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Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Mon Jan 14, 2019 18:54
by Hisymak
Hi. Even since my earlier gaming times, I always thought, that Commander Keen music was rather inferior/weaker/not that great, compared to music from other games I played that time (speaking only and exclusively about Adlib/OPL-based music). Well, I actually liked Commander Keen music in the sense, that it fits the game pretty well, of course, and is not annoying or sounding any bad, just a fair and simple fitting background music for a game like Keen. But that's all about it. What is my point, that the music, on its own, for stand-alone listening, is just too much simplistic and not any special and distinctive, just... plain. While the Adlib/OPL-based music in many other DOS games was more interesting and had something special and recognizable about it. And was much more fun for stand-alone listening.
Here I can give some example of a few other platforming games which I played the most in my life, as well as some other games than platformers, where I find the music being more interesting:
- Jill of the Jungle
- Hocus Pocus
- Vinyl Goddess from Mars
- Lemmings
- Wacky Wheels
- Dune 2
- Legend of Kyrandia
- Rise of the Triad

What are my main issues about Commander Keen music:
  • The length of the tracks. I always thought that the music tracks in CK are ridiculously short. Well, the majority of the tracks are shorter than a minute, and some tracks are even shorter than 20 seconds, and rather than a music, feel like some audio or sample loops (Too Hot to Handle being the best example). Other games commonly offer music tracks that are several minutes long. Technically, I'm wondering whether limited length arise from the memory limitation (as the game probably does not have enough spare memory to hold longer tracks), or the inefficiency of IMF format (compared to MIDI-based formats, I don't know which is more or less space-consuming for the identical tracks). Or the composers just thought short tracks are enough to serve the purpose.
  • Simple and uninteresting instruments. Soundtracks of some other games can be really distinctive and have their own personality, due to use of really interesting and original OPL-based instruments. The most significant example is Jill of the Jungle, which uses really "strong" bell-ish instruments, and some instruments sound quite crazy. Hocus Pocus music sounds "deeply" and features some ear-candy Fat Man instruments. Oh no More Lemmings uses really neat and well-sounding electronic piano and organ instruments. Listening to Dune 2 intro music gives me goose bumps. And more examples like that. While Keen music instruments are... generic, not any special. I was again thinking whether it's limitation of IMF format, but that's not the case. With IMF format you can practically make any instrument you like. And in some Keen mods music I recognized for example some instruments from Doom (Bernie's CK58-59?).
  • Simple melodies. The melodies of Keen music sound quite simplistic and with few polyphony (probably not even utilizing full capabilities of 8 available voices of OPL chip). For example Vinyl Godess from Mars provides catchy, rhytmic fast-paced tunes, Rise of the Triad has really nice jazzy tunes that can be definitely listened to as a stand-alone soundtrack. Here, again same issue as with point 1. comes into my mind. However, some of the other games (like Hocus, VGFM) utilize only conventional memory (both say they need 580kB), but provide much richer music tracks. Probably Keen consumes more memory for graphics and other stuff, leaving less for music?
So all in all, that's just my subjective view on Keen music. I'm reminding that I really do not dislike Keen music, just say, that it just serves purpose of being background music.
I also wanted to mention, that I feel the same issues I described here, also apply to other games, using IMF music format. Like Wolfenstein 3D or a few other games made by ID/Apogee (althrough music in some other games made by same producers is great). One example I could highlight is Hocus Pocus Beta IMF music VS. Hocus Pocus final MIDI music with Fat Man patches. I'm really not sure whether the Beta IMF music was ever intended to be officially released, or was just some temporary placeholder, but the difference is like day and night. So here comes my question whether IMF format is inherently weaker, or it's just about how well the music is composed.

Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Mon Jan 14, 2019 22:40
by K1n9_Duk3
You can't really compare IMF music to MIDI music unless the MIDI music is played back in AdLib mode. The main reason for MIDI music sounding better on some soundcards is that the later SoundBlaster-compatible sound cards used OPL3 or dual OPL2 chips chips to perform the FM synthesis. That basically means the chips(s) can play twice as many notes at the same time as a regular old AdLib card (which only had a single OPL2 chip) could play. And one additional thing to remember is that some of the early games using IMF music also supported AdLib sound effects, meaning that one voice/channel of the OPL chip had to be reserved for sound effects and couldn't be utilized by the music.

Technically, an IMF file can sound excacly the same as a MIDI file, as long as the MIDI file is played in single OPL mode by the playback program. This is usually achieved by selecting the AdLib option in the game's setup as your music device. That's because the IMF file is just a raw dump of the information that needs to be sent to the OPL chip, with timing information added after each command. My MIDI to IMF converter is basically just a MIDI player that saves the commands as IMF files instead of sending them to the OPL chip.

As long as the game plays the MIDI music in OPL mode and not General MIDI mode, you can use DOSBox to record the music of that game as .DRO files (DRO = DOSBox Raw OPL capture) and convert it to IMF with DRO2IMF - but converting to IMF will only work if the DRO capture contains single OPL2 data (AdLib mode).

As for the simple nature of the music in Keen, you have to remember that Bobby Prince was still relatively new to the world of AdLib/SoundBlaster stuff at the time. Bobby posted an old letter to Scott Miller on his blog which makes that pretty obvious if you ask me.

File size would definitely be a constraint for the IMF files, since id Software sacrificed lots of memory to speed up the graphics of their games. In the Keen games, they stored up to four copies of each sprite in memory so that the game wouldn't have to perform any bit shifting each time the sprite is drawn. In Wolfenstein 3-D, they actually generated tons of different scaling routines, so that for each height that a wall could have in the 3D window, the program had an optimized routine that would scale one column of pixels in the wall texture to exactly this size.

And to some extent, the IMF format is based on the same principle: using slightly more memory to make the playback faster. Since IMF is the most basic format imaginable for OPL music, the game doesn't need to perform any complex tasks - those were already performed by the program that generated the file. Just a comparison: I have written a fully functional implementation of IMF music to replace the MIDI routines in a DOS game. The MIDI routines used over 5400 bytes of machine code and over 900 bytes for variables (like instrument settings and such). My IMF code had about 800 bytes of code and 25 bytes of variables and was still orders of magnitude faster than the MIDI code, which means the IMF player used less than 14% of the memory the MIDI player required AND ran faster. In this case, the MIDI files were actually using the MDI format (which stores OPL instrument settings in the MIDI file), and converting the MDI files to IMF resulted in 103 KB of IMF files vs. 112 KB of MDI files. Some IMF files were bigger than the MDI files, others were smaller. So at least in this case the IMF files ended up smaller on average, but with more complex MIDI files (that don't contain any OPL instrument data) the IMF files are usually a lot bigger than the MIDI files.

This could also explain the rather simple structure of the music in Commander Keen. If you have a simple melody where the instrument on an OPL voice doesn't change over the course of the song, the resulting IMF file will be a lot smaller, since the instrument settings only need to be sent/stored once for each voice used in the song.

Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Tue Jan 15, 2019 0:45
by Mobiethian
I've never understood the tech aspects of music but the Keen soundtracks were always catchy to me. But after some time can be a bit repetitive especially on long levels.

Lemmings and Oh No More Lemmings soundtracks were amazing, I must say since you've mentioned them. Lemmings 2: The Tribes was really good too. As for Keen, I really enjoyed the Keen 6 tunes most of all, particularly "mamba snake".

Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Wed Jan 16, 2019 17:31
by Hisymak
K1n9_Duk3 wrote:
Mon Jan 14, 2019 22:40
Thanks for some technical explanation. I was kind of expecting a response like this, now I know someting more about IMF format as you put some light on all this.
Commander Keen is really a superior game, mostly about the gameplay and originality, and good graphics. Now I also understand better, than ID software tried really hard about optimization of the graphics and music routines so that the game would run fast on really slow computers. Our first computer when I was about 4 years old was something like a 486 and most games like Keen, Hocus Pocus or so, ran flawlessly on it. So I was never thinking about computer being too slow to run games when I was a kid.
So as I understand, they did lot of trade-offs and sacrifications, that there was not really much room to hold some more complex music tracks. That can be also seen, when you have not enough memory, the first thing that stops working is music playback.
Still, I was always not the biggest fan of Bobby Prince's music, not that his music was particularly bad, but rather, that music from other games just sounded more superior to me.

Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Wed Jan 16, 2019 21:02
by 55Aavenue
I thought the music got a lot better in Keen 5 and 6. In Keen 4 there are less songs and the tracks tend to be shorter loops so it gets very repeatative.

Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Fri Jan 18, 2019 18:44
by Benvolio
To me the Keen music forms a collection of culturally seminal tunes and I regard them as essential parts of video game lore - that doesnt mean they are excellent in quality. I have particular fondness for the music from the Keen6 demo levels including the rarely mentioned bluesy tune from the Guard Post One (which I learned as a "banjo-position" pizzicato song on violin a long time ago) , as well as Bloogwaters Crossing which I consider the catchiest Keen song. Maybe objectively the music is weak (even compared with rivals made in its own time) but it certainly played its part. Ultimately soundblaster largely failed to work on my main keening computer leaving me to curate my own vairied soundtrack of Beatles, ABBA, Cream and ultimately a non stop playlist of Nirvana.

Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Thu Apr 04, 2019 1:48
by XkyRauh
Bobby Prince did a lot of twelve bar blues. In Keen, it was Bloogwater Crossing, Guard Post(s), and Omegamatic. But lots of the Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure and Bio Menace stuff was twelve bar blues.

For me, the best Keen songs are the ones that evolve the melody/pattern of the song. Sphereful with my Diamonds, Tropical Ghost Oasis, and Mambo Snake are really Keen, to me, because they take an idea and play with the accompaniment behind it, or jazz up their melody on the second/third iteration.

The worst Keen songs are the ones that don't have enough change within them. Too Hot, obviously, but then Out of Breath for whatever reason really really bugs me (and I don't know why--because it really does a nice job of changing up its melody in a way I praised other songs for earlier), and A Land of Wonderment and Awe... just too short. My least favorite Bobby Prince song, period, is Teck2 from Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure. Wow, what a tedious, repetitive melody. :barf

I think Hisymak makes a good point about the shorter songs being weaker, though I disagree about the lack of polyphony being a detractor. I enjoy the purity/simplicity of the compositions, and find myself enjoying them years and years later! Overall I'll agree that the *instrument* choice plays a huge role in how annoying the song is to hear for extended periods of time. There are some Oh No! More Lemmings songs that are really great tunes, but their instrument choice makes hearing them for longer than two repetitions a chore. There are some Creepers songs that are really uninteresting, but have pleasant enough instrumentation that you can let them loop for the better part of an hour and just trance through. To each their own. :)

Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Thu Apr 04, 2019 1:51
by XkyRauh
I will add that there were levels in Oh No! More Lemmings and Creepers that drove younger me to tears of frustration (I loved the games but was not great at them) and those songs STILL make me angry, hearing them years later... but I still enjoy them, just as much as they drive me insane. :)

I'll throw out there that Highland Tribe and Beach Tribe from Lemmings 2 are also twelve bar blues! haha

Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Tue Jun 11, 2019 5:07
by Toomuchsparetime
Seems to have already been discussed but because I fancy myself a shareware game music aficionado I just wanna add that I agree with a lot of this. Keen music always did seem a lot more minimal than in other games, but other games were made later. While the Keen 4-6 music was good and at times really great, I think you can really hear Bobby Prince step up as more games used his music - Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure and Duke Nukem 2 come to mind.

But Bobby's genre preferences are where he and I part ways, so most of his work I can't put higher than Jill of the Jungle's music by Dan Froelich. Dan's choice of adlib instruments in Jill and Kiloblaster really defined that iconic "Epic Mega shareware" sound, and the fact that you can always rely on Epic Megagames from that era having consistently awesome soundtracks is due, I suspect, to Dan having set the bar so high so early on.

Re: Is Commander Keen music weak?

Posted: Sat Jun 15, 2019 23:13
by Quillax
IMO, Keen music isn't weak. I think they're really good, I can even play Keen with Too Hot playing in the background for quite a while without going insane. :) Sometimes, I find myself humming You've Got to Eat Your Vegetables (I know I definitely was when I did one level for The Sunnylands). I do think they got better with Keen 5 and 6.