How I Fixed Atari’s Awful Music

And Got Over My Fear of Out-of-Tune Game Toons

When I first saw the Atari 2600 and played a few of the early games, one of the things that stood out to me was just how bad it sounded when a game attempted to play music.

Before I started developing for the machine, as a consumer, I never questioned why it sounded so bad; I just knew that the music was terrible. Clearly, no one at Atari had come to what I thought was the obvious conclusion that, if it’s a choice between out-of-tune music, or no music, no music is preferable. Put another way, for God’s sake, if it’s going to sound like caca, don’t even include it.

When I eventually started making games for the Atari system (1979/1980), I learned that the TIA chip in the system, which was a multi-function custom chip, was responsible for reading the inputs, handling the screen display, and generating audio. It had a lot on its plate. Further investigation determined that the TIA was “limited” in its ability to generate musical notes; “limited” meaning, it couldn’t do it.

In all fairness, at the time of the Atari 2600 (mid-1970’s), integrated circuits were relatively expensive to make. The more complex the circuitry, the more expensive the per-unit cost of the chip was. Therefore, to keep the complexity down, the designers of the TIA chip used “cheap and dirty” circuitry to generate a series of sound frequencies, with no consideration of how the resulting frequencies compared to the notes of a musical scale. In other words, many of the tones were “out of tune.” So, as a game developer, you could store a value in a register and get one of 32 tones of varying pitches, but God help you if you were trying to make music.

Therefore, when I started making games for the system, I didn’t even consider putting music in an Atari 2600 game. My first game, Space Jockey, from U.S. Games, came out in 1981, without music of any kind.

My second 2600 game, Donkey Kong, came out in 1982. Even though the Donkey Kong arcade game had very fine music, I was having enough trouble making the game’s famous steel girders slant, so I wasn’t going to be slaying that dragon anytime soon.

My third game was Keystone Kapers, which was my first game for Activision. While I was very pleased with the way the game came out, it was once again sans-melody.

Finally, when I started working on my fourth Atari 2600 game, “chef” (which, through the magic of Activision marketing, became Pressure Cooker), I decided that for this one I wanted to have a game jingle. I had envisioned the game with an I Love Lucy “chocolates on the conveyor belt” level of frenzy, so, DAMN IT, I wanted a catchy jingle to get the player’s blood flowing.

But I knew that a ton of the frequencies were out of tune, so what technical trick could I come up with to coax the Atari 2600 into playing beautiful, melodious in-tune music? The answer was, none. I couldn’t come up with any technical trick that worked, so I went to Plan B. Rather than forcing the Atari to do something it couldn’t do, I took the opposite approach, putting some effort into figuring out exactly what it could do. Just as I knew that some (or many) of the 32 frequencies generated by the Atari 2600 were out of tune, I assumed that there must be a few that were “in tune.”

I had a plan — enter my trusty Casio keyboard. With the keyboard sitting on my desk, I generated the Atari frequencies one by one, in the hope of finding at least a few that were close enough to audibly pass as “in tune.” As each tone was generated, I played the keys on the Casio, searching for a matching frequency. When I found a “winner,” I took plastic tape and marked the “matching” key on the Casio. Out of 32 tones, I determined that there were 13 random “Atari 2600 notes” available that sounded good.

Armed with my new-found knowledge, I asked a coworker who had a long history in the music industry if he knew any professional jingle writers. He said that he thought he could track one down. I showed him my marked-up keyboard, at which point we shared a good laugh. He went off and made a couple of phone calls. Finally, we had an accomplished music composer on the line. He showed genuine excitement when we asked him if he had interest in composing a jingle for a video game.

When he visited our office, I showed him the in-progress work on the game, and he was psyched to sit down and start composing. You should have seen his face when I showed him the keyboard and told him he could only use the marked notes! He thought about it for a second or two, nodded his head, and got to work. Like magic, in less than a half an hour, he had composed a wonderful, catchy jingle using only the marked keys.

I encoded his notes into a frequency table for my code and I was off and running. The first time we heard the Pressure Cooker jingle play on the Atari, I smiled ear-to-ear. It was a thing of beauty.

The link below should go to a YouTube video of Pressure Cooker. Check out the spiffy jingle at the game opening:

Solving the source music problem on the Atari 2600 is one of my fondest memories in working on the platform. To this day, I love the Pressure Cooker jingle, especially since it doesn’t sound like caca.

Garry Kitchen is a retro video game designer whose titles include Donkey Kong (2600), Keystone Kapers, GameMaker (1985) and Bart (Simpson) vs the Space Mutants.

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