We're living in something of a golden age of chiptune music. The last five or so years have seen a popularity explosion for the classic electronic sounds that most gamers associate with the games of their youths.
The bleeps, bloops, and grinds of chiptune music have evolved from a technical necessity to an aesthetic choice. Musicians like Jim Guthrie and Anamanaguchi have spent recent years repurposing vintage digital sounds to create beautiful, human-sounding work.
While the contemporary video game soundscape is a wonderland of lovely synthetic sounds, it's easy to forget that the human side of audio—human beings recorded with microphones—can feel vital, beautiful and timeless.
Anyone who played SimCity 2000 remembers the bizarre, charming music. I bet you also remember that "zzt" sound effect that played every time you planted a new power line. It was the weirdest sound effect, even at the time, because it's clearly just a dude saying "zzt" in to a microphone. "zzt." "zzt." "zzt." That hilarious monotone, until you forgot about it and it became part of the game's unique sound.
I asked SimCity creator Will Wright about that sound, and he told me that in fact, it's his voice.
"I remember that well," he told me in an email. "That was actually just a recording of me making the sound with my voice. I recall that it was intended to be temporary but later we tried some other sounds and everyone liked how funny the first one was, so I kept it in."
I love that story, at least in part because I've seen that very thing happen so many times—what was intended to be a temporary track winds up making it to the final version because it captured something special and unrepeatable. That one sound effect ties Wright to the game in a personal, almost physical way. Every time you lay down a power line, you hear Will.
I admire and welcome that type of real, human sound in video games. The clapping of hands, the cheering of voices; the air moving around live instruments, the human's breath hitting a microphone pop-filter.
It seems fitting that Fez and Botanicula came out so close to one another. Rich Vreeland's Fez soundtrack is a lovely digital creation, a synthesis of synth tones that creates a warm, dream-like atmosphere.
The soundtrack to Amanita Design's wonderful Botanicula, while equally lovely, almost stands as a perfect inverse of Vreeland's Fez soundtrack. That's because the music and all of Botanicula's sound effects were created by real instruments and human voices. Two specific humans, actually.
The soundtrack was recorded by the Czech band DVA. In slavic languages, DVA means "Two," which reflects the band's personell: Bára Kratochvílová plays saxophone, clarinet, and is lead singer, while Jan Kratochvil plays guitar and controls loops. The soundtrack, which you can listen to here, doesn't really sound like any video game soundtrack before it. It's lovely. Listen to the embedded music below and ask yourself: Does this sound like the soundtrack to any video game I've ever played?
In addition to a good amount of vocal work, "We used one czech banjo (it sounds like banjo, looks like banjo, but the system and numbers of strings is the same as guitar), saxophone, guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet, melodica, lot of pots from the kitchen, toy piano, and one old a little bit out of tune piano" to record the game's soundtrack, Kratochvílová and Kratochvil told me in an email.
90% of the sound effects in the game were recorded by DVA themselves (a whole bunch are created entirely with their voices), and 9.9% are bird and nature sounds recorded up in the mountains near Prague where they work. (They didn't elaborate on what the remaining 0.1% of the sounds are.) The process sounded simple enough: Botanicula animator and designer Jaroslav Plachy would send them the animations from the game, and they'd record the audio over them and and send them back.
"Music in the game works like lego(s)," Bára and Jan wrote. "You have motherboard – for example in the 2nd level, pure sounds of nature. In some situations after a click, you start to play bigger "lego cube" - music, and after the next click you've started to build something like a "Lego sound tower."
That's not particularly different than the sound design of any other video game, but for that one crucial thing—most of these sounds are human voices layering on top of one another.
Amanita's Jakub Dvorsky echoed Jan and Bará's laid-back post-mortem. "There was no [explicit] decision to make the sound effects human-generated," he told me in an email, "and we didn't tell the musicians how they should create all the sounds and music. They had complete freedom and we were absolutely happy with what they created. Sometimes it's better to let things take its natural course."
As I speak with more and more video game sound designers, I keep noticing that the most interesting sound effects are the ones that they've concocted in the most personal ways. So many games use complex digital processes to build massive, cinematic, or retro-sounding game soundtracks.
Hearing DVA's work on Botanicula was a sharp, almost bracing breath of fresh air. I immediately thought of Will Wright's "Zzt," which remains one of SimCity's most iconic sound effects nearly 20 years after SimCity 2000 came out.
I hope to hear more game soundtracks embrace the human, living side of audio. The worlds that game designers create are limited only by imagination. So too are their soundtracks. Technology makes all sorts of fantastic sound design possible, but let's not forget that the human voice is capable of a great many wonders all on its own.