UPDATED: June 14, 2017 – An addendum on the SNES has been added to the end.
Below is a transcript of the interview conducted with David Warhol for the Retro Game Audio podcast. It is an excerpt from Episode 9: Maniac Mansion, which was originally published on April 5th, 2016. The audio interview can also be found embedded in the media player above.
Patrick: So right now we are talking with David Warhol, a very prolific game developer and publisher who founded a company called Realtime Associates in 1986. Since then, Realtime Associates has developed for over 90 games for a wide variety of platforms. We’re talking from the, I know you got started on the Intellivision, but I believe Realtime Associates got founded on — what was the first system you developed for?
David: Realtime Associates would’ve been the 8-bit Nintendo, and the — over 100 titles by now, and that doesn’t include the 20 or 30 or so on the Intellivision.
Patrick: Oh wow, yeah. You’ve worked for virtually every platform under the sun — maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not really, I mean…
David: …everything except the Jaguar. [laughs]
Patrick: Right, exactly. Yeah I know Sega Pico is in there even, which I’m going to want to pick your brain about in the future actually.
David: Mmm hmm.
After Mattel Electronics went out of business, I worked for a few years doing music and sounds for Electronic Arts, Lucasfilm Games, Interplay, and other people. And then, after a few years… founding Realtime Associates.
Patrick: So and you also have a degree in music theory and composition, and so combined with your interest in software development, you’ve done the sound and music for a large number of games as well.
David: That’s right, yeah. I started off as a programmer developer for Mattel Electronics specializing in sound, but doing mostly game design and game programming. And then after Mattel Electronics went out of business, I worked for a few years doing music and sounds for Electronic Arts, Lucasfilm Games, Interplay, and other people. And then, after a few years of doing that got back into producing, first, new Intellivision titles, and then moving into 8-bit Nintendo and founding Realtime Associates, and working on all the other consoles.
Patrick: That’s amazing, you’ve worked with a lot of very well known companies, I mean I would even go so far as to say that, if you’re a gamer and you’ve played a lot of games from the 8-bit/ 16-bit era, I think it’s very unlikely that you haven’t played something that David Warhol has worked on.
David: [laughs] Possibly.
Patrick: Yeah, I was reading an older interview you did, I believe it was with the Remix64 site — I remember you were saying at one point that it was very satisfying to be able to walk into a computer game store, and look at the shelves and see a bunch of titles that you worked on.
David: That was, yes that was good! When there were software stores, and there would be 30 or 40 titles out there — I like to say I’m a part of the “big bang” of video game development, in that the farther back you go into time, the more likely you are to see me. And that was a part where right after the bang happened, and there was just a lot of that stuff around.
When the 8-bit Nintendo came out, I listened to what other developers were doing in the early games, and then figured out a way that I could maximize it myself, or give it my own twist.
Patrick: So there were over 10 NES games that you worked on, or that made use of your sound drivers. The first of which came out in the fall of 1990, and these games included Dick Tracy, Swords and Serpents, and Total Recall. Did breaking the ice on NES development have any particular hurdles or roadblocks you can recall?
David: Not really. I was reverse-engineering the sound chip, but it was a pretty straightforward device. And the only hurdle would’ve been figuring out how to get the most out of the sound chip for what it had to offer, compared to other sound chips I had used at the time.
Patrick: Ah, gotcha. Yeah, because I know another developer, Neil Baldwin from the UK, mentioned that they had to — it wasn’t like today, they didn’t have easy-to-use dev kits. There weren’t like tools supplied from Nintendo, and they sort of had to reverse-engineer the tech of the NES. So I guess that was a sort of similar experience for you?
David: Oh absolutely. I didn’t even know that Nintendo was going to allow 3rd party development, period. And so we reverse-engineered the entire NES when it came out — I was so delighted, we yanked out a ROM, uploaded it, and ran it through a 6502 disassembler and said “Hey, this thing runs on a 6502!”. And we took it from there. But, even when we did got documentation a lot of was in Japanese, but, uh — yeah, we just figured it out.
Patrick: So something I was wondering about, when you look at the library of NES and Famicom games as a whole, it looks like most developers were Japanese and the rest were European. So it’s pretty rare to find American composers who worked for the NES. Did you have any sense that you and your colleagues were outsiders in some way?
David: Not really, we were concerned mostly with the productions we had in hand. I knew that there weren’t a lot of US developers and that was a competitive edge, not just in the music and the sounds part, but in game development in general. But it wasn’t something I was mindful or aware of at the time.
Patrick: You worked with several platforms before working with the NES, including the Intellivision, as we mentioned before, but also the C64, Commodore Amiga, and DOS. What was your impression of NES audio compared to those other platforms?
David: There were a few things that it had that I liked. The sound sweep, the built-in hardware sound sweep was very useful to get cool effects without a lot of extra programming. Each device has its own strengths, and once I got to learn a device I would always write for the strengths of that device. The Intellivision had a great bass range, while the Amiga of course sampled. DOS — I came up with a good kind of a guitar-strumming sound, where I could play a chord just strumming it up even though it was only a single note at a time.
So when the 8-bit Nintendo came out, I listened to what other developers were doing in the early games, and then figured out a way that I could maximize it myself, or give it my own twist.
MIDI files are way too large for an 8-bit cartridge for memory footprint, So my processes always read MIDI files, compressed them using very specific 5-bits per-note instructions, and then 3-bits per-duration. So I was able to get a note into 1 byte.
Patrick: In your interview with Remix64 you mentioned that for the NES, Game Boy, Super Nintendo and Genesis platforms, you were more of a creative and technical producer. That you would discuss composition styles and goals with MIDI-keyboard composers, to arrange their compositions to fit your drivers and tone banks on each platform. Did all of your NES music originate from these sort of MIDI templates, or were there some cases where you created NES music without MIDI in the process?
David: Yeah, before there was MIDI — I was developing music before there was MIDI, and pretty much worked with sheet music, and (I would) write down notes and type them in, in hexadecimal notation. And some were using macros or something like that. So it was a very labor intensive process. My first 8-bit Nintendo games would’ve used that technique, and about halfway through the run, I developed, using my own hardware, the ability, well —
There were a couple of stages. One was, I would take a MIDI file that had been written, three voices or what have you, and then arrange it on a sequencer, export it, and then re-import it on an NES, using my own synth patches. So that was stage one, but eventually stage two, I connected a MIDI output to a PC, which had one of my Nintendo development boards in it. So we were able to drive an 8-bit Nintendo from the MIDI keyboard as if it were a synthesizer module. And that was great, but I didn’t get that until about the end of my run of the NES.
Patrick: Have any of the source MIDIs ever been published?
David: Oh, no. The source MIDIs would be like three part piano pieces that sounded nothing like the songs that ended up inside the NES. So, while I might have archived the 6502 code and all the drivers as they ended up being published, the MIDI files are lost to time.
Patrick: And so the MIDI files are just a source for the basic melodies and rhythms of the music…
Patrick: …they don’t have all the technical stuff like the specific volume parameters, or telling the Nintendo what duty cycle to play — all the sound design stuff. So, what was the process of creating those sounds like? Was it easy to test the instruments you were making on hardware?
David: Yeah. Well, I had my own development systems. We had developed our own devkits, so it was pretty easy to envision the — once the sound driver was in place — to envision different patches. I had probably a list of 15 or 20 commonly used patches, once I had those developed then it was a question of arranging the song using those patches. “In the A section, what would be a good melody patch? Which voice, should I use the sawtooth wave here or there?”. So adapting the voices themselves, once they were in place, it just became a question of arrangement.
I am trombone player originally and it’s all about the bass as far as I’m concerned.
Patrick: You crafted a distinct sound for the NES which I think stands out and is recognizable. A long time ago, I can recall randomly firing up the NSF for Caesar’s Palace — you know, it wasn’t a game I was familiar with, I didn’t own it — and without looking up who was involved, I immediately recognized that it was yours. Was there a conscious decision to craft a unique sound? Did you want your games to sound different than other NES games?
David: Oh woah, that’s a really interesting question and I appreciate that a lot. I hadn’t consciously set out to make a style, But, quite obviously because of my tools and techniques, both in the driver side and in the composition/ arrangement side, I guess I would have set out, or would’ve created and individual style. That’s cool that they stand out in that way, and I can hear in my head what that style is, but it wasn’t like I sat down (and said) “I”m going to be just like Aerosmith”, or something like that, I was just making the most of the hardware. And the techniques that I used I guess were unique enough to create that style.
Patrick: One of the reasons for this, or it’s one of the aspects that stands out to me — you know, it wasn’t uncommon for a lot of NES games to only use the triangle channel for basslines. For example, you can look at some of the franchises like Super Mario Bros, Mega Man, Castlevania, etc, and you almost never see main melodies arranged for the triangle in those soundtracks. But the triangle seems to be embraced as a common source of melody in the music you made for your NES sound driver. Is that like — I think maybe people were afraid of it because you couldn’t manipulate the volume of the triangle channel? Maybe people thought that was undesirable, but it seems to come up all the time as a melody in your music.
David: The triangle wave… the lower you go the quieter it is, and it’s a characteristic of that particular waveform that it doesn’t have a beefy bass. So the choice that other composers had, like “Oh I’m afraid of this wave so I’ll just put it down in the bassline where it doesn’t matter”, or whatever — I am trombone player originally and it’s all about the bass as far as I’m concerned. So, I wanted some nice popping bass sounds. Plus, in setting an orchestration, it sounds like a clarinet. So if I wanted to change the sounds, the melodic instruments, the arrangement “up there” — Yeah, I rarely used the triangle wave as a bassline just for the lack of oomph.
Patrick: I think Steve, my co-host, will be happy with that answer — we’re recording this segment separately so he’s not here right now — he plays the tuba. So he’ll be happy to know…
David: [laughs] Very good, yes!
Patrick: …that there’s another low brass player here.
David: It’s all about that bass, the bass, the bass…
Patrick: There’s this neat echo effect that comes up in your NES music, possibly debuting in Maniac Mansion. It’s a single channel pulse wave echo that uses these downward pitch bends, combined with like a slow overall fade in the volume, which makes it sound like the volume is jumping up and down a lot more than it actually is. It’s a really cool effect, do you remember how you came up with it?
David: I think I heard it in some game somewhere, and was [?] and figured out quickly how to integrate it into my driver. The first time I used it was in Dick Tracy, I’m pretty sure that that predated Maniac Mansion. Umm, I might be wrong about that, but yeah, I know the sound you’re talking about. At the release phase of the note, it starts one of those hardware sweeps down, and it starts the amplitude decay down. And then after a certain period of time it resets the frequency to the original frequency of that note. So it is an echo, it’s an “echoing-out” effect.
Now it would’ve been possible on other architectures, just doing it in software, but it never occurred to me until I had heard it on the 8-bit Nintendo that that would be a cool effect. So it’s part of my signature sound, but it would’ve started only on the 8-bit Nintendo.
Patrick: Oh that’s interesting. And to clarify for the listeners a little bit, if you’re making music for the NES today, it’s really easy — there’s this program called Famitracker that everyone uses — and it’s really easy to do pitch bends in the software. It’s an easy effect to do. But the NES actually has, like, a function in the hardware, right? Where you can tell things like pitch bends to happen. So I guess that’s what you were taking advantage of?
David: Yeah, it’s more of a — it automatically added a number to the frequency to drive it down in hardware. So it wasn’t as subtle as a good pitch bend that you might get on a synth wheel controller, or aftertouch press. And pitch bend was a lot of trouble to program, so I never really went for it, other than that hardware-assisted sweeping decay.
Patrick: You mentioned that you heard the effect in another soundtrack. I would guess it was probably something by the Follin brothers? I can’t be 100% sure on that, but we did a previous episode analyzing NES sound design and I was trying to identify all the different types of echoes that were done. And so I have one that I call the “single channel pitch bend echo”, and I really don’t know of too many other examples asides from yours and Tim Follin doing it.
David: I don’t know, but I think it would’ve been a Japanese NES title…
Patrick: Oh, interesting!
David: …but it would’ve — it escapes me.
Patrick: Yeah if it’s Japanese I’ll have to do some digging around, it’d be cool to see if I can figure out what that might’ve been… Very cool.
Patrick: Oh, and I was wondering, so how was that single channel (echo) effect handled in your sound driver? Did you have to manually go in and add these specific volume and pitch bend (envelopes) to every note that used it? Or was it more like an instrument that you built and could more-easily summon?
David: Yeah it was an instrument, definitely. Each time a melody would start it would say which instrument — which virtual instrument it was going to use. Which in my case also tied it to a channel. I didn’t do dynamic channel allocations, so it would declare which “synth” patch it would use. And then whenever it got to a note on command, the driver would take it from there.
And incidentally, MIDI files are way too large for an 8-bit cartridge for memory footprint, So my processes always read MIDI files, compressed them using very specific 5-bits per-note instructions, and then 3-bits per-duration. So I was able to get a note into 1 byte, instead of a MIDI command which might be 3 bytes for note on, 3 bytes for note off. That’s 6 bytes per note, that’s way too expensive. So I took it all the way down to be 1-bit per note on/ note off, except for some patches (that) might’ve required 2 bytes, but yeah, very, very conservative with memory.
Patrick: The NES also offered a possible fifth channel of audio, of 1-bit sample playback. But it wasn’t uncommon for it to be unused and it doesn’t make an appearance in your works. Was it something that you considered for use? Did you want to use it at any point, or was it undesirable?
David: [laughs] I never figured out how to use it.
Patrick: It’s funny, because I’ve talked with — you know, cause there’s a lot of I guess “nerds” like me now who are very interested in this video game music. And we’ve had these discussions before and there has been speculation that — we wondered if the feature was kind of obtuse in some way? And if some people just didn’t know how to use it…
David: Yeah I didn’t know how to use it, and I don’t know how it would’ve played into the sound mixes that I was doing. Yeah, I just moved right past it.
Patrick: Yeah, there’s a lot of soundtracks that work that way… Anything by Capcom, so like the entire Mega Man series, none of that uses any samples. A lot of the best NES soundtracks don’t make any use of them, so you can listen to NES music without it, it won’t sound like it’s missing. It’s a not-crucial channel.
Patrick: Oh yeah, so this is an odd question I had. I see you credited as “composer?”, like with a question mark, for Ski or Die for the NES. And that you also worked on other versions as well, because it was a multiplatform game. But the NES version in particular doesn’t sound like your sound driver. At times it sounds like Rob Hubbard, who is credited on it, but it also has a sort of Konami sound to it, and there’s a Jun Funahashi credited as well. So, I have no idea who actually worked on the game.
David: [laughs] Honestly, me neither, it’s hard for me to remember back that far. And Rob Hubbard did the original, and it’s likely that somebody else might have taken my driver and arranged Rob’s music using my driver and somehow crediting me with that — I’ve listened to that particular piece before, and usually I can tell “Oh yeah that’s one of mine”. But that one, I don’t know that I was really part of that.
Patrick: Yeah, I listened closely to it. It really has a sort of — because it was published by Konami, or their American branch, which their name is escaping me, it might’ve been Ultra or something like that? It has a very different sound. It’s funny, there’s a website that has a list of your works, but it has a question mark next to that.
David: [laughs] Yeah, let’s just take that one off.
Out of all of my drivers I would say that the Game Boy driver is my favorite. I think it was the one that was most succinct, it had the most variety in patches.
Patrick: As we mentioned earlier, you worked with a lot of different platforms, but in particular I was also interested in learning a bit more about your work with the Game Boy, because it has a very similar soundset to the NES. But it runs on a different processor, and does have some different sounds and parameters involved. So I was wondering, when going from the NES to the Game Boy, were you able to essentially “copy” over a lot of your sound driver, or did you basically have to start from scratch?
David: Well, they were re-programmed using the same design. It’s a Z80 (?) or something like that. Mmm, forget the name of the processor, but, very different instruction set. But I know they came after the 8-bit Nintendo so I was able to take a couple more years of experience and re-craft the driver. So out of all of my drivers I would say that the Game Boy driver is my favorite. I think it was the one that was most succinct, it had the most variety in patches. And we did, from day one of Game Boy, we were able to connect that directly to a keyboard. The idea there was — It wasn’t polyphonic, but as you played a single melody you could hear it on the actual game boy, being triggered note for note, note on/ note off. So you could get a feel for what it was going to sound like, and save that in a sequencer, and then play another part… So we were able to really make the most out of that platform.
Patrick: Oh that’s very cool. It’s always interesting for me to learn about interfaces like that, because today it’s very popular to — People like to interface with these older systems now, in various ways. So it’s cool to think that just back when you were developing for it in the day, that you had easy, live control over the audio. People would love to play with that today if they could.
David: Yeah, I looked at resurrecting that, and I haven’t found a good 6502 (in the case of the NES) toolkit that would allow me to debug my drivers in whatever the current environment is. I’m getting close — and then we would still need the MIDI-to-device interface. But honestly I can think of simpler architectures where you’d be able to — well, it’s still quite possible, it just needs to have the MIDI-to-console interface, and these drivers are 90 or 95 percent done. In fact, my Game Boy driver has one routine with a conditional compile, which is “where am I getting my next note from?”. And it would either say “Oh, I’m getting it from the synth”, or else it would say “I’m getting it from this data stream that’s coming in that I’m reading from the cartridge.” So, 95% of the way there.
Maniac Mansion has to be my favorite project that I worked on, for the diversity of music and the end result of the soundtrack.
Patrick: For Maniac Mansion and a variety of the NES game you worked on, you collaborated with the composer George Sanger. What was your working relationship like? Did you often meet in person to discuss projects you were working on?
David: Yeah I knew George before he was doing video game music, I guess I got him into the biz. My college roommate was his brother, Rick Sanger. I’ve known Rick for years, and every once in a while George and his other brother Dave would come out and visit our campus. And as I got to know George that way, and as I was getting into video game music, I recognized I wasn’t the most prolific composer. I certainly knew the music, music theory and the technology, but when it came time to, “Hey, I need some songs written”, George was a musician in his own right and was doing music for ads, or just work for hire music. So, early on I starting giving George “Hey can you write me a few songs?”, and he would write them and then I would incorporate them into the driver. That’s how our working relationship started there. And over the years, I was just giving him more and more stuff, and eventually, as I moved out of audio development and more into game production, it was just like handing him my rolodex saying “Hey, go for it. You’re more prolific than I am, go for it”.
Patrick: I noticed there were some other people credited for also working on the Maniac Mansion soundtrack, I had the names Chris Grigg and David Lawrence come up. But I’m actually not too familiar with their works or other stuff they worked on.
David: Exactly– George had a team of composers called “Team Fat”. So when you got a project from George it was either his original composition, or else a couple of those other guys. You might even be able to tell their styles, I probably could fish it out. Those guys, Team Fat, did about half the music and then another guy, Dave Hayes, did the other half of the music. David Hayes is a jazz/funk/fusion keyboardist that I’ve known for 30 years as well, and I love his sound, so I’ve collaborated with Dave Hayes on a few projects as well, where I got his music. Yeah, so it’s Team Fat and Dave Hayes on Maniac Mansion. A great team; A lot of music in that project.
Patrick: As you mentioned, from the different styles, you can definitely hear it throughout the soundtrack. I feel like if you have a lot of, almost like — I don’t know if atonal is the right word, but a lot of dissonance and chromatic lines, I feel like that’s probably George Sanger’s style? Then you have these other tracks that are a lot more, one is like a relaxed, classical style…
Maniac Mansion… was a conversion of the Commodore 64 over to the 8-bit Nintendo, and the Commodore 64 (version) does not have wall to wall music. So we were contracted and got 9/10ths of the way done with the game, and then the publisher was like “Hey, where’s the music?”
Patrick: And it sounds like different composers giving different themes to the characters. I was wondering, do you have any favorite tracks from the Maniac Mansion soundtrack?
David: Maniac Mansion has to be my favorite project that I worked on, for the diversity of music and the end result of the soundtrack. The project itself was a conversion of the Commodore 64 over to the 8-bit Nintendo, and the Commodore 64 (version) does not have wall to wall music. So we were contracted and got 9/10ths of the way done with the game, and then the publisher was like “Hey, where’s the music? All 8-bit Nintendo games have music, wall to wall”. And well we worked hard to do it (the conversion) and it wasn’t part of the original design. “Well, we gotta have music!”.
We got an extension to the contract to bring in composers to do the music, which is one of the reasons why we had such a large team to get it all done. Of those songs, just love the — Oh! They were never named. The songs had no names at the until, until like five years later LucasArts called up and said “Hey, we’re filing for copyright for these things so we need the names of the songs”. I was like “…they don’t have names”, he said “Make ‘em up!”. So after the fact we made up names for the songs. One of the lead character themes sounds a little bit like The Boys Are Back (In Town), and we called that one The Boys Are Still Back. And that was one of Dave Hayes’ songs.
I loved the Comp-U-Nerd, which is the nerd theme, and that’s Dave Govett. [sings segment of Bernard’s theme] It’s almost there — it’s just like, you can kind of dance to it! It’s just neatly composed, and I’d say executed.
And then the other one I like is the punk rocker song, which, it was just kind of like a screaming… [sings melody] The name of that song I came up with was “No No Never Never Well Maybe Sure Ok”.
Editor’s Note: These track titles do appear in-game when examining the CD player for each character. I forgot when conducting the interview, and it appears David may have as well! As such, I’m skipping the transcription of a few superfluous comments made by me. But for posterity, no edits have been made to the audio interview.
David: …Dave’s theme (The Boys Are Still Back) was written by Dave, Dave Hayes. And those song names don’t exist anywhere except in one document that’s filed with the library of congress.
I believe I’m credited with the first ever “wall to wall” video game (soundtrack).
Patrick: I think it’s funny, too, that there was that discussion — that discussion actually took place, saying that NES games have music throughout their (gameplay), so you need to put music in. Because I grew up with an Amiga computer when I was a kid, and it wasn’t that uncommon, just like the C64 you mentioned, you might have a title screen theme, maybe a game over theme, but there’s no background game music throughout a lot of those games. So, it’s funny that someone recognized “No, NES games have music non-stop, so you have to add music for the whole soundtrack.” That’s really funny,
David: I believe I’m credited with the first ever “wall to wall” video game cartridge. At least Keith Robinson of Intellivision Productions credits me that way.
Patrick: Oh wow.
David: For Thunder Castle. Which, from the moment the game resets to the moment you yank the cartridge out, it’s got music playing, entirely. It’s classical music in this case, but it’s also on a tiny Intellivision cartridge with hardly any memory. So, that’s — I knew that it was possible because I had done it on the Intellivision, but it wasn’t until the 8-bit Nintendo that I was getting those requests for music that played throughout the entire game. Which was tough, because you want to make a theme — you need to make a theme so that you don’t want to just turn off the volume. Because they didn’t have the ability to music on/off in those days, it was just always on. So it was a challenge to make something catchy enough and rich enough that you could hear it thousands of times over.
Patrick: Wow that’s pretty amazing actually. I’ve recognized that there are earlier games, C64, etc, that don’t have music throughout, but I never actually thought about what’s the first game to have music throughout. I’m really impressed by that, that’s amazing.
Patrick: So there’s an unused track of music that was also found in the game’s data. Do you have any recollection of what that track was intended for, by any chance?
David: No! I hadn’t heard that since, of course, the game was released. And I listened to that, and I’m kind of scratching my head. I don’t know if, if it’s possible that in the Commodore 64 version there was one more character that didn’t make it into the 8-bit Nintendo — I’m not sure about that. That would explain it. Or, there might’ve been some other situation or room that you get in, but no… I hear it, and it’s awesome song, it’s not like “Oh this doesn’t sound good enough so I’m not going to trigger it”. Would’ve been fun to put it in as an easter egg, but I don’t know what that was for.
Patrick: That’s one of my favorites as well, you know, after I discovered it. It was put into the Nintendo Sound File (NSF). Someone ripped all the music out of the ROM, so that’s how it was found. That track is really cool, and it’s funny, there’s speculation in the youtube comments about where it would’ve fit into the game.
David: [laughs] Controversy! Mystery! X-Files!
Patrick: Yeah everyone has their own idea where it could’ve fit into the game, that’s really funny.
The only thing I might’ve done differently was on the business side of it, figuring out the amount of time or value of the service, but as far as the technology goes, I was really happy with what I was able to do at the time.
Patrick: I was also wondering, do you ever look back on your compositions and arrangements and think about things you might’ve done differently?
David: Not really. As technology matures, I recognize there might’ve been things that I could’ve done in earlier drivers that I didn’t. But it wasn’t like “Oh dang, I wish I would’ve”. I would say the only thing that I would have done differently would’ve been on the business side, where I was so passionate about what I was doing, but I wasn’t figuring out how long it would take to do. So I figured out a fee that seemed right given the relative size of the budget of the piece. I always figured that audio was like 5 or 10% of a budget, never more. So had I priced my services a little higher, it might’ve allowed me to do more of them, or stay in that aspect of the business.
So the only thing I might’ve done differently was on the business side of it, figuring out the amount of time or value of the service, but as far as the technology goes, I was really happy with what I was able to do at the time. And I think that a lot of these things were pretty far ahead— …is the fact that we were connecting the hardware directly to MIDI keyboard devices, 25 years ago, or 30 years ago. And it seemed like “Hey yeah we can do that”, and it wasn’t until 20 years later I was going “Wait a second, how the heck did I do that? I can’t do that now and I did 20 years ago!”.
Patrick: Thanks so much for participating in this interview, it’s amazing to be able to — Maniac Mansion is one of my favorite NES soundtracks, so to be able to pick of the brain of someone who worked on it is just an amazing opportunity.
David: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much, I’m always delighted to share and I’m pleased that people are interested in what was happening in that generation of music. I’m glad to be able to contribute.
Patrick: Excellent, thank you!
Addendum: June 14, 2017
I wanted to learn more about David’s work with the SNES, so I asked him a few more questions via e-mail.
Patrick: Tell us about your experience making your sound driver for the SNES. Do you recall what year it was when you started work on it? Similar to your later NES and Game Boy sound drivers, did it also work by converting MIDI files supplied by composers?
David: The SNES was launched in Japan before it was launched in the US. We had someone buy six units in Japan and ship them over. At that time, we were making our own development hardware kits: a PC board with memory on it that emulated a cartridge. So we got up to speed on the system right away. Ultimately, we had “graphics mirror” programs: a graphics editor on a PC with a live connection to a SNES on a dev board such that an artist could see what the final image was going to look like while they were composing it.
The sound driver was a blast. The SNES has its own bus for sound code and samples. So instead of sharing a CPU with a game, the driver lived in its own address space. It was a little tricky to figure out how to make it work in the first place, but once that was handled, the rest was fine.
The music playback system was the same as the NES. Because the cartridge emulator was running on a PC, if that PC had a MIDI device, my sound drivers could interpret incoming MIDI commands, so composers would hear what the music would sound like on the SNES in real time. Once the composition was finished, the MIDI file would be saved and processed into a compressed version to save space in the cartridge and in the audio bus.
Patrick: The SNES primarily used sample playback. Do you recall the sources of the samples you’d use? Did you work up a larger library of samples, or were new samples created/obtained every time a new game was worked on?
David: I guess I can say it now… but I got most of my samples from other games 🙂 . I never mastered the compression system that was used to describe the waveforms. The Nintendo development kit had conversion tools, but because we were making our own development hardware, we never had access to them. What I would do is get a game into a music state where I knew the samples were loaded, then I would replace the cartridge image with a small program that copied the audio bus to main memory, save the main memory, then further look at the wave table pointers and harvest them individually that way. So I never had a super large library of them.
Patrick: The SNES was capable of more than just playing back raw samples. It allowed setting ADSR envelopes, echo/ reverb effects, various filter effects, and noise generation. Do you recall experimenting with and using some of these features?
David: Probably – I’d have to take a look at the source code to be sure.
Patrick: Do you have a favorite SNES game you worked on? For its audio, or even just as a game?
David: I liked the music in Q*Bert 3 the best. Very happy, upbeat, goofy, written by JoeMcDermott from Team Fat. The hold music on the phone system at Realtime at the time was a Super Nintendo playing a modified Q*Bert 3 cartridge to play an endless music loop, it might have run for years that way. I liked the game of Q*Bert 3 as well, we did some fancy background graphics tricks. Many found them distracting but it was pushing the limits of what the SNES could do.
Patrick: Zombies Ate My Neighbors has a couple hidden sound effects that can be triggered pressing L and R during the Lucas Arts splash screen (a scream and a dog barking). Do you know if there was any particular idea or reason for this easter egg? Did any other games you worked on also have audio easter eggs?
David: Hah, no idea! Guess that will be a mystery for the ages!
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