Covering a Tune: Arranging Music for Groundhog’s Day with Beta Test Music – Part 1

On February 2nd, my band, Beta Test Music (betatestmusic.com), will be performing another big concert of video game music and other nerdy favorites at First Unitarian Church in downtown Philadelphia (see here for information and tickets).  This series of posts will highlight the music that I arranged for the concert, explaining the choices in musical selection, instrumentation, and overall presentation.

In Part 1, I’ll discuss one of the biggest arrangement projects I’ve done in my entire life – Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania III) for Beta Test Music and 2A03+VRC6 (FC/NES) accompaniment.  Yep, that’s live music + pre-programmed NES.  On this blog, I talk about these chips all the time.  Now it’s time to actually use them.

First impressions:

Since the humble beginnings of Beta Test some 4 years ago, I’ve really really really really wanted to get us playing along with some 8bit or chiptune pre-programmed sound.

Honestly, there really wasn’t anything stopping me from doing this.  So, why was this not done earlier?  Well, partially because I wasn’t really sure how to manipulate the sounds well enough using FamiTracker to make Nintendo music that was convincing…. and partially because it’s ridiculously time consuming.  Ask anyone who composes chiptune music-  it’s not just like you’re sitting in front of Finale blasting away on your MIDI keyboard.  It takes a lot of subtle nuance, mainly due to the “manual” nature of technology behind the sound generation (more on this later).

Eventually, with the encouragement of some good friends (hat tip to Chipocrite) and others (hat tip to others), I decided to get a project going.  My decision was to cover the music from Akumajou Densetsu, a game we call Castlevania III here in the US.  While not the most famous game in the series, the game itself has probably the best soundtrack from the NES generation of  Castlevania games.

Let’s take a look my musical selection process.

Musical Selections:

Akumajou Densetsu/Castlevania III, composer:  Hidenori Maezawa

Maezawa’s soundtrack for this game is very complex, bass driven, and at times, extremely atmospheric…. in the Japanese version.

As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, the US-released Castlevania III is missing the VRC6 audio mapper.  The VRC6 adds an extra 3 channels of sound – 2 pulse waves and a sawtooth wave- to the standard NES sounds – 2 pulse waves, 1 triangle wave, 1 noise channel, and a simple 1bit sampler.  Does this make a big difference, though?

What we heard:

What Japan heard:

VERY UNFAIR.  VERY VERY UNFAIR.  The Japanese version is capable of using the sawtooth for the bass- a much more convincing “bass” sound over the triangle.  In fact, the Japanese version doesn’t use the triangle wave AT ALL.  Weird.  You’ll notice a lot more polyphony as well.  Maezawa, in addition to composing for this game, is the CREATOR of the VRC6 module.  All of these factors lead me to decide to arrange the music from the Japanese version of the game, hence why I keep referring to my arrangement as Akumajou Densetsu over Castlevania III.

Now, for the record, Beta Test HAS played an arrangement of music from this game before without pre-programmed sound- we did so at “Beta Test Presents:  MONSTERS!” back in the fall of 2011 – so I already had a good idea of what music I would like to cover from the game.  The track above ,”Beginning”, is a classic Castlevania series theme and naturally would have to be included.  It is also the music that plays for the very first level of the game.

As an aside:  I believe that when covering music from games, it’s always important to include music from the beginning of the game because that’s what people remember the most.  Every time someone plays the game, they have to go through the first level, regardless of how far they get.  I feel that this makes all game arrangements accessible and I’ve used this strategy on nearly all the arrangements I’ve done for Beta Test.

The introduction music to this game is actually really beautiful.  Take a listen:

I decided that inserting this into the arrangement would really take advantage of our live instruments.  Digital sound’s advantage over real instruments is that it can be manipulated for basically ANY kind of playback- from ridiculously short to infinitely long tones.  However, real instruments are much more capable of producing extra amounts of variability on-the-fly since a line can never really be reproduced the same way.  My point is:  lyrical pieces will probably always be interpreted better when played by real instruments vs. chiptune audio playback (or at least it’s a helluva a lot easier haha).  I decided that I should take advantage of this when I can.  Speaking of which:

I decided that this would also work well with our instrumentation.  It’s short but can provide a transition after the “Prelude”.

So I had “Prelude”, “Prayer”, and “Beginning”.  I needed to add some other tracks with some meat.  I thought this would be a good choice as well:

Good old “Vampire Killer”.  Such an iconic track.  I figured everyone would recognize it.  It would also be really fun to remix.  Then, I wanted to add a personal favorite to the mix:

As Doug from Beta Test always says about this track:  I don’t get it- you’re marching your way to Dracula to a Latin beat?  He kinda has a point… but still, it’s a good track.  I also chose it because it’s not used very much in the complete series (though it is brought back here).

Lastly, I decided we should end with something lyrical and thoughtful after blasting through a bunch of upbeat tunes.  The ending to the game came to mind:

Again:  advantage – real instruments.  I thought this would be perfect.

So, my medley was set to be:  “Prelude”, “Prayer”, “Beginning”, “Deja vu”, “Riddle,” and “Evergreen”.   How does this turn out?  Was I able to mix the real instruments and the digital sound convincingly?  Check back tomorrow for Part 2.

And uh… here’s a small teaser of the complete product (played here by MIDI playback+2a03/VRC6):

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

7 responses to “Covering a Tune: Arranging Music for Groundhog’s Day with Beta Test Music – Part 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: