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So, one of the largest inspirations I had when I was first starting composing was Stephen Rippy, David Rippy, and later Kevin McMullan's music for the Age of Empires franchise. About a year ago, I had an interesting "what if"- "what if I rebuilt a workstation emulating more or less the technology they had available while working on the Age of Empires games." Born from this is what I call the Historical Audio Workstation project- a near-complete early 2000's workstation centered around the core technology the Rippys had available, or nearest-approximations of the technology given constraints of cost or compatibility.

Research and Fact-Finding
Online resources suggested they had a "BOSS DSS-330" and "EMU ESI-32" and asserted that they used SoundForge for creating the audio versions and "Cakewalk" for the MIDI. Some preliminary research led to the realization that the "DSS-330" is a typo of DS-330, an affordable General MIDI-based sampler that is essentially a re-branding of a similar Roland product. The EMU ESI-32 was released in 1994 as a popular 32-voice hardware sampler and was EMU's "best selling sampler of all time."

A 'making of' video for Age of Mythology (below) showed some sparse but helpful glimpses of the technology they had- at that point, they had upgraded the ESI-32 to an ESI-4000, which came out around 1998 (so for the original Age of Empires, I have little doubt they used the ESI-32, but somewhere between AoE II (1999/2000) and Age of Mythology (2002) they made the upgrade. Vastly more interesting is a shot of the DAW playing back the digital rendition of the score for the trailer. As an amazing bit of luck, we can clearly see the "cakewalk" logo and branding behind the sequencer window. We also have a clear understanding of what the sequencer looked like, and Cakewalk made some regular changes to the UI over time.

The visual style of the system suggests it is Windows 95, Millenium, NT, or 2000.

If we examine the contents of the sequencer settings, we can see there are three outputs listed- "2-E-mu E...", "1-Boss D...", and an audio output, "Layla". It took a surprising amount of searching, but I eventually found Layla was the name of a PCI-based audio interface created by a now-defunct company called ECHO.




(ESI-4000 shown @15 seconds, BOSS DS-330 and unknown effects @1'05", Sonar @1'52")

We also get a look at an unknown keyboard (synth? a lot of knobs for a controller...) @1'18" and (I believe the same one) again at 2'53". There's another view at 3'34" of what is presumably Sonar, but a slightly different UI- maybe that is on a newer OS or a slightly later version.

This is the earliest known public image of the AoE setup (this was for the original AoE as far as I can tell), from Stephen Rippy's site, and is captioned, "The first Age of Empires session!"
[Image: Soundtracks_Albums_Ages_Compilation_Stephen_David.jpg]
On top of the rack (to the top left) we see what looks like the EMU ESI-32. Below that looks like either some sort of CD/tape deck/burner, maybe an effects console or unknown sampler, and then what in my mind is the interface. I don't know interfaces by front plate very well, though.

This picture, presumably from the AoE II - AoM era, shows Stephen sitting at the same console we see in the AoM video-
[Image: Soundtracks_Albums_Ages_Compilation_Step...00x403.jpg]
Here we can see the ESI-4000 to the right (although it could be an ESI-32, they are very similar in profile). There are a number of unknown effects units also present. I also have not identified the keyboards present.

Hypothesis and Selection of Equipment
Regarding OS, I would suggest they would choose the NT/2000 path (what would later evolve into XP) because the older 95/Millenium route was less powerful and technologically quite limited. However, if financials were tight (as is suggested by the price and number of hardware units they used), then it is possible they used 95/Millenium. It appears that there were likely multiple setups in use, using multiple operating systems perhaps. Unfortunately none of these systems are reliable or readily available in restored condition, and I am not in the mood or mindset to go digging around for ancient drivers and hardware just to make stuff work. Fortunately, XP is *essentially* just NT/2000 with some fixes and the addition of some drivers and increased efficiency: the UI can be made to exactly emulate the earlier systems, and it runs NT software and drivers without any issues, not to mention it was officially supported up to only ~1-2 years ago, so I chose to go with XP.

I have an interesting set of hypotheses regarding the Cakewalk/SoundForge divide. 
1: It appears Stephen Rippy did most of the audio tracks for AoE I, while David did most of the MIDI tracks. This would suggest to me that one used one DAW while the other used the other. However, this is contradicted later on when Stephen mainly stepped in to be the primary composer when his brother moved up in the ranks of Ensemble, and appears using Cakewalk and wearing a Cakewalk shirt in the AoM video above: one would have expected Stephen to be the SoundForge user according to the information provided online (which was already proven to be slightly inaccurate).
2: On the other hand, SoundForge was also used to facilitate the transfer of audio and sample mapping data to the ESI-32 and ESI-4000, and there is quite a bit of evidence (also in the video) that the Rippys relied on generating their own samples in a number of cases. In this case, they would have primarily used Cakewalk, as shown in the video. 
3: It could lastly be the case that SoundForge was initially used, but then Cakewalk later came to be the main used DAW.

I did some hunting around the Cakewalk site using the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive. I found the UI roughly matched the late Pro Audio releases, Pro Audio 6 and 7 about. Fun fact: It was not until later that Cakewalk added stereo audio tracks- at that time, audio tracks had to be in mono (so if you wanted stereo, you would need two tracks). I found the advanced versions of Pro Audio 6, 7, and the advanced version of Sonar 1 (XL) on Amazon and purchased them for around $70-100 each (still much cheaper than a new cop of Sonar). No historical copies of SoundForge were available anywhere that I could tell, so I decided to just work in Sonar, as Rippy had apparently done in the trailer.

Regarding the samplers used, I found out that the ESI-32 and ESI-4000 are rather similar units: they can load the same file formats, have very similar specs and hardware, just the ESI-4000 has much more memory and some more advanced filters. Thus I decided to use the ESI-4000 to facilitate larger and more advanced instruments and projects. These systems both used SCSI (arguably the precursor to USB, but considerably more annoying and hazardous to equipment if not well understood), so I decided to get a SCSI hard drive and CD drive to load instruments and save banks. The ESI-4000 that I purchased came with a very large collection (~20 CD's) of instruments. Unfortunately the hard drive can only hold a certain number of banks, and far worse, the ESI-4000 can only load a single bank at a time (although it can import instruments from different banks into a new bank). Most of the sounds were distributed in their own banks (e.g. a bank for trombone, a bank for flute, etc.) and thus I would have to import instruments every time I wanted to compose rather than simply load up a ready-to-go bank. To ameliorate this, I decided I would take stock of every instrument in the collection and build for myself a 128 MB bank of the key instruments I would want. This is still ongoing and won't be completed for a few months, so in the meantime, I am using the 32 MB orchestral bank available on one of the CD's in conjunction with some additional instruments.

I have taken stock of the sounds so far and found dozens of instruments that were used in AoE I, II, and AoM. It's almost surreal to load up an instrument and play the exact sounds I've heard hundreds of times in a game made nearly 20 years ago.

I also managed to pick up a BOSS DS-330. I think fewer sounds were used from the BOSS versus the EMU ESI, particularly in later games, but the percussion were definitely used, as was the church organ (it's almost unnerving to play), and a few ethnic instruments. It's very close to Roland SoundCanvas for some instruments, but is overall a handy and cool little sampler.

With the audio interface, I presume by Age of Mythology they were probably using the Layla 20, a 20-bit, 8 analog in, 8 analog out PCI interface from the late 90's. After that came the Layla 24, a 24-bit version, and finally the Layla 3G, 24-bit with two mic preamps in front. I ended up getting the 3G since it was closest to the origin of my XP computer, provided the most compatibility, and those handy front-access preamps might come in handy for recording, although it wasn't around until ~2004-5. It was also the only one I could find that also came with the PCI card- moronically there were half a dozen with no PCI card included (i.e. absolutely useless). Therefore, the quality of audio will probably be slightly superior with more modern converters and later generation updates, but it's still the same basic technology and mindset at work, so I figure it's close enough.

I'm not sure if they started with the Layla. It's possible they were using something else early on, as even though the Layla is a cost-effective option (~$500-700 USD at the time, as far as I can tell), I don't know if it actually existed when they were working on AoE I (1996-1997) and as such, it's possible a different interface was used during that time- I'd have to e-mail Stephen or David to find out, as there just isn't any evidence.

The Setup
Here's what the setup looks like so far:
[attachment=15]

You can see the two computers... and the two mice!
[attachment=16]
[attachment=17]

Possibly most entertaining of all is that I have my second monitor tasked to receive data from the XP via VGA (and from the Win7 via HDMI)-
[attachment=18]

These are some of the sexy CD covers from 90's sample libraries-
[attachment=19]

I'm currently working on expanding the setup in other directions than simply repeating what was done with AoE/Ensemble Studios. For example, I also have an Ensoniq Mirage keyboard (80's sampler with analog VCA) as well as soon a rack unit that will be joining the lower shelf. I am also looking into an Ensoniq ESQ-1, which was an early digital synth. On the upper shelf you can see my most recent addition, a Technics WSA1R, a somewhat rare modelling synth created by Technics in the late 90's. It's hell to menu-drive so far, but I've finally started figuring out how it works and it's pretty versatile at creating cool sounds, particularly as an effects unit. I also have a technics keyboard from the 80's that has made a few appearances in tracks.

Sounds
So you're probably wondering, what does all this ancient stuff sound like? (well, relatively ancient compared to modern audio technology- much of it is younger than I am)
The Ensoniq Mirage is a helluva lot of fun, although the models I have are both "middle" models and are thus mono- https://instaud.io/vkn (that's a "synth" emulating patch)
This is the standard orchestral set from the ESI-4000. You'll recognize the English Horn from AoE- https://instaud.io/tZV
This is a combination of ESI-4000 and percussion from the BOSS and one patch at the start from the Mirage. You will probably instantly recognize that snare. https://instaud.io/var
Here's another combo- Mirage pads, vox, strings, bell thing, Technics e-piano, Boss perc. - https://instaud.io/vk3

Other Insights
For any of you who like Civilization as well, I found some samples on one of the EMU CD's that were used in various Civ IV tracks, in particular the ancient music tracks and the vocal bits that were used for the little religion sound effects. I think some of the instruments may also have appeared in other bits of Civ III and IV, although I know well that Civ IV used a lot of Vienna sounds as well.

EDIT: (2022)
Just a follow-up/necro-bump for any future time-travellers reading this: I released an album based on the sounds and techniques discussed in here (the album was discussed elsewhere on this forum). The tracks are comprised of many of the example tracks posted here:
https://samulis.bandcamp.com/album/mirage

(sharing especially now that Instaud.io is dead!)
Huh! I guess we're taking virtual orchestration into the postmodern age with all these retro mockups. Big Grin

I love the soundtracks of a bunch of games from that era. Heroes III (which appears to use Roland orchestral boards based on spotting some iconic instruments like the weirdly panned harp) is my favourite, and Myth II, King of Dragon Pass, and Caesar III (partially*) are right up there as well. I always loved the compositions, but I've also come to love the sound of early workstation synthesizers as well.

I could have access to an old Ensoniq workstation if said workstation weren't in dire need of repairs. Dammit... I'd love to see how far you could get by using only the onboard orchestral instruments and reverbs.

Your demos sound great, by the way. Takes you right back to the turn of the millennium. Smile

*Caesar III, in my opinion, has a couple great tracks and a bunch of not-so-great tracks that sound like rushed knock-offs of the music from Ben-Hur.
(11-07-2016, 12:41 AM)Otto Halmén Wrote: [ -> ]Huh! I guess we're taking virtual orchestration into the postmodern age with all these retro mockups. Big Grin

I love the soundtracks of a bunch of games from that era. Heroes III (which appears to use Roland orchestral boards based on spotting some iconic instruments like the weirdly panned harp) is my favourite, and Myth II, King of Dragon Pass, and Caesar III (partially*) are right up there as well. I always loved the compositions, but I've also come to love the sound of early workstation synthesizers as well.

I could have access to an old Ensoniq workstation if said workstation weren't in dire need of repairs. Dammit... I'd love to see how far you could get by using only the onboard orchestral instruments and reverbs.

Your demos sound great, by the way. Takes you right back to the turn of the millennium. Smile

*Caesar III, in my opinion, has a couple great tracks and a bunch of not-so-great tracks that sound like rushed knock-offs of the music from Ben-Hur.

Thanks Otto!

The Ensoniq Mirage is very primitive- no onboard effects, but it has some really awesome primitive sounds and great filters. The ESI-4000 unfortunately has no effects card (it was an add-on), and the only way you can really get one... is by buying another entire unit, so I'll probably wait on that until I have more money to pour into such an expense (or can sell the one I have). Interestingly enough, the DS-330 has both chorus and reverb effects, and the reverb has some cool "delay/pan" type effects which I love. The Technics has the most impressive effects by far, including some really great sounding delays and reverb emulations and some very detailed control over the signal chain.

In many cases, these samples would be nothing more than "quirky" and "bland" by today's standards, but there's something about the character they possess that makes them charming to me. Most of the ESI-4000 sample sets contain between 10-20 samples. The Mirage typically only has about 4-8 samples! It's incredible how far we have come to now have instruments with THOUSANDS of samples. Big Grin
Wow, what a project! Really amazing, I love stuff like this. I also have a lot of old hardware lying around -- both PC's and sound cards -- and some day I'm definitely going to put together a retro midi workstation

(11-06-2016, 11:52 PM)Samulis Wrote: [ -> ][Image: Soundtracks_Albums_Ages_Compilation_Stephen_David.jpg]
On top of the rack (to the top left) we see what looks like the EMU ESI-32. Below that looks like either some sort of CD/tape deck/burner, maybe an effects console or unknown sampler, and then what in my mind is the interface. I don't know interfaces by front plate very well, though.

The rack unit with a blue logo and a red display is an Alesis Midiverb II.

(11-06-2016, 11:52 PM)Samulis Wrote: [ -> ][Image: Soundtracks_Albums_Ages_Compilation_Step...00x403.jpg]
Here we can see the ESI-4000 to the right (although it could be an ESI-32, they are very similar in profile). There are a number of unknown effects units also present. I also have not identified the keyboards present.

I'm pretty sure the unit on top of the ESI-4000/32 is a DAT tape deck. On top of that is a Furman power conditioner.

Those units mounted into the desktop, close to the mouse, look like a big graphic EQ and two parametric ones, but I'm not sure.
The graphic EQ is most likely one of these. And since the other units have the same color, it might be safe to assume that they're of the same brand.
Wow, thanks a ton, Mattias! I'll start looking into the reverb at least. It's great to be in a community where people have diverse sets of knowledge and can pitch in.

There's another shot of the tape deck that has the model and brand on it- I'm not much up for working with tape nowadays (last I knew it was getting pretty expensive), and they probably used CD's for their masters anyway... although it could always be fun... Big Grin

You could probably build the mother of all retro workstations! Go for it!
(11-07-2016, 04:13 PM)Samulis Wrote: [ -> ]There's another shot of the tape deck that has the model and brand on it- I'm not much up for working with tape nowadays (last I knew it was getting pretty expensive), and they probably used CD's for their masters anyway... although it could always be fun... Big Grin

I wouldn't bother with DAT if I were you... it was only ever used for either mixing down audio, or as a file backup medium. As it's digital it doesn't offer anything over other digital media in terms of audio quality, and for file backup it's limited in size and very slow. That said, if you REALLY want one I have a 5.25" SCSI DAT drive just gathering dust. I have no idea whether it works though. But if you think it might be worth paying transatlantic postage for it, it's yours if you want it Smile
(11-07-2016, 11:35 PM)Mattias Westlund Wrote: [ -> ]
(11-07-2016, 04:13 PM)Samulis Wrote: [ -> ]There's another shot of the tape deck that has the model and brand on it- I'm not much up for working with tape nowadays (last I knew it was getting pretty expensive), and they probably used CD's for their masters anyway... although it could always be fun... Big Grin

I wouldn't bother with DAT if I were you... it was only ever used for either mixing down audio, or as a file backup medium. As it's digital it doesn't offer anything over other digital media in terms of audio quality, and for file backup it's limited in size and very slow. That said, if you REALLY want one I have a 5.25" SCSI DAT drive just gathering dust. I have no idea whether it works though. But if you think it might be worth paying transatlantic postage for it, it's yours if you want it Smile

Hahaha thanks for the offer, but I think I'll just aim for getting the reverb unit you mentioned and see if I can figure out some other stuff.
(11-07-2016, 10:13 AM)Mattias Westlund Wrote: [ -> ]Wow, what a project! Really amazing, I love stuff like this. I also have a lot of old hardware lying around -- both PC's and sound cards -- and some day I'm definitely going to put together a retro midi workstation

(11-06-2016, 11:52 PM)Samulis Wrote: [ -> ][Image: Soundtracks_Albums_Ages_Compilation_Stephen_David.jpg]
On top of the rack (to the top left) we see what looks like the EMU ESI-32. Below that looks like either some sort of CD/tape deck/burner, maybe an effects console or unknown sampler, and then what in my mind is the interface. I don't know interfaces by front plate very well, though.

The rack unit with a blue logo and a red display is an Alesis Midiverb II.

I was just listening to the demos on that Alesis Midiverb demo page and holy canoli- that reversed reverb is spot on to an effect used in the Age of Mythology tracks! I am definitely going to grab one of those after Christmas.

Thanks again for your help identifying these unknown units, Mattias!
Awesome project! These and other old game soundtracks were so alluringly mysterious to me and that was one of the things that got me into all this VO stuff. I was always so curious as to how it was all done and here are literally photos and explanations! Didn't Roland (as I think you mentioned above) have a pretty sweet and comprehensive orchestral palette on offer in the mid to late 90s? I seem to remember seeing it mentioned that there were some synth / sample hybrids of theirs around at that time that were pretty popular.
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