preview: LA NOIRE

Our next show is coming up on February 2nd at the First Unitarian Church. As the show approaches, some of the Beta Testers are going to chime in here to talk about the music we’ll be featuring at the concert. This is Doug’s short preview on and around LA NOIRE

I’m a big fan of noir. As film style, it provides a really fascinating counterpoint to America’s narrative of the Greatest Generation. Behind America’s Golden Age success story is tragedy, scandal, and lots of foggy dark alleys.  While the rest of the country basked in its post-war optimistic sunshine, noir is where pessimism went to hide during the night.

Truthfully, I get my noir fix a little more frequently from cultural products other than films. Pessimistic hard-boiled crime novels, at their best, just have a way with words that push all the right buttons for me. If you’re looking for a suspenseful downer or two, I can’t recommend enough David Markson’s Harry Fannin novels. Currently, I’m really digging Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale, which is a cross between crime fiction and Lovecraftian horror. Its messy and complicated and one of my favorite monthly comic reads at the moment. You can play catch up if you pick up the trade paperbacks.

Both of those examples perfectly capture the noir atmosphere, which is what I look for in defining the style. That, in a nutshell, was my problem with LA NOIRE. It was too often bright and clean. The game more frequently pushed towards horror than suspense. For some reason, running people over with your car in sunny LA didn’t feel grim, but routine.

I don’t want to give any plot details away because the game was fun to play, and the story snakes around various parts of LA’s lawbreakers extremely well. Team Bondi also found the perfect game mechanic to unveil their unprecedented face detail by making you identify facial tics to suss out liars. As a game, LA NOIRE definitely played well. I just didn’t think the visual elements captured the noir style as well as they could have.

But the music! The musical cues were by and large great. Both the tracks they brought in from the post war jazz world and the soundtrack written for the game felt authentic to noir. I re-worked the main theme to be a cool and dark feature for Mark on the alto saxophone. It rubs a little Taxi Driver dirt into the rainy LA night.

Come see us play the music from LA NOIRE and more on February 2nd at the First Unitarian Church. Tell your friends! Advanced tickets are cheaper than at the door!

preview: Castlevania III, Part 1

Hi again!  As we’ve been saying, our next show is coming up on February 2nd at the First Unitarian Church. As the show approaches, some of the Beta Testers are going to chime in here to talk about the music we’ll be featuring at the concert. This is Steve’s write-up on Castlevania III, Part 1.  Enjoy!

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 my 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 on my blog, 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 soon for Part 2.

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

Check back soon for more posts from the Beta Testers!  And don’t forget to come see us play the music from Castlevania III, Pokemon, and MUCH more on February 2nd at the First Unitarian Church. Tell your friends! Advanced tickets are cheaper than at the door!

In Rehearsal

So what were you all up to this weekend? Us Beta Testers were working on our completely new set of music for our upcoming show on February 2nd at the First Unitarian Church. Brandon and Doug took some photos during practice. Take a look:

 (click to embiggen)

Brandon and Sam practicing Xander and Anya’s song from Buffy

Mark and (almost) all of the instruments he’ll be playing

Steve on the bass guitar playing some music from Earthbound

Rob and Brandon

Mark doing some Earthbound toy piano-ing

Ben is pumped.

See more on facebook!

preview: Once More, With Feeling

Our next show is coming up on February 2nd at the First Unitarian Church. As the show approaches, some of the Beta Testers are going to chime in here to talk about the music we’ll be featuring at the concert. This is Doug’s short preview on and around the music from the Buffy Musical Episode, Once More, With Feeling

I am regularly called a teenage girl. Most of the time, its in response to my enthusiastic love for the Buffyverse. If one has to be a teenage girl to appreciate Joss Whedon’s teen drama amongst vampire world, I’m pretty okay with that.

People who love Buffy tend to love this episode. Why? Well, its probably not because the actors are great singers. They’re kind of really bad (except Giles, the Monster of the Week, and maybe Tara). I think people love the episode because it fully integrates itself into narrative at that moment in Buffy’s story.

Some shows have musical episodes that are tangential to the series plot. Once More, With Feeling furthers the complicated angst of season 6 by having Buffy sing, rather than talk, about how her friends dragged her out of a nice happy afterlife (one without, you know, bunnies). Most shows have a really idiotic excuse to explain why everyone is singing. Buffy comes close to outdoing the best monster of the week show ever by using its monster to make everyone sing about their lives.

The challenge in picking songs for us to do at this show revolved around finding a few moments that involved just a couple of singers. We’ll be doing the big baddy Sweet’s opening number What You Feel and Anya and Xander’s song I’ll Never Tell. Hopefully, if you all like these, we may return to the episode’s book down the road and do a couple more. I know I’d love to get a big chorus together to do They Got The Mustard Out.

Between this episode and Angel’s Lorne, its clear that Joss Whedon has a thing for musicals. I’m pretty sure he’s a Sondheim fan, and I think he should incorporate more singing into his works. Spidey already has his own musical, so there’s no reason he can’t expand the concept to other Avengers. It seems perfectly sensible to have Captain America lead a big chorus line at the end at the end of the next Avengers film.

Come see us play the music from Once More, With Feeling and more on February 2nd at the First Unitarian Church. Tell your friends! Advanced tickets are cheaper than at the door!

Next Show: Groundhog’s Day!

Your next chance to catch us in performance is approaching fast. We’ll be at the First Unitarian Church in Center City, Philadelphia on February 2nd, aka Groundhog’s Day.

We’ll be doing an almost entirely fresh set of arrangements and music. This will definitely include music from the games Castlevania, Earthbound, Final Fantasy VI, and Bastion. We’ll also be doing our own take on music from the Buffy musical episode Once More With Feeling and some original music from Doug.

We’ll also be putting the spotlight on some of the tunes between now and the concert on the blog, so keep an eye on that spot.

At the door, tickets will be $15, but you can get them in advance for $10 on ticket leap.

Here’s our page’s event listing, and don’t forget to share the facebook event with your friends!

Currently Playing: RDR

Stay tuned, folks, because we’ll be announcing our next show soon (2/2/13, but you didn’t hear it from me). In the meantime, I thought I’d try to start an intermittent series on what I’ve been playing (or reading, because I have thoughts about Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye).

So, I bought Red Dead Redemption a long time ago. A really long time ago, but I just recently started to play it. I had been letting other games jump it in the queue because I wanted to play it on a TV that did the western landscapes justice. I finally got that  TV (in my first ever black Friday deal shopping), so I popped the game in a few weeks ago.

It’s little more than Grand Theft Horsey. but that’s to be expected. Rockstar uses the same tools they employ in the GTA franchise to craft the wild west world of Red Dead Redemption. The one problem I have with the game is that at times it feels like a checklist of “Western tropes we need to cram into this game.” I think the story suffers, which is clearly a priority for Rockstar in RDR.

This was most obvious when I found myself dueling a guy over a card game. I’m still not sure why they introduced me to some German guy, and then told me to me shoot him after he accused me of cheating.

Speaking of, the games of chance in RDR are mildly confusing. Money has never been an important resource in Rockstar games because one is rarely presented with budget issues. How come the poker games are limited to dimes and quarter hands? It seems like a gigantic waste of time, especially when one could be playing real games of chance like FoxyBingo. Assuming one is of legal age, you’d think anyone interested in playing poker online would not spend their time playing it for minimal stakes inside a video game that’s really about something else entirely. There’s plenty of sites that specialize in such activities, and if a person wants to spend a few hours a week playing Bingo or Texas Hold ‘Em, they’d go to a site that focuses on that experience instead of a Western styled sandbox.

Rockstar needs to include things like this in their games to make it feel like the wild west, but I wish it was done a little differently. Regardless, the game has been a lot of fun, and the game is simply beautiful. I’m glad I waited to finally give it a play.

Also, I might have watched this during dinner.


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

art credit: – 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!

A Very Beta Holiday Concert

Prepare yourself for two amazing sets of your favorite holiday hits (perhaps slightly altered) along with electrifying arrangements of the hottest video game sounds of the past. Come to Philadelphia Christmas Village on December 1st and prepare to be forged into a holiday spirit super-being…

We’ll be playing two hour long sets (3pm and 5pm) with limited overlap between the two. You can come watch us or just use us as your soundtrack to holiday shopping. Our event page has some additional details.

Getting to know… Ben!

Hi, this is Ben with yet another segment of ‘better know a beta’. I have had a
headache from trying to come up with a blerb about myself, so I decided to use ‘s random get to know you questions, and thought I’d roll a
die and select 6-10 quick questions that I could answer
about myself.

Think of this as one of those terrible facebook ‘fill in and forward to a friend’ forms
gone even more-terribly wrong. To make this more confusing I’m going to pretend
I’m actually being interviewed by the website, affectionately
nicknamed ‘G’ for the following.

G: What TV show do you wish was still on the air?
B: ( that’s me, stands for Ben) I wish that the twilight zone was still on the air, and
that Rod Sterling has secretly been a vampire since 1964, or something that keeps
him still around, and he could pick up, right now, where the series left off. I am also
very fond of MST3K.

G: What is love?
B: sheesh you don’t waste any time do you ‘G’. Well, love is made of dying stars, just
like everything else.

G: What is your favorite song from a Disney Movie?
B: ‘A Dream is a Wish your Heart Makes’ from Cinderella. Next question…

G: What is your favorite condiment?
B: Vigilance

G: Do you subscribe to any forms of alternative medicine?
B: What was that wink for? No I don’t do that stuff, alternative medicine just means
that it’s fake… usually.
I do believe in taking alternative approaches to some health issues/maladies. For
example, I always eat spoonfuls of honey, long before reaching for cough drops
when I catch a cold (for a sore throat and the like).

G: What is your favorite thing about winter?
B: Beta Test’s upcoming performances at Philadelphia’s Christmas Village in LOVE
park on December 1st 2012
2 sets, at 3PM and 5PM, Be There or REGRET EVERYTHING!!!

G: Is there any job you would want to work for 50 years?
B: I think when you follow your passion, work doesn’t get that ‘4 letter word’
connotation that some people tend to associate with it. Your work turns into
something that energizes you, keeps you healthy, and helps you thrive. I wake up
every day and ask ‘what do I need to do today, so that I can play and write music for
the rest of my life?’

Most of the time, I am working a ‘day gig’ or non-musical job to support these
efforts, but the opportunity to play, even just for a little bit, can keep the fire in the
furnace burning bright.

Music always tended to be the underlining focus in most of what I enjoy. I
remember watching Total Recall (the good one) when I was fairly young, and how
Jerry Goldsmith’s score revealed to me the duality of Douglas Quaid’s world. I
remember how exciting Gladiator’s soundtrack sounded… not so much anymore,
but the first time it was pure awesome. The story and acting did a little bit, the CGI
and fighting did a little more, but the soundtrack really told the emotion of what
these people, places, and things were. I always think about how music makes the
difference, and that is something I am looking forward to when playing with Beta
Test. To breathe life into works never heard before, or never heard played by
humans before, is always an amazing opportunity.

Upcoming Events

We updated the events calendar, but forgot to put a note here in the news section about our upcoming events! Please accept our sincerest apologies.

Next week we’ll be performing at a benefit concert for group called Playing for Change. Their mission is to expand youth arts education programs, which is pretty cool. The event proper starts at 1, but some of us will be hanging out playing beforehand to attract passer-bys to take in the show.

In October, we’ll be hosting a few excellent musicians at the Dalet Art Gallery. Our own Mark Zelesky will be performing some solo works for toy piano and saxophone, and Alexis Del Palazzo will be playing pieces for solo flute. They should also be teaming up for some duets during the night.

See you around!