It started with a few teenagers coding from their bedrooms but today, video games are a multi-billion dollar industry. And the music budgets have grown to match, with live orchestral recordings and surround sound mixing become the norm. Back in the day, however, technical limitations meant players had to content themselves with simple bleeps and bloops. Not that these restrictions were much of a barrier to clever audio programmers such as Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway. These musical magicians stretched console audio chips to their limit, employing clever compositional and multi-timbral techniques to squeeze sounds from the hardware that the manufacturers had never dreamed of.
Nowadays, it’s easy to fire up a soft synth and recall the oscillator shapes that made the 1980’s sound the way they did, but sampling the old tech itself is the best way to retain some of the original imperfections that gave those vintage machines their character. And provided you have the full version of KONTAKT, there are plenty such options for recreating the arcade sounds of the past (and pushing them into the future). Even better, some of these sampled instruments are completely free – and we’ve got four of the best from around the web right here.
Noizedrumz Volume 2 (NanoLoop)
Where to begin with this wacky creation? The 918 Game Boy samples themselves are neatly delivered as category folders with familiar names such as Noise, Kicks and Hats. Then there are additional folders of processed samples where these handheld sounds have mutated into electronic basslines and effects. It’s in the KONTAKT patches themselves that things get more complicated, with separate patches for drum kits and bass. The amount of customization on offer within these ‘BooTweak’ patches is insane, with 8 preset groups, each containing tuning, LFO, and effects controls. The cryptic way things are set out on the interface won’t be to everyone’s taste, but even novice sound designers will get plenty of joy from flicking through the preset banks and auditioning the sounds. If you have the time to digest the densely-packed 33-page instruction manual, you’ll find it’s full of rewarding tips and tricks to get the most out of the engine. For everyone else, just load the patches and noodle around for authentic lo-fi vibes.
Commodore 64 Synthesizer Sessions Deluxe
For digital musicians of a certain age, the Commodore 64 will have a special place in their hearts. Sounding far more musical than similarly priced systems of the 1980’s, this home computer boasted a remarkably capable sound chip which could produce a wide variety of oscillator shapes. When clever tech heads figured out how to dig deep into the 3-channel chip’s synthesis capabilities and coax out a 4th voice for drums and primitive speech, a classic was born. This collaboration between Rhythmic Robot and Bedroom Producer’s Blog is a suite of Commodore 64 sounds, sampled from 4 different machines and hosting 30 separate patches. With an authentically styled interface, the patches cover many of the signature C64 sounds, including major and minor versions of fast arpeggio chords and an entire drum kit. Despite being aimed squarely at chiptune fans, some of the fat bass patches wouldn’t sound out of place in modern house music. The functions within the interface are impressively comprehensive for a freebie and include filter and amp envelopes, glide mode, stereo placement and vibrato. Drive the filter resonance hard to produce some stunning sweeps.
Super Audio Boy
Arguably the granddaddy of Kontakt chiptune sampling, developer Impact Soundworks is the brainchild of vintage console enthusiast Andrew Aversa. He loves retro gaming so much that he’s even created a full-blown dungeon crawler video game. So it’s no surprise that he developed the aptly named Super Audio Cart and this freebie spin-off to give a taste of the main attraction. It only contains samples from the Game Boy (whereas the full version has 7 other consoles) but all of the other extensive features are included. Layer up to 4 waveforms and apply myriad FX, envelopes, modulations, and LFOs. The arpeggio section of the interface is a particular highlight and includes over 30 arp presets covering everything from traditional chords and faux-delay sequencers to full melodies. Assigning different waveforms to each step of the sequence can be used to mimic the pulse-width wizardry of the original handheld. It’s easily overlooked, but make sure to install the almost 50 snapshots which have been expertly designed to demonstrate how modern these basic Game Boy waveforms can sound when you layer them and throw a few effects on top.
Game Bot Drum Kit
Don’t be fooled by the teeny tiny download size of just 5 MB – this collection of samples punches well above its weight. Culled from a real-life gameboy running some nifty tracker software, the 64 included samples are clean and dry with bags of potential to twist them into your own unique sounds. Three of the included KONTAKT patches are pretty standard, mapping the samples across the keyboard and offering perfunctory dials for reverb, envelope shaping, delay and filtering. The mod wheel is assigned to a bitcrush effect, just in case these lo-fi samples weren’t crunchy enough already! The real fun comes with the 4th “gamebot” patch which pushes the sounds through a semi-random drum machine with a bewildering array of tweakable options. Synced to your host DAW tempo, the sequencer will generate drum patterns and modulations based on the seed values of the various dials. The reverb space can also be randomized to access some very weird ambiences. Thankfully this head-scrambling drum machine comes with a helpful manual which is essential reading if you really want to dig deep.