Loud synthesizers and powerful percussion are only half of the latest LP by Shit Robot. Recently dropping his album through DFA Records, Marcus Lambkin collaborates with Reggie Watts, James Murphy, and Nancy Wright of LCD Soundsystem fame to reestablish his excellent ear for good dance music… but neither pushes the envelope nor the LFO to anything more interesting than a collection of dance floor singles.
Earthbound - Fourside
(original MIDI by Jonathan Shen)
Okay, I should have gone to class today, but I feel terrible and got no sleep. I’m gonna write an extended critique to this because I get way too invested in other people’s music.
I think to understand a track like this, chiptune or no chiptune, you’ve got to understand a little bit about the process behind the music of Earthbound. For anyone unfamiliar, you can check out the entire OST on youtube. If you haven’t listened, I recommend it highly for fans of video game music. Anyone who’s a fan of music from the 70s and 80s would get a kick out of it too, since it’s highly referential.
First, the history. One of the most important pieces of context in talking about the soundtrack is the fact that this game, released on the Super Nintendo in 1994, was the first game that utilized vibrato. I wish I had access to the Famitsu zine that has that source, because it’s an important jumping point for the argument: the Mother series was breaking ground here, and had some very emotional and capable musicians running the scene. Basically, it was the first time music in games was capable of sounding just as real as music on a TV set or a movie screen. Vibrato is an extremely important tool for making music sound more like a real performance, and it shows with this soundtrack. The musical directors credited were Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, Hiroshi Kanazu, and Toshiyuki Ueno. The first, Suzuki, has a variety of work in his career, including a band called The Beatniks, and Hip Tanaka had been working with Nintendo on music design for years. Suzuki’s even stated he wrote over 100 pieces of music for the game in total. According to the page above, Shigesato Itoi, the game’s director, said that the total amount of music the game used would have been released on a 2 disc set. That’s incredibly impressive for a game in the mid 90s, when CDs had just broken into the gaming and retail market.
So we know that there were capable musicians and designers running the show. What I want to talk about are the differences between this track and the track it’s covering. The original Fourside theme is incredibly subtle, and a lot of people miss the subtlety altogether. Earthbound is a game with a lot of music, and most of the songs have a tendency to reference other tracks throughout the game itself, with consistency of melody and instrumentals. It also references real music, which is why Nintendo had such a nightmare of a time re-releasing it on virtual console; the Runaway Five are literally the Blues Brothers, and the “Your Name, Please” track directly samples the Monty Python intro. Megaton Walk is a fantastic track that samples a Beatles song — the previous link has way more examples, but these show how directly the credited musicians were influenced by pop culture. The synthesizers and the powerful drum samples we get in a lot of different songs throughout the game constantly make an appearance up through the final fight. Listen to the bass in any track, and you’ll find the same thick bass sound with an unhealthy amount of treble consistently hitting hard. The game references within its own sphere, while also referencing some powerful music, which is arguably why it’s such a good indication of American and Japanese culture… And when we extend this argument to how good their sampling really was, sometimes I feel like “subtlety” is an understatement.
So here’s why I’m upset with the track above: it just doesn’t do the original justice. Let’s take a look at the Hospital theme, for starters. This theme has these beautiful chorus trumpets blaring in either channel, with a wonderful melody that cuts off before it fully becomes the Fourside theme, echoing off in the background for the duration of the short 2 minute track. The percussion is spot on, light and mirroring the stereo separation of the trumpets above it. The reason it’s so interesting is because the game is setting up an expectation about what the big city is like by making the most technologically refined place in any town, the hospital, into a place that musically reflects the fourth city. It uses reverb and stereo separation to this effect really well, using more advanced musical structures to reflect its content. Like most good art, the game is contextualizing. It’s providing a basis for itself to call attention to its subtler features in the future, giving the player a taste of the melody to come, only to really open their eyes once they have the opportunity to explore the apparent nod to New York City.
It’s not quite as impressive looking at the whole picture (especially without most of its NPCs wandering the streets), but it’s one of many things the game references. This is Fourside, and the Hospital theme is supposed to partially represent urban society and a shift from the rural life out in Onett, or Twoson, or Threed. Contrast. Those blaring trumpets I mentioned earlier play in full here, and everyone who’s had a party member die or explored the game for any amount of time is already familiar with them.
The track above, in my opinion, does nothing to replicate this beyond its use of stereo separation. The hospital theme does so much, giving the player a statement by which the city of Fourside can be judged in comparison to the rest of the game, and this cover completely misses that. It’s hard to say that the original intent of the song is missed just by changing the instruments, but the original point is missed: the slow, increasing crawl of the trumpets and the bassline, the future brass giving an idea of what it’s like to be in this metropolis, the “realistic” sounding instruments and apparent samples, are lost in this chiptune cover. Making the waves 10x more square doesn’t actually provide much of a boost to this feeling, because the instruments provided in the original were chosen to evoke this particular emotional response. There’s a big difference between choosing a guitar and a trumpet, and aesthetically speaking, the trumpet does a hell of a lot more here than it does in chiptune. That goes double for the percussion, which has light bells and doms, stick hits instead of just hard snares. When you reduce this to chiptune, you lose all the subtle influence that provides. And this game’s soundtrack has phenomenal percussion, such to the point that I doubt I’ll ever be half as good at sampling or electronic production. That’s the extent of my critique, really. Educating people on the context is more important, so people can decide for themselves whether this cover is a good use of their ears.
I get that the point of a cover is they’re trying to do something different, but I also think that covers should at least carry part of the initial message, especially if they only change instruments. Fourside’s theme as a city, not just as a song, was to be about the urban sprawl contrasted with wandering forests and canyons and valleys, nooks and crannies where evil aliens had taken over the simple life. When the player finds it spread to the big city, they’re supposed to get something from that. And, sure, most people would probably say this is no problem. It’s just a fun song meant for a fun look into what this music would be like with chiptune instrumentals. But when we find a chiptune cover that directly copies its predecessor 1 for 1 and devalues its apparent level of aesthetic unity, I can’t see the purpose. Maybe I’m just missing the point.
LCD Soundsystem’s final concert at Madison Square Garden in NYC was documented a few years ago in the film Shut Up and Play the Hits. Now, the entire unabridged performance is being released in a 5-LP vinyl box set for Record Store Day, April 19. The Long Goodbye: LCD Soundsystem Live at Madison Square Garden contains nearly four hours of performance, and the box set and digital release will arrive May 20, for those who don’t catch it on Record Store Day.
This is gonna be the raddest birthday present ever
sometimes I am depressed, and sometimes I make loud songs with too much reverb
The finalized version of ‘Be My Best Buddy’ by Brian Min and Paul O’Rourke featuring the voice of Tim’s daughter, Lili Schafer!
I want to be their best buddy
I posted a new track! It is some chiptune experimentation.
I made a cover! I feel good.
HEY! MIT is offering free classes online at ocw.mit.edu
go take some, they’re great.