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I love PC computer sound and music. It takes a lot of effort and patience to like PC music, to be honest, since every time you actually enjoy a warbly arpeggiated simulated chord through the speaker, or a cheezy-sounding Adlib FM soundtrack, or a snippet of 1-bit digitized sound forced through the PC speaker like a grape through a straw, people look at you funny. Real funny. I have great respect for musicians who wrote music (and programmers who wrote playback code) for PCs. It's an art to create a good soundtrack given the medium you have to work with.
And just what was medium? Specifically, what the output like? In the beginning, all you had was the internal PC speaker, which was a simple tone generator (real simple) without any voice or dynamics control; it could sustain a frequency and that was it. In the mid 80's, some better devices found their way into the hands of consumers. Some were extremely well-supported, like the PCjr/Tandy 3-voice sound chip and the Adlib music synthesizer card.
I created this section of Oldskool.org in the hopes that people will not only learn about the many different techniques and devices that software developers used to create music on early PCs, but also take a closer look at the sound/music itself and maybe appreciate it a bit more.
(The following is currently reprinted from Life Before Demos, but will be rewritten and expanded upon at a later date. I am ashamed to admit this shortcut, but I needed something here as a placeholder because I was running behind schedule for the opening day of Oldskool.org. If you've already read this in Life Before Demos, skip ahead to the Taste Test, since new information begins there.)
All of the above is interesting, I agree, but it's "falling on deaf ears" (bwaahaa! I'm so damn funny!) if you can't get an idea for what the darn things sounded like. How was the Tandy/PCjr sound chip better than the PC speaker? Why did game manufacturers go through the trouble to provide sound support for the Roland MT-32? And just how good did PC speaker multi-voice attempts really sound?
Take the PC Sound Standard Taste Test! The following sound clips are not only examples of what each device/technique sounded like, but each category is specifically constructed from the same piece of music. This allows for easy comparison.
|Category||PC Speaker (normal)||PC Speaker (multi-voice)||Tandy/PCjr||Adlib||Sound Blaster Pro||Gravis Ultrasound||Roland MT-32||General MIDI|
|General MIDI test||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]|
|Silpheed||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]|
|Turbo Outrun (1)||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]|
|Turbo Outrun (2)||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]|
|Turbo Outrun (3)||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]|
|Music Construction Set||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]||[Sun/Next] [MP3]|
In the middle to late 1980's, software developers discovered that you could play digitized sound through the PC speaker without additional hardware by utilizing Pulse-Width-Modulation, which toggles the PC's internal speaker faster than it can physically move to simulate positions between fully on and fully off. (How's that for a clever hack?) Since you could get reasonable output of 6-bit digitized sound this way, some game developers decided to make use of it, either for sound effects (which was common) or for title music (which was rare). Some of these title "soundtracks" were original pieces of music composed specifically for the game, and many were extremely good for their time!
I've always been a fan of digitized title music in PC games. When all you've heard in your games are simple "beeps and boops" for a couple of years, the first time you hear real sound through your speaker, it floors you. It certainly left an impression on me, anyway. What also contributed to that impression was the uncommon quality of the music--it was usually well composed or thought out, which was not something you expected for a 4-color CGA game running on a 4.77MHz 8088 in 1987.
They were also cool from a technical standpoint: The programmer had successfully figured out how to output digitized sound through a device that was not designed to support such an action. How they discovered the technique of toggling the PC's internal speaker faster than it can physically move is beyond me. (Who was the first person to think of trying that?) Plus, the musicians themselves pulled some clever tricks, such as dynamic compression (in the sense of making quiet sounds louder, not the "pkzip" variety) and repeating sections, to not only make the title music better audible through the speaker, but also to make it longer. Space Racer is an excellent example of this: the actual audio data is 128K, but the entire title music (if saved into the same format) is much larger than that due to sections of music that can be "reused".
Sadly, most digitized title music of this nature has never been heard, since: 1. In most cases the game came out only for the PC before there was support for more conventional digitized output, such as the Sound Blaster or Covox Speech Thing, and 2. Most clone PCs had crappy psezio-electric "tweeter" speakers that resulted in barely audible or inaudible sound, instead of the large honkin' 3" speaker of the original PC. (The only exception to this is probably most Access titles, since they spent a lot of time creating and enhancing RealSound, their system of playing digitized sound on the PC, and eventually offered playback through the Sound Blaster and other devices.)
This section of oldskool.org is here to remedy that situation. In the following table, you'll find Sun/NeXT .au (u-law) sound clips of the title music of several games made during 1987-1989, which you can easily listen to right from your web browser through your sound device. While the sound is certainly not as polished as today's modern game music, the musical ideas and composition are certainly comparable. (Not to mention that, geez, this came out of your PC's speaker without additional hardware! Come on, isn't that cool as hell?)
Remember, these are not "mods" or "tracked music"; these are cleverly arranged, sometimes-repeating, single-channel sound samples. Enjoy!
|Game||Developer||Year||Approx. Size of Sample Data||Comments|
|Wizball||Mindscape||1987||~64K||A short loop that repeats endlessly until you hit a key. Doesn't really fit the nature of the game except the chorus of "weird" women saying "Wizball!". Was the first digitized title tune I ever heard. Great game, BTW, and is totally playable on 4-color CGA contrary to what most people say (it's a game about matching up color).|
|Crazy Cars||Titus||1987||~64K||Hard rock for a fast "muscle cars" racing game.|
|Offshore Warrior||Titus||1987||~128K||A very cool "sly spy" piece, suggesting mystery and intrique. The only problem is, it has nothing to do with the game! This is a high-speed boat racing game...!|
|Mach 3||Loriciels||1987||~64K||"Get ready for Mach 3," the woman says suggestively, and then the euro-rock track starts. Cool.|
|Cobra||Loriciels||1987||~195K||How to compress a TV show's theme into memory? Use 4-bit samples and a lot of repetition.|
|Fire and Forget||Titus||1988||~128K||A suitable track for the game, suggesting a post-apocalyptic world where people still have electric guitars. Kind-of like the music in Le Dernier Combat if LDC hadn't all been experimental jazz.|
|Space Racer||Loriciels||1988||~128K||One of the very best digitized title tracks I've ever heard; a hard-hitting energetic intro to a fast game, this title track really sets the mood well.|
|Purple Saturn Day||Exxos||1988||~64K||Creative and weird, just like the game. :)|
|Turbo Cup||Loriciels||1988||~128K||The ultimate best digitized title track from Loriciels. This one pulls out all the stops, by pre-mixing some sections into slightly different ones for more variety. It's not quite a .MOD player (all premixing is done before the game starts) but it's long and impressive!|
|Galactic Conqueror||Titus||1988||64K||Short and sweet. The game itself is a very nice-looking fast 3rd-person shoot'em up.|
|Aspar GP Master||Dinamic||1989||~96K||One of the very best digitized title tracks I've ever heard; repeating sequences are folded into the piece well; upbeat and happy.|
|Mean Streets||Access||1989||~128K||I heard this song on a late-night 976 number commercial!! So either the commercial copied the game, or the game's music was just some stock audio they used :-(|
|Fire!||New Deal Productions||1989||~224K||Notable for sounding an awful lot like a modplayer, but is in fact just the first 40 seconds of a .mod rendered out to 6KHz audio, which then loops.|
|Freddy Hardest in South Manhattan||Iron Byte||1989||Terrible 1-bit audio and an incredibly lazy effort. Don't bother.|
|Crime Wave||Access||1990||~128K||A fitting tune for the nature of the game; vaguely futuristic, almost zen-like. And, sadly, a rip-off of a Pink Floyd tune.|
|Countdown||Access||1990||~128K||Hard-hitting music for a hard-hitting international espionage game.|
|Links||Access||1990||~128K||A classical-style tune perfectly suitable for a sophisticated golf game like Links.|
|Spellcasting 101||Legend||1990||~192K||If there was ever a tune about college life and spellcasting, this would be the tune. The game actually has Adlib support for a longer version of this tune, but then again, you don't hear the electric guitar in the Adlib version. :-)|
The Sun/NeXT .au format was chosen for these clips since, at the default 8000Hz sample rate, it reproduces all of the technical quality of the original sound, while at the same time being very cross-platform, easy to play, and has very low CPU requirements. RealAudio and MPEG Layer 3 were specifically not considered because their benefits (high audio clarity) were outweighted by their disadvantages (RealAudio is not as cross-platform as I would like, and MPEG Layer 3 has heavy CPU requirements during decompression). Besides, their additional clarity would not have represented the sound better anyway.
These clips were constructed from the original sound data wherever possible, which means that I took the raw PCM data files, cut and pasted them to match the output, then saved them into .au files. When that wasn't possible, they were recorded directly from the hardware through the use of 1/8th inch plug (sound card) to "alligator clips" (speaker) cable. While these are easy to make (Mean Streets even provides instructions in the README file), I just went out and bought one to save the trouble. The cable I purchased was less than four bucks from Radio Shack, Cat. No. 42-2421, description "Shielded 6-FT. (1.8m) AUDIO CABLE; For Speciality/replacement audio connections; 1/8" mini plug to alligator clips", and it works quite well; I didn't need to splice a capacitor into the cable because I was recording with my sound card, which was able to raise the input level. I attached the ground clip (the one attached to the copper shielding) to the case and the other clip to one of the speaker terminals. It works great, IMO.
The only drawback to recording sound from old PCs via this method is that you usually have to do so with the cover off, and old PCs were hardly FCC Class A certified, let alone Class B. The result? If you're lucky, you get only a small amount of noise during the silence portions that can be removed with a simple noise gate. If you're unlucky, however, you'll get a noise or static that's audible during the non-silent portions. If you're cursed and/or improperly grounded, you'll get a nasty 60Hz line hum from the wall AC. Post-processing with a good set of software filters is the only way to remove noise/distortions like that, but if you don't have a good set of software filters, you can always simply resample your original digitized recording down to about 8000Hz--this will get rid of mostly everything except the 60Hz AC hum.
The following is a list of pages similar to this one:
MegaMan_X's Soundcard Hall of Fame has some nice pictures of sound cards, as well as some additional information.