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:
- Very basic synth instrumentation. Unlike (say) Doom, these instruments aren’t pretending to be electric guitars or string instruments.
- Take a simple melody, and then take 2 of the notes and yank them way up a couple of octaves.
- 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.
- 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.
 Probably something like Kraftwerk, way back in the 70’s, actually.
 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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