Tag Archives: chiptune

Originals: The Last Dream (EP)

Artwork by Joey Mariano ( animal-style.com )

Hi guys!  Been quite some time since I’ve posted.  Hope all is well.

I’m pleased to announce the release of my very first chiptune album, “The Last Dream”.  I’ve been working on this for some time and I’m very excited to share it with you.  Please take a listen and download it (it’s free!).

Feel free to leave comments.  I’m not revealing exactly what the album is about (maybe you can figure it out!) but I’ll be glad to answer any questions about how I put the music together, constructed the concept, etc.

Expanded Liner Notes:

The entire album was created using jsr’s Famitracker 0.4.2 with Ricoh 2a03 and Konami VRC6.   I created my own DPCM 1bit samples and all the samples you hear are playable on a Famicom console.  If you download the album, you will get the NSF files and if you have the right equipment, you can play it right off hardware, which is neat!

Here’s a couple things I thought about while making this album:

  • I excluded tuba.  I know that I’ve been working on combining the two during performances but I wanted to write an album that stands alone to start.  Well, and also, I’m not sure exactly how to integrate the tuba well enough at this point to make it sound polished.  I will definitely continue to experiment with that.
  • While I have been writing a LOT of Turbografx-16 tracks lately, I wanted my first album to reflect the work I’ve done with this set up.  I’ve been using 2a03+VRC6 since I started last February.  I really wanted to show off what I’ve learned.
  • This album was originally slated to be called “First Blood”.  I actually completed most of the tracks and then realized that I didn’t like the concept.  I ended up tossing many of the ideas I had and rewriting a couple from the ground up.  I wanted to focus on a different concept as I felt “First Blood”‘s concept of drinking, depression, and self-pity was a bit too dark overall.
    • The only track from “First Blood” that made this album is “Rumble”.  The rest of the tracks were written with the new concept in mind and all within the last 4 months or so.
    • There was to be an “Oddball – Album Version” included on the CD but I cut it at the last minute.  The track is completely done.  I plan on releasing it in the future but I won’t tell when.
    • My toughest decision was to cut a 9-minute long epic track about depression called “Nagging Cough”.  I have been fighting with this track since last March.  This was written right after “What Happens When You Take the Wrong Bus”, making it the second track of my short chiptuning career.  It started small and now it’s kind of grown into something completely different.  There are so many good things in it… and so many things I want to change.  I believe I will release it as a single in the spring, maybe as a one-year anniversary of my struggle to make it sound like music.

At any rate, I really hope you like what I’ve put together.  Thanks for listening and thanks for reading!  Hope to see some of you lovely people at MAGFest this year.  I will be in town on January 4th.

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Research in Game Music: Silence

While working on the second installment of Research in Game Music:  Writing effective and non-repetitive game music (Part 1 here!), I stumbled upon an article from ScienceDaily.com highlighting a 2007 Stanford University School of Medicine study about music.  The study (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) basically wanted to scan people’s brains while listening to music.  It would appear “that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory.” (SD)  I mean, that makes sense.  We all get a bit mesmerized by music from time to time.  As we sit and listen, we may attempt to figure out where the music may be “going” (tonally, structure-wise, etc).  This prediction clearly requires brain power and focus.

However, what this study points out, and I think is worth further exploration, is this:  “Peak brain activity occurred during a short period of silence between musical movements – when seemingly nothing was happening.”  (DC)  Uh, wow.  The SILENCE had a profound effect, in fact, the PEAK of our listening prediction/brain activity occurs during the silence.

I also stumbled upon another article by Marcel Cobussen, a music professor at Leiden University in The Netherlands.  If you check out his website, http://cobussen.com/, you can check out his entire dissertation, online: “Deconstruction in Music“.  It reads like a subway map and is full of small articles that branch off the main topic.  There were couple sections on John Cage and Silence, other composers and Silence, etc.  Out of all this, though, the article that interested me the most was, “Silence and/in Music“.  An expanded excerpt for you:

This brief and incomplete summary immediately shows the heterogeneity of silence. Silence and silence do not necessarily match. For that reason alone, silence deserves more attention. As Martin Zenck concludes in ‘Dal niente – Vom Verlöschen der Musik’ [On the Extinguishing of Music], however, the attention to silence is a peripheral moment in composition and music analysis. By no means is its status equal to sound (cf. Zenck, p.15). The pause in music, identified as an absence of sound, is the exception to the rule that has music designated as the center of the musical spectrum. Eduard Hanslick’s famous definition of music as ‘die tönend bewegte Form’ [‘form propelled by sound’] in no way indicates a music that is present in its absence, in non-sound. Sound and silence relate to each other as the essential versus the supplement, as the primary versus the secondary. It seems that not the tritonus (the augmented fourth), but rather silence is the true ‘diabolus in musica’ in Western music. Contrary to the tritonus, silence was never banned, but its raison d’etre has been thoroughly questioned up until the 20th century. Its function was mainly dramatic or rhetoric. Silence is subordinate to sound, and has for the longest time (still?) been regarded as something less significant.

Music, for the most part, has been either ON or OFF for many hundreds of years.  Notationally, how do we show “silence”?   In composition, we document silence during a piece with a rest.  In Famitracker, we simply leave it blank. It is, to us, a simple ABSENCE of sound and therefore, not AS valid.   Cobussen would agree (begrudgingly) that we do, in fact, treat silence as a second class citizen.

So how does this relate to the Stanford article?  If silence/anticipation stimulates the listeners’ brains, how can we effectively deploy these tactics in our own music?  Is is possible to write a piece that upgrades silence to first class and gives it a martini?

My brain really started to wrap around this after really digging into some chiptune tracks I’ve been working on for the past couple weeks.  With digital music, I feel like it’s even easier to convey this juxtaposition of silence and sound.  Built-in to digital sound is the ability to create both with the flick of a switch or code.  Most chiptune composers already employ this.  Imagine chiptune tracks without space, with all the channels activated and meandering.  There needs to be space (IE mistakes that all beginning composers make- “I have 7 tonal channels, I gotta use them ALL, ALL THE TIME.”  No.)

Face it.  We all love SOUND.  We all STRIVE to have wonderful sounds.  C’mon, sound is where it’s at.   LISTEN TO THIS GREAT NEW SYNTH I MADE.  DUDE, YOUR WAVE CHANNEL IS BALLIN’.  etc. etc. etc.  Still, our study shows that silence can be just powerful… and we don’t need cool wave table effects to create silence.

So where am I going with this?  Video games, much like symphonies and other predetermined and measured pieces of interactive art, find ways to employ silence as well.  In a video game, where there is already a ton of sensory overload via lights and colors and sound, does silence have an impact on us as players?  Can silence HELP our immersion and attention when playing games?

Example of Silence in Games #1:  LOADING…. LOADING…. LOADING….

Andrew High and I would agree (though we didn’t here) that loading screens definitely ruin our immersion while playing games.  Many of the older games had completely silent loading screens.  Hell, loading screens sunk entire consoles (I’m looking at you, Sega Saturn!)

Here’s a well known example of a loading screen:

If you’ve played any of the games in the Madden, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  The average delay from the game options screens (Franchise Screen, Online Screen, etc) to the actual game was usually enough for me to go downstairs, grab a beverage and some food, and come back to the screen, with time still remaining on the load.  Pretty darn awful.  On the loading screen, the game usually plays whatever music is cued up and then fades out slowly when the game is about to load.  Once it goes silent, you pretty much know the game is about to begin.  It’s a cue that we pick up on.  The silence SAYS something to us.  Interesting.

I mean, this is just one example of how the music and load screen typically line up.  A lot of the new games have music that just plays over the load screen or through it… and you’re going to need that little bit of music if you’re playing Skyim on PS3, for sure:

That’s pretty infuriating.  But at least it’s not complete silence.  Entering a new area cues up new music too, so that itself is a reward haha.

Example #2:  HARVEST MOON:  THE HERO OF LEAF VALLEY – y u no load music gud k?

Perhaps a personal example as I’m not sure how many of you guys played this but Harvest Moon:  The Hero of Leaf Valley for PSP has some major issues with the music.  I mean, the music itself is kind of nice and sweet and what you’d expect from an RPG about farming… but I’m more concerned with what happens when you change areas:

You wanna talk about “losing immersion”?  This game is a nightmare.  Every time you zone, the music cuts out.  It’s interesting though, because the music doesn’t restart… it picks back up where it left off… which makes it stutter along.  It totally drives me crazy.  I don’t understand what they were thinking.

Still, oddly, I sometimes find myself humming the next bar to the phrase during the silence.  I want my sound!  Where is my sound?  The delay creates anticipation.

Example #3:  Cue the death music!

Perfect example, again, is Super Mario Bros.  Let’s highlight this in an amusing fashion:

Dying plays the dying music… and then what happens?  There’s silence, followed by a load screen that displays how many lives remaining.  That’s your musical prep – your silence between movements.  It gives you ample time to think about what you’re going to do differently.  It’s not just Super Mario Bros too.  There are plenty of other games that have screens that give you a second to think about it after dying.

Example #4:  Dead Space IE I know there’s necromorphs here, I just can’t see them yet!

The Dead Space series employs silence to add to the drama of the game.  Nothing is more frightening than walking into a large open room with vents.  Clearly, something is going to happen.  Is it now?  How about… now!?  Let me walk a little… OH GOD NO!  MY FACE! Once a necromorph appears, the music rushes in and attempts to startle the player.  For example:

A very loose conclusion:

Obviously, there’s a lot to study about this.  My intention here was not to go into a 3000+ word paper on this but to point out some moments where silence could have some kind of affect on us.  Any thoughts out there?  Let me know and thanks for reading, as always!


Originals: “A Promise”

This track premiered at 8static 36’s Open Mic on June 8th at PhilaMOCA in Philadelphia, PA.  It was written in Famitracker v. 0.4.2 using 2a03+VRC6 and numerous drum samples programmed through the DPCM channel.  Please enjoy!

Some background on the piece while you listen:

  • The title for this track was decided long after it was finished.  The track was written specifically for June’s 8static with the intent of showing off all the new techniques I learned while working on my Chiptunes = WIN submission (which was accepted, by the way) without playing my ChipWIN submission live.  At first, I wanted to call it something like “My Promise” or “Promises” or “It Will Continue”- something that showed that the work done here was not the end of my own personal growth.  I figured that “My Promise” was too pretentious.  There’s not really a pretentious vibe to the song.  I eventually settled on “A Promise”.  “A Promise” can be from me to you, from you to me, from anyone and anything, as long as it’s kept.  I figured I’ll leave that interpretation up to you, the listener.
  • Construction:
    • My original goal was find a way to create “heavy metal” using NES audio.  I spent a lot of time developing sounds and tweaking instruments to get a nasty, almost grungy sound.  I was pretty happy with it.
    • From there, I constructed the beat.  8static IS a dance party, I know people play chip music and stuff there, but it’s fundamentally a dance party.  I spend time messing with various ideas until I settled on the beat your hear above.
    • I overlayed the original bass line (which was far less busy) and then wrote a simple melody.  I usually start with a very “quarter note-y” version of everything just to hear the harmonies and the direction.  I adjusted the shapes of the melodies to be more interesting, cut some “holes” for silence, and then spliced the original part to the grunge part.  I then cloned the beginning, changed the bassline and feel, and tweaked everything so that it flowed.
  • Things I’d do differently:
    • After almost getting rejected from the ChipWIN comp for bad volume levels on my instruments, I think I’ve finally learned that I cannot crank every instrument up to the highest volume setting.  I LOVE the sound it creates.  It’s like… garbage noise.  It distorts and spreads.  It’s a useful tool but I don’t think I can use it all the time.  I definitely could go back and change the volume levels on this guy too.  It would probably sound even better.
    • I need to follow my instincts a bit more when composing.  My ChipWIN submission took about 15-16 hours to write and this took 25+.  At the last minute, I found myself reverting parts of the piece back to the originals ideas.  Lesson here is:

Hope you enjoyed the track!  More to come as usual.  Thanks again!


Covering a Tune: “What Happens When You Take The Wrong Bus” Remix 1

Hey guys!

It’s been exactly 3 months since I first performed at 8static.  Wow.  Time flies.  Since then, I’ve been working diligently on new chiptune works and trying my best to continue to explore the limitations of NES audio.

One of the cool things about working with Famitracker and actually composing music IN the original 2a03 is that it gives me MUCH greater insight into how the original composers used the chip.  My perspectives on old soundtracks have changed greatly since I’ve begun composing as Ap0c.  I believe the difficulties I encountered working with the chip and the limitations of the output of sound really steel my original opinions on retro game audio and bgm.  But more on that later!

Since Ap0c is fundamentally a performance experiment, I’m still not sure what Ap0c’s voice is.  Is it gothic-classical-Castlevania inspired dance music?  Happy chiptune ska?  Mega serious and brooding classical works?  I guess so far it’s been all of the above.  There’s really no sense in labeling what I do… still, it would be nice to have a cohesive idea behind all the tracks, especially if I’m planning on releasing an EP.

In the stuggle to find the voice for this project, I’ve decided to remix some of my older tracks.  I believe the answer to my question lies really in my own interpretation of my own work.  For this ongoing experiment, I’ve chosen “What Happens When You Take The Wrong Bus”.  I will make a new cover of this song every 3 months and use the recordings to measure my progress.  The key thing I’ll be looking at is style.  Why did I write it the way I did in the first place?  Does that work?  Does it fit in with what Ap0c’s become?  All of these questions will need to be answered as I go.

This piece was first performed (IE Famitracker’d off a laptop… lame!) on February 8th, 2013 for 8static 32.  Here’s my write-up on that performance in case you’re wondering.

Okay, so here’s the original work.  I’m not reposting this to soundcloud so listen from Chipmusic.org.

The original work accomplishes much of what it set out to do.  My goal was to write a traditional RPG town theme and then basically go crazy with noises and sound effects to create perhaps FEAR or something along those lines.  I believe the original is effective AS IS in many ways.

Still, there’s a lot that can change.  One of the things that I’m not terribly proud about is the beat.  A certain chiptune musician who I often send my unfinished works to for review would say that it lacks “treble” in the drums.  I would agree.  I changed the drums a LOT in the new version.

The way I programmed this was completely stupid.  I created ONLY 2 instruments.  Yes.  There’s only a generic VRC6 instrument and a 2a03 instrument, assigned to play indefinitely.  I programmed EVERYTHING outside the instrument editor.  Since I’ve actually learned how to make instruments that are varied and interesting, I decided to add my regular slew of instruments to the new version.

Lastly, I was really unhappy with the original solo I wrote around 2:14.  It’s effective but it could be so much more.  A lot of my newer pieces have rockin’ guitar-esque solos.  Why not this piece as well?

The finished product is on my SoundCloud right now and can be viewed below.  I hope you guys enjoy it and I’ll see you back in 3 months to see how much my style has changed.  Rock on!

What Happens When You Take The Wrong Bus [May Mix]

Also, I’m down for ANY feedback you guys can provide between the two mixes.  So please let me know what you think!  Thanks again!


Originals: Close to Good X Ap0c – “Solstice”

I’m delighted to announce the release of the first track from Close to Good X Ap0c: “Solstice”.

To hear it, go to the: Close to Good X Ap0c – “Solstice” Official Page

The brainchild behind this project is Close to Good’s drummer, Kevin Ragone.  He thought it was be really cool for me  to cover one of Close to Good’s tracks via chiptune with the idea that both their track and my track would be released together.  The listener would be allowed to listen back and forth between the tracks and enjoy two different interpretations of the same melodic material.  He sent me a track that C2G had been working on and I instantly agreed.  Thus, the Close to Good X Ap0c project began.  Enjoy!

“Solstice”

Close to Good’s version of “Solstice” is damn catchy.  The track is based off one clean, live take (here’s the original video).  Geez.  I know a lot of classical musicians who would need a ton of takes to get a solid recording.  Talented dudes.

Kev had informed me that the theme was done in such a way that it should invoke the feeling of a video game title screen, perhaps even for a game named “Solstice” or something along those lines.  The track certainly invokes a video game element- perhaps a title theme or even a world map theme remix of the title theme, etc.  I spent a lot of time listening to the nuances of the piece.  I wanted to figure out exactly how to interpret the lines in such a way that didn’t completely change the meaning of the work.

The version by me is done in Famitracker with 2a03+VRC6 sound.  This presented many challenges to me, the biggest being the genre of chiptune itself.  There’s different standards for rock bands and chiptunes, of course, and  I had to find a way to navigate creating a chiptune remix without it… well…. becoming an “untz untz untz” dance version of the original.

I started out by transcribing the whole piece from start to finish.  I labeled the “A” section, “B” section, intro, and outro accordingly and then began to arrange.

My first version included an expanded intro that covered and realized each of the chords in an almost a latin feel.  I wasn’t too happy with it.  I realized that I had fallen directly into the dance hell of chiptune remix by accident.  It’s so easy to do that somehow.  I scrapped this version completely and started all over again.  I ended up starting over about 5-6 times.  There’s a lot of other smaller and varied versions with weirder changes and stuff.  Going from Solstice v 1.1 to 1.2 to 1.3 etc, I had to go all the way to “Solstice v 2.0” before I was happy with the product.

The final version is technically “Solstice 2a.”  There was a “Solstice 2b”, which included a fade out similar to Close to Good’s track (and an extra “C” section that contained some new melodic material) but after consulting with the Close to Good themselves, they really liked my “2a” version.

I think my favorite part of my own piece is from :17-:44.  This is 2a03 alone.  I tried to see how much I could squeeze out of the limitation, as both an exercise and for the aesthetic principle.  It’s amazing how much sound you can get from the 2a03- it makes me feel like I’m wasting the extra 3 VRC6 channels sometimes.

We’re working on exchanging some more tunes in the future and the next entry appears to be a cover of one of my tunes, realized by Close to Good.  I’m pretty psyched about that!

Close to Good and I hope you really enjoy “Solstice”!


Originals: “Last Minute Research Paper” on Soundcloud and Ap0c Facebook Group

Hi guys!  Not really an informative post, but I’d say a necessary one.  I set up a Soundcloud presence for my chiptune originals which you can find right here:  https://soundcloud.com/ap0c/  I’m trying to move in the direction of Soundcloud for a lot of the work I’ll be doing in the next couple months.  I’ll set up a Bandcamp once I finish my EP.  Yep, I’m working on an EP.  Like, an actual collection of music and stuff.  And not some kind of pretend EP.  Serious stuff, folks.   ZOUNDS!

Also, I created a Facebook group for my Ap0c stuff just in case you roll the Facebook way.  You can find that here:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ap0c/149780225198685  Hopefully I get some more “likes” so I can actually customize my name and not be known as a string of random numbers.  That isn’t going to look good on my cards…

Thanks again for reading this blog.  I just reached 100 likes today (total).  Here’s hoping for 200 soon!  I’m glad you guys are still out there, reading and caring about game music!


Originals: “Last Minute Research Paper”

February’s 8static really got me inspired to assemble some originals to perform in the future.  Naturally, as a newcomer to the chiptune scene, I need to see what the scene… well… is!  I’ve been listening to everything and anything, trying to absorb every sound and style in the chiptune genre.  There’s so much out there!  I’m actually impressed with the overall quality I’m finding.  Mostly, you can tell that people put an incredible amount of time and effort into each track.  For a great example of quality and craftsmanship, I would check Chipocrite’s new album:  8bit Lebowski:  100% Electronic.  And it’s not just this album- there’s tens of thousands of albums out there to explore.  It’s really awesome.

Either way, performing as “Steve L” is only going to get me so far as it would appear that everyone has a stage name.  I didn’t want to be presumptuous and assume it was okay to just make up a stage name, having very little experience and what not…. but I ended up doing so anyhow.  I’ll be performing under “Ap0c” from here on out, as a homage to the Relic Scythe from Final Fantasy XI.

Nerdy inspiration for a name… but a bad-ass scythe.

For the past month, I’ve been working on pieces for Beta Test Music as well.  We will be performing our very first NYC show this weekend, in fact.  Details here.  It will feature 2 works for the band+20a3/VRC6 that I’ve arranged.  Our drummer is busy this weekend… so I just whipped up some NES audio to go with Pokemon to cover for him.  I’m also tweaking my arrangement of music from Castlevania III because I’ve learned SOOO MUCH about sound creation since the original performance that I feel like the work was a bit amateurish and could easily be fixed to make a lot more sense.

Anyhow, “Last Minute Research Paper” is supposed to invoke that feeling of a race to the finish.  I imagine sitting down at 9 PM, attemping to finish a paper that is due at 8 AM the next morning.  The music goes through ups and downs, progress and lack of progress, and should have a push and pull kind of feel.  Ultimately, the paper is finished but at what cost?  Too dramatic?  Too bad.

Below you’ll find the live performance of this piece at 8static 33:

One thing instantly noticeable is my snares are kind of out of control at times.  On my headphones, it didn’t sound nearly as crashy and crazy.  It’s really just at the beginning.  It would appear I dropped an “F” in Famitracker for the noise channel and forgot to remove it.  You can hear it activate at around :11.  I think it stays up at the volume for a while before receiving another command not to be so loud.  Most of my volume controls are built into the instruments so it probably took a long time before I put another command in.  Oh well.  I need to remember to just put in “analog” controls more often.  It will also help when I have a full rig so I can mix stuff more on the fly.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed it!  I have some other cool things I’m working on too so I’ll put them up here when they are complete.  It’s my Spring Break (yep, a perk of being a college professor) so I’m going to try to aim to clean up some half-completed posts, including Virus, Part 2 of Dr. Mario, and some other interesting Research in Game Music topics.  Happy Monday!