Kenny McAlpine

Kenny McAlpine

Kenny McAlpine is a musician, author and academic at Abertay University. Kenny is interested in everything, from music technology and video games to PG Tips and PG Wodehouse.

Location Dundee, Scotland


  • Ah, but there's an important difference, Scott -- with a movie, the composer can see the cut of the footage, which will determine the pace and the mood. In a game, what defines the pace (and to an extent the mood), and also the order in which events happen is the player. Each game will unfold differently and at different rates -- the composer can't predict in...

  • Very interesting point about how the technology and how we use it shapes our expectations of it, Chris.

  • Not specifically because of that, no. The SNES, for example, had a capacity of around 120 MBits (about 15 Mbyte) and had a very capable Sony sound chip inside, so could definitely move into different musical territory.

    There were loads of SNES games (e.g. the fun racer F-Zero or the movie tie-in Demolition Man) that definitely move away from the 8-bit...

  • Amiga music is still pretty big. There's a very active scene, and still a lot of musicians making tracker music like that.

  • That's an interesting comparison. The Amiga's hardware 8-bit sampling effectively made it the first machine that could create music that could credibly sound like production music.

    Interestingly, there were a number of music acts, particularly on the Drum 'n' Bass scene, in the early 1990s that used Amigas and Soundtrackers to produce their commercial...

  • Thanks Scott. I think that the only point I'd disagree on is that I could quite happily listen to the Overworld theme on its own quite happily for ages! In fact, one of my favourite game soundtracks is the Overworld theme for Super Mario Bros. 2. It's short, catchy and I can (and do) hum it or listen to it on repeat for ages!

  • Is one of the risks with that approach, however, the commoditisation of games? Does creativity and innovation take a back seat when there is a proven framework for a successful game?

  • So do you think that the Seal of Quality had a constraining effect that led to that conservative (or formulaic?) approach to development?

  • A very good point, Chris. Certainly what it might do is shut off those ideas that come completely out of left-field and the diversity that comes from a thriving indie scene.

    That said, however, Nintendo have always been pretty good at developing or supporting quite unusual or experimental game concepts. Check out Otocky and Elektroplankton.

  • What a thorough response, Andrew, thanks.

    There's another interesting difference: many of the characteristic elements of chip music, particularly the arpeggiated chords, that were popular in Western games you don't hear in Japanese games. While UK and US game composers looked write music that pushed the hardware beyond its limits, Japanese composers seemed...

  • That's a very interesting comparison to make between music and language, Alison -- with the train example, different pieces of music carry useful semantic information. How do people learn that abstract association between music and place?

  • Kenny McAlpine replied to [Learner left FutureLearn]

    Hi Dean,

    You might be interested in this:

    Data Discs have released the Streets of Rage soundtracks on collectors' edition vinyl. They're really top-notch products. I'm just waiting on Outrun being re-released...

  • In the UK, most games were sold on compact cassette tape.

    There was an expansion port, and a number of interesting peripherals, from joystick interfaces to speech synthesisers, samplers and synth drum machines.

    The Spectrum *could* definitely do other things, but I think the vast majority ended up being used almost exclusively as games machines.

  • On the integration of the SID chip into hardware synths, you could also have a look at the Twisted Electron TherapSID and the SID Guts, which is a Eurorack format synth.

  • Check out the Project Hubbard Kickstarter -- he's recently started revisiting his old 6502 code and is reworking some of his old compositions. He also plays sax with a big band in the NE of England.

  • Good point, Zoe.

    In fact, it's maybe important to recognise that more generally, it's very difficult to divorce yourself from the here and now and imagine what it would have been like to experience those games and that music completely fresh. Just to have a box in the corner of the room that approximated arcade games and made sounds was thrilling!


  • Yup -- the TIA was never really designed for music. When they conceived of the VCS, Atari thought that people would be playing variants of Pong and Pong style games for eternity!

  • That's definitely true! Everyone I've spoken to who was working at that time has made exactly that comment. There's no scope to bury bad ideas with fancy sounds and production. The limitations of the hardware forced them to write catchy, well-crafted melodic music.

  • More than that, I think. In creating a role that only a few very highly-skilled specialists can do, you limit the scope for inventive, left-field ideas to come in and disrupt things.

  • Yup -- I've got one of those at home, or rather, I've got the British one. There was a bit of a spat when these were released, because it looked like some 'industrial espionage' had gone on when UK-based SFX and Sight and Sound both turned up at the same trade show to launch identical devices.

  • Absolutely -- that also led to a sense of competition as David, Tim, Ben Daglish and others tried to better each other's music and prove that they were the 'alpha geek'!

  • Wham! The Music Box was a really early example of a dedicated music editor on the Spectrum, and was really pretty sophisticated. It even came with the excruciatingly-named 'Whampiler', which allowed you to compile your music into a standalone machine code routine that could be incorporated into your own games.

  • You're maybe doing the VCS a slight disservice there! The TIA was the more powerful chip. The Spectrum didn't have a dedicated sound chip at all, just a speaker.

    You could still do interesting software tricks with the VCS, most notably sample playback (see Quadrun, for example). It was memory that was really the limiting factor there -- the Speccy had much,...

  • The title music to JSW was Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. It uses a different technique to the two-channel title music of Manic Miner. It plays the tune in broken octaves, much like the LH patterns that a boogie woogie piano player might use. The in-game music in both uses exactly the same technique, just different melodies!

  • Thanks for sharing this, Rich.

    I love that there's still a really vibrant home-brew Speccy scene out there, and that people are still finding exciting new ways to use the hardware. I still fire up the Spectrum+ that I got for Christmas in 1984, although for convenience, I find myself loading Fuse on my Mac a bit more often...

  • Absolutely. Tim Follin was an amazing composer. He did some pieces for the NES too -- Silver Surfer, for example.

    He released the code for his Spectrum driver as a type in listing in Your Sinclair (you can download a complied version here:

    I remember seeing that as a kid and trying to work out how...

  • I had completely forgotten about Trantor!

  • Hear hear!

    Generally, you can get a handle on the underlying method used in beeper music by listening to the quality of the sound. The more channels/complex the waveform on a PWM method, the 'fuzzier' it becomes. Other approaches can introduce 'ghost' frequencies, and time slicing gives the music a 'blipiness' that the other techniques don't have.

    I like...

  • Great summary, Andrew.

  • I think that's quite a nice characterisation, Juliano. I'm sure we Brits will wear that 'hardcore enthusiast' badge with pride. :-)

  • That's an important difference, I think. Here in the UK, gaming and home computing grew up together, and there was a hobbyist community around that who would write and publish their own games and other software. I spoke to Ben Daglish, the C64 composer a while back, and he said:

    "Back then the ‘industry’… it was all fourteen- and fifteen-year old boys. I...

  • I was in the States last year too, and visited the Replay Beer Arcade bar in Lincoln Park, Chicago, and the Galloping Ghost -- the biggest freeplay video game arcade in the USA. Wonderful!

    I got to bust out my ninja skills on a bunch of arcade games that I haven't played properly in years, and ended up with the highest score on Circus Charlie and Return of...

  • Great suggestion, Chris, and a good companion book to 'Bedrooms to Billions'. I'd also suggest Andrew Hewson's 'Hints and Tips for Video Game Pioneers', which tells the story of how he established and ran his (very successful) games company from an upstairs bedroom in his house -- a wonderful example of that homegrown industry.

  • Gaming didn't disappear completely, though -- the C64 still sold fairly well in the states following the crash.

    Do you get a sense that there was more of a home-grown feel about the UK industry (at least in the early days), and a corporate feel about the early US industry?

  • Pac Man and Dig Dug are both still very playable games!

  • Jungle Hunt is a conversion of an arcade title that had a great little tune that ran throughout the action in the background. (I'm humming it as I type this!) If you get a chance, try playing the arcade original in MAME and compare the two.

  • Absolutely, those early games were generally simple (in concept) and quite playable. Pitfall is quite tough, but persevere...

  • Interesting Chris. I'm exactly the same -- not really a fan of any of the Bounty Bob games, but I've often wondered if that's just because I grew up playing Manic Miner (a perennial favourite -- I still have nightmares about Eugene's Lair and the Kong Beast...) and was conditioned into thinking of Miner 2049er as a second-best proto-version!

    It's maybe a...

  • As ever, it's a little more complex and nuanced than that. The '83 video game crash was catastrophic for Atari, but it also killed the market for consoles. There's a very interesting story in how that next generation of console broke through against consumer hostility. We'll touch on that next week when we look at the NES.

  • Great choices, Richard. That later video game music is much more cinematic, and functions much more like a movie underscore. It's interesting to compare that with the much more melodic, 'ear-wormy' music of the 8-bit and early 16-bit machines.

  • Absolutely -- I still fire up Space Invaders for that very reason. Simple, but compelling!

  • My pleasure Mira. I hope you enjoy the course!

  • Do check out the Ludo conferences in Europe (, @BrandonSwing, and the North American Conference on Video Game Music (

    I'm sure we'd all love to hear some of your transcriptions -- do you have any links on YouTube? And if you haven't already, check out Martin...

  • Welcome Jaison.

    As you'll hopefully discover, today there are a great many similarities between production music and video game music, at least in terms of how they're produced, but back in the 1980s, it was very different!

  • But never really became popular. Why not?

  • Prof. Layton is definitely an interesting example -- the music works really closely with the action to create a sort of 'interactive cinematic' feel.

  • Hi Dmitry,

    BEEP -- that was exactly how I got started too. There are some amazing pieces of music written in BASIC using just the BEEP command.

  • Hi Rhys -- we'll be looking at Super Mario in next week's activities!

  • Kenny McAlpine replied to [Learner left FutureLearn]

    Wonderful! I like a gamer with a proper retro collection!

  • Welcome on board Levi! I hope you enjoy it.

  • Hi Zoe,

    Yeah, I am especially fond of the chip sound. I think that for people our age, that sound is particularly evocative of those formative gaming experiences when we were kids. Like a musical Creme Egg... :-)

  • Yeah -- non-gamers often think of gaming as a socially-isolating activity, but it's always been the very opposite. As a kid, I used to swap games incessantly, and we would all go round each others' houses in groups to play games together -- Codemasters' ATV Simulator and BMX Simulator were particularly good for that!

  • That sequel, though, had a very clever additional sound chip on the cartridge, so the music is, indeed, one of the best on the Atari VCS, but it's not really the VCS that's creating it!

  • That's a very good point, Andrew -- Atari suffered very badly from that cultural shift, where it went from being a company of 'professional hobbyists' to one that was very corporate. Apparently it happened more or less overnight, and the dress code went from jeans and T-shirts to suits and ties. Many felt that creativity was stifled, and wasn't valued. Once...

  • But many of those cheap, multi-release games were really, really awful!

  • The other thing that perhaps stopped Atari redeeming itself and getting back in, though, was the video game crash of 1983. That essentially killed off demand for consoles in the USA, and allowed home computers (which could be multi-use and justified for 'homework' -- see Chris's comment above) to gain a toehold.

  • To an extent that's true, but Atari also tried to get a share of the 8-bit market with its 400 and 800 computers. Why did the other platforms overtake Atari?

  • You're absolutely right, Chris.

    Certainly, when I was pestering my parents to get our first home computer back in the early 80s, one of the key arguments was that it would "help me with my homework"... How many times was that argument trotted out, I wonder...? And how many parents realised too late that the home computer as an educational tool is a myth...

  • Thanks for sharing the link to Amplifire, Jamie, and it's really interesting to hear that you do SID covers of pop tracks -- one of the activities later in the course touches on exactly that.

  • Hi Kath --

    Lovely part of the world Yorkshire, with some great music! [As an aside, though, I've just started catching up on the BBC crime series Happy Valley -- it's given me a completely different perspective on Halifax and Huddersfield!]

    The music in Lazy Jones is a real favourite of mine. A great early example of an adaptive C64 soundtrack, and it's...

  • A very similar story to mine, Scott, although I took a slightly more circuitous route -- from the Speccy to the ZX81, then to the C64, an Amiga, another Amiga, a PC, a bunch of other old machines (including an STe), a few more PCs and now mainly Macs.

    Did you ever come across the Currah Microspeech? It was a phoneme-based speech synth for the Spectrum,...

  • Hi Chris,

    Dynamite Dan was a great (although very tough!) game. I don't know if you've come across it, but Andrew Hewson wrote an excellent book about his experience as a video game publisher:

    It's well worth a read!

  • Hi Rich,

    Agent X is a great track (although I prefer Chronos, which I remember knocked me for six when I first heard it as a kid -- I still think it's one of Tim Follin's best tracks).

    Glad to hear that you're still an active 1-bit musician -- keep that sound alive!

  • Tetris Theme A (actually an old Russian folk tune called Korobeiniki) has become one of the most covered pieces of video game music @KathleenLittlejohn.

    You might like to check out this one by Dr Spin (actually a manufactured front-end for Andrew Lloyd Webber):

    I also really like this a cappella version by...

  • A great selection Juliano, and interesting to hear that you were doing your own video game covers way back in the 90s. Are you still doing that?

  • Hi Paul. No relation to Rob Hubbard?

    You raise a very interesting point there -- the sound hardware on those early machines was really very limited, and on occasions, getting any sound of those consoles and home computers was an achievement. That the composers/coders of the day were able to produce such memorable music is really testament to their musical...

  • Great choice, Rod! Interestingly enough, Jon Hare, who coded Sensible Soccer (and Cannon Fodder, another Amiga gem) now plays video game music covers in a 'chip tune supergroup', the SID80s, along with fellow game composers Ben Daglish and Mark Knight (who's interviewed later in the course). They occasionally get together for game festivals and play live rock...

  • Great choice, Robert, and yes, I remember getting really excited when I heard my Spectrum speak -- Death Star Interceptor and Activision's Ghostbusters (both by David Aubrey-Jones) were the two earliest games that stick in my memory.

    The music for Fantasy World Dizzy was composed by David Whittaker, if memory serves me right, who was one of the most...