Review – Super Audio Cart from Impact Soundworks
If you’ve ever wanted the authentic musical sound of video game systems from the 70s to the 90s, then take a deep dive into Super Audio Cart.
by Per Lichtman, May 2017
Super Audio Cart ($149 USD from ImpactSoundworks.com) is Kontakt Player library (for full Kontakt or the free Kontakt Player versions 5.5.2 or higher) that samples (in great depth) eight different video game systems from the 1970s through the early 90s. It covers the sounds of the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, Sega Master System, Ninentendo Entertainment System, the Famicom (the more expandable version of the Nintendo Entertainment System for the Japanese market), Sega Mega Drive/Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo. This isn’t “kind of the sound” or “meant to sound like” or “glossy version” of the sounds – you can actually work with the raw, unvarnished sound if you want to. You’ll find digitally controlled oscillators, FM synthesized sounds, Famicom disk station wavetables, SNES samples (not entirely unlike a more rudimentary version of Creative Labs SoundFonts) and even some of the SID sounds that filled the C64 demo scene. Whether you’re looking to make authentic chiptune within the original limitations (the manual gives several helpful notes for those looking to go that route) or want to bring the sounds into an entirely new context (many of these sounds work great in a mix alongside modern libraries or run through filters like Cytomic’s The Drop) Super Audio Cart gives you the chance to do it all from your DAW.
Getting Your Feet Wet for Free
Before I get into a bit of backstory and delve into the full library, I should note that Impact Soundworks recently released a small part of the library for free. So if you have the full version of Kontakt 5.5.2, Impact Soundwork’s you can get Super Audio Boy for free, which has all the Game Boy sounds from the full Super Audio Cart and all the same GUI features. Since the Game Boy has some of my favorite DCO based sounds in the whole library (not to mention that it was Nintendo’s first system with support for rudimentary 3-position stereo panning), I would suggest that you download it right away to get your feet wet before buying the full library. Of course, the Game Boy is only one of eight systems in the full library – so the freebie does nothing to diminish the value of the full Super Audio Cart.
A Little Backstory
As a massive fan of game music (it has been a huge source of inspiration for me for over two-and-a-half decades) I’d like to emphasize the sheer diversity of sounds the library takes on. If we look at the two most recent systems in the library, both in stereo, we see a move from the FM synthesis of the Sega Genesis (which is the closest in the library to the sound of MIDI FM PC soundtracks of the early 90s) to the slightly newer Super Nintendo (which was more akin to the early Gravis Ultrasound and Sound Blaster Awe sample library based soundtracks) we see a big difference from most of the early systems output mono sound using onboard oscillators. If you’re familiar with both, you’d rarely mistake the sound of one for the other as they are so distinct. Yet the Famicom was possibly the biggest chameleon of them all – it may have been mono, but depending on what expansions were being used, the soundtrack might feature DCOs, “wavetable synthesis” (in the sample playback sense, not the more advanced one) or even FM synthesis.
The library is very clearly a labor of love: I’ve never met Andrew Aversa (whose products I’ve reviewed before) or David Lloyd (who founded OCReMix.org) but I’ve exchanged comments with each online over the years and I introduced Nobuo Uematsu to their arrangements of his music when I interviewed him. I’ve also visited OC ReMix since 2000 (the site was started in December of 1999) so I’ve had ample opportunity to hear their work. Aversa and Lloyd’s passion for game music is unmistakable and each has created inspiring arrangements of game themes that are among my favorites (I suggest checking out Lloyd’s “Mute Radiology” from F-Zero or Andrew Aversa’s collaboration with Jillian Aversa “Deliverance of the Heart” from Final Fantasy VII.) In other words, it’s fair to say that each of them had a pretty big stake in getting this right since they are part of a community that would really let them know if they got it wrong.
The Start of the 8-Bit Era: Atari 2600
The two earliest systems in the library are Atari 2600 (released 1977) and the Commodore 64 (released 1982) and they couldn’t be more different. The Atari 2600 (in comparison to the other seven systems in the library) featured extremely basic sound capabilities: supported two-note polyphony using pulse waves, noise or some basic modulation. The sound was 1-bit mono with 4-bit volume control. Games like Gyruss (the Parker Brothers port of the Konami arcade game) made the choice to omit sound effects just to be able to play two notes at once (while same games made the opposite choice, omitting music to be able to have two sound effects at once). The Atari 2600 made the late 80s video game systems sound advanced by comparison – but the Commodore 64 changed the gaming landscape before that.
Super Audio Cart features an array of sounds for the 2600, capturing its limited (but distinctive) palette well. There are five fully tonal sounds: Bass, Saw, Lead, Pitfall, Square. Then there are two pitched but less tonal sounds: Engine and Noise, each of which repeats each octave. Then there’s a much wider variety of drum sounds: 17 noise kits, Electric, Hard Noise, Low Kick, Noise Burst, Snare 1, Snare 2, Kicks Menu, Snares Menu, Hats Menu and Misc FX Menu. In the context of Super Audio Cart an articulation “menu” means a collection of sounds of the same type, grouped into the same patch. You won’t find a lot of variety among the menus here, but their narrow range has been well captured so that the (often subtle) differences are well represented. Most people with a fondness for the 2600 are used to really using their imagination with these sounds, so the “kick” sound may not sound much like an acoustic kick drum (or even most drum machines) but it “suggests” kick in a way that fans of the sound find charming. Because I didn’t play Atari 2600 games growing up, this is one of the two systems where I had to do research to get more familiar with the scores.
The Next 8-Bit Star, Far Ahead of Its Time: Commodore 64
In 1982 the Commodore 64 completely changed the sound of gaming soundtracks: it offered three concurrent notes of built-in oscillators, four concurrent notes of sample playback, ADSR envelopes, built-in filter and even ring modulation. The audio chip, the SID 6581 (more commonly known simply as SID) was capable of more variation in sound than any other eight bit system in the library (with the possible exception of the Famicom, through the use of expansion chips). SID’s sound is inextricably linked with the “Demo Scene” culture that formed alongside the game scene (which often used very rapid arpeggiation) in which one or more people would put together a multimedia experience that would run on the C64 (just like a game) but that wasn’t normally not interactive.
While Super Audio Cart obviously can’t feature dynamic control of the Commodore 64 SID’s FX side (which was far more extensive than other 8-bit systems) it does a great job of capturing the significantly wider variety of timbres that the system offered in comparison to the Atari 2600. There are a total of sixteen fully tonal patches: it offers six different pulse widths (1%, 6%, 12%, 25%, 36% and 50%), four different pulse width modulation (PWM) timbres, Pulse+Pulse, Pulse+Saw, Saw, Saw+Saw, Triangle and Triangle+Saw. On the drums side, there’s a Noise Menu, 11 drum kits, Classic Kick, Smack Kick, Tom Lo, Tom Hi, Kicks Menu, Snares Menu, CHH Menu, OHH Menu, CymPerc Menu and Toms Menu. Let me be unequivocal – if you’re coming from the Atari 2600, it’s difficult to emphasize just how much more the drums played through the C64 sound like recognizable drums.
SID sounds remain iconic today, with an active Commodore 64 scene among chip tune musicians that actually work on original Commodore 64 platform, so I personally it’s great that people outside that scene, working in OS X and Windows DAWs can finally get in on the fun without the learning curve of learning a whole new OS.
The 8-Bit Era Revived: the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System
After the Commodore 64 (the most advanced game audio system released before the games crash of 1983), the next round of eight-bit systems occupied an interesting space between the earlier 8-bit systems and the upcoming 16-bit ones – at times both more advanced and less advanced than the SID.
In 1983, Nintendo released in Japan the system credited with bringing the video game industry back from the North American crash that same year. Known as the Famicom in the Japan (and later the Nintendo Entertainment System when it was released in the U.S. for the first time in 1985) the basic system’s audio (which was all mono) consisted of five channel sound: two channels of pulse, one channel of triangle, one channel of noise and one channel of DPCM playback. This was the first system where the game music culture was first driven by Japanese (as opposed to American or European) composers, the one that turned Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, etc.) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) into household names. Super Audio Cart perfectly captures the base audio hardware in the NES section of the library. Under the tonal section, you’ll find three basic pulse sounds (Pulse 12.5%, Pulse 25%, Pulse 50%), four less melodic and more FX oriented pulse hack sounds (Pulse X-Hack, Pulse 12.5% Hack, Pulse 25% Hack, Pulse 50% hack) and the triangle sound. The pulse sounds are great and I enjoy layering them in with my other virtual instruments. On the drums side, there’s two noise menus (one long and one short), eight drum kits, DPCM Kick, DPCM Tom, Kicks Menu, Snares Menu, Toms Menu, CHH Menu, OH+CYM Menu, Perc Menu and Claps Menu. Honestly, every sound I was looking for was there. Kudos!
But what really endeared me to Super Audio Cart was how Impact Soundworks went the extra mile regarding the Famicom. As a kid playing my Nintendo Entertainment System, I didn’t know that the Japanese version of the system, the Famicom had much more powerful audio expansion capabilities. From the disk station add-on, which supported “wavetable synthesis” to multiple extra audio chips that developers (most notably Konami) could include in their game cartridges, there were simply all sorts of sounds that the Famicom could potentially produce that the American NES couldn’t. Impact Soundworks went through and sampled all the most desirable extra timbres from the aforementioned disk station “wavetable” sounds, the VRC6 Konami used in multiple games (which added two pulse channels with additional settings and a dedicated saw wave channel) and finally the VRC7 (only used for the Konami game Lagrange Point, but featuring six channels of FM synthesis). There were other chips (Sunsoft 5B, Namco 163 and Nintendo MMC5) but for the most part, these chips added functionality (like additional channels) rather than new timbres, so they weren’t sampled. Frankly, the additional Famicom sounds Impact Soundworks sampled were exactly the ones I hoped they would, so I am one happy camper. The VRC6 in particular is a huge addition, and if you listen to the Castlevania 3 scores (both for the U.S. version without it and the Japanese version with it) you can really hear what a difference it makes, with some of the phattest sounds ever heard in the 8-bit era. Super Audio Cart’s Famicom sampling is labeled by the chip used: FDS (Famicom Disk System) waves 1-7; VRC6’s five pulse widths and the saw; and finally all of the VRC7’s fifteen built-in FM patches. You can customize the Nintendo Sound palette you want to emulate by deciding which of the three chips to use and whether to stack the sounds with those from the Famicom section with those from the NES section (my favorite is NES + VRC6 for great 8 channel sound, a la Castlevania 3’s Japanese release).
The 8-Bit Competition Heats Up: Sega Master System
The next system featured in Super Audio Cart, was the Sega Master System, released in its earliest form in Japan in 1985 under the name Sega Mark III. Sega offered several versions of the hardware over the years, but the most basic sound hardware version (the Sega PSG SN76496 included in all systems), all in mono, featured support square wave DCOs supporting a total of three concurrent notes (from here on referred to simply as “three-channels” in language of the tracker scene), 1-channel of noise and 3-channels of 8-bit PCM playback. This is the flavor of sound that Impact Soundworks featured in Super Audio Cart, and they’ve captured it well – erring on the side of providing the broader palette the chip was capable as opposed to just the most basic sounds. On the tonal side, there’s Saw, three Square patches, Triangle, Add 1, Add 2 and Wave Layer (which is a single type of sound, not a menu). On the drums side, there’s a noise menu, ten drum kits, Kick Menu, Snares Menu, CHH Menu, OHH Menu, Cymbals Menu, Toms Menu and Perc Menu. The first gaming systems I was exposed to as a kid were the Commodore 64, Amiga, Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy and my first Sega system was the Genesis/Mega Drive so the first time I heard Sega Master System scores was as an adult. As such, I don’t quite have the same nostalgia as others might – though I did enjoy beating Phantasy Star I quite a bit – but it’s undeniable that the basic hardware offers a very interesting alternative to the Nintendo Entertainment system. Super Audio Cart captures this side well.
However, in Japan there was also the Yamaha YM 2413 FM Sound Chip, which was available as a plug-in expansion for the Mark III and was built into the Master Systems released in the Japanese market: still in mono, the FM synthesis on offer featured nine channels, with fifteen pre-defined instruments, one-user instruments and hardware support for vibrato/amplitude modulation (AM). The YM 2413 also supported an alternate mode where six of the channels were still used for normal FM synthesis, while three were reserved for percussion mode. FM support was only featured in some games, and even then only in the Japanese markets. One of the most talked about scores years later (with the same score rendered in both FM and DCO versions) was Phantasy Star I, which had a dungeon theme that (in my own opinion) benefitted greatly from the FM sounds in comparison to the more widely released one – a rare case where I prefer an 8-bit FM score to an 8-bit DCO ones. Given the way that Impact Soundworks recently went back and sampled the extra expansions for the Famicom, the omission of the FM sounds is my only disappointment in the library. I can only hope that they will add the sounds of the FM version of the Master System at some point in the future.
Sega’s Mega Drive into the Next Generation: The “Genesis” of 16-Bit Soundtracks
Before we jump ahead to the last “mega hit” 8-bit system of the 80s (the Nintendo Game Boy), let’s make a stop in 1988 Japan. While there may have been other 16-bit systems released (most notably NEC’s PC Engine/TurboGrafx line in 1987 which featured wavetable synthesis and later Redbook CD soundtracks), Sega made the argument that the real sound of 16-bit gaming was six channels of Yamaha FM synthesis – in stereo. They launched the Sega Mega Drive in 1988 for the Japanese market, and renamed it the Sega Genesis for North America in 1989. Crucially, this was the first Sega console with similar sound capabilities across all markets – whether you called it Sega Genesis or Mega Drive, Sega gamers across the world were hearing the same soundtracks.
It’s hard to overstate how big the impact of the Sega Genesis was on game soundtracks – it quite literally sounded different from every major console before, including the Commodore 64. In the west, Nintendo and Sega consoles were both defined by their DCOs, noise generators and limited sample use. Nintendo games using FM synthesis had previously been limited to one Famicom game (in Japan only) and while there were more FM soundtracks for the Sega Master System in the Japanese market, they used a different chip and mono sound. The Genesis was the first time that either Sega or Nintendo had brought gaming soundtracks with FM synthesis to the west. One of the composers best known for taking advantage of the sonic opportunities of the new system was Yuzo Koshiro – who scored both the first Sonic the Hedgehog and Streets of Rage games in the same year, making great use of the new possibilities that stereo offered.
So how does Super Audio Cart capture this major difference in sound? Very well indeed – working with the Genesis sound in the library is quite different from the sounds of the earlier systems. Obviously a sample library can’t capture every possible output of an FM synth so what Super Audio Cart does a great job of doing instead is to capture a large library of many of the most iconic sounds from some of the most well-known game scores for the system. This is the first system in the library where the sounds are grouped by type (often with helpful hints as to their origin in the name). You’ll find 25 bass patches, eleven brass patches, six FX patches, fourteen guitar patches, twelve keys patches, eight lead patches, six organ patches, seven pad patches, sixteen percussion patches, fourteen plucks patches, nineteen poly patches and twenty drum kits. That’s 158 patches – far more than any of the other systems sampled so far. If you’re looking for the sound of The Revenge of Shinobi, Streets of Rage 2 or 3, Comix Zone or Phantasy Star IV, you’ll find many of the sounds right here. One of the things that obviously stands out in that list is the pads – with their included sweeps and modulation. To make the best use of the sounds, you’ll want to take advantage of panning (which the earlier systems didn’t offer) and get creative. I suggest listening to Tim Follin’s unreleased score for Time Trax to get some ideas. The Genesis sounds are especially well suited to synth rock, club genres and the like as opposed to more orchestral sounds (which are generally better rendered on the Super Nintendo than any other system in Super Audio Cart).
Nintendo Dips Their Toes into the Waters of Stereo Sound: Game Boy
Nintendo’s Game Boy launch in 1989 is notable for several pieces of trivia (such as being the first Nintendo console to launch in both Japan and North America in the same year, the first to have the same name worldwide and their first cartridge based portable) but one thing that was especially important to me as a kid (though I didn’t consciously recognize it) was that the first Nintendo console with stereo sound. Now, it didn’t go as far as the Genesis (with full panning support) but it did feature a rudimentary form of panning: sound could be played through the left channel, right channel or both. In other words you had a total of three panning positions. It was pretty basic, but creative composers and sound programmers were still able to use careful programming to add a sense of motion through the stereo field (take this track from Stage 1 of Battletoads for the Game Boy, for example).
Let me just say that Super Audio Cart nailed all the Game Boy sounds I wanted. You’ll find patches for the four pulse widths (1%, 12.5%, 25% and 50%), a noise menu, six tonal patches making use of the DPCM channel (Add 1, Add 2, Saw 1, Saw 2, Triangle 1 and Triangle 2) as well as six drum kits, CHH Menu, Kicks Menu, OHH Menu and Snares Menu. You can really get a big sound out of those patches – I’m especially partial to the wider pulses and the saws, which can really give a full sound. Some of the drum kits have real heft, too.
Nintendo’s Next Generation Sound Blueprint: Super Nintendo
When Nintendo released their first 16-bit system (the Super Famicom in Japan in 1990, launched as the Super Nintendo in North America in 1991) they took a radically different approach from Sega’s Genesis. Eschewing the brightness of the FM on the Genesis, the Super Nintendo instead employed compressed samples at lower sample rates, with stereo support for 8 channels of sound. The combination of memory and sample rate constraints meant that Super Nintendo scores never sounded as bright as Sega Genesis ones (or even many 8-bit scores) but what it lacked in those areas it made up for by supporting a wide range of samples. By using extremely short sample loop points, sustains from recordings of real winds, human voice, string sustains and string pizzicati were just some of the many sounds on offer.
Impact Soundworks Super Audio Cart’s Super Nintendo collection is really impressive, sorted into categories and featuring even more patches than their Genesis collection. There are 21 drumkits, 21 bass patches, 28 brass patches, seven choir patches, 29 ethnic patches, four FX patches, 29 guitar patches, 22 keys patches, eleven mallet patches, nine orchestral patches, seventeen organ patches, seventeen percussion patches, nine piano patches, 25 strings patches, 23 synth patches, seven voice patches and 21 winds patches. That’s 300 patches at last count, so if you’ve got a particular Super Nintendo timbre in mind, the odds are really good that you’ll find it here.
If you’re looking for ideas on how to use the Super Nintendo sounds, let me suggest a few highlights. Once again, Koji Kondo (with scores for Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past among others) and Nobuo Uematsu (with scores for some of his most beloved games, including Final Fantasy VI and his collaboration on Chrono Trigger) wrote their most epic scores to date. At the same time other composers stepped into the spotlight, especially those from Square like Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana), Yasunori Mitusda (whose first major score was collaborating with Uematsu on Chrono Trigger). Nintendo’s own games provided a platform for the powerful duo of Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano (whose score for Super Metroid brought their music to a larger audience than anything they’d worked on before). Tim Follin was one of the already established composers that helped to bring their own unique take on the sonic palette with his score for Spider-Man / X-Men Arcade’s Revenge, both sounding unlike anything else on the system (and unlike his own work on the Sega Genesis).
The FX Icing On the Cake: SNESVerb
As of version 1.2 and later, Super Audio Cart includes a plug-in (for both OS X and Windows) called SNESVerb that models the type of delay effect heard on many Super Nintendo scores. Ranging from slapback, to ringing delays, etc. the effect is simple, easy to use and tailored more specifically to this type of sound than more generic delays you might find in your DAW. I found myself rolling my own presets for it in a matter of minutes, with several sounds that I liked – and it offers an alternative to using more modern FX for those that want to keep things more authentic.
Using the 16-Bit vs. 8-Bit Systems Authentically
In addition to the timbral differences in the sound themselves, the eight-bit Game Boy and Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System scores were quite different from later Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis/Mega Drive scores because far fewer notes could be played at once (at least in their base configurations, excluding the Famicom with expansion chips or the Japanese Mega Drive in FM mode). While the two later 16-bit systems could sustain many-voiced chords, the earlier systems often relied heavily on arpeggiation to overcome the sound limitations. For instance, the most recent of three systems (the Game Boy) was limited to playing four notes at once, one per channel: pulse 1, pulse 2, DPCM (which could be used to load additional synth waveforms or for drum sounds) and finally a surprisingly robust noise channel. Composers working with these limitations found themselves working hard to make the most of each of the four parts, giving rise to some highly memorable melodies and basslines. In addition, since the number of concurrent parts was limited, listeners could typically easily discern each individual line.
Luckily, Super Audio Cart is equally well setup to help newer composers make the most of working within those limitations as it is for those who just want to grab the sound of a Game Boy use it without the original limitations. The quickest way to get an authentic sound is to click the “Raw” button underneath the instrument name in the layer to disable any modern niceties (including expanded range, FX, etc.) or the user can load any number of snapshots from the “Authentic” category.
The bottom pane of the GUI houses five panels (Main, A, B, C, D) with each letter corresponding to the layer the user wants to edit. Once a layer is selected, either the Sound or Arp tab can be selected to enable authentic restrictions (for instance the ability to switch the layer from polyphonic to monophonic and a checkbox limiting the sample range to “Accurate Pitch Range”) or enable some of the most important performance features. There are three controls dedicated to vibrato, many more for portamento settings, and a nice arpeggiator/gate control with tabs pitch, volume, length and wave. The arpeggiator comes with many presets that make quick work of emulating some of the most popular sounds of the time (“APR Fast Chords (4)” or “SEQ Octave Groove (8)” are two of my favorite examples). The GUI helps make it easy to get the most out of the sounds without having to introduce a more modern element to the sound, but there are also many extra FX on offer the weren’t present on the original systems for those that want to avail themselves of modern niceties.
Of course those wanting a less authentic sound can load a snapshot from any other category to hear things like sequenced drums or synth stacks with reverb, or combine different systems (like a bass patch using NES, SNES, GB and Genesis sounds together). Super Audio Cart definitely caters just as much to those looking to take the sounds beyond their original confines as it does to those that want to recreate the original limitations. There are more additional options than I can shake a stick at (including an XY pad for blending between the 4 layers) and a pane that enables several Kontakt FX. Refer back to the full-screen image near the top of this article to see this four-layer setup.
So, we’ve already established that Super Audio Cart offers a veritable plethora of authentic game sounds, so the logical question is, “is there any competition?” The answer is that it really depends on how you prefer to work.
For those that like working with a tracker interface (rather than a traditional DAW) and don’t mind learning new software, there are some really great options available (like FamiTracker for NES and expanded Famicom sounds) that are more specifically geared towards emulating the limitations and workflow of the system. There are also cartridges for several of the game systems (like the Game Boy) that allow you to actually run software on the game system itself to trigger sounds. If all of that sounds like fun, then there’s lots of information to be found for many of the game systems sampled.
However, while I’ve used several trackers in the past (and composed more tracks than I can count while using them) I personally find it incredibly useful to not only be able to access game system sounds in Kontakt within my DAW (without having to learn any new software) but also to have the authentic sound of so many game systems at my fingertips. Being able to sketch out an idea for Game Boy and then load a template and try it out on the NES, Famicom with extra chips or Sega Master System to find the system that best suits the personality I’m going for in a given track is the sort of flexibility and freedom I’ve never seen anywhere else. It’s also loads of fun.
The sheer diversity of the systems sampled (from the FM synthesis of the Genesis to the wide range of instruments on the SNES to the raw oscillators of the Game Boy) means that if you actually wanted to employ the sounds of more than one system elsewhere, you might have to learn a lot of different software. Super Audio Cart puts it all in one place – and the sound remains authentic.
Is It Right For You?
Super Audio Cart offers the most extensive and authentic sample library of video game system sounds that you can load into your DAW. If you like working with trackers, then you’ve got other options for some of the systems (like Famitracker) but in terms of sample library products you can use in a DAW workflow, there’s really very little competition. Whether you’re looking to make chiptunes or to feature or layer the sounds into a more modern mix there’s lots to like here. If you want to cut through a dense mix with some Game Boy or NES sounds, throw in some lo-fi pads with the SNES or add the energy of some Genesis FM timbres this is a library that can do it all. Basically, if you like the sound any of the eight systems in the library, you should check the library out.