Groundhog’s Day Wrap Up

Hey guys!  Thanks to everyone who came out last night.  We had a really good time playing for y’all.  We made the best of a boring holiday AND the weather.  Not bad.

If you saw any of the merch last night and was like:  oh man, I want that but I can’t buy it now…. Fear not!  You can still purchase ANY of the items you saw yesterday on our Bandcamp – Merch page.

Also, we’re working on the audio and video from last night…  Stay tuned!

Lastly, if you’re in the NYC area on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th), we’ll be playing a small set of music at Spectrum.  Check out the details here.

Again, thanks for coming out and supporting this nerdy little chamber ensemble from Philly!

preview: Final Fantasy III/VI

Hi again! Wow, Groundhog’s Day with Beta Test Music is TOMORROW.  WOW.  Remember to get your tickets in advance HERE and save some money.  That would be killer.  In his final preview, Steve will talk about his arrangement of music from Final Fantasy III/VI

Today, we’ll talk about my arrangement of music from Squaresoft’s (it was still Squaresoft back then, I believe) Final Fantasy III/VI AND go over 1000 words again.  SWEET.  Take THAT Doug.

First Impressions:

Many of you by now know that the game we played as kids, Final Fantasy III, was actually the sixth installment of the Final Fantasy series.  There’s a lot of reasons for us not getting the other games but I won’t really go into it.  Google can explain everything, I promise.

Final Fantasy VI is probably the reason I’m doing what I do today.  The tunes from this game are really what solidified my love of music, both classical and video game based.  I’ve played through this game so many times that I can successfully write down an entire walk-through, room by room, without actually being in front of the game (I’ve had to exercise this ability before on command and I’ve been pretty darn accurate).  I used to sit in my room and play along with the battle themes and dungeon themes on bass.  I was that kid.  I mean, did you expect anything different?  I’m writing a game blog haha.

I was trying to think of how many play-throughs I’ve done of FF6 and I think it’s something like 45-50.  I lost track.  I used to beat this game once every other weekend when I was in middle school, start to finish.  My favorite set up is the Invincible Gau – Merit Award + Genji Glove + 2x Tempest + Rage: Stray Cat = Cat Scratch for everyone… a lot of times!  Try it – it’s a lot of fun.

Anyhow, enough nerd flexing here.  Let’s talk about the music.

Musical Selections:

Final Fantasy VI, composer: Nobuo Uematsu

The soundtrack to this game is massive.  And it’s also really good.  There are very few tracks that would boring for the audience to experience if they’ve played the game.  Most of the music is iconic in its own right.

Naturally, the one thing I’ve wanted to do from this game for YEARS is “Dancing Mad” – the whole freaking thing.  Like, that would be so epic and amazing.  There have been other versions of this tune, by Uematsu’s own The Black Mages, at Distant Worlds II, etc.  I’m actually disappointed with these versions… I don’t know if they capture the tune exactly.  I mean, one of them is Uematsu’s direct interpretation of his own music… but still!  I think it could be better, somehow.  Point is:  I’m not covering “Dancing Mad”…. this time…

My selection process boiled down to really what works for the group.  A lot of the battle themes and what not have a wide array of extra instruments that we can’t really pretend to emulate.  That’s kind of the issue with covering tunes from SFC/SNES games- it’s not just 3 audio channels.  There’s incredible amounts of polyphony and with a group that only has 4-5 instruments, it’s really hard to give the music justice.  This immediately eliminated many of the tunes with deeper polyphonic textures.

I did, however, find some pieces I thought really fit for the style of the group.  Uematsu likes to write for some SNES instruments that sound like french horns and trombones.  I really geared my selections toward that.  Let’s take a look.

Performance Considerations:

For this piece, we’ll be using our standard set up:  soprano sax, french horn, trombone, tuba, piano, and drum set.

As you know, I’m a big fan of covering tunes from the beginning of games, throwing in some tunes that I like, and then kind of making a medley out of all that material.  Naturally, I wanted to start this off with something you’d see/hear just by starting a new game:

Final Fantasy VI – “Opening Theme”

Okay, so while I love the stacked fourths that this opens with… well… we only have 4~ instruments and there’s certainly more than 4 notes here.  I decided to cut part of the intro.  We will start right at 1:14, skipping the initial part.

We don’t have bells so I decided to have the tuba come in with a low C.  I mean, LOW C.  We’ll see if I can pull this off on Saturday.  I may wuss out.  I have everything orchestrated so that the soprano sax takes the upper lines.  French horn and trombone travel a bit across the harmonies.  There’s so many instruments in the texture, I had to really scale down what I thought we’d be able to do.  I have piano try to save us a bit by covering some lines… but still.

We then move to that “Terra” or “Tina” part of the “Opening Theme”.  Soprano sax is a dead ringer for oboe or whatever that instrument Uematsu assigns for the melody is.  I have trombone and french horn cover the string flourishes in the background.  Tuba covers the bass line.  Piano covers the “celeste”-ish sound.  Simple.

Final Fantasy VI – “Awakening”

Okay, I don’t go and cover “Terra’s Theme” again here, I just use the first part of this piece as a transition.  Soprano sax covers the upper voice in a rubato style- the rest of the band enters on fermatas and moves harmonically when needed.  This is about a 10 second transition.  Then, we’re met with another theme:

Final Fantasy VI – “The Returners”

I always loved this theme.  It just happens to fit very well with our orchestration.  Tuba covers the bass line, of course.  Soprano sax covers the melody, with trombone and french horn assisting with the counter melodies as needed.  Piano covers the repetitive string parts.

As far as I know, there’s either no covers of this song or not many, at least live.  I’m happy we’re doing it.  I’m also happy we’re doing this:

Final Fantasy VI – “Save Them!”

This was a stretch.  There’s a TON of voices in this tune… but it’s so perfect.  This was probably one of my favorite themes as a kid.

Soprano sax covers a lot of the moving string lines.  Be on the lookout for Mark, he’s going to be playing a lot of notes haha.  French horn, in this piece, is actually orchestrated for low horn (you’ll notice it when you listen to the piece).  I have french horn cover those spots and more.  Trombone and tuba cover various lines.  There’s a VERY prominent timpani part so I have tuba cover a lot of that.  I also have tuba cover the very fast moving lower voice line at :33.  I’m proud of how this turned out.  It’s going to sound so freaking cool.

After “Save Them!”, I wrote an original transition based off “Locke’s Theme”.  Trombone is in the melody and tuba responds.  After two fermatas, we move to probably one of the most fun pieces we have planned for the entire program….

Final Fantasy VI – “Metamorphosis”

Wait for Shadow?

I love this piece.  A lot.  And anyone’s who’s played the game knows this is a very frantic and emotional time in the plot.  I know this has been covered before… but not with tuba, haha.  Soprano sax handles the upper lines (including some of the ridiculous string runs toward the end of the piece).  French horn and trombone act as a section and cover all those meandering, for lack of a better way to put it, “Phantom of the Opera”-like lines in the background.  Tuba rocks out.  This is criminally fun to play.  Drums hold down the hard rock beat.

This is a lot of material, obviously, but I figured we needed on last tune to bring it all together so I chose a theme that really shows off the orchestral nature of Uematsu:

Final Fantasy VI – “Locke”

I figured this would be a perfect closer.  Soprano sax covers the lead, as usual.  French horn and trombone… well, they cover tons of different parts throughout the piece to make it all work.  Tuba covers the bass line, as usual.

I created a small transition with french horn, tuba, piano, and drums alone and then we go into a reprise of Locke’s theme, in a new key and with a slower tempo.  I tried to really play hard into the orchestral nature of our instrumentation.  There’s a pretty dramatic trombone and tuba solo in octaves at the end.  The piece winds down and ends on a very open chord.  I thought this added a nice little touch.

Results:

I’m extremely excited that we’re playing this piece.  If you want to hear it live, you’re going to have to come to our concert this Saturday, February 2nd, at First Unitarian Church – Chapel in Philadelphia.  It’s going to be a pretty amazing time, trust me.  It’ll be good to stop and talk to some of you about video game music too, IN PERSON.  So psyched for that.  See you there!

This concludes our “preview” series for our concert!  Don’t forget to come see us play the music from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earthbound, and MUCH more on February 2nd at the First Unitarian Church. Tell your friends!  Explain to them why going to this concert will be life changing- maybe even show them links to our website.  Then, finally, show them that they can buy magical tickets from the land of cyberspace that are cheaper than at the door!  OoooOOOoooo!

preview: Pokemon – Red/Blue

Hi again! Wow, Groundhog’s Day with Beta Test Music is just 2 days away.  Remember to get your tickets in advance HERE and save some money.  We all like doing that.  Anyhow, here’s Steve with a preview of his awesome Pokemon Red/Blue medley!

Hi again.  So Doug told me to keep my posts under 1000 words.  We’ll see how that goes hahaha.  Let’s take a look into my musicial selections for my medley of music from Pokemon- Red/Blue.

First Impressions:

Pokemon is the undisputed best selling RPG of all time.  The series has made BILLIONS of dollars for Nintendo.  The characters from the games and anime are instantly recognizable… and so is the music.  This was another game I really wanted to cover with Beta Test.  There are sooo many fans of the series and so many remixes of these tunes.  I really felt like Beta Test should have their own Pokemon medley.  I wanted to present a piece that invokes the nostalgia of being young again and using Game Genie to cheat and catch 30 Mews… or… uh…  maybe something more wholesome – like stealing your friend’s Pokemon cards…. well… maybe being a youngster wasn’t all that fun, in retrospect.

The point is- MANY of us played and loved this game.  And it would be nice to have a moment where we can all sit down and enjoy the game together.  Also, I thought it would be super fun to play… and it really is.

I’ll also credit MissingnoXpert‘s Let’s Glitch Pokemon Yellow series for inspiring me to get this work completed.  And, just so you know, I’m not using any cheating devices right now.

Musical Selections:

Pokemon – 1st Generation, composer:  Junichi Masuda

So, and I just learned this today actually, the game came BEFORE the anime series.  The music in the anime series is actually based off the original compositions for the game by Junichi Masuda.  And here I was going to go on and on about how this music was adapted from the anime.  I’m glad I looked that up first.  Sheesh.  I love the Information Age!

Okay, so without going into incredible detail about sound, the music was written for Gameboy, meaning there should be only 3 polyphonic voices that really have to be mapped to instruments.  It also means that well… some of these lines will be very difficult to play on real instruments because Gameboy sound programmers usually take advantage digital sound’s speed.  I would have to tread lightly.

I also didn’t want to bore the audience terribly.  Each town has a theme, each cave has a theme, etc- a lot of these are just incidental.  For instance, does anyone really have an attachment to this?:

I mean, we all probably remember SOMETHING about Mt. Moon… but all I remember is spamming Repels and being annoyed by it.  This is actually an interesting track… but in terms of performance, we may as well just be Jigglypuff.

A lot of the town themes were kind of clunkers too.  Don’t get me wrong, they fit into the game really well but in terms of performance?  Not so much:

(Mark should cover that on toy piano, actually…. just a side thought.)

Anyhow, I decided that it would be a lot more fun to create a Pokemon medley that gives you the experience of turning on the Gameboy, loading your file, and getting into a fight- a small narrative if you will.  It was a little artsy, even for me, but I felt like that was the best way to treat the game.  So, here’s what I did.

Performance Considerations:

This piece was originally arranged for Beta Test’s old configuration (clarinet, tenor sax, trombone, tuba, piano, and drums).  I had to rearrange it for the new set up (soprano sax, french horn, trombone, tuba, and drums).  I removed the piano in the new version for simplicity.

So, back to my “narrative”.  What happens when you turn on your Gameboy to play Pokemon?

Pokemon – “Opening”

Boom – this intro.  I figured I would start off with this.  I consulted the anime/Super Smash Bros versions of this particular song to add some extra color.  I placed the upper lines in the soprano sax.  The french horn gets a chance to lay into those counter-melody responses (much like in the anime version of the song).  Tuba holds down the bass and the drums provides a steady beat.  This clip above, actually, shows pretty much how long this section will take.

Now, let’s load our file.

Pokemon – “PokeCenter”

We load the file and find ourselves in the PokeCenter.  When I used to play, I remember saving MANY times in the PokeCenter, especially while changing Boxes or getting ready to turn the game off.  I felt it would be reasonable to assume that you may find yourself starting here, checking your Pokemon, and leaving.

For this, I made it a “low end” solo.  I have the tuba take the melody, trombone take the bass, and french horn, which loves to play upbeats, play upbeats.  It’s cute.  I hope I don’t crack a note.

So, let’s walk out of the PokeCenter then, shall we?

Pokemon – “Cerulean City”

Oh, we’re in Cerulean City.  Cool.

For this, I covered it straight up.  I have soprano sax take the lead voice.  French horn gets to rest for a bit.  Trombone and tuba split the bottom voice (upbeats and downbeats respectively).  Right before it repeats, I have the soprano sax drop out and let the 3 brass instruments have a nice little chorale.

Let’s say we want to LEAVE Cerulean City.  It’s kind of boring…. so we’d probably:

Pokemon – “Bicycle Theme”

Get on our bike!  That’s a good idea.  We can get out of the city and try to find some Pokemon trainers to fight!  I included a version of this song above that is 10 hours long.  Enjoy!

I have soprano sax cover the upper line and trade off with the trombone half way through.  Because I’m a total maniac, I assigned the tuba to play ALL of the lower voiced notes here…. so both downbeats and upbeats.  We’ll see how well I do at the concert.  It’s really hard!  I’ll need to find a way to take a breath since well… computers don’t breathe.

Okay, we leave the city and bike around until-

Pokemon – “Female Trainer Encounter!”

YOU ENCOUNTER A LASS!  OH NO!  And her heroic battlecry:  “My boyfriend is cool!”   :/  I… see.

Covering this is easy – I have the band play it for a couple seconds so we can contemplate what the Lass is trying to say…  and then!

Pokemon – “Trainer Battle”

Lass sends out Jigglypuff and we’re not impressed.

Soprano sax takes over the upper line.  It was nearly impossible to figure out a way to get the other instruments to play the opening lick, by the way.  So at the beginning, the rest of the band kind of just… makes some hits while the soprano sax drives us into a new tempo.

The piece is a straight up cover.  Tuba covers the bass lines (both the downbeat and upbeat… which is tough… again).  Trombone takes over some of the melody as we go through.  French horn is assigned to kind of bridge the gap between all the of the parts.  It should be SUPER EFFECTIVE!  Yes.

Now that we’ve ultimately embarrassed the Lass…

Pokemon – “Trainer Victory Theme”

We win!  Yey.

I have tuba play the melody here again, in a trio set up with the trombone and french horn.  Soprano sax enters and we wind down to the end of the piece.

Opps, that’s like 1350~ words.  Oh well!  I got too excited, clearly.

Results:

A fainted Jigglypuff.  To hear us perform this live, you’re going to need to be at Beta Test Music‘s show this Saturday, February 2nd, in Philadelphia – “Groundhog’s Day with Beta Test Music“.  I hope to see you guys out there.  I have ONE MORE little blog post for tomorrow for you guys.  Stay tuned!

Check back soon for more posts from the Beta Testers!  And don’t forget to come see us play the music from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earthbound, and MUCH more on February 2nd at the First Unitarian Church. Tell your friends!  Be like:  BRO, THERE’S THIS AWESOME GAME MUSIC CONCERT AND IT’S GOING TO BE SO COOL AND WE HAVE TO GO.  Or just ask politely.  Remember, advanced tickets are cheaper than at the door!  Mathematical! 

preview: “To Good Friends” – Chrono Trigger

Hi again!  Here’s another Beta Tester providing a sneak peak into their arrangement.  Today, Mark will provide a small peak into his arrangement of Chrono Trigger’s “To Good Friends”.  Enjoy!

It all started with a trip to my local music store (Collingswood Music). I saw a little piano in the window and asked about it. It turned out to be a piano with chimes instead of strings (aka a ‘toy piano’). When I asked about some of the dead notes on it, the owner of the store turned the piano over to inspect it, promptly dumping the keys all over the floor. After spending a half-hour reconstructing the instrument, I took home a ‘Little Legend’ for half-price. Its timbre was used to great effect in a saxophone concerto arrangement (it replaced the harp and vibraphone). From there, I’ve acquired 5 more, ranging in size from 25 keys to 49 keys. I’ve had two pieces written for me so far (one by Beta Test’s own Douglas Laustsen), and I’m determined to use it in as many contexts as possible: David Bowie covers, orchestral scoring, piano with tape, etc.

Music boxes grew out of the toy piano craze. Performers such as Phyllis Chen create intricate soundscapes with toys and mechanical instruments, and I became intrigued by the possibility of mixing live instruments with mechanical ones. ‘DIY music boxes’ that are programmed with paper strips have been made in three sizes (15, 20, and 30 notes); of course, I have one of each size. With the proper resonating box (cigar boxes work nicely), they are quite loud. At our concert on February 2nd, a 30-note music box will accompany a horn and trombone duet. The music box part is online here.

While I started my musical life as a saxophonist, I am increasingly interested in placing vintage keyboards, found objects, and woodwinds into unique combinations. The orchestra’s available timbres are too familiar; our ears need new sounds. A recorder trio with an electric piano has a sweet, relaxed tone that is more melancholy and nostalgic than a string trio with piano could ever be.

Nostalgia is the primary tone of music boxes and toy pianos. They remind me of a childhood I never had (a childhood almost nobody had), but they also remind me of a perfect Sunday morning with light streaming in through a café window while I read Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. The piece I arranged for this concert comes from Chrono Trigger, which was one of my favorite games growing up. It is the epilogue (“To Good Friends”), which was originally for music box and orchestra. My arrangement strips it down to a harmonized melody with music box accompaniment.

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

preview – Earthbound

Hi again folks!  Our show is this Saturday and we’re still having some of the Beta Testers provide sneak peaks into their arrangements.  Today, Steve will provide a small peak into his medley of music from Earthbound.  Enjoy!

Great!  Hi again folks!  Today, I’ll discuss my arrangement of tunes from Nintendo and HAL Lab’s Earthbound (Mother 2).

First Impressions:

I’ve always wanted to do a medley of the music from Earthbound.  The game has a massive cult following.  There are people who are very loyal to the series, especially since the 1st and 3rd installments of the series were never officially released in the US.  I’ll be honest, I never really gave Earthbound a good play-through.  I think I got to Winters and stopped or something.  It was long ago.

Strangely, my idea to do this medley was actually inspired by the music from Mother 3.  I recently finished playing through the fan-translation version of the game and was enamored with the gameplay and story.  It got me listening to Earthbound‘s music again and I figured it was finally time to do a proper medley of the music.

Musical Selections:

Earthbound/Mother 2, composer(s):  Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka

(Disclaimer: Because I know hardcore EB fans will blister me about this, I’m aware of the “controversy” between the shared composition of this game and that many of you feel that Tanaka gets too much credit for the soundtrack.  I’m still listing him here, though.)

I was first astonished by the size of this soundtrack!  This soundtrack is a massive 122 tracks of music.  It took me a long time to wade through.  Still, there’s a lot of good choices for our set up.  Much of music is in a “jazz big band” style and setting.  We have a soprano sax, french horn, a trombone, a tuba, keyboard, and drum set.

My early favorites for covering were, in no particular order, “Pokey Means Business”“Demo Intro”, any of the town themes (I had already arranged “Winters” for Beta Test’s last show), “Saturn Valley”, and maybe really any of the battle themes.  I figured that doing a whole “Runaway Five” set would be cool too, especially because of our instrumentation… but I also felt like that could literally be its own medley.

I also realized this game had a lot of tracks that, well, would not work with our group.  A lot of the battle themes are very atmospheric and crazy.  For example:

or

Yeah.  Uh, I didn’t think a trombone could make some of these sounds so I had to pass.  Though, I love these tunes.  Anyhow, let’s see how this turns out.

Performance Considerations:

One of the things I realized right away is that tuba did not fit in the medley.  I could use it to cover “Saturn Valley” but it just wouldn’t provide the right sound for many of the heavy bass driven tracks.  So while I had originally planned on having tuba, I decided to write the piece for soprano sax, french horn, trombone, bass guitar, toy piano, and drums instead.  And yes, I added toy piano.  You’ll see how that fits in in a moment.

The completed piece is a medley but structured in three movements.  This gives us the option to pause between pieces for instrument changes or what have you.  On February 2nd, however, we will be performing it without stops.

Earthbound – Opening Credits

I felt like this is the perfect opener to the medley.  The piece could actually stand alone as an opener, really.

The best part of this piece is the instrumentation.  It’s like it was perfectly designed for our ensemble.  I put the “trumpet” line in soprano sax.  French horn would serve as a “trombone 1” and trombone could cover the lower trombone sounds in the piece.  Bass would play… well… bass.  There’s bound to be some parts missing in the drums because of the dense texture but I tried my best to figure that out.

Also, there is a CRAZY, almost “just for effect” triplet run at around :44.  Yeah, I kind of wrote something else there.  There’s no way we could make that sound like music haha.

Earthbound – Onett

So yeah, I did choose to include some town themes.  I figured that these are tracks that even the casual gamer would remember.

I assigned soprano sax to all the upper lines you hear.  I made the trombone cover the upbeats.  The french horn helps out with the counter melody.  The melody at :45 sounds like it was written for a MIDI trombone… so why not a real trombone?  Bass is bass.

I decided to try to retrofit some of the weirder instruments here into our ensemble.  The result, unfortunately, is the loss of guitar strumming, weird glockenspiel like sounds, and some other effects.  I feel like it’s still very effective, though.

Earthbound – Twoson

This was WRITTEN for french horn.  Clearly.  I assigned Mark (our soprano saxophonist) to move to toy piano to cover the piano sounds.  I put french horn on the melody and bass on bass.  I let trombone take a little break and come back for the reprise.  (This track is so much fun to play on bass- so awesome.)

Earthbound – Pokey Means Business

Any of you familiar with the game will be pretty much amazed that I decided to include this piece.  And I wanted to make sure we do it justice because it’s so freaking awesome.

I have soprano sax, stopped french horn, and muted trombone cover the 3 “emulated” NES lines.  The drum part is written to be played as mechanical as possible.  I doubled up the very little melody before the 2nd part of the piece (I like to call it “Business Time”).

Now, “Business Time” presented issues.  I originally wrote the part to include double bass drum pedals and the whole deal.  Unfortunately, I found out that our drummer did not have any experience with metal drumming and I didn’t want to put him in an awkward situation.  Therefore, I changed the drum part to be more of a “punk rock” feel instead.

Everything else though?  Line for line covered.  I have our guitarist come in JUST for this piece and rock out with total distortion.  I’m pretty proud of how this particular part turned out- it’s going to be so cool live.

Earthbound – Eight Melodies

To finish it off, I decided to include “Eight Melodies” and have the main line on toy piano.  I re-orchestrated the bass line and harmonies for some extra surprises.  The entire melody ends with a short bass guitar and toy piano duet.

Results:

Want to hear how it turned out?  This arrangement will be premiered by the ensemble at our show this upcoming Saturday, February 2nd, at First Unitarian Church – Chapel in Philadelphia.  It’s going to be great.  You better be there!

Check back soon for more posts from the Beta Testers!  And don’t forget to come see us play the music from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earthbound, 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 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.

“Prelude”

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.

“Prayer”

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”.

“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.

“Riddle”

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.

“Evergreen”

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.

Results:

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!

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!