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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Early Game Music File Format/DosBox

This post has been copied from bpmusic.com. It was originally posted on 2/11/2009.

It is in response to an email received on 12/21/2008:
I was wondering if you'd please be able to send me some music. I'm looking for the music for Cosmos Cosmic Adventure 1: Level 9, its nowhere on the internet...

It is my favourite video game song of all time; as a kid, I had a game saved on that level...I'd just load it and sit there listening with a lil lump in my throat cos it made me so happy. I've sequenced it myself from memory, but i haven't heard it in over 10 years so its just not the same. I downloaded the game from the net, but my comp is too new and won't support the old sound card. Do you have it in a midi form?? Id be really grateful to hear it again.

The games of the Cosmos Cosmic Adventure era were in a "sort of" MIDI format. They were not "standard" MIDI files that would play as is. The reason is that the music player built into the game was not a standard at all. It was coded for games that id and Apogee released. It actually sent the equivalent of machine code to the FM synthesizer chips on sound cards of the day. If you download Dosbox (mentioned on the Home page here), you can hear the songs and even save a wav file of that version.

Over the years I have tried to make the time to record the songs, but it takes more time than I have had. The reason is there are no "real" instruments that have the sounds of many of those songs. I invented the instruments by messing around with the FM synth settings. To get enough notes, I had to stay away from percussive mode on the FM synth. This was a mode that had decent sounding percussion sounds, but that limited the number of musical notes significantly. So, I used melodic instrument patches well out of their normal ranges to make the percussion sounds.

What was really funny about this was that while these games were first being distributed, the sound card companies were coming out with "wavetable" synths that used actual instrument samples for some of the sounds. They were compatible with FM synth music that didn't abuse the instruments for some kind of unique FM synth sound. Orchestral FM music sounded a lot better. My music was laughable because the snare drum ended up sounding like a little tin drum that a wind up bear would tap on. Other sounds were also affected. Some enterprising individuals actually came up with wavetable sound sets that made what I had done sound fair to good, but most people didn't know how to use any other than the sound set that came with the sound card.

That brings up an interesting matter. Would the music for Cosmo "feel right" if it had been recorded in a studio with live musicians? I don't think so. The sound of the FM synth really does work with a lot of games, and the sounds help players buy into the game.

By the way, Apogee Software is making a comeback. Go to apogeesoftware.com and read about it. Some of the older games (including side scrollers) are going to be re-released on portable platforms, starting with Duke Nukem..

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