For a certain generation of gamers, the beeps and boops of Tetris and Super Mario Land are just as iconic as the games themselves. But how did video games of the 1970s and '80s create such legendary melodies? The answer lies in the sound cards used in early consoles, The 8-Bit Guy and the Obsolete Geek explain in a video essay.
The earliest home computer speakers were incredibly primitive, producing only a few sounds. Called "beeper speakers," they were directly connected to a computer's CPU — but they used so much processing power, Rachel Pick writes for Motherboard, the computers couldn't do much else. That's when programmers first developed sound cards, a type of hardware plugged into a motherboard, so the CPU could run normally.
Though the first sound cards were weak, they nonetheless allowed designers to make music. Depending on a console's sound card, composers could access different audio channels, or "voices," which were programmed to make different noises. For some systems, like the NES, each channel was dedicated to a specific kind of sound. Other systems, like the Commodore 64, had fewer channels but didn't designate any for a specific sound, as Eric Limer explains for Popular Mechanics, which meant audio tracks were richer.
Thanks to these different configurations, each system had a unique sound, much like a musician or band does. Sega Genesis could even mimic human voices, a task that reportedly took up one-eighth of the storage space on the first Sonic the Hedgehog cartridge. For more on the history of early video game soundtracks, check out the 8-Bit Guy's video essay.