Do you enjoy classic retro 8-bit video game music like Super Mario, Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda?
There is something incredibly nostalgic about that dirty, low resolution and lo-fi sound. The very limitations and simplicity of the sound engines back then, were a big part of the overall sound.
Let’s find out how you can create these legendary 8-bit sounds, how to make those classic retro sound effects, and how to write parts and arrange them into a complete composition. Finally you will be able to make retro video game music for soundtracks, or simply as an artist for releasing your tracks online.
How to Sound Design for 8-Bit Game Music
You are now going to learn the secrets of how to create the sounds used for retro video game music. You will learn the essentials of the retro video game sound design aspects, what tools to use, and how to shape the final sounds for that retro lo-fi sound.
1 – Creative Tools for Retro Sounds
Let’s start with a quick guide of tools you will need for 8-bit game music sound design. Of course the most important one is a music production software (often called a DAW), but that’s a given. Now here’s a list of tools I recommend that you have in your composer tool box:
- Classic Synthesizer (for the main sound design)
- Simple Sampler (for creating special fx)
- Noise Generator (preferable in your synthesizer)
- Bit Crusher FX (to reduce bit-depth)
- Down-sampler FX (to reduce sample-rate)
- Distortion FX (for destructive distortion)
- Filter/EQ FX (for tone shaping)
2 – Basic Sounds
The waveforms used in retro video game music are super simple, without any fancy automation or effects. Your starting point should be one single waveform on the synth or sample engine you use. And make sure to use a classic waveform like a simple square wave or a triangle wave. The square wave is mainly used for the upfront sounds like leading melodies and arpeggios, while the triangle waveform is used more for bass lines since it is softer by nature. You should make sure the waveform is played as monophonic, without legato. So 1 voice at a time, and not smooth transitions when going from one note to the next. To change the overall tone, instead of using complex waveforms, retro video game music used different pulse width on square waves, which makes it possible to sound design the tone from fat and full to thin and nasal.
Basic Synth Sounds – Main Tips
- Classic Waveforms (square or triangle)
- Single Waveform (no layering)
- Change Tone (pulse width)
- Monophonic (1 voice)
- No Legato (no glide mode or portamento)
- No Effects Added (like reverb, delay, chorus, unison etc.)
3 – Simple Envelopes
After you have chosen your one single classic oscillator or waveform, it’s time to set the envelopes and filter. And again, simplicity is key. You can completely skip the filter envelope, since with retro video game sounds you don’t want any evolving filters over time. So let’s go on with the amp envelope, which creates the main shape of your sound. Then you basically have 3 simple shapes of envelopes to base your sounds on depending on the context in your track. You can of course do any variation on envelopes that you want, but these shapes can be a great starting point.
Simple Envelopes – Main Tips
- Rhythmic Sounds (instant attack, short decay, minimal sustain, no release)
- Melodic Sounds (minimal attack, mid decay, low sustain, minimal release)
- Pad Sounds (mid attack, full decay, full sustain, low release)
4 – Dirty Tones
Another big aspect of these retro sounds is that dirt and grit. You can achieve this in several ways, including adding effects afterwards. First, you can use a filter type to add some grit to your synth output. Don’t filter out too much highs, because smooth deep bass sounds are not part of the retro video game style. If you use a low pass filter, just filter out some of the high end range if you want to. You may also want to add a resonance peak with the filter, or even use a notch or band-pass filter to thin out the sound. If your synth has a drive, saturation or distortion module inside you can use that to add some slight distortion to your sound, and get rid of that super clean oscillator output. Otherwise it’s just as easy to simply add a distortion insert effect after the synth. Another way to make your sounds dirtier is to add a noise oscillator on your synth as a 2nd layer, and mix it in very low just to make your overall output noisier.
Dirty Tones – Main Tips
- Dirty Filter (but don’t filter out too much high range)
- Peak Resonance (for adding some edge)
- Drive/Saturation (on the synth, or external distortion effect)
- Noise Oscillator (mixed in low for adding dirt)
5 – Retro Resolution
The waveforms in modern synthesizers are super high resolution, ultra clean and has features in the synth engine that smooths out everything into a “perfect sound”. But with 8-bit music, you want to that low resolution and lofi quality. There are two main aspect of that lofi retro sound. The first being the bit-rate of the audio waveform. 16-bit resolution is the standard for modern music quality. With 8-bit music, you should of course use 8-bits as your starting point for bit-rate resolution. The other aspect is the sample-rate, where 44.1kHz is the standard music quality today. You can try reducing the sample-rate as well. This is called downsampling and it will reduce the high end information in your audio and make it less detailed, which is what you want.
Retro Resolution – Main Tips
- Lower the Bit-Depth (below 16-bit)
- Lower the Sample Rate (below 44.1kHz)
- Use a Bit-Crusher and Down-Sampler (or even clip distortion)
6 – Melodic Expression
The expressive parts of retro video game sounds mainly comes from shaping the pitch of the oscillator. For example: you can add a simple vibrato to make your melodic lines more emotional, by making an LFO automate the tuning of your one single oscillator. You can experiment with the depth of vibrato and the rate. But you will find that faster vibratos will work best for that old school video game sound. Using the pitch-bend can create some great expressive fills like fast slide-ins or manual vibratos. And finally, if you want to add some evolving movement to your sounds, you can modulate the pulse width over time if you use a square wave as your waveform, which is called pulse width modulation (or PWM for short).
Melodic Expression – Main Tips
- Emotion with Vibrato (LFO to pitch)
- Expressive Fills (pitch bend slide-ins/vibratos)
- Evolving Tone (PWM on square waves)
7 – Percussion from Noise
To get that classic retro video game percussion, you want to use noise generators or noise samples, as your waveforms. Then you add apply a short, plucky envelope for the percussion sounds to make the percussive in nature. And finally you can shape the tone with filters. There are 3 main types of sounds that form the basics of retro game percussion: the bass drum, the snare drum and the hi-hats.
Percussion from Noise – Main Tips
- Noise Generator or Samples (all percussion is noise)
- Percussive Amp Envelopes (shorter for tighter sounds)
- Shape Tone with Filter (warm bass to bright hi-hats)
8 – Thin and Bright
The classic 8-bit sounds are very thin and bright in their overall tone. They lack the fullness and the roundness of modern clean sounds. A great way to achieve this is to use filters or equalizers. You can either do this on the synth or sound engine you use to generate the sound, or as an external effect. I prefer using filters or EQs that have a more rough tone overall, like an analog filter, tube eq, or anything that will add some saturation. Because that will more randomness in the audio, and make it less clean. And finally: to make your sounds thin and bright, even the basses, you will mainly use either a bandpass filter or a high-pass filter. Generally, I like using a bandpass filter for bass sounds and background sounds, and a high-pass filter for lead sounds. And when shaping the filters, make sure you don’t go too low on the bass sounds, and not too bright on the lead sounds. Also, you can experiment with adding a bit of resonance in the filter. This can make the sound stand out more, but be careful as it can easily distort the filter or make the sound too “honky” and harsh.
Thin and Bright – Main Tips
- Filter Type (analog, tube or saturated)
- Filter Mode (band-pass or high-pass)
- Filter Color (thin, and always some brightness)
- Tone Focus (filter resonance/peak)
9 – Creating Sound FX
Instead of synthesizing sound effects, it is often much faster and easier to sample simple sounds, and then use destructive effects to shape them into 8-bit sounds. Make sure to record them very close to your microphone as you want to have as little room sound in the recording as possible. 8-bit game music sounds are as dry as they come. I am personally a fan of using your own voice for the main recordings you will use for the sound effects. But you can record practically anything, as it will be totally mangled with sound design afterwards anyway. Short percussive sounds are very much used for sound effects in 8-bit games, and generally they are based on various colors of noise. A lot of sound effects in 8-bit music also take advantage of pitch-bend to make the sound glide from one note to another.
Creating Sound FX – Main Tips
- Sampling Sounds (record as dry as possible)
- Percussive FX (mainly based on noise)
- Pitch Bend FX (gliding between notes)
- Pitch Envelope (envelope to control pitch)
Main Guidelines of 8-bit Video Game Music
Now you will learn the most important guidelines of composing and producing 8-bit game music. There are of course no rules, but these guidelines will be a great starting point for you when you write your own retro video game music.
1 – Bassline Power
Basslines are incredibly important in retro video game music. Often they are even in the main focus, playing a catchy part in the bass. So you can definitely be more melodic in your approach to the bassline. Also, syncopation and groove is very much used to add rhythmic interest in the bass. While in popular and modern music styles basslines are often a straight driving pattern, or even long anchor notes for the chords. Adding a lot of harmonic interest in the basslines is also very common in 8-bit game music. For example, unusual progressions, as well as heavy use of chromatic steps (meaning minor 2nds) as passing notes. Running and walking basslines are also very common, meaning you make the bass walk on the current chord notes, up and down, and in any variation you like. The bassline have such an important harmonic responsibility, since there are no instruments playing actual chords in 8-bit game music. Harmony is implied from arpeggios, walking patterns, and the sequences played over time.
Bassline Power – Main Tips
- Catchy Basslines (melodic approach)
- Groovy Rhythms (syncopation and interesting rhythms)
- Harmonic Interest (walking/running sequences)
- Chromatic Transitions (passing notes using minor 2nds)
2 – Melodic Madness
Melodies, riffs and catchy themes is the essence of retro video game music. Make sure you create melodies and themes that stick, and make people hum along with them. This means you should make the melodies stand out both with the intervals you use, and the rhythms to shape them. Another reason which makes the melodies so catchy is the heavy use of repetition, meaning they are played like phrases that repeat themselves like loops. You can also help out the melodic lead by using another track as a harmonic counterpart. For example playing a harmony line in sync with the melody, or perhaps an arpeggiated chord, or simply emphasize certain beats with a harmony.
Melodic Madness – Main Tips
- Catchy Themes (melodies/riffs have the spotlight)
- Repetition (think of the melodies as patterns)
- Harmonic Help (ex: arpeggio, harmony line, harmonic accents)
3 – Arpeggio Energy
Since there are no chords in 8-bit game music due to the synth limitations of that time, the arpeggios have played an incredibly important part. Because this makes you able to play chords, while still using a monophonic sound, since you play the notes in a fast sequence which makes up the chords. There are several ways arpeggios are used in retro game music. First, as a slow to medium fast arpeggio like a walking or running line, mainly on the chord notes. But you can of course add some non-chord notes from the scale as well. Another way is to play super ultra fast arpeggios, that almost becomes a synth guitar strum-like sound, because the notes are so close together. And a 3rd way is to use arpeggios as your main theme. For example, the title theme from Final Fantasy VII.
Arpeggio Energy – Main Tips
- Slow/Medium Arpeggio (walking/running lines)
- Ultra Fast Arpeggio (chord strumming)
- Arpeggio Leads (using arpeggios as the main theme)
4 – Air and Silence
The dry sounds, and the few tracks playing at any time, is a huge part of 8-bit video game music. And this in turn creates a wonderful possibility for you as a composer to really get some rhythmic contrasts by adding air and silence in between phrases, and in between notes inside the phrases as well. This makes all rhythms and grooves more catchy, as there will be no blur from reverb or long tails of the sounds themselves. Also, dropping a part and shift focus completely to a different instrument is very common. For example, dropping the leading melody completely and directing attention to a groovy bassline riff.
Air and Silence – Main Tips
- Silence for Contrast (creative silence in between phrases)
- Air “gaps” between Notes (enhancing the rhythmic grooves)
- Dropping Parts (shifting focus and directing attention)
5 – Less is More
In 8-bit video game music, less truly is more. If you listen to the classic soundtracks of video games like Super Mario, Ice Climber and Castlevania, you will hear that there is really not much going in the music. Apart from the “drums”, there is often simply 2-3 melodic tracks playing. A bassline, a leading melody, and sometimes a harmonic line or arpeggiated chords. In fact, the classic 8-bit Nintendo console only had 5 available tracks. The first 2 tracks were square waves mainly used for melodic leads, riffs and the main theme, the 3rd a triangle wave mainly used for basslines, the 4th a noise generator for percussion, and the 5th was a primitive sampler mainly used for in game effect sounds or voices. These very limitations is part of the iconic sound of 8-bit video game music. It is this kind of focus, that makes the game music so catchy. In fact, some game music themes only use 1 or 2 “instruments”.
Less is More – Main Tips
- Few Tracks (often only 2-3 tracks + percussion)
- Theme Focused (always spotlight your main theme)
- Single Spotlight (one track always have main focus)
8-bit Video Game Music – Live Examples
Now your final learning mission is to listen to, and analyze, classic retro video game soundtracks. And if you can, play the most important parts on your MIDI keyboard to truly learn what is going on in these famous themes. You should try to figure out the most important aspects that make up the tracks, such as:
- The Tempo (BPM)
- The Time Signature (master groove)
- The Scale and Key (music language)
- The Tracks Playing (How many and what)
- The Theme (leading melody and/or bassline)
Here are some of the most iconic video game soundtracks you can do this exercise for:
- Super Mario
- Final Fantasy
- The Legend of Zelda
You have now completed this full course on how to sound design and compose 8-bit video game music. Now it’s time for you to use your skills and knowledge in practice. Create an 8-bit video game music track from scratch, and try to sound design all sounds use you inside it as well. Another way you can try out your new knowledge is to take any classic video game music track, and try to re-create it yourself. In any case, the most important thing is that you finish this course with the most powerful way to truly master anything: “learning by doing”. Good luck, and have fun in the amazing world of 8-bits.