I've been messing around with video game music since about 1997 with my good friend Joseph Majalca in Chicago under the moniker Royal Space Force. We started off by using sound tests and otherwise sampling bits of games that we thought had cool tunes, and then mixing and matching them together while adding other instrumentation on top. It was much akin to a DJ mixing records together, but our records were video games.
However, as time progressed, we wanted to get more direct access to the bleeps and bloops we'd been sampling and actually compose some tunes from scratch with those sounds. That dream was realized when we discovered a hidden sound sequencing program built into the Game Boy Camera.
The Game Boy Camera is otherwise a fairly useless novelty that allows you to take digital pictures with your old 8-bit Nintendo Game Boy. The pictures are, as you would expect, pretty grainy and digital. A cool effect, but I don't think it's anything that you can't achieve with Photoshop. However, by accessing a game mode inside the software menu, and by shooting the appropriate bad guy at the beginning of the first level, you are magically transported to a 3-channel, 16-step sequencer that is loads of fun!
It turns out the Game Boy Camera is not the only Game Boy-based sound program. There are at least two others: Little Sound DJ and Nanoloop. The Game Boy Camera's version may be the simplest of the three, but it still can serve up some cool sound textures that would be hard to imitate with a generic synthesizer.
The 16-step sequencer has three different channels: Sound I, Sound II, and Noise (aka drums). Sound I seems to be a square-wave-type sound. You can change the duty cycle; apply either a rising or falling volume envelope with varying rise/fall time; gate the sound to make it either long or short (or ungate it to make it continuous until the next note); and apply an LFO modulation with variable depth, frequency, and a choice of three different modulation waveforms (sine, square, and random). Besides all that, you can shrink or stretch the loop length from two to sixteen steps, choose notes over a three-octave range, and pan the sound left, right, or center. Not bad for just sound #1!
Sound II has similar controls (minus a few), except you have the choice of three different waveforms. One is also square, another sounds rather Speak & Spell-ish, and the third can actually be conformed to your own choosing! It's fun to see what different shapes sound like.
The noise (or drum) channel lets you create some pretty cool 8-bit beats. You can choose two different noise sounds for each note, pan them, and control the volume envelope and gate. Turning the gate off makes for some pretty awesome industrial sounds.
If you hit the B button, you are taken to a screen where you can control things from a higher level while you watch a Game Boy version of yourself move your hands around a keyboard, mixer, and turntable. Here you can control Tempo, bring each sound in and out, and add some preset sound effect samples on top. You can even do a fake scratching sort of thing by pushing hard right or left.
The greatest fun, however, is probably had by staying within the low-level sequencing screens and manipulating the parameters in real-time. The gate function is especially useful for this. Unfortunately, when switching between sounds, there is a slight gap in the music, but one has to make do.
If the Nintendo Game Boy isn't old-skool enough for you, Paul Slocum's Synthcart for the Atari 2600 will hopefully fill the void. Slocum is a veritable genius of hacking old technology to make music and/or other fun things. He has a number of projects under his belt and underway that are all super cool. The Synthcart is no exception.
The Atari Synthcart is an actual working hardware cartridge (however, you can also download a software only version that works with Atari emulators). To play the Synthcart, you must acquire two Atari keyboard controllers. I'm not sure what games used these, but they are basically a 12-button device (there's no joystick, just buttons). I have found that on eBay there are two versions available. One has hard plastic buttons; the other has soft rubber buttons. The plastic button one is a little more fun to use for the beat section of the Synthcart, but the rubber button one is far superior (and less painful on the fingers) for playing notes. Also, the buttons on the plastic version can come loose after heavy use. So if you have to choose, go with the rubber button style.
What you get with the Synthcart is basically a simple keyboard with a handful of sounds and about 33 preprogrammed beats. Depending on the positions of the various switches on the Atari 2600 console, each keyboard controller will take on a different sound or activate the rhythm section. Each button will trigger a different note or beat preset. Multiple notes can be held down to achieve either chords or arpeggiation (depending on how you select it on the setup screen). You can even play multiple beats at the same time!
There are two setup screens that allow you to change the way the Synthcart behaves. You can change the tempo, scale, arpeggiation style, volume envelope, tremolo, beat bank, and coarsely control the level between the sound on the left vs. right keypad. The nature of the beast makes the tempos a bit strange, the noise floor a bit high, and the actual note values slightly off key. But you shouldn't let this deter you. The sounds that come out of this thing are incredible, and it's well worth the quirkiness to get down and dirty with them. What's more, a hidden Easter egg allows you to enter a light show mode where the entire screen flashes in patterns and colors that correspond to the music you make with the keypads. This was used to great effect when Royal Space Force performed with two Synthcarts live at SXSW 2005. I wish I could have been in the audience to see it projected on the big screen behind us. Unfortunately, before you can make full use out of the light show mode, you have to become well acquainted with Mr. Synthcart because you will no longer be able to see what you're doing on the screen. Just make good notes, and you'll be ok.
Heading back in the other direction, I recently became aware of a third hardware-based video game music device known as Midines. The origins of Midines are rather mysterious. The inventor at www.wayfar.net has chosen to remain anonymous, so we can only guess at his identity and intentions. Nonetheless, whoever is responsible for this piece has fulfilled a longtime dream of mine. Midines is an actual 8-bit Nintendo cartridge (the US version, not Famicom) with a MIDI cable coming out of it. You plug the MIDI cable into a keyboard, PC, etc, and you can control the sound chip in the Nintendo at the press of a key (or two or three).
For those that aren't aware, the Nintendo sound chip contains five sounds: two square (or pulse) waves, one triangle wave, a noise channel, and a PCM sample bank. Midines gives you access to each of these sounds by putting them on different MIDI channels. For this reason, it probably makes the most sense to compose for Midines with a computer sequencing program. You'll just have an easier time controlling all the channels at once that way.
Since I'm not much of a MIDI guy, I haven't delved too deep into this one yet, but the sounds are great fun. The square/pulse waves are like your two melody lines, the triangle wave is like the bass, the noise for rhythm or special effects, and the PCM bank houses an entire drum kit apparently sampled from a TR-707 and other classic drum machines. Here is where I wish you could change things up by uploading your own samples, but beggars can't be choosers. I look forward to composing some of my own 8-bit Nintendo songs once I get my whole MIDI setup going for my computer.
All in all, these three devices can provide hours of entertainment as well as sounds and textures you won't find elsewhere. Those of us who grew up on the old video games have a special set of memories associated with the lo-fi bleeps and bloops lying dormant in our brains. It's great fun to tap into that and relive one's youth. The video game music (or chip tune) genre has been exploding as of late. And with toys like this, it's no wonder. (Game Boy Camera $3-$10, www.ebay.com; Synthcart $25, qotile.net/synth.html; Midines $99, www.wayfar.net)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.