President's Corner (Issue 4)

By Ken Williams

On June 4, 1988, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Illinois, Sierra On-Line made some rather unusual announcements to the press.

The first announcement was the signing of Hollywood composer William (Bill) Goldstein, known for his work on the television series Fame, Touchstone's Hello Again, and other film and music projects.

I still remember the call to Bill Goldtein's agent, Stan Milander (who also handles many of Hollywood's other hot talents), in which I explained what I was looking for. It went something like this: "Hello, Stan. This is Ken Williams from Sierra On-Line. I'm looking for a top composer to do the score for an interactive movie (interactive movie was the best description I could think to give our product)."

I was desperately hoping that Stan had an open mind. Much of the world still believes that Pac-Man and Space Invaders represent the state-of-the-art in computer gaming. What sierious composer would want to do music for toys? Most of the big name composers are represented by one of a small number of agents. Stan was my last hope, since none of the other agents took me seriously enough to return my calls. I explained to Stan the kind of product Sierra strives to create and that we actually view our products as interactive movies. We allow the player to assume the identity of a character in our "film" and experience life as a space-aged swashbuckler, policeman, heroic prince or princess, and even a 40-year-old nerd. Our games tell a story which has a definite beginning, middle and end, complete with good guys and bad guys.

Then I explained to Stan that I was looking for a composer who understood the new, evolving electronic music; one who considered himself/herself to be on the cutting edge of this new techology; one who would be excited at the prospect of exploring new frontiers.

After patiently listening to my 20-minute monologue, Stan replied that yes, he did have such a person. However, I would have to convince this person that computer games deserved great music. He added, "By the way, do you realize that good things don't come cheap?" Once again, I explained to him how we were making history.

All of this resulted in my first meeting with Bill Goldstein, composer extraordinaire, which we held in Oakhurst, California. After repeating my 20-minute monologue on how I believe computer-based entertainment will some day replace movies, TV, books, records, etc., Bill posed the most important question yet to be asked. "What does a computer sound like?"

The IBM PC was never meant for music. It doesn't have a speaker; it has a buzzer. I'm convinced that it was designed with one purpose in mind, to "beep".

Among the limitations of the PC buzer is the fact that there is no volume control. One of the things that makes a piano sound interesting is the first part of a note is louder than the last part. Also, on a piano, you can pres more than one key at a time. Not so with the PC buzzer — all it can do is make one note at a time, which has no attack or decay. It sounds like a "stuck" flute. The Tandy 1000 is slightly better with the three simultaneous notes, but there's still no way to make them sound like musical instruments. Even the highly touted Amiga is limited to four simultaneous notes — only two if you want stereo.

After listening to various types of PC's at our headquarters, Bill told me in all honesty, "Ken, don't waste your money. These computers are not capable of music." Bill spent the afternoon explaining the difference between a "score" and a "song". The purpose of a score is to evoke emotion - not to be hummed. Sometimes the score consists only of some chord being held and slowly becoming louder in order to create a feeling of tenseness. In creating a score, the instrument(s) it is composed for can be as important as the score itself.

In esence, having Bill compose for the IBM PC would be like killing flies with a shotgun.

But, Bill had an idea. He said, "Ken, I do some work with Roland (who makes high-end professional music gear) beta testing their keyboards. They might be willing to make a card for the PC that could do great music."

I didn't know how to explain to Bill that one doesn't just pick up the phone and call the president of a major company and ask for a new computer peripheral so computer gamers can have real music. So, we did!

The conversation went something like this. "Hello, Tom (Beckman, President/CEO of Roland Corporation). This is Ken and Bill (20-minute monologue)". To my total amazement, this forward thinking, business savvy gentleman said the magic words, "No problem."

Last year, Roland released a device for musicians that would allow their electronic keyboards to sound like hundreds of different instruments, from tubas to cymbals. This device, known as the "MT-32", allowed up to 32 notes to be played simultaneously and up to 8 yeboards to be playing at the same time. The MT-32 uses a new tecnique to make music called Linear Synthesis (no, I don't know how it works). I spend a lot of my spare time as a music "hacker", and the MT-32 has some of the best sound I've ever heard. Better yet, Tom believed he could deliver the MT-32 on a card to plug into a PC for $550, including software to make your own music.

Well, now I had something. A composer and a way to play real music. Some people around the office scratched their heads and asked how many people would be willing to spend $550 to "listen" to music from their computers. I explained the chicken and the egg theory.

When Bill sat down to compose, we discovered to what extent we were pioneering. To compose for a film, Bill works from a video tape. It's a bit hard to video tape King's Quest IV. How do you predict what the player is going to do? For instance, from a musical viewpoint, being chased by an ogre really consists of three pieces of music: One tune for the first encounter, one for the actual chase (which could be of any length), and one for the capture.

Another interesting problem was synching the animation to the music. Animation speed can vary from machine to machine (try King's Quest IV on a PCjr and then on an 80386). How do you get the bolt of lightning to strike at the exact time the snare drum sounds?

Then, it got tougher still. We needed music that would sound great on everything from a single voice PC up to the MT-32. Remember that our products run on IBMs, MACs, APples, Ataris, and Commodores.

Was it all worth it? When we previewed King's Quest IV to an "invitation-only" crowd at the Summer CES, I saw the full range of emotional reaction to the product. There were tears and laughter during emotional scenes.

Turn off the sound on your TV and see if you care what happens to the characters. Why do you think that back in the Silent Picture Era, organists were hired to perform live in theaters. Music isn't an interesting option — it's an important integral part of the whole experience.

Will people pay the price to hear it? I hope so. Our new products support a wide variety of options, in addition to the MT-32. For instance, Adlib makes a card for only $200, which is limited to eight notes. But don't let that foll you. It's more than eight times better than just one note. Hearing is believing.


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