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// 2007/12/05 17:47 / 213.56.149.33
// 2007/12/05 21:04 / 213.56.149.33
Sound in Video Games
Sound in Video Games How do they make it? How do we use it?
How do they make it?
by Josh Martin [Appeared in the October/November 1983 issue of "Video Games
How do we use it?
Player"]
by Josh Martin

[Appeared in the October/November 1983 issue of "Video Games Player"]


What is a video game without sound? Your ears tell you if your guns have

fired, whether you hit your target and when the monsters are coming.
What is a video game without sound? Your ears tell you if your guns
There are trumpets of victory and the agony of defeat, not to mention
have fired, whether you hit your target and when the monsters are coming.
other nifty squeaks, squeals, screams and, on occasion, voices. Sound is
There are trumpets of victory and the agony of defeat, not to mention other
the unsung hero of the video game.
nifty squeaks, squeals, screams and, on occasion, voices. Sound is the unsung

hero of the video game.
Somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey is a group of engineers and
Somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey is a group of engineers and
technicians, gathered like scientists, thinking up sounds you have never
heard, for games that no one has ever played. This is the design team of
Activision. Elaborate precautions are taken to ensure secrecy at this
Activision. Elaborate precautions are taken to ensure secrecy at this lab.
lab. Even a simple phone call from the outside must get special
Even a simple phone call from the outside must get special clearance from a
clearance from a separate office in New York. Company officials strictly
separate office in New York. Company officials strictly limit outside contact
limit outside contact for the engineers and technicians: "They don't
for the engineers and technicians: "They don't disturb them for any reason,"
disturb them for any reason,"said an amazed secretary. "They're serious,
said an amazed secretary. "They're serious, too."
too." In this quiet atmosphere, designers work on sound effects for
In this quiet atmosphere, designers work on sound effects for
explosions, rockets and symphony orchestras. As long as there have been
explosions, rockets and symphony orchestras. As long as there have been video
video games, there have been sounds to listen to while playing. Of
games, there have been sounds to listen to while playing. Of course, back in
course, back in the early days, those sounds were pretty much limited to
the early days, those sounds were pretty much limited to the beep of a moving
the beep of a moving cursor as it hit the edge of a playing field.
cursor as it hit the edge of a playing field.

Now, after years spent developing graphics, the Activision game
Now, after years spent developing graphics, the Activision game
designers and others are going to work on soundtracks, to make what you hear
designers and others are going to work on soundtracks, to make what you
as good as what you see. The results are audible in home and arcade games:
hear as good as what you see. The results are audible in home and arcade
better music, realistic action sounds, and high-quality voice synthesis.
games: better music, realistic action sounds, and high-quality voice
Case in point: Pong, admittedly a pioneer game, used an effect that
synthesis. Case in point: Pong, admittedly a pioneer game, used an
sounded more like a beeping radar screen than the bouncing tennis ball it was
effect that sounded more like a beeping radar screen than the bouncing
supposed to represent. But the ball in Activision's Tennis (Atari VCS)
tennis ball it was supposed to represent. But the ball in Activision's
generates authentic "thwacks" when it's whacked with a racket.
Tennis (Atari VCS) generates authentic "thwacks" when it's whacked with
In the arcades, sound has also been evolving for the better. Who
a racket.
could forget the gimmicky explosions in Space Invaders> They sounded more

like little electronic pops--hardly what you'd expect from an exploding space
In the arcades, sound has also been evolving for the better. Who could
forget the gimmicky explosions in Space Invaders> They sounded more like
rockets is often realistic enough to make you want to dive for cover. (And
little electronic pops--hardly what you'd expect from an exploding space
let's not forget Sub-Roc, whose designers didn't forget impressive sound
ship. In Zaxxon, however, the devastation done to enemy fuel tanks and
effects when dreaming up those razzle-dazzle 3-D graphics.)
rockets is often realistic enough to make you want to dive for cover.
Activision's Dolphin demonstrates the most enterprising and
(And let's not forget Sub-Roc, whose designers didn't forget impressive
innovative exploitation of sound so far. Many games warn of impending danger
sound effects when dreaming up those razzle-dazzle 3-D graphics.)
with an appropriately timed noise, but this one helps out with varying sonic

cues--differences in the sound's pitch signal the safest direction in which
Activision's Dolphin demonstrates the most enterprising and innovative
to swim to avoid the killer octopus. Designing such effects is obviously even
exploitation of sound so far. Many games warn of impending danger with
more challenging--and sometimes as much fun--as playing the game itself,
an appropriately timed noise, but this one helps out with varying sonic
according to some programmers.
cues--differences in the sound's pitch signal the safest direction in
Garry Kitchen is one of three brothers who design games for
which to swim to avoid the killer octopus. Designing such effects is
Activision. Sound has become a new challenge for this video veteran. "I
obviously even more challenging--and sometimes as much fun--as playing
don't think I've done as much with sound as I can," he says. "It's still
the game itself, according to some programmers.
mostly support for graphics."

"You put sound in and take it out as you design your game," Kitchen
Garry Kitchen is one of three brothers who design games for Activision.
adds. "You have to consider that the sound must fit into the memory that's
Sound has become a new challenge for this video veteran. "I don't think
available. It's a delicate balance between making things good and making them
I've done as much with sound as I can," he says. "It's still mostly
fit."
support for graphics."
For Mark Turmell, a game designer with Sirius (Beer Run, Sneakers,

Turmoil, Fast Eddie) soundtracks are the result of a lot of testing. "It's an
"You put sound in and take it out as you design your game," Kitchen
intricate process," he says. "Sounds are made up of numbers in a computer. It
adds. "You have to consider that the sound must fit into the memory
often starts on a random basis."
that's available. It's a delicate balance between making things good and
Making that random sound perfect takes time, experience, and money.
making them fit."
Suzanne Ciani, the musician and electronic effects specialist whose work can

be heard in Bally's Xenon pinball game, works 12 to 18 hours a day, with an
For Mark Turmell, a game designer with Sirius (Beer Run, Sneakers,
array of 28 synthesizers. This custom-built equipment is expensive--one
Turmoil, Fast Eddie) soundtracks are the result of a lot of testing.
synthesizer can cost $60,000--and so is Ciani's talent. A Ciani soundtrack
"It's an intricate process," he says. "Sounds are made up of numbers in
will cost as much as $25,000.
a computer. It often starts on a random basis."
Even the shortest soundtrack can take weeks or even months to

produce. In Turmell's Turmoil, a Fox game introduced last November, there is
Making that random sound perfect takes time, experience, and money.
a tune at the end of play which is totally mathematically generated and
Suzanne Ciani, the musician and electronic effects specialist whose work
synthesized. According to Turmell, the music, which lasts 35 seconds, took
can be heard in Bally's Xenon pinball game, works 12 to 18 hours a day,
over 70 hours of studio time to produce.
with an array of 28 synthesizers. This custom-built equipment is
Sound is broken down into several categories. First there is real
expensive--one synthesizer can cost $60,000--and so is Ciani's talent. A
sound which you can hear in your everyday experience, like a car horn or a
Ciani soundtrack will cost as much as $25,000. Even the shortest
dog barking. Sometimes, soundtracks will use tapes with real sounds. But more
soundtrack can take weeks or even months to produce. In Turmell's
often, the sounds you hear while playing a video game are mathematically
Turmoil, a Fox game introduced last November, there is a tune at the end
generated and measured by frequency. Synthesized sound, created by machines,
of play which is totally mathematically generated and synthesized.
registers as numbers on a dial in a game designer's studio.
According to Turmell, the music, which lasts 35 seconds, took over 70
Game designers consider three types of synthesized sound: high
hours of studio time to produce.

random number generator, switching frequencies very fast. It is often used
Sound is broken down into several categories. First there is real sound
for sounds like explosions or footsteps. Game designers who work on
which you can hear in your everyday experience, like a car horn or a dog
barking. Sometimes, soundtracks will use tapes with real sounds. But
more often, the sounds you hear while playing a video game are
mathematically generated and measured by frequency. Synthesized sound,
The sophistieated use of sound in Q*bert provides indication of
created by machines, registers as numbers on a dial in a game designer's
where soundtracks are going. Sound is used to give the characters personality.
studio. Game designers consider three types of synthesized sound: high
It is also, in its own way, communicating to players. "Q*bert is not trying
frequency, low frequency, and white noise. White noise is created with a
to say anything understandable." says a Gottlieb programmer who helped
random number generator, switching frequencies very fast. It is often
develop the game. "The sound is used to provide clues and enhance effects. It
used for sounds like explosions or footsteps. Game designers who work on
gives you a clue about what's coming up in the game."
soundtracks soon become versed in frequency numberd and the sounds they
There are limits to sound. While home games can use better quality,
represent. "I can pretty much tell what a series of numbers will sound
arcade games will continue to rely on graphics. As one sound programmer put
like," says Kitchen.
it, "In a war environment like the arcades, it's hard to hear anything." So

in an arcade game, explosions are just about the only sound that matters,
The sophistieated use of sound in Q*bert provides indication of where
because they are about the only noises which can rise above the din.
soundtracks are going. Sound is used to give the characters personality.
Ed Rotberg, who worked on designing Asteroids and Battlezone, says
It is also, in its own way, communicating to players. "Q*bert is not
the arcade environment doesn't allow for sophisticatted sounds like voice
trying to say anything understandable." says a Gottlieb programmer who
synthesis or player-produced music. "Arcade applications have to wait until
helped develop the game. "The sound is used to provide clues and enhance
we have total environment games," he says. Such games would be able to deal
effects. It gives you a clue about what's coming up in the game." There
with four senses: sight, hearing, touch and smell.
are limits to sound. While home games can use better quality, arcade
For now, however, the main goal is realism: a car crash in which you
games will continue to rely on graphics. As one sound programmer put it,
feel the twisted metal, a rocket that makes the hair on your neck stand up, a
"In a war environment like the arcades, it's hard to hear anything." So
bomb explosion that rocks you back from the controls. As the graphics and
in an arcade game, explosions are just about the only sound that
sounds become more realistic, we care more about winning the game. You have
matters, because they are about the only noises which can rise above the
to rescue that human, not just some blip on a screen. There is more riding
din. Ed Rotberg, who worked on designing Asteroids and Battlezone, says
on it. And if you think today's games sound tough, wait until next year!
the arcade environment doesn't allow for sophisticatted sounds like
voice synthesis or player-produced music. "Arcade applications have to
wait until we have total environment games," he says. Such games would
be able to deal with four senses: sight, hearing, touch and smell. For
There are hard sounds and soft sounds, representing different fre-
now, however, the main goal is realism: a car crash in which you feel
the twisted metal, a rocket that makes the hair on your neck stand up, a
like sawteeth. As a number pattern (which is how sound programmers create it),
bomb explosion that rocks you back from the controls. As the graphics
a hard sound might read 1,2,3,1,2,3. This pattern can be used to create a
and sounds become more realistic, we care more about winning the game.
motorcycle noise.
You have to rescue that human, not just some blip on a screen. There is
Another type of hard sound is created by square-wave systems, which
more riding on it. And if you think today's games sound tough, wait
sets up number patterns like 1,1,3,3,1,1,3,3. The visual pattern is like a
until next year!
light being turned on and off. A thunder clap can be made by using square-wave

noise.
SIDEBAR: How do you make a sound?
A soft sound creates a wiggly sound wave that can be seen in a number

pattern like 1,2,3,2,1,2,3,2. This is used to simulate footsteps or gentle
There are hard sounds and soft sounds, representing different fre-
noises.
quencies and sound-wave patterns. Hard sound waves are jagged and look
In Q*bert, the sound programmer started at a computer terminal by
like sawteeth. As a number pattern (which is how sound programmers
typing in numbers, which were turned into electrical power in a Digital
create it), a hard sound might read 1,2,3,1,2,3. This pattern can be
Analogue Converter (DAC). A DAC can produce up to 256 different voltage
used to create a motorcycle noise. Another type of hard sound is created
levels, so the programmer can type in numbers ranging in size from 1 to 256.
by square-wave systems, which sets up number patterns like
Then the programmer determined the speed at which the numbers change, which
1,1,3,3,1,1,3,3. The visual pattern is like a light being turned on and
is the speed of running through different voltage levels. This determines the
off. A thunder clap can be made by using square-wave noise.
resulting sound frequency.

Howard Delman, a former hardware designer with Atari who was
A soft sound creates a wiggly sound wave that can be seen in a number
responsible for Asteroids, explains how an explosion is created:
pattern like 1,2,3,2,1,2,3,2. This is used to simulate footsteps or
"An explosion is a random selection of sound frequencies. It starts
gentle noises. In Q*bert, the sound programmer started at a computer
off very loud and then falls off. The way to make one explosion different
terminal by typing in numbers, which were turned into electrical power
from another is to select different frequencies. The sounds are all made by
in a Digital Analogue Converter (DAC). A DAC can produce up to 256
selecting a group of frequencies using a Random Noise Generator.
different voltage levels, so the programmer can type in numbers ranging
"The Random Noise Generator circuit creates a wide spectrum of
in size from 1 to 256.
frequencies simultaneously, creating a hissing sound--'white' noise. Another

circuit selectively eliminates certain frequencies; it is a controllable
Then the programmer determined the speed at which the numbers change,
filter. And a third circuit controls the volume of the signal. When an
which is the speed of running through different voltage levels. This
explosion is started, this third circuit allows the frequency to pass through
determines the resulting sound frequency. Howard Delman, a former
at full volume, and then very quickly decays the amplitude. We can restart
hardware designer with Atari who was responsible for Asteroids, explains
the sound, however, to make a comp]ex explosion."
how an explosion is created:
An explosion for one of the big rocks in Asteroids uses lower

frequencies, hence the rumbling noise. A spaceship uses higher frequencies.
"An explosion is a random selection of sound frequencies. It starts off
The only software programming involves four choices of explosion frequency
very loud and then falls off. The way to make one explosion different
circuits, to cover the different size rocks and the spaceships. By comparison,
from another is to select different frequencies. The sounds are all made
each sound you hear in Q*bert is a different software program, and there are
by selecting a group of frequencies using a Random Noise Generator.
about 25 small programs in the game.

"The Random Noise Generator circuit creates a wide spectrum of
frequencies simultaneously, creating a hissing sound--'white' noise.
Another circuit selectively eliminates certain frequencies; it is a
controllable filter. And a third circuit controls the volume of the
signal. When an explosion is started, this third circuit allows the
frequency to pass through at full volume, and then very quickly decays
the amplitude. We can restart the sound, however, to make a comp]ex
explosion."

An explosion for one of the big rocks in Asteroids uses lower
frequencies, hence the rumbling noise. A spaceship uses higher
frequencies.

The only software programming involves four choices of explosion
frequency circuits, to cover the different size rocks and the
spaceships. By comparison, each sound you hear in Q*bert is a different
software program, and there are about 25 small programs in the game.

Scanned and edited by Dennis Brown, dgbrown (at) pixesthesia (dot) com