There's a TLDR and a link to a great blog post by composer Brian Schmidt on the importance of sound integration in pinball at the end of this post
Maybe it's just me, but I've always found it much harder to get into modern pins than a lot of the older games from the 80s and 90s. I've kind of wondered why for a while, but I think I've finally figured it out. It's the music and sound design. I realized that most modern pinball machines seem to have pretty average sound packages compared to a lot of what was being made a few decades ago. Does anyone else feel this way? For example, while I often find myself bobbing my head and humming along to the music on my Mousin' Around, the music in many modern games just becomes background noise that I don't really notice. Now, I don't think this is due to a lack of effort from the composers and sound designers in pinball today, but I feel like the things that make for good pinball music were kind of forgotten at some point. I'm not a musician, so I don't really know much terminology or music theory, but I'm going to try and offer some constructive criticisms on what I think is lacking in most modern pinball sound packages and how I feel things can be improved. With pinball rules, designs, animations and technology all being the best it's ever been, I would love nothing more to see music and sound be the best it's ever been as well.
Also, to be clear, I'm not referring to the audio quality or fidelity here. Obviously today's pins have much higher *quality* audio, but that doesn't necessarily mean the music and sound design is better.
1. First off, I think the biggest problem I've noticed is that a lot of modern pins aren't given soundtracks that *fit* pinball.
Look at Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit for example. LotR has a low quality audio system where the music is MIDI and callouts are fuzzy, while the Hobbit has a really nice modern audio system with an epic orchestral score by Two Steps from Hell... And yet, LotR has (In my opinion) the better pinball sound package. Emphasis on "pinball," because objectively speaking, yes, I think The Hobbit probably has a better score, but it doesn't really matter how much better it is if it doesn't work for pinball. The Hobbit's often slow, orchestral music doesn't fit the constant flow of pinball, and the lack of a clear melody on most tracks makes all the modes kind of meld together. I love getting one of the few modes with unique music because suddenly it feels like I've actually done something to change the state of the game.
Meanwhile, Lord of the Rings, despite the dated technology, has the more satisfying and more memorable sound package. Chris Granner has an incredible understanding of what makes good pinball music, and LotR is a great example. He took the film soundtrack, and created new pieces of music based on the iconic melodies of the film, ensuring each track remained fairly up-beat while also making sure each track fit the intensity of whatever mode it went with. Whenever you start a mode in LotR, the entire mood of the game changes to reflect that, but the music always fits the constant flow of pinball.
The same complaint applies to games like Stern Star Trek, Stern Star Wars and even the new Jurassic Park from what I've seen and heard. I don't want to listen to the Star Wars theme or the Jurassic Park theme while I play pinball. They're great pieces of music for sure, but they weren't written for a fast paced game like pinball. Some recent games that I do think have good pinball music are Total Nuclear Annihilation, Wizard of Oz, Ghostbusters, and I can't really knock any of Stern's band pins either considering you couldn't really do those soundtracks differently and rock music fits pinball pretty well.
2. Another thing I've noticed is that many modern games don't really do much to ramp up excitement.
I was just playing ACDC on The Pinball Arcade, and suddenly I started a multiball mode, and there was no build-up, the music didn't change, it just started multiball. If you start something like multiball, that should be exciting! It shouldn't just start with someone saying "Something multiball!" Then there are some games that try to ramp up excitement, but just don't do it that well. I think Dialed In! is a good example of this. The way multiball starts in that game is just kind of... meh. You shoot the phone, then a guy thanks you for using D.I.E (Something like that, I can't remember exactly what he says and I can't find any videos without someone talking over the game or skipping the multiball start), then you get an animation of some monorails travelling at fairly normal speeds with the text "multiball" coming on-screen, and then as the balls come out you hear a low-voice say "Now you're dialed in!" but at this point it doesn't really add much since the balls have already been released. Compared to a similar multiball start sequence like the one in Whirlwind, there's very little suspense or buildup. I think Dialed In's multiball start would be a lot more exciting with a few simple changes. Ditch the guy who answers the phone, or at least make him say something funny or exciting. When you shoot the phone, stop the music. Show a cutscene of the monorails going berserk and speeding up due to the phone's chaos, and play the "Now you're dialed in!" clip during this cutscene. Play some music or a rising tone to raise the excitement as the monorails speed up, kind of similar to the Addam's Family multiball start. Once the "dialed in" quote is complete, cut to a shot outside the subway station, and make the game silent for a few short moments. Then, have the monorails come flying out of the tunnel one-by-one in sync with the balls being launched onto the playfield. I think a sequence like that would be a lot more exciting than what we have now (I haven't played a DI in a while, so if updates have improved this, my apologies. Also, if anyone a JJP is reading this... Feel free to use the idea. ).
On a similar note, why do so many games do nothing more than just a "Jackpot!" callout when getting jackpots? It would be nice if we could getting something new that is as iconic as Rudy screaming or Gimli's jackpot callouts in LotR ("Double jackpot one! Double jackpot two! Double jackpot three!" The way he says these lines, the way he counts up, it never gets old!).
Some other recent games that I feel suffer from not having much excitement or buildup are The Hobbit, Batman 66, Black Knight: Sword of Rage and Stern Star Wars. Some recent games that I think do a good job at this are Stern Star Trek, Metallica, and Wizard of Oz.
3. Many modern games have sound design that doesn't feel connected to the game or the music.
I was watching some Black Knight: Sword of Rage gameplay, and one thing that stuck out to me like a sore thumb was how some of the sound effects sound completely out of place. Here you have this super loud heavy metal music, but then I noticed a lot of accomplishments in the game are accompanied by short trumpet motifs which completely clash with all the other audio in the game. The music doesn't stop, and the pitch of these motifs doesn't change to match the music, so you end up with the soundtrack and these motifs fighting each other. It doesn't sound *horrible*, but it doesn't sound good either. I think they should have scrapped the trumpets for something else.
On the same topic, modern games hardly, if ever, have anything synced to the music in any way. Like, something as simple as having the inserts blink to the rhythm of the music would go a long way. Even if it's something you've never really noticed, I can guarantee you it's improved the feel of any game you've played that has a feature like this (Black Knight 2000 and Mousin' Around have stuff like this, to name a few games. A lot of Data East games will blink the GI in time to the music, an effect that I love). You would think a feature like that would be a priority on the band themed games, but nope, even on those games everything on the display and the playfield feels completely disconnected from the music. I think it would be worth it if someone at JJP or Stern took the time to create a tool allowing games to perform actions in sync with the music. It's not as easy as it was on System 11 and Whitestar, but it's certainly not impossible as I've seen similar things done in modern video games that use pre-recorded music (Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze comes to mind).
The ultimate example of this done right, I think, has to be Black Knight 2000. Brian Schmidt wrote a blog post on Gamasutra a few years back detailing a lot of what went into that game's sound package. They pushed System 11 to its limits, and it's clear that a ton of care and passion went into making it sound as good as possible. While I certainly don't expect every game to be a masterpiece of sound design, I would really like to see music and sound in pinball pushed to the limits again, with more passion and more attention to detail. Here's a link to the blog post, it's definitely worth a read: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BrianSchmidt/20141104/229404/Interactive_Audio_in_Black_Knight_2000_The_Importance_of_Integration.php
Getting a jackpot on Twilight Zone makes me feel like the coolest person in the room. Getting multiball in Diner makes me want to dance. Getting a jackpot in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein makes me want to cradle the balls for a minute so I can hum along with the music. Getting multiball in Space Station makes my heart start pounding because of how intense and exciting the sound and music is. Starting a hurry up in Medieval Madness makes me feel that I *really* need to hurry up. Getting a jackpot in Rollergames makes me laugh my butt off, and getting a jackpot in Red and Ted's Roadshow makes me want to sing along, and I *hate* country music! I really wish some of the new games today could give me some of those feelings.
I could go on, but I think it's safe to say I've rambled long enough. Maybe I'm the only pinhead who cares this much about music, but I would love to see people here discuss it more. Every time a new game is revealed, everyone speculates and discusses the rules, the playfield design, the art and animations, but barely anyone ever brings up sound and music, despite that being just as, if not more, important than some of those other things.
TLDR: I feel like pinball music and sound design in general has gone downhill in the past decade or so. A lot of modern games seem to have soundtracks that don't make any sense for pinball (The Hobbit, Star Wars) and as a result the music becomes background noise more than anything. Pinball music should, generally speaking, be upbeat and driven by melody to fit the non-stop action of the game. A good example of this is Lord of the Rings which, while somewhat held back by the limited technology it uses, still makes for a fantastic pinball experience. I also feel like there's a general lack of excitement in many modern games, with very little build-up for things like multiballs and very little celebration for things like jackpots (ACDC, Dialed In!). When are we going to get new iconic moments like the Addams Family multiball start or Rudy screaming when you get a jackpot? Finally, modern pins have very little, if any, music and sound integration. Games like Metallica should have stuff synced to the rhythm of the music, because you know, it's a game celebrating music! Even something as simple as having the inserts flash in time to the music would go a long way towards making it feel more like part of the game. Check out this article by Brian Schmidt about Black Knight 2000's audio to see why audio integration is so important: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BrianSchmidt/20141104/229404/Interactive_Audio_in_Black_Knight_2000_The_Importance_of_Integration.php
Anyone else have any thoughts on this? Do you feel satisfied with the sound packages in today's games, or would you like to see them improved as well?
Regardless of whether you agree or not, take some time to appreciate the music from your pinball machines! Some really talented people worked hard to create some great tunes for these games, new and old, and you might just notice some new details in the audio you never caught before.