8-bit Sounds


This episode was written & produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows.

Primitive, yet iconic, 8-bit audio defined a generation through video game sounds and music. Discover the history and innovation behind those audio marvels that still fascinate today. Featuring Microsoft Sound Designer, Zachary Quarles, and David Murray, The 8-Bit Guy.

The 8-Bit Guy
Zachary Quarles

Music used in this episode

"Glossolalia" by Beta to the Max
"Profits (Instrumental)" by Dobsy
"Opius (Instrumental)" by Dropa
"Sweet Love" by Matthew S. McCullough
"Deep in a Cave" by Paul Glover

Twenty Thousand Hertz is hosted by Dallas Taylor and produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound.

Become a monthly contributor at 20k.org/donate.

View Transcript ▶︎

[Music Start]

From Defacto Sound, you’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz: The Stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. I’m Dallas Taylor.

This is the story about how a primitive sound technology started a cultural phenomenon.

[Chirrping birds SFX]

Think about summers when you were a kid…

The tick of a sprinkler [Sprkinler SFX]

The creak of a swing [Swing SFX]

Children laughing [Children laughing SFX]

The vaguely maudlin music of an ice cream truck [Ice cream truck music]

Or, if you’re like me, and a child of the 80’s, maybe you spent your summers indoors fighting aliens [Space Invaders SFX], chasing ghosts [Pac-man SFX], or stomping turtles [Super Mario SFX].

In the 1950’s computer programmers developed the first videos games. They lived just in the labs and not a lot of people had access to them. They were also incredibly simple, like almost not even related to the video games we have today simple. The earliest computer games were simulations of chess, tic tac toe, and table tennis.

And that table tennis game eventually led its way to Pong, the first commercially successful video game. It was developed by Atari and released into arcades in the early 70’s. Shortly after, it made its way into the home. It had incredibly simple graphics and sound effects [Pong SFX]...the sounds were called 8 bit. Named from the 8-bit processors used in early game systems. These systems produced the sound with computer chips and one of the reasons 8-bit sounds are so distinctive is because they were limited to the sounds that were built into that chip. Composers and programmers only had that small palette to work with. And from such simple technology some of the most iconic, [Super Mario and Legend of Zelda SFX] generation-defining music and sounds were born.

Released in the late 70’s, the first Atari, the Atari 2600, started with nine launch titles including; Air-Sea Battle [Air-Sea Battle SFX], Basic Math [Basic Math SFX], Combat [Combat SFX] and Star Ship [Star Ship SFX]. The unit which came bundled with two joysticks, two paddle controls, and the game combat was extremely expensive [Coin count SFX]. In today’s terms the system cost $767 [Super Mario coin SFX]. With the games ranging anywhere from $70 to $150 [Super Mario coin SFX].

It’s hard to look at these games now and see that the technology was state of the art but it was…

It was a really big deal to add sounds to graphics. [Legend of Zelda chest item SFX]

Zachary: The very beginning we have, oh my God we actually have sound playback and it’s a single beep from Pong [Pong Beep SFX]. My name is Zachary Quarles, audio director and sound designer for Microsoft Game Studios.

The Atari 2600 and its contemporaries all had sound chips. Sound was an integral part of the experience.

The technology was limited, though, so the programmers had to get really creative.

David: If you go back to the really early days like the Atari 2600 and any of the systems from the late 1970's and even the really early '80s, the sound chips were of course extremely primitive.

That’s the voice of...

David: David Murray, otherwise known as the 8-Bit guy online.

In addition to creating sound effects...

David: The actual game programmers would often kind of create some really simplistic tunes. I remember reading that even the original opening theme for Pac-man and what not was just something the programmers came up with. [Pac-man Theme Music]

You know I just think there’s something to be said for having a sound that is not in any way attempting to imitate a real instrument, but is in its own right its own synthetic sound.

The sound chips had these things called voices...and each one could only play one sound at a time. I’ll let David explain it.

David: I tend to use a choir as an example. I mean, as a human being, with our voice, we can only produce one note [Human voice singing one note].

A few people can actually produce more than one tone at once, but we can't. [Human voice trying to sing mulitple notes at once]

David: If you wanted to have like a three-note chord, you would need three human beings [Human voices singing] to do that because we can each only produce one voice. It's kind of the same with the sound chip. They had a set number of voices that could produce sounds. I'll use the Commodore 64 as an example. It had three voices so you can only produce realistically three notes simultaneously. [Ghosts 'n' Goblins Music]

Amazingly, programmers and composers got around these limitations by alternating the voices really really quickly making it seem like there were more than three.

[Ghosts 'n' Goblins Music]

David: If you listen real carefully, there's never more than three at a time.

It’s insane what game developers could achieve given these limitations. If you don’t listen carefully it’s really hard to tell that there are only three voices happening at any given moment.

Here’s another example. This is from the game The Great Giana Sisters on the Commodore 64. See if you can hear the sounds quickly jump up and down to accommodate both the music and the sound effects.

[The Great Giana Sisters music clip]

David: Other systems had one voice and other systems had many more than that. The tunes were often more catchy back then, more memorable. I think because the sounds were a little bit more primitive, the musicians had to come up with better more memorable and catchy tunes [Super Mario Brothers 2 - Main Theme Music] where today, they have so much technology that they could produce cool sounding music but it's not necessarily memorable.

[music in]

The limitations of early video game music helped inspire some the most memorable sounds in video game history. The tool set was more limited, so composers had to use them in a more unique ways. The next challenge was to get the sounds to actually play in the game. Find how they did it, after the break.

[music out]


[music in]

We’re learning how composers were able to make iconic music with simple computer chips. Here’d David again.

David: They composed the music on a real keyboard and they would, I guess you could say transcribe it over to the computer once they figured out what they wanted the tune to sound like.

Basically, you’re just giving the computer instructions. Then it would make the sound, becoming an instrument itself.

[Mega Man 2 - Dr. wily Stage 1 Music]

David: It's actually synthesizing the notes every single time. What was really interesting about that is you could go from one machine to another and it didn't always sound exactly the same. With the Commodore 64, they had what they call the seed chip that produced the music. Different revisions of that chip, it came out every few years, they changed things about it. If you were to take two machines running the exact same game, you could actually hear that the sound was a little bit different on each machine.

[The Way of he Exploding Fist Music "Old Machine"]

Here’s an example from an older machine... and on a newer machine.

[The Way of he Exploding Fist Music "New Machine"]

But even if it wasn’t exactly consistent, it was a really good approach. Because having the computer play the sounds for you was the least CPU intensive method.

David: Because they had their own sound chip that was designed to specifically do that and the only thing the CPU had to do was say, "Hey, sound chip. Play this frequency of sound and hold the duration this long," et cetera, and then the CPU could go back to what it was supposed to be doing.

Then, in the mid 80’s...

[Nes commercial]

Zachary: The big kind of shifts were when the NES came out,

That’s Zachary again.

Zachary: when sound quality started becoming prevalent for PC when people were like okay so we can actually have filmesque quality that we can we can say this is very representative of what other mediums are able to achieve. Not there yet by any stretch but it was well on its way.

I asked him, as a sound designer, what games influenced him the most.

Zachary: For my life, some very big keystone moments from an audio quality standpoint or iconic sound standpoint: Super Mario Brothers [Super Mario SFX], Metroid [Metriod SFX] Legend of Zelda [Legend of Zelda SFX]. Those three for me on the original NES were like, whoa, this is this is actual theme and it’s iconic sound design everyone knows what that coin pick up sound is [Super Mario coin pick up SFX]. Well in any of those games you know any of the item pick up sounds [Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Super Mario SFX] you don't have to see anything on screen, you know exactly what it is.

David: I guess nobody can forget Super Mario brothers. The music to that is very primitive [Super Mario Brother soundtrack]. The Super Mario Brothers soundtrack on the Nintendo is one of the most primitive pieces of music from a technological perspective, but it's also one of the most memorable. You just can't forget that music. Some of it would be because people would just play that game for hours and hours and hour on end, day after day after day so maybe it just gets imprinted into the brain, but everybody remembers it one way or another.

Zachary: I'm always playing games. I'm always playing different genres of games. I'm always listening to stuff. I'm always recording stuff. I'm always watching stuff. But I do come back to a lot of that old stuff to see how they were able to do so much with so little.

The era of 8-bit sound and music was a time of intense creativity born out of extreme limitation. And there’s a reason why these sounds are still so iconic today. What early programmers and composers lacked in technology, they made up for with some of the most memorable sounds in history. Today, decades after those early sounds were created they’re still just as vivid as the first time we heard them. They even inspired a whole movement in music called Chiptune. A nod to that little chip with such a bright future [Chiptune song]. Some artist have based their entire sound around 8-bit music. One thing is for sure, this innovation has permeated our culture and made a lasting mark on the future.

Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com. This episode was produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows and me. With help from Sam Schneble and Colin DeVarney. Colin also sound designed and mixed this episode and was the voice trying his best to sing more than one note at a time. He’s sorry you had to listen to that.

Thanks to David Murray, the 8-bit Guy on Youtube and Zachary Quarles for taking the time to chat with us.

Our artwork is by Mast and our website by Pocketknife. A huge thanks goes out to Beta to the Max for letting us use the track you’re hearing right now. It’s called Glossolalia. I’m a huge fan and I highly recommend you check out their other work. They have two awesome albums full of nostalgic goodness with a cool twist. Go buy them on Bandcamp or iTunes. Finally, if you like what you hear, please subscribe, leave a review, tell a friend or drop us a note at hi@20k.org. Thanks for listening.

Recent Episodes