VGM Entry 05: SID comes to life

VGM Entry 05: SID comes to life
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

1985 was the year that changed video game music forever, and this transpired primarily through the mediums of the Commodore 64 and the Nintendo Entertainment System. At a glance it can seem a lot easier to discuss the latter, what with Koji Kondo’s classics being performed around the world in symphonies today. The former still lacks a formalized history. Where people will readily make the bold and overpresumptuous claim that Super Mario Bros. revolutionized NES music, or even all game music, you don’t really hear the same claim being made about Monty on the Run. This is good, because neither are entirely true. The main difference I suppose is that Super Mario Bros. was undeniably the most popular game of its day, while you may well have never even heard of Monty on the Run. I don’t know if its priority over other Commodore 64 works stems from greater marketing success in 1985 or from a later acknowledgement that it was probably the best among a whole lot of excellent songs.

Let’s focus on the Commodore 64 first. The C64 sound revolution required a lot of programming innovations. The sort of sounds Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, and the like were able to produce weren’t preset to the click of a button, and they weren’t at all obvious. Hubbard was most certainly the first prolific composer for the system, and a lot of SID programming innovations were his in origin, but to what extent C64 musicians influenced each other at this point in time is hard to say.

Monty on the Run (Gremlin Graphics, 1985) is probably Rob Hubbard’s most famous work, granted it was one of many he composed in 1985, and the improvement here over C64 examples from previous years is certainly staggering. I mean, games like 3D Skramble in 1983 may serve as fine examples of the SID’s naturally appealing tones, but they certainly don’t predict a chip and roll epic. With Rob Hubbard in 1985, and with Monty on the Run as the hallmark, we can really mark the end of serious technological limitations for home gaming sound. Programming sound for the Commodore 64 was a painstaking process no doubt, but its sound capacity was not so limiting as to physically deny quality in anything but the obscure/avantgarde. It took sound programmers a while to catch on, and perhaps, in light of the fact that they were not previously expected to compose great music for home game systems, it took a while for developers and real musicians to partner up. But three years after the release of the Commodore 64 and its legendary SID chip, home gaming music really came into its own.

Despite both making their first major waves in 1985, western and Japanese sound programming probably developed independently at first. Early game composers tended to stay within their regional spheres of influence. The European movement was not exclusive to the SID, but rather to local systems. Rob Hubbard for instance composed for the ZX Spectrum as well as the Commodore 64 early on, scoring such games as Spellbound (Mastertronic, 1985), but he never really branched out to Japanese gaming mediums. The Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC formed a fairly isolated pocket of platforms. Similarly, Koji Kondo composed exclusively for Nintendo, and Nobuo Uematsu’s non-NES works were all on computers of Japanese origin, such as the PC-8801 and MSX. A few British musicians, notably Tim Follin and Neil Baldwin, would later turn to the Nintendo, but the language barrier proved daunting. Some of Neil Baldwin’s best works were never commercially released due to communication difficulties between British developers and Japanese producers.

The most interesting indicator of what was going on with the Commodore 64 might be “Synth Sample” by Georg Feil. Composed in 1984 or 1985, it was a widely distributed file in the early days of the internet and had no affiliation with any sort of commercial enterprise. No one needed to ‘invent’ game music. It wasn’t discovered; it didn’t come to the first sound programmer as a sort of epiphany. It was the natural result of improvements in sound chips. Once the potential for good music was out there, it would happen with or without support from major game developers. The SID sounded great, it still sounds great, and it was an inspirational instrument in its own right. Hubbard and others might have been lucky enough to be paid a pittance for their works, but I like to think of them as musicians more so than ‘composers’ in the commercial sense.