Thursday, November 26, 2009

The NEW Famicom Fridays #1 - Chiptunes That You Might Don't Know...

(Click Image for Anthem)

Hello one and all, and welcome to the first installment of the revival of Famicom Fridays (and I'm aware that it's actually Thursday...consider this a special Thanksgiving gift...or me being impatient, whichever sounds better), where I’ll try to explain the various tricks and techniques I use to create the retro-tastic sounds that’re better known as 8-bit/chiptune music!

...I’m somewhat embarrassed about using that retrotastic pun, but now’s not the time for embarrassment, it’s time for some music!

For today’s entry, I’m going to be talking about some of the techniques I used to create an 8-bit arrangement of the current theme song to everyone’s favorite internet show about games that aren’t too well known - Games That You Might Don’t Know, But Are Still Pretty Damn Sweet!

For those of you who haven’t seen this show before, be sure to scope it out here...well, after you read this blog, of course!

The theme song was written by Julien Diaz (AKA: The Sad Panda), and it’s quite an energetic work.  So let’s take a quick listen to what my 8-bit rendition sounds like:

As you can see, there’s quite a bit going on in this version of the song, too!  Since this the first installment of the new Famicom Fridays, I figure it’s only appropriate to touch over some basics about how I make this music in the first place.

First and foremost, I primarily use Reason/Record to create my chiptune music.  Personally, I’d love to be able to delve into circuit bending or actually coding out the music authentically...but I’m not as savvy in those areas, so Reason works well as a backup.  Thanks to modern developments, there are a LOT of ways of getting great sounding retro synth tones to either create ‘authentic’ sounding chiptune music...or simply to add some retro flavor to other styles.  I’ll try to touch on some of these options in future installments, but for now, I’ll explain what I use.

The sounds I used in this song came from the “NES Wave Pack” put out by The Chip Collection.  You can get it for 20 bucks, and it’s pretty good for the price, though some of the sounds are a bit on the noisy side, and some tweaking is needed to make them really expressive.  Still, for a low cost option, it’s not bad at all! :)

Anyways!  So when it came to doing this arrangement, the first key step was transcribing the song.  I simply did this by listening to Julien’s original repeatedly, while picking out the key melodic and harmonic elements on my keyboard.  Once I figured out enough of the song, I was able to create a rough transcription using my NES tones to make sure I got the tempo, melody, and progression worked out accurately enough.

Sounds okay, but notice how...lifeless it sounds?  There’s hardly any flow and connectivity to the melody, the drum samples sound a bit flat and dull, and there isn’t really any harmonic language being used.  Looks like we’ll need to do a little tweaking here before we get to the final product!

In regards to the melody, we could just leave it as it is, and it’d be accurate in terms of pitch...but we can make it sound much more expressive and lively using some extra tweaks.  Namely, making the melody slide into and away from the main notes (via pitch bend), an adding that magical vibration of the note we like to call vibrato (via the mod wheel).  Here’s a picture of how some of that looks.

(Click Image to hear sample!)

As you can hear, the melody in this case has a little more life to it, but there's still a little extra work we can do.  One trick I like to do is to create an echo effect, which is fairly easy to do.  I simply make a copy of the melody line after I'm done writing it, offset the copy forward by some short interval (in this case, an 1/8th note), and make the copied melody softer.  The end result is a fairly nice echo effect that adds some wonderful density to the previously dry sounding line:

(Another clickable picture to hear another sample!)

Now we're talking!   Let's move on to those drums.  Just to give you an idea of how the drum samples that I used sounded on their own, simply click here.  Notice how it sounds extremely empty, especially when soloed on its own, and how dark sounding it seems to be right now?  We can fix that with some layering!

What I ended up doing was layering other drum samples (all of which were from the same sample collection I linked to earlier!), as well as using simple white noise (manipulated, of course!) to help give those samples some more impact, clarity, thickness.  Let's take a glance at what that looks like...

(I don't think I need to explain what you can do here. :D)

The last topic I want to hit on for this segment deals with the 'chord' sounds that I came up with to deal with the lack of harmony in the song.  I only used it during the chorus of the song, not only to keep the song from getting too busy, but also to help reinforce the structure of the song.  Now, these chords are done using the same sound sources as everything else in the song, and furthermore, the tracks are monophonic (which means only one note can be played at a time on each track).

So how did I create something that sounded like sustained chords, with multiple notes being played at once?

Take a look at this picture, and click on it to check the sample of what it sounds like:

Can you figure it out?  It may look like a mess of notes that shouldn't be able to make any sort of sound, but upon closer inspection... can see that I simply have notes moving up and down around the appropriate notes of the harmony, but extremely quickly.  This creates the illusion of a sustained chord, using just a monophonic sound.

This is, in fact, in line with a common technique that was used predominantly by Western game composers during the 80's, especially on platforms like the Commodore 64.  I'll pull out some examples of this down the line, especially if I get some sort of encouragement/recommendations to do so. ;)

With those three techniques examined, this concludes this first (of hopefully many!) installment of Famicom Fridays.  Please feel free to leave comments about what you thought of this entry, and what you might want to read/see/hear more about in future installments.  Also, if there is a particular 8-bit track that is featured on my blog that you want me to break down and explain in a future Famicom Friday, don't hesitate to ask.

Have a great weekend folks!  This has been Skitch, and I'll be sure to see you again next Friday!


  1. Heh that's awesome. I might take a look at this software myself.

  2. Very interesting walk through showing a bit how you do these, Skitch. Especially about how you go about making an echo.