Review by Willy McCarter
Edited by Katie Tarrant
Course: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music
Course Publisher: Abertay University / Future Learn
Course Lead: Dr. Kenny McAlpine
Reviewed on: Future Learn Online
Back in late September, I was informed by a friend that the prestigious online school of Future Learn had teamed up with my old University, Abertay University, and Dr. Kenny McAlpine, who is currently the Academic Curriculum Manager and founder of the B.A(Hons) Sound & Music For Games program at Abertay University.
As an avid lover of all things game audio and sound, as well as a former student of Abertay, I was more that excited to sign up and try it out for myself. Abertay University holds a worldwide status as a cradle of innovation for game development not to mention being a pioneering institution of teaching game development at an academic level in both the UK and Europe.
From a game audio lover’s point of view, this online course is nothing short of a gold mine of valuable sources that left me encouraged to learn more about the history and evolution of game music and sound in the present day. Comprised of various critical analysis exercises, online emulators and ROMS, articles and publications, video dissections of different gaming consoles through the years, and topped off with an online discussion forum and interviews from people in the game audio circles, such as Rob Hubbard, Mark Knight, Raymond Usher, and Luci Holland. I would certainly rate this course as the bread and butter for the curious mind of those wanting to know more about the history of game audio and for the signup price of nothing!
About the Course Leader
For the last 20+ years Dr. Kenny McAlpine has dedicated his academic career and research to the art of video games, specialising in game audio and film music analysis. Kenny has published countless research papers at the AES (Audio Engineering Society), not to mention presenting a recent TEDx talk on the topic of the game boy and chip music which can be seen here. As well lecturing and guest lecturing in a number of universities in both the UK and USA, Dr. McAlpine is soon to publish his first book on video game chip music Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes.
As mentioned earlier Dr. McAlpine has played a vital role in establishing and contributing to the academic criteria for sound production courses across Scotland including Abertay University, Perth UHI and University of West Scotland. After hearing about the history of the module lead, I felt the delivery of the course was coming from an ideal candidate.
Throughout the progress of the course, Dr. McAlpine executed a unique system of reviewing posts from all course participants and presenting insightful feedback and ways of critically analysing game sound and music.
The modules of the course were lined out accordingly to the evolution and family line of home computer gaming systems. With each module containing articles and resources of consoles such as the Atari VCS, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, NES, and Sony Playstation.
Each module and interview was presented with a guiding video lesson from Dr. McAlpine which ended with reading recommended links and posting your thoughts on different discussion boards. This brought the idea of a classroom and community into life, with the exchange of opinions and insights on each topic. In relation to the gaming system videos, each segment was diluted down to the birth of the console itself and highlighted key games and their audio functionality of music and sound. One of my personal favourites on this course was the ZX Spectrum section which broke down the technical abilities of the console in marrying the relationship of gameplay and music via cassette tape.
Alongside most of the videos, the course contained online playable ROM and Emulators to play and analyse. This interactive feature was a great way to study and listen to the technical abilities and limitations of each gaming console, not to mention justify the art of playing games for homework! After this, each participant was invited to share their thoughts and experiences on each topic. This opened a new door of thought on how others see game music and sound. A very common topic on each console in particular was the system architecture and how certain chips played a role. This was made clearer in the Commodore 64 section, with the introduction of the SID chip, which was outlined as a milestone in game audio.
Fast forwarding to the present day of game audio, this course covered the main tools that most game audio producers would recognize such as FMOD and Wwise. Having experience in working in both myself, I was able to follow this section more fluently. However, as this course is set out not to teach the theory and practical use of these middleware tools, it is more focused on what they can achieve in both a creative and technical sense, both in sound design, and composition for adaptive music. It was this section I found the most interesting of all when Dr. McAlpine made a connection of adaptive music to an old musical parlour composition idea known as Musikalisches Würfelspiel or musical dice. The idea is in the name where it involves composing segments consisting of a few bars and randomly generating a musical piece. Dating back to the times of Mozart, this idea of adapting a score around player input is very common in modern popular games. As an on and off composer myself, I found it incredible that the idea of randomly generated music as a composition concept is a historical artefact, that can encourage fellow composers to play more with music and mathematics when approaching game development.
It was points like these I found very educational and inspiring to take a new outlook on approaching game audio production and considering the attributes of predecessor consoles and music tracks.
As mentioned before, another great aspect of this course was various interviews of key music composers from around the UK. Some who had worked with veteran systems such as Mark Knight and Rob Hubbard to the new and aspiring innovative composers like Luci Holland.
Each interview had each composer sharing their views on game audio music and the evolutionary scale it has come too. Each one offering their own take on creative approaches and identifying what inspires them to create game audio.
I found this course to be great insight to a better understanding of both game audio music and sound composition and the technical limitations and approaches of early gaming systems. I would highly recommend this course to those who are wanting to explore more of the technical architecture of console systems and how the origins of game audio came to be.
Along with each module having a comment and forum section and listening to different participant’s views and outlooks on each topic was great for gaining new knowledge within a very active community. In my opinion this course would not be aimed at people who are wishing to learn composition or sound design techniques, but a basic knowledge of current DAW layouts and game audio principles would be necessary.
However, for a better grasp of gaming systems and game audio I would highly recommend this course for those who wish to pursue an interest in the field. For more info on the course can be found here at FutureLearn. The next course session for Dr. Kenny McAlpine’s course is in January 15th 2018
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The Sound Architect