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Song Exploder

For the past 4 weeks I've been working on a "Song Exploder" project, if you don't know what that is you should definitely check out this blog by Hrishikesh Hirway:

In his blog Hrishikesh basically interviews a song writer and gets them to choose one of their songs to break apart or "explode", asking them to reveal in major detail the processes they went through in creating the song, from conception right through to release. In a similar vein, I've taken a song by one of my favorite producers of all time in an attempt to perform my own song explosion.

I chose video game music producer veteran Grant Kirkhope, Grants main claim to fame is working with Rare on their Nintendo 64 games back in the 90's.

He composed and produced the soundtracks to a lot of famous games like Banjo Kazooie and 007: Goldeneye and has won a BAFTA award for his work in the video game industry. His style can be identified mainly in it's composition, he favors Oom-Pah rhythm sections and strong melodies with little focus on percussion. He used a lot of strange arrangements of orchestral instruments in his work and likes to use a lot of call and response between different instruments to keep his loops interesting. Here are some examples of his works, one from the 90's and one from a more recent work:

The main thing that you can hear that has changed is the overall quality of the samples he's using as time has progressed however his process has been much the same from the 90's to now. Grant would record samples of instruments and use early MIDI files integrated into the Nintendo 64 to play his music. He had to work within certain constraints for unique to the Nintendo 64 which I have also had to learn to do.

Firstly I had to learn exactly how sound on the Nintendo 64 worked so I posted online in the G.A.N.G Facebook page, which is the Game Audio Network Guild and is the largest video game sound organisation in the world. Firstly by reading the Nintendo 64 Programming manual, I managed to find out that the Nintendo 64 console itself could play midi files but the samples for the instrument had to be on the cartridge and they all had to be 44.1k or 48k at 16bit. Along with this, because of size limitations, the entire game including levels, sounds, programming etc. had to fit on a cartridge between 4 and 64 megabytes which meant that usually the sound had to be around 100 kilobytes at MAX, this is Courtesy of Tim Trzepacz from the G.A.N.G who worked on sound for games back in the Nintendo 64 days.

So with all this information I had to make sure my file size at the end of the day was small enough, which it ended up being, coming out at a mere 9.27 kilobytes so it definitely would have fit nicely in a Nintendo 64 game. Although since I only had the one song to make I let my samples er on the large size. Also I did cheat a little bit in that instead of recording my own samples, due to the nature of the instrumentation, I re-sampled some of my Kontakt 5 samples for all the instruments. I used the c700 for my re-sampling which is a VST sampler designed to emulate common samplers used in the 90's in video game development.

The Nintendo 64 had the ability to use between 16 and 24 midi channels although this was shared between sound effects and music so music commonly only occupied the first 16 channels. In the end my song only ended up using 10 channels, the first 8 were the instruments for the main theme with the last two being a copy of the melody and bass line on different instruments to be used in a very specific Grant-Kirkhope-Esq way.

Banjo Kazooie had some of the earliest examples of dynamic audio, with multiple different versions of a song being played as you enter different areas of a level. For example, in nearly every level when you go from above to underwater the entire song is usually replaced with a solo harp with a lot of reverb to give that under-watery feel. They did this with midi channel fading, the game was programmed to adjust the volume of certain midi channels as the player moved around the world. Here's a great video by Classic Game Junkie explaining the concept in some concise detail:

This is exactly what I did in my song, I had 8 channels used for the main theme and I had 2 extras to be used for the underwater version. So in essence this was my project complete, I made the song and it was very much in the style of Grant Kirkhop although I wanted to take things one step further...

So I downloaded a Banjo Kazooie ROM which is completely legal seeing as I own a copy of the game and I used a program called Banjos Backpack to hack the ROM so that I could replace the in-game music with my own music. To me this was the final test, to see if my music could actually be integrated into the actual game and sound like it could be a part of Grant Kirkhops larger work. I was worried about the legality of this, although according to copyright law as long as I don't distribute the hacked ROM it's completely within my EULA(End User License Agreement). Although, as you can tell by the video, it turned out okay but not perfect, in the end the limitations of Banjos Backpack didn't allow me to enter my own samples into the game, however I could insert my own midi file to manipulate the samples that were already on the ROM.

All in all this was one of the most enjoyable projects I've ever had the pleasure of undertaking and I would reccomend everyone and anyone to check out the Song Exploder blog and maybe give this exercise a try yourself, I learned a lot.

Thanks for reading and see you next time!

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