All aboard the impulse train: a retrospective analysis of the two-channel title music routine in Manic Miner

Kenneth B. McAlpine

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Abstract

The launch of the ZX Spectrum in the UK in April 1982 almost single-handedly kick-started the British computer games industry. Launched to compete with technologically superior rivals from Acorn and Commodore, the Spectrum had price and popularity on its side, and became a runaway success. However, one feature of the Spectrum that was found lacking was its sound hardware—just a single channel of 1-bit sound playback. Few improvements to the machine’s hardware were made during the first generation of Spectrum titles. Programmers soon realised, however, that with clever machine coding, the Spectrum’s speaker could do more than that for which it was originally designed. This creativity, born from constraint, represents a very real example of technology (or rather, limited technology) as a driver for creativity. These solutions gave rise to a characteristic sound that in time defined the aesthetic of ZX Spectrum music. At the time, there was little interest in the formal study of either the technologies that support computer games, or of the social and cultural phenomena that surround them. This knowledge gap is redressed in this retrospective study through a deconstruction and analysis of a key turning point in the musical life of the ZX Spectrum. The title music for Manic Miner was the first attempt at a true two-channel sound routine on the platform, and so marked the point at which music moved from being largely functional and utilitarian, to becoming an important and expressive dimension of the Spectrum gaming experience. This paper begins with an overview of 1-bit sound and the range of tones that are natively supported by a 1-bit system, followed by a demonstration of how these can be extended using frequency dividers and counters to create time-varying tones and pseudo two-channel sound. The limitations of this technique are highlighted, and the key adaptations that would make it a viable approach for two-channel sound in later games are outlined.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)155-168
Number of pages14
JournalComputer Games Journal
Volume4
Issue number3-4
Early online date15 Oct 2015
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015

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