Review: Impact Soundworks Super Audio Cart Retro Game Samples

Kontakt Instrument Samples Eight Vintage Game Consoles and Gives You Four Layers, a Powerful Synth Engine and Effects for Creating Sounds a Level up from Chiptune Basics.
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I’m not sure anymore what the cutoff age is for people with whom you can simply hum a few notes of the theme music for Super Mario Bros. (by Koji Kondo, 1985) or Tetris (by Hirokazu Tanaka, 1989) and then that person is compelled by the raw forces of nature to complete the theme like it was an OCD tick — but it’s still an entire generation of people.

That generation was largely, if not solely, responsible for the advent of the Chiptune sub-genre of electronic music. While Chiptune music persists to this day with both the traditional game console-only sound palette (example: Doctor Popular) and in hybridized acts such as Crashfaster, game console synth sounds also light up other dance music genres as much as ever.

Dubstep and it’s many bass-music offshoots are still enamored with sprinkling tracks with “8-bit” sounds, which you’ll also hear in hip-hop, trap, hipster indie-dance stuff and big-time EDM artists like Big Gigantic. Where do they get these sounds? In certain Chiptune circles, you have to use the original or modded game hardware to be legit, but there’s also the super-cool Plogue Chipsounds ($95) emulator for accessing tons of vintage game console sounds with the convenience of a plug-in. And of course there are sample libraries.

Impact Soundworks, the designer of many diverse sound libraries and Kontakt instruments aimed at game and cinematic composition, has spent a couple of years putting together what could be the ultimate sampled collection of vintage game console sounds to appeal to both the makers of “authentic” Chiptune music, as well as anyone else who wants to layer and morph the source samples into an infinite array of modern sounds.

With its recent update to v1.1, Super Audio Cart Retro Game Samples ($149) includes almost 4 GB of samples captured from eight vintage consoles of the late ’70s to early ‘90s and about 1,300 snapshots (presets). It’s a Kontakt instrument, and also works with Native Instruments’ free Kontakt Player shell, for plug-in compatibility with any DAW.

Collaborating with OverClocked ReMix, Impact Soundworks recorded more than 6,000 samples from the Atari 2600 (1977), Commodore 64 (1982), Nintendo Entertainment System (NES, 1985), Sega Master System (1985), Sega Genesis (1988), Nintendo GameBoy (1989), Super NES (1990), and the Nintendo Family Computer, a Japan-only version of the NES with unique sound capabilities.

The factory snapshots in Super Audio Cart include an Authentic folder, with a few hundred patches using only raw samples from each of the eight consoles. The rest of them utilize the layering and modern synth engine of the plug-in to come up with instruments and drum kits that still sound characteristically like video game music, but also go well beyond the raw sounds of the individual consoles.

A Super Audio Cart patch can have up to four layers of console sounds, each with its own level, pan, pitch, cutoff and other controls. Clicking the console image opens a sound browser for quickly swapping-out the waveform. Clicking one of the A-D layer tabs at the bottom opens the advanced editing controls, where each layer has a gang of other synth controls, including volume, pitch and filter envelopes; modulation controls, portamento controls, and other fine tweaking abilities. I particularly appreciated the sample offset control, which sets back the start time for that sample, so if there’s an attack that’s too fast or slow for what you want, you can find the best start time for you.

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The sound-design situation starts to get really crazy on the Arp Tab of the advanced editing controls. Each layer can route to the arpeggiator or not, and you can write in separate arpeggiator settings for each layer. However, to have all the editing changes you make to one layer—including the arpeggiator—also effect other layers, you click the Control Link icon and select which layers to link up.

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That comes in handy with the arpeggiator, because the Super Audio Cart arpeggiator has four independent parts for programming up to 32 steps: Pitch, Volume, Length and the coolest one, Wave. The Wave arpeggiator lets you select a different waveform for each step in the arpeggiator. That lets you create a different feel for each note as the arpeggiator cycles through, but this feature does not work on percussion sounds or sounds from the SNES or Genesis consoles, because those systems used sampling and/or FM synthesis for their sounds.

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A modern synthesizer could only be so mod without a mod matrix, so Super Audio Cart has a nice one with 64 slots and 17 modulation sources. Those sources, including customizable LFOs can modulate almost any Super Audio Cart control, either one sound layer at a time or globally.

Two of the modulation sources are the X and Y axis of the “touchpad” on the main screen. That pad can also be used to blend the A-D layers of each patch. Also on the main screen, a Randomize function can randomly choose parameters for the sound and/or the effects and arpeggiator for any one layer or all layers at once.

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To everyone’s delight, effects built-in to a plug-in instrument are taken for granted in this day, but the excellent compliment of effects in Super Audio Cart really help the raw console samples soar to new heights.

There are five FX Racks with eight effects in each: EQ, Compressor, Bitcrusher, Scream (a distortion based on the Tube Screamer guitar pedal), Delay, SNESReverb, Reverb and Limiter. There’s an FX Rack for each of the four sound layers and one global insert bus, which all layers run through by default. I really appreciated the quality of the effects, and the Bitcrusher, Scream distortion, convolution reverb and others definitely helped lend the sounds a depth, heft and spacey sheen that you rarely find in the raw Chiptune sounds.

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All in all, I’ve loved playing with Super Audio Cart. If you want to make some straight-up Chiptune music, it sets you up with hundreds of waveform sounds and drum kits from the most important game consoles for the genre. The company’s demos are a little skewed toward those sounds. The FX snapshots folder also puts together some classic patches, such as the Super Mario “coins” sound, lo-fi explosions, etc.

Yet for me, and I suspect many other producers, the huge value of Super Audio Cart comes in the brilliant and vast number of snapshots that creatively layer multiple sounds with effects and sometimes arpeggiator settings in a way that make them eminently attractive to all kinds of electronic music genres, including pop and hip-hop. The snapshots make great jumping-off points for your own creations, and once I knew the lay of the land pretty well, it was easy enough to just start from scratch and build a patch layer by layer. Before too long, I had identified many of my favorite sounds and had a couple of rough song ideas cooking. This instrument can be very inspiring for both new ideas or for finding that elusive ear candy you need to sweeten up a track.

Impact Soundworks has already released one free update adding an 8th console (the Nintendo FC), so that the video below is already a little out of date, but if you don’t hear these sounds and at least consider checking out Super Audio Cart, you’re not part of my generation.