A look inside the retro video game sounds of UJAM’s vintage-inspired synth addition
SEPTEMBER 23RD, 2023
When you’re looking to create the vibe of retro game and chiptune music, simple saw and square waves won’t cut it. To create an immersive and nostalgic experience, you’ll need lofi textures, quantization distortion (the primary effect of reducing bit depth), and every bit of classic video game magic you can get your hands on. You could put in countless hours to reverse-engineer these old school sounds and make your own chiptune beats from scratch using mod trackers and hex code … or you could let Usynth PIXEL do the heavy lifting for you. Even if you didn’t grow up with classic consoles and have never attempted to program music with a mod tracker, the sound of classic games has undoubtedly had an impact on your style — take it from PIXEL creator Peter Gorges:
“At UJAM, a lot of us are gamers, and a lot of us love and admire those soundtracks from the 90s - from games like Tekken to Donkey Kong to Monkey Island to Zelda. They are still live-performed by orchestras around the world and some composers are true legends to this day. And luckily for you and us, we could win one of the top legends, a genius by the name David Wise, to collaborate with us on Usynth PIXEL - a Usynth to make your music sound like a video game console from the 90s. During the sound design and development of this particular Usynth, you could see more joy, laughter and awe in people’s faces than in any project before.”
Leads, basses, and drums galore
Part of the core sound of classic games came from an attempt to get as close as possible to the sound of an orchestra, long before it was possible to do so. Composers and developers would take a very short sample of a real instrument and set the body of the note to loop infinitely and pitch each note up and down to save as much memory as possible. These limitations didn’t make for the best quality sounds, of course, but that’s exactly why we love them now! They provide a door into a world of nostalgia that’s impossible to visit any other way.
This was the principle behind creating presets like Chip Cello — this low fidelity string patch makes the perfect orchestral lead, which you can shape with the Color (simulating bowing intensity) and Edge (frequency spread) controls. If you want to really give your music a true retro video game vibe, add movement to your melodies with scale runs and lots of repeated notes in quick succession. In today’s music, this resulting “machine gun” effect would lower the perceived quality and realism of your music … but in this case, that’s exactly what we want. Find different ways to expose the lofi-ness of each patch and you’ll never have a shortage of creative possibilities to explore.
Using retro samples
Part of the charm of old video game music tech, especially 8-bit systems, is the quantization distortion or “stepping” that occurs in digitally recorded audio. That’s why we made sure to include some 8-bit drums (including kicks and claps) to throw into the mix, pun intended — the simple act of using true retro drum sounds, not just throwing a bit crusher on everything and calling it a day, will deliver a far more authentic sound. To that end, the Fat Kick, Snappy Snare, and Mind The Clap presets inside PIXEL should do just the trick.
Partly to avoid these bit depth limitations, game composers used to use simple waveforms like square and pulse waves to carry the bulk of their soundtracks. Game memory was too limited to allow for much recorded audio, so “programmable sound generators” or PSGs were used instead. This resulted in bare-bones “chiptune” leads, emulating the result of using a simple set of onboard synthesizers to generate the music in real time — you can use the real deal in your own music with the LoFi Line preset!
Authentic, “cheap” chords
PIXEL lets you create rich chords with soundfont-esque strings, square-y pads, and all types of other polyphonic instruments. To create the most authentic retro feel possible, be prepared to follow the opposite advice you normally would; rather than big, lush chords, think in closed, tight voicings. Don’t aim for huge — focus on creating an intimate, close mix. Old game music wasn’t highly polished … The technology for that simply wasn’t practical at the time.
Think in constraints: “How can I get the most out of the least number of instruments and voices?” Then build your arrangement from there. Try out the Spacy LoFi Pad preset to see this in action; the Edge control lets you add a bit of retro distortion to an otherwise tame patch, and Octave Mix lets you layer each note for a rich doubling effect. Play with a few Finisher options to touch things up, and you’ll have perfectly imperfect chords in moments.
If you want to go back to the very early days of video games, by necessity they used tons of counterpoint (multiple different moving parts that create harmonies) and arpeggios (each note in a chord played one at a time) to create fuller arrangements and even make sound effects — pull up PIXEL’s insert Coin preset for an example of this, and any avid gamer will quickly recognize its influence. To make the result even simpler, try turning off the Finisher, Reverb and Delay. A bit of music theory knowledge goes a long way here, but you can opt for the short and simple route by pulling up an arpeggiator in your DAW (or playing with a few different presets that utilize this sound).
Degrading things further
It may seem counterintuitive to call this the “polish” phase when the end result involves a lower bit depth or sample rate than before, but there are plenty of options for coloring the sound of Usynth PIXEL in the Finisher section — not your standard range of distortions and time-based effects, but instead ones that give everything more of a classic game feeling. The Bit Destroyer setting contains your standard bit reduction effect, though with a few more options for creative processing than you might be used to.
LoFi is a more subtle effect, with gentle quantization noise for an accent to the patches you make. If you want crazy retro sci-fi effects, try the Creative Ducking setting. As with other Usynth additions, the Finisher portion is broken into Single, Dual, and Quad options, referring to how many different effects are wrapped into one so you can pile on as much processing as you like!
There’s more to chiptune music than just pulling up a few simple waveforms and creating busy arrangements. When you’re aiming for authenticity, every sound matters — and we designed Usynth PIXEL to give you access to all the true chiptune sounds you need and take it to the next level, without having to hunt for samples or figure out the exact processing chains you need on your own.
No matter what type of classic game sounds you’re looking for in your music, PIXEL delivers ... it’s simply a matter of what direction you take it. Happy producing!
About the Author
Harry Lodes is a copywriter, marketing consultant and content writer for audio and ecommerce brands. He lives in the Philadelphia area, releasing Eastern/Western hybrid EDM under the artist name KAIRI hearkening back to his roots in Berklee College of Music.