Category Archives: Music

Video Game Music’s Tremendous Power

Voice actor David W. Collins digging into the Super Mario Bros. ‘Ground Theme’ on his recently debuted Soundtrack Show podcast:

As a general concept, game music is very often written to loop back around, seamlessly. This composition is meant to loop endlessly into itself so you can play for hours and hours and hours. But the actual composition that we just listened to was only 80 seconds long. 80 seconds! And there’s repetition within that 80 seconds; there are repeating parts.

There are other pieces of music in this game — the underground music, the underwater music, the castle music, a series of music fanfares, etc. — but in total, the amount of music written for this game adds up to less than 5 minutes. 5 minutes of music. 40 hours of gameplay, give or take on average. 40 million copies.

Now we’re starting to get a picture of the power of video game music. The amount of times that we heard that 80 seconds. That’s what I mean about video game music’s tremendous power. It’s why we have to talk about it.

Don’t take repetition for granted. When done poorly, repetitious music can become jarring — quickly. When done well, a great loop can increase the feeling of immersion in the game’s world. When done well, a standalone soundtrack’s standard of two loops per song feels wrong.

Nintendo has a knack for this. Koji Kondo — composer of many first-party Nintendo titles, including Super Mario Bros. — is without a doubt a master at this. But even Kazumi Tokata painted his masterful stroke with the Wii’s heavily repeatable ‘Mii Plaza’ and ‘Wii Shop Channel’ themes, both of which continue to live on in today’s mainstream.

While today’s AAA titles can incorporate orchestral arrangements through to procedurally generated soundscapes, repetition in video game music was born with the medium and will continue to live on. For those of us who grew of up listening to 8-bit repetitions to orchestral repetitions, we’ve had the great fortune of experiencing the evolution of a music technology, medium, and experience, as I touched on in my piece 1985: Burst and Bloom:

The sounds, visuals, and interactivity provided a pool of imagination. The limitations of early consoles could not provide orchestral arrangements. Instead, repetitious patterns were drilled into our heads. They not only encapsulated the game we were playing, but they opened the world outside to a new soundtrack, creating a wealth of memories that could be tapped into from a few simple chirps. Hearing these primitive arrangements evolve felt like experiencing the birth of music. As hardware progressed, so did the complexity if the music. Repetitive pieces turned into grand and iconic themes, each game re-shaping the idea and importance of video game music.

Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts, Mega Man 2, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, T&C Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage, Vectorman — these are some of my favorites.

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Rogue One: The Sound of a Story

Michael Giacchino (Lost, Star Trek, Up) is the first Star Wars film composer to step foot in John Williams’ shadow.

Giacchino in an interview with Anthony Breznican, Entertainment Weekly:

Entertainment Weekly: So you were a late addition to the Rogue One crew…

Michael Giacchino: Yes, literally the last thing I expected I’d be doing this month would be this. I mean we were literally planning a vacation when I got the call asking if I could come and talk to them about it. At the time, it left me with literally four and a half weeks to write. So it was one of those decisions where you’re like, okay, well… And I was talking to my brother about it. He goes, “Oh, come on. You’ve been writing this score since you were 10! You can do this.”

Giacchino, the long time J.J. Abrams collaborator, had replaced Alexandre Desplat (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Grand Budapest Hotel).

EW: What inspirations will we hear in the music?

MG: It does borrow from traditions that both John [Williams] and George Lucas borrowed from when they made the original Star Wars, you know. George was looking at Flash Gordon, the old serials, and John was looking at [Gustav] Holst and different composers along the way to get a baseline for what he wanted to communicate. There is a wonderful musical language that John put together for the original films. I wanted to honor that vernacular but still do something new with it, something that was still me in a way.

My great friend Scott Kawai often makes the case that Michael Giacchino is the next John Williams, with a style heavy of colorful and memorable themes. Without reading too much about Rogue One, I assumed he had been the first choice for the film. The revelation that Desplat was the first choice was a shock to me. Desplat’s music is certainly incredible with an air of moody atmosphere, but does not strike me as “Star Wars”. I’d kill to hear his take on Rogue One.

There are inclinings of the saga’s legacy in Giacchino’s score— curious woodwinds and dancing percussion at the opening of “He’s Here For Us”— but there is a drive in the timber that strikes less fantastic and more brooding. It is immediately clear that the “stories” have room for exploration and departure from the “saga”. There are ties back to the episodic series, but at their core, Giacchino’s pieces are something new and derivative; they are always less memorable, iconic, or sure of themselves. Nonetheless, there are many times when the presence of brass brightens and lifts what is ultimately a grittier film to something more familiar and nostalgic— something more reminiscent of Star Wars.

As for the touches of William’s throughout Giacchino’s score, The Force Theme is heard when Bail Organa enters the frame. Likewise, The Imperial March is heard during Darth Vader’s appearance. During the film’s finale, both themes are heard as two iconic characters make stunning (re-)appearances, which can be heard in “Hope” on the film’s soundtrack.

However, the one that struck me the most was the piece backing Rogue One‘s title card, the finale of “A Long Ride Ahead” on the soundtrack. Briefly teasing Williams’ Main Title sequence, it kicks off the iconic C-G half-notes but branches into something new and less confident.

Kathleen Kennedy says they’re trying to break from some of the traditional Star Wars tropes, like doing away with the opening crawl. Sounds like that applies to the music as well?

Kathy said that to me, too — “No one is asking you to do what was done before.” I feel it’s important to be me, but in this universe, we’re working within. That was sort of the challenge. It was never sort of, “Oh, you have to do this, this, and this.” It was always just: “Here are the emotions that we need to cover.”

As a story outside of the saga, Giacchino’s freedom is extremely evident, for better or worse. My question is whether or not Giacchino’s score will be the audible language of all Star Wars stories to come, or just specifically Rogue One? Even more specifically, is Rogue One‘s title card sequence strictly Rogue One‘s title theme, or has Giacchino defined the theme for all Star Wars stories?

The other changes—the omission of the opening crawl, lower-left location queues, a lone title card— are so heavy-handed that it leads me to assume the themes Giacchino has established for Rogue One will permeate future Star Wars stories.

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How Videogames Are Saving the Symphony Orchestra

Sarah E. Needleman, The Wall Street Journal:

In Philadelphia, the 80-year-old Mann Center has held videogame concerts since 2012. Representatives say the shows attract as many as many as 6,500 attendees, roughly double the average attendance at classical concerts.

The growing popularity has helped offset a decline in U.S. orchestra ticket sales. Over the past decade, such sales have declined at an average annual rate of 2.8%, according to a soon-to-be-published report commissioned by the League of American Orchestras, an advocacy group.

While I had known of the popularity of these concerts with Video Games Live, whose album Kickstarters for Volumes 3 and 4 raised $285,081 and $187,646 respectively, et al., I had no idea of this level of success. Likewise, I was a bit surprised to see “The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses” perform on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”, but a bit less so now.

The piece continues:

Unlike classical-music performances, videogame shows feature arrangements that blend looping tracks of music designed to match various moments in a game, such as a slow, eerie medley of piano, percussion and string as the videogame character navigates a castle dungeon.

I think there’s something here. Two years back, in a post titled “Why Game?”, I wrote the following:

The sounds, visuals, and interactivity provided a pool of imagination. The limitations of early consoles could not provide orchestral arrangements. Instead, repetitious patterns were drilled into our heads. They not only encapsulated the game we were playing, but they opened the world outside to a new soundtrack, creating a wealth of memories that could be tapped into from a few simple chirps. Hearing these primitive arrangements evolve felt like experiencing the birth of music. As hardware progressed, so did the complexity if the music. Repetitive pieces turned into grand and iconic themes, each game re-shaping the idea and importance of video game music.

Back to the WSJ piece, a quote from illustrator Mathew Grigsby:

I developed a taste for classical music through videogames.

I echo this sentiment.

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José James on Discovering Miles Davis, Jazz

American jazz and hip-hop vocalist José James during a ‘Meet the Musician’ event at the Apple Store, Kurfürstendamm:

I couldn’t believe one artist had made 50 albums. I pull one out and I look at the back and it has four tracks on it and each track is 18-minutes long. I’m thinking, “I can’t listen to this. I want value.” I was looking for the one with twelve tracks on it.

So incredibly peculiar how we subscribe value. I too ran into the same quandary when experiencing Miles Davis for the first time. Then I thought back to listening to “The Decline” on repeat. And “2113” after that. And “Goodbye Sky Harbor” after that. And “Cicatriz E.S.P.” after that. And “Drop” after that. And “Chimera Obscurant” after that. And “Dauðalagið” after that.

Cumulative time does not equate to value. I’ll be damned if I couldn’t listen to “So What” on loop for the rest of my life.

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Pretty Alright

Ben C, a friend of mine, shared his band’s new demo with me. I was incredibly impressed. A strong influence from Band of Horses with Grizzly Bear and My Morning Jacket sprinkled about. I especially enjoy “Even When You Don’t Sing”.

On a personal level, Pretty Alright sounds like a combination of Alexander J. Roberts, Team Hate Nelson, and Of The Swaying Sort. Give it a listen.

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Smooth McGroove on Upvoted

Smooth McGroove on the Upvoted Podcast, timestamp 17:45:

It’s such a niche thing that I had going, and still do. Not a lot of people played these video games, especially in Oklahoma. Most people that I’d encountered had heard of Zelda and maybe played a Mario game or something like that. Whenever it came to the people that I encountered day-to-day, most people would have never been supportive of this. They would have just said, “Oh, that’s a fun thing but keep your day job.” It was really the feedback that I got back from the Internet that gave me enough confidence and willpower to reinforce my own drive to do this.

It was April of 2013. I quit giving [drum] lessons, I finished up my last semester at college, and from then on it was a good year-and-a-half straight of just singing, recording, mixing.

On fans:

The fact that they were willing to not only watch a video or listen to a song but make a comment under the YouTube video or buy a song from one of the places I license with. It was when I started a Patreon that they were willing to donate a dollar for every video I put out.

All of these things coming together was huge for me. It felt so big. It felt like… I can’t even describe it really. It was that feeling that allowed me and gave me the confidence to squash not only the doubts, but to push forward the stuff that I really wanted to do, which was make music in some form, some way. It just happened to be through this video game music platform with me singing all the instruments.

Upvoted is the newly debuted podcast from Reddit. Every episode is hopeful and inspiring, especially for silly dreamers.

My personal favorite McGroove jam here:

Find all of Smooth McGroove’s albums on iTunes.

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GOTY: Rocksmith 2014

Not much weight should be put on Game of the Year. Just ask Griffin McElroy. And for a guy who obsesses over the industry, I’m ashamed to say that I had only played a handful of last year’s releases. While I played the best of the best, Mario Kart 8, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Broken Age to name a few, nothing has kept me coming back like Rocksmith 2014.

Apologies for the late review. I had only started playing days before the New Year.


I was a latecomer to the plastic-partying hysteria of Guitar Hero. My brother talked me into picking up Rockband (Guitar Hero with drums and a microphone for those unfamiliar) as a family activity. We had a blast, but I was never able to pry myself away from the drum kit. With a small background in music, the five-button toy guitars never satisfied. The drums were the closest I could get to a life-like experience. After leaving my high school rock band days well behind me, an itch for the satisfaction in controlling a real instrument began to percolate.

At it’s core, Rocksmith is built around the iconic Guitar Hero design: A reverse Star Wars crawl of notes streaming toward a fretboard with the player expected to strike said note at the right time. Where Rocksmith differs is the use of a real guitar; 138 notes vs. Guitar Hero’s 6.

From the get-go, I was extremely impressed by Rocksmith’s accuracy of note and chord recognition. Honest strikes and near misses are fed back in real-time just like Guitar Hero. Inaccuracies happen but typically err on the side of the player. Sure, there are inconsistencies here and there. If I missed a note in a chord, Rocksmith generally let it slide. However, when I can feel and hear exactly what I am playing, I know I am a cheat. (No amount of “gimmes” could extinguish my weight of guilt.) I didn’t need Rocksmith 2014 to tell me I was wrong. I was just as eager to jump back into the ring.

The player is offered three paths: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and bass. In the instance of lead guitar, techniques are slowly introduced during the “Learn A Song” mode. They are also readily available in “Lessons”. The player starts by playing along with a songs using well spaced single notes. These notes slowly advance into chords, bends, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, tapping, etc. The scale of techniques offered by the game is shocking, not to mention the depth of the lessons and range of songs that utilize each technique.


Where Rocksmith shines is the Learn A Song mode. There is a surprisingly vast array of songs in the catalog: from The Ramones to Rush to The Dear Hunter to Minus the Bear(!) to Mastodon. The player fas the choice to play each song straight through or focus on objectives such as mastering a bridge, finishing with a certain level of accuracy, or playing a mini-game that teaches a technique used in the song.

The killer feature, however, is Rocksmith’s ability to scale the difficulty of each song on the fly based on how well the player is performing. As I coolly played through La Sera’s “Love That’s Gone”, strumming full E5s and delicately plucking scattered notes, I was sure I had mastered the patterns. I was then caught off guard by a C#m that, at first, had only included A-flat and D-flat. After a few play-throughs and a headfake chorus, the chord had evolved, incorporating an E and another A-flat. Replaying the same song over and over without having to manually change difficulty is great. But more importantly, scaling the difficulty between individual sections previously mastered is brilliant. Imagine every time you played through World 1-1, new obstacles were introduced in the areas you excelled in.


In addition to learning songs, Rocksmith 2014 is packed with a plethora of supplemental modes, all serving individual importance and, quite possibly, to different audiences.

“Lessons” focus on individual techniques with accompanying videos and monitored playback that end in full songs. Lessons are repeated until mastered and are fairly enjoyable to revisit. Even the simple ones taught me something. And yes, the videos can be skipped.

“Guitarcade” focuses less on technique and more on music theory. Numerous surprisingly well designed games teach core skills in volume control, scales, and chord changes, among others. Be it the Streets of Rage style “Scale Warriors” or the Star Fox homage “Star Chords”, the level of detail in design, music, and art is top-notch.

That said, I have yet to jump at playing any of the “Guitarcade” mini-games. I don’t find them quite as engaging as the core “Learn A Song” mode or “Lessons”. Their presence within the greater Rocksmith game are a prime statement on edutainment; layering education on top of existing games (or vice versa) rarely produces a great experience. (Guitarcade) Building them together generally produces a far more engaging product. (Learn a Song)

To round out the list of features, “Session Mode” allows the player to build a band for an endless jam session. Similar to Apple’s GarageBand and Logic drummers, the band members the player chooses work for the player, not separately from the player. The AI play styles dynamically shift based on the player’s strumming patterns and rhythms.

Even with my lukewarm response to the “Guitarcade”, I can see a universe in which each of these secondary features are shipped as fantastic stand-alone products. To bundle them into the same package as the already fantastic core game is without a doubt a triumph in its own right. There is a level of finesse, execution, and love put into “Lessons”, “Guitarcade”, and “Session Mode” that seem to have be missing from major releases of late.

Falling Short

Where Rocksmith falls short is in guiding the player through recommended songs, lessons, and mini-games. It is clear that there was a desire to emphasize recommended paths, but it feels poorly executed. Rather just pressing “play” and letting Rocksmith 2014 take the wheel to automatically jump from song to mini-game back to the same song with an emphasis on a single verse and so forth, the player is forced to manually jump around in hopes that the recommendations are truly applicable.

In the case of playing “recommended” songs, I felt like I was playing through the entire catalog rather than focusing on where my skills needed work. In no time, Rocksmith took me from Johnny Ramone to Alex Lifeson before I could handle Dave Grohl. It took about 4 hours of play to realize sorting by “difficulty” rather than “recommended” was my desired style of play.


It’s been nearly 15 years since I began playing in a rock back. Nearly 15 years since the dream of becoming a rock star ever surfaced into my consciousness. Time, money, space, studies, work, responsibility: These things began to take priority after high school. The thing that made me feel most alive was put aside. It’s a shame that more effort was not made, that I lacked the confidence to perform on my own, or that I wouldn’t set aside a few hours a day to practice. (Also, I was never that good.) The older I got, the more I watched my rock ‘n roll glory days fade away.

Rocksmith 2014, through it’s brilliant use of familiar design, great song catalog, and level of detail, is quite possibly the best piece of edutainment software out there. Not only is it engaging, it is educational and addicting.  It is by no means perfect, with “recommendations” being a botched effort on potentially the strongest feature. But what it gets wrong pales in comparison to the core features it gets right. With surprise after surprise, “wow moment” after “wow moment”, Rocksmith 2014 kept hitting me in all of the sweet spots. And most importantly, it brought me back to my guitar.

Amazon | Rocksmith 2014 requires a guitar and a specialized 1/4 audio to USB cable.

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Past, Present, Future Music Week

All things considered, I had a pretty good week; A fan re-cut of The Hobbit films was released (I have yet to watch), the State of the Union was pre-published to Medium, and news that the Super Bowl will be available for streaming outside of broadcast TV were some of the highlights.

but on a personal level, I felt like I hit the jackpot: Music releases that have switched me on! And early in the year, no doubt. Here are worthwhile releases from the recent past, unfortunate present, and previewed future.

Minus the Bear – Lost Loves

Lost Loves

Minus the Bear easily fits into my top 5 bands. Though, they had slipped out of my consciousness as of late. It wasn’t until I saw AbsolutePunk’s Most Anticipated Albums of 2015 that I decided to check in on the happenings of my top 5. Turns out, Minus the Bear released Lost Loves, a collection of B-sides and rarities, in October of 2014.

The record of miscellaneous memories may be the best scrapbook collection I have ever heard. The most prominent sound throughout is that of Dave Knudson’s iconic tap-guitar. This was the element of Minus the Bear that originally hooked me; however, I felt it had progressively faded into the background for the likes of calculated noise looping and quirky electronics. Lost Loves, taken as a cohesive album rather than b-sides, feels like the Minus the Bear of yesteryear. Between the swaths of delay, floaty synths, and lush guitar-tapping, there is a futuristic, dystopian, Bonnie and Clyde, car chase vibe throughout, likely brought on by the opener’s lyrics “Your mark has made you his / And If you want to live let me suggest this / Get a gun and get a car.

I had already heard (and collected) five of the ten gems on this record, but the album was well worth the purchase.

Björk – Vulnicura


Much to the dismay of Björk and her people, I took the leak of Vulnicura as a fortunate mishap. Since, hearing Further Seems Forever’s cover of “Pagan Poetry” in 2007 and, thusly, falling head-over-heels for it’s source album Vespertine, I’ve had a slight obsession with Björk. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I learned that Vulnicura would be released on 1/20/15.

The opening track of a Björk album typically paints a picture of what’s to come. Vulnicura is no different. The album opens with somber strings followed by an exhaustingly precise vocal arrangement unique to Björk. If Vespertine is rooted in quiet and icy harp-filled beat-patterns, Vulnicura shows off Björk’s keen awareness of the delicacy of strings layered under abruptly honest lyrics. There is an air of Medulla on “Lionsong” and Biophilia on “Noget”, but the record feels more like a spiritual successor to Vespertine than any other; A successor to my favorite Björk album.

[Afterword] Turns out I wasn’t mistaken about the similarities to Vespertine. If you’d like a full review of Vulnicura, look no further than Spencer Kornhaber’s at The Atlantic. Devastating.

Mew – + –


Mew has always felt like the perfect blend of Minus the Bear and Björk: Wildly frantic fantasy epics tucked behind accessible “indie stadium” rock. Angelic/demonic guitars quirk, shift, and jolt on top of spacey synths, chugging bass, and driving drums that are in overwhelming control of  their cadence and timing.

This past week, Mew announced the pre-order of their upcoming album, + –. “Satellites”, the opening track to + – (and first song showcased from the record), is the closest Mew has come to returning to the Frengers opener “Am I Wry? No”. It’s an uplifting, galactic epic fit for a Rush record from an alternate universe, sprinkled with a tale of complex feelings on simple love. Sparking guitar is followed with a wide-open synth, both paving the way through dancing verses and dreamy choruses. “Satellites” is Mew at their finest. I cannot wait to see what the remainder of this album has in-store.

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One of These Days I’ll Get It Right


Jim Guthrie has composed incredible soundtracks for the iOS classic Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and documentary Indie Game: The Movie. For One of These Days I’ll Get It Right, Guthrie teamed up with producer Solid Mas to release a throwback hip-hop remix record of his work from both soundtracks. It is chock-full of themed movie quotes, turn-table scratches, and an insidious vibe. The most notable record in recent history I can compare it to is RJD2’s Deadringer.

One of These Days I’ll Get It Right is a brilliant album that is much more than just a collection of simple remixes. Like LEGOs, Guthrie and Solid Mas have torn down completed sets and reimagined them as something wholly original. A worthy purchase if you are a fan of Guthrie, hip-hop, film, or a sound from yesteryear.

iTunes | Bandcamp

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Old School Hip Hop is the new Golden Oldies

Rolling Stone:

While radio stations have seen their audience decrease as tech-savvy consumers flock to satellite radio and streaming audio, broadcasters might have finally found a format that can lure listeners back to FM: Classic hip-hop. Playlists that shine the spotlight back on artists like the Notorious B.I.G., Naughty By Nature and Missy Elliott are currently sweeping the nation, with major broadcasters like Radio One, iHeartMedia and Cumulus Media frantically changing the format of underperforming stations to the sounds of classic hip-hop, the New York Times reports.

This makes perfect sense. Hip hop debuted around 1979, now dubbed “old school”. New school hip hop began around 1983, followed by Golden age hip hop in the mid-80s to early-90s. In 2015, this is a 25-35+ years old format.

Oldies, Wikipedia:

In the 1980s and 1990s, “oldies” meant the 15 years from the birth of rock n roll to the beginning of the singer-songwriter era of the early 1970s, or about 1955 to 1972, although this varied and some stations chose 1950-1969.

Between 1980 and 1990, “oldies” encompass a 25-35+ years old format. I may be mistaken but Golden Oldies have always seemed like a tried and true radio station format.

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