Arranging Video Game Music for “A Very Beta Christmas” – Part 1

art credit: pakkun96.deviantart.com – This is awesome!

Hi guys!  I hope you’re all psyched about our upcoming concert on Saturday, December 1st!  Find all the info here.  Steve, our tuba player and blogger at Classical Gaming, wanted to do some awesome write-ups on the video game music you’ll hear on Saturday and give you a “behind the scenes” look how we put our music together.  Today, he’ll talk about “Ground Theme” from Super Mario Bros for NES!  Take it away, Steve!

Arranging Video Game Music for “A Very Beta Christmas” – Part 1 (by Steve Lakawicz)

Okay!  Naturally, playing video game music with wind instruments presents many different challenges.  Digital sound can do and play ANYTHING.  Each time we arrange something, we have to be very careful not the exceed the limitations of our instruments (though frequently we do it anyhow and somehow it sounds awesome).  Let’s take a look at some of the nuts and bolts of this process.

Christmas Setup Considerations (An Introduction of sorts)

Beta Test‘s “base” set up is soprano sax (Mark), french horn (Ben), trombone (Doug), and tuba (me).  This allows us to play 4 independent voices in most of our pieces and gives us the standard soprano/alto/tenor/bass instrumentation.  When needed, we add drums (James or Rob) and voice (Brandon).  We have also had many pianists perform with us in the past to add extra depth.

Our concert this weekend will be outdoors (so wear a sweater or 3!).  We will be performing in our base setup + drums.

We also had to consider the fact that we’re playing for a “Holiday audience”.  How would that work with video game music?  We would have to select music that fit the atmosphere, which we hopefully did!  We also decided to play some holiday favorites that are NOT from video games.  Hopefully, this sheds some light as to how we structure our concert on Saturday.

Let’s talk about one of the video game selections, “Ground Theme” from Super Mario Bros..

“Ground Theme” – Super Mario Bros – composer: Koji Kondo, arranged by Steve Lakawicz

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to play “Ground Theme” for some time.  It is probably the most instantly recognizable piece of video game music and for a strolling/shopping general audience, it would probably be the most accessible.  Here’s the original work:

Some technical jargon:  The original work was written for the Nintendo Entertainment System’s 2A03 audio engine.  The 2A03 is capable of using 2 variable pulse waves, a triangle wave, a noise channel, and a very simple 1bit audio sampler.  Koji Kondo places the melody and harmony parts in the pulse waves and the bass in the triangle.  He uses the noise channel to create his very basic drum parts.  TL;DR- Koji Kondo creates 3 independent voices and 1 percussion part.

Our ensemble has 5 voices- 4 melodic and 1 percussive.  Assigning the parts here, therefore, should be simple.  I placed the main melody in the soprano sax, the triangle bass in the tuba, and wrote a simple drum part for Rob to rock out to based on the noise channel.  But what about trombone and french horn?

The issue presented in this piece is the speed and style of the lines.  Soprano sax, being a keyed reed instrument, can play a lot quicker and more accurate than french horn and trombone.  The counter-melody in “Ground Theme” follows the melody’s rhythmic line precisely and is meant to create harmony.  This would mean that the french horn or trombone, whoever was doubling the soprano sax, would have to play as quick and as accurate as the soprano sax.  Quite a tall order!

With no other options, I placed the secondary material across the french horn and trombone and had the tuba drop out at moments to let the trombone pick up the bass line (tuba needs a break too sometimes!).

The result is a piece that is simple but requires a lot of virtuosity from the group.  If this piece sounds like it’s easy to play on Saturday, then we pulled it off.  Hope you’re there to enjoy it!  -SL

Want to hear the finished product?  Be sure to check us out this Saturday, December 1st at the Christmas Village at Love Park in downtown Philadelphia at 3 PM and 5 PM.  Two performances and both are free… which means it costs virtually nothing!

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