Covering a Tune: Arranging Music for Beta Test Presents: HEROES! Part 2

This is Part 2 of my blog posts on arranging the music for the new Beta Test Music concert, Beta Test Presents:  HEROES!  In this entry, I am going to talk about arranging “Super Mario Land Medley” for the ensemble.  In case you missed it, here’s a link to Part 1.  Also, want to hear the track before we play it on Saturday, March 3rd?  Here’s a link to our BandCamp where we’ve already recorded it!

Performance Considerations:

Getting all the tunes together is usually the easiest part of the whole process.  After picking all right tracks to cover, the next step is to take those parts and figure out a way they can all co-exist.

For “Super Mario Land Medley”, I wanted the material to flow well.  I decided to place the two dixieland tracks together (Super Mario Land – World 1 and Super Mario Land 2 – Athletic) as I felt they could transition into each other.  I figured I’d present the Easton Kingdom theme after that, Star Maze as a transition (put the weakest material sandwiched somewhere), and then end with the ending credits theme to Super Mario Land.

With the format laid out, I made the decisions on how to assign parts.  Beta Test Music‘s normal configuration is clarinet, tenor sax, trombone, and tuba.  We flex in drums and piano when needed.  When I write things for the group, I usually consider that I have one true soprano line with alto capabilities if I need them, an alto/tenor line hybrid, a true tenor, and a very true bass.  This works well with most early video game music, as we’ll see in a moment.

Last thing I had to do for all the pieces (and just worth noting) was to change all the keys to musical instrument friendly keys.  I HATE doing that since I’m a huge fan of original fidelity but it makes more sense for the group to play notes that are more in tune.  If someone takes music for an orchestra, such as Wagner or Berlioz, and arranges it for wind ensemble, they ALWAYS change the key to make it wind ensemble friendly.  Thus, I feel like changing the key is a necessary evil.

Super Mario Land – World 1

(credit: SethisKun)

The original Game Boy provides us with 2 square wave generators, a 4-bit PCM sampler, and a noise generator (that static-y sound generally used for drums).  The PCM sampler allows the Game Boy to produce many different timbres that a NES/Famicom cannot.  Still, there can only be 3 simultaneous instruments at any point.  Super Mario Land, by virtue of being a launch title for Game Boy, does not have the most complicated use of the Game Boy’s sound capabilities.  It was very easy to write down the music by ear.

What’s nice about this is that I have 4 instruments to use and only 3 musical lines to assign.  This particular track has a clear soprano melody, upbeats in an alto/tenor range, and a clear “this is the tuba line so give it to the tuba”.  With very little manipulation, I was able to put the parts where they belong.  I had the tenor sax double the clarinet at times and play the subtle counter melodies and had the trombone handle upbeats to mask how difficult some of the octave leaps are on CC tuba.

Last consideration was the weird kind of… tinny sound of the piece.  I own a tuba mute so I figure- well, I should use it for things other than Pictures at an Exhibition once every 3 years.  I decided that trombone and tuba should be muted to add some dry tones.  It worked out a lot better than I thought it would.

Super Mario Land 2 – Athletic

(credit:  the8bitgamer)

This track is a good example of how the PCM can make things complicated.  There’s a LOT of tones to the notes.  Fortunately, since there’s only 3 true tones and 4 instruments, this is not a problem.

What was a problem, however, was the “banjo” part.  That square wave can do things that a clarinet/tenor sax/trombone/tuba cannot.  Removing the banjo line really made the piece sound flat.  I decided to change the piece a bit then and make it more of a 2-step trad jazz feel over the heavy square bass line.  To do this, I needed to add piano to the group and drums.

Since the melody is passed around the PCM with different timbres, I was able to assign it to a different instrument each time it came by.  I made a couple executive decisions as to how to do this to give everyone a bit of a break.

The tuba obviously needed to just plug away at the bass line.  The piece was adjusted to the key of F which sits… okay on a CC tuba.  Some of the transitions between notes are kind of muddy but at the time, I thought it made sense.  The result is the line can be sluggish if notes aren’t played almost before the beat.  I also added a kind of… humorous tuba showcase right before the transition to Easton Kingdom.

I had the drums play simple trad jazz feel and piano play upbeats.  The result is music that fits PERFECTLY for the ensemble.  I’d love to arrange more Mario music like this track for the group.  It just fits.

Super Mario Land – Easton Kingdom

(credit:  BDarius213)

This was cut and dry.  Tuba on the bassline, clarinet and tenor sax on the melody.  Our drummer, Rob Tait, decided to add a “Middle-Eastern” drum feel that works well.  Justin and Ellis added a neat harmony part.

Super Mario Land 2 – Star Maze

(credit:  SupraDarky)

This track ONLY worked because we added a drummer so I’m glad we decided to do that for “Athletic”.  Originally, I thought we could just stomp on the ground to create the same effect.  The result was kind of hilarious.

Clarinet can cover the… well let’s face it- the part that sounds like “The Hustle“.  I put tenor sax on the melody in-between and tuba on bass of course.  I felt like the material was too short to really bother with arranging extra parts.  I had the trombone sit out and look pretty and the piano just double the clarinet as needed.

Super Mario Land – Ending Theme/Credits

(credit:  Vyse19861)

So, I wanted to make sure the last piece of music we played felt… final.  I was approaching the border of the piece being too long so I needed to cut something.  Naturally, I decided the very high soprano-ish part during the first 30~ seconds of this track would be perfect to cut.  It would be better to start right at :29~.

I assigned the clarinet to the melody and added some chords for the tenor and trombone to play.  The tuba would be assigned to the bass line as always.

One of the major issues with the tuba part was the clarity of the line.  Eb major doesn’t lie especially well for CC tuba so some of the octave leaps in the bass part are dreadful.  Though I wrote the bass line accurate to the original part, I decided to perform it differently to make sure there was clear pulse.

A lot of the lines for trombone and tenor are newly composed for this piece.  There’s only really two lines playing and no harmonies so I figured I’d add some.  I also added some heavier piano stuff as well to balance out the huge gap between clarinet and tuba.

For the very end, I created some new material (Berlioz-esque, I’d say)  and then dumped the Game Over theme on top of it:

(credit: BogleDominic1)


The finished product can be heard at our BandCamp ( or totally live on March 3rd- Beta Test Presents: HEROES!

Tomorrow, Part 3 – Sonic the Hedgehog.


About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

3 responses to “Covering a Tune: Arranging Music for Beta Test Presents: HEROES! Part 2

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