♫ Beep, Boop, La La La: The George Sanger Collection at UT Austin Videogame Archive

In 2007, George Sanger and three other videogame industry leaders collaborated with the University of Texas at Austin to create the UT Videogame Archive at the Briscoe Center for American History. Sanger — who is best known by his persona, The Fat Man– is an award-winning, groundbreaking composer and sound designer who has created audio for more than 250 games. He was ready to simplify his life by getting rid of a lot of his stuff and the Briscoe Center welcomed his collection. But they did not expect the complexity of the project they were about to take on.

Sanger’s career spans three decades and several generations of technology. When his archives arrived at the Briscoe Center, the caravan of sixty blue plastic bins was packed with at least nine types of storage media, most of which required special hardware to access their contents. Some of the storage media were obsolete and some of the files they contained were in obsolete formats created by obsolete programs.

Fortunately for the archivists at the Briscoe Center, Sanger had methodically labeled and organized his files, disks, tapes and drives. The real challenge that the Briscoe Center faced with the Sanger archives was not so much about cataloging it as it was about safely getting the files off of Sanger’s defunct media and into UT’s repository.

The career path that brought Sanger to the Videogames Archives was long and meandering. He grew up near San Diego and studied music at Occidental College in Los Angeles. After graduation in 1979, he briefly attended USC film school where movie soundtracks made an impression that would later influence his work. But of all of his artistic influences, arcade and video games resonated most strongly and Sanger felt a calling.

In 1983, he landed a project creating music for a computer game. The process was low-tech; he composed the music on audiotape and sent it and the music notation to Dave Warhol, the game’s producer. Around that time the home gaming industry was in a slump, so Sanger did other work, creating background music for commercial films, demos for songwriters and custom karaoke tunes for vocal teachers.

In 1988, Warhol again contacted Sanger. By then, Nintendo’s Mario Brothers had jump-started the stalled gaming industry, the demand for games was growing and Warhol was at the forefront of American development tools for Japanese games.  Sanger was in the right place at the right time and he was ready to take on anything because by then he had mastered MIDI, the essential technology for electronic game audio.

Musical Instrument Digital Interface, MIDI, is a technical standard for communication among electronic instruments, audio software and hardware. It enables a user to manipulate musical notes in the same way that a word-processing file enables a user to manipulate text. Example 1 shows a simple MIDI workstation setup.

When a user plays a note on the keyboard, say a middle C, the keyboard communicates via MIDI with a sequencer (an environment in which a user can modify the MIDI code), telling it which note was played,  how loudly it was played and how long it was held.

Example 1. A simple MIDI workstation setup.

A MIDI composer uses a sound module to hear the composition created in the sequencer. The work done in the sequencer can also be saved as a MIDI file, which can be played back by different hardware and software combinations.  The sound is determined by the software and hardware.

So in the early days of Sanger’s career, he would send a MIDI file off and hope for the best. The MIDI file may specify that certain notes are to be played by “trumpet” or “clarinet” but the actual tone of the instrument is no more part of the MIDI file than it is in sheet music. MIDI just represents sound.

For console games, Sanger embedded instructions for programmers in the MIDI files. The consoles played back consistently because the audio platform was consistent and uniform. PC games, however, depended on the user having different sound cards, sound modules and, eventually, music-playback software. Each of these platforms had different capabilities, dependabilities, tones and sound qualities. This led to ugly artistic problems for Sanger and other game composers.

MIDI files can trigger sound from modules on your computer. If you click the MIDI file below, a web page will open and the piano music will play in your browser, though the piano sound actually resides in your computer’s hardware.
If you download the MIDI file (right-click > save as) and click on it, an audio player — such as Windows Media or Quicktime — will open and play the same piano music from the same source.
Eighth note“Rondo ala Turka” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, MIDI file by Bernd Krueger.

Sanger’s 1988 MIDI workstation included a Mac Plus and a Roland MT 32 sound module, with which he created sound effects, atmospheres and soundtracks, not unlike the movie soundtracks he studied at USC. But he had the additional challenge of making the music “interactive.” Instead of creating music to play in a steady linear state, as on recordings and in movies.  Sanger had to figure out, game by game, how the music might change in response to an action from the game player, while still making sense to the ear.

“Music is a time-based art and game-music composers have no control over the time,” said Sanger. So he had to musically anticipate the options from “here” to “there” and make it all segue smoothly and logically.

During this period of his career, a number of new sound cards and sound modules of widely different capabilities hit the market. To make game music tolerable for all players, Sanger had to create a version of each MIDI file specifically for each playback platform.

These two examples demonstrate the technical issues that plagued game audio before General MIDI.
Here is an MP3 recording of what the music sounds like.
Eighth noteNBA by George Sanger (MP3)
Here is the MIDI file for that song.
Eighth noteNBA by George Sanger (MIDI)
In the MIDI file, you only hear one instrument — and a quicker tempo — because the file is coded in the pre-General MIDI format and your computer expects to receive General MIDI instructions. Because it does not get them, it defaults to playing everything on one instrument.

To make matters worse, the earliest MIDI specifications did not require that the playback platform actually play any particular instrument where it was specified in the MIDI file by the composer. Sanger said, “It got to the point where my melodies were playing back as some ‘buzz click’ thing.”

Sanger’s MIDI options improved as a result of industry changes that Sanger himself helped initiate. The General MIDI standard was established in 1991; fixed the “particular instrument” problem, and this promised to make MIDI-based audio more uniform and predictable across different MIDI-enabled devices. So, for the innovative CD-ROM-based game The Seventh Guest, Sanger created the first General MIDI soundtrack.

“Only one device would play back General MIDI existed at that time–the Roland Sound Canvas,” said Sanger. “So, to make this thing work, we wrote special sound banks for all the major sound cards that weren’t General MIDI yet. Those sound banks we created were bought by Yamaha and Microsoft and I believe they are still in use today, tucked here and there into obscure corners of systems.”

The establishment of General MIDI did not instantly make everything OK as predicted though, because, while the instruments could now be reliably specified, many aspects of the sound remained different from card to card. Playback of The 7th Guest on the new General MIDI cards was rough. Some instruments would be unbearably loud; some could not be heard.

From the George Sanger collection in the UT Videogame Archive at the Briscoe Center for American History.

From the George Sanger collection in the UT Videogame Archive at the Briscoe Center for American History. Photo by Butch Lazorchak.

Sound card companies knew of Sanger’s expertise, so when companies came out with new sound cards that claimed to be General MIDI, they sent their cards to Sanger for appraisal. So great was the demand that Sanger developed a side business called Fat Labs, which tested and evaluated cards. If a company passed, they earned the prestigious “Fat Labs Seal of Approval” sticker on the product box.

By the middle of the 2000s, audio technology had evolved to the point where WAV music files gradually displaced MIDI from games. WAV files contain actual audio recordings; they don’t rely on sound cards to generate sound. Today MIDI makes up a small percentage of game audio.

Most of the digital content in the Sanger archives consists of MIDI files and sequencer project files. As part of the ingest process, the Briscoe Center set out to create a disk image of each digital item, a sector-by-sector replication of the structure and contents of each storage device, and deposit the disk images into their repository. However, the Briscoe Center has at times been frustrated by Sanger’s storage media.

The disks in the Sanger collection comprise:
– 3.5″ floppies (single density/double density and high density)
– zip disks
– internal hard drives (IDE, SCSI, SATA)
– compact discs
– DVDs.

The tapes comprise:
– ADAT
– DAT
– SyQuest
– QIC-80 cartridges
– TR-1 Travan cartridges.

The double-density floppy disks were by far the most difficult to gain access to. They require a special kind of floppy drive but the Center’s archivists did not know that at first. For years, they were thwarted by input/output (I/O) error messages from the double-density floppies and they were convinced that the disks were corrupted. Eventually, through lengthy testing, they concluded that those disks required a specific floppy drive, while the high-density floppies did not.

From the George Sanger collection in the UT Videogame Archive at the Briscoe Center for American History.

From the George Sanger collection in the UT Videogame Archive at the Briscoe Center for American History. Photo by Butch Lazorchak.

The archivists’ persistence was admirable. They never considered throwing the disks away.

“Just because something is not readable now doesn’t mean that it won’t be readable in the future,” said digital archivist Zach Vowell.

It took the archivists awhile to acquire the special players for DAT and ADAT tapes. Sanger eventually donated his own ADAT player to the Center. There was a further wrinkle in that ADATs could be synchronized across multiple machines, for up to 32 discrete tracks of audio spread across four tapes. To keep these tapes synchronized to their original time code, digitization project archivist Justin Kovar used a Windows 98 workstation with the manufacturer’s discontinued ADAT/Edit program to migrate the PCM audio on the tapes to uncompressed WAV files.

The archivists could read the SyQuest tapes with the drive that Sanger provided as part of his collection, but the drive has a 25-pin SCSI interface. To date, the Center does not have a workstation equipped with a suitable SCSI interface, so they have not been able to migrate the content off the SyQuest tapes.

Some files are still locked on back-up disks because the backup software that Sanger used at the time used a proprietary compression algorithm. The files can only be restored to their uncompressed state using the same backup software, which the archives has yet to acquire.

Sanger is still going strong, composing for games and also for slot machines. He has his own YouTube channel and he has published a book titled The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness. The George Sanger collection includes not only digital material but also paper records, photographs, clippings, artifacts and analog audio recordings. Every few months Sanger drops off a few more things at the archives.

Because of Sanger’s foresight in properly archiving his materials, he was invited to speak at Personal Digital Archiving 2013.

Sanger still uses MIDI to compose and create sound, but the end result is a music file, not a MIDI file. Since he is not limited to MIDI, he can record of a range of exotic instruments and Foley effects.  “I have bins of sound effects things,” said Sanger. “They’re sort of divided into clunkers, squeakers, bangers, ringers … that kind of thing.”

Workstation from the George Sanger collection in the UT Videogame Archive at the Briscoe Center for American History.

From the George Sanger collection in the UT Videogame Archive at the Briscoe Center for American History. Photo by Butch Lazorchak.

Many of the difficult digital-preservation challenges that the Briscoe Center faced with the Sanger archives had to do with his files from the golden age of MIDI, from about 1988 to around 2000. Fortunately for the Center, Sanger donated almost all of the hardware they needed to run the software. The Briscoe Center has even assembled a vintage workstation, where the operating system, platform and hardware meet the requirements of vintage software and games.

The Sanger archive demonstrates that digital preservation often encompasses more than digital files. In Sanger’s case, preservation must include both the software and the hardware necessary to play the audio and recreate the process of developing that audio.

The Briscoe Center appreciates its unique archival relationship with Sanger, who has provided an enormous amount of resources and guidance above and beyond what an average collection donor would provide.

Sanger said, “I’ve done what I can and I leave the sorting out of it in the capable hands of the archivists and future researchers. The archivists bring very different skills and temperaments to their work than us ‘digital artists.’  My career requires me to look forward and move forward, quickly and relentlessly; it’s all I can do to keep from falling into organizational chaos.  I often have to decide that, no, I will not look back,  and because of that, I may or may not label this bin or that backup drive, and  I’m not leaving much of a trail behind.  If the stuff I’m leaving to the archive ends up having any value in the future, it’s only because of the skill and patience and care that the archivists have for this collection and collections like it.”

One Comment

  1. Billy Joe Cain
    January 9, 2014 at 11:07 am

    The UT Video Game Archive is collecting ANYTHING you have that is part of the release of a video game.

    Developers, PLEASE donate!! The UTVGA is a fantastic resource and you don’t need to be from Texas to make it happen.

    George is not alone in his support of storing and recording our history, because make no mistake, our materials ARE history in our young art’s infancy.

    Contributors I know have made donations include Warren Spector, Richard Garriott de Cayeux, Sheri Graner Ray, George A. Sanger, Bill Bottorff, Patrick O’Malley, myself, and many many others. The archivist that accepted my work and others is Zach Vowell, who is no longer with the UTVGA, but has a lot to say about its relevance.

    If YOU could SHARE this here on FB, perhaps we could get more donations.

    PLEASE DO NOT THROW YOUR MATERIALS AWAY. DONATE THEM TO THE FUTURE!

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