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LJ finally allowing me to write, format (sort of - sorry about the font) and edits posts, over a week later than intended...
With the previous post looking at the original soundtracks of video games through the years, this one is aimed at the other side of the coin: alternative versions of original tracks such as techno remixes, orchestral performances, inspired-by albums and so on.



ReMixes, ReArrangements and ChipTunes; oh my!

I first came across remixed music during the latter part of the SNES heydays. It was early stuff - the SPC soundfiles were ripped to Midi tracks and then rearranged, distributed by BBS. They were small files by today's standards but I remember DLing them on our shiny new expensive home PC with 56.6k modem sometime in 1996 and wishing they'd hurry up. I was completely taken by the idea of redoing some of my favourite game tunes.

By this point some game producers were making their own rearrangements and selling them worldwide. F.F. Mix is one of the early ones I'd acquired on import and one of the very few physical CDs in a case I still own.

WinMX took over as being my main source of music remixes when the BBSes closed or were abandoned, and this continued for some time.

Then I stumbled upon Overclocked Remix, way back in its early days. I was hooked: tons and tons of remixes of all different kinds for a huge variety of games, each one personally vetted by a panel. The brainchild of a part-time music remixer DJPretzel, the idea behind the site was as a spin-off from a game emulation community comic that went by the name of Overclocked. It was to create a community around game music and the rearrangements thereof focused on forum boards where people could post work-in-progress MP3s and discuss concerns and ideas. Once finished the tracks would be submitted and reviewed. If good enough, they'd be 'released' by the site and anyone could download it for free. As the WinMX scene died away, I moved more and more to the source of many of the tracks I'd found through it.

OCremix logo



I was a lurker more than a participant but I did debate and discuss now and then. I lacked the sort of hardware needed to make any of my own (yes even a demo version of Fruity Loops was beyond my old computer) but I was taken by the masterful abilities of the some of the remixers. Big names and personal favourites include The Wingless, Big Giant Circles, Protricity, Dr Fruitcake, Star Salzman and so on. Remixers have come and gone, and the site too has waxed and waned. At one point they were doing regular streamed radio shows with a jukebox when no one was presenting live; this was the OCR Radio that 
grew from Larry "Liontamer" Oji's Atlanta-based broadcast shows and became known as Ormgas: including interviews with remixers, game music composers, broadcasts from events and suchlike. It was a great way to listen to tracks that I would not ordinarily have been interested in based on the game/track/review too. I can personally thank OCR Radio for keeping me sane through a couple of particularly mind-numbing work contracts. But all good things must come to an end and the radio stream was sadly no exception. Now it operates as a jukebox with occasinoal playlist updates from the newer submissions.

Still, the site is doing well having far eclipsed the original emulation community it grew out of. It has its own merchandising and runs regular music-based events such as the 'album' events where one game is chosen and remixers pick a track or two to do up in their own way.

It's an interesting observation that more OC remixes are being made of older games - 16-bit and earlier - than newer ones. Is it because of nostalgia? That simpler, cleaner tunes are easier to bend and chop and change? There's some fabulous stuff based on newer games out there (see the Halo: Combat Evolved track Insurrection for example) but there seems to be console generations' worth of time lag in terms of game popularity for remixing. The games with the highest remix counts are retro: in the top 10 most remixed games, 6 of them are SNES games, one is on the Megadrive, one is on the NES and two are on the PS1. The number one is Chrono Trigger, in news that will surprise no one who's ever come across game music remixes, closely followed by Final Fantasy VII and VI. By comparison the fourth most popular game (Mega Man 2) has half the number as Chrono Trigger. Says a lot about the talents of Yasunori Mitsuda, Nobuo Uematsu et al in creating tunes people want to engage with (not to mention the personal interests and biases of the OCremix community, of course).

Other sites haven't been as lucky. In the early 2ks, OCremix had a rival site known as VGmix. The origins were debated but the consensus seemed to suggest it was a break-away site founded by one remixer that went by the nick of Virt who didn't like the level of control DJPretzel had over OCremix, including the idea that tracks would be vetted for quality. If OCremix was the regulated big city, VGmix was the Wild West frontier town where anything went. This being the internet, there were flamewars and geek epeening all round, and of course a lot of remix competition. The throughput of MP3s on VGmix was much, much higher, with anyone being allowed to upload whatever they liked and I'd end up spending ages trying to sift the finished products from half a dozen unfinished builds, not to mention atrocious tracks and a lot of random non-game music rubbish uploaded as a trolling attempt or in genuine error.

Whilst it's fair to say OCremix tracks were of a better standard in general, I found a fair few absolute diamonds through VGmix that for some reason were never submitted to OCremix. (Gamer politics? Perish the thought!) Eventually the site ended in a series of firestorms and hacks, with attempts to resurrect it being mostly unsuccessful beyond keeping it around for posterity reasons, and much of the earlier MP3 archives were lost *. Regardless, VGmix as a concept is still alive and kicking as the IP of Virt who has become an industry figure and ultimately even made peace with OCremix.

ReMix:ThaSauce is a site that goes back to the roots of OCremix by way of the VGmix proposal that what defines a 'good' song is less about technical perfection and more about feel which is an individual and subjective thing. This site publishes many of the rejected tracks from OCremix.

OC remix has even sprouted a parody music site: Overlooked Remix. The idea behind it is one of parody remixes poking fun at just about every aspect of games and gamers the remixers can find. Some of it is very cleverly done and well made, others are... best described as trolling your ears.

Other remix-related sites include Kwed which focuses on C64 games and Amiga Remix which doesn't take an expert to decipher.

Got a site for me that I've missed? Let me know in the comments!


Genre notes


Genres of remixes come in two sorts of variety. One is the regular classification of a track by its style, such as an orchestral rearrangement, a techno remix or a metalthrashskapunkdancecore with vocals. For a while I attempted to classify the tracks I heard along those lines but I quickly realised how futile this would be because of the sheer diversity found in even a single compilation track. As with all other varieties of music, it can be argued 'til the cows come home. The other way genre can be presented is how the music is made. Is it a literal philharmonic performance? Was it knocked out in 5 minutes on a Casio keyboard? Was it created using emulated original sound chip hardware? The last example in particular is a popular method by which remixes are made and those tracks are known as chiptunes. These go beyond a musical equivalent of retrogaming by taking newer tracks and reverse-engineering them to fit into old school consoles such as the NES or the C64. Keeping them recognisable and catchy is key, and there's some amazingly well done examples out there.
As a note the term 'chiptune' is sometimes also used to refer to the original sound file from a game, such as a .spc ripped from a SNES cartridge.

And of course, there's the commercial remixes. Dr. Spin's Tetris anyone? The term Nintendocore gets bandied about now and then too. Remixing can sometimes make it BIG...


tl;dr

Remixes of video game music can be just as diverse, if not moreso, than the originals and it's a big fan-made business not done for the profit but for the hell of it. There's a lot out there if you know where to look and, conveniently, there’s a couple of big websites with large archives.



* I've got a Gig worth of tracks from VGmix that never appeared elsewhere (that I could find). Naturally I won’t be the only one but to this day I haven't found any sort of rebuilt archive for that place, so I back up my hoard carefully to ensure a HDD failure never takes away that which I cannot replace.

 

achtungexplosiv: (Default)
Back at the keyboard after a busy week, I'm going to move onto something of a tangent and look at the audio component of modern video games complete with Wikipedia links for further general reading without having to wade through a ton of different sites. If you want to read a much more technical retrospective on the evolution of sound in video games, read up on it right here. My post is not about tech specs, but instead looks at the evolution of the sound concepts over time and the directions the industry as a whole has taken.


Whilst it is true to say that the visual impact of a game is the greatest in terms of aesthetics, the sound and music can enhance or detract from the experience to a degree. Consider games that you turn the music off and substitute some of your own: how long did it take before getting fed up or simply bored of the soundtrack? Has a game's sound or music ever put you off to such a degree that you stopped playing? Has it ever been so good you want to listen to it on its own merits?

Personally I prefer to have both the game sound effects and background music on unless I've grown tired of it or it's irritating. I'm fairly sound-oriented so to me, video game music is srs bznz.

In some games such as Eve Online, it can negatively affect performance and turning it off comes with a noticeable improvement in client-side lag. Doesn't matter how nice it sounds, if it means the difference between losing my expensive battleship and claiming phat lootz as the victor, it's getting turned the hell off. Of course, this is mitigated somewhat by the usefulness of audio cues alerting you when something is going on that you might not be able to see too clearly, perhaps because a ship behind your field of view has targeted you or there's too much happening on screen at once. Eve is a tricky balance because the music can be very relaxing, if a little inappropriate for a heart-pounding fleet fight unless you switch the in-game jukebox over to one of the Drone tracks, or some Caldari techno.

The flip side of engaging music is in the game Rift. Whilst it's not horrible and doesn't provoke a 'turn it off right now' reaction, it's extremely dull and unmemorable to the point where I don't even notice if it's playing or not. Attempts to make it quietly fantasy-epic haven't succeeded, to my mind. This is quite unlike the music in Anarchy Online which is very fitting and memorable indeed and likely to provoke bouts of nostalgia within the first 3 bars when I hear it, and had me running around various locations just to trigger certain tracks playing like outside Baboon's nightclub in the Omni-1 Entertainment district.



Scores old and new

These days, sound in games is big business rather than the hastily tacked-on blips and bleeps of the 8bit days and earlier. Full orchestral scores with composers; popstar singers with a CGI video release; studio suites dedicated to blending a medley of sounds into a single door-opening hiss and so on. Whilst some earlier consoles had sound chips that were advanced for their time, with memorable soundtracks to boot (the Commodore 64 being a famous and notable example of this) it wasn't until the 8bit generation was in full swing that gamers developed the expectation of a good aural experience to complement good graphics and good gameplay. The sound of claiming a coin in Super Mario Bros. on the original Nintendo Entertainment System has become iconic and can even be heard nowadays coming from a Blackberry near you.


The 8bit days were about a catchy repetative loop of background music that changed every so often, perhaps even every level or when it was time to fight the big boss. Sound effects would mimic the characters' actions and were meant to be distinguishable from the music track and perhaps related to the action they were attached to, but little else.


By the time the 16bit consoles rolled out, some publishers were being more adventurous in their use of sound as everything from enhancing the atmosphere to providing audio cues for something off screen or about to happen. An excellent example of this is the Delphine Software game Flashback (released in 1992 for various consoles including the Amiga, Super Nintendo and Sega Megadrive, and since re-released periodically on newer formats). The background music was intermittent, triggered by entering certain areas, or when enemies were due to appear. Sounds for enemies and traps off-screen would be heard quietly and by listening to the sounds growing in volume and if you had stereo speakers or headphones, the direction they were coming from, you knew to get yourself ready for what was about to appear. All very basic stuff that we take for granted now but in the early 1990s this was new and groundbreaking.

The 16bit days also marked the popularisation of the idea of releasing game soundtracks on CD for retail. As an example, Squaresoft produced and sold OSVs (original sound versions, also called OSTs or original sound tracks), arrangements of OSVs and 'music inspired by' OSVs for their RPGs such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI (known as Final Fantasy III in the US). The Super Nintendo was blessed with an excellent Sony-produced sound chip of the SPC-700 series making up the core of it's S-SMP sound processor, which would later find an upgrade inside Sony's original Playstation. This allowed game music composers to really flex their creativity as the consoles were capable of more than a series of bips and boops. Some of the most well-known, remixed and replayed game tunes of all time came from these 16bit games and their writers have become legendary figures in the video game communities; for example Nobuo Uematsu and his work on the iconic Final Fantasy soundtracks or Yasunori Mitsuda and his Chrono Trigger, Shadow Hearts and Xenogears series (he's a particular favourite of mine with a distinctive style that can be spotted even through heavy remixing).


When the next generation of consoles hit, the 32bit Playstation and Sega Saturn in particular, video game music had become integral to the whole playing experience. Music composers led teams of dedicated sound engineers and musicians to produce polished and original works of sound art that would be marketed as products in their own right, and sometimes even made the music charts. An example of this can be seen with Final Fantasy VIII's Eyes on Me which was sung by Faye Wong, a popular Chinese singer and released as a pop single in Japan where it did extremely well, selling over 400,000 copies. The famous Wipeout series of futuristic racing games began life in 1995 with the original Playstation and it's heavily-pimped soundtrack was written by CoLD SToRAGE featuring tracks from the Chemical Brothers, Leftfield and the Orbital.


Since then, collaborations between musicians and game publishers have become commonplace with soundtracks and albums of music inspired by game soundtracks charting commercially worldwide, exclusive tracks appearing inside games, soundtracks partly or wholly written and performed by popular bands and so forth. In 2010 the Ivor Novello Awards introduced a category for Video Game soundtracks and from 2012 the Grammy Awards will have a section for game music as well. There's even college and university courses that include or specialise in game music composition in the US and Europe.

Current examples of video game music crossing over with more traditional avenues of music include:-

There's an ever-increasing number of games that integrate sound into the experience in a fundamental manner by essentially dictating the gameplay based upon the player's interactions with sound-generating mechanisms. These games include the rail shooter Rez on the Dreamcast, Playstation 2 and XBox 360; the freeform music game Electroplankton on the Nintendo DS; and puzzle-racer Audiosurf on the PC. Whilst they've enjoyed mixed success, the ability to play your own music instead of the in-game soundtrack with XBox 360 or PC games is popular and I wonder if we'll see more games that wrap themselves around the player's choice of music.


tl;dr

Game music has evolved from tinny beeps meant to fill the silence punctuated by clicking keys and thumbs on pads into a multi-billion dollar star-studded industry with global recognition and awards. It's not just for us saddo obsessives any more...




* Flashback was groundbreaking for other reasons, including the hand-drawn backgrounds, the rotoscoped animation, the Conrad sprite using a real person moving as it's base etc. A personal favorite of mine.

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