June 22, 2012

Square Wave: SNESology

Before we get to the fun part, some minor business:

1) Music Monday is dead, at least in name. In retrospect, relegating the music section of the blog to a specific day of the week was as arbitrary as it was futile. I'll continue sharing gems from the wonderful world of video game music, but that ship will sail under a new banner: Square Wave. Updates will come on what one might generously call a "quasi-regular" basis.

2) What does Square Wave mean? For one, it means I'm completely unable to dream up an original title for a recurring feature on video game music. More importantly, it refers to one of the types of wave patterns prominently used in producing music by the sound chips of classic 8-bit game systems of yesteryear, like the NES and Gameboy.
In an ancillary sense, it could allude to the fact that video games appear to us via an arrangement of square pixels, or the lingering preponderance of game environment and object design to feature grids, boxes, crates, tiles, blocks, and cubes. It just seems to be part of the elementary grammar of games, born out of necessity once upon a time, yet still sewn into the fabric of today's virtual spaces.
Then again, considering that this blog represents what is undoubtedly one of the nerdiest pursuits of the modern age, "square" might refer to the unapologetic neurosis with which I'm apt to appraoch the hobby of gaming.

But enough talk -- have at you!

I've recently been exploring the chiptune music scene, which as it turns out is a lot more vast and varied than I ever imagined. It's not just the hacking of NES, Gameboy, or other vintage hardware to spit out quaint ditties, but rather a malleable and adaptable approach to music that takes electronics as an influence and can run with it across all genres in any conceivable direction.

For today's purposes we'll be sticking a little closer to home with something that is still very much wrapped in the instrumentation of games, but which does so in a novel and interesting way. SNESology bills itself as "New Original Music for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System," and is a project which has resulted in ripping sound files from a range of SNES games. It's not that the music itself is being edited or remixed, but rather that samples and instrument data have been extracted, creating a kind of "sound font" for artists to write and perform original music on keyboards, sequencers, and the like.

Across the Plains, an early composition for SNESology. As composer, programmer, and performer Shnabubula explains: "After many hours of hard work, I managed to completely rip and build an approximation of the Final Fantasy 6 (3 US) sound engine."

I've previously gushed over the amazing work put out by Shnabubula (Samuel Ascher-Weiss), for both his piano & chiptune tribute album NES Jams and his Metroid series medley with Gabriel Terracciano. As adept as he is at rearranging and reinterpreting video game music, his original material is just as impressive. While a variety of skilled individuals have come together for this project, from what I can gather Shnabubula seems to be the principal contributor and composer so far. As of now, he's written over ten pieces, all of which can be listened to via the SNESology page, the YouTube playlist -- or, best of all, on his Bandcamp page where they can all be downloaded for free.

Infiltration, written using the soundset from Contra III: The Alien Wars.

There are a lot of chiptune artists who are good at crafting nostalgic tracks that approximate "8-bit," or reference common sounds of the NES or Gameboy in general. However, there is no default "sound" of the Super Nintendo. Each game has its own specific instruments and character. A variety of games have been represented within SNESology, including Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Terranigma, Contra III, Super Mario Kart, and Super Metroid. The result is adventurous, new music that doesn't necessarily match the style or tone of the original games, but nonetheless can fade into and out of a familiar atmosphere in ways I'm not sure other forms of music have accomplished in quite the same way.

Hands of Fate, a piece combining the soundsets of three different games: Final Fantasy VI, Terranigma, and Chrono Trigger.

Shnabubula himself is currently taking a break from the project (hopefully for not too long), but other talented contributors have stepped in and provided their own remarkable compositions. It was actually an accidental stumbling across Jeff Ball's imaginative Most Beautiful Seduction that alerted me to SNESology in the first place. He seems to have been inspired by the original game's story and characters during his creation process, and that definitely comes across to the listener in the way the tone shifts over the course of the track, although he doesn't reference motifs from the soundtrack directly.

Jeff Ball writes: "This piece was created using instruments from Final Fantasy 6. It’s a journey into the mind of Terra, a dark and brittle look into her past."

There are many more pieces than the handful I've linked to here, and if you're a fan of the SNES era at all, it will be worth your while to at least browse the playlist.

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