June 27, 2008
Back in April, Michael Abbott had this to say on one of my Ocarina of Time music posts:
I’m wondering how you feel about the whole MIDI versus recorded orchestrated music question. It’s a no-brainer to me, but I was surprised to receive a couple of responses on my blog recently in defense of the MIDI approach to music in the Zelda series and the hope that it wouldn’t change. Is this just preciousness about the old games, or is there really something preferable about triggered music samples?
I suspect Michael is right that his readers’ preferences are fueled by nostalgia, but his comment touches on an issue that I’ve been meaning to talk about: the conflation of fidelity with quality.
When Ocarina was released in 1998, recording live orchestra was not an option — there’s simply not enough room on an N64 cartridge for audio data. With the advent of massive digital storage media like DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, though, such things are possible. The common wisdom is that the latter is an improvement. It is, but not in the way you might think.
Specifically, digital audio is an improvement in fidelity over sequenced music. The percussion will sound like a drumset instead of radio static; the strings will have proper vibrato instead of the silly wobbling that synthesizers often spit out; the choir will have real people singing real words. In short, the sound quality will be purer, and the instruments will sound more real.
But there are two things to keep in mind here. First, these improvements have no bearing on the quality of the music itself. As an old professor of mine once observed, “You can play a shitty song on a Steinway, but it’ll still be shitty.”
Second, high-fidelity sound is an aesthetic choice, not an objective improvement. If you’re a fan of popular music, you’ve probably heard someone criticize a pop song’s production values as “slick” or “overproduced” while lauding a lo-fi artist’s amateur recordings as “honest” or “authentic” — making no reference to the actual songs the two artists performed. If you listen to hip-hop, you know that the TR-808 is still sampled extensively even though “better” drum samples are readily available. Even the sound of a distorted electric guitar is really just a sacrifice in fidelity for aesthetic reasons. In short, sound quality comes with its own set of connotations and preconceptions that are independent of the quality of the music itself.
Getting back to games: the Super Mario Galaxy score has a number of newly composed, fully orchestrated pieces, such as the Good Egg Galaxy and Gusty Garden Galaxy themes. These are great pieces, emblematic of the new Mario sound. At the same time, Galaxy also features a number of sequenced songs, such as the Toy Time Galaxy and Sweet Sweet Galaxy themes, which are nostalgic remixes of old Mario tunes. Are the new songs better? Maybe — but if so, it’s not because they feature an orchestra.