April 9, 2019
Tune-In Tuesdays #13 BONUS: Chipping into Different Tunes with Doctor Octoroc
Doctor Octoroc’s logoSource: Doctor Octoroc | Twitter
Orchestrating each blip, crackle, and snap of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Levi “Doctor Octoroc” is the Philadelphia-based composer who specializes in his retro-remakes of songs across various genres.
Doctor Octoroc released his first chiptune album 8-Bit Jesus, a classic-video game twist on various Christmas carols, in 2008.
In Feb 2019, Octoroc created a kickstarter for In the RP2A Over the Sea, a chiptune cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album, In the Airplane Over the Sea. The full album was released on Apr 14th.
In the RP2A Over the SeaSource: In The RP2A Over The Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel tribute on vinyl, played on a Nintendo! | DoctorOctoroc
In the FAQ of In the RP2A Over the Sea on Kickstarter, you mention the release of your first album in 2008. When did you start producing chiptune music?
Pretty much in 2008.
I’d been making chiptune style music since I was a kid. I’d used all the midi programs and the more synth sounding instruments ‘cause I like the sound of the Nintendo. I also used to record the sound of the Nintendo playing games with a MiniDisc or whatever I had back in the day.
All in all, I’ve been doing the style for awhile. However, I didn’t start using the hardware to make authentic chiptune music until 2010, when I released my second album, After These Messages.
For the first album, 8-Bit Jesus, I used plugins that sounded like [chiptunes], but it wasn’t technically chiptune music at that point.
8-Bit JesusSource: 8-Bit Jesus | Doctor Octoroc
What does your process as a chiptune composer look like in general?
The community [of chiptune composers] is a lot of home brew people ’cause there’s nothing you can buy to make chiptunes. Instead, they’ve figured out how to reverse-engineer the hardware and integrate that with modern technology.
It’s essentially composing a midi song, but the midi signals are sent to the Nintendo using a cartridge that somebody else built.
I use the signals to manipulate the soundcard on the Nintendo through [those cartridges], so it acts like an interface between the two.
That’s pretty much all there is on the hardware end. My Nintendo’s also been modded a little bit to have a better sound.
Other than that, everything else is pretty much just compositions and using midi signals to send the data: everything from volume, to pitch, to how the instruments sound.
The Nintendo doesn’t have different instruments, per say, but different ways to play the basic generation so it sounds different.
How did you mod your Nintendo Entertainment System?
Again, I didn’t do that part. I’m a musician before a programmer, so I don’t know how to do that stuff.
A guy by the name of Low-gain modded the NES. The guy who built the cartridge [I use] is Chris Kann.
I think I’m actually one of the last people who get their hands on Kann’s cartridge, the Midi NES, in particular He sorta left people hanging after he dropped off the face of the earth.
Since Kann, other people have made similar [cartridges]. Catskull Electronics just released a cartridge that’s similar to Midi NES and works in the same way.
There’s another called the Chip Maestro that was released a number of years back, but I haven’t played around with them.
How long would you say it took you to make In the RP2A Over the Sea?
It had a bit of a slow start.
I didn’t really buckle down on In the RP2A Over the Sea until around September of last year. That’s when I started really laying down the tracks, but it had been in the works since that summer.
I had actually started doing Death Cab for Cutie Songs. It got a point where I did songs I liked off each of their albums.
Then, I’d ask my friends what songs they’d like to hear and I was getting all different answers. Of course, I wasn’t going to do their whole catalog; that’s crazy. [Laughs]
I ended up doing 17 songs.
From there, I got enough people out there interested to warrant a Kickstarter and all the work that was going into that.
Y’know, I’d always been a huge fan of Neutral Milk Hotel. Since they kinda only have one album that most people even know – and the way it plays from front to back, it sounds like one long song.
It seemed like a much better fit to do one album and artist, rather than an album of cover songs.
I’m sure you’re also aware of the kind of following [Neutral Milk Hotel] have; it’s like a cult status. I definitely felt the interest [for In the RP2A Over the Sea] would be there.
In the RP2A Over the Sea CoverSource: In The RP2A Over The Sea: Neutral Milk Hotel Cover Album | Kickstarter
What was the hardest part of arranging In the RP2A Over the Sea?
With the limitations of the Nintendo, you can only do so much.
The other thing is the quality of the sounds and the way that they’re made. Only one note can be played at a time on each channel.
[In the RP2A Over the Sea] was a lot of figuring out which parts of which songs [from In the Airplane Over the Sea that] I wanted to include.
The melody had to be present throughout the whole thing ‘cause that’s the strongest part of [In the Airplane Over the Sea]. It’s probably the loudest part of the original mix, as well.
The hardest part [of composing In the RP2A Over the Sea] was translating the strumming [into chiptunes].
Jeff Mangnum’s strumming on In the Airplane Over the Sea is one of the more unique qualities of the album.
Obviously there’s a lot of uniqueness to [In the Airplane Over the Sea]: from the choice of instruments, to his voice, to the lyrics.
In any case, the strumming was a difficult thing to capture and give that feel without being able to give that strum with full chords.
In the Airplane Over the Sea coverSource In the Aeroplane Over the Sea | GENIUS
Was there any song in particular that gave you a lot of trouble?
Ghost, oddly enough. Something about the way that [Mangum] strums on that one – again, going back to the strumming – [was difficult].
I had about three or four different versions of the first 10 bars of [Ghost] until I found one that I felt worked. It still sounds more folky and polka than the original, but I think it was the best version I was able to come up with.
Are you currently working on any new arrangements?
Not at the moment. I’m definitely throwing ideas around, though.
I don’t know that I’ll do another artist, but I’ve considered composing arrangements of the soundtracks from Hayao Miazaki films. They’re orchestral arrangements, so there’s a lot of different things going on and they provide a lot to work with.
I think the greatest challenge [of the Miazaki project] would be figuring out which parts of the songs are the ones that should be in the track.
The approach to that idea would involve composing them as if they were games, which is a theme I have done in the past.
With 8-Bit Jesus, for example, I had done Christmas songs as if they were from particular games.
I probably would make the covers of the Miazaki soundtracks a lot different from the original. I’d make it sound like it was a soundtrack to a game based on that Miazaki film, rather than only trying to recreate the piece in 8-bit.
What have you learned from your experiences with making chiptune music, such as In the RP2A Over the Sea? What has been the most rewarding part for you?
I learned a lot about the hardware limitations [of the NES].
I’m not really a programmer. I have done some minor programming in different languages, so I understand how it works and the application of midi signals, y’know, how that translates to making music on old school hardware.
Even if I can’t do it myself, I’ve still learned a lot about what other people have done to make it possible to use the Nintendo as an instrument.
I learned a little bit musically, as well.
I took piano lessons as a kid and played for most of my life, but I never learned how to read music.
For me, making music’s always been by ear, learning by playing things or at least trying to play them. Figuring [songs] out based on the notes, not the theory or technical aspects of music itself.
As a kid, I got away with not reading music for so many years; my piano teachers were none the wiser. My mother could sight read, so I’d ask her to play and base it off that.
It wasn’t until I had a piano teacher in high school who was a jazz pianist. He was arguably more accomplished – or at least, more familiar with musical theory, the ins and outs of music – than my previous classical [piano] teachers.
[The jazz pianist] figured it out right away. He put really simple sheet music in front of me and I was like, “I can’t read this,” and he was like, “Yeah, I figured as much.” [Laughs]
I’ve always really loved jazz, though. I really want to play jazz music, but it’s near impossible without knowing how to read music and understand all the intricacies of music theory and all that.
Especially when it comes to all the different chords and improvising. You can’t do that in jazz if you don’t know the skill.
What would you recommend for anyone who is interested in composing their own chiptune music?
First, familiarize yourself with the limitations of the NES. If you’re making chiptune music with the hardware, you’re automatically limited.
There are a lot of people who use plugins and music programs that sound like chiptune. They just embrace those limitations and compose as if they can’t put more notes on the staff or didn’t have more channels to use.
I also recommend listening to old soundtracks.
For example, series from the original Nintendo that now have more modern games like the new Mario or Zelda [installments].
That way, you can hear the difference between how the soundtracks were composed on earlier systems v.s. the full orchestra they have at their disposal [for these games] now.
From this comparison, you can better your understanding of why certain composition choices were made with the limitations of the NES.
The Mega Man series is a really great example ‘cause they sort of created a style out of the limitations.
Where they couldn’t play chords [for the original Mega Man soundtrack], they would play notes really quickly, creating this kinda techno-y style that hadn’t been in a lot of games or mainstream music too much before that point.
Are there any genres that would be easier for a beginner to cover in chiptune?
I don’t think any genre is easy to cover, to be honest.
In my experience, anything with a real strong melody or bass line – with everything else being more incidental (and not necessarily a core part of the composition) – is easier to cover.
I would say In the Airplane Over the Sea was easy to figure out where I wanted to go with it because it’s so driven by it’s strong melody.
A lot of the instruments on the album already sound kind of 8-bit, so [In the RP2A Over the Sea] was more a matter of bending the pitch a bit or changing the volume over time to get it to sound the way it’s played on Neutral Milk Hotel’s album.
The horn parts and the bagpipes on [In the Airplane Over the Sea]‘s Untitled instrumental track was probably my favorite to cover. It just fit so well.
The Untitled track also takes on a sort of 8-bit sound halfway through ‘cause of the little organs in it.
The challenges that come with composing chiptunes is sort of the fun of it and all apart of the learning process, though, right?
Absolutely. That’s definitely one of my favorite parts about it.
I also do orchestral arrangements – not often, but I’ve dabbled a little bit in it. It’s less challenging to compose, but more challenging to figure out soundwise.
As far as arranging or composing goes, chiptunes are definitely more challenging [than orchestral arrangements], given the limited number of tools.
[Working with the NES] also puts you in a place where you know how far you can take it, so you just keep pushing the envelope and seeing how you can make it sound a different way or the way you want it to.
Do you have any final thoughts or additional advice you’d like to share?
I’ve had plenty of people ask me how to make chiptunes. Honestly, everything is accumulated knowledge.
You just have to immerse yourself in it.
In the RP2A Over the Sea on KickstarterSource: In The RP2A Over The Sea: Neutral Milk Hotel Cover Album | Kickstarter
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