Last week we got into the weeds with MechWarrior 2, but there was one topic that I didn’t get to go nearly as in-depth with as I would have liked. So I’m hitting that topic this week in its own special featurette.
I’m talkin’ about the MechWarrior 2 soundtrack.
As much I loved stomping around in polygonal representations of giant robots armed to the teeth with lasers and PPCs, MechWarrior 2 wouldn’t be half the game it was without that bitchin’ set of tunes guiding me every inch of the way. This was the first game I played that actually had a soundtrack worth mentioning. Sure, there were other games with some great music at the time, but none of them had the polish, the fidelity, or the sheer quality as MechWarrior 2’s soundtrack.
A lot of that quality can be traced back directly to the game’s composer, Jeehun Hwang (with the help of Gregory Alper and Kelly Walker Rogers, but we’re going to focus on Hwang for this article). This guy has done a ton of work in video games, contributing music to Quake, Heavy Gear, and Battlezone. Amazingly, Hwang’s first ever video game soundtrack was MechWarrior 2, and he hit it out of the park on the first try.
Here’s a refresher in case you might need it:
In an interview with Indie Game Reviewer.com, Hwang recounts how he landed the gig. He first started out as a production assistant at Activision just to make some cash. After moving to Los Angeles, he sold his car and purchased his first synthesizer--a Korg X2 sequencer--and worked on his music career in his spare time.
“At first, I was asked to help with the composer selection process, but then I brought in a few tracks that I’d written for the game on my Korg X2 internal sequencer, and shortly after, I was asked to stay home and write music full time,” Hwang recalls. “I got a lucky break since the game was such a big success, and my music reached a big audience and got a lot of recognition. The rest is history.”
Another interview with SoundOnSound (courtesy of a NeoGAF thread) went into a bit more detail on how that initial interview went. “After I’d written a few songs I took them in and there was this big meeting with everyone, including the head of the company, where first they played all the music the other guy had done and then they played my music. To my surprise, I got a standing ovation!
“I was literally learning as they were paying me,” he continued. “It was the very first time I’d used a computer sequencer: prior to that, I didn’t even know they existed! They also wanted me to score the movies--the intro and outro--so I got an old VCR with timecode and pretty much scored everything in real time and then went back over them. It wasn’t really the conventional way of doing things and it took a long time, but I worked very hard on it.”
All that hard work paid off. MechWarrior 2 won a slew of awards from gaming publications, and many of them were specifically for Hwang’s incredible music.
It’s hard to pin down a single genre to describe MechWarrior 2’s soundtrack. Parts of it are filled with orchestral grandeur, others with a sort of jungle bongo rhythm, and still others with an electronic futurism that holds up even today.
Besides the music itself, there were a few other things that really made the MechWarrior 2 soundtrack stand out, and the first was the disk it was recorded on. For most games of the era, music was encoded into MIDI files and installed on the computer’s hard drive. Now, I’m not knocking MIDI music, but a lot of early PC game soundtracks were just plain bad and it had a lot to do with the fact that MIDI music files were designed to be as small as possible. There just wasn’t a lot of physical memory available for more complex sounds, and it showed.
MechWarrior 2 did things differently. The game’s soundtrack was actually encoded directly onto the game disc itself using a relatively new technology called Compact Disc Digital Audio (CDDA or CD-DA), also known simply as Red Book Audio CD. The technology was essentially just a set of standards used to encode music onto the digital compact disc format. It had been used for years in the music industry so that Sony Walkmans could navigate from one track to the next, but it was still relatively new to PC gaming in 1995.
MechWarrior 2 was one of the first games in the world to use this format to encode its soundtrack. This meant that the PC’s sound card would read the disk and play the disc’s music while the rest of the computer concerned itself with running the game. It also meant you could take MechWarrior 2’s disc, put it in a regular old CD player, and listen to the soundtrack wherever and whenever you wanted.
It was also one of the few ways to listen to MechWarrior 2’s entire soundtrack. A bug in earlier versions of the game caused certain songs to never play for the mission they were intended and instead repeated the tracks from other missions.
I can’t tell you how many walks home from school were spent listening to the MechWarrior 2 soundtrack. And from the looks of things, I wasn’t the only one. In fact, some very talented people have taken the MechWarrior 2 soundtrack and used it as the inspiration for their own musical endeavors.
The one person I’d like to mention is Timothy Seals, an Australian artist who took eight songs from MechWarrior 2 and remixed them into something that’s both very modern and very awesome. His album is called New Dawn, which you can listen to and download for free on his Bandcamp site (although as a “pay what you want” download, he’d certainly appreciate it if you’d toss him a few bucks).
These are some very faithful recreations of MechWarrior 2 music using modern software and not some ancient Korg sequencer. I think the kids these days would call it a “cover”, but I’m not a music writer, so I have no idea.
And before I leave you, I just wanted to note how the song Pyre Light has a very special place in my heart. Way back in the day when I was first being introduced to the world of the internet and was suddenly confronted with the necessity of an online handle, I chose “Pyre Light” in honor of MechWarrior 2.
I’ve long since abandoned that name, but the song still hits me in the feels every time I hear it.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.
Mech2’s soundtrack has been stuck in my head ever since I first played the game years ago. It’s just brilliantly written and composed, and I’m really happy to see it get its own feature here! That said, there’s a few things I wanted to point out about the article:
“Now, I’m not knocking MIDI music, but a lot of early PC game soundtracks were just plain bad and it had a lot to do with the fact that MIDI music files were designed to be as small as possible. ”
This isn’t true. MIDI files just contain information, it’s up to the computer owner to provide something to play it back with. And for the record, MechWarrior 2’s music? It was sequenced entirely through MIDI. That’s how those old synthesizers work, so by that logic, Mech2 should sound awful, right? Well, no, because Jeehun used professional gear and tailored his work for it. What really hurt most MIDI music was that people simply didn’t have the hardware it was meant to be heard on, and developers didn’t put the effort into making their tunes sound good elsewhere. If you didn’t have something like a Roland Sound Canvas (which was around $700, yeesh), you probably had a SoundBlaster 16 that the devs lazily made a few FM patches for and called it quits.
“A bug in earlier versions of the game caused certain songs to never play for the mission they were intended and instead repeated the tracks from other missions.”
What’s the source on this? The closest I know of is a bug in the *later* Win95 version that causes any mission to play Track 1 upon pausing/unpausing. I’m actually curious to know cause I’ve played a ton of Mech2 and never knew about this!
“These are some very faithful recreations of MechWarrior 2 music using modern software and not some ancient Korg sequencer. I think the kids these days would call it a “cover”, but I’m not a music writer, so I have no idea.”
Mech2’s music presumably wasn’t written with the Korg, it was mostly likely done on a computer as that would have made it easier for Jeehun to hook up and use his other gear (like the Roland JV-1080 + Orchestra + World that makes up 50% of the instruments), as well as control track recording. And, this is a bit more nitpicky, but it doesn’t really matter what was used anyways, as the sequencer doesn’t determine the quality of the track… I could run some amazing modern synthesizers through my old Korg Trinity sequencer and get results that sound very modern. It’s all about the sounds you use.
Again, I’m happy to see content about MechWarrior 2’s music (I’m even working on a full video going in-depth about the sounds Jeehun used, his music theory, and creating music EXACTLY in the style of the game), but the misconceptions and assumptions here kinda bug me in what’s an otherwise really nice article.
The soundtrack to this game for me was a surprise treat.
MW2 was my introduction to the franchise, it came with the joystick my dad bought with the family Compaq. The thing is, I installed the game not from the computer’s factory CD-ROM drive, but from the much faster CD-RW drive my father installed because it was faster in read/write so games ran faster. What I didn’t understand at the time was that drive’s audio out lines weren’t attached to the sound card; the upper drive was. I didn’t hear any music playing the game, only sound effects. Years later, trying and failing to install the game on a WinME machine, I browsed the disc’s file system and noticed files titled “Track 2, Track 3” etc. For some reason, I stuck the thing in my boom box and wow. The disc that keeps on giving.
I was going to make a similar comment regarding MIDI music. The best way for a lay person to think of MIDI is that MIDI is just sheet music; it’s up to your computer’s hardware to turn the notes depicted on the sheet music into sounds. So a given MIDI track could sound very different on different machines. Hell, I remember when I got the PC version of FF7 it included an installer for a particular soundfont so the MIDI music would sound right, and if you had it use the default Windows soundfont it sounded quite different.
Now, personally, I think MW2 Mercenaries has the best soundtrack, but that’s probably because I played far more Mercenaries than 31st Century Combat (couldn’t get past the fourth mission on either side as a kid).
MIDI is still kicking around. :) My piano and synth both have MIDI interfaces and I use it all the time. the samples are beautifull, but it costs more that a PC sound card. Old games just had to use the lowest denominator, which was Sound Blaster 16, just to be somewhat compatible with all PC’s. That is why Commodore64, Amiga and all 8 &16 bit consoles had kick ass soundtracks – developers had better and more consistent hardware for it.
Music from ~1995 could tell the story trough music, just like in old movies. There was not enough voice acting yet, most of the dialogs were in plain text, so music could (and should) be a little more than ambient loop and create narration of it’s own. The CD brought needed capacity for quality music and games like Diablo, Mechwarrior 2, Fallout, Panzer Dragoon, Wipeout, etc… took full advantage of it. I would say it was a golden age of game soundtracks, if not all fantastic indie titles like Shadowrun Returns, where that kind of soundtrack on is making a comeback.
I STILL have my old copy of the original MechWarrior 2 and the Titanium Trilogy. I still dust those off and rip them to my hard drive when I get a hankerin’. The MW2 Mercenaries OST was the best in my opinion.