MCCW issue 92, March/April/May 2000
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Realms of Adventure
part 2 - the magic box opens
The wolf and the seven notes

I use to ask myself what music I prefer... Dragonslayer 6 or SD-Snatcher. Same gametype, another era but both fun. I can’t give the answer, only the fact that the music can’t be compared with eachother. Both have great music, but the design differs. That design is the main point of the course this time.

Maarten van Strien
In practice
Step one
Step two
Step three

Below is a small scheme with the kind of music game companies did on MSX:


accent on sounddesignallroundaccent on composition
Konami with SCCCompile with FM-PacFalcom with FM-Pac
Microcabin with FM-Pac Konami with PSG

     The left column shows both Microcabin and Konami’s SCC. The introduction of the SCC chip was by then ofcourse great news, at last there was a new sound and things which were impossible on the PSG could finally be done: sounddesign. The same happened with Microcabin. While we were annoyed with boring hardware voices and not less boring drums, Microcabin laughed and showed us a total new sound on the same chip. Some parts of Xak 3 show that the main thing in the music wasn’t melody, but sounddesign. The same story applies for SD-Snatcher, several parts are based on the atmosphere in the sounddesign and not really on melody. There’s nothing wrong with this by the way, and there are parts which do have good themes!

     When we take a look at some other Konami titles — Maze of Galious, Usas, Metal Gear etc. — then we notice that Konami offers us some great melodic material. Konami had to do so, the PSG was limited! If there’s no way for good sounddesign, then make sure you make a good melody instead, a melody which sticks into your head. That was no problem for Konami, as we all know; especially the three titles above offer us some of the greatest PSG themes on MSX. Also in the right column is Falcom, especially with their masterpiece Dragonslayer 6. The music from DS6 is thematically perfect, yet not really difficult when speaking of production quality, like Microcabin. Falcom, with DS6, avoided the soundesign concept and emphasised on melody.

     What we learn from this is that these companies were conscious of the limits and possibilities of the chip they composed for. If a concept couldn’t be realised they wiped it from the drawing board. This sentence is extremely important! Composing is making choices, and sometimes you have to say “NO!”.

In practice
This whole story was only an intermezzo for the main goal for today: how to compose and produce for the FM-Pac using Moonblaster. Below are a few standard procedures of mine. But, understand that it is not the effect of the procedures that counts, but the reason why the procedure is here anyhow. I also had to choose back then, I also did the research, that’s why the procedures are here.

     The basic rules:

  • quality assurance! If it’s not good, wipe it!
  • if you can do better, do so!
  • if you can’t do better, stop! It’s no use to continue...
  • if something is not possible from the beginning, don’t try it anyway.
  • if something is not good: never make a musicdisk from it!
  • not 40 bad tunes, rather four good ones!

     A little information on the first point: this is a real important one! The problem is: how do you know — second item — if you can do better? When can you say something is good or not? The answer is rather simple: if you ever hear something on the same system you’re working on which sounds better than your product — whether it is on FM-Pac or soundcanvas — then that means there is a way to do better. The only way to get to that level is that you want yourself to be there too. Dare to say “NO” to something which isn’t good enough. Actually, this is the only rule you must remember, the example below is just an example, like there are many examples possible. Every situation is new, that’s the challenge!

Step one
Ok, the journey begins at the “set start voices” menu where you set all instruments 1 on 1. So channel 1 has instrument 1, channel 2 has instrument 2 etc. The advantage of this is that you never have to go to this part of the program anymore, especially when you’re not sure yet about the set-up of your voices, which usualy happens when you start a new song.

Step two
We’ll continue with the set-up. As we only have 6 channels — using the 6 melody + 5 drums mode — we have to figure out what we’re going to use and what we want in the future. Anybody who does this well is well ahead! Anyhow, the question remains: how to set-up only 6 channels... Take notice of the following points:

  • Make sure the melody always has an echo channel. If the melody consists of two lines, pick the upper line for the echo channel. We choose a melody based on one line with one echo channel. The echo channel has to be detuned to the original melody channel, in normal circumstances a detune value of +1. If you use two echo channels, the second detune has to be -1.
    There’s another little rule here for the echo channels: how many echo steps do we use. When using the average speed of 18 to 20 stick to two or three steps. Don’t use an echo time of only one step, you’ll loose the spacyness, the FM-Pac is already pretty dry.
    But the choice between two or three steps also deserves a little attention. An echo is something which has to be heard, if an echo coincides with the original direct melody, then the echo effect disappeares for a big part. You have to make sure that the echos fill-up the empty steps of the dry melody. If you already know that your melody consists of eight’s notes, i.e. a note, an empty step, a note, an empty step etc., then you’ll know that the echo distance should be three steps!
    For the die-hards: it’s possible to make an echo by writing notes which should be the result of an original dry note which never was given anyhow. And for the true die-hards, it’s even possible to make an echo effect without loosing channels! The only cost is a software instrument and you do win some channels here. Oh, yeah, the other cost is some year of your life because of the painful puzzle you have to solve as you have to know the melody before you start. But this is too heavy for now, let’s continue with the article.
  • Luckily the bass sounds rather good on the FM-Pac, one channel is good enough. It’s very interesting to try some other instruments instead of the acoustic bass everyone uses. Rather try the trumpet, oboe or violin etc. Your music immediately sounds different. This method is very much like that of Microcabin who regulary made this choice also. You also could take the synthesizer as bassinstrument, but as everybody does this already, it’s no fun anymore. The vibraphone misses the body in the low frequencies, but if you turn-up the volume enough, it’s possible, I’ll mention this later on in this article. But all depends on your type of music.
  • We have the bass and melody ready — the base — and still three channels left to fill-up. A chord does a lot when it comes to emotion — I’ll also mention this further on in the article again — but costs a normal non-MSX composer about three or four channels. And that’s a no-go for the FM-Pac! Lets say, one or two channels is enough. With these one or two channels, you have to deal carefully, or actually, with these one or two channels and the melody! If you pay a little attention to them, you can let the melodyline be a part of the chord. This doesn’t always work, but if it works, then you got one extra channel, if your melody consists of two channels, you’ll get two extra channels! Imagine: the melody is an [E 4], if you were going to use three chordnotes [C 3][E 3][G 3], then the [E 3] would actually be a double. Wipe the [E 3] and what we get is [C 3][G 3][E 4]. This is a major chord, including the melody. And because the melody had its own echo channel, the overal sound is pretty nice. And we gain that extra channel also!
    Of course you can see what happens: the melody makes you change the two chord notes frequently. Indeed! What I personally used to do is writing a melody which doesn’t need much changing in the chordnotes. This method has his advantages and disadvantages: disadvantage is that you have to be able to write simple yet attractive melodies, advantage on the other side is that the melody gets very structured and accessible to the listener, it’s all part of efficient FM-Pac composing. How microscopic this all might be, if you use the method well, the sounddesign makes you write a melody which you normaly wouldn’t write, because you might not have paid attention to sounddesign before!
    But what it’s all about is the quality assurance. If the above method does not work for your tune, wipe it! If something else doesn’t work either, perhaps you have to change your complete melody. It’s quite funny actually when we look at the way a melody is made. You start with the melody and you hope the arrangement will fit. If not, you can change the arrangement as well as the melody. This means the you can end up with a totally different melody compared to the one you begun with! This way of composing where your melody depends on your hardware is not only applicable to MSX composers with FM-Pac. Also the bigger projects — leaders, commercials, company-presentations — have this problem. If someone has no time to hire instrument players — project has to be done yesterday! — and plays the saxophone by him/herself from a synthesizer, that person has to change the melody too when a nasty wavetable-switch shows up. And this isn’t just something I made up!
  • We still have a channel left. You could use it to accent the bassline. Not by doubling the same bass with a detuned one, but, for example, by putting a violin an octave above the bass. With a bit of luck, this violin gets part of the chord, just as the melody did!. Again you use one instrument for two purposes! ..And now the channels are all used!

Step three
Ok, so we didn’t compose anything yet, we just made the setup. Before we worry about the balance, we set all instruments at volume 13, don’t just let them be on volume 15 by default. At this stage, step one shows up, as you’re only dealing with the select voice menu, it is clear how all instruments are balanced: for now volume 13. Now you start to compose. By the time you’ll notice that you have to adjust the balance of your voices; use the select voice menu for this. Because you set all the instruments at volume 13, you can really make instruments louder. The best setup has its instruments between volume 11 and 13. Because of these volumes, the drums — which you put at volume 15 ofcourse! — show up better in the mix. And instruments which miss the body of a bass, e.g. the vibraphone, can easily be boosted up by setting it to volume 15.

I mentioned the term ‘emotions’ in chords, maybe it’s a nice idea to write some down here. I’ll use the — vertical — tracker notation, so you can input them and test hem right away. You might have to raise the octaves a bit... depends on your instrument also!

[C 3] [C 4][E 4][G 4]normal happy
[C 3] [B 3][E 4][G 4]releaved, relaxed
[C 3] [A#3][E 4][G 4]normal, amazed
[C 3] [A#3][D 4][G 4]laughing-like, amazed
[C 3] [A#3][D 4][F 4]happy amazed
[C 3] [C 4][D#4][G 4]normal sad
[C 3] [B 3][D#4][G 4]sad, with some extra flavour
[C 3] [A#3][D#4][G 4]angry

This are just some examples, very often a chord only has its effect when you put another chord before or after the chord. For example this happy amazed scheme:

[C 3] [A#3][D 4][A 4]
[C 3] [A#3][D 4][G 4]

Or: happy and releaved amazed:

[C 3] [A#3][F 4][A 4]
[C 3] [A#3][D 4][G 4]
[F 2] [A 3][C 4][E 4]

Now, what’s the use of this? Well, if someone asks you to make the music for an introdemo for a game — with some sort of active storyline — then you can extract the chord from the emotions of the characters playing in the story. Add a melody — don’t forget the echo! — and done you are!

You might ask: ‘What has this whole story to do with Microcabin and Konami?’ Well, technically not very much indeed. It’s all about the quality assurance. Konami made melody-type music for the PSG and sounddesign-type music for the SCC. Or simply, basic rule four: ‘if something is not possible from the beginning, don’t try it anyway’. Sounddesign is just more or less impossible on PSG. Microcabin choose for huge sounddesign in games like Xak 3 and Illusion City. To make the FM-Pac sound huge they used a lot of channels to boost the whole thing up. This meant that there often wasn’t room for a melody. If they would have inserted a melody, it would have cost quality in the sounddesign. They didn’t, and that was right. I said it once: composing is making choices. If you do the right choices always, you don’t even need the rules above, you make them yourself!

    Any questions...? Feel free to send them to me!

MSX Computer & Club Webmagazine
issue 92, March/April/May 2000
Realms of Adventure