As any self-respecting subscriber of the Gaming Historian knows, one national survey conducted in 1990 found that more American children could identify Mario than Mickey. That sounds about right to this writer, who was one of those children.
What truly astonished us, however, was witnessing firsthand how your average Japanese child could still sing most every note of the over- and underworld themes from Super Mario Bros. even in the year 2021. How did composers from the 8-bit era—who had to share precious cartridge space with everything else that makes a video game—manage to paint such memorable tunes with a sound palette typically laid out with perhaps only a couple of monophonic (one note at a time) square waves, a single monophonic pseudo-triangle wave, some more-or-less random noise, and maybe a horridly degraded audio sample or two?
To help us ponder that question and catch a glimpse at how the legacy of the 8-bit era has endured into the present, we interviewed three of the most talented retro video game music composers (albeit via email and across oceans and languages) whose work Nintendo fans can find on the Switch eShop:
- Manami Matsumae is a legendary veteran of the Japanese video game industry with over thirty years experience, and was either responsible for or contributed to many of your favorite Capcom classics such as Mega Man—to say nothing of her stellar additions to the Shovel Knight soundtrack.
- Jake Kaufman has led something of a legendary twenty-year career in the American video game industry himself, notably composing some of the best WayForward and Yacht Club soundtracks from Shantae to the aforementioned (and somewhat ubiquitous) Shovel Knight.
- Marc-Antoine Archier is a comparative newcomer to the French video game industry, but in our opinion—which is, objectively, the best opinion—perfectly nailed the nostalgia when he composed the soundtrack to Christophe Galati’s tribute to the Game Boy era Tasukete, Tako-San! / Save Me, Mr. Tako!
Nintendo Life: How would you define chiptune? Are the differences between 8-bit and contemporary video game music simply technical or are they stylistic as well?
Manami Matsumae: I joined Capcom during the heyday of the Famicom, which used simple tones and had a limited number of sound channels, and I composed under such restrictions. In those days, video game music wasn't what we would call chiptune or 8-bit music today—it was simply music to make the games more exciting.
In time, people who thought all those restrictions were a good thing emerged, making music and putting it out into the world, which I believe is how musical genres like chiptune started. There are a lot of technical restrictions, so I think that's what creates a unique sound and atmosphere.
Jake Kaufman: I mean, personally, I can sleep at night when someone calls Shovel Knight a chiptune soundtrack and not a chip soundtrack. But I have old friends who I'm sure would hyperventilate if I didn't make the distinction for Amiga MOD-related purism reasons. Chiptune was originally supposed to be for music formats that use samples and don't usually sound like an old chip faked into sounding like one. Luckily, I do both kinds—“real” and “fake”—and I'm against gatekeeping these days, so cowabunga!
As for the second part, well, everything sure changed with CD audio tracks. Game music can be just any regular music you want now—a full orchestra, droning atmospheric synth stuff, hip hop with vocals, modern shiny production with retro vibes (think Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze or A Hat in Time), or even just recordings of the classic chips because they're cool and retro now.
If you ask me, though, serious contemporary AAA game music has included 8-bit influences for a while now. Square waves are everywhere—bweep!—even in the commercially licensed electronic dance music I hear in driving games or a major RPG like Nier. Chip sorta goes with everything.
Marc-Antoine Archier: I would define chiptune as a kind of music that tries to flourish within constraints. As many artists would say, constraints can be a great driving force for creativity. In chiptune, as in many other musical styles, the technical constraints produce the stylistic characteristics. The most obvious example is that since chiptune musicians only have access to a very limited panel of tones that are usually not very pleasant by themselves, most rely on melodies rather than on textures.
I think chiptune is one of the best examples of how very harsh constraints can lead to creativity
And there are many more obvious examples. For instance, the very in-time character of chiptune music is a direct consequence of a music tracker’s grid. In Game Boy or NES music, as you’ve got only three voices plus the noise channel, very fast arpeggios are a good way to play chords in only one voice. Vibrato and tremolo are probably the easiest way to give texture to the very poor tones that are at your disposal and are used very often. And I could go on. In fact, I think chiptune is one of the best examples of how very harsh constraints can lead to creativity.
OK, our apologies to Jake’s old friends for not appreciating how chiptune specifically refers to a very particular niche…! When composing music for (or intended to evoke) retro video game consoles such as the Famicom/NES and Game Boy, do you compose at a traditional instrument like the piano? Or, do you compose directly in computer software like a music tracker?
Manami Matsumae: These days, there’re music trackers for making chiptune music like FamiTracker, but I find it much easier to compose in a digital audio workstation (DAW) called Cubase and compose by setting the audio device to Super Audio Cart from Impact Soundworks. By using that plug-in, I can get a retro vibe and ideas for compositions.
As for my workflow, I compose while referring to things in the game like its mood, the impression its world gives, and how its characters move. What I feel shouldn't be too removed from what the developers feel, so I communicate with them and go from there. What's more important is creating music that stirs up the players’ emotions, and I refine the music while thinking about how I can craft tunes that will draw players into the game and hook them.
Jake Kaufman: My approach to composing, in general, is to work out a song in my head until it's mostly or fully complete, which is whenever I stop being irritated with it and start feeling like it might actually be viable enough to bring into the real world. I'm about equally comfortable doing the ensuing brain-to-computer transcription, finishing touches, embellishments, and such using a QWERTY keyboard, or a MIDI keyboard, live or in step-by-step mode and programming a series of hex numbers—whatever I've gotta do to get it out of me.
I'd say module tracking (the spreadsheet-like method from Shovel Knight and Shantae) is the most intricate and time-consuming of all, but also the fastest for quick basic sketches. That's usually my method of choice for chip stuff, since it gives me so much direct control over the tiny handful of voices you get. My workflow tends to slowly assimilate new hotnesses. I gradually add technologies to my bag of tricks alongside the old cobwebby General MIDI synths and trackers, and I'll try to bring out new techniques in unexpected ways to keep myself and all of you guessing.
Marc-Antoine Archier: My first attempts at chiptune were very inaccurate and did not sound right at all. First, I tried to use software synthesizers to produce primitive waveforms, and then I moved to more accurate software that tried to emulate the exact audio constraints of the hardware I was aiming for. But it still wasn’t sounding right. I didn’t understand how those very specific reverb sounds, arpeggios, and tremolos worked. I was a bit intimidated by the user-hostile aspect of trackers, but it was only when I started to use such software that I began to understand that the right question wasn’t “How did it work?” but “Why did it work that way?”
Every characteristic of chiptune music was in fact a trick to play with the limitations. For instance, chiptune reverb sounds the way it sounds because every reverberation needs to be typed by hand into a grid. Now, I usually start by searching for themes and harmonies on the piano. I write down the main ideas, modulations, and global structure, and I do all the details on the computer. However, sometimes, I start directly in a tracker and write as it comes.
We didn’t expect Manami to favor DAWs and Marc-Antoine to swear by trackers…! Given the various challenges it uniquely presents, have you found any compositional techniques or sources of inspiration particularly useful for composing retro video game music?
Manami Matsumae: The memory limitations were a real challenge. When composing with three voices, the melody and bass lines are indispensable, and that alone uses up two voices. How do you create the impression of chords with the remaining voice? Since I majored in the piano at university, I had Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier and Inventions and Sinfonias in the back of my mind, and that proved to be an invaluable reference for filling out the inner voice.
As for compositional techniques, I would copy the melody into a separate track, adding a rest at the beginning and lowering the volume for a reverb effect or ever so slightly raising the pitch for a detune effect. I would also create the impression of chords by playing do-mi-so in short notes such as thirty-second notes (demisemiquavers) and sixty-fourth notes (hemidemisemiquavers) or deliberately introducing large leaps in the bass line.
Jake Kaufman: Oh, constantly! Things that are easily taken for granted such as menu screen music are extremely important to me. The specific way tracks fade in and out, whether there's an intro you only hear once before the looping bit starts, and subtle things like that will change the entire feel and flow of any game before you even get to the gameplay itself.
I like to notice tropes and cliches—the One True Way to make certain kinds of tracks. For example, the incredibly slick, shiny military rock fusion tracks they play while you're selecting your aircraft and weapons in any Japanese game with planes in it, but most prominently in the Ace Combat series. It's been a thing since Top Gun; the style hasn't changed at all. Usually, that's my favorite track in the game—the most crucial one, and they seem to know it. Love me a good hangar banger!
Marc-Antoine Archier: For chiptune, there are some techniques to hide loops or at least make them less obvious, such as starting music with intensity to create some sort of diversion or having some subtle variation in parts to obscure the repetition. For more contemporary video game music, the ideal scenario is when the music isn’t repeating itself at all, and I think the future of game audio is procedural or generative. It doesn’t show at all in Save Me, Mr Tako’s soundtrack, but I really do think that non-linear ways of producing and playing music is a vast and exciting horizon to explore. Unfortunately, for melody lovers, it makes it way more difficult (but not impossible) to obtain well motivated themes and harmonies, and the easy way is often to rely on evolving textures and rhythms since it's more malleable.
I would like to add regarding inspiration that I’ve learned a lot about chiptune listening to and trying to understand Jake Kaufman’s music. To me, his FX4 album is a lesson in chiptune the same way Bach’s The Art of Fugue was for counterpoint. While I was writing Save Me, Mr Tako’s soundtrack, I was secretly hoping that he would notice me, and I feel a bit overwhelmed today sharing this interview with him since I feel like he’s the final boss of chiptune music.
Roll over, Beethoven, and dig these bleeps and blorps…! Ahem. When composing the soundtracks to Shovel Knight and Save Me, Mr. Tako!, what restrictions did you impose on yourselves as composers? Did you break any rules that wouldn’t have been possible to break in the ’80s and ’90s?
Manami Matsumae: For Shovel Knight, the development team asked me to compose with six voices, so that's what I did. Jake's music was already finished, and I referenced it while taking care that my music wouldn't feel out of place next to his during the game. Since he had produced the Shovel Knight soundtrack in FamiTracker, I sent him the MIDI data that I created in Cubase and had him complete it for me in FamiTracker. The game had nostalgia to spare, so I think it was faithful to the style of early games without breaking any rules.
Jake Kaufman: Well, it might sound impressive that all the Shovel Knight music can run on actual Famicom hardware, but the catch is that there's just so much of it that there'd be no room for anything other than music on any known cartridge of the time. Even if Famitracker files were compressed adequately and had a good runtime music driver, there are around 150 songs in the base game and the Order campaigns, and most are at least a minute or two of pure chaos. And there are like… 800 sound effects! No producer or publisher on Earth would have signed off on a gigantic cart size just so we could have that much music. The prices and sizes didn't scale linearly, so it would have been the most expensive game ever. It's just too much music to reasonably exist even if it technically could. It brought back memories of having to trim individual songs way down to fit onto the original Shantae Game Boy Color cart.
it might sound impressive that all the Shovel Knight music can run on actual Famicom hardware, but the catch is that there's just so much of it that there'd be no room for anything other than music on any known cartridge of the time
Now that we live in SSD Infinity Futureland, I don't have to optimize anything anymore. Games are absolutely colossal now, and you can mix dozens of stereo wave streams at once with realtime effects on each one even in a web browser running on a current-gen console without it even breaking a sweat—hundreds in an actual game. To ’90s me, that's totally unfathomable power. The SNES had eight voices. I love this specific part of the future!
Marc-Antoine Archier: All the music I composed for Save Me, Mr Tako was made in a music tracker called Deflemask that is supposed to emulate the exact hardware constraints of the original Game Boy, and is thus theoretically playable on the device. It could sound masochistic, but it was a real pleasure to play with those constraints and to try to push the limit of the sound chip. That said, one important rule was broken because the chipset couldn’t play sound effects without stopping at least one voice of the music and I chose to ignore this constraint for the sake of musicality and the players’ comfort.
Finally, do you have any recommendations for composers interested in exploring video game music, whether as a hobby or professionally? What advice would you have given yourself at the start of your own artistic career?
Manami Matsumae: What's important in creating game music is composing tunes that fit the mood of the game. That's why I think it's important to refine your musical sensibilities by listening to a wide variety of music as often as you can. It's a matter of having a mental filing cabinet for different music. There are all kinds of music in games, such as aggressive music, melancholic music, comical music, and so on, and we're often asked to make this or that kind of music. If you only ever listen to your favorite music, there will be times when you won’t be able to make music in unfamiliar genres. When you listen to a wide variety of music, you can pull out useful reference from your mental filing cabinet. I would suggest listening to music from all kinds of genres.
it's important to refine your musical sensibilities by listening to a wide variety of music as often as you can. It's a matter of having a mental filing cabinet for different music
Jake Kaufman: My recommendation for other composers is that cooking sucks when you're broke and stressed out, but fresh bread is so good and easy it almost makes up for it, so learn to bake a decent loaf of bread. You have no idea how glad you'll be when you're having a PaRappa moment and you just can't with the noodles anymore, but you've got some flour laying around and you actually learned how to make bread. That little bit of simple joy can really help keep you going.
As for advice to myself, "My dude, it's cool that you want to help a lot and make every game sound great, but don't just agree to everything all the time—you're gonna get really sick and go a little crazy."
Marc-Antoine Archier: To anyone who would like to explore video game music, I would give three pieces of advice. First, listen to video game music the way it was intended to be. To be fully appreciated and understood, you got to play the games it was made for. What is truly unique in this kind of art is the link between gameplay and audio.
Second, learn programming as it's not as hard as it seems and it gives you the ability to implement your work and prototype musical systems. There are plenty of resources to learn Unity, and if it seems too intimidating, you can try more accessible software such as Game Maker, Construct 2, or RPG Maker.
Third, do game jams. I’ve learned a lot about how to make video games and met a lot of people during those events, including Chris who programmed Save Me, Mr Tako. If you want to try to produce music and/or sound effects for video games, that’s an excellent way to start. You will meet a lot of folks who are eager to find people to create video games with and there’s plenty of room for absolute beginners.
Our thanks to Manami Matsumae, Jake Kaufman and Marc-Antoine Archier for taking the time to speak with us. Be sure check out the other Nintendo Life VGM Fest articles in our season of music-focused interviews and features.