Yesterday we presented a DIY guide to help you understand and compose 8-bit Nintendo music. Today, we’ll investigate the tools and strategies you can use to get that Nintendo sound in your own recordings.
Recap: Understanding 8-bit Music
As we discussed in the previous article, you can’t write video game music without understanding it. Old-school video game music may sound complex, but because of the limitations of the systems and hardware, it is - by necessity - made out of simple components. You can use a free Winamp plugin called NotSoFatso to open .nsf files (a file type that exactly replicates early video game music). This will allow you to isolate each channel of the music, deconstructing it and figuring out the way that each strand of the music weaves together to form the whole. After you go through a few of your favorite songs and get a feeling of how the composition works, you’re ready to create your own. You have a variety of ways to compose Nintendo music, including emulators, trackers, software and synthesizers.
Composers have a couple of different software options to create 8-bit-sounding music. You can exactly recreate the opportunities and limitations of original NES hardware, or you can use software to compose music that sounds like old-school video games without the constraints of the original systems.
To get music that literally could have come off a Nintendo cartridge, you can use software packages, called emulators, to recreate the conditions the original composers dealt with. Because you’re working within the guidelines of Nintendo replica music software, it will be impossible to write something that doesn’t sound like Nintendo.
When working in these emulator programs, "You’re pigeonholing yourself into Nintendo music and working within that," says Jason Cohen, one of the original authors of the open-source audio program Audacity. "The other way to approach it is to buy something that plays notes and hope that you can come up with something that sounds like Nintendo. The middle ground is using a Nintendo Tracker, synthesizers, or software with prerecorded stuff."
Trackers are programs that provide a non-traditional interface for composing instructions to produce music. Using Nintendo trackers gives you the ability to produce microscopic effects that sound like splashing or blurring at normal playback speed. If your goal is to produce little melodies of samples for use in live performance or just working at home, a tracker can create those sounds and let you loop them, so that while you're playing live you only have to hit one key to have it play. Famitracker is one popular NES tracker.
If you don’t want to figure out how to exactly recreate that sound for yourself, you can use a variety of software packages to create music in the style of NES without the limitations and minutiae of replica software. This allows you to paint in broader strokes: you can use sounds already available to you, including sound effects and samples from games you already know. Most software also provides a variety of presets to help you avoid having to cook up so many individual detailed components. Note: Be careful with the legality of samples: if you use the “I just pressed Start in Megaman” sound, obviously lawyers might notice. Luckily, you can use this software to cook up sounds and notes very similar to what you hear in these games. For an amateur musician, it's generally easier to use software to create this sound.
Synthesizers are either software or hardware that take instructions to make music and produce actual sound. You have two ways to use a synthesizer to create this type of music. The first is to buy a keyboard with good synthesizer built in. If you don't want to lug around laptops and don't want to trust a computer to not crash, then getting a keyboard with a good synth is important. Nord Leads and other modern stand-alone keyboard synthesizers do a good job at emulating the analog-synth sounds of the original NES systems. Your second option is to get a keyboard with a midi-out jack, run it through your computer and use any synthesis program that you want - including software that will do Nintendo synth. Other options include a variety of analog-synth emulators, and people tend to get them as plug-ins to their multi-tracker recording software (like Pro Tools, Sonar or Cubase). Propellerheads Reason's new program Record does a particularly good job of making analog-synth sounds without the limitations of Nintendo.
"The nice thing about software synths is that they have no limits beyond the capabilities and creativity of the folks who write the software and the folks who use it to make music," said Cohen. "Look at what Ghostland Observatory does, look at what Crystal Castles does, Beck has done it: a lot of people are using these synths to produce the exact same instrumentation with the exact same capabilities as what the original Nintendo sound was."