By Jody Toomey
The history of game audio is a recent one and one that is driven and influenced by the growth in technology of electronic music synthesis. Pong was the first commercially successful video game which helped establish the games industry. Whether any of that success had anything to do with the audio is debatable, but it was absolutely certain that it does have sound. Pongs ‘boop…boop…boop…BEEEEP’ is instantly recognisable and is considered iconic in games. Pongs creator, Allan Alcorn created Pong as a training exercise assigned to him by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell.
Atari CEO Ted Dabney wanted the game to “boo” and “hiss” when a player lost a round. Alcorn had limited space available for the necessary electronics and was unaware of how to create such sounds with digital circuits. After inspecting the sync generator, he discovered that it could generate different tones and used those for the game’s sound effects.
This marks the first time that a purely digital circuit was used to create a games audio component. This produced a sine wave that, when modulated through circuitry and attached to a speaker produced the characteristic beeps and boops we instantly recognise. That modulation of a sine wave is the basis of all digital signal processing, a field of study that was emergent around the same time with John Chowning’s experiments in Frequency Modulation (FM) Synthesis at Stanford University in the early seventies and subsequent research by Yamaha after licensing Chowning’s work.
This miniaturisation allowed for the ability to easily and cheaply produce a digital signal that could be converted to audio was essential for the production of game audio as it allowed for the construction of circuits that easily fit in to the cabinets of the early arcade machines in a way that was simply impossible with with older analogue synthesisers like those made by Moog and Buchla.
This in turn lead to the electronic cacophony associated with the Golden Age of Video Games. A period from the late seventies to the mid eighties that saw the mass production of cabinet arcade machines and a proliferation of game arcades and video games became a multi-billion dollar industry with a peak in 1982 In 1982, the arcade video game industry’s revenue in quarters was estimated at $8 billion surpassing the annual gross revenue of both pop music ($4 billion) and Hollywood films ($3 billion) combined that year. In comparison, the U.S. video game industry in 2011 generated total revenues between $16.3 billion and $16.6 billion.
This peak coincided with the release of the first commercially available digital synthesisers, Namely with the Casio VL-1 in 1979 and the Yamaha GS-1 in 1980. At the core of both a synthesiser or arcade cabinets sound generation capability is a sound chip that allows for a the production of audio signals that can be designed with near mathematical precision. Often the different chips were from the same manufacturer, such as Yamaha who were pioneers in FM synthesis and programmable sound generator chipsets. As the complexity of the chips grew so did the ability of both musicians ang game programmers to produce a wider a wider array of sounds.
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