Demoscene, Game Music

The Beginning of a New Phase: Interview With Demoscene Legend Josh “Darkhalo” Barnett

August 29, 2009 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook The Beginning of a New Phase: Interview With Demoscene Legend Josh “Darkhalo” Barnetton Twitter

Darkhalo is back in business. After nearly a decade without a formal music release, Darkhalo is releasing Phase Shift, a full-length release featuring his signature ambient, drum ‘n’ bass, and house music. His name has been known around the world in the demoscene, so I’m unbelievably excited to be hosting this release on the Mephtik Netlabel on September 1, 2009. Oh, and yes, it will be absolutely free.

We were able to sit down with Josh to talk about his long absence from the music scene, his long-awaited comeback, and of course, music! We talk about everything from our disdain for the commercial music scene, to game music (including his love for the Silent Hill 2 soundtrack), to Phase Shift itself. Game music fans will be interested to know that the album features a remix of the boss tune from Super Mario Bros. 2, titled “Boss Rush [SMB2],” and it’s a lot of fun.

Watch for our review of the album and it’s eventual release on Mephtik Netlabel next month. In the meantime, enjoy the lengthy interview and a sample from the album after the jump.

Check out a sample from the album titled “Konpeito” while you read the interview!

OSV: Josh, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your upcoming release, Phase Shift. It’s been a long time since you’ve had a full release, so what inspired this sudden burst of creativity, and what are you trying to accomplish with this album?

Barnett: It has been a long time. I suppose a number of factors finally got me into gear… but the truth is I’ve really just had music on the back burner for years, maybe finishing one track per year or less. I’ve mostly been distracted by other things, putting effort into visual arts, working, making money, gaming, having something like a social life, or other musical endeavors like mixing with Traktor or Acid. I also made a conscious decision to focus more of my time into art when I went off to college around 2001 because I thought it would be easier to land a game industry job as an artist than as a musician.

Another factor was figuring out the way I was really comfortable working with music, and I think some of the variation in the album makes that apparent. It was much easier ten or twelve years ago to simply work within the limitations of the software and hardware I had at the time because that was all I had access to. But these days there are just so many options that I find it often overwhelming, and there’s this sort of (maybe self-imposed?) constant pressure to keep up with new technologies and keep improving the quality of my sound. But lastly there’s also a motivating sense of nostalgia. I miss the sense of community and friendly competition, constructive criticism, and sharing music, so I finally decided to stop looking back on it and try to contribute something new instead.

OSV: I know you’ve had several single releases on your website, and have had tracks featured on various compilations over the years, but how long has it been since you had a proper EP release? How do you feel about this long absence, and was it rewarding to put something like this together? Is this the biggest release you’ve put out to date?

I suppose spectrum was my latest actual EP release to date, and that was I think ’00 or ’01. Everything else has been just singles I put up whenever I finished them, so yeah, eight years. For a long time I didn’t mind just putting up single tracks whenever I finished them because that was pretty much the way I worked, and I subconsciously made the parallel with my artwork – that is, I never felt weird about releasing art that way (unless it was through iCE when they were still putting out monthly packs). But as time went on I really felt like getting my mindset back into that sense of creating more thought-out, cohesive releases. At some point over the past twelve years I know there were a few people actually following my releases as well, and they were always very complimentary and supportive, so I sometimes feel bad for sort of falling off the map in that way.

So because of that it does feel rewarding to finally get together a new release and get it out there. And I’m glad that there are still channels available through which to do so. It definitely is my biggest release to date… back in the day I’d usually do four or five track EPs, so it definitely tops my old record. At the same time, I still feel like it’s not enough to make up for such a long absence.

OSV: I’m sure a lot of the old demoscene folks want to know what you’ve been up to over the years. What have you been doing since your days in the demoscene, and do you still follow the scene at all? Do you ever get the chance to make it out to the few remaining US-based demoparties?

I really feel like I just fell off the map for awhile. I mean I’d post new work in one or two communities occasionally, but aside from that I pretty much disappeared from posting much of anything online.

Like I said, for the most part I was going to school, working, doing all of those boring yet essential real life things. In 2001 I moved to Orange County to get my bachelor’s in animation from the Art Institute. While studying there I met the girl who was later to become my wife (tied the knot just a couple months ago!). After I graduated in 2005, I realized that grinding away unappreciated 60-100 hour work weeks in a game studio only to have my employment on the line after each project completed was actually not what I wanted to do, and decided to work freelance for awhile instead, mostly doing motion graphics, 3d animation and some interactive design for web. In 2007, my wife and I got job offers we couldn’t refuse at Gaia Online in San Jose, just 10 minutes from my hometown, so we moved there and have been happy ever since. Gaia seems an unlikely employer given my skill set, but it’s an awesome job where I’m very satisfied, consistently challenged, and a place where artists are often at the top of the totem pole instead of grunts at the bottom.

Getting back to the point, from the start, the demoscene was really one of my main inspirations for getting into writing music, as well as digital art and graphics programming. I remember downloading some intro or invitation in ’92 or ’93 that had a mod version of 2 Unlimited’s “Twilight Zone” and being so impressed by it, I’d just load it up and have it looping while I did my homework.

Nowadays I check up on the more popular demos once in awhile, and it’s still a great source of inspiration for me – the pure level of effort, creativity and ingenuity, and that sense of friendly competition. But I never make it out to the parties. Maybe some day I will, they sound like awesome experiences.

OSV: Let’s dig into Phase Shift. The album features a wide array of styles, from house to drum ‘n’ bass to ambient to downright experimental. Despite the varying styles, it all comes together pretty cohesively, so I’m curious about your approach, and how you went about putting this together. Were you cognizant of how the tracks would fit together?

To a certain extent, I was. Stylistic variation aside, I tried to keep a few running themes that I felt inspired by at the time: technology, artificial intelligence, information, science fiction, futurism… I’ve been reading a lot of William Gibson over the past few years, so his novels have definitely been an influence. Aside from that, a lot of the tracks came from different time periods and were conceived when I was in completely different moods… but I suppose there are also elements which I always find appealing and tend to incorporate in one way or another into every track, which helps with the cohesion a bit. Technically though, there’s a ton of variation in how they were put together, at least by my standards.

OSV: Of course, we cover a lot of game music on OSV, so I have to ask about the game remix you created for Phase Shift. It’s titled “Boss Rush [SMB2],” and is a remix of the boss tune from Super Mario Bros. 2. You’ve always been into game mixes, and this in is kind of a spooky DnB take on the theme with these curious kung fu-esque “hoo!’ and “hah!”’s. Take us through the creation of this track, and why you included it on the album.

Barnett: Actually the idea came to me when my wife’s cellphone rang and jarred me out of a nap. I put a bunch of Super Mario Bros. 2 tracks on her phone as ring tones for her to assign to different friends, and that day a friend called and triggered the boss theme.

I often imagine adding extra beats to songs I’m listening to, so it’s not all that uncommon for me. But I’d also just recently bought my Roland MC-808 and wanted to try out loading up some samples on to it instead of just using the on-board patches. It was super easy to chop up, I mean the whole song was only like 8 short samples… and I just though it’d be fun to add a really hectic drum&bass beat and some super gritty bass lines to emphasize that feeling of barely-in-control boss fight panic.

But as far as remixes go, I think it’s more fun to add some new elements and take it to a different level than simply adding a background beat, so I thought the vibrato sine wave could help boost that sense of boss dread. The vocal clips are from one of the MC-808’s human beatbox drum kits. I was really just toying around with different kits at that point, but it struck me as really funny – these sounds of this guy vocalizing his struggle to jump on the birdo eggs and toss them back without getting hit by more in the process. It’s pretty much how I feel when I play any of the original Mario games, which I’m notoriously bad at (and my wife is uncannily good at).

I think I decided to include it in the album because it’s fairly short and fun, accessible, recognizable and rounds out the vibe of all the tracks a bit. I didn’t want the whole album to be too pretentious or take myself too seriously, so it’s a touch of fun and a nod in the direction of early influences. Plus, as you mentioned, I’ve always enjoyed unique game mixes.

Also on the topic of VGM, the second track, “Ghosts of the Past” is sort of an homage to Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill 2 soundtrack, which I thought was his strongest and probably the best game in the series.

OSV: My personal favorite is “Mind of Goborobo,” which is sort of a quirky house track. It features these odd robotic vocal bits and pieces. I know you like to do a lot of sampling in your music, so where are these from, and what were you going for with this track?

Barnett: The vocal bits are from a few different places. Goborobo is a robot character my wife and I came up with (early rendering) that we ended up using as a logo to represent our freelance motion graphics work. I created a short logo animation for our 2008 reel with his likeness for that purpose, and thought it’d be fun to have a text-to-speech voice pronouncing it, so I found some java-based TTS synthesizers online and had them all say “Goborobo” in their different voices, so that’s how I ended up coming by those samples. The others “great!” and “play?” are from Towa Tei’s “Latte & Macaron” (I think he sampled them from a speak & spell), which my wife used as background music for her 2005 demo reel, in which she also animated him floating off into space with his happy expression…so he sort of ended up being assigned this vapid TTS-voiced personality.

At the time I started working on it, I was listening to a lot of deep house so it really just began as another house track, but it needed a little personality and uniqueness. I started poking around my sample folders, saw those goborobo voice samples and put them in there just for fun, and they ended up really defining the direction of the song for me.

OSV: Is there a particular track from the album that you’re personally fond of? Any interesting stories behind the creation of any of the tracks?

Barnett: Hmm, at this point I can’t say any particularly stand out as favorites, though I could probably sort them by favorite in reverse-chronological order. Technique-wise, the first three tracks were all created solely on my MC-808 and recorded live – i.e., the arrangement and (some of) the effects were all done in realtime. This was definitely a departure from my usual procedure of nitpicking and polishing as much as possible – I just had to play it right and call it done. I did end up applying a bit of mastering and some extra sounds and effects in Acid after recording, but aside from that it was just like, do it all in one take and call it done.

“Stasis” is the oldest track on the album, started in 2004. At the time I was listening to a lot of Rei Harakami, particularly his Lust album, so his mellow, sort of minimalist sound was definitely an influence. I started the track one morning when I had woken up exceptionally early after just a couple hours of sleep for a class or something that ended up being canceled. By the time I found out, I was already too awake to get back to sleep, and was amazed the quiet stillness of everything at an hour when I’d usually be sleeping. I wanted to take advantage of my unplanned free time to start on some new music, but it felt like the most complex thing I could concentrate on was playing these lazy, soft sine wave chords, so that’s what I put down.

OSV: I think you recently made some changes to your studio. Tell us about your setup, including what software and hardware you’re using these days. Do you miss the simplicity of FastTracker and samples?

Barnett: I’ve got an M-Audio Axiom 61 controller that I use mostly for experimenting, playing piano or big chords or anything that needs to sound natural. I’ve also got the aforementioned Roland MC-808, which I’d originally purchased to use as a sort of a musical sketchpad – something I could easily put down an idea with or just switch to and play around on without having to load up a bunch of software and VSTs and make a big deal out of. After selling my old keyboards and vowing to go softsynth, I realized how nice it is to have a separate piece of hardware to play on when my computer’s busy rendering or otherwise. I’ve also got a Vestax VCI-100 for live mixing, though I have yet to make use of it on the production side. Aside from that, just my trusty Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro (hey, I’m also a gamer), a Sony ECM-MS957 stereo condenser mic for field/sound fx recording, and I recently picked up some new studio monitors, a pair of M-Audio BX5a’s and a KRK 10s subwoofer.

Software-wise, I’m still in love with Renoise, since so much of it is based on the Fast Tracker I used for so many years. And I think it’s awesome how involved the developers are with the community and how often they add in the most useful tools or exactly the things people want. I also still use Acid once in awhile, though not as much as I used to.

In a sense, I miss the old days because of the simplicity and the creativity that arises from those restrictions, but at the same time I can (and often do) use Renoise just like FT2, so I feel somewhat content and of course very comfortable with it at the same time.

OSV: Please tell us what some of your favorite game or anime soundtracks are. Are there certain composers that you follow, or do you sort of just casually follow game music?

Barnett: I’m more of a casual game music listener. There are a few game soundtracks I really liked… Mark Morgan’s Fallout 2 and Planescape:Torment, Matt Uelmen’s Diablo II, most of what Akira Yamaoka did for the Silent Hill series… I tend to favor the more ambient/atmospheric soundtracks to the more straightforward musical ones. On the other hand, I also like a lot of the Final Fantasy Piano Collections, partly because I used to just try to play my favorite FF songs by ear. I’d say I’m pretty partial to the FF: Tactics OST too, but it’s hard for me to tell if that comes more from my love for the game or not.  I also recently played through Castlevania: Symphony of the Night again and realized there are a few tracks on there I really enjoy.

I don’t follow a lot of anime music, especially since it’s been a long time since I’ve really found an anime that I felt compelled to watch all of the way through. I liked the Samurai Champloo and Boogiepop Phantom soundtracks a lot, and some of what Hajime Mizoguchi did for Jin-Roh.

OSV: On that topic, a thought just came to me. Wouldn’t it make a whole lot of sense if demo groups got into the game trailer business? I guess it’s difficult only because trailers are usually done before a game release, so sensitive game information (story, characters, etc.) would have to be shared with the group in order for them to create a trailer, but it seems like they’d be perfectly suited for it with a programmer, graphic artist, and musician.

Barnett: It does make sense, in a way…all of the skills are there, and I’m sure that’s why, for example, Starbreeze is now making games. But I think a lot of the motivation for creating demos comes from pushing the boundaries of what can be done with current hardware and for simply creating art, whereas creating a game and profiting from sales is more of the end goal in itself for game studios now. I think one can really see that difference in the big studio blockbuster games versus the small, blossoming indie-games that are slowly coming into the public eye. But the talent definitely overlaps both areas.

OSV: So why aren’t you writing music for games? You work at a game company, and we’d love to see more of your music getting out there to the masses. Have you really worked on a lot of stuff that has to fit a certain visual experience?

Barnett: I have done a bit of game music for Gaia, and they’ve been asking me for more recently, so I am in a way. I realized though that I also tend to favor putting time into a different discipline in my free time than whatever I’ve been doing at work, so I kind of like keeping music as a personal endeavor with which I can maintain total creative control.

“Konpeito” actually made it’s original debut on a flash-based DDR clone I made last year, and consequently got a lot of plays, but I think the audience (teenagers, ~60:40% female:male) isn’t right.

Most of what the music I’ve been asked to write for Gaia hasn’t been very formal or necessary to gear towards particular visuals. The guidelines are super relaxed because there’s usually not a lot riding on it, which is great for creative freedom but also not much of a challenge.

OSV: What’s in your CD player right now? What kind of music are you listening to these days, and what are your thoughts on mainstream music? Is it good, bad, getting better, worse?

Barnett: Hospital records’ “Sick Music” compilation and their most recent mix, Hospital Mix 7 by Danny Byrd have been in heavy rotation for me lately. Hospital is definitely my favorite drum&bass label at the moment, and I was really inspired to hear that one of the top-selling tracks from “Sick Music” was created by B-Complex, a fellow Renoise artist. I’ve also been listening to Blu Mar Ten’s new EPs, Believe Me and Close. I like that they’ve been noticeably ramping up their quality with each successive release, keeping their style fresh and new, and aren’t afraid to venture into other styles, despite their label as drum&bass artists. Also listening to General Midi’s Operation Overdrive, which is just some fun breaks stuff and great for mixing.

I’m really quite oblivious to mainstream music these days, but my general opinion is that it’s getting worse and maybe even ready for a revolution (though I suppose Esthero called for that years ago). Once in awhile I inevitably get a glimpse of popular music and hear things like Lil’ Jon shouting about how he doesn’t give a fuck, or T-Pain’s nauseatingly endless stream of inane auto-tuned lyrics, or Lady Gaga’s generic techno-pop that has nothing to do with sound and everything to do with image, and it all really just turns me off. I’m hoping that when the major record labels finally crash and burn, that the mass-produced music they’ve been spewing out dies with them.

OSV: I want to ask this question. I wanted to go into music when I was younger, but I felt like, “Wow, all these demoscene musicians are so amazing, and they can’t even get a break in the music industry, so it’d be impossible for me.” Why is it that you think such a talented pool of people have such a hard time making it big in the mainstream? You’re a perfect example, as you write amazing music in a variety of different genres. Do you have any thoughts?

Barnett: I’m not sure, I mean, given my obvious lack of appreciation for modern mainstream music I could hardly analyze or dissect the tastes of the masses. On the other hand, I think part of making it big like that has a lot to do with networking, meeting the right people and being social and being in the right place at the right time, and I think that’s much more than a lot of talented artists want to do. I personally feel something like that – not that I wouldn’t take any opportunities that came my way, but I never really felt the need to go out and play the part of self-promotion and marketing. It seems that introversion and genius are often directly proportional, and perhaps the few who don’t fall into that mold have the best chance of making a big name for their work.

OSV: The music portion of the scene has kind of gone off in different directions. It seems like IDM (intelligent dance music) was and still is pretty big. Also, the chip scene has flourished in recent years. What do you think about these developments, and are you fans of this kind of music?

Barnett: I actually used to rather dislike chiptune music. I think I had the feeling that it was prematurely retro, and at the time I felt like I was really trying to push for quality in my own music, and writing chiptunes was going the opposite way. Especially around the late 90s, I felt like there were those who were more interested in making mods and those who were more interested in making music. Maybe part of that ended up splitting people off into the IDM and chip branches, who knows. But enough time has passed for me that I’ve gained an appreciation for chiptunes, even if only as a novelty. I’ve certainly always respected the amount of skill and effort required to squeeze the most out of a few channels of basic waveforms, but I still can’t imagine myself really listening to it on end.

IDM on the other hand I’ve always found more interesting and enjoyable, but it’s also a hard genre to define and I think can vary quite a bit. I was a fan of NOISE music before they went down, and still listen to some of those old tracks to this day. I think their brand of IDM is how I tend to personally define the genre and that which I like the most… stereoman/esem, t.wilton/astradyne, smash, elysis… great stuff.

OSV: You belong to the core generation of sceners who are now older and off doing “adult” things in the world. But do you have fond memories of your time actively spent in the demoscene? Do you ever miss the gang in #trax and find yourself wondering what your old scene-mates are up to?

Barnett: Yeah, I sometimes wish we never had to grow up and deal with real life. I remember a time when I decided for myself, okay, I’ve got to get out of here and learn to function better in the real world so I can get a job and a girlfriend… but looking back on it now I don’t think those things were mutually exclusive, I just wasn’t smart enough to combine them.

And yes, lots of fond memories of being active and hanging out on IRC. It was just a great time to participate and chat with other creative people. I’ve kept in touch with a few of those guys, but I do miss that sense of community and even watching the inevitable scuffles with trolls and the pointless channel op politics. It just seemed so much more contained and closely-knit than the vast and pervasive web-based net of today.

OSV: You’ve told me that you’re already working on some new music. Does this release a sort of rebirth for you in the scene? Have you considered leaving the Darkhalo name behind in favor of something new after all these years?

Barnett: Yeah, a rebirth or return or something along those lines. It’s something I’d like to get back into and put more time into, especially before I have some kids and really have to do the real-life thing (yikes).

You know, I picked “darkhalo” when I was like seventeen, and it’s just stuck with my music ever since. I’ve gone by other handles since then and grown out of the angsty-leet teen aeshetic that inspired my handle, but I always felt like my music was established with that name and I didn’t want to change that – even now, I’m not looking to renew myself or put a new name out with an updated style, but just return with some fresh enthusiasm.

OSV: Thanks for your time. I’m personally looking forward to people being able to hear Phase Shift on September 1.

Barnett: Thanks for the interview, it was fun!

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