Project Button Masher: Triop Employee of the Month

By Shamus Posted Thursday Jan 22, 2015

Filed under: Music 35 comments

In 1994 I discovered that the only reason I listened to all that nu-wave synth-pop in the 80’s was because I was waiting for someone to invent proper electronic music. I don’t know where music historians would say electronic music beganProbably something like Kraftwerk, way back in the 70’s, actually. but for me it began with System Shock.

I usually rank this as one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. But look, this game will turn 21 this year. I was a different person when I played it, obsessively, for the better part of a year. I can’t untangle my nostalgia from my musical taste when it comes to this soundtrack. In fact, when I hear the music all I can see is the levels they belong to.

If you’ve never heard it, or if you’ve forgotten it, here is the whole thing, exactly as it sounded to 23 year old Shamus in 1994:

Link (YouTube)

The tracks range from quasi-industrial to straight electronic. I can’t capture all of that in one track, so for inspiration I looked to “L02 Research” “L06 Executive” and “L08 Security / Bridge”.

Distinctive characteristics:

  1. Very basic synth instrumentation. Unlike (say) Doom, these instruments aren’t pretending to be electric guitars or string instruments.
  2. Take a simple melody, and then take 2 of the notes and yank them way up a couple of octaves.
  3. Bitcrush the drums. This is something I hadn’t worked out until now. You can lower the bitrate on the drums (or other instrument) to make them sound more raw and 1993-ish. It’s the audio equivalent of pixelating an image. Doing this to the drums really gave it that System Shock feel.
  4. In a couple of tracks I noticed this stylistic quirk: The drums tap out a slow, steady rhythm, but then once in a while with suddenly do this rapid-fire snare for a couple of seconds.

Here is what I came up with:

This one was a lot easier than the Descent track from a couple of weeks ago. I guess it helps that I saved some of the 90’s synth instruments and was able to re-use a couple here. That saved me the ear-numbing couple of hours trying to build new ones from scratch. It does seem that listening to too much tonal noise is really bad for the music-making parts of my brain. They give up after a while and I can’t even tell if something is in tune.

Here is the track map, for the curious:


I usually post “what I learned” at the end of these. I don’t have any revelations about this track in particular, but over the past couple of weeks I’ve learned to use velocity a bit better. I don’t know if velocity is a concept from music theory or just from MIDI, but it’s a measure of how hard you hit a particular noteI’m sure musicians deal with the subject all the time. I’m just saying they might call it something else.. Back in my early days of messing with this stuff, I thought velocity was just jargon for “volume”, because upping the velocity of a particular note made it louder. That made it seem useless to me, since I already had other ways of controlling that.

But if you gently lay your finger on a piano key to make a note sound, and then you slam your finger down on the same key, you’ll get two very different sounds. Even if you volume-adjust them to the same level, they won’t sound the same. That’s what velocity is all about.

This drove me crazy for a while. For practice and education, I would sometimes listen to a song and try to re-create it. I’d hear two different notes and try to map them out. “Okay, that first one is middle C. The second one sounds higher. Is it D? No, that’s not right. C#? Ugh. Wrong. I have no idea. Is it lower? I guess it’s just another C, but it sounds really different somehow.”

It took me a while, but I finally realized that what I was hearing was a change in velocity. Since then I’ve trained my ear to be less horrible at differentiating changes in pitch from changes in timbre. Some people have a natural gift for this sort of thing, but I needed practice.

Velocity gives you another way of differentiating notes, another way to add complexity and texture to things. It’s not quite as useful in this retro 90’s synth stuff as it is in pieces like the Half-Life music last week. When you’re dealing with real instruments (or recreations of real instruments) then velocity makes a big difference. But if you’re working with really raw, pure sounds – like old synthesizer sounds – then velocity really doesn’t do anything other than change the volume. (And for the synths I create by hand, it’s possible to set them up so velocity doesn’t do much of anything.)

I don’t know if I’m getting better, but this project is certainly making me a more knowledgeable sort of hack.



[1] Probably something like Kraftwerk, way back in the 70’s, actually.

[2] I’m sure musicians deal with the subject all the time. I’m just saying they might call it something else.

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35 thoughts on “Project Button Masher: Triop Employee of the Month

  1. Kathryn says:

    I believe you are referring to dynamic markings. If you look at a piece of sheet music, see where it says things like “mf”,”pp”, etc.? That’s what tells the musician how hard to strike the piano key or whatever. I’m sure one of the actual musicians around here will give you a better description, but in brief, p means pianissimo (soft), f means forte (loud), and m means mezzo and moderates the other two. So mf means mezzo forte or moderately loud. pp means really really quiet.

    Update: Sorry, pp means pianissimo and p is just piano. I am not an actual musician. Anyway, Wikipedia has an article on dynamics in music.

    1. Zagzag says:

      Dynamics are just volume, there’s not that much more to it. There are features like staccato notes that I recall from my long ignored musical training that are closer to (but not the same as) what Shamus means here, though they also shorten the note.

      1. postinternetsyndrome says:

        The collective term for stuff like that is “articulation”. Articulation concerns both the way you begin the note, how you treat it during its duration, and how you end it. Velocity, or attack, naturally affects how the note begins.

        EDIT: Robyrt’s answer is more specific to what Shamus is talking about, though I’d add that articulation and dynamics are closely related. (On acoustic instruments, an articulation technique can be hard to produce at certain dynamics, while other articulations are more dynamic-independent.)

        1. Joe Informatico says:

          The core issue is velocity represented as a numeric value is an attempt by late-70s electrical engineers to quantify expression. Velocity mostly equals dynamics, but might also incorporate the changes in timbre that can occur. E.g., blowing certain wind instruments very forcefully can cause notes to sound frayed.

    2. Robyrt says:

      Shamus is talking about how quickly the volume reaches its intended level, which is also called “attack”. It’s related to dynamics, and a note with more velocity will sound louder and faster, all else being equal, but it’s not the same thing.

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    The system

    is shocked.

    1. MrGuy says:

      Meedely Meedely Meedely Meedely Meedely Meedely

  3. Patrick El muy loco says:

    In 1994 you also hijacked my copy of Cypress Hill for, oh I don’t know, forever. I’m sure your voracious reader-ship would be interested to know musical interests extended far beyond Flock of Seagulls and synth-pop.
    one time tried to come in my home
    take my chrome
    I said yo it’s on.
    take cover son or you’re assed out
    how do you like my chrome then I watched the rookie pass out
    didn’t have to blast him
    but I did any way, young punk had to pay…..

    1. SyrusRayne says:

      Seems par for the course, really. It sounds like it’s a cyberpunk-ish concept album about the daily life of a street samurai.

  4. Joseph P. Tallylicker says:

    Ah memories; glorious wonderful memories of running around empty and less than empty corridors terrified of what would come next. That music man, it takes me back.

  5. Unbeliever says:

    What I know of music, I learned while programming my Commodore 64.

    Way back when, the book told us that you program musical notes in terms of Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release (ADSR).

    I’m pretty sure what you call “velocity” is the Attack part. :)

    1. Shamus says:

      They still use ADSR, and I use it all the time. But (at least in the program I’m using) it’s a property of the instrument. Velocity is a property of an individual note. When I make my own instruments, I can link a change in velocity to attack. In the pre-built stuff made from real instruments, it sounds like they use different samples for different velocity values.

      1. Chris says:

        That’s very likely. Nearly any sampler worth its memory footprint will let you do that. They might also be tying velocity to a number of other modulators, or using something other than a standard subtractive synthesizer. With an FM synth, you can make wildly different timbres just by having velocity affect the volume of one of your operators. In a wavetable synth, changing the wavetable position to velocity can provide some pretty dramatic variation as well.

        Try making a patch with a lowpass filter. Set the filter envelope’s attack to a shortish amount, maybe 1/4 of whatever scale your synth uses. Set the filter envelope decay to something a bit longer, say 1/3. Set the filter envelope sustain fairly low. Now set the filter cutoff to about half and set the resonance to a little below half. Then use velocity to modulate the filter envelope amount. Hitting the same note at different velocities should sound significantly different in a way that doesn’t really have anything to do with volume.

    2. I was gonna say Attack, Duration, Decay.
      All three deal with the time domain.
      How quickly (or not) the start of a note is, how long it lasts and how quickly it ends.
      Then you got Fade In, Volume, Fade Out, which deals with the volume of these.

      Now this is just what I call this stuff (I’m self taught just like Shamus).
      Heck I do not normally use these terms, but the words are descriptive of what I’m thinking when making music.

      1. Knut says:

        Disclaimer: I’m talking in synthesizer terms here. Other instruments (might) use other terms.

        Actually duration is dictated by how long you hold the note. ADSR is like this:
        – Attack is how long it takes for the note to reach max volume (or some other parameter. ADSR generators in synths can be connected to many parameters)
        – Decay is how long it takes for the note to reach sustain volume (or again, some other parameter)
        – Sustain is the volume the note will hold while the key is hold (in MIDI until note-off message)
        – Decay is how long until the note volume reaches zero after the note is released.


      2. Zak McKracken says:

        On the C64, every note went to maximum volume shortly, then came down for the “sustain” part and eventually faded out. That explains the four, not three phases.

        I think that’s similar to what a piano does: When you hammer down a key and hold it, the tone doesn’t just start, but you hear an additional noise while the hammer hits the string, and after that only the string.

        On a piano, the beginning of a note will thus sound different, depending on how quickly you push the key (which is also the only way do modify volume, but that’s irrelevant here), and the end of it also depends on not just when but how quickly you release the key. That may well be the “velocity” Shamus is describing: How quickly does the note build up and how abrubtly does it end after the given duration?

        Also: Now I want to listen to Last Ninja II again…

    3. Chris says:

      In traditional instrumentation, sure. But w/ modern synths, you can modulate damn near any parameter w/ velocity. Filter cutoff, vibrato amount, overall pitch, the pitch of just one osc, LFO speed, any element of any envelope, wavetable position, resynthesis harmonics, etc.

      Some keyboards can also detect release velocity which, again, can be mapped to anything.

  6. Chris says:

    Shamus, is there any possibility you might be willing to share the audio stems of this track? I’d love to try my hand at a remix, and perhaps others would as well.

    1. Shamus says:


      I don’t understand. Are you looking for the instruments broken down to individual files, or for some sort of midi output?

      1. Chris says:

        Sorry, jargon. Yeah, each instrument track in its own audio file. No MIDI necessary.

  7. Cinebeast says:

    I didn’t grow up on System Shock, but I did play a lot of Perfect Dark when I was a little dude, and let me tell you, this track you made threw me for a hell of a nostalgia wave. I wouldn’t be surprised if PD took inspiration from SS.

  8. lethal_guitar says:

    That System Shock music you linked to.. now I know where you got your inspiration for your earlier track “The Wobbler”! ;)

  9. postinternetsyndrome says:

    In popular music, Kraftwerk is certainly immensely influential, but electronic music has been around for a while, in various forms. It really took off after the war, when many European composers in particular felt a need to distance themselves from more traditional forms.

    A lot of the early stuff is tape based, but synthesizers soon appeared too. Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage are two of the more well-known names. Overall, a lot of the technical development on these things happened in Germany, so perhaps it’s natural that one of the first artists to hit the mainstream with electronic stuff was German.

    Google “electroacoustic music” for the full treatment.

  10. Scott Schulz says:

    “I don't know where music historians would say electronic music began[1] but for me it began with System Shock.”

    You youngsters with your new-fangled computation machines and such, don’t know what it was like back in the day. You forced me to read the Wikipedia page on the topic. Yes, there was electronic music before Kraftwerk. The Theremin goes back to the 20s and certainly made its mark on pop culture via horror movies. (A high school classmate of mine mastered the Theremin and used it as part of his act in Teatro Zinzanni.

    But the roots of what we think of as electronic music are more around the time of Kraftwerk. On the music side there was tape manipulation and the use of repeated figures in the work of early Minimalists like Phil Glass, Steve Roach and Terry Riley. (Another friend of mine played the piano part in a early performance of Riley’s “In C”. He’s a well trained pianist but the piano part consists of playing middle C once a beat for the entire length of the piece which is subject to the whims of the other instrumentalists). On the tech side, electronic music did not really start until the creation of the Moog synthesizer. The first real hit with it was Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach in 1968 a good seven years before Autobahn.

    1. Dan Efran says:

      Also in the 1970s (and early 1980s) Tangerine Dream explored a lot of sounds and soundscapes that more current electronic music eventually caught up to. They weren’t as popular as, e.g., Kraftwerk, but they mapped out genre territory that now sounds very familiar.

      1. Scott Schulz says:

        Yeah, to the extent that I could afford it on my high school allowance, I was buying all their albums as they came out. I remember my local record store had a bin of electronic music with TD, Synergy (Larry Fast who did a bit of work with Peter Gabriel around then) and Tomita (from Japan). I did get to see both TD and Krafterk once each in concert. TD was probably only second to Vangelis in my personal pantheon.

  11. Abnaxis says:

    Is what you are talking about articulation? It sounds like you are describing articulation…

    Note: I didn’t remember the not off the top of my head, I just googleplexed “musical accent” because I remembered accent marks denote greater “velocity” on sheet music…

  12. General Karthos says:

    The movie “Forbidden Planet” (with Leslie Nielsen as the romantic lead, in one of his earlier serious roles) was the first movie with an entirely electronic soundtrack, back in 1956.

  13. Rich says:

    If you’re serious about game music… Listen to the Peggle soundtrack.

  14. sensi277 says:

    This is good.

    Very good.

    You could sell this.

    It’s that good.

  15. Nevermind says:

    I’m not a huge fan of System Shock. Not enough to judge its soundtrack (or a piece that wants to be its soundtrack)

    What I hear in this music is Deus Ex. Especially right at the start, the first notes sound and I’m instantly transported to UNATCO HQ…

  16. Nick Powell says:

    This might not be relevant, but here’s a massive playlist of this sort of music made by a guy on reddit:

  17. arron says:

    Talking of Tri-Optimum – did you ever notice on the System Shock 2 Hack panel there was a “Tri-OS” button that was inactive? I never managed to work out what that was for, if anything.

  18. Peter H. Coffin says:

    In the SS soundtrack, I hear a LOT of early Vangelis influence. Late 1970’s and very early 1980s, pre “Chariots of Fire” and “Blade Runner”. Go find some on YouTube, give it a fair shake (’cause Vangelis often takes 7-8 minutes to get on the jam he’s going use for the rest of the work), and see if it speaks to you.

  19. swenson says:

    I didn’t play System Shock, so I don’t have the soundtrack as ingrained as the rest of you, but with this one, I really think you nailed the feel.

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