January 13, 2012 11:30 PM | jeriaska
For the past two years, Blip Festival Tokyo at Koenji High has served as a powerful argument in favor of the undying appeal of chiptune music.
The annual party's audio-visual performances excel at bringing rock concert intensity to old school game aesthetics. Few spectacles on earth go quite as far to extol the appeal of the Famicom, Game Boy and other endearing machines of yesteryear.
In this discussion, we hear from four chiptune artists and Blip participants. Nullsleep has contributed music to such independently developed game titles as PongVaders for iOS. Here, he talks game audio with Manabu Namiki, series composer of Deathsmiles and DoDonPachi.
They are joined by Hally, founder of the influential chiptune label VORC and arranger on various Mega Man remix albums. Chibi-Tech works in music and sound design for games created in Tokyo and can be heard on the album Chiptuned Rockman.
The conversation between the game-inspired artists offers several perspectives on the independent spirit of the Tokyo event, as Blip Festival Australia gears up for its debut on February 17 and 18.
Photo by Marjorie Becker of Chiptography.com
The Blip Festival concert series has stops all over the world and will be headed to Australia next month. How would you describe the way the live event has gone over in Japan?
Nullsleep: I was very impressed with how it turned out and was excited to see it be so successful. For me it felt similar in a lot of ways to Blip Festival 2006 in New York. That was the first time we were doing Blip Festival ever, so we had no idea how it would turn out.
We didn't know what to expect from the first Blip Festival that we ever did in Japan. There was the possibility that we would come, bring all these musicians, and only ten people would be in the audience. It was great to see so many people come out to the party.
Hally: What I can never forget is that in 2006 you came to Tokyo and I suggested putting together a chip music party here in Japan like the one in New York. It was a dream then, but now it's real.
Nullsleep: That was sort of the way Blip Festival was born. In 2006, Bit Shifter and I did a world tour. It was the first time that either one of us had the opportunity to come to Japan. We met with Hally and many of the other Japanese chip musicians, and were able to play some shows here. Meeting face-to-face I think strengthened relationships that we had already started building over the internet.
After the tour, when we returned to New York, we were contacted by Hally and some other musicians, saying that they were interested in visiting New York. And that was basically how the first Blip Festival was born. We then started speaking to Mike Rosenthal at the Tank and told him about all these visiting musicians from Japan joining us for a chip music event. The idea grew slowly until we started inviting other artists from different countries to New York.
Nullsleep's "Pleasure Construct" from Blip Festival Tokyo 2010
Nullsleep: It's exciting to hear that you're becoming more interested in chip music. Could you talk a little bit about what your impressions were of the Blip Tokyo party?
Manabu Namiki: I was surprised that there was so much energy. Everyone was performing simple electronic music: square waves, noise channel and kick drums. There were young kids there that hadn't even experienced the Famicom in back in the day, and they seemed to be really into it.
Hally: Were there any performances in particular that left an impression?
MN: The musician from Argentina... 8GB. I've never heard chiptunes by a South American artist before. It must be happening in Brazil, because there's so much interest in the Sega Master System there. His music was sophisticated and interesting.
And, unsurprisingly, Hip Tanaka's performance was incredible. He really knows his reggae and four-on-the-floor dance music. The extent to which he can produce that kind of groove while performing live is very impressive.
Chibi-Tech: Considering this took place in Japan and we had a predominantly Japanese crowd listening to all the artists, it was surprising the way everyone was getting really into the music. They weren't just flashing a glow stick or something, but going into happy rages and crowd surfing.
Whenever I go to live events here in Japan it's usually quite different. It's orchestrated: people pass out a "call book" that tells you how to dance in a predetermined fashion. When it goes to the bridge, you wave your glow stick "like this." For a moe song or denpa song, or any genre that involves a popular idol seiyū, you can tell that the crowd is into it, but it's a sterile kind of situation. You're supposed to be given directions on how to enjoy your concert.
Nullsleep: At Blip there are no rules.
Indie game creators Goto80 and Raquel Meyers performing at the 2010 Blip Festival Tokyo
MN: Something that really surprised me was the presence of moshing at a chiptune event. Moshing, headbanging and stage diving all remind me of heavy metal. When I was in high school I loved that music: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Overkill, Anthrax.... To see that same kind of enthusiasm for chiptunes was somehow nostalgic and also totally new to me. Since there were so many performers from overseas, it exposed me to a lot of new artists' styles.
Nullsleep: Your music history is very diverse. Knowing so many different styles must help in bringing ones that are appropriate to the games you're working on.
MN: I don't spend a lot of time analyzing my own musical influences, but I have paid attention to certain genres of music from around the world. When I was writing music for Battle Garegga and NMK games, that's when I was developing a personal style of music.
I'm really fond of techno music. YMO was especially influential. Electropop, bands like Propaganda and Devo, spoke to me. Maybe the biggest impact on me has been from Detroit techno, such as Underground Resistance. I was influenced by that aggressive sounding music, by R and S Records, Rising High Records, Dave Angel and C.J. Bolland. Those were my research materials for several of the shooting games.
In a nutshell, here's how I'd describe a shooting game: It starts with your inserting a coin, you press the start button and select your character. And that's an opportunity to motivate the player. Tension is mounting as the background music plays. The first stage starts, and you rush after the power-up. The music is expressing the excitement of gaining power. You're shooting at targets and battling the boss, while interwoven with the action is the rhythm, tempo, melody. So over the years I have been developing this style to stage the action of shooting games.
Following the Tohoku earthquake, Cave donated profits to relief efforts
Deathsmiles 2 was self-published by Cave in English-language regions. What has been your approach to writing music for the Deathsmiles series?
MN: The 3D polygon art style of Deathsmiles 2 was a departure for the series, as the original game had 2D sprite art. It therefore made sense to take a different approach when it came to the music. Sound for the original's arcade cabinets was in mono and the sampling rate was low. The switch was made to stereo for the sequel, and the bit rate was bumped up. Beyond addressing the specs, I was looking to introduce a greater degree of musical variety to the soundtrack, along with a "happy" quality to match the game's Christmas theme.
Shooting games somehow gravitate more naturally toward serious genres like horror. That made the gothic horror elements of Deathsmiles a natural match. Having the Christmas theme make sense was not so obvious. In the end, the answer appeared to be to treat Christmas like a decorative ornament.
It wasn't going to carry the entire game thematically, so that made composing for it a bit tricky. The player wouldn't know what to make of a bunch of cheerful sleigh bell sounds in a shooter like this. So it was a tough nut to crack, the music for Deathsmiles 2.
Nullsleep: You're very well known for your game music soundtracks. Do you have personal music projects that you are also working on in your spare time and do you have any interest in live music performance?
MN: Working on games and with a wife and child at home, it doesn't leave a lot of time for music not directly related to my job. Shooting games have largely directed my career so far, but it would be good to expand beyond that sphere as well. I would like to explore chiptunes and orchestral compositions in my privately directed music projects.
Hally: He has already started working on chip music arrangements, for example on the Darius Remix and Chiptuned Rockman albums.
MN: There I was looking to approximate the sound of the Famicom. I didn't use the actual console hardware, though. Truth be told, I relied on an emulator. It was something unique built by my friend that generated sounds similar to 8-bit Capcom music, like U.N. Squadron (Area 88) and Carrier Air Wing (U.S. Navy) from the CP-System 1 era. That's how I went about doing my remix for the Chiptuned Rockman album.
Nullsleep: When you're playing DoDonPachi, there's this feeling of a very dystopian future where military power has gone too far. I think it's one of the Cave games that is most interesting to me because of that concept. The soundtrack that you wrote for it conveys the anxiety of that future.
C-T: There have been rumors circulating that the arcade versions of DoDonPachi Dai Ou Jou and Ketsui were being driven by a tracker. Eventually, I realized it was true, that there was this European-style tracker soundtrack. I find that very interesting because there's almost no instances of Japanese composers using trackers. I always thought that Japanese composers didn't know about that stuff at all, or thought, "What's this tracker stuff? It's like spreadsheets."
Hally: What's interesting is that he's often working as a programmer and will make his own music drivers. Sometimes it's on Assembly language. Sometimes its in MML, or using trackers.
MN: When I was asked to write music for DoDonPachi Dai Ou Jou, they specified that I deliver the music files in MOD format. The itemized sound specs were: MOD format, waveform, 8bit PCM. It was up to me to figure out how to make it happen. I did some research and found the MOD file from DoDonPachi II, developed by IGS. The same sound driver from DoDonPachi II is featured in DoDonPachi Dai Ou Jou. As you know, IGS is a Taiwanese company, so I thought I'd try adding a Cave-sounding spin to it.
How did you receive the name "Santaruru?"
MN: When I started at NMK, I became the third member of the sound team. My nickname was a play on the words "number 3." Maybe it was a form of hazing, but for the most part I was treated well, so I tolerated it. My name began showing up as "Santaruru" during the credits of games. That tradition has continued in some form until present day.
Hally: "Santaruru" comes from "ichi, ni, san." When I managed Kamishimo Records, one of the first Japanese netlabels, I asked him if we could publish remixes of his Battle Garegga music on our label and he kindly accepted.
MN: I'd like to hear a little about your career, Nullsleep, and how you first got into music.
Nullsleep: I started making chip music my first year at university, using trackers and some PC software. I discovered it through friends that were already making electronic music. Later I became interested in doing chip music, got a Game Boy with LSDJ and Nanoloop, and started playing with those. I thought this was the sound that was most interesting to me.
My background is not so heavily influenced by videogame music. I got interested in Aphex Twin, IDM stuff. Also, more recently there are bands like M83, which is very heavy texture electronic music. Of course, older synth pop groups like Depeche Mode, as well as Shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine, Joy Division. Lots of diverse musical styles come into my background.
The first chip music I wrote was very happy and melodic. More recently I'm interested in sound design and texture, dissonance, combining extremes of very structured order and disintegration, destruction of the sounds and contrasting those two parts of the music.
I grew up listening to early videogame music on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but there was also an interest in the demoscene. My brother and I used to watch demos that we downloaded on PCs over slow modem connections. This was 1997, so we were downloading on a modem, watching demos and using MS-DOS to write music for the PC speaker. It was similar to MML style. Those all feed into my interest in this style of music.
Hally: What was your first experience with computer-generated music?
C-T: In 1985 or '86, my dad bought me an Amiga 1000 and something called Activision's The Music Studio. It's the same one they used for Cheetahmen. I had to deal with this very awkward interface that tried to accommodate staff note entry and the limitations of having only four channels. This was when I was five years old, so I was only starting to have formal training. My parents tried to get me to play on the piano, not just stare at the computer. But I enjoyed making music on the computer.
MN: The Blip Festival was really interesting. I've always had an interest in dance music and the chip sound has similarly been a source of fascination. There's something about the combination of chip and electronica that could be interesting. What mix of these genres you could explore is definitely something to think about.
[This article is available in Italian on Gamesource.it. Japanese language portions of this discussion can be found on the Videogame Music in Context in Japan DVD. Translation by Yoshi Miyamoto. Images courtesy of Blip Festival and Cave.]