It’s time to take another stab at imitating videogame soundtracks. This week we’re going to try the Descent soundtrack. Unlike last week, I’m going to do what I can to try and make this one sound like it really belongs in the game, which means trying to re-create the old MIDI sounds.
The Descent music has been remixed a lot over the years. Some people heard those old MIDI tunes and felt the need to rebuild them with modern instruments. Sometimes the new version would be a faithful adaptation, and sometimes it would be unrecognizable, bordering on sonic vandalismLet’s be clear: The person who did the unfaithful remix is still more musically capable than I am..
For my project, I’m going to compose something original, but get as close to the old MIDI sounds as I can. Thankfully, MAGIX has a tool to help with this:
That looks… scary. And it kind of is. There are a couple of video tutorials for this thing on YouTube, but they were so thick with music jargon that I couldn’t follow them, and they usually boiled down to the teacher just reading the damn interface to me. “This is the OSC glide. It will let you adjust the glide for the OSC up or down.” Gosh, thanks Yoda. You really unraveled that mystery for me.
But I did manage to sort it out through trial and error, and once you know how it works it’s actually super-powerful and fun. (If anyone is really curious I can give you the run-down in a future post. It’s not nearly as terrifying as it looks.)
But the basic idea of this thing is that you can create your own instruments using really primitive building blocks. You get sawtooth waves and sine waves and such, which are really raw forms of sound. Another tool might let you create an instrument by taking an audio file of the instrument you’re playing (maybe a piano playing middle C) and then shifting the pitch up and down, like auto-tuning a singer. But with this tool we’re building sounds from the ground up.
This is good, because that’s very similar to how the old MIDI cards worked, so we should be able to re-create any 1993 MIDI instrument we like. All we need is a good ear and a knack for using this tool. I don’t have either of those things, but I basically muddled through.
I listened to the Descent soundtrack, trying to figure out what made it sound distinct, aside from the MIDI instruments. Here were the guesses I came up with:
- Really strong bass line. Usually your lead instrument in somewhere in the middle range, but a lot of Descent songs put the focus on the instrument thumping away near the bottom.
- Super complex drums. I imagine the original composer was a real drummer and possibly had a MIDI drum set, because there was a big focus on drum complexity. For a lot of electronic songs, it’s fine if you just take a couple of measures of rhythmic thumping and taping and repeat them for the whole song. It’s like playing along with the old “auto-drums” on an 80’s synthesizer. But here the drums are always changing patterns and trying to be as complex and as interesting as the rest of the music.
This is one of the reasons the Descent soundtrack sounded so horrible on late 90’s soundcards. Your MIDI drum bank might list a number of available sounds: Bongo, snare, cymbal, triangle, cowbell, kick drum, wood block, and so on. In 1993, those were all basically the same 8-bit sounding blip of white noise, at different pitches. Sometimes the composer would run through the drums from low pitch to high, or whatever. It sort of sounded like they were using a collection of different-sized snare drums. And those old sounds were brief and quiet, so the composer made them loud and numerous.
But then in the late 90’s, soundcards tried making all those drums sound how they “should”. A cowbell was a cowbell sound and a bongo drum now sounded like a bongo. Thus the Descent tunes would turn into this cacophony of insane, random drums that would drown out the music, the game sounds, and your wife shouting at you to turn that noise off before you wake up the baby.
- Lots of fast notes that run the scales. I don’t know what music nerds call this, but I’ll bet there’s a word for it. One instrument might cover several octaves, jumping up and down the keyboard for single notes.
And the result:
I’m not at all happy with how it turned out. I spent hours fiddling with instrument sounds until I couldn’t remember the sounds I was trying to create and it all blurred together into a mishmash of beeps and boops. I lost my way, got frustrated, and ran out of time. I think I could do better if I started over entirely, but this is what I got on this attempt. And this exercise means nothing if I don’t document the failures along with the successes. Anyway, I might feel completely different about this one if I come back to it in a month and can hear it with fresh ears.
Stuff I learned:
- I learned how to use the Revolta 2 to make MIDI-ish sounds. I’m not an expert or anything, and I couldn’t nail some of the instruments I was aiming for. But I learned a lot anyway.
- I’m a little better at mapping out drums. I didn’t really do the drums justice on my track, but I did what I could. I don’t have a good feel for drums yet, so I spend a lot of time painstakingly placing beats, listening to the entire measureMAGIC has a really annoying habit for waiting an extra second or two before starting the music, just to make this as tedious as possible., trying to figure out what I did wrong, and then nudging the beats around until it sounds right.
 Let’s be clear: The person who did the unfaithful remix is still more musically capable than I am.
 MAGIC has a really annoying habit for waiting an extra second or two before starting the music, just to make this as tedious as possible.
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