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Interview: The Music of Retro City Rampage

May 4, 2012 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook Interview: The Music of Retro City Rampageon Twitter

[Originally published on Destructoid]

We’ve been talking a lot about Retro City Rampage and its soundtrack dating all the way back to 2010. The game’s finally due out on nearly every platform in May, and after our favorable review of the soundtrack and a look at the limited edition vinyl, we’re sitting down with composers virt, Freaky DNA, and Norrin Radd to discuss their work on the game.

Actually, this is more a reminiscence about the NES than anything else, but it’s still a good time, and each artist provides a lengthy description about the process of writing his favorite track from Retro City Rampage. And, as always, we have music clips for you to enjoy as you read.

Check it out and let us know if you’re looking forward to Retro City Rampage and its soundtrack later this month.

Favorite NES soundtrack

Naturally, the soundtracks I heard as a kid will rank among my favourites, but there are hundreds of NES soundtracks I have heard only after becoming an adult (thanks to archives of NSF files) that have become favourites for entirely different reasons, not associated with nostalgia. Do I pick based on nostalgia, or do I pick based on the most technically amazing, or do I pick the uber cool obscure game so I look all hardcore…

As bland and obvious (to NES aficionados) as this answer is, I would probably have to say that the soundtrack for Mega Man 3 is my favourite NES soundtrack, and had the largest impact on me as both a child, and an adult.

When I was 9 years old or so, I found out you could plug headphones into a microphone jack on a ghetto blaster and they would actually record sound (I must have seen this on Mr. Wizard, or 3 2 1 Contact or something). The first thing I thought to do with this newfound knowledge was to turn on Mega Man 3, start up my favourite stages, and hold the headphone\mic up to the TV speaker so I could record the music by itself (turning the TV volume down for fade outs). Before long, I had an entire tape full of music from Mega Man 3, including the Wily stages later in the game, meaning I had to play the game to get to those levels. As I recall, I played this tape so loud in my downstairs bedroom that my parents actually yelled at me from upstairs to turn it down. To my knowledge, this is the first time in my life I had ever “listened to music.”

As an adult, and especially as a chiptune artist, my appreciation for Mega Man 3 goes well beyond simple nostalgia too. Mega Man 3 is a non-stop barrage of tricks and techniques that fill out the soundtrack and give the entire thing this razor sharp sheen. It’s possibly the most tell written and technically amazing NES soundtrack. Unfortunately, it’s a very hard game to remain objective about. For me though, it’s the total package.

Honourable mentions would have to go to: Rollergames, Super Dodgeball, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Double Dragon 2, Double Dragon 3 and Contra.

I love the Shatterhand soundtrack. I don’t remember how I came across it but I remember listening to it on my lunch breaks for an entire summer a few years ago when I was first seriously getting into composing chiptunes. It strikes that rare balance of technical dexterity that keeps the songs fresh every time they loop but also have great melodies that aren’t annoying with repeated plays. I never had an NES as a kid but had a C-64 so most of my memories are built around the Commodore sound. A close second is Super Mario Bros. which has a great sunny calypso feel to it. The Metroid title track is one of my favourite NES tracks as it is a great overture for the game and has a strong dark vibe that really went against the grain of the songs of the time.

Overall, it’s a toss-up between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: The Manhattan Project and Maniac Mansion. TMNT3 is pure perfection; it flawlessly captures the insane melange of late-80s leather-pantsed, 8000 watt, hard rockin’ power-pop that was Konami’s sound. Maniac Mansion, on the other hand, is raw, crude, uses a crappy American music driver with dumb-sounding instrumentation, no dynamic control, and abysmal timing (due probably to hasty midi conversions), and… is insanely brilliant and witty and funny and well-written and memorable. Its personality shines through the mediocre sound engine. More than maybe any soundtrack I know of, this is the “holy grail” of OCR-style arrangement for me, and some day I will attempt it.

Classic NES character you’d be the best parody of if teleported into the world of Retro City Rampage

Sam from Super Dodgeball! I play real life dodgeball in the Vancouver Dodgeball League three times a week, and I’ve even given names to some of my secret “special” throws, haha. Slap a green jersey on me and I’d be a dead ringer for Sam.

Ha! Leonardo. TMNT was never a game that I played but I watched the original animated series back as a kid – nothing cooler than ninjas back in those days…!

A fat, Jewish Golgo 13.
(turns around)

Either that or the sub-boss from Double Dragon 2 Mission 1 with the creepy double disintegrating death animation. That guy’s rad. I like his mask.

Superpower you’d pick from any classic NES franchise

The Spinwheel/”Jump-N-Slash” move from Ninja Gaiden, without question. That way I could roll around and smoke any boss with one hit. And it only takes five ninja points!

I’d definitely want the mushroom power from Super Mario! I like the star power as well since the music change is really cool too but the mushrooms are much more useful overall. I even wrote a reggae-style song for it called “Toadstool Om Nom.” If only toadstools where like this in real life… hmm…

Probably Kirby. When you think about it, he’s really the Rogue (X-Men) of Nintendo games, he can absorb any other power he wants. Except Kirby’s more my style, because he is large, pink, and loves to swallow.

Favorite track you wrote for the game (with lots of detail!)

Two tracks. The two that took the longest to finish!

The first is the track “Cyborg Mission II” (from the pre-order bonus tracks).

Originally, [Brian Provinciano] wanted to use a lot of my older tracks as casual music you could hear on the radio when you are driving around the world map. Some of the tracks date back quite a ways to my first chiptune album (Melodia di Infinita). When I wrote those songs, the idea of ever having my chiptunes in a game was a pipe dream. There were no real retro throwback games, and mobile devices weren’t yet used for gaming. I wrote them as a hobby, and I was (in my opinion) pretty bad at it from a technical standpoint. I’ve had years and years to listen to these old songs, and more and more I found little things I wished I could change. It had become so bad that I couldn’t even listen to my old stuff. A couple of these songs, Brian was interested in using for the game! This was kind of a chance for redemption, because I was able to go back in to my original .IT files [Editor’s Note: .IT is a file format native to Impulse Tracker, a DOS-based software used to write music] and fix them up. It took quite a while, but I was actually able to make peace with every single “classic” track Brian wanted to use… Except one. The original “Cyborg Mission.”

Brian, however, seemed to enjoy the original quite a lot, and even featured it in a cut scene for one of the demo builds he’d sent me. I knew that this track had to be fixed, no matter what. I struggled and struggled with my original file, trying to make it sound up to par, but my methods back then were just too crusty. In the original .IT file, I must have used drum samples from 6 or more NES games, and my drum fills were just a machine gun firing out all of them all over the place. There were also little melodic bits that trailed off and didn’t connect anywhere (transitions are so important). It seemed like a lost cause, so, I just decided it was time to rewrite the entire song anew, using my modern templates and techniques. Instead of just recreating the song though, I went somewhere totally new with it, and it came out very epic. I look at it as a triumph over my old careless ways, and I can finally put the original Cyborg Mission to rest. Though, I still have online friends that tell me they prefer the original. Psssht, fanboys.

The second is the track “Smut Peddler.”

This all started out so simple… In November of 2010, Brian asked me if I could write a parody track for a mission in the game that would resemble the classic Paper Boy. The original Paper Boy only had one extremely simple song that played during every second of gameplay. One simple song that will forever haunt my dreams.

This was the first time I had ever been tasked with parodying a song in chiptune format. Up until this point, I had painstakingly worked at accurately recreating songs in NES format. But making something sound similar, without actually being the original is so much harder (virt makes it look and sound so easy). And since this was not just a project for fun, I learned I could potentially get Brian in some legal trouble.

My first draft was a little too close to the original song for Brian’s comfort. I basically, directly, referenced portions of the original song, then transitioned into my own unique sections, and back and forth. Brian really liked my sections, and asked me if I could just alter the pieces that referenced the original enough so that it would not be a legal issue, and this was what caused so much trouble. Altering the sections was definitely foreign territory for me, and I didn’t really know what was allowed, or how much you needed to change it. Throughout the entire process I kept pestering virt through email, asking him if he thought I had changed it enough. But in the end, the portions of the original song just pervaded, and Brian was quite concerned. The real shame was, the parts that I wrote from scratch were some of Brian’s and my favourite music I had written for the game, and neither Brian or I wanted to see them go. But simply removing the portions that sounded too close to the original and leaving just my parts were not possible due to the way everything was transitioned together.

In November of 2011, a year of ‘here and there’ revisions went by, still with no luck, and it came time to release the soundtrack for Retro City Rampage. “Smut Peddler” was a definite choice to be on the soundtrack, if only it could be finished. Eventually, I think it was Len (FreakyDNA) who came along and peppered my file with some of his own melodies and sent it back to me as a suggestion for how to proceed. I didn’t end up using the suggestions, but it was this small collaborative effort that really sparked my creativity again for this track, and over the next couple days, I was able to belt out a finished version that was finally license free! It wasn’t until I heard Freaky’s ideas and a different perspective that I was finally able to pull myself out of the depths of hell and finish. For any other musicians out there who are simply stuck (both creatively, and systematically), if it is in your means, have a friend offer you some suggestions. It will kick your butt into shape.

All said and done, I spent over 100 hours of my life on this song… now go back and listen to the original, hahaha. My nightmare.

My favourite track for the game is “Bit Happy.” I had a listen to the original game and thought I’d try to follow some of the existing song melodies but I ended up not taking anything from the original game at all. I basically just sat down and composed the core of the song in a few hours by figuring out some riffs that I really liked on the acoustic guitar while sitting in the sun at home. I transposed these riffs into OpenMPT and figured out how to arrange them for the NES sounds. Unlike a lot of my other chiptune songs, I really tried to keep the percussion really simple as having a lot of beats tends to make the song heavier and not as happy as I wanted it to be. It was really a good exercise in restraint for me to not add extra notes but to really focus on the transitions between segments of the song. There’s a heavy little electro-beat breakdown that happens in the song that I’m really pleased with as I feel I was able to move in and out of this section in a way I hadn’t tried before. Basically, this song makes me happy each time I hear it so I’m glad to have been able to include it on the vinyl.

One of the songs I’m most happy with on the technical side is “Riff Down.” It was one of the first songs I came up with for Retro City Rampage and was basically through figuring out an interesting riff on the acoustic guitar. I really enjoy all the breaks that are in there and feel that it has a great funky feel without getting too technically oriented. There’re parts that I really have no idea how I came up with which really helps keep the song fresh. The way I worked on the songs for Retro City Rampage is to come up with strong melodic bits on the guitar, translate them over to the tracker program and then repeatedly polish a group of songs over the course of the two years we spent developing the songs for the game. This song and other songs have basically received days of tweaks by me over the time of the project so it’s always important to not get things too “tweaky” and to make the groove the king. I’ve basically only been doing chiptunes a couple years now and still really like this song so it has a special place in my heart when I’m listening to it.

For those that don’t know, making quality chiptunes is really a labour of love, a certain amount of talent and a massive amount of time. I’d say that I can produce conventional electronic music about ten times faster than working on a similar amount of chiptune music. It’s really like making music through a microscope and the tricky part is making all the details come together but still have the big picture make sense so that the song conveys the right feeling. I’ve learned tons by working on Retro City Rampage and the problem is that I’ve kinda been bit by the chiptune bug so it’s hard for me to listen to certain types of music now as I can almost see their notes streaming by in a tracker. I’m really lucky to have been able to work with [Matt “Norrin Radd” Creamer] and “Jake “virt” Kaufman] and hope that people can really enjoy the depth of emotion and detail that we’ve done our best to put into the songs of Retro City Rampage.

“Not Nate.” The title is, if you don’t already know, a reference to the late great Nate Dogg. If you don’t know who that is, stop reading this article immediately and go jump in front of a bus, because screw you. You might have noticed that I enjoy trying to imitate the sound and playing technique of various instruments, from guitars to er-hu, in my chip music.

Well, the human singing voice is a hard thing to imitate with plain old pulse waves. Nobody can do it nearly as well as the NES legend Chibi-Tech, and I’m not even going to try for that level of articulation (do yourself a favor and track down her chip stuff, it will blow your RAM off) so my vocal-emulation niche is mostly Michael Jackson and various hip hop and soul artists. I have listened countless times to every track Mr. Dogg sang on, so you could say I am familiar with his buttery-smooth vocal stylings. I tried my best to make it sound like he’s singing the lead melody, because to my knowledge, no one else had yet given him this dubious honor. May his soul be blessed. Smoke weed every day.

As far as tools, since I was a wee lad, I’ve used an old DOS program called Impulse Tracker to make “sound-alike” NES music, but Retro City Rampage was my last time using it — I’ve since moved fully to FamiTracker (famitracker.com) which, rather than being a general-purpose music program, is made specifically for authentic NES music which can play on the real hardware. It’s free, and not that hard to learn. You reader dudes and broettes should all download it and mess around, make some Nintendo music! Assuming you didn’t already jump in front of the bus from before.

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