Today’s post analyses a composition by Tim Follin from the soundtrack of a 1994 Sega Mega Drive game, Time Trax. (I found it on this sweet playlist.) I wanted to find out how it succeeds in being so improbably funky.
Chiptune music has been rising in cultural prominence with the predictability of any nostalgic trend. A mate of mine recently put me on to the quite expensively produced Diggin’ in the Carts, series, for example. I guess what’s fun about the music, beyond just hearing things from your childhood, is the musical meaning conveyed within harsh technical limits. Somehow, cheaply synthesised noises that don’t sound at all like brass, bass guitar, a string section, or whatever, can cheekily evoke just those things. So I want to examine that dialogue across the chasm of failed simulation, where the ludicrousness of the attempt at orchestral grandeur or, in this case, funk jamming, is part of the aesthetic.
You won’t remember this one from your childhood, because this game was never actually released and only a prototype of it emerged online in 2013. “The game is notable for its use of a relatively advanced sound driver designed by Dean Belfield for Follin,” segaretro.org tells us. I get the impression that this was a technical peak of sound design on the Megadrive.
Not to get too nerdy – let’s save that for later – but this style of synthesis is associated with, roughly, the 16-bit generation of consoles as opposed to earlier 8-bit. It is called frequency modulation synthesis and it tends towards a distinctive metallic, clanging, bell-like, brassy tone. (Which Tim Follin’s sound design actually disguises pretty effectively, at least until the heavy distorted riff sections.) You may also recognise the sound if you ever played MIDI files on a laptop with a cheap soundcard, like my Dell Latitude.
Let’s get to the music!
So, apart from the dinky sounds, we have a medium tempo funk-rock groove tune. The first thing I was curious about was the structure. As is typical for game soundtracks, this one is designed to loop interminably. However this isn’t really an issue either way as players were not likely to stay long on the ‘Mission Briefing’ screen where this track is played. (In this playthrough video the player spends 40 seconds.)
In any case, there’s a 90-bar structure lasting about 3 and a half minutes. The basic principle is one found in a lot of groove music – Wayne Shorter’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is my canonic example – which we could call “on or off”: you’re either in the groove or getting ready to get back in.
Follin uses key changes to shape his track. (He mentions his “fondness for random key changes” here.) As shown above, we get the excitement of going up a b3rd, then a gradual floating down to the home key – a good scheme for a track whose opening will be heard more than its ending.
The key change is smooth on a number of counts.
Okay, the lead line doesn’t voice lead, but in general its D major pentatonic melodic/modal colour is goes strongly to G minor (i.e it’s the elemental I major to IV minor alternation that has strong gravity in both directions). The (faint) bass voice ends on a D before a strong G bassline comes in, so that works. And the inner voices have a general upwards sliding of a semitone. Nice.
There are some other nice applications of harmonic colour, suiting this rock/funk context. In the intro we get some Cs, the b6 of the key, giving a suitably earnest diatonic natural minor mood of cop show epic – after that these are thrown out in favour of minor-7th/sus-chord funk colours. There’s some strong use of the 9th, F#, in a couple of places e.g. the brass pentatonic build.
(I recognise that my names for the instrumental sounds are arbitrary. I just don’t want to put quotations around “organ” and “elec. piano” for the whole blog post. Your interpretation of what the instruments are meant to be is just as valid.)
This ambiguity of instrumental sounds is crucial for what I consider the secret sauce to this track. I’m talking about the inner voices that comp all the various organ solos and can be most clearly heard in the breakdown at 3:00. Quietly, with a warm electric piano-like sound, they add some rhythmic action that interlocks nicely with the rest, and fills out the middle part of the sonic spectrum. At the end of bars 2 and 4, every time, they feature some bluesy parallelism of a type I discussed a long time ago on this blog. A bII I movement, and next time it’s bIII IV. How does the bII I fit so smoothly in a minor key? I think it’s really a bV IV – a classic blues side-slip – in the V key!
Here is where I’d normally show a little transcription (I did attempt one bar of it above – the dotted eighths in the second bar). However, these inner voices are incredibly hard to transcribe due to two peculiarities of the medium: overtones generated by FM synthesis; and the need to swap instrument sounds mid-flow to maximise channel use.
The first issue means that, although I think only two channels are used for these inner voices, we get a fleeting impression of triads in the passing chords – I believe I can hear the thirds. This is due to the way frequency modulation synthesis works] – it adds overtones called side-bands, in various proportions, to the original fundamental. As the 3rd and 5th (actually 3rd+2 octaves and 5th+1 octave) are part of the overtone series, frequency modulation can generate a kind of major chord. So, for instance, while the most audible line in the inner voices starts b7 b7 8, or D D E at 3:00, I think this is actually the 5th and that below there’s a b3 b3 4, G G A which is the fundamental.
What makes it trickier is the fact that Follin may not be keeping the sound (or “patch” in synthesiser terminology) consistent from note to note. In the intro, we note a changing modulation on the synth stabs. And if you look at the visualisation, you’ll see that a channel may switch from brass to bass instantly (e.g. when the groove kicks in at 1:05), or whatever. (Follins mentions this as a “basic trick” here.)
So, even though with a bit of hunting around on old-school, nerdy websites I got some tools to extract MIDI data from the game files, I still can’t, after a decent effort, unambiguously notate it, because these lines might be transposed or changing timbre any time, and in any case they’re definitely using timbres with at least a strong 5th above the root.
What does all this mean musically? Just that it’s a full-sounding comping pattern with some sonic depth and mystery, and which, especially during those passing chords, is subtly but unmistakeably bluesy! Because blues uses that ambiguity between harmony and timbre all the time (so does electronic dance music, funk, jazz…), particularly for cliched parallel chord movements.
Let’s talk about the other sounds! Some commenters on Youtube have gotten into the nitty gritty of Follin’s techniques – in particular, his use of clipping/overdriving the signal to get otherwise impossible waveforms. I don’t know enough to comment there but I’ll just praise the sounds from a musical perspective and from what I can see in the visualisations.
Firstly, the very effective drum sounds are a single instrument/patch sounding at a high note for snare and a low note for kick, and a really high note for the hats. (Listen in the breakdown sections and you’ll hear the hat sound is kind of like a snare.) This is clear in the intro fill which sounds like it’s on the toms – but later those same notes function as a kick and snare in the main beat. While initially they sound more like toms than a kick or snare, in the mix they’re convincing. The beefy snare takes up some bass register quite effectively.
The distorted sounds later on, and the brass in the intro, are even less “realistic” but still sound good. I really like the bleep on beats 2 and 4 in the intro – here Follin uses a classic technique of “fake delay,” repeating the tone more quietly 3 16th notes later to give the impression of a classic tempo-synced delay effect. Then the bells/glockenspiel in the middle are a really nice timbral contrast. In fact timbral contrast is one of Follin’s main tools.
There are some cool sequencing tricks. The time feel changes from straight 16ths when it’s only hats, to swung 16ths when the groove kicks in. Also, there are some nice dynamic changes in instrumental sounds: the volume swell for the 2nd pads chord in the section starting 0:05, and the changing timbre of the synth stabs in the following section (accomplished by dialling in the degree of modulation of the carrier wave).
Of course, the centrepiece is the organ melodies. Although not very memorable as themes, they’re definitely funky, using tricks like staccato pedal tones, 32nd-note blues scale ornamentation, and (not idiomatic for organ, as I mentioned) pitchbends. As Follin says, “I also liked the playing styles used by folk musicians, all the twiddles and little arpeggios, which were again relatively easy to reproduce.” In general, these organ lines are built using rhythmic groups of 3 and either I minor pentatonic or V minor pentatonic shapes.
There’s one characteristic of the programming which is more to do with expediency – there’s a lot of reused material. The underlying drum pattern has no variations until it switches to a disco beat; the last minute is mostly just one riff in various orchestrations; and all of the organ bits use the same “answer” phrase in bars 3-4 and 7-8. As Follins recounts, these tracks were made by typing in notes in a text editor. I’d say this is why he copied and pasted a lot. It’s not a major problem functionally: the up-and-down the arc of dynamics keeps a meaningful directionality even though much of the groove stays unchanged for multiple sections. However, once you know about them, some of the 4-bar exact repeats (i.e. in the middle of the organ solo bits) become a little jarring.
This track was evidently made quickly, within the strictures of commercial production. Nonetheless it’s remarkably crafted, especially the sounds, which are not only skilfully programmed but gel together in a very fat “band sound.” And this was done without any mixing in the normal sense of applying EQ, compression, reverb. My personal yardstick is that I repeatedly found myself tapping my foot as I analysed it. No surprise that Follins states, “My own preference in my early teens (squashed by peer pressure) was for Quincy Jones.”
The actual game Time Trax, BTW, “is a straightforward platformer that sticks to the 16-bit platforming formula rather than innovate.” It’s clearly Follin’s composing work – which he says was something too nerdy and embarrassing to mention to friends and acquaintances at the time – that has kept it in the limelight. It’s nice to see that he’s only getting more recognition with the years.
I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into some different territory for the blog! If you have any insights into VGM or synthesis, feel free to comment!