January 28, 2020
Tune-In Tuesdays #54 BONUS: Doctor Octoroc on Creating “Soft Bits In”
Heart pixel art reward for backing the “Soft Bits In” Kickstarter by Doctor OctorocSource: Doctor Octoroc
Last week, Levi “Doctor Octoroc” announced the upcoming Kickstarter for his latest chiptune project: “Soft Bits In,” a tribute to The Flaming Lips’ “Soft Bulletin” album.
We spoke to Doctor Octoroc via telephone to get a behind the scenes glimpse at his creative process, as well as a taste for what backers can look forward to on the Kickstarter.
How did the project begin?
I had already kinda decided that I wanted to do the same thing I did with “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” but with something else.
And then it was just a matter of what I actually wanted to cover. I threw a lot of ideas around, but for a lot of reasons “The Soft Bulletin” is up there with my favorite albums.
It’s an album that I love, an album that I thought would go really well in the format, so I decided to go for that.
It has a little more meaning to me because back in the day, I was never really into music. Up until college, I was never one of those kids who would go out and try to find new music. I would just hear something one of my friends or my brother listened to.
I had heard a Ben Folds Five cover of “Jelly,” which is on another Flaming Lips album, “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.” So I specifically went to the store to get that one, but the other album that was out at the time was “The Soft Bulletin,” so I ended up picking up that one, too – and I ended up liking that one a lot better.
On top of all that, when I finished the Kickstarter for “In The RP2A Over the Sea,” I went to pick up all the records ain Athens, Ga. and I was trying to kill time with my friend that I went with.
We were just kinda going into all the stores in town and I picked up a vinyl of “The Soft Bulletin.” It’s all kind of connected in that way.
Which song was the most fun to arrange?
Continuing from what I was just saying, one of the things that was good about picking it up on vinyl was I didn’t realize there was a track that was exclusive to the vinyl release.
From what I understand, they had been signed with Warner, so being a big label, if the album didn’t do well, they were done – like, they’d be dropped.
Warner was kind of worried with this funky band, so they asked them to make their stuff a bit poppier. They were like, “We’ll do whatever we want” [laughs].
But they kinda made them do these remixes where they mixed up the drums or vocals where they do funky stuff with them on the drums and vocals.
They did three remixes if I remember correctly on the US release, and since they did three remixes that were already on the album, they dropped one of the songs.
Having said that, that song was “Slow Motion,” which a lot of people who are a fan of The Flaming Lips especially like that song because of the fact that it wasn’t on the original album.
I mean, it’s a great song in its own right, but since it wasn’t on the original release in the US, a lot of people probably hadn’t heard it until later on.
I have to say, that one gave me a little extra joy to cover because it was kinda new to me, so I spent a lot of time listening to that over and over again.
Where the other tracks, I knew the album well enough that I could start the arrangements before needing a refresher because I had listened to the album so many times.
Tell us a little about your process for creating this album.
“Soft Bits In” album artwork by Doctor OctorocSource: Doctor Octoroc
When I’m composing, partly due to the limitations of the channel I’m working with (because every channel has their limitations), I structure where to put the Nintendo parts as leads in the middle channel.
Part of the way I compose has a lot to do with the technical limitations of the system. For example, the Gameboy has the capability to do stereo.
Obviously I could mix it however I want after the fact because I always record the tracks and level them out for the final recording, so I could pan them at that point. But I have a desire to stick to the authenticity of the hardware itself and not do anything with it that I couldn’t do live.
So if I couldn’t separate the right and left channels on the Nintendo, I wouldn’t do that on the final recording of the album because I wouldn’t be able to play it that way live.
Because I could do stereo stuff with the Gameboy, I did a lot of backing parts with the Gameboy. The lead vocals and harmony are usually with the Nintendo, while the backing parts to represent the drumming or other classical instruments are done with the Gameboy.
Then, I’d just double up on both of the channels that tend to do baselines and low-end stuff.
The noise channel and the sample channel for the Nintendo, and the noise channel on the Gameboy all work together to make the drum tracks.
In comparison to “In The RP2A Over the Sea,” which was entirely composed on an NES, how did incorporating the Gameboy alter your process for “Softs Bits In?”
NES and Gameboy pixel artwork by Doctor OctorocSource: Doctor Octoroc
It added more channels, so it gave me a lot more flexibility.
You’ll notice if you listen to “In The RP2A Over the Sea,” a lot of times the notes bounce around more than whatever part I’m representing from the original album because I’m using one channel to cover two parts at the same time.
You can’t play two notes at the same time. There are a lot of creative techniques you can use, but a lot of them tend to lend themselves to a typical chiptune sound.
Rather than using techniques most people are using to simulate two notes at the same time – because it has a very distinct ‘chippy’ sound to it – I like to use that one when I want to use it. I don’t want to do that just because I can’t play two notes on one channel at the same time.
By the same token, every channel has its limitations. Figuring out which channel was best suited for certain parts and going back in to have one channel cover multiple parts in areas where I wanted more distinct chiptune-type sounds.
The biggest game-changer was the WAV channel on the Gameboy.
On the Nintendo and Gameboy, they have three of the same channels but they sound different because of their hardware.
They both have two square channels, which make up the majority of the melodies and harmonies, and they both have noise channels, which are the static that I break up and change the pitch to make a lot of the drum sounds.
But then the Nintendo’s third channel is the triangle wave, which just kind of plays the same basic sound – almost like a sine wave technology.
It’s basically one of the most basic waves synthesizers can create and it didn’t have any volume control.
On the Gameboy, there’s a channel that lets you make any of the other sounds that they regular Nintendo can make, plus it can do sawtooth waves, variations of all the different waves.
The best sound it makes is this buzzy bass sound for the sequencing and synthesizing [The Flaming Lips] did on the original album. “The Soft Bulletin” is mostly synthesizers.
Even the orchestrated instruments – and I didn’t know this until I started researching it – most of those were made with synthesizers, as well.
I mean, I personally didn’t notice they didn’t have an actual orchestra [for “The Soft Bulletin”].
The band is so crazy with the way they manipulate sound, even from just regular instruments, they could’ve either used a real orchestra and made it sound more electronic – or they could’ve made it electronically, which they did, and then tweaked it to make it sound like it had originally been a real orchestra.
I tried to throw that line myself, to the degree that I obviously can’t, I’m only working with the sound chips in the two systems, but if I could take them and manipulate them in a way that most people aren’t used to hearing, then I feel like I’m one step closer to doing the original album justice in that respect.
What equipment and software did you use for the entire project?
For the previous album, I did have a modded Nintendo. Unfortunately that one bit the dust right after I finished recording.
Right now, I’m actually using a stock Nintendo and I’ve found creative ways to get around a lot of the limitations it has.
One of the main things the modded Nintendo had was it separated the first two channels from the others, which is useful for a live show if I want to tweak the lead parts or the drums. But it wasn’t much use for recording because I record all tracks separately and mix them together, level them out.
The main problem is, the Nintendo being an older piece of hardware and that it’s meant to be a video game system, not an instrument, the sound itself is mono and not good quality.
Inside the machine, they actually wired the sounds too close to the power supply, so if you’ve ever heard a buzz in an amplifier, it’s similar to that. It basically just means doing a lot more clean up after the fact.
Basically, I’m using the same cartridge that converts MIDI signals to the programming language that the Nintendo understands. That’s how I manipulate it.
One of my more recent acquisitions is a cartridge that lets you create sounds with the Nintendo on the Gameboy itself. It’s not a composition tool or a sequencer, but it allows control over each channel and its capabilities.
On top of that, I bought a circuit board that contains everything needed in order to work with the cartridge and other cartridges like it that communicate with the Gameboy. Again, it just converts the MIDI signals to whatever language the Gameboy understands.
Aside from that, I just have my computer, and a MIDI interface to hook my computer up to the device.
For software, I use Free Loops and Audacity to compose and record.
Nothing too fancy, it’s a pretty bare-bones operation. There are other ways, for example, I could have an external MIDI controller with a keyboard and program all the knobs on it to control things.
I prefer the more detail-oriented approach. I like scrolling on the piano roll and drawing in the volume and pitch changes manually for that level of really precise control.
That way I can change the difference between volume by two steps instead of just free-handing it.
While previewing the album, I couldn’t help but think of classic RPGs like “Final Fantasy” or “Dragon Quest.” Were there any retro video games that influenced the tone of the album?
Not directly. Definitely retro games as a whole have had an influence on my life.
As far as the compositions on those games, there are probably particular ones that have influenced my composition choices.
Given that it’s a cover album and I generally let the original album and the hardware decide how I’m going to compose as I recreate the original in this different medium.
There are sections here and there that might sound like something from other games because it’s making the same sounds those games made in their soundtracks.
What software did you use to create the album art?
“Soft Bits In” by Doctor Octoroc album coverSource: Doctor Octoroc
Just Photoshop. I used Illustrator for a couple things, usually just to work with vector artwork before putting it in Photoshop.
But at the end of the day, it’s all pixel artwork, so I draw it all in one-to-one pixel scale and then I blow it up to whatever size it needs to be for the cover or art prints.
When I did “In The RP2A Over the Sea,” I kinda used just basic pixel fonts for large lengths of text. Any time there are shorter strings of text, I’ll usually draw it by hand. Or I’ll create all the basic letters, numbers, and punctuation ahead of time then copy and paste them side-by-side for more control of the spacing.
For the first time ever though, I actually created my own font, which I’d never done before. I found an online tool, “BitFontMaker2,” which basically made it really easy to give you a little area to draw each letter, number, etc… and export it as a font.
I created two fonts that I used over the course of the album artwork, which made things go a lot easier. It saved me a ton of time.
Even though creating the fonts took me a little while, it was definitely worth it in the long run.
What was the most difficult part of putting the project together?
Pixel art reward for backing the “Soft Bits In” Kickstarter by Doctor OctorocSource: Doctor Octoroc
Probably the layout and the design of the album. I’m not really a design person – I can do it, but I’m more of a musician and artist when it comes to that.
I have very specific things that I’m good at, and [design] is not one of them. It’s a lot more trial and error than I guess it would be for someone like my brother, who’s an illustrator.
My brother had actually done the artwork for my first album, but I didn’t want to keep going back to that because I knew he wouldn’t let me pay him [laughs].
But I like doing everything myself. I like that it’s all one thing.
The [design] was tricky, but the fact that it was pixel art made it trickier. You can’t just scale pixel art to any size you want. It has to be in even increments, otherwise the pixels get squashed or stretched.
In order to maintain that scale and crispness over the whole album, I had to be very meticulous.
It definitely takes up a lot more time when I’m nudging things by single pixels in order to get them to line up and look nice.
On the topic though, I did design the album to look a lot like the original, just like I did with [“In The RP2A Over the Sea”].
For this one, the guy who designed the artwork is George Salisbury. Back in the ’80s, he was a kid who was obsessed with the band who would send them fanart and just buzzed in until they hired him.
He’s got a very distinct style and single-handedly determines the look and feel for Flaming Lips stuff. At that point, I did everything I could to get in touch with him to make sure I wasn’t stepping on his toes.
Didn’t hear back from him for a while, and he didn’t say a lot, but he did respond with something like, “Looks good, man. Good for it.”
I’m glad I got his approval, even if it wasn’t very descriptive [laughs].
With the launch of the “Soft Bits In” Kickstarter just a few weeks away, what can contributors look forward to for backing the project? What are some of the rewards?
I was going to do a lot of the same stuff I did with the last Kickstarter, but I was looking to change a few things up.
Since I’m doing a double-LP, it’s gonna cost more, but I didn’t want people to pay too much more for the campaign. I raised the pledges by five dollars and a few dollars for the download because it’s a much longer album than the last one.
[“In The RP2A Over the Sea”] was just under 40 minutes, this one’s almost 55 minutes long.
On top of that, I tried to add a little bit more for each reward, so people got a little bit more for their money.
I had done posters last time and people liked them, but in particular, the reward with the poster wasn’t very popular, so I had a feeling that people weren’t that into posters.
I also did a poll on a Facebook group about different album extras and stickers by far were the number one preferred thing, then art-prints.
So I decided to use the design for the posters and print them on 11-in by 11-in. That way I could print as many quantities as I want and still have inserts for the deluxe edition of the album. And I’m doing one for each album.
Plus, if I did the poster, I’d either have to pay more to ship them separately or fold them to put them with the album – and nobody really wants to get a folded poster.
I also took photos with the Gameboy camera and those are going to be the artwork on the deluxe edition inserts.
Will “Soft Bits In” be available on digital streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, or just vinyl and digital download through Kickstarter?
Just like last time, it’ll be vinyl and download through Kickstarter. Then once that’s all done, it’ll be available on my website.
I’m not sure about streaming. I have mixed feelings about it. I know a lot of people do it and it’s by far the most convenient, logistically the best way to consume music.
But there’s something I like about somebody being able to own their own copy of the music, as opposed to having access to it through a service.
[Streaming’s] great for car rides and stuff, but the whole reason I’m pressing the vinyl is to give people the experience of having a physical copy of the album to sit down and just listen to.
Otherwise, I have to think that people who stream music don’t really sit down and listen to an entire album to get a feel for its sound, they’re just listening as they drive or DJ a party.
That’s part of digital music, and it’s a great thing to have. I use streaming services here and there, as well, but as far as this album, I wanted it to be more of a personal experience – whether it’s physical or digital.
Even if it’s digital, you still have it on your computer. Streaming services could not exist tomorrow – not that they won’t – but then what are you gonna do? You can’t listen to those albums because you never bought them.
What have you learned from creating “Soft Bits In?”
Scenic pixel artwork by Doctor OctorocSource: Doctor Octoroc
After doing the last album, I definitely learned a lot about Kickstarter. I mean, that’s not something I learned directly through this project, but it is something that’s being put into it.
Doing a Kickstarter is so daunting the first time you do it, but now I’m like, “I got this” [laughs]. I’ve already done all this before.
As far as things learned [from “Soft Bits In”] I’m just learning more ways to work with everything that I’ve been working with.
I learned the most about the Gameboy because it wasn’t until about eight or nine months ago that I started getting into it. I learned a lot about how to program the Gameboy and use it to the best of its capabilities.
I’m still learning, but I learned a couple new things on the Nintendo, too. A lot of that comes from my creative process.
I’m always learning, that’s a big part of it.
What’s next for you, Doctor Octoroc? Do you know which artist you’ll be covering next, or do you think you’ll do a compilation of artists?
I probably won’t do a compilation. I have considered it, but there’s a part of me that can’t shake this idea that the main reason to do a compilation is to hit on as many different things people might like.
It almost feels like a grab for attention, versus an album I really love.
I really have to be into the source material when I’m covering. That’s part of the reason why I decided to do full albums. It’s really easy to fall in love with a full album, as opposed to a random assortment of songs from different artists, or different songs from the same artists.
This all started when my friend jokingly said if I did a chiptune album of Death Cab for Cutie songs, “hipsters would eat that shit up.”
And I concur. People who are into that, it definitely covers those bases of retro-nostalgia and good music from artists who weren’t popular at a certain time, for lack of a better word.
I had done a compilation of Death Cab for Cutie songs, but then I didn’t really know what to do with it because I didn’t want to stick them on an album. They were songs I chose. It was a project for me.
I could’ve put it on an album, but in my imagination, every single person would’ve wished there was a song that I didn’t put on there.
I didn’t want to feel like there was something missing from the project.
That’s why I wanted to do a whole album from start to finish, so nobody could say anything was left out. Anybody who appreciates the album as a whole, like I do, can appreciate my project in the same way.
If I did go [the compilation] route, I would probably do the main theme from each Miyazaki film.
I did try a couple Miyazaki tracks in the format. It wasn’t going as well as certain bands have gone for me, so I’ve held off on that, but it’s a possibility in the future. I definitely have the interest in the source material do that.
Do you have any additional comments or final thoughts to share?
A big question that came up a lot while I was working on the Neutral Milk Hotel album was, “Has Jeff Magnum seen this?”
As we all know, he’s a total recluse. He just doesn’t want to be bothered, and I want to respect that. The extent of the degree that I tried to get in touch with him is I reached out to his manager and other people from the band like, “Hey if you see him, you can give him a copy.” I’m hoping one got in his hands.
But, The Flaming Lips are very much into their fans and they love interacting with them. So there’s a much bigger opportunity for me to learn what they think of the album once it’s done.
On top of that, there’s a record store in Oklahoma City, where the band is from, that bought a bunch of my last album, told me to let him know if I was doing any other projects.
I told him I was covering “The Soft Bulletin” and he said The Flaming Lips manager comes into the shop all the time. He also mentioned the band has done events at his store before, so they’re really involved in their community.
I’m especially excited about this album because of that. I also think there will be a much broader base of people that will be into this.
The Kickstarter will launch in mid-February, but you can follow the project on Kickstarter now to receive a notification once it launches.
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