Wednesday 27 February 2013

Interview: 8-bit Synthtown

The retro gaming community is vast and diverse. Something never better illustrated than by Ravern haired princess of synth music Sam D'Uva - otherwise known as 8-bit Synthtown. Not only is she a dedicated collector and player of retro games but she also writes and produces retro styled 8-bit synth music.

Sam very kindly allowed us to use some of her songs on our YouTube vidoes and has since gone on to some real success with her first EP - Chip Bit Bleep, releasing recently. With such a dedicated and creative retrobate around we thought it our duty to sit down and ask her some questions.

Why 8-bit synth music?

My background has been predominantly in synths. Across 23 years I've studied classical, contemporary and jazz fusion. Believe it or not, retro tunes are very much involved. If you break down the melodies, synth bass lines and concepts, they are rooted in musical principals, not just random notes or basic chord progressions. The average person couldn't sit down and play something from Sonic the Hedgehog or Landstalker!

My love in music and my degree, lies in fusion, which is a mesh of musical genres with jazz voicings and theories to create some wacky electro goodness tunes! Badass! Once you have this understanding, that the old retro music was made with a purpose by people that understand complex music principles, you see the 8 bit music in a new light with a new respect. I love the complexity of some melodies, and the groove and just laying down a simple but catchy tune.

Everything I love in music, can be found in 8 Bit tunes. The old school synths and created waveforms to make a sound so unique. Coming up with melodies that are so original yet people feel they remind them of a particular game that they once played and loved. To me, it was a clear decision and smooth transition from playing covers, to writing and performing 8 Bit Music.

Literally, the creation of 8 Bit Synthtown was like a light bulb going on. Almost as if, say, you eat vanilla ice-cream all the time, but have never actually thought, "hey, I really like vanilla ice-cream", and one day you realise that you just do love it because you eat it all the time!

When did it all start?

As for when it started, i fell in love with music when I was 3 and started playing the piano. For me, it was a way of expressing a lot I felt and didn't want to verbally communicate. Many people don't know this about me. I am actually dyslexic. There are different forms. For me, it takes me a while to both read something, and also to communicate something fluently without thinking it through first. Music was always so wonderful, because from an early age, I could read music like a book. If I could think of a song, or I wanted to play something, I could, without struggling. 

I suppose it may seem a bit weird. People think that great musicians are all intellectuals. But many creative people are musicians. I am always learning, always growing, always discovering new things in music. I feel the piano is an extension of me personally, almost like a second voice. Last year, it occurred to me, that I love retro music, love playing it, and wanted to start writing something original, use my piano voice to say something different that people haven't heard before.

How important do you think music is in video games?

If you think of Super Mario, you think of the theme song. And if your mind goes to a particular level, you would associate that with the music in that level. New gen games rely on music and use it as just one tool to create a feeling at different points. To build upon the story line. It is rarely repetitive and highly orchestral in a lot of cases. The retro music was repetitive, catchy and almost jingle like. In a retro game, you are wanting that music you can sing along to. It plays a completely different role to the music in new gen games, though it is equally as important.

What games do you think really use music effectively?

If we're talking about retro games, the classic is Super Mario Bros.. The theme music from the original SMB for NES, has been built upon, remixed, altered, for many games over the years in developing the series and seeing it mature. How can there be an example more effective than this? A classic and simple chiptune in the most simple of musical keys has stayed in the series which continue to be highly successful, though if you play the classic tune, you would never hear people say they didn't like it, or new versions were "better". They are just different, but the theme is the key to the evolution of the music in the series.

Is there a certain routine or process you go through when coming up with a new tune?

There's a few different ways I come up with tunes, depending on the purpose. When I write for a client, i'll check out as much as I can about their site/podcast/videos, to get the general vibe. That's the best starting point. I'll sit down in the studio at a synth and play with sounds and match them to the feel of their brand. I'm hugely influenced by the sounds I use. Most of the time, a melody will come to me while I'm using sound. From there I record basic ideas and play over them with other sounds, bass lines, beats, until I have a definite idea of what I want for the tune. I then compose the tune, starting with the beat a lot of the time.

Other tunes come to me in strange places. I'll be driving and start singing a riff, bass line or melody, and grab out my phone and record me singing the idea. I've had plenty of people look at me strange for singing into my phone! Then when I do get to the studio and around to workshopping the tune, I have a basis and starting point. the rest evolves from there, similar to the last process I mentioned.

What are some of your favourite games?

My favourite games are Landstalker: the treasures of King Nole for SEGA, and Faxanadu for NES. I enjoy so many games so could never list them all, but these two are my stand out favourites. They aren't well known, both adventure RPGs, and both incredible! The music in them, is simply amazing. Faxanadu is authentic chiptunes. Very fusion based compositions and created using a program called LSDJ. I would love to do an orchestral piece of some of the tunes from the game at some stage. Landstalker has one of the best OSTs i can think of for a game. Synth heavy tunes again with a fusion background in terms of melodies and voicings. I'm currently doing some covers of them. Ive done some test recordings, but It's so important to do compositions like this justice, so it takes time.

Why take the retro route? 

Simply because I like  retro! I'm an 80s child and grew up with retro music and games, and I suppose it just wasn't a phase. I'm in love with and work with a lot of vintage and analog synths, and sound synthesizers. There's just something nostalgic and beautiful about retro for me. I still enjoy playing other genres, composing in orchestral styles, but for me, retro is where my heart is.

If someone is interested where would you recommend they start?

I'll say this for anything music related including writing gaming tunes, follow the style you enjoy and love. Just because you listen to chiptunes, doesn't mean you'll enjoy creating them. Just because you listen to orchestral scores, doesn't mean you'll like creating them either!! experiment, and see what genre in music really excites you! Of course, then you'll need some gear to play the tunes. Some people take the rock/heavy metal route in gaming music. Live band, guitars, drums. That often requires a band. 

For me, I play everything on real instruments and hardware. i don't use plugins. They say when you use hardware, the only thing that can break it is an axe, and when you use plugins, you'll want to take an axe to it!! Plugins will never replicate the real deal. But they are affordable and can get you into writing your own tunes. The best thing you can do, is check out different types of music. Listen to what people before you have offered up in history, and take from the music ideas you like. Then get playing. You can only know if you like writing a style if you play it. maybe start with copying tunes you like, then branch out to original music. It's such a personal subject because people have different reasons for playing. The best way to start, is to START!

If you would like to find out more about 8-bit Synthtown head over to the official website - Here 

You can also follow on twitter - @8_bit_Synthtown

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