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.

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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!

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!

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.

Getting to know…. Doug

Hey everyone. Doug here. I’ve been pushing the group to put together some personal introductions for the blog, so I figured I needed to make one myself.

Besides being an arranger, composer, and trombonist for the group (and sometimes Beta Test Dad), I am also an educator and radio host on WRSU (a college station at Rutgers, who have yet to kick this alumnus out).

I also really like science fiction. The genre allows me to explore the impossible as potentially possible. My brain is delighted when it come in contact with the unknown. Not only would today’s world appear to be science fiction to a person in the 1950’s, but the science fiction of the 1950’s looks like our present reality. Today you can regularly find bizarre mixtures of fact and fiction, such as  Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeting the Mars Curiosity Rover.

Recently people have been considering  the genre as no longer a space for “Big Ideas” (a great read that links to a few other great reads). Looking at it objectively, my Eureka and Warehouse 13 binges are nothing but fun escapism. I might slash your tires if you spoil the new season of Doctor Who for me in the coming weeks. Those shows, however, aren’t what immediately comes to mind when I think about why I’m drawn to science fiction: Philip K Dick, HG Wells, Ray Bradbury. These truly let me look at the world in a different way, and they create ideas that had previously never existed.

It’s also what has drawn me to contemporary music. I get a kick out of hearing something that reaches out into unexplored musical territories. It’s a lot of fun to hear a piece of music that has never been heard before. (You’re the audience that gets to collectively write ‘first’ in the comment thread).

One of my ideas for Beta Test has been to incorporate some new music into our set lists. There’s a certain impression in culture that contemporary classical music is really stuffy and hard to listen to. There is some truth in this, but new works today cover a much wider spectrum than that. Living composers create music that sounds like this, and this, …and this. Of course, you can also show up to a premiere of a work that uses mathematical formulas approached in graduate level work (that might sound like this and even that music is math-geeky).

What’s more, some of my favorite new films and games are full of all sorts of contemporary music. Heath Ledger may have made the Joker, but James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer let you peer into his mind. Dead Space 2 has some creepy outside the box music.

In my mind, contemporary music and my geeky interests aren’t all that different. Both spark a sense of wonder in me towards the future and give me a better appreciation for the present.

(they’ll be more of these from other members as we head into the Fall…)


This Sunday, the Beta Testers congregated to work on music for our upcoming gigs at Philly NerdNite and the LocalArtsLive Showcase. Doug passed his phone to Drummer Rob and asked him to take some photos while we were working on some music from Zelda: A Link to the Past. He mostly took pictures of his drums:


He also took some pictures of actual group members, like Steve:


Ben’s shoulder:


I also snapped this picture of Mark working on Doctor Who:


and Steve’s tuba taking a break.


You can, of course, come see us in person at Philly NerdNite July 11th!

Dimunitive Tetriminos

Doug here. I’ve been playing a lot of the original Tetris lately on my 3DS. The game truly is the king of replayability, and I’ll probably spend a lot of time dropping tetriminos until I have a few large blocks of free time to drop into skyrim.

I’m also playing the game with a purpose. A while back Steve suggested that all of the Beta Testers come up with re-imagined versions of the Tetris A Theme (a lot more on the melody itself later on). I’ve been playing the game to try and come up with some inspiration for how to modify the tune. My focus lately has been on how the game forces you to fit objects into spaces that appear to be smaller than the objects. In other words, the game requires you to figure out how to squeeze a T block

 into a two block wide space.

My first non crazy idea was to liken this to the musical process of dimunition, which shortens the lengths of notes in a melody. So I have been messing around with different ways to shorten the melody, which give it some different feels. Take a listen to this short example. The first is the original, and then each following example is inxeasingly diminished.

[mp3j track=”″ autoplay=”n”]

So this is what Tetris would have felt like if it had been created by an Irishman! I’ll have some more updates as I plug away on the music, as well as a history of the original tune.

Current listening to Gotye
Currently playing Tetris (duh)
Currently watching Primeval