Developing video games for our clients and team is a tradition at Modus. And like in motion pictures, audio for video games helps complete the experience, driving periods of sadness, excitement, and even anxiety. This is why when it came to the creation of Modite Adventure, we wanted to make sure that we provided a holistic, rich experience, with as much effort put into the sound as we did the gameplay.
In this article, we’ll discuss how we created the soundtrack for Modite Adventure and spend some time diving into the decisions that helped us craft this awesome video game experience.
Leveling Up Our Capabilities
The very first time we developed a soundtrack for a video game was for our 2017 title, Evade 2. Though the Arduboy has a tiny piezo speaker, we wanted our title to stand out and have more than just the typical bleeps and bloops. To get the most out of the music hardware, we engineered a custom sound engine that gave us four channels of audio (three square waves and one noise).
By the time it came to work on Modite Adventure, we had moved on from the Arduboy to the LDK Game console, which had many orders of magnitude more processing and sound capabilities. The LDK Game is driven by a forked and modified version of Simple Direct Media Library, and this gave us options of sound file formats to use.
Weighing Our Options
Like with Evade2, we wanted to create a rich audio experience for Modite Adventure, and given that we were new to this console, we had a few choices.
Powered by a 600MHZ Ingenic Semiconductor JZ4760 dual-core processor and 128MB of RAM, the LDK Game is a very capable handheld game console. We wanted to make sure we used that power as wisely as possible, and the LDK Game afforded us a few options when it came to the music: digital audio files (uncompressed or compressed), MIDI files, or some sort of hybrid via a synthesizer.
Uncompressed audio (WAV Files) was a great option for fidelity, as it gave us the ability to play back CD-quality audio, but it wasn’t great from a space perspective. Compressed audio files (MP3, OGG, and the like) were great from the space perspective, but decoding MP3s are computationally expensive as the LDK Game console doesn’t have dedicated MP3 decoding hardware. MIDI files were an interesting option as they gave us a great balance between space and CPU computation, but we elected not to use that as it didn’t give us the ability to craft the sound via custom instruments. So, we decided not to move forward with that either.
Given that none of the aforementioned solutions were a good fit for our title, we decided to rethink our strategy and what we decided to do may surprise you.
Going Back in Time
The file format we used is a container that essentially contains sound samples, instructions for how to play those samples back (called instruments), note data arranged in what are called tracks (think sound channels), and a few other supporting items. To understand why this was a fit, we’ll go back in time for a little bit.
In 1987, a music production tool called the Ultimate Soundtracker was released for video games on the Amiga. This tool consumed so-called Modules (MOD file for short) and using the Amiga’s specialized hardware, would synthesize audio on the fly. While Soundtracker did not achieve the success its creators hoped for, it did spark a revolution in how music was produced on the Amiga. Soundtracker gave rise to freeware tools that are generically called “trackers” for short, with the first popular one being ProTracker.
Fast forward to the early 90s and we find ourselves at a time where the Amiga as a platform dies and the MOD format begins to make its way to the PC. Along with this change of platform, came the evolution of the sound format and their related trackers, with one of the largest jumps at that time being the Extended Module Format in 1994 with the release of FastTracker 2.
By now, you’re probably wondering why all matter? Well, because these file formats were written to deliver a great audio experience with extremely limited CPU usage and not using a ton of storage. To put this in perspective, all nineteen songs that comprise the soundtrack for Modite adventure are a total of 890kilobytes, enough to fit on a 1.44MB floppy with room to spare.
The Composition Process
Our goal was to mimic the sounds of the Nintendo Entertainment System, which had only five total channels of audio. Given that we’re using modern tools, we flexed this specification a little bit and sometimes used 10 channels.
Our composition tool, OMPT, is unlike modern Digital Audio Workstation applications (DAW). It requires an engineering mindset as notes and other expressive elements, such as effects are represented as data. Thankfully, the entire command list is documented well on their wiki, and composing music with OMPT got rather easy once we got the hang of its workflow.
The workflow went something like this – we’d compose a track and iterate on it, and once we felt confident that the track would play well, we’d introduce it into the game. Then we’d play the game with that track playing and make adjustments to the music based on feedback from the team.
If you’re interested in listening to the music for Modite Adventure, we put the entire soundtrack on SoundCloud.
You now know how we composed the music for Modite Adventure. While working with these tools can seem rather archaic, we’ve found that some of our greatest creativity comes from working within environments that have strong constraints.
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