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lazygecko

Pre-32bit sound design

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Disclaimer: Yeah, this is gonna be a pretty long thread since it's just a topic I'm very interested in and have reflected a lot over. You don't need to read through the whole thing at once if you just want to bring up some titles that you thought had very interesting and well-crafted sounds.

I can't really think of a better unifying term for this since the methods are so varied... But basically what I mean is older games/systems that mainly relied on sound hardware to generate sound effects at runtime instead of playing back pre-recorded samples. The 32-bit era marked a departure as developers gradually relied more and more on just taking stock sound libraries with minimal editing done to personalize/differentiate them. That's what largely defines the sound of that era in my mind, and I think it was very detrimental as the personal touch diminished, not to mention that repeated use of those stock sounds made their use very transparent (as opposed to their use in film and TV where you might just hear the same sound once or twice) and devauled them a lot through sheer oversaturation. It's only relatively recently that sound design in games has gotten interesting again IMO.

The pre-NES/Atari 2600 years I find especially interesting. A lot of arcade games seemed to use varied and unorthodox methods to get sound from their games. Death Race I find very fascinating since it's a very early game from 1976, and I'm going to guess that this predates digital PCM playback being feasible for games (let alone consumer products). I really have no idea how they managed to convey the car engine sound and the improvised death screams. I've done some searching around but it seems no sources on the game's history have any interest in the sound tech behind it. Berzerk from 1981 uses speech synthesis built into the arcade hardware which is really novel. According to Wikipedia this was done since the memory needed for PCM voice samples were still prohibitively expensive at the time.

The mid-80's and onward is when sound effects done using onboard synthesizer sound chips really starts coming into its own, and developers start to embrace the abstract nature of the sounds to create something unique and iconic. Super Mario Bros. is a great representation of this, as most of the sounds (apart from the block breaking sound, I suppose) really make no sense at all, but they still have a lot of thought and intent behind their design. Take a look at this video that reverse-engineers some of the common sounds from SMB. Notice how if you play the powerup sound very slowly, it sounds like a rising arpeggio in a major scale chord progression. So this was very deliberately made to evoke a positive feel using that harmonic makeup, since major chords are usually thought of as "happy" sounding. And the coin pickup sound is of course a very simple perfect fifth interval, which evokes some sense of accomplishment.

The 16-bit era largely carried on the same school of thought from the 8-bit one and refined it using more flexible sound chip technology. I think Sonic the Hedgehog is where the SMB-style of sound design really peaked. There is such a varied range of different sounds in that game, but it's in fact very tied together and cohesive in concept. If you take a closer look, you might notice that a whole lot of the sounds are actually derived from bells, mallets and old devices with mechanical ringing. The sound when you lose your rings sort of sounds like an old telephone ringing (this has to be a deliberate pun). The sound when your score is tallied at the end of a zone/act is like a vintage cash register. Etc etc. It's quite clever and fitting given that FM has a reputation for being good at recreating the distinct dissonant timbres of bells.

One more on the Genesis I want to bring up is Revenge of Shinobi from 1989. Koshiro of course has a pedigree as a phenomenal composer, but he also did all of the sound design for the games he worked on (as was common with small dev teams at the time). Revenge of Shinobi is among his first and I'd say it remains his best from a sound design perspective, given that subsequent games like Streets of Rage 2 relied much more on low quality PCM samples that haven't aged nearly as well.
I bring up Shinobi because a lot of games have given the Genesis a reputation for having very hissy and abrasive sound effects. But the ones in Shinobi are actually very smooth and pleasant sounding, and I have some theories on this. Without going into too much detail on FM sound programming, I think a lot of games ended up sounding very hissy because if you want noisy sounds (as a lot of SFX tends to be), simply maxing out all the synth parameters is a very easy and instantly gratifying way of achieving that. But when you do that with FM, you just end up with this gradually overpowering white noise that remains static without any possibility to change its character (unlike noise on 8-bit sound chips like the NES which has many different variations you can achieve).
So in some of the worst sounding games you just end up with this constant white noise that permeates almost everything all the time. In Revenge of Shinobi however Koshiro uses some creative tricks and inherent quirks/distortions in the chip to achieve noise of very different character. You can hear this straight away in the game's intro sequence when the thunder and lightning sounds are playing. And there's of course a lot of other well-made effects that catch your attention like the wooden creaking of the doors in the first stage.

The other aspect of 16-bit sound is that sample-based chips were finally coming into their own, particularly with the Amiga and SNES. What's different from 32-bit sample tech though is that the memory was still too low to really allow storage of dedicated SFX samples. Most people would instead rely on the instrument samples for the music and design SFX out of those, which is what makes it so unique and interesting. One of the most common universally used tricks for example is making explosions out of very low-pitched snare drums.

I thought that Super Mario World's sound design was mostly a step down from the iconic 8-bit predecessors, but there are some redeeming qualities to it. The one that instantly comes to mind is Yoshi's sound which is an orchestra hit sample being pitched up and then down again. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the real standout for me here. Those instantly recognizable sounds when you damage and kill enemies? That's the soundtrack's crash cymbal being violently pitched around. The sound of picking up hearts (the small ones, not the big ones) is derived from the trumpet sample. Etc. etc.

I'd also give a quick shoutout to Seiken Densetsu 3. Normally I wouldn't even bring up Squaresoft at all since they almost exclusively relied on the SNES's noise generator to create SFX, and this usually sounded very primitive compared to other SNES games. But SD3 has something pretty special in that it uses the noise generator to create unique footstep sounds depending on what surface you're moving on. It'll be different for grass, sand, snow, etc. I thought that was a really cool detail that you seldom heard in 16-bit games.

There's probably a lot more out there that I'm not as knowledgeable about. Particularly European games made for the C64, Amiga and other home computers at the time. What I've noticed here is that developers would often either go all the way on either music or sound. By that I mean that a game could have no sound effects at all to avoid interrupting the awesome music, or that it would only reserve music for the intro/title/intermissions and dedicate the ingame segments completely to SFX, which yields much more potential for sound design.

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