If you keep tabs on the video game music scene, you’ve likely heard the name Inverse Phase before (or seen it written upside down somewhere). His credits range from keeping MAGFest running to creating chiptune demakes of popular songs. Now he’s working on Pretty Eight Machine (P8M), an 8-bit tribute to Nine Inch Nails’ first album Pretty Hate Machine. I managed to catch him between beeps and bloops in order to talk to him about life, the universe and everything. Oh, and chiptunes.
Piki Geek: What’s the process that goes into demaking a song like the ones on P8M? Would you say it’s more difficult than people might realize?
Inverse Phase: Hmm. Let me answer the second part first. I think it’s more difficult than the average listener might realize, but I think most musicians know mostly what goes into it, except for chiptune specifics, which is a whole can of worms in itself.
I think a lot of musicians might say “I can just use a square wave for all of my instruments, chiptunes are easy!” or “Oh, I’ll just grab
I use a tracker. It sort of looks like a musical programming spreadsheet with no musical notation other than notes+octaves and it came out over ten years ago, the current release six years ago. I’m intimately familiar with it, and the program works similarly to the old systems, so it’s perfect for the job.
Since I’m a purist, I try to stay as true to the system as possible with my setup. For P8M or any of my other demakes, I have a self-made “composing” kit that works within the limitations of whatever system I’m imitating. Whatever I can’t limit with the kit itself I just have to forcibly commit to memory and “not do.”
I do have a bunch of complicated scripts that will convert my files to something I could use on a real system, but there are a lot of export bugs and often there’s tweaking involved, so I often render straight from my tracker kit, which is really, really close to the real thing.
PG: So, as a follow-up to that answer, you’d say that a lot of people would just emulate the sound in an 8-bit style, but you make it so it comes out the same way it would if it were music featured on an actual NES game?
IP: Well, there are so many musicians out there doing so many different things. I hate generalizing, and also I don’t want to criticize one artist as doing it right or wrong. There are tons of chipmusicians writing real, authentic chiptunes, and there are a lot that are faking it. I’m in the middle; my tracker kits fake it, but I can compile to something real. My hope is for people to write awesome tunes, no matter what kind, and then label them properly.
But yes, with my NES covers, everything I do is possible on real hardware, and for the nerds, my scripts can make me an NSF if I want them to. Oh, and while I’m nerding it up, most 8-bit systems are actually outputting 4-bit sound on each channel. Also, P8M will be on eight different systems, not just NES.
There is one “fake” chiptune thing that most chiptuners hate. GXSCC, a program that replays MIDI files people grab off the Internet, imitates a special sound chip that came onboard a few Konami games for the MSX. However, almost no one has heard of an MSX — certainly not most of the people using the program — and to boot, they often didn’t write the MIDI themselves. The program doesn’t play entirely by the rules, and it has a “famicom mode” which doesn’t sound anything like a Famicom (NES). All of these things really “cheapen” the effort we put into our work. I’ll try to explain, since I’ve brought it up twice now.
The one most broken “chiptune rule” (and the difference you’re asking about) is that we often only have 3 notes at a time on an 8-bit system. Then you get all of these “chiptunes” with complex chords, bass, melody and harmony, all at once, when there’s no system that would be able to do that. Then they label the song as “NES remix”. That’s irritating, because someone that doesn’t know better will be like “how come that person’s song is so much better than yours?” because it has insane polyphony.
PG: Next up, what made you choose Pretty Hate Machine over the rest of the Nine Inch Nails discography?
IP: Well, my two favorite NIN albums are PHM and Fragile. There were three important factors at play: One, PHM is probably the most recognisable. Two, PHM is easier to tackle (Fragile is a two CD set). And three, I could hear chiptunes for PHM in my head already. I already knew how I would imitate certain instruments. Though, having said that, just today I had to mess around for a few hours trying to get the optimal “guitar tone” for filter in “Head Like a Hole.”
Also, I’ll tell you what didn’t make me choose PHM: licensing. If I would have known how many levels of hell I was about to go through to get licensed, I may have picked something with less of a “history.”
PG: Did you have any specific video game influences for any of the songs on P8M?
IP: Hmm. A few, but not in a “this song and this game remind me of each other” sort of way. I just tried to find that sweet spot between an appropriate “signature sound” from that console and a note-perfect cover of the song.
For example, I felt “Something I Can Never Have” was the simplest song on PHM, and I picked the simplest sound chip to match up with it. I was a Sega Master System kid, so I can recall the “soundscape” of the SMS easily. The square waves on the Master System don’t drop below a certain frequency, so there’s no great way to do bass on it. I pitched things up a little and then realised the very distinct sounding whitenoise was perfect for the noisy parts.
Another happy accident was my NES cover of “Down In It.” The crowd yell in the original song and the crowd sound from Punch-Out are so close! The way I use the triangle bass to imitate bass drops also helped. Also, after restarting the track like 5 times, I found that imitating Trent’s speaking parts in the track was best done just like when Mario “speaks” in Punch-Out, which was coincidental but awesome. So, I wasn’t influenced by the game, but it worked out.
PG: Mario singing Nine Inch Nails creates an interesting visual. Somewhat related: You did the sound for Super Smash Land, a game we released here on the site a few months back. What did that entail?
IP: Man, I’m glad so many people like that soundtrack (and credit also to flashy for doing the tracks I couldn’t finish in time), but SSL was actually much less involved than P8M. Basically, I know all of the themes for the tracks I did by heart, so I just did a from-scratch gameboy rewrite of them. Those were simpler times, you know? I mimicked the tracks in a more… “happy” style that reminded me of the Gameboy soundtracks I liked.
Since Dan wrote the game in Game Maker, we couldn’t play by all of the Gameboy’s rules, so I had to “invent” a way to follow the channel limitation. Real gameboy games would have a sound driver that would, for example, cut off noise-channel drums to play a sound effect, and then resume them. Since we didn’t have that luxury, I wrote my SFX as noise-channel only, and then, to prevent overlap, wrote my stage music to not use the noise channel.
The SFX were both fun and frustrating to write. It’s basically just this long string of frequencies that the whitenoise channel should play. Lots of playing around!
PG: What was your favorite classic video game theme to adapt to the game?
IP: Well, Mario and Zelda appeared on the NES (which has very similar sound capabilities to the Gameboy), so I think I’m probably most proud of “GourMEAT Race,” which first appeared on the SNES. Like I mentioned before, with a lot of old game hardware you’re limited to three tones at a time, so it was fun interleaving chords with the drumbeat and other melodies and having the song still work out in the end.
PG: Which would you say you prefer; making new music, or demaking existing songs?
IP: That’s a tough call. Completing a cover is often a lot more of a “crowd pleaser;” if you succeed, they recognize the song and tell you they really liked your take on it. Finishing an original is more of a self-pleaser. It takes a lot longer to write originals (for me, anyway), so there’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment just being able to complete the song; even better if you’re happy with what you’ve written. Both feelings are great and have their own merits.
PG: On that note, what makes a song a good pick for a chiptune cover?
IP: The two best reasons that come to mind are that I (1) either really like the song or (2) that I can “hear a chiptune” when I listen to it. Already knowing how I’ll tackle the song in my head helps a lot.
PG: Moving on to a different topic, can you elaborate on your relationship with MAGFest? Also maybe a small overview of the event for people unfamiliar with it.
IP: Sure. Our quick tagline for MAGFest is “a video game party with a rock concert;” it’s not a tournament or contest or anything, just a mecca for anyone into gamer art, music or culture. The extremely short story of my involvement is that I went to MAGFest 1 to show off a game I wrote and meet the Minibosses, and fell in love with the event. When they decided not to run it a second time, I ended up buying the rights and assets to keep it going.
PG: Any plans to expand to other parts of the country, à la PAX?
IP: Well, I think due to a lot of circumstances, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. Last year I kind of stepped back from organizational duties after breaking out in hives from the stress, and left it to the other three guys at the top of our organizational food chain. Now, that didn’t stop anything (we doubled in size last year), but we’re not even staffed well enough to run ONE event, and a lot of our staffers and equipment are all local, so it would be really difficult for us to run something in another location. Plus, MAGFest is really something special and close-knit for a lot of people. We don’t want to split our attendance base across two events or make it less affordable because people are trying to go to both.
PG: Understandable. Just one more question: When can we expect to see P8M available for purchase?
IP: Man, really soon, I hope. Technically it’s supposed to be out already, but a whole bunch of life got in the way. I feel like if I give a definite release date right now, I just won’t meet it. I don’t want to be the “when it’s done” guy, but I have to stick to that answer for now. People should know I’m motivated and working constantly on it so I can get it done ASAP.
For more about Inverse Phase and the P8M project, you can follow the Kickstarter here.