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The Technology Behind Great Video Game Soundtracks

Written by on 15/07/2020

The Technology Behind Great Video Game Soundtracks

Good dance music may have originated in clubs and on the streets, but these days a thumping track can be heard almost anywhere.

TV, film and video games have all embraced EDM and techno, using the rhythm and beat to set a mood, bring scenes alive or get your blood pumping as you play. Video game music is particularly interesting; the evolution of backdrop music has been swift and exciting thanks to ever-increasing technology.

In the modern age, creating music for video games is big business, and understanding how the technology works, as well as the capabilities within the software, is critical to becoming a success. Music and video games have rapidly become entwined with the lines between the two sometimes blurred in titles.

The two genres have crossed over with the music industry in several ways; some games have become a success by being based on music. Foxy Games has several titles with musical themes such as Mild Rockers and Monsters of Rock Megaways, whilst the Wu-Tang Clan helped to inspire Wu-Tang Shaolin Style on the first PlayStation. Meanwhile, techno DJ Dixon was one of a number of real-life acts that found their way into a residency on Grand Theft Auto V’s After Hours online update. He produced an exclusive set for the player to feature in their own nightclub, along with Solomun and The Black Madonna, something made possible by the technology the current generation of consoles are packing.

Video game music has come a long way since Commodore 64 games, but even those 8-bit machines had some catchy soundtracks courtesy of the MOS Technology 6581/8580 SID (Sound Interface Device) chip, known as the SID chip. From limited tools came some astoundingly good soundtracks, some embracing the early incarnations of techno as we know it, albeit with a distinctly repetitive, home computer feel to them.

The music and game crossover became apparent when consoles became more flexible, starting with the PlayStation. Not only did we begin to see much more intricate soundtracks to games like Mortal Kombat and Wipeout, but the technology began to put control into the hands of the user. Music 2000 stood out as a console-based production tool which acted as a platform for a lot of early grime and jungle producers.

The main reason for this is simple: the use of CDs for storage meant much more music could be brought into games. With products produced on cassette and cartridge, only a small amount of the memory space could be turned over for music, hence catchy but ultimately repetitive musical scores. Once games shifted onto CDs, the floodgates for quality music in games opened.

Some games made prior to that step forward do stand out as significant titles with great techno soundtracks. Streets of Rage 2 on the Megadrive certainly stood out back in 1992, as did Extreme G on the N64, but the CD ensured huge steps forward. It was a development that broke the mold and rewrote the script. Plenty of titles and pieces of hardware have come along to allow music production directly through the console, including items such as the Korg DS-10 and the Midi Fighter 3D, but don’t be fooled though; the top video game music developers are not suing their consoles to produce video game music; it is all done on computers, using DAWs (computer-based mixing board consoles) are utilized as a comprehensive tool for writing, composing, recording and mixing music.

The future of gaming music is sure to be around adaptive soundtracks, not just music that changes when you enter a new level or area, but that seamlessly interacts with the experience without breaking beat or stride. Whilst that may be a small part of the future of video gamers from a player’s point of view, the music developers will be hugely excited about how they can continue to get their tunes to speak out and add value to top titles.

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