The Music Box

The Music Box
The term "videogame music" is often intended as an insult, deriding electronic beatscapes as rudimentary by comparing them to the 8-bit by necessity, bleep-based soundtracks of early Atari and Nintendo games. (See: Castles, Crystal) That Super Mario's theme music remains embedded in the frontal lobes of anyone under the age of 40 proves the critical weakness of the diss ― but it's also hopelessly archaic considering how much videogame music has evolved over the years.

In the late '90s, Japanese rhythm gaming established a beachhead with Parappa the Rapper and Dance Dance Revolution before music games went mainstream with Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Most recently, DJ Hero has joined the fray with a cool turntable peripheral and an affinity for hip-hop and electronic mash-ups. Developed in collaboration with the likes of DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, Jazzy Jeff and the late DJ AM, the game brings new genres into the mix, but it's ultimately still about rhythmic button-pushing.

However, music and gaming are melding in other, deeper ways, too, thanks to recent titles like Nintendo DS's Korg DS-10 Plus virtual synthesizer and the PSP's Beaterator, a collaboration between hip-hop hero Timbaland and Grand Theft Auto-makers Rockstar Games.

Nintendo was actually first out of the gate with its 2006 experimental sound art project Elektroplankton, which went out of print but has since been broken into ten separate "planktons" and revived as DSi Ware downloads. It works by moving cute little microorganisms around the touch screen to create an organic electronic soundtrack, but is essentially ephemeral without any way to record your efforts.

Just a toy, really, compared to the new generation of handheld music-makers, though they aren't intended for casual gamers. They're not games at all, but do further expand the possibilities of portable gaming consoles, which have already mutated into video and MP3 players, web browsers, recipe holders and brain trainers.

Xseed's Korg DS-10 Plus is the sequel to last year's original emulation of the Korg MS-10, a beloved synthesizer used by the likes of Chemical Brothers, Autechre and Stereolab. (Actually, the tiny DS cartridge is considerably more powerful than the real vintage synth.) The new edition essentially doubles the toolset thanks to the DSi's higher-performance processor, adding more analog synth simulator tracks, drum machines and effects layers. "It's as though there are two DS-10s in one," according to the developer's spokesperson, who also noted the update increases song composition capabilities and real-time performance possibilities on older DS Lites, as well. The touch screen user interface is really where the DS-10 excels, but that only makes the software easier to maneuver, not easier to understand ― at least no more so than a physical Korg.

More challenging to control, but slightly easier to use is the Timbaland-fronted Beaterator software, which started out as an online flash tool on Rockstar's website a half-decade ago. Needless to say, the PSP version raises the creative stakes. Tim, who started his own career with a childhood Casio before assembling his current high-end studio, even used it while making Shock Value 2.

With eight tracks and essentially limitless sounds ― including 1300 synth squelches, drum beats and bass loops provided by Timbo himself, 1700 more factory-installed sounds, ranging from rock and hip-hop to drum'n'bass and UK garage. There are also effects tools to manipulate provided loops plus the ability to produce your own custom samples. You can even record yourself singing.

Live Play is the freestyle feature, which lets PSP users button-push an eight-track composition on the fly, which could be used as easily to kill time or to shake hips. But the Studio Session and Song Creation modes are where you get into the meat of the original music making.

Both titles are serious-minded synthesizer/sequencers that are taking game-based song creation beyond the confines of the ultra-niche chiptune scene (a whole other story) and out into the broader community. Not to mention into the broader world, since you can bring your portable studio everywhere from the couch to the streetcar to the classroom.

The depth of both titles will be no doubt daunting to many, but the few who put in the time and dedication will learn the ins and outs of digital audio production at a fraction of the cost of full-strength computer software. Both Korg and Timbaland have had a pioneering influence on the shape of modern music. Now their affordable avatars are helping school a new generation of virtual knob-twiddlers how to forge their own paths, perhaps turning the videogame musician into the new bedroom producer.