Thursday, October 18, 2012

2A03 Integrity

History of the 2A03 and the people who embraced its possibilities, despite its limitations

Remember the days when video game soundtracks were so limited by technical means, yet somehow the tunes remain with you after all these years? This page is to tell the story of the unity between man and machine; the machine being the Ricoh 2A03 soundchip for the NES.

 What is the use of any object without the creative mind? Without these influential people, the 2A03 chip would simply be a piece of circuitry with untapped potential. Would Super Mario Bros. be the same if Koji Kondo wasn't a part of the masterpiece? Would Simon Belmont want to be the Vampire Killer?

Mr. Kondo composing at Nintendo's Headquarters, circa late '80s

This unity between man and machine brought about the masterpieces we all know and love to this day. Get strapped in for a closer look into the sounds of your childhood. Without further ado:

Without getting too techincal, the 2A03 chip is essentially an 8-bit microprocessor running an MOS6502 instruction set. Inside the chip is basically a bunch of Programmable Sound Generators. These are responsible for the sounds you hear, defined accordingly in simple terms:

Description of Each Sound Channel and its Common Uses

1.Square Channel (x2) - Outputs square waves (often found in the lead melodies of songs, think of this like a piano or guitar, but 8-bit)

2.Triangle Channel - Outputs triangle waves (often used for a "bass" sound, though higher octaves can be "flute" sounding)

3.Random Wavelength Channel (Noise) - Outputs a variety of wavelengths (often used for sound effects such as gunshots, crowd noise, helicopters, etc)

4.DMC (Delta Modulation Channel) - Plays "samples" from memory (often used for drum kicks, snares, voice sampling, etc)

Tim Follin's Sound Equipment for Solstice on NES

Equipped with those four channels of 8-bit sounds, musicians would create fully orchestrated symphonies, or jammin' rock/metal tunes.  As hard enough a task it was to make these tracks with such limitations, in the early days of game-making, the musician often had to know a thing or two about programming as well.

Early Software Tool for Making NES Music

 Creative and mathematical thinking are rarely two paths that ever cross each other.  Not only was the music we heard composed by the musician, the musician would often then have to program the individual notes and effects into the infrastructure of the game in Assembly language. Musicians would often program their own software to aid them in implementing the music, such as S. Roddy's Music Magic Driver.

Young Tim Follin demonstrating the sound engine for Solstice
These songs weren't simply recorded using MIDI hooked up to a piano.  Each note was manually programmed into the code of the game, as seen in the above photo... using an NES controller!

A Brief History of Synthesized Music

 Before computers were popular, a few musicians would experiment with the far-out astral sounds of the Moog Synthesizer:
Mort Garson - Early electronic musician, circa 1960s/1970s (notable for his bizarre electronic occult-themed albums, in addition to his work in many other genres including electronic covers of pop music such as "The Age of Aquarius" by The 5th Dimension.

Wendy Carlos - Early electronic musician, circa 1960s/1970s (notable for the soundtrack on Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange".

Fast-forward to the 1980s and the advent of the integrated circuit. Synths and machines that would take up entire rooms can now be squeezed onto a tiny chip the size of a coin. Among these chips would arise the "chiptune" scene.  With computers becoming more and more popular and affordable, a computer known as the Commodore 64 would change the face of electronic music forever.  Inside this cost-effective machine was a highly sophisticated chip called the SID chip.  This chip boasted incredible sounds and attracted many computer owners into the world of chip music, including the great Rob Hubbard, Jeroen Tel, Tim Follin, David Wise, and Neil Baldwin to name a few.  All of those people had their start programming music on the C64, and would also later produce phenomenal soundtracks for the beloved NES:

In 1985, the NES was released in North America.  We all know it completely revitalized the dying gaming industry. Till this point, console games were fairly basic both in the graphics department as well as audio capabilities.  The NES was the first home console to provide an incredible foundation for full and unique experiences, thanks to the Ricoh 2A03 CPU. Gone are the blips and bloops of Atari, now there's potential for a new form of entertainment.  Much like how synthesizers accompanied many films in the old days, the Intergrated Circuit now accompanies the gaming world, providing an interactive experience never before witnessed.

Upon powering the NES up on Christmas Day, you see a cartridge called Super Mario Bros. You notice the vibrant colors and graphics, then you press start on the controller.  Now, you're thrown into a world with a story and accompanying soundtrack. The music you're hearing gives you the strength and courage to fight through the game, conquering all the Koopas and collecting as many coins as you can. You see a pipe and you notice you can go down it.  As you descend down the pipe, you are in a whole new underground world filled with coins everywhere.  The music changes pace and you feel the mystery of the game, and the vastness of the world you're in.  Truly amazing.

**INSERT HERE: Interviews with mentioned legends of NES compositions** If you were a composer for the NES during its era, please email me: I would love to conduct a small interview about your time composing NES music and how it was like back then.  Thank you!