How to Transcribe Retro Video Game Music by Anthony Benis

Retro video game music has been a huge influence on me ever since I picked up the first Pokémon games and Super Mario Bros. So much so that while I was studying music in college, I would track down my favorite pieces and analyze whatever transcriptions of them I could find on the internet. Just one problem: the sheet music I found could be better described as arrangements (for piano, violin, etc) rather than an exact, one-to-one transcription of precisely what the console sound chips were producing. Not to say there’s anything wrong with these arrangements, but for a composer who wants to “look under the hood” and pick apart the style, they simply just didn’t cut it.

 

So about five years ago I set off with the goal to transcribe 8-bit music as faithfully as possible. What started as rough and frankly inaccurate sheet music of Pokémon’s Title Screen and Pallet Town pieces eventually turned into perhaps the biggest project I’ve ever tackled: to transcribe the entire soundtrack of Pokémon Red and Blue. This was a huge undertaking made all the more intimidating by the fact that my ear was (and still is) not that great. I don’t have absolute pitch. My relative pitch is nothing to write home about. But with a little patience and a tried-and-true method to break down 8-bit pieces into smaller, more manageable parts, the project was a success! You can find the full score for Pokémon Red and Blue here as a video or here as a PDF. If someone like me could pull off a transcription of Battle! Wild Pokémon with all its chromatic runs then I guarantee that even the most basic musician can get to that point.

 

I’m not sure I can teach you how to be more patient, but I can definitely share with you my method that was the key to making the transcription process easier and my work more accurate. The method hinges on the fact that all retro console sound chips contain a discrete number of independent waveform generators. To take the Game Boy for example, its sound chip has four channels: two pulse generators, a customizable waveform generator, and a noise generator. Each channel is monophonic — i.e. it can only produce one pitch at a time — so all Game Boy music is made up of a maximum of four “instruments” playing at once.

 

Think of the sound chip as a string quartet; all the instruments are playing their unique parts that create a rich and interesting piece, but try to transcribe all of them at once and it can seem impossible. Just when you think you hear the violin melody clearly the viola crosses into the same range and distracts you. It gets confusing. Frustrating. But have the violinist play her part for you while the rest remain quiet… and hey, maybe this actually seems doable.

 

Let’s apply this concept to the sound chip! Because its generators are independent of one another, our goal is to isolate each of the channels and transcribe them one by one. Instead of transcribing one big composition, we are notating three monophonic melodies and percussion. If you can notate the vocal part of your favorite pop song and write out drum rhythms then you can transcribe some of the most difficult 8-bit pieces. And the beauty of this method is that it’s not only easier, but we also get to see exactly what the composer is doing! It's a win-win situation.

 

So now that we know what we want to do, let’s figure out how to do it in four easy steps:

  1. Get the music file from the game you want to transcribe. For Game Boy games, that is the .gbs file (this you will have to find on your own)
  2. Download Audio Overload, open the game music file, and identify which channels are generating which waveforms from the drop-down menu on the right (see below)
  3. Isolate each channel using the drop-down menu and record them separately through your computer audio using a program like Audacity
  4. Transcribe each channel. Don’t be afraid to use tools like filters, speed reduction, playback looping, etc

   

 

And there you go! Combine your transcriptions and you’ve got your piece in all its complex glory. Remember this principle applies to other console sound chips as well; the only things that will change are the number of channels and their technical capabilities. Anything from the Sega Genesis to the NES… I’m sure there’s at least one retro game out there tugging at your heartstrings.

 

So what are you waiting for? Get transcribing!!

A Solution for Perfectionism: Becoming an "Agile" Composer by Anthony Benis

Perfectionism has been — and always will be — a part of my personality. I draft casual emails like I’m writing a paper; I read through the introduction, acknowledgments and even the bibliography of all books and articles I come across; and I feel more uncomfortable with wrinkled, unfolded laundry than I care to admit. Just writing this blog post brings out the harshest critic within me, a nitpicky editor who has a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia always at the ready (he skimmed this sentence a few times over, I promise you).  While being a perfectionist does lead to higher quality work (generally speaking), it is not always a favorable trait, especially for a composer. I won’t stop editing my scores and MIDI data until the crescendo hairpins and expression envelopes are just right — however many hours it takes — and I’ve thrown out idea after idea because I felt like it didn’t sound “good enough.” Obviously all creatives want to put their best foot forward when sharing their work with the world whether it’s music or pixel art, but I don’t think spending hours stressing out about a single note or a single pixel is necessarily the best use of our time or our creativity.

 

The problem that perfectionists have essentially boils down to two words: time management. Instead of completing work that needs our attention, we are content with making that one note sing with the beauty of a thousand angels. Except we still have hundreds of notes left to write by the end of the week and our clients wants them all to sing with the beauty of at least a few angels. I’ve been in this situation too many times in school with papers, problem sets, etc. and I’ve always found a solution for each project, but I think I’ve failed to address the heart of my problem until I recently came across this enlightening article on Video Game Music Academy. What I realized was that I was not consciously aware of my priorities and I did not have the wherewithal to stifle my perfectionistic urges. As someone who has lost sleep over the little details for years, Ryan Davies’ description of an organizational system called Agile was the solution I didn’t know I was looking for.

 

Ryan applies Agile to the field of game audio, but I believe it has the potential to help people in any field under the sun. The essence of Agile is that it breaks down a large project into progressively smaller tasks. Not revolutionary by any means, but the key is that for each task you must assign it a priority and estimate how long you think it will take you to complete it. To explain the further nuances of the system, let’s use an example — say I want to release an album of original music. Where to begin? It seems daunting at first, but let’s break it down. For our purposes we can divide an album into three components: music, artwork and distribution. Getting into more detail, let’s say I want to write 10 tracks, make two pieces of album art, and release my album on Bandcamp. With this information established, let's go through three important questions:

  • What tasks do I need to do to achieve these goals? I need to brainstorm ideas for my tracks and compose, mix and master each one; I need to draft art ideas and hire an artist; I need to sign up for Bandcamp and research independent album distribution.
  • What are my priorities? I should probably start brainstorming as early as possible and contact an artist at the beginning of the process since art can take a long time to produce. On the contrary, I shouldn’t research album distribution until I complete a majority of the tracks since my commitment to the project may waver before I ever need to apply this information.
  • How long will my tasks take? I know from experience that mixing takes an ungodly amount of time, but mastering should be a breeze if I work on all my finished mixes at once (which also informs me of my priorities).

 

After determining my macroscopic goals and iterating through the above questions, I end up with a master list of tasks that could potentially add up to hundreds of hours. To make this list manageable, my next step is to create a realistic work schedule by estimating how much time I can commit to my album in a given time frame (called a "sprint," which Ryan recommends should be 1 - 4 weeks), and filling those hours with the hours of my tasks.

 

Voilà! We magically turned a huge project into small chunks of manageable work, and we even have a schedule to guide us in what order we should be completing tasks and how long it will take us to do so. If we're obsessing over a task and realize that it's not in our sprint or that it's very low in priority, all we have to do is take a step back and refocus on a task that is more important. The word "agile" is a bit misleading because working fast is not the method's purpose, it's the result. Tracking your work flow like an accountant makes you conscious of how you use -- and misuse -- your time, which will ultimately encourage more efficient and productive habits.

 

Though it's only been a couple weeks since I started applying Agile to a project of my own, an 8-bit album in the works titled Summerborne, I have already seen a boost in productivity after a single sprint. If you're interested in giving Agile a try, check out my Excel spreadsheet for an easy way to organize your tasks, log your hours, and analyze the efficiency of your sprints and accuracy of your time estimations. There are calculations that respond to color coding (green = complete, yellow = in progress, red = incomplete), so paste the text in this document to a module in Excel’s Visual Basic menu to get this functionality. Note that how I use Agile in Excel may not suit you or your project as my template is built for a composer/sound designer; customize the system so that it works for you.

 

So in closing, how do you overcome perfectionism and increase both your efficiency and output? It’s actually quite simple and I wish someone had told me this sooner: Write down your tasks, know your priorities, and devise a plan.

 

If you have any questions about how I use Agile or if you're a veteran with tips please drop a comment or reach out to me! I'd love to hear how other people are using this method.

 

I’ll leave you with the words of author Christina Scalise: "Organization isn't about perfection. It's about efficiency, reducing stress and clutter, saving time and money, and improving your overall quality of life."

Is writing words so different from writing notes? by Anthony Benis

Inspiration is a fickle beast. It hits me when I least expect it and compels me to do the strangest things. I've woken up in the middle of the night desperate to jot down the most brilliant idea, only to wake up in the morning and find that the rules for "bike polo" are not worth the paper I wrote them on. Impulse buys on Amazon for Chinese poetry, hours upon hours spent binge watching magic tricks, dancing behind closed doors with tap shoes... the list goes on. If I can find the motivation to do so many weird things sober then I'd hate to envision my life as an alcoholic.

 

Sometimes I wish that I could keep my inspiration in check, but occasionally letting it take control of my life hasn't been the worst. I wouldn't be a musician were it not for composers like Junichi Masuda and J. S. Bach, and pursuing a career in music has connected me with life-long friends, all of whom are inspirations themselves. Not a bad track record if we can forget the bike polo incident. Looking back at my undergraduate experience, following my heart when it came to music was probably the best thing I could have done for myself. However, one of the greatest influences on my work as a composer comes not from music but a seemingly unrelated field: fiction writing. To get the complete picture, we need to backtrack to over two years ago when I first started reading George R. R. Martin's book series Game of Thrones.

 

I hardly think Game of Thrones needs an introduction given the immense popularity of its show adaptation, but for the yet uninitiated it is an epic fantasy with a plot that spans many years, entire continents and more than 1000 characters. Martin tells his story from the perspective of over two dozen people, carefully crafting a web of personal accounts that intertwine into a single gruesome and complex narrative. When I think about the book series from a writer's mindset, the feat is absolutely astounding. I liken his accomplishment to what Howard Shore has done with his scores to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies; Shore composed melodies and themes to represent people, places and ideas, which he then interspersed across six films to create a unified, cohesive sound. While my music education helps me analyze film scores, I had no such preparation to truly grasp a novel of Game of Thrones' caliber. Motivated by my ignorance, I sought to spend the following summer learning how to write fiction, a field in which I had little to no experience. 

 

My first step was to seek out books on writing. I believe one can learn any art form with the right resources, and that applies to writing and music all the same. The notion that people are "born" to be talented writers, musicians or what have you is a lie systemic to the nature of Western society and culture, but that is a topic for another time. I read Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling WriterPlot & Structure by James Scott Bell, and a dinky little book called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost among others. Although Dwight Swain's work is the most essential book for a budding writer in my opinion, Gary Provost's writing was the most eye-opening.

 

In a section titled, "Listen to What You Write," Provost says, "Writing is not a visual art any more than composing music is a visual art. To write is to create music. The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work." He continues, "Read aloud what you write and listen to its music. Listen for dissonance. Listen for the beat. Listen for gaps where the music leaps from sound to sound instead of flowing as it should. Listen for sour notes. Is this word a little sharp, is that one a bit flat? ... There are no good sounds or bad sounds [in writing], just as there are no good notes or bad notes in music.  It is the way in which you combine them that can make the writing succeed or fail."

 

This is the most compelling argument I've encountered that links writing and music together. As a musician trying to write fiction, I was embarrassed that I never made this connection. Provost spelled out in six words what I couldn't figure out after at least a month of dedicated work. To write is to create music. Choosing a word is like picking a note, constructing a sentence like forming a phrase, ending a paragraph like completing a section, reading a chapter like listening to a movement. One can represent characters changing throughout a story as melodies developing throughout a piece, both conveying the emotions that lie at the heart of the work. Because of the many parallels between musical and written structure, I should be able to apply the same creative process to both composing music and writing fiction.

 

While such a conclusion sounds natural given Provost's argument, is there a stronger basis that supports the bond between music and writing? Part of the answer lies in determining what these two words mean exactly. Collins Dictionary defines writing as "a group of letters or symbols written or marked on a surface as a means of communicating ideas by making each symbol stand for an idea, concept, or thing...," while the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines music as, "the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion." Both deal with the communication of ideas and emotions, writing primarily through visual means and music primarily through auditory means. What makes the crossover between music and writing so seamless is that there is an auditory aspect to writing and a visual aspect to music. Readers pronounce words due to an association of sound with symbols, and composers notate their music in written scores no matter how complex the musical gesture. Whether you are a writer or a composer, you are first and foremost a communicator, making many of the skills you develop applicable to both crafts.

 

Perhaps it was my experience as a "communicator" of music that drew me to fiction writing in the first place two years ago. I took a figurative leap of faith by dedicating months of my time to a field that in the end could have amounted to zero progress and done nothing to benefit my career as a musician. Were I so close-minded and insecure about my future, I fear that 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing may have never ended up on my desk. In that respect I've been thinking, what opportunities have I put to waste? Did I miss a chance to better myself not just as a musician but as a person because I was too pessimistic about the outcome? My studies in fiction have shown me that some ideas are worth pursuing no matter how irrelevant they may seem to my goals. However, if you ever see me riding a bike and swinging a bat at a soccer ball, kindly tell me that not all ideas should ever see the light of day, especially one as ridiculous as bike polo.

Portfolio, Blog and Future Plans by Anthony Benis

It took a few months of stumbling around on Squarespace but finally my website is up! I'll be posting new compositions, transcribing some of my favorite pieces, and blogging about music, video games and the like. Right now only my most recent pieces and scores are up including my thesis project, but I'll be adding some of my older work over the next week or so.

 

Looking ahead, I'm brushing up a research project on the game Pokémon Red and Blue in the hopes of getting it published. There are a few logistically things happening behind the scenes, but I'm confident that I'll be able to share my findings in one form or another. Now that most of my research is complete, I'm refocusing my attention on my 8-bit album for a Fall 2016 release. I definitely think that time frame is doable, but depending on a possible publishing opportunity that could easily change.

 

Since all this is mostly an update, my first real blog post is going to be on the similarities between writing words and writing music -- stay tuned!