Friday, August 13, 2010

Comments on my recent 8BitCollective uploads

This might be interesting to people who have been working in TFM or are curious about how the heck I make my music. Here's a relatively detailed explanation of the songs that I uploaded, with a bit more emphasis on how they were done in TFM.

Aqueuct of Dragons (from Harmony of Dissonance)

When I first heard the song, I was almost immediately reminded of the boss music from Shadow Dancer for the Genesis. Thus my angle for the song would be to arrange it pretty tightly to the original, but use (steal) the voices from that song. Of course, the main problem in doing so is that Shadow Dancer had sampled drums while TFM does not. I worked with a couple premade drum samples and tried to make them a bit deeper and louder to compensate; both Shadow Dancer and Harmony of Dissonance have rather low-rate sampled drums and as a result sound a bit muffled. Though the low-pass filter on the Genny does a lot to make FM drums less tinny, the drums still have much more treble than Shadow Dancer's rums. It's surprising how much using drums like that and livening up the tempo slightly improve on each song.

It's also slightly inspired by the Bravoo Man boss music from Gunstar Heroes, near the end there. I tried to add echo; doubling up the arpeggios with a delay helps that a lot, while having a second bass voice come in that has slower release and sustain rates helps too.

Iron Blue Intention (from CV: Bloodlines)

Although I did once do a fuller TFM remake of The Sinking Old Sanctuary for this game, the other songs from the game I've remade have all been done using PSGmod2 (which is an emulated tracker for the SN76489 chip that the Genny and Master System, among others, used). I went back to this after a couple experiments with Famitracker, partly as a comparison base. I'm always disappointed that the SN chip doesn't have configurable duty cycles or any sort of PCM playback channel, though, since the bass on the chip is always disappointing; in the bits where it feels like the bass suddenly "cuts out" it's because the chip can't play notes lower than a certain value.

Another thing that always bothers me about the tracker is that it doesn't seem to have a real "release" command; the command that's equivalent always leaves a little bit of noise. For once, though, I was going to try to cut that down by making that command completely silent. It's still a bit frustrating to change the volume for each note release, but can be done.

The tracker (and, of course, the chip itself) have a configurable frequency divider (basically tunes the entire song down an octave) which can be useful for getting those bass notes, but I don't know any easy-to-use replayers for the Genesis that support it! I dunno if that's simply because they got rid of that feature when they cloned the chip for their consoles (doubtful?) or if it's because nobody ever used it so they didn't think to support it. Would love to know if someone knows of a replayer that does support it; it would make my life a lot easier.

You Goddamned Bathead (from Castlevania Chronicles / CV X68000)

An interesting exercise. This is one of those sorts of songs I do that can't easily be converted from TFM into another tracker due to the use of some of the features involved in getting the sound right.

In making this song I decided I wanted to get it to sound at least a little like the version from Chronicles (though I feel that the music from that game tends to sound a bit over-produced at times). Like a lot of -- actually pretty much every -- electronic song out there, the song adjusts the main line's timbre to be higher as the song increases. With a little poking around I found I could get the same effect modifying the frequency multiple and total volume level of the first operator of one of the voices. Since TFM supports changing this every single line, what I ended up doing was modifying the total level every time the note hit and changing frequency basically every measure.

Unfortunately, the tracker doesn't support automatic incrementing and decrementing of these values! I had to input them all by hand (and convert between hexadecimal and decimal numbers). It's not hard so much as a bit laborious, which is why I don't use it much. Incidentally, the maximum volume level is 0 but the maximum frequency is at 15 (starting at 0 for the lowest). This makes it a bit more confusing.

Incidentally the only thing that I did to get a transcription of this one was watch the player output from Hoot in order to get most of the melody lines and then built the song from there. However, what I guess would be considered the "verse" of the song was sped up significantly and added in a reference to Psycho Warrior from one of the GB Castlevanias.

It's not an incredibly complex song. :P

Successor of Fate (Harmony of Dissonance)

I love the volume changes in the original that make the chorus stand out so much. I tried to capture the same feeling of the original in that regard (and the bassy sound that the game had -- hard to do when the percussion's not sampled, as it tends to be more treble than GBA or Genny sampled drums, as I suggeste above!). The main inspiration for the direction of this piece was the overworld music from Shining Force II as it had similar aspects of the original, such as being a bit booming (like in the intro) and having a feeling of more reverb than a lot of Genny songs. It had the advantage of some deep drum samples to getting that sound (which, again also had a lot to do with the GBA game's bassy tone as well). Once again the lack of sample playback in TFM would come to haunt me.

Thus this song actually took a while to get "right" because I kept having to worry about keeping the percussion in balance (I didn't want it to get drowned out, since it needs to be forceful) and to try to get the sort of resonating tone (hey, the Castle is gigantic and the entryway in particular is open; why not have the music for that section be so echoey). Thus I kept a lot of the voices really quiet -- as much as I could, while leaving the percussion super loud.

Some might notice that a lot of the voices sound like they came from Shining Force II. Though I took some stylistic cues from there, I did not actually rip instruments from the game. All were pre-made for TFM and had small modifications done (mainly to increase attack rate and eliminate sharp decays so they don't seem to either "fade in" or "click").

What exactly was taken from that game, then? Most importantly, when notes were released in the song I linked from it above, they didn't use a clean release. Instead the volume was cut significantly (so the note played, though quietly) behind everything else --except the main melody line, which was doubled (much like in Aqueduct above). For the most part the effect is subtle here, but would probably be more noticeable if I'd created a version that didn't have it in it. Separating the individual lines also makes the effect more obvious -- just as it does in the song I patterned it on.

One thing you'll notice is that on the repeat of the chorus the melody comes in a little later; on the transcription I used I'd pushed everything off by a quarter note on one of the lines. I liked the effect here as it was haunting to hear the strings playing on their own with the slightly dissonant note from the melody still resonating; the rhythm of line that then comes in still fits with everything else (it's not like everything's been shifted from downbeats to upbeats or anything), so I think it works.

Incidentally, the slightly distorted "static" tone the organ has at the start of the song comes from the fact that the console produces noise, which is more noticeable when the music playing is quieter. Most of the songs I make are loud enough that this noise isn't really audible, but you can hear it a few places where I cut the volume down on a few other hardware recordings.

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