Archive for the 'Music' Category

Impossible Music Manipulation

Imagine reaching inside your favorite song and transforming it. Not just replacing one track with another (exchanging, say, Eddie Van Halen’s solo for your clearly superior version), but altering it at an atomic level. Misplace a finger on a chord or two in an otherwise once in a lifetime take? Grab the notes and move them after the fact. Hell, reorient the whole thing and build an entirely new refrain in a different key with a completely repurposed drum part. Then build a wholly new song.

Once thought impossible, Direct Note Access lets you edit individual notes within flat audio tracks. All of a sudden, any audio source becomes an endless palette. Mindblowing.

Back when Guitar Hero creators Harmonix were a tiny shop struggling to pay the bills, they made a genre-defining game called Frequency. And getting the music for it was tough. That’s because, in order to tell the instruments from one another in their licensed tracks, they had to secure master recordings from the original artists. No small feat, especially on a razor thin budget. That just changed.

But there’s so much more. Imagine the kinds of new music games that could be built, making use of music the original developers never heard or even imagined — building from software that finally understands sound as intimately as the player does. Beyond that, being able to restructure music at a note level opens up tons of fascinating new avenues for electronic and traditional musicians alike. I can’t wait to see where this takes the samplers of tomorrow.

Find more Direct Note Access at

thanks to jesse kriss

Battles Rock South Street

As ambient punk crew Deerhunter finished their set at South Street Seaport in downtown Manhattan, the concert promoter grabbed a mic and wondered aloud: “I have no idea how they’re going to top that.” Ooops!

From the instant the thunderous bass loops of Tij hit speakers, it was clear the challenge had been taken up. By the time Battles hit the first impeccably timed break in that opening number, there was little doubt who the winner was. Goosebumps.

The hourlong set was filled with stand out moments: from John Stanier bashing drums so hard on Atlas, he didn’t particularly need amplifiation to the virtuosic live sampling that allowed Ian Williams to accompany himself on the dizzying riffs of Race: In. But what impressed most was the degree to which the band won over a crowd of such a wide demographic — hardcore teens to random middle aged tourists — some of whom stumbled in purely by chance. Since when have the constant time signature shifts of math rock reached so many? The sea of people bounced to otherworldly syncopation of Ddiamondd.

Being a fan of math rock pioneers Don Caballero for some years, I was pretty depressed when guitarist Ian Williams split following their most accomplished effort: 2000’s mind-bendingly melodic American Don. Battles, though, makes it clear who got the better of the deal. Where Don Caballero regressed badly with World Class Listening Problem, Ian’s new band Battles takes math rock someplace entirely new with this year’s instant classic Mirrored. But hearing those tracks live is a whole different thing. It gets into your bones. You close your eyes and absorb it. Your head bobs uncontrollably. Come the end of the show, I was smiling ear-to-ear. File under best shit ever.

Find more Battles at and wikipedia. Kudos to the River to River Festival for ending on such a unconventional note. We last wrote about math rock in Audio Autumn.

photos by jalapeño and epicharmus; many thanks to flickr

The Sounds of Great Game Places

What’s your favorite game soundtrack? Games transport us, be it to sprawling floating kingdoms or a backyard barbecue. And music plays an important role in making those places feel whole, from the symphonic deep space expanses of Homeworld to the rocked out city streets of Jet Set Radio to Katamari Damacy’s giddy j-pop. The best of them stick with you, reminding of places you never wanted to leave.

Digging through my music collection (kicking the Windows habit will do that to you), I noticed that just three of the many game soundtracks I’ve collected over the years have hung around in a meaningful way — creating unique places that I still regularly return to in sound.

When you hear the opening bars of Hyllian Suite, for example, you know you’re in for something special. Jade’s lighthouse home is a warm, hopeful place, and the world beyond is at once more amazing, amusing, and threatening. The Beyond Good & Evil soundtrack captures that world deeply, along with the fantastic characters that inhabit it. Who can forget the high tech rasta rhinos from Mammago’s Garage or the secret passage discovered to tune of Slaughterhouse Scramble’s butt rock or Double H’s quietly insistent message in Enfants Disparus? (Download it here.)

Where BG&E provides places where we can sit still and soak up the atmosphere, Wipeout 2097 (aka XL) never stops, giving only tiny flashes of a future landscape through the windows of anti-gravity craft moving at mind numbing speeds. That doesn’t stop us from imagining the world, though. And music plays an essential role in making that happen, with an electronic soundtrack that provides the perfect glitched-out counterpoint to the highly finessed, Red Bull reflexed racing at hand. Even when you can’t see the city for the demonically winding track in front of you, that world is taking shape in your mind’s eye, guided by sound. Until Wipeout, Playstation only promised the future. Wipeout finally delivered it — and the soundtrack played a triumphant role in making that future feel real. (Grab a used copy of the game cheap and rip the soundtrack right off the disc. Ah how we long for the free music love of PS1.)

Ever wonder what orange sounds like? Rez has the answer. No game ties music and visual so tightly together. After all, the game world in Rez is the music, synaesthetically speaking of course. That’s because every interaction with the world magically happens in time with the music and vice-versa — one intimately informs the other. It’s a stunning accomplishment and one that gives every area its own diverse flavor. From Egyptian fireflies emerging from the blackness alongside Buggy Running Beeps to the steps of a pixelated giant in a Chinese-inspired labyrinth, fittingly set to Rock is Sponge. But none of them can top Adam Freeland’s enigmatic Fear accompanying the mindblowing inside-out final stage. (Import the soundtrack via Amazon.)

Rez is a case study in trigger theory gone right — the idea that a few well placed hints (musical in this case) can trigger a wholly new reality inside the player’s head, far beyond what exists on-screen. But the other games here use music to similar effect. The experience happens within you; as a deep connection between what the game provides and your own memories. Triggers let you escape into your own dreams, instead of those of the game designer. It’s genius when done right. And my favorite soundtracks trigger memories of places I long to visit again and again.

We last talked about the intersection of music and place in Colma: Slacker Awesome in Deadsville, USA.

Finding Frequency: Beats Beyond Rock Band

Imagine a game where you play music with your friends. You each play different instruments, and you can jam with them online. It’s Rock Band, the much anticipated follow-up to Guitar Hero, right? Well, yes. But it’s also a game that arrived half a decade earlier.

That game is called Frequency and it’s important because it added a fantastic new idea to the beat genre: choice. No game has done it since.

With other beat games (Parappa, Band Brothers, Ouendan), you either play the notes in the single track in front of you or you lose. It can be fun, but it can also turn quickly into monotony. (How much can you really feel like you’re playing an instrument when you have to stick so close to a script?) Where others have one track, Frequency gives a choice of eight — each a different instrument. Think that drum part is no fun? Switch to vocals, guitar, synth, or another percussion track for the next phrase. You choose what to play each and every measure, and that makes the difference between feeling like you repeated the music and feeling like you created the music.

But here’s what really makes Freq special: As you master each track, it continues to play in background. You spin one track, then the next and the next, building to a crescendo when the whole song is finally thumping and you can freestyle on top of it. The feeling is sublime because the connection between performance and musical reward has never been so supremely well crafted. And that same track-based motif translates flawlessly when you jam online with your friends, either competitively or laying down tracks for an original song (yep, there’s a composition mode, too). It was the very first online game for Playstation 2 and the first online music game ever.

All this speaks to how stunningly innovative Frequency was when it came out in 2001. That only becomes clearer when we look at games like Rock Band (made by the same folks), which are only now starting to add back the features Frequency had then — different playable instruments, play online with your friends (but still no “choice”). And Freq was a special kind of addictive, too. In March 2005, Edge put it this way:

Though Amplitude marked a step up in terms of MTV-friendly spit and polish, it’s the pared down strobes and breaks of the original [Frequency] that stand the test of time.

Why didn’t it take off? Well, Frequency wasn’t all that approachable. And that’s perhaps the most important innovation of Guitar Hero; making the music game immediately accessible to the most game phobic among us (that’s no small thing). The abstract visuals probably didn’t help, either, though retronauts among us might appreciate those slotted tunnels as loving nod to the arcade classic Tempest.

As much as PS2 was built on big brash titles like GTA and Gran Turismo, the platform deserves just as much credit for cultivating smaller gems: Ico, Rez, Katamari. Soulful, clever stuff that sometimes sold and, well, sometimes didn’t. Frequency’s a didn’t, but it should still be remembered alongside the better known PS2 boundary pushers, as a truly special small game the world still hasn’t quite caught up to.

Find more music game futures at DDR Can’t Flow and more Frequency at

Past Perfect: Gaming, Music, and Flawed Memory

Ever play a new game and get that “wow, this is just like that game I played as a kid” feeling? Odds are it ain’t; at least if you’re like me. But why is that?

Take Metroid Fusion. On first play, I got those same goosebumps I had when I played the original Metroid. Visually, the characters slotted right into the cookie cut-outs the old characters left behind 20 years before. And the feel was just the same. Or was it? Going back and playing original, it seemed foreign, unforgiving. Lacking all the color and diversity I remembered. Metroid Fusion, then, doesn’t live up to reality, it lives up to an idealized memory. And to build a game that channels that beautifully flawed memory is a special kind of skill.

We’ve seen similar in music. Take, for example, the way LCD Soundsystem’s fantastic Sound of Silver pulls on 80’s memories — but only the good ones. How does that work? Like the Eye of the Tiger riff that hits 3/4 of the way through the first track. It sounds totally lifted from the Survivor song until you go back and listen to the real thing. That Survivor shit is awful! And that’s the magic. You remember it but you don’t.

While playing some games will forever be linked to 80’s styled music in my head, an even more direct linkage is made on the chiptune scene, where folks make music with old school videogame gear. That stuff lives in the nostalgic buzz of childhood gaming memories. You feel it in your bones.

It’s enough to make you want to go back and re-live all those early experiences. Almost. An LCD Soundsystem lyric puts it best:

Sounds of silver talk to me
makes you want to feel like a teenager
until you remember the feelings of
a real live emotional teenager
then you think again

It takes a special kind of looking back to fully appreciate how far we’ve come. The games and music of our childhoods weren’t perfect, but our memories can be. And new games and music that trigger the past can help us reflect on all that’s happened in-between.

What’s the formula for triggering good (and not gross) in our collective childhood media recollection? Who knows. But I’m always in awe when games and music give me euphoric flashbacks to those early days. So I’m happy if the trick stays a mystery. That way, I can put on some Out Hud, throw in Super Paper Mario, and travel back to a perfect past that only exists inside my head. Well, and maybe yours, too.

For more edited memories, see Radio Lab.


The bands on night two of the Blip chiptune festival played out like one of those fantastic mix tapes: up a notch, up a notch, down a notch, sideways, rock the house, down a notch, roof comes off. And boy did it.

With folks like Bit Shifter and Random anchoring the show, you know you’re in good hands. And the super-pixelated display that backed them only accelerated the head rocking videogame flow experience. It’s not so much that the retro sounds put you back in classic games but rather that they bring back the sense of momentum and joy those games evoked in an entirely different context. They blew that place up like a one-two punch.

But the real surprise of the night came from an entirely unexpected source. The front half of the acts was a bit uneven and when Coova (pictured above) took the stage with the words “I just flew in from Japan and I’m really tired,” the audience wasn’t quite sure what to expect. We needn’t have worried. She stood motionless, but her sound was anything but. The luminous, pulsing, distinctly Japanese, and forever evolving melodic structures that poured from her gameboys were the most stunning thing I heard all night.

Chiptune performances can resemble plate spinning with gameboys (most acts had at least 3) standing in for plates, each of which must be kept on point with the rest. Here the penalty for slipups isn’t so much crashing dishes as beats out of sync and busted breaks. It’s a precision dance of in-time button mashing, swapping patch cables, and slipping carts in and out of handhelds at exactly the right instant — or the crowd don’t bounce. And what’s amazing is that the best of the performers have this new art down to a science.

The Blip Festival is only half over. This afternoon features a screening of the fabulous 8 BIT documentary and Nullsleep plays tonight. Bubblyfish hits it on Sunday. If the vibe turns out anything like Friday, neither should be missed. For those who can’t make it, the wonderfully diverse multidisc chiptune compilation available at the show should be online orderable soon.

image via jellisvga

Audio Autumn

I can spend all year obsessed with new music (mmmm… Madlib and Quantic) but the instant fall rolls around, it’s back to old favorites and the prog rock comes out of the closet. From Don Caballero to Primus to Zappa, it all just says autumn to me. But the band that seems to capture the end of summer best has to be Rush. I’m not talking the what-the-hell-happened post-Mercury Rush. And I’m not talking about the whole-album-is-one-song early Rush, either. I’m talking the wicked hot stuff in-between: Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, Exit…Stage Left, Signals, and Grace Under Pressure.

Each track says something different, but each feels fall. Subdivisions brings out the isolation of chilly suburban streets. YYZ is the impersonal chaos of a holiday airport. Jacob’s Ladder has the foreboding of an pre-winter storm. And Kid Gloves captures the cliquish start of a new school year.

It may seem like I’m saying that Rush does quiet desperation better than anyone, but that’s not quite it. It’s more that Rush does solitude, introspection, and dreams. Somehow fall says all those things to me.

And, of course, there’s Red Barchetta. Driving alone a leaf-strewn road on a clear day and it tears thorough the speakers…

Drive like the wind,
Straining the limits of machine and man.
Laughing out loud
With fear and hope, I’ve got a desperate plan.
At the one-lane bridge
I leave the giants stranded at the riverside.
Race back to the farm, to dream with my uncle at the fireside.

Ah, yeah. That’s autumn.

The 8-Bit Effect

What does it mean to be the first generation to have grown up with videogames? How does it effect our view of the world? What does it mean for the art we create?

8 BIT, a new documentary that premiered at MoMA yesterday, aims to answer these questions with tons of interesting examples (and a few not so much) of games and home computers colliding with art. We see Treewave mic a dot matrix printer as part of a live concert (sounds great, honest). We hear Cory Arcangel hilariously describe the not-so-subtle differences between the Commodore 64, Atari 2600, and NES sound chips (NES sounds “happy”, C64 rivals a Moog, 2600 is so harsh you wouldn’t wish it on an enemy). Bubblyfish talks about teenage girls who aren’t interested in games getting into Game Boys as part of a music education program. And, of course, we hear Nullsleep, Bitshifter, and many others lay down the law, making wicked hot chiptunes with those very same Game Boys. (Can’t wait for the Blip Festival!)

Why obsessive music making with old school game gear? Ed Halter explains:

When you hear a certain kind of 8-bit sound for a certain generation of people, that will evoke childhood. And so when an artist uses that, now it has all that meaning invested in it.

Emotional resonance is part of it, but it’s clear that musicians also choose “obsolete” gaming devices because they are limiting, both in input capacity and sound production capability. And it’s those very limitations that force them to be creative in ways they never imagined before.

Continue reading ‘The 8-Bit Effect’

Love and Noise

Joey Baron and Ikue Mori at The Stone

For the longest time, I’ve loved free, atonal, experimental, noise music, whatever you want to call it. What’s taken longer to figure out is why I find beauty in bedlam. After all, where exactly is the fun in throwing a piano down the stairs and listening intently? It was at a recent Stone show featuring Ikue Mori on electronics and drummer Joey Baron that the answer started to become clearer.

Amidst Ikue’s stark beep click grind and Joey’s endlessly creative rhythms, I started to be reminded of the ambient music we all encounter every day; from the jackhammers and clangs of construction sites to an errant fan and leaky faucet falling momentarily into sync in a quiet kitchen to the deep static of a radio long after the station signed off. So spontaneous, emergent, fleeting. Always reminding to feel this very moment, now this moment, now this moment.

It’s really the music of the street and the silence that seems closest to the playful atonalities of free improvisation. Grooves appearing out of cacophony and disappearing back into it. Never hearing the same sounds twice. The quiet (and incredibly loud) beauty of found music.

photo via jellisvga

Psychedelia Grows Finns

A sound heavily influenced yet utterly new, using everything from traditional instruments to wind up toys to electronics. Uncategorizable. Finnish folk psychadelia bends convention and the results are gorgeous, disturbing, thought-provoking, dream-inducing.

David Garland was kind enough to piece together live recordings of a number of artists in this emerging style over the past several months and thow it on the airwaves. The audio just became available online today. Listen. It’s worth it.

Of particular interest is Jonna Karanka’s Kuupuu (first on the show). Her improv piece is otherworldly and familiar in the same instant. It almost seems as if she takes sounds we understand and folds them in on themselves. Uncommonly good.

For more on the featured artists visit Spinning On Air and read more about the Finnish Psych Folk scene at Pitchfork.

image grabbed from mixoftheweek

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