How Music Was Made On Super Nintendo


*closed captions by authors linked in the description* This is the motherboard for the Super Nintendo: a 16-bit video game console that came out in 1991 in America. And these are the sound chips that worked in tandem to create all the audio sound effects and music that you heard in Super Nintendo games The first chip, the SMP, or the SPC 700, was a processing core, where a video game musician could essentially write the program that would tell the other chip, the DSP: what sounds to make. Whereas the original NES sound chip had just 5 channels, and could really only do creative variations on the same basic sound, The Super Nintendo had eight dedicated channels, and used a sampling system which meant that artists could load in noises or sound effects from instruments of their choosing. With room for 8 simultaneous instruments and the ability to sample different sounds, the Super Nintendo was a big improvement over its predecessor. But there was still one huge limitation. Between the two chips, the system could only accommodate for 64 kilobytes of audio RAM. To give you a sense of how small that is, an average 3 minute mp3 song that you might buy on iTunes is around 6 megabytes, which is a hundred times the size of the Super Nintendo’s full capacity, and that’s just for one song 🙁 The 64 kilobytes had to hold all the music and the sound effects for an entire game. Which is why you often got music that sounded… well, not that great. When you think of sampling in popular music, you might think of someone taking a few seconds of an old drum beat, and using it in a new song. But a sample that’s even a few seconds long carries a whole lot of information. In order to stay within the allotted 64k, Super Nintendo music samples had to be *tiny*, often all the way down to a single cycle of a waveform. In order to make good music with these limitations, you had to be creative. What you’re hearing now is Aquatic Ambience from 1994’s Donkey Kong Country: a classic by one of video games’ best composers, David Wise. Wise was able to ring beautiful music from the limitations of the Super Nintendo sound chips. For example, the evolving, swimming background pads that you’re hearing in this song. Sweeps like this just weren’t possible on the Super Nintendo, and sampling something this long and complex would have quickly exceeded the capacity of the system. So Wise had to think outside of the box. *a nerdwriter video transition* One of the most important new features of the Korg wave station is the ability to string together a number of waves. Waves can be defined as single or multi-cycle loops with more than 400 internal waves available. You can select up to 255 different waves to play in any order including choice of pitch, duration, and crossfade times. *again* Wise took inspiration from the Korg Wavestation, a synthesizer that came out in the early 90s, and used something called wave sequencing to take a number of tiny samples and play them in quick succession so that they made unique, evolving sounds. Of course, the Super Nintendo couldn’t arrange and rearrange samples on its own. So in order to achieve this effect, Wise painstakingly recorded individual waveforms at different frequencies and placed them all in the coding program one by one. This program, by the way, is called a music tracker, where music is essentially boiled down to numbers. Each tiny sound is placed on a vertical timeline, and the columns represent your note, octave, sample choice volume, and some simple effects like panning, fade, and echo. It took Wise five full weeks to input every sample for aquatic ambience. It’s a tedious process But the results speak for themselves. *typical* *interruption* The Super Nintendo was a restrictive system for composers, there’s no doubt. But, as with anything limitation breeds creativity, and just because the sound system consists of two chips, 64 kilobytes of RAM, and a lot of hexadecimal code, doesn’t mean it can’t make beautiful music. Hey everybody, thank you so much for watching! This episode was brought to you by VRV. If you don’t know, VRV is a service that pulls together a lot of great content channels like Roosterteeth, Mondo, Crunchyroll, and Funimation all into one place, so you can watch some of the best anime there, but, they’ve also added new channels like Mubi, which hosts a rotating roster of 30 indie movies which is something that I love. Another show that I would personally like to recommend is Gary and His Demons, about a dude who is destined to fight demons, but doesn’t really want to do it. It’s-it’s a funny show, kinda like Rick and Morty if you like that. With VRV premium, you can get ad free access to Gary and His Demons and everything else, all the channels and for a limited time you can use the first link in the description to get a 30-day free trial of VRV. Definitely try that out. Thanks guys, I’ll see you next time.

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