You are playing a cooperative NES game with a friend or your family. This is the song you hear the most during your adventure.
You can download an MP3 of “Together on the Next Screen” here.
You can download an NSF of “Together on the Next Screen” here. The NSF is a ROM that will execute on NES hardware, in an NES emulator, or in an NES music player. I like to use GaMBi on my phone.
I’ve written up some process details below. I hope people take some time to read about why I like music and how I approach it.
I can’t wait for the next prompt. You’re getting a new monthly NES track from me until the end of the year – no Patreon required!
About the Artist
The 2022 Art Jam is a forcing function for me to have fun with music. I have a long non-professional career in music. I played trumpet for more than a decade growing up and it was my primary artistic outlet until my 20s when I dropped it partially because I wasn’t interested in it and partially because I was using engineering school as an excuse to not practice. When I was young, I suffered an injury that ensured I’d never be an excellent trumpet player but when I returned to music to learn piano (which I had never touched) in my late 20s I realized that I do like music. I just didn’t want to do it as any kind of career or for performance. It was one of the only artistic things I did.
When I had kids, I stopped practicing piano and I figured it was OK and I can come back to it when I am ready. I’ve been teaching my children music and piano and I hope appreciating music is something that I’m able to pass on to them in any kind of capacity.
I recently got back into music by accident when I was working on some PICO-8 games and needed to write some music for them. I soon was having more fun writing 4-channel audio songs than I was dealing with my Lua bugs.
I kept writing songs in the PICO-8 tracker just to write songs and if you’re interested, my PICO-8 album titled “music(-1)” with all my work is linked here. The joke is that music(-1) is the PICO-8 command to stop all music on all channels immediately and I think that’s hysterical.
I bought DeffleMask because I wanted a more robust user interface than what PICO-8 provided with its 128×128 pixel resolution. It’s got a steeper learning curve mostly because you have to learn about the individual systems and their quirks, but it’s easier to make music in a dedicated music tool. Here’s an actual screenshot of my finished work.
While writing this piece, I imagined I was writing music for a simultaneous co-op NES game using the working title “Cooperative Mode”. I started out intending to write a chipper and up-beat song that utilizes tight harmonies and passing a melody back and forth to imply two people working together. I ended up with something much more somber than I originally wanted, but I’m still pretty happy about how the harmony is passed back and forth and varied between two voices. I think it’s more of a lonely autumn IloMilo kind of game than a perky action platformer.
I picked the NES to write for because its sound is ubiquitous and popular. I feel familiar enough with it to know when an NES track sounds “right”. It’s also specifically limited in its four tracks and one PCM track (which I ignored) that seemed close enough to PICO-8 that I just decided they are the same. In reality, PICO-8’s sound system is considerably more flexible than NES. NES has some weird (to me) limitations that I encountered and had to design around.
The NES’s two square channels can be duty cycled in four different modes and the impact is a change in timbre, but the PICO-8 has several more waveform shapes that can be selected so it’s easier to get different voices and texture. You can also mix-and-match waveforms in a PICO-8 channel as much as you want, whereas each channel in the NES is a fixed waveform.
The bassline is implemented in the Triangle channel which is a unique brand of weird. You can’t change the Triangle channel’s volume: it’s either on or off at whatever amplitude it is. This means you can’t set “volume macros” for your triangle instruments. A volume macro is effectively the ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) properties of your instrument which changes how the note starts and ends. The Triangle won’t respect the volume macro because it doesn’t respect volume at all.
This also means that if you want to have repeated Triangle channel notes, you need to have a rest in between each note. Otherwise, the output of the channel for asking it to play say a D every quarter note is a whole note. I redid the bass line a few times to get around this limitation.
The triangle channel not having volume also means the volume mix of your entire song needs to be normalized against whatever you’re doing in the Triangle.
My Actual Composition Process
I started from a blank document, clicked basic NES – no VRC7 extensions this time – and built the whole thing up from scratch.
I like to start with a 4-on-the-floor base drum with syncopated snare hits and then break it up until it sounds interesting.
The initial chord progression drone was next. I built the drone with an arpeggio instrument which is the first time I’ve ever used one and I’m proud of that. An arpeggio instrument rapidly cycles between three notes that you define in the instrument. They are usually set the notes of a major or minor arpeggio for musical theory reasons. You hear this instrument construction all the time used in the NES for both music and sound effects which is fun now that I’m aware of it.
The main verse came together pretty fast, especially the ends of the four-bar phrases (the 1 2 3 + 4 + part). I also avoided having any melody notes land on beat one just to make it interesting. To make it sound like I am passing the melody back and forth, I copy-pasted it into the second channel, offset it by an eighth-note, and changed the channel’s duty cycle to make it a more distinct voice.
I probably burned the most creative calories on the variations of the main song structure. The variation of the flutter drone came together last. I think it’s a bit on the aggressive side in terms of putting stress in the song, but I like the overall emphasis and climax it gives to the piece.