preview: Castlevania III, Part 2

Aloha, folks!  Our next show is just around the corner! Join us 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 2.  Enjoy!

In Part 1, I discussed my musical selection process for my medley of music from Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania III) for Beta Test Music and 2a03+VRC6.  Today, in Part 2, I will discuss the specific methods I used to arrange and compile the entire piece.

Performance Considerations:

So, at the end of Part 1, I mentioned that my medley would include “Prelude”, “Prayer”, “Beginning”, “Deja Vu”, “Riddle”, and “Evergreen” from the AD/CIII soundtrack.  Let’s take a look at how I pieced each of these pieces together.

As the game was written for 2a03+VRC6 originally, I wanted to make sure my pre-recorded sound used this specific set up.  I used Famitracker and added the VRC6 module to the playback.  This gave me a total of 4 live instruments (soprano sax, french horn, trombone, tuba) + 4 pulse waves, 1 triangle wave, 1 sawtooth wave, 1 noise channel, and one simple sampler – so 11 different voices technically.  Arranging for Beta Test, I’ve never used more than 6 total so I really needed to discover a good balance.

Also, there’s a hidden temptation here.  Nintendo music can be played back via .NSF files.  You can uh… load these NSF files into Famitracker and look at the notes and literally use what’s written there line for line.  I decided this would be extremely “karaoke” and lame.  So while I used the .NSF file to make sure I had the right notes, I made sure that my interpretation shined through.  You can’t just steal the original and add some instruments!

I constructed a master “MIDI” file in Finale and then matched the BPM to the BPM in Famitracker.  The result is some… weird tempos (I think part of “Prelude” is like, quarter note = 82.5) but still, it allowed me to work with the two different programs well.  From the master MIDI, I made a Famitracker track for EACH song (in some cases, two tracks per song) and figured I could patch those together in Sonar X1.  The result was a careful balancing act between Finale and Famitracker.  I will probably find an easier way to do this in the future… but it worked this time.


I wanted to cover this straight up.  I felt like I didn’t need to change what was there all that much.  I used a hollow sounding pulse to start out the beginning melody and added in all the instruments as needed.  I have everyone drop once the arpeggiated line begins.  I took care to attempt to recreate the “pluckiness” of the original line.  The french horn and tuba enter, with the tuba holding down the bass notes and the horn playing the melody for a bit.  I decided to let the soprano sax rest right until the end and assign the melody to the tuba.  It all ends on a dark chord.


Again, just a straight up cover.  I have ONLY the four instrumentalists play at this point.  I timed it out on the .wav file so that there’s about 12 seconds to complete this.  We’ll hold the final note until the pulse enters, indicating the beginning of… well… “Beginning”.


Okay, I stray a bit here.  When I was looking at the .NSF file, I discovered there’s a strange little counter-melody that plays throughout the song.  It’s never really audible.  We begin with this counter-melody, exposed, in the pulse and then in the sawtooth.  I have the tuba enter as well to play along.  I use some interesting tricks on the noise channel to create some fuzz that has a little… variability.  You can also here I used the original 1bit samples from AD/CIII in the background.  The “bass drum” is simply a “triangle bass” (hat tip to Chipocrite for reminding me this exists!).

All the instruments enter to play the “real” beginning of the song and we get moving.  I changed the bass line a lot so that it was more… well… new wave-y.  The original bass line is very rhythmic and almost out of time.  I wanted to make the piece had a stronger “fundamental” beat.  I put the melody in soprano sax and added the other instruments as needed.  I have the pulses dive, just as they do in the real track, and then the trombone+horn+tuba have a kind of nice chorale moment leading into the end of the piece.

To make a little segue between pieces, I used tuba.  “Deja Vu” begins as soon as the pulses enter.

“Deja Vu”

This has been covered a million times by a million people.  My decision, again, was to highlight the background figures that are hidden deep in the NSF.  I proceed to introduce the soprano sax on melody and tuba on bass.  You’ll notice that there’s not a lot of depth here.  I tried to make it a bit lighter so that it was a bit different.

Eventually, after playing through the melody once, the band enters.  The drumline/bassline I used here is well, inspired by New Order’s “Blue Monday”.  The melody is played again and then augmented a bit at the end to a more broad style.  The sawtooth dives and holds.

To make sure there was not confusion for the band on when to enter, “Riddle” begins with distant pulse waves, in the new tempo, and gives the band time to adjust.


I completely re-orchestrated the first “part” of this song to be broader and much more lyrical.  The band plays along with an arpeggiated square wave and added a sawtooth to add some depth to the bass notes.  There’s a brief hold and then we move to the second “part” of the piece.

For a while, the pre-programmed sound just provides the drums for the background figures and adds an occasional detuned square wave.  You’ll notice that I really really really interpreted this piece strangely.  The bassline in the tuba is really all over the place.  I wanted to remove as much of the “Latin-inspired Dracula hunting” aspect of it as possible.

For the “coda” of the song, I have the trombone and tuba play along with the pre-programmed sound.  I really let the NES sounds take over and finish the piece off aggressively with very little by the live instruments.


This is a beautiful piece of music- gothic and classical… and a very fitting end to a very good video game.  I wanted this to be emotional… so naturally I cut out all the pre-programmed sound.  This is played ONLY by the band and can be rubato, interpreted, and performed differently each time.  I wanted to make sure that, after all that pre-planning, there was a spot in the piece where we could sit back and reflect as musicians who are inspired and thoughtful and not just as musicians who are following along with a tape, if that makes sense.


So how does it turn out?  Here’s another teaser.  To hear the whole thing, though, you’re going to need to go to our concert on February 2nd- Groundhog’s Day with Beta Test Music!

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!

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!