This is a small collection of “remakes” or, more accurately, “re-instrumentations” that I made of my favourite tracks from the soundtrack of Origin’s seminal RPG “Ultima VII”, one of the best and most melodic computer game soundtracks ever written.
While the game itself may have aged noticeably in the intervening 25+ years(!) since its creation, it nevertheless stands as one of the greatest achievements in early computer role-playing games, and is widely considered to be the first open-world “sandbox” RPG ever made, the grand-daddy of games like the Fallouts (both old and new), Skyrim, and yes, even GTA in many ways.
This soundtrack belongs to a time where advanced graphics and even speech in games did not exist, so music had to take a primary role in filling in the missing visuals, atmosphere, and tone of a game. Ironically, the entire original game’s install size is almost the same as the one of the MP3 files included here. Yes, those were different times indeed :)
There are many remakes and real-world instrument performances of various Ultima VII tunes out there (and some of them are amazing) but what *I* wanted to do here was to render, using Logic Pro X’s “Alchemy” synthesiser, what my mind “heard” through the SoundBlaster FM synthesised bleeps played from tiny speakers in 1992. The fact that those beeps could evoke such a sound in my mind says much about the incredible work done by Origin to translate the “spirit” of their original arrangements, initially meant for the MT-32/LAPC-1, into cheap consumer FM synth cards of the time, like the SoundBlaster. Some of these tunes never left my head, and tracks like “Stones” and “Fellowship” -in my humble opinion- remain underrated masterpieces to this day.
You may find some of the tunes and stylings in this small selection to be a bit cliche or “tired” for 2015. Longtime fans of Bethesda RPGs (like Daggerfall or Skyrim) may even recognise the roots of some of their favourite tunes here (“Sunny Day” from Daggerfall owes a great deal to “Fellowship”, for instance). If this is the case, try to keep in mind that it was these tunes, first widely heard by players in 1992(!) that may have established the “tropes” that would later become such cliches in subsequent decades…
Disclaimer: All work here is Copyright 1992 Origin Systems and EA, I did not create, compose, or own the rights to any of this material. I have tweaked instrumentation/patches, a few notes here and there, mixing levels and effects of the existing tracks as a study of musical appreciation and do not profit from this in any way.
You can learn more about the game itself here and you can even buy the original (super-cheap and updated for modern operating systems) from here - Although if you do, please be aware that it’s a 30-year old game and adjust your expectations accordingly!
While these days it may feel almost trite and overdone, no game before 1992 had opened with such a dark, dissonant-sounding theme, issuing from a black screen that framed a logo that, when it eventually fades in, is itself in a black font, outlined in a blue and white sheen. Even the menu options themselves were a faded cobalt blue.
Listening to this tune, almost 25 years later, I can still remember the first time I saw the “Ultima VII” logo “rise” out of the screen towards me on a 14” CRT monitor, and hearing the opening notes that are re-instrumented here. Gaming had just changed for me.
The re-instrumentation here is a straightforward “upgrade” in terms of sound and involves some safe choices, bar the replacement of the original synth-like trombones with a more natural sounding string foundation that supports the main low-frequency vibraphone lead.
Interestingly enough, while this tune is known (perhaps a little unimaginatively) as “theme”, it isn’t what most fans of the series would consider to be the real theme of Ultima VII. The honor of this belongs to “Stones”:
This, in my opinion, has to be one of the best theme tunes ever written for a game, and it is worth a few repeated listenings. It’s not surprising that it’s also the first tune played during the medley accompanying U7’s credits - it’s just lovely.
It’s a deceptively simple & concise tune that knows exactly where it’s going musically. It’s full of cinematic stylings and a ton of atmosphere, and is played in-game usually when wandering in the wilderness or traveling between cities. In my mind it always brings up wintry images of green grass fields and grey skies, yet it is sweet and welcoming in a “reserved” British way. In that sense, it’s spot-on for conveying the “vibe” of fictional Britannia.
I have done my best to (hopefully) respect the original “wintry” and “sparse” texture of the song, and have not messed with the original composition much, except to perhaps make the (second) flute lead every so slightly softer.
The original composition itself is a marvel of minimalism (in relation to the effect it manages to achieve). The lead is a time-delayed celtic harp, carried by a synth-choir pushed beyond recognizable octaves, resulting in an otherworldly vox-like texture, which proceeds to fugue with a leading flute. The frequency range of the instruments is capped on the low end by sparse and disciplined thumbed-bass accents. Maintaining a “trotting” rhythm is a section of plucked strings rather than percussion. It speaks volumes of the original creators’ amazing professionalism that the MIDI velocity data for notes in this track is good enough to drive the Logic Pro X instrument patch to a level of expressiveness which goes far beyond what could be even audible in MT-32/LAPC-1 performances (which themselves were considered mind-blowing back then).
It’s worth listening closely to how the plucked strings and the sparse, laconic thumbed-bass play off each other, it’s so good. Another favourite of mine in this tune is how the vox-like background breaks into a dissonant chord and temporarily “divorces” itself from the harp & flute exactly at the point of the song’s emotional climax. If you listen too closely and analytically it can ruin it for you, like saying a word repeatedly can lose its meaning, but if you listen casually it’s a subtle and beautiful tension-building effect.
The subtle build-up in this tune, in my mind, reflects the way the Avatar gathers his/her party as they travel together across Britannia. Like the Fellowship tune below, albeit on a much subtler way, it truly is one of early gaming’s hugely underrated masterpieces.
One of the great things with the U7 soundtrack was its ability to unexpectedly bring you to a standstill with a short, simple, and beautiful tune like this one. You wouldn’t even read the dialog text on screen. You’d let the dialog wait for your input until the tune was done so you wouldn’t miss it.
This tune’s mysterious undertone, in retrospect, works on more than one level since, plot-wise, the titular Wisps (quite literally emissaries of an inter-dimensional nexus that was influencing both the Avatar and Guardian) were the central and most important element in the overarching Ultima series story arch — Yet their significance was, very sadly, never followed up, as Electronic Arts methodically went about destroying all that was good about Origin and the Ultima series in the following years.
This tune’s sound is quite different in this rendition than the original composition, and now sounds a bit more Vangelis-like. I see that as adhering to the “spirit” rather than the letter of the composition. Again, the objective here was to interpret the tune as it sounded in my head, rather than just “update” the tunes from their 1992 instrumentation, and I love the result. I hope you will too.
My favorite game-related “bad guy” music, especially since initially it wears “good guy” clothing (best way I could describe its first impression is “Church-y Robin Hood”). Just like the Fellowship it refers to, it initially appears warm and majestic (pompousness of horns-over-church-organ-combined-with-church-bass-organ aside :))
The pompous-but-warm tone doesn’t last for long however, as the mid-point vibraphone and “stomping” drum foreshadow the Guardian’s presence behind these seeming do-gooders (who may serve food to the destitute, true, but only if those destitute are Fellowship members…)
As this strange transition exits into one of the most beautiful flute/clarinet duets WAY above anything that was written for a game back then, an almost tribal accompanying beat maintains the more “Freudian Id” feel of the Guardian.
I doubt this was intentional (or maybe it was) but the eventual “revelation” in Ultima 9 of the Guardian’s nature could already be perfectly heard in the elements of this piece - a mix of nobility and drive, an honorable sound but one that “cheats”, goes over the top, and becomes pretentious, this song has an equal amount of the Avatar’s light as it has that of the Guardian’s darkness.
Nothing could have prepared my 16 year old self for the sound of this tune coming out of a friend’s Roland LAPC-1 (a card that was prohibitively expensive for most gamers back then). I never thought “computer music” could sound so good back in 1992. Even today, the duet between the clarinet and leading horn (switching their “lead” and “backing” roles between various musical phrases) is stunning and inspired composition.
This version features updated instruments on all tracks, most notably trading trombones and french horns for tubas, and making the cymbal hits more noticeable in the “Guardian” segment (inspired partly by John Barry’s “The Black Hole” soundtrack’s powerful ending sequence) creating an even “larger” feeling of this tune.
Also (perhaps foolishly, but maybe not) this re—instrumentation humbly and respectfully attempts to extend and conclude the tune, which in the original form acted more like an open-ended “intro”. It attempts this by repeating a variation of the bridge and revising the main theme immediately afterwards with an even fuller Church Toccata Organ & Choir backing (yes, it dares push the original’s bombast even further (see below)). If you think this extension is sacrilege, you can just stop the tune after the original sequence, as all the notes are unmodified until then. All I can say in my defense is that it works, and finally the Fellowship tune in my head can rest in piece as a whole piece of music :)
The soundtrack of U7 was never meant to be performed or listened to on its own, and one of the objectives of the original tunes was to create music that would “fade” into the background of the game. Hence the original tune was more understated than this version, which instead makes a conscious effort to camp it up just a tiny bit (although in this era of Peter Jackson “everything is exploding” epic blockbusters I’m not sure this is too much of a standout offense). I thought that, if brought to the foreground, this tune deserved a hammier, more self-important performance, which would, after all, reflect Batlin and The Fellowship’s character quite appropriately…
When I first revisited the soundtrack of U7, the first tune I clicked to listen to was this one. Another of those short but gorgeous tunes like “Wisps” above, it’s an emotional theme with a Bach influence and just the right pinch of Brazilian TV campiness: The song accompanies a beautiful orphaned girl whose life has been spent taking care of the garden around the Shrine Of Compassion.
“My mother. She died horribly, and by her own hand. That is the true reason I pay homage to this Shrine. I hope someday to provide her with the means to rest in peace.”
The fact that this sad and lonely character was chosen by the writers to be a love & companion interest for the (male) Avatar says much about the emotional state of the RPG gaming audience of 1992. I never felt that the Avatar was a very happy character either, but perhaps I’m just projecting.
Picking the instrumentation for this piece was a challenge, and the sound changed quite a lot through various iterations. Initially I tried a minimalistic approach, first with a single harp and then a single classic piano for the lead. They both sounded good but both seemed to lack the dreamy quality of this piece (the original uses very strong synth-like bells which I felt were TOO over-the-top) The thumbed-bass in the background was always there and the flute works well here as well as the other tunes, although I gave it more of a lead here volume-wise than in the original, where it is more of an accompaniment. I tried to maintain the “feel” of the clarinet as close to the original as possible. For the main lead I eventually settled for combining a classic piano with subdued soft synth bells to carry the “tail” of the notes, as the original composition relied on “long” notes which the piano could not sustain without sounding like a ringtone :)
Once again, the *amazing* MIDI note velocity data meant that the texture of each note in the lead ended up with a unique “mixture” of these elements, creating a performance far more expressive than was ever possible even with the best sound equipment that the game was expected to be played on.
Short and sweet, and an easy conversion, I couldn’t help but add this here. I added a little more depth to the sound of the low-end notes to make the tune a little more “substantial”, which makes the “galloping” sequence a little more “space-y”. And yet it once again says a lot about the care and work put into the U7 soundtrack (and all aspects of that game, actually) that this tune is just a throwaway song played if you fiddle with any music-box-like object. (Any musical object in U7 will play a unique short tune like this. Simply amazing.)