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Friday, May 17, 2013

Visiting the Past

I'm revisiting the game music that I wrote almost two decades ago. It's an attempt to get it to sound like I imagined it with "real" instruments -- hopefully keeping the feel/personality of the original.

Luckily, I kept the original MIDI files (and Sequencer Plus Gold .SNG files).

Unluckily, I cannot find the instrument banks I slaved over to create the earliest FM synth songs. Maybe I failed to save them. That would be the equivalent of saving a sequencer file today and twenty years later remembering that you didn't save the instrument plugins that create the actual instrument sounds. YIKES! Double YIKES if they're pure synthesized sounds that you designed yourself, tweaking forever to get them just right for your music.

These old song files are in directories based upon the name of the project producer or the project. I started with the A's, and the first was "Alan." That would be Alan Blum, and the project was "Major Stryker," a SHMUP or Shoot 'em Up -- just "shooter" back in the day.

The first of many lessons I learned when working on the first song was I saved the  .MID files "back then" as Type 0 files. The reason: software that translated the MID file to a file containing a stream of Adlib card FM synth data required a "one track" MID file. Yes, all the data was on ONE MIDI track.

Luckily, most sequencers intelligently separate the one MIDI track into individual tracks for each MIDI channel.
This is the Sequencer Plus Gold file for SUPRNOVA. FM synth cards had limited polyphony. If you used "Percussive" Mode, you were more limited in polyphony (max. notes on at one time). "Melodic" mode had more polyphony, so I created the percussion sounds I needed. Here, I'm limited to 9 note polyphony. I put each instrument sound on a different track. The hihat has two channels, one for closed and one for open. The programs ("Prg"") were patch numbers. This sound bank was created by tweaking the patch closest to the sound I was looking for. So whatever instrument was originally in patch 6 sounded somewhat like a Kick, and changing the patch parameters got it to sound "acceptable." Here the track names are visible because this file was saved as a SPGold .SNG file.

Many was the time that I had to cut out percussion notes because the resulting game music file was too big. It was good practice in deciding which notes of a song were more important to get the idea across.
Unluckily, the original track names are not saved in Type 0 files, so the tracks, even on modern sequencers, are named "1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ...."

How was I to know what instrument was where? I used Sequencer Plus Gold (thanks to DosBox) to make new Type 1 MIDI files, with data saved for each individual track, including the track names. Now I knew the instrument I was striving for on the FM synth card.

You may be thinking that all I had to do was look at the patch number and I could tell which instrument was on which track. The problem with that is I created my own instruments and put them in all sorts of different patch "slots."

This situation was much like today where you select an instrument VST and decide what channel it will respond to. Then you may tweak the instrument/effects settings. Luckily for all of us, most modern sequencers store all of that information in the song file. But, you'd better keep a copy of your plugins and the sequencer software you use -- in twenty years the standards may be completely different.

The first song (again in alphabetical order) is CRUISINA.SNG, last saved 7/10/1992. There is also CRUISING.SNG dated 10/13/1993.

The "A" at the end of CRUISINA, stood for AdLib. It was the sound card of the day (with Creative Labs strong on it's heels). The "G" at the end of CRUISING stood for General MIDI, a 1991 standard that was becoming main stream with computer cards in 1993.

In 1992, a PC file was still limited to eight alphanumeric characters, so a file name like "Cruising With Stryker.MID" wouldn't work. Thus the cryptic file names you may see for "old" files.

This song was one of the first to use my heavily "tweaked" FM instruments, especially the overdrive/distortion guitar, which went into harmonics at just the right time for the tempo of the music. Here's the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnPALu0E4YM

Here's a demo of the "real" (updated) version: https://soundcloud.com/bobbyprincemusic/cruising-with-stryker-demo

There's a certain feel to the original that the "real" one doesn't capture. Maybe it's because the music was written to the FM synthesized sounds?

Maybe it's the "warmth" of analog coming out of an early sound card?

I decided not to change the performance of the music in any way. Any "real" instrument performance is true to the original MIDI performance data. The biggest differences in the sounds are the drums and effects like reverb.

When I get more done on this project, I'll put some more "real" versions up on SoundCloud, with a post here about it.

The best music to each of you. Remember that Richard Rodgers wrote a song a day. While I'd love to hear the ones he closeted away, he'd probably turn over in his grave to know anyone ever heard any of them.

What would be your chances of having a Song of the Year if you wrote a song a day for a year and published your best seven?


  1. Very cool. Just genius arranging for 2-op FM. One key difference I hear between the FM and sample-based versions is percussiveness. Particularly, the fast notes of the "guitar" have audible rests between them that gives the individual notes more particularity. More definition. The sample version washes together quite a bit more, thus losing some energy. A shorter verb might help, but I think a quicker decay time on the instruments themselves would also be necessary. Another difference is that the FM bass, in addition to being more percussive, has more of that Paul McCartney low mid stuff going on. That helps give it more presence in the mix without getting in the way of anything else.

  2. I agree with you David. As for genius in arranging for the 2-op FM, I wish I could claim that. I will take your comments to heart in mixing the final versions of these updated songs. The reason for the poor mix is plain and simple -- laziness -- using a reverb preset without tweaking it.

  3. What program are you using now to do the real versions?

  4. For the most part, I'm using Cakewalk Sonar. I use some audio only editing software some of the time.

  5. Bobby, I love this! I've always been a fan of Major Stryker and it was very nice finding the "updated versions" on Google Play.
    Is there any chance to have a look at the original MIDI files, just out of curiosity?

    1. Nick, the original files for the Major Stryker music were Sequencer Plus files, and I have not been able to locate them. They were never General MIDI files, and the instruments were what I came up with and didn't meet the GM specs at all. To do the updated music, I listened to the songs that different people put up on You Tube and re-recorded what I heard (and remembered). If I ever locate the files (I moved a lot of old data to CD's but never labeled what was where) I'll release them. Same goes for the FM patches (instruments) if I ever find them.

    2. So I hope you'll find them again :-)