or if I sampled my guitar (which I certainly did for other games), but it ranges from sweet here (the second run through the melody refrain) to raucous elsewhere. There’s a switch in the middle of this that is somewhat reminiscent of the Electric Light Orchestra, and once again the quads-rather-than-triplets rear their heads (I don’t like the effect).
This one has a punchy enough beat, a nod to Star Wars somewhere in there, and Steve On The Keyboard [tm] jamming not quite randomly. There’s a interesting “play orchestral stabs with keyboard vs guitar stab” section in there. That’s about all I can say about this, except that there was a much, much better version of this that I’d previously done with Soundtracker for a local Liverpool memory expansion company, the so called MES Demo part 1. That version was resplendent with samples, snippets of TV show themes (Neighbors, Eastenders) and more. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of that version any more. 🙁
Jovian Jello Juggernauts
I think this one is utterly horrible, and I am only putting it up here by way of penance. 🙂
This one has more of a standard song arrangement to it, and that is probably because the track originates in a song I wrote in my garage band days. I hate to say it, but that song was a bit inspired by Twisted Sister. The “solo” bit which is where you might expect a chorus to be is a bit wild, with some possibly questionable musical tonality. Not my least favorite.