Release Date: 1977
I’m going back to where it all started with home consoles, the Atari 2600. It had a really unique sound chip called the TIA (Television Interface Adapter) which could handle a whole 2 different channels of audio! These could either be 2 noise channels, 2 wave channels (SAW, Square) or a mix between the two. Crazy to think about such a limitation on game music creation today. Composers had the choice of what channel they wanted to use so a common setup would be to switch between the bass and melody on the wave channel and use the noise channel for percussion. They had some extra tools at their disposal too like an LFO and pitch bend to spice up the melodies. It was also common to find there to be no music at all in Atari games as the developer might use the 2 channels wholly for the game’s sound effects. An interesting thing about the TIA sound chip is that it actually varied in pitch and playback speed between the NTSC and PAL versions. The Atari had memory limitations so couldn’t handle loops of music longer than about 30 seconds.
My go at trying to create some authentic music for the Atari 2600
One thing I noticed while listening to some Atari music was how out of tune a lot of it sounded. Apparently, this is due to the sounds it can play being evenly-spaced frequencies so most of those don’t correspond to actual notes and are always a few cents off.
The music in the game Gyruss does a really good job of still sounding in tune compared to some other titles I heard and I think made a bold statement at the time for being a game that dared to reproduce Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. That alternating bassline gets you pumped and helps keep the energy going with only 2 instruments. When the bass line does slow down at around the 1m 10s mark, the melody speeds up dramatically to keep us interested before changing it up for a more relaxed duet outro.