Friday, December 31, 2010

My 2010 in Music

In some strange, oppressed part of my brain, I was convinced that 2011 would never actually come. As my college graduation year, it's been looming in my future for something like seven or eight years, but for much of that time, it's felt more like an idea or shadow rather than something very real and tangible. Yet here we are, at the dawn of this new era.

Before we dive headfirst into the new year, I'd like to take an opportunity to reflect on my 2010 experience. Rather than simply describe the events in my life, however, I'll instead elect to portray this past year through music. For me, music and life are inextricably connected; the pieces of music that truly resonate within my life are invariably tied to particular people, places, or events. The pieces of music listed below are the ones that, for one reason or another, truly took root and held meaning in my past year. In chronological order, here are my most influential pieces of music in 2010:

I Am the One - Inon Zur
Heart of Courage - Two Steps to Hell
恋爱达人 - Alan Luo
Coral Sea - Jay Chou
Insomnia - Wheesung
Down - Jay Sean
Diamond Dust - Richard Jacques
Paternal Horn - Naofumi Hataya, et. al.
Wind Scene - Yasunori Mitsuda
Sposalizio - Franz Liszt
I Want Love (Studio Mix) - Akira Yamaoka
Over the Edge - Edie Wellman :)
Like a G6 - Far East Movement
Symphony no. 4, mvt. IV - Johannes Brahms

Have a prosperous and joyful 2011!

Happy new year,

David

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Piano Cover: One

Welp, one more semester done. It's not been the best semester for me, all things considered, although it's certainly had its bright moments. Undoubtedly, one of the best parts of this past semester was my music theory class. My class had an absolutely wonderful, talented group of students (and TA :D) who were an inspirational force beyond measure. I sincerely loved each moment I was able to spend with them, and am undoubtedly a better musician thanks to their support, talent, and cheer. To any of my fellow 115-ers who might be reading this blog: thank you. I truly mean it. :)

Now, on a completely different note, here's my newest piano cover. I actually finished this piece over a month ago, but due to time constraints and laziness (mostly time constraints, actually), I've been unable to post a blog entry about it until now. For those of you who haven't heard it before, here's the original source material. As always, there's a bit of a story behind this piece. One of my friends had attended an Epik High concert and seemed pretty excited about it, so I decided to check out some of their work. As always, though, I ended up just getting attached to the first piece of theirs I found, which in this case happened to be One. (Granted, my freshman-year roommate had played Love Love Love all the time, but I hadn't realized that was Epik High at the time.)

Okay, that wasn't that exciting of a story. Here's the cover:

One: Piano Cover



Artist: Epik High
Date Completed: 2010-11-03
Number of Takes: 3
Software: Audacity, Movie Maker
Instrumentation: Piano

It was interesting to take a hip-hop tune and convert it into something passable for solo piano, since, well, hip-hop songs aren't usually the most melodic source materials. In the case of One, however, I'm glad to have been proven wrong. Granted, I was forced to take some liberties and come up with my own melody for one section, but the existing melodies from the original material, along with the VI-IV-I-V chord progression, were great. Excellent source material always makes the piano-covering more enjoyable. :)

That's it for now. As I probably won't have another entry before most of the winter holidays roll around, enjoy!

Happy holidays,

xds

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Piano Cover: Partner for Life

So it's been one of those semesters. Maybe it's senioritis; maybe it's the feeling of impending doom associated with graduating from college and moving on with life; maybe it's the realization that my time remaining with my Duke friends is limited, but my experience so far this semester has been kind of difficult to describe. I've been doing a lot of reflecting on my college career as it steadily draws to a close, and of course, you can't reflect without thinking about where it all began: my freshman year.

If I could define my freshman year of college through music, a major part would definitely include a small collection of Korean songs that my roommate looped through his iTunes playlist, including such hits as BIGBANG's Lies, Epik High's Love Love Love, and a number of arrangements of Daft Punk's Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, among other gems. One such song (which, gasp, is the one I'm posting about today) was a ballad by Korean group SG Wannabe, called Partner For Life (내사람, or "Nae Saram," in Korean). Although it didn't catch my attention immediately (the other pieces were somewhat catchier), I eventually heard an beautiful a capella rendition of the piece at the 2008 Lunar New Year festival. Immediately thereafter, I became enamored with the piece, looked forward to the times it appeared on my roommate's playlist (by then, I had the order essentially memorized), and eventually began to figure it out on piano. :)

내사람 (Partner For Life): Piano Cover



Artist: SG Wannabe
Date Completed: 2010-10-21
Number of Takes: 4
Software: Audacity
Instrumentation: Piano

This arrangement is a little more straightforward than my other ones; it's more of a transcription than much of an arrangement. Still, what makes SG Wannabe so appealing to me is their fantastic choice of harmony, rife with modulations and secondary chords; it's rather different than the three-to-four-chord pop songs that have nearly saturated the music world. Good stuff.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed it! Perhaps one day in the distant (or not-so-distant) future, my former roomie will stumble across this blog post and relive some old memories. This one's for you, buddy.

Take care,

xds

Friday, October 8, 2010

VGMusic Submission: Epilogue

Just a quick update to showcase another piece I've recently uploaded to VGMusic.Com. Interestingly enough, this one was actually arranged for my music theory class. Our teaching assistant (who might in fact be one of the most awesome people I've ever met) gave us an assignment that I was more than happy to complete: arrange any piece of music of our choice. Naturally, I was all over that #$%@.

The source material for the MIDI this time around is a game for the Super Nintendo called Chrono Trigger (perhaps you've heard of it? :P). Like NiGHTS into Dreams, Chrono Trigger was another game that I have actually never played, but nevertheless fell in love with the soundtrack. I was first exposed to the soundtrack at Video Games Live Indy, where a Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross medley was performed as the final act of the show (see a recording I was able to take here). Soon thereafter, I tracked down the soundtrack and found that the remainder of the tracks were just as great as the excerpts from the performance. I chose to arrange the track "Epilogue: To Good Friends" for this music theory assignment because it was fairly straightforward to analyze, even if I did get carried away and arrange the whole piece instead of just the first few bars. :) In any case, here's the piece (and here's the original for comparison):

Epilogue: To Good Friends



Date Submitted: 2010-09-16
Time: ~4 hours
Software: Finale 2008
MIDI Tracks: Flute, French Horn, Orchestral Harp, Bright Acoustic Piano, Celesta, String Ensemble 1, SynthStrings 2

Not much more to say about this piece. It's not quite perfect; perhaps one or two incorrect chords scattered around, but I think it's pretty close. Hope you enjoyed it!

Best wishes,

xds

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Piano Cover: I Am The One (Redux)

So about a month ago, I put up a post with an arrangement of Inon Zur's piece "I Am The One" from Dragon Age: Origins. I recently re-recorded the piece, but it turned out differently enough that I felt it merited its own post again. Thus, I (somewhat proudly...gahh for stupid mistakes) present take two of "I Am The One" (this time with video!).

I Am The One: Piano Cover



Composer: Inon Zur
Date Completed: 2010-09-04
Number of Takes: Way too many
Software: Audacity, Movie Maker
Instrumentation: Piano

I'll keep this one short and sweet. 'Til next time!

baibai,

xds

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Rare(RO) MMO Experience

In mid-June, two of my friends (for anonymity's sake, let's call them Lorrien and Willis) convinced me to try out an online game called Ragnarok Online. Today, roughly two and a half months since that day and standing at the foreseeable end of my time on Ragnarok, I thought I'd take some time to reflect a bit on my experiences.

As far as my video gaming is concerned, I'm fairly new at this whole massively-multiplayer online RPG thing. The only game I'd played in the past vaguely resembling an MMO was RuneScape, and that was hardly a good indicator of the MMORPG world. Then again, perhaps neither was my Ragnarok experience. My friends and I ended up playing on Rare Ragnarok Online, a high-rate server with experience rates somewhere around 10,000 times that of the "normal" server. This essentially eliminated any time investment needed for character creation and allowed me to experiment with many different characters, but was admittedly a bit daunting at first to see everyone operating at seemingly near-expert familiarity.


Rare Ragnarok Online loading screen, courtesy of my friend Lorrien.


A selection of a few of my Ragnarok characters.

That's not to say that there wasn't any "grinding" in Rare Ragnarok Online, per se; rather, the grinding was for items rather than for levels. Specific powerful items custom to the server required large numbers of specific items in order to craft, so much time was spent killing hapless cute monsters and collecting their remains in hopes of building these items. Additionally, a number of "boss" MVP monsters, which spawn only once every few hours, occasionally dropped very rare and powerful card items, so I spent a fair amount of time chasing after these monsters in hopes of obtaining the cards (with a rather low success rate). Nonetheless, the possible frustration of these endeavors were mitigated somewhat by adventuring alongside Lorrien and Willis; we took care to stick together and help each other out with our quests whenever possible.


Many hours were invested in collecting, say, 300 Raccoon Leaves.

The most interesting part of the game, in my opinion, were the custom server events. Occasional mini-games like "Cluck, Cluck, Boom," "Hangman" and "Find the Prize" were welcome distractions, along with the more difficult challenges such as "Invasion" and "Cursed Dimension." In particular, Cursed Dimension became somewhat of a nightly routine, where Lorrien, Willis and I would party up every evening around midnight and attempt to eliminate MVP monsters and collect their rare items. The server events were made more entertaining by a staff of friendly GMs as well as a generally friendly player base, allowing for wacky experiments such as forming "RARERO" out of players (an endeavor which, unfortunately, was met with only limited success).


Preparing to do some Cursed Dimension with Lorrien and Willis.


You probably can't tell, but this is supposed to be the letter "E".


One of the many spontaneous GM-initiated server events.

Overall, my experience with Rare Ragnarok Online was an enjoyable one, and I'm a bit sad to be leaving it behind now. Lorrien, Willis and I met today (yes, IN REAL LIFE OMG) for one last Rare Ragnarok session together, where we did some final server events, randomly summoned a great number of enemies, gave away some of our items, and said our goodbyes to the server. It was quite the poignant moment. :)

Below are a few more screenshots of my time with Rare Ragnarok Online, to relive some of those good ol' days:


An initial photoshoot of my party with Lorrien and Willis.


My pet munak Tali (center).


A cool (and spontaneous) screenshot of our party in town.


Randomly summoning a bunch of monsters on our last RO excursion.


One last party screenshot with Lorrien and Willis.

That's all for now. For any random RareRO-ers who might have happened across this blog post: take care, and it's been fun. :)

Farewell,

xds

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Piano Cover: Insomnia

So I'm back at school now, which means the instances I'll actually have time to update this blog will be far and few between. However, due to popular demand (kinda), I've decided to put up another piano cover before I descend into the dark abyss. Well, I dunno...maybe I'll have some more in the future, or at least make slightly better recordings of my older work, but for now...

My relationship with the source material of this cover, Insomnia, has been an interesting one. I first encountered the Korean version of this piece at another Lunar New Year performance, when it was included in the repertoire of the amazing dance group Defining Movement. Although I didn't think much of it at first, one of my friends soon showed me the song again, and this time it stuck (partly because she took care to remind me at regular intervals). After listening to it on repeat for the better part of a week, it was clear that I'd been addicted.

Although I'm certainly no expert on the history of this piece, here's a bit about what I know. The single Insomnia was released in the UK by artist Craig David, where it was met with a fair amount of success in Europe. Later that year, Craig David contacted Korean artist Wheesung to record a Korean version of the song, which was released in 2009. The music for both versions is fundamentally the same, with mostly differences in the vocal part (although I haven't personally checked to see how well the Korean and English lyrics match). The English and Korean versions of the song, respectively, can be found here and here.

Unlike many pop songs I enjoy, which appeal to me either because of an interesting harmonic structure or some sort of emotional connection to the piece, Insomnia caught my attention simply because it was so damn catchy. The harmonic structure consists of roughly ONE chord progression and a bridge, and I never really learned the meaning of the Korean lyrics, but the ostinato and "FEELS LIKE INSOMNIAAAAA" portions of the song still find themselves stuck in my head regularly. Of course, what better way to get it un-stuck (or, perhaps, even more stuck) than by figuring it out on piano?

Insomnia: Piano Cover



Artist: Craig David/Wheesung
Date Completed: 2010-08-31
Number of Takes: 7
Software: Audacity
Instrumentation: Piano

Unlike my past two covers, this one is actually in its original key of F-sharp major (or maybe B lydian, one of those)! I know, aren't you proud of me? Because Insomnia is an extremely repetitive piece save for the lyrics, I struggled to find some way to differentiate the verses from one another. Hopefully I succeeded to some degree. xD My apologies for the nearly unbearable background noise in the recording (the noise filters would have distorted the recording to an unacceptable level), but at least I'm using an in-tune piano this time! :) Oh, and for those of you who for whatever reason would like a copy of the mp3, it can be found here.

That's all I've got for now. Until next time!

Happy start of school,

xds

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Piano Cover: Coral Sea

I first encountered the piece "Coral Sea" in 2008 during a Lunar New Year performance by the a cappella group Temptasians. I proceeded to forget about the song until two years later, when I sought out the original piece out of curiosity and immediately fell in love. For most of spring 2010, the Jay Chou piece was constantly emanating from my iPod as part of a small collection of C-Pop and K-Pop pieces I'd become enamored with. Over the summer, I decided to explore Jay Chou's music in more depth, picking up a few of his albums, including Coral Sea's debut album November's Chopin. Although I enjoyed the music a great deal and developed some new favorites (I discovered I'm more partial to his slow works than the upbeat ones), none of them could quite compare to Coral Sea's unique place in my heart. [/melodramatic]

One of the funnier stories relating me and Coral Sea involves the lyrics. Due to my innate tendency to overlook lyrics in favor of the music, coupled with my not-amazing-literacy in Mandarin and the song's fairly complicated lyrics, I neglected to learn the lyrics for the first few months of listening to the piece. The file in my iPod did provide lyrics, but they were in Traditional, which I couldn't really read. Thus, I just went about listening to the song, assuming it was one of the typical sugary-sweet C-pop love songs. When I finally looked up the lyrics in Simplified (and eventually English for confirmation), I was actually quite taken aback my the despondency and bitterness of the words. lol, that'll teach me to assume things about music. xD

So, long story short, I decided to figure out Coral Sea on piano, as likely evident from the title. I've been playing around with it for a few months now (a random 3-month-ish period with no access to a piano notwithstanding), but I finally decided to put together a low-quality recording of it. Anyway, I'll skip right to the media. For those of you unfamiliar with the piece, here's the source material for reference.

珊瑚海 (Coral Sea): Piano Cover



Artist: Jay Chou
Date Completed: 2010-08-17
Number of Takes: 8-ish
Software: Audacity, Sound Recorder
Instrumentation: Piano

Again, I was rather loath to perform the piece in its normal key of A-flat, so I decided to take it down a half-step. Sorry again to the perfect-pitch kiddies out there. You'll also probably notice that this recording is certainly not error-free; turns out I get twitchy when the mic comes on and make dumb mistakes easily. >_< Regardless, I hope it gives at least a passable impression. (I also discovered, literally now, that I can record directly from Audacity...maybe that'll help with some of the quality issues?) Anyway, once I get back to school in a week or so I'll hopefully find the time to put up higher-quality recordings, perhaps even a video or two. :P [UPDATE 09/01/10: I've updated the recording from my last post to a higher-quality, straight-from-audio version. Hopefully that will make this cover suck a little less. xD]

I've got a few layering experiments planned for the near future, so stay tuned!

Until we meet again,

xds

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Gen Con 2010

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I recently attended Gen Con, a huge annual four-day gaming convention in Indianapolis. I thought I'd share a little rundown of the events I attended there, for those who are curious. I'll just jump right into it without too much introduction:



Day 1

Thursday, 12:00: RPG1016482 Iron Team Challenge: Shipwrecked

My first scheduled event of the convention was a Pathfinder event, essentially equivalent to Dungeons & Dragons. I was somewhat hesitant to join this event, since it specified that players should have some experience with Pathfinder, of which I had none. The first hour or so of the event was excruciating, since I had no clue how to make a character; I ended up scraping by with a half-completed ninja monk character. Fortunately, my character sheet really didn't matter much, since Keith, the GM, was aware that our group had some n00bs and focused much more on the role-playing elements than the combats. Major props to the GM for this one.

Thursday, 19:00: ENT1017082 Hamlet vs. MacBeth: the Shakespearean SmackDown!

While two of my friends decided to continue on with Pathfinder for the rest of the day, I opted to check out something new. That something turned out to be a skit put on by a group the Damsels of Dorkington, "Hamlet vs. Macbeth" (Shakespeare in the loosest sense). Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the show was hampered by the tall guy sitting in front of me, which obstructed most of my view of the stage, as well as my unfamiliarity with the Macbeth source material. Still, the Damsels put on an exciting show; their excitement was infectious, and their frequent on-the-spot interactions with the boisterous audience really made it something unique. Check out the Damsels here.

Day 2

Friday, 10:00: SEM1017813 Video Game Music Composing and Video Games Live! with Tommy Tallarico

My friends and I barely made it in time for this 10 AM event, but of all Gen Con events, I'm happiest that I attended this one. The event was essentially a presentation by esteemed composer Tommy Tallarico about the world of video game audio, but for some reason this event was left out of the Gen Con catalog. Consequently, I was one of about four attendees, which actually made it better, I think. Tommy was gracious enough to answer all of our questions, and after the event, I managed to ask him a few questions on my own. Upon learning I was a music student, Tommy referred me to a variety of resources on the video game audio world. If you're interested in learning about some of those resources, let me know. xD

Friday, 16:30: FLM1013517 The Dead Matter



Of the films in the Gen Con catalog, The Dead Matter both looked interesting and didn't conflict with any other planned events, so we decided to check it out. The movie (a fairly nondescript film about a necklace with necromantic powers) wasn't anything mind-blowing, in my opinion, but it was impressive enough for its low budget, and once I realized the movie didn't take itself very seriously, I began to appreciate the humor.

Friday, 19:00: TCG1010427 Two Headed Giant Limited - M11

For my sole Magic event of the convention, I teamed up with one of my friends for a Two-Headed Giant draft. I'd never done a 2HG draft before, and the format was definitely interesting, but I think my teammate and I put together some admirable decks. Our first victory was an unlikely turnaround that left our opponents stunned, dealing something on the order of 30 damage in one turn. We weren't able to complete our second game, due to our opponents having to leave, but nonetheless it was a fun little distraction.

Saturday, 01:00: ZED1010350 Are You a Werewolf?



There's actually no difference between Werewolf and the more well-known game Mafia apart from different naming conventions, so I was able to jump in without much of a problem. In Game 1, the entire group was fooled by a 10ish-year-old girl who successfully convinced her father that she wasn't the werewolf, and rode that trust card to victory. In Game 2, I happened to be a werewolf, and both of my fellows were killed off early in the game. I managed to stick around for a little while longer, but unfortunately couldn't pull off the victory. I hate being mafia. I mean, werewolf.

Day 3

Saturday, 14:00: RPG1017757 Tokyo Masks

Tokyo Masks was quite the unique tabletop RPG. Essentially, each player took control of a fairly stereotypical superhero; I, for instance, had the super-powerful but not-so-bright Brodin, the "Norse God of Surfing." The first half was fairly typical role-playing; took down some evil supervillains, etc., but for the second half the GMs decided to conduct a cross-over with a closely-related universe, featuring a school of mutant elementary-school children. With something like 10 players in the room and two different rulesets, things got a little hectic, but at the end of the day it was still immensely entertaining (and unique).

Saturday, 19:30: ENT1016339 Video Games Live!

I mentioned Video Games Live in great detail in my last post, so I won't go into detail again here. The best part of the event was getting to meet Tommy Tallarico, Emmanuel Frattiani, and Laura "Flute Link" at the meet 'n greet following the show. Mr. Frattiani, upon hearing I was a music student at Duke, gave me a reference to one of his colleagues, a graduate of Duke's Ph.D. music program; I thought that was really cool. Of course, getting to talk to Tommy again was awesome, too, especially since he still remembered me from the seminar that morning.



Sunday, 01:00: ENT1014142 Pajama Jammy Jam (a.k.a the Dance)

Having been at the back of the line for the VG Live meet 'n greet, we made it in time for the last two or three songs of the dance. I wasn't expecting much from a dance where the ratio of men to women was probably something like 10:1, but it was actually pretty fun. And no, there really weren't that many people in pajamas.

Day 4

There weren't any scheduled plans for Sunday, so my friends and I just wandered the main exhibition hall, where essentially every company present has a booth set up with cool stuff. I'll just attach some pictures here to show a little of the happenings of the ex-hall.









Yep, that's pretty much all I've got. 'Til next time!

xds

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Concert Review: Video Games Live Indy 2010

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of making it up to Indianapolis for Gen Con Indy, one of the largest annual gaming conventions in the world. Although the entire convention was an absolute blast (look for a post in the near future with details), the pinnacle of the convention was almost certainly Video Games Live. Video Games Live, founded by composers Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, is (to quote the website) "a concert event put on by the video game industry to help encourage and support the culture and art that video games have become." In essence, it's a group of touring video game musicians who work with local professional orchestras to put on a massive multimedia-filled performance of video game music.

Video Games Live at Gen Con was hosted at the Conseco Fieldhouse, a large arena typically reserved for sporting events. My friends and I were able to get "cheap seat" tickets for $15 a pop, which was amazing considering where our seats turned out to be -- we were literally right in front of the stage (albeit a bit far) with a perfect view of the orchestra. Epic success.



After a costume contest, Video Games Live kicked into gear with the "Classic Arcade Medley," a collection of tunes from popular arcade games of yore, including such hits as Pong, Space Invaders, Outrun, and Tetris. Tommy took the stage and introduced the next selection, from an obscure Japanese game called Afrika that probably 1% of the audience had ever heard of. I'm happy that Afrika was included in the program; the music was the perfect sort of majestic, and I'm always a fan of less popular video games getting some recognition. My one complaint about the Afrika performance was actually the choice of video; the music was much too grand for some of the boring menu-navigating scenes that somehow made their way into the montage.

The next three selections were Shadow of the Colossus, Assassin's Creed, and God of War, all solid arrangements that I enjoyed despite my lack of familiarity with the material. The next event was one pretty unique to Video Games Live; two contestants came on stage to play Frogger while the orchestra played along in real-time. The audience support for the players was phenomenal, with countless cheers echoing across the stadium as the contestants steered their frogs to the other side of the level.

Act I ended with a beautiful selection from Final Fantasy VIII as well as three Blizzard tunes, two from World of Warcraft and one from Starcraft. The first Warcraft piece was a particularly haunting vocal tune called "Lament of the Highborn," performed by vocalist Laura Intravia (more on her later). The two following pieces were good, but neither struck me as much as did "Lament of the Highborn." In all honesty, I wouldn't have minded so much had some of the Blizzard tracks been replaced with tunes from other games; three Blizzard pieces seemed overkill to me when there are so many other great video game pieces out there to be enjoyed.

The second half of the show opened up with two Koji Kondo medleys, Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers. While I thought the Zelda arrangement was phenomenal, I do wish the Super Mario Brothers arrangement had been a bit more imaginative. It's a great (and classic...it's been circulating around the Web for a while) arrangement, but especially for a track that's been as done to death as the classic Mario theme, I wish they'd been able to explore the themes a bit more and/or work in the wealth of other Mario music out there.

The next performance was centered around Laura Intravia, this time arriving on stage with a flute and dressed as her alter ego "Flute Link." Her performance was of one of her own arrangements, a Legend of Zelda flute duet set above some techno-y background music. The performance was as interesting to watch as to listen to, with Laura acting increasingly irritated with Navi (the second flute part) floating over her shoulder and culminating in poor Navi being thrown across the stage. I managed to snap a photo with the talented Laura after the show (she's the one on the left, of course).



After Laura's performance, one of the more unique aspects of Video Games Live took the stage. A gentleman who'd won the earlier Guitar Hero competition was invited on the stage, and Tommy went to fetch his electric guitar. The contest winner was presented with another challenge: earn 250,000 points on the Guitar Hero: Van Halen song "Jump" on Hard while Tommy and the orchestra played along in real time. Of course, the contestant and audience demanded Expert instead. Again, the audience support during the performance was amazing, with a veritable explosion of cheers as the contestant finally broke 250,000 in the last few seconds in the song. Definitely one of the most entertaining acts.

Tommy and guitar remained on stage for the next few acts, which included medleys of Mega Man and Halo as well as the renowned Final Fantasy VII piece "One Winged Angel" (which the audience predicted even before Tommy announced the title). All were very well-arranged, although I do think Tommy's heavy electric guitar sound distracted from the music a bit, particularly for the Halo medley. After a false "show end" and a bizarre interlude of a Mass Effect "Vigil" recording, Tommy and Emmanuel returned to the stage to put on a rockin' Castlevania arrangement. Another false ending and singing "Happy Birthday" to Laura later (yep, it was her birthday xD), Tommy announced the real finale: Chrono Trigger.

The Chrono Trigger finale was definitely my favorite selection of the evening. Although I wasn't familiar with the original source material, the brilliant acoustic arrangement was gorgeous (especially considering its 16-bit origins), and the orchestra played with great passion. My lackluster recording below captures only a fraction of its beauty, but it is nonetheless a great fraction.



Overall, the show was wonderful, and it was great to be able to meet the composers/conductors/musicians after the show, as well. Most of my issues stem from my own unfamiliarity with the source material as well as the fact that I'd seen Video Games Live once before and was familiar with many of the selections. I do wish they'd chosen to showcase more obscure-game music like Afrika's, but I also understand the need to play pieces like Halo and "One Winged Angel" for the numerous fans of those popular games. All things considered, I still had a blast, and I'm sure those in the audience more familiar with the source material would have enjoyed it even more. Whether or not you've already seen it before, Video Games Live comes highly recommended. :)

kthxbai,

xds

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Survey: VGTropes!

Those of you who know me probably know that I've always been fascinated with music in video games. The idea of video game music, and how it reinforces, adds to, or transcends the actual level elements intrigues me in a way that pop music and movie music simply can't hold a candle to. One element of video game music that has always been of particular interest to me is the idea of musical "mottos," or the possible existence of certain musical elements that predispose themselves toward a certain type of level, such as a "fire" level or an "ice" level. I feel that such knowledge might be an asset to me as an aspiring composer, but more than anything I'm really just curious.

Something (musically) in common here? :P

Essentially, the goal of this survey is to see whether people identify with any musical elements that might lend themselves to a specific type of level. As such, I've collected a wide variety of tracks from a specific video game universe, each of which fits neatly within one of five different level clichés (at least within platformers). The survey requires you to submit your best guess at which type of level the music is taken from, along with a reason for the choice. The choices include "Tropical," "Fire," "Water," "Ice/Snow," and "Space/Tech."

A couple points of order before I link to the survey:

1. This is designed to hopefully be pretty fun. For those of you who like online quizzes and/or sites like Sporcle, this should be right up your alley.

2. A few tracks in there are intentionally misleading, and those are the ones I expect people to miss most. For example, one "ice" level might in fact be an "ice factory" level, but nonetheless I think enough "ice" characteristics are present to include under that cliché.

3. I've taken these tracks from a variety of games, from old 8-bit handhelds to current-gen systems. What I'm trying to say is, try not to let JUST the synth sounds determine your answer.

4. The reason why you identified a specific level cliché is just as important as the answer; please try to be as detailed as possible with your response, no matter if it's something general (e.g. "a majestic feel") or something very specific (e.g. "tinkly synths at the beginning"). The more detailed your answer is, the better I'll be able to identify the trends. Also, though you needn't listen to each piece in its entirety, some of the characteristic qualities may not reveal themselves until a little into the track.

5. IF YOU ALREADY KNOW A TRACK because you've heard it before, PLEASE INDICATE THIS IN THE COMMENT.

6. If enough people are interested, I'll report the results in a future blog post. If you're really dying to know the answer, comment here or something and I'll send you a private message with the answers. XD

With no further ado, here are the survey links. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to integrate all the media into the survey, so you'll have to toggle between the survey window and this blog post to complete it. It might be a wee bit time-intensive, but if I might beg your patience, I think this could be really interesting. :)

Survey Links/Tracks:
Don't forget there are two parts to the survey! (I've heard the second half is more interesting.)

Questions Part 1 (Tracks 1-10)
Questions Part 2 (Tracks 11-20)

Mystery Track #1:


Mystery Track #2:


Mystery Track #3:


Mystery Track #4:


Mystery Track #5:


Mystery Track #6:


Mystery Track #7:


Mystery Track #8:


Mystery Track #9:


Mystery Track #10:


Mystery Track #11:


Mystery Track #12:


Mystery Track #13:


Mystery Track #14:


Mystery Track #15:


Mystery Track #16:


Mystery Track #17:


Mystery Track #18:


Mystery Track #19:


Mystery Track #20:


Thanks, folks! Hope you enjoyed the survey, if you took it. :)

Anu orta veniya,

xds

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Piano Cover: I Am The One

For those of you who read my last post, you've heard me shower approbation upon Inon Zur's soundtrack for the 2009 video game Dragon Age: Origins. Turns out my blog post inspired me to listen to the soundtrack more, and I once again fell in love with the piece "I Am The One," featured in the game's credits. There's something about the way the voice melds with the slow orchestra and driving (guitar? I think), evoking something simultaneously pure and dark that gives me shivers. I decided I'd do a piano cover of the piece while it was running around relentlessly in my head. Check out the YouTube link for Inon Zur's original source:



And here's my arrangement:

I Am The One: Piano Cover



Composer: Inon Zur
Date Completed: 2010-07-28
Number of Takes: like, 8 >_<
Software: Audacity, Sound Recorder
Instrumentation: Piano

First of all, my sincere apologies to those with perfect pitch and others who are bothered by this sort of thing; I decided to take my arrangement up a whole-step because I was too lazy to learn the verses in the original B-flat. If I decide to re-record this piece at some point, I'll probably take it in its original key, since B-flat is by no means a particularly difficult key area.

Oh, and speaking of recording, I don't have access to recording equipment (or a flawless piano, now that I mention it), so this was recorded using Sound Recorder on my somewhat out-of-tune piano at home, then cleaned up a bit with Audacity. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near as effective as just having a decent recording studio, since removing background noise from the recording also has the unfortunate side effect of attenuating some of the piano's natural harmonics, hence the somewhat synthetic/metallic sound of the piano and the occasional weird harmonics. In addition, I had to boost up the volume of the recording significantly, resulting in some clipping issues during the louder sections. If I get around to it and/or enough people suggest it, I'll try to re-record this piece in better quality. Maybe even put it up on YouTube or something. We'll see.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed that! Look for more covers coming in the near future!

A hui hou,

xds

Monday, July 19, 2010

Overlooked VG Music #2: The Battle of Lothering Village

For our newest entry in the "Overlooked Video Game Music" collection, I've decided to choose something a bit more current. BioWare's epic fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Origins, released in November 2009, enjoyed great success and critical acclaim. As a game, it doesn't stray far from the classic BioWare formula present in many of the Canadian developer's games, with diverse (and romance-able) party members, mountains of dialogue, and a branching story with much freedom. If it ain't broken, don't try to fix it, right?

Dragon Age's score was written by the prolific composer Inon Zur, known for his work on a variety of scores from television shows (Power Rangers, Digimon, Escaflowne) to video games (Baldur's Gate II, Icewind Dale II, Prince of Persia) to a few smaller films. The Dragon Age soundtrack has already received critical acclaim, with the score winning "Best Video Game Score" at the Movie Music UK Awards and the main theme winning "Best Original Song – Video Game" at the Hollywood Music In Media Awards. Even with such a well-received soundtrack, however, occasionally things slip through the cracks.

"The Battle of Lothering Village," track 26 in the official Dragon Age soundtrack, is one such piece. The track plays only in an area called (appropriately enough) Lothering Village, a small portion of the game that, unlike other areas, the player cannot return to past a certain part of the game. The track name itself is also a wee bit misleading. There is no "Battle of Lothering Village"; rather, the track plays during the few fights that occur in Lothering's outskirts. Nonetheless, this piece is one of my favorite role-playing game battle themes. Throughout my playthough of Dragon Age: Origins, I'd kept my ears peeled in hopes of hearing the music once more, but alas, I never encountered it again past Lothering. Anyway, I'll let you listen to the piece before I speak more of it:



Hopefully you enjoyed listening to the piece as much as I did. In my opinion, it's the perfect blend of cacophony and majesty, with an added touch of melancholy for good measure. The piece starts out like a more typical battle piece, with lots of brass and dissonance, but then the strings enter at 1:27 and the mood goes out the roof. I still remember my jaw dropping the first time I encountered that part of the tune; it really made that much of an impression on me. Inon Zur is noted for saying that rather than compose music to fit a setting in a game, he composes it instead to evoke an emotion he believes the player should feel at that moment. I can really see that philosophy come to life in this piece. I imagine Mr. Zur sought to inspire both conflict and tragedy, which is perfect for Lothering, embattled and distressed but still proud. Quite the masterpiece.

That concludes this edition of "Overlooked Video Game Music." If you get a chance, head over to Inon Zur's site and take a gander, or check out the rest of the Dragon Age soundtrack; I promise it'll be enjoyable. :) Please leave comments: about my critique, about the music, about the game, anything, really. If there are other pieces you'd like to suggest, send 'em my way and I'll take a listen; I'm always open to discovering great new music.

Aloha,

xds

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Game Review: Silent Hill 4

Silent Hill 4: The Room and I first met on a cold winter evening in late 2009. Shortly thereafter, a period of having-absolutely-no-free-time hit my life, and I was forced to abandon my nervous wanderings around Silent Hill for the even harsher realities of fluid mechanics and advanced circuit design. When my much-needed summer break finally hit in May, I breathed a sigh of relief before allowing Silent Hill 4 to scare my breath away once more. I'm happy to report that, months after beginning my journey, I finally completed the game a few weeks ago. The only thing left is to convince you to do the same. :)

For those who might be unfamiliar with the Silent Hill franchise, here's a quick bit of background. Konami debuted the series in 1999 on the PlayStation, and so far, six subsequent games have so far been released. The Silent Hill series focuses around the titular small town of Silent Hill, a place where psychological forces often take physical shape. Perception of Silent Hill is distorted according to the psychological state of the viewer, typically manifesting itself in either a fairly normal, populated town, an abandoned, foggy town, or a hellish, decaying town known as the Otherworld. Silent Hill games typically take place in this town, with altered characteristics depending on the character behind the screen.

Silent Hill 4, however, deviates from the previous three entries in that it is the first not to take place in the town of Silent Hill. The story begins in an unassuming apartment building in South Ashfield, a town adjacent to Silent Hill. The protagonist of the story, Henry Townshend, wakes up one day to find that he cannot leave his room. His door has been secured with numerous chains and locks, his electronics are dead, his windows can't be opened, and the outside world is completely obvious of his existence. After exploring around and realizing that nothing he tries will allow him to escape the room, Henry discovers a small hole that has opened up in his bathroom wall. And of course, like all good horror stories, Henry decides to climb through the hole in hopes of escaping his apartment, Room 302.

Trust me on this suggestion: grab a close buddy or two, wait until after 9 PM or so, and then cut out all the lights in the room before you play. I've played every Silent Hill I've gotten the opportunity to pick up in this manner, and let me tell ya, nothing beats the camaraderie that comes from being scared shitless together. The atmosphere of Silent Hill 4: The Room is spectacular. Rather than relying on cheap, sudden frights like some horror games, Silent Hill 4 manages to evoke a constant feeling of dread. The ominous background noises and omnipresent shadows make the player apprehensive of each approaching corner might be hiding, and the grainy filter only enhances the effect. Surprisingly, Room 302 itself is one of the creepiest parts of the game; although it's well-lit and resembles a typical apartment, there is unease to be found from its suffocating silence and occasional slight modifications. As pieces of the puzzle begin to reveal themselves and the sinister truth is slowly pieced together, the feeling of mystery and dawning realization rivals that of good suspense films.

As good as the atmosphere is, though, I can't help comparing it to Silent Hill 2, said by many to be the pinnacle of the series (and I wouldn't disagree). On the whole, Silent Hill 4 is much more predictable than its ancestor. The plot and level structure are rather linear; the game is split into a series of different worlds, most of which begin and end in the same fashion and many of which even repeat a second time. The monsters you'll encounter are noticeably less interesting than the Silent Hill 2 guys, with more obvious symbolism and only one or two inspiring genuine awe. Nonetheless, Silent Hill 4's environment is still fantastic, and makes the game worth playing in its own right.

The gameplay of Silent Hill 4 manifests itself in two different "modes" of sorts: a first-person perspective used to control Henry when he is exploring his apartment room, and a third-person perspective during Henry's visits to the plethora of alternate worlds into which his bathroom hole delivers him. While in Henry's room, the player typically walks around to examine objects, deposit and retrieve items from his inventory, utilize the game's sole save point, and (as the game progresses), interact with the changing state of the room. While in the other worlds, the player will continue to engage in exploration and item-finding, but with an added combat element for the occasional enemies that Henry will encounter and need to dispose of. The two areas are linked by a system of portals that resemble the hole in Henry's bathroom; unfortunately, this further adds to the predictability of the game by creating a methodical "okay, let's go back to the room and save" system that (in my opinion) compares unfavorably to the tension of Silent Hill 2's "omfg where's the next save point gonna be?" feel.

Discussion of the gameplay necessarily leads us to most of the game's biggest problems. Simply put, the gameplay, particularly the combat elements, leaves much to be desired. The control scheme works well enough for the exploring and item-finding, but is exceptionally awkward for the combat sequences, making combat much more frustrating than it needs to be. For example, Henry must stomp on a fallen enemy in order to properly "finish" it and prevent it from getting back up. However, that button combination is mapped to the same buttons as a normal attack, and the combat system forces Henry to lock onto any nearby enemies as a first priority. Consequently, many a monster will get back up not because the player forgets to finish it, but because the engine forces Henry to continue attacking nearby enemies rather than finishing downed ones. Even apart from that, the combat system isn't particularly exciting in itself, usually boiling down to whacking an enemy with a melee weapon before it has time to respond (firearms are all but useless in this game). The combat system is clearly the weakest element of Silent Hill 4, and a cleaner system would have aided its enjoyability considerably.

Silent Hill words of wisdom: No matter how dead enemies look, always stomp them to be sure.

A few other weaknesses merit some discussion; although these didn't bother me quite so much, I can imagine them being real thorns in other players' sides. The inventory system can feel unnecessarily restricting at times. Henry can only hold a limited number of items at any given time; if he runs out of slots, the player must either consume items (the ones that can be consumed, at least), or run back to Henry's room through a portal and deposit items into a chest. This system does add an extra layer of strategy to the game, as the player must choose the items he carries very carefully, but admittedly does result in multiple trips back to the apartment for no reason but to switch out items. This system contributes to the near-uselessness of firearms as well, since each round of bullets takes up a valuable slot in the inventory, and the weapons aren't powerful enough to make the lost space worthwhile. Another possible source of frustration exists in the character who joins Henry in his travels around halfway through the game; it is Henry's job to escort her around and keep her in good health. Unfortunately, she moves painfully slowly, often senselessly attacks large groups of enemies, and has a tendency to take damage if Henry moves too quickly or suddenly while in her proximity. My frustration was partially mitigated by the fact that, with the right upgrades, she can be made into a veritable killing machine, and that I actually felt some attachment to her character. Nonetheless, she will undoubtedly still be irritating at times.

Despite the mentioned faults, I still believe that Silent Hill 4: The Room is an experience not to be missed. I admit I might be rating it on the high side; it takes a certain kind of person to play horror games in the first place, and many will undoubtedly be turned off by the gameplay issues. In the end, however, the games are few and far between that make you look upon a ticking clock with fear and dread. Perhaps it would be wise to first begin with Silent Hill 2, but if you enjoy that game (and you should, it's one of my favorites ever), chances are high that you will enjoy braving the perils of The Room as well.

Final Score: 4/5



xds

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Overlooked VG Music #1: Sedge Tree

Video game music has come a long way since the early days of gaming. Tunes have evolved from the simple electronic loops of the 8- and 16-bit era into grand, well-produced orchestral scores that rival, if not exceed, the quality of scores for many films. Still, for every instantly-recognizable Final Fantasy or Halo theme out there today, with legions of fanboys/girls screaming "OMG THIS IS LIEK MY FAVORITE SONG EVAR!!!!!1", there are hundreds of equally wonderful video game pieces that are unfairly overlooked. My intention with this series is to shed light on a few of the more obscure tunes in the video game universe, purely for public benefit. Great music is still great music, no matter where it's found, and deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

The piece I'd like to share with you today is a piece from the 1999 Sega Dreamcast game Shenmue. Shenmue's in-game music, written by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi and a team of other talented composers, was largely synthesized, but an independent, special soundtrack was concurrently released. Known as the "Orchestra Version," this soundtrack featured many of the main tunes from the game beautifully arranged for full orchestra and recorded live. Although Shenmue itself failed to achieve much commercial success, its soundtrack went on to be performed at various venues, including the first Symphonic Game Music Concert in 2003 in Leizpig, Germany (which marked the first time a video game music concert had taken place outside of Japan). Check out the video below to hear Shenmue's main theme and Track 1 of the Orchestra Version soundtrack, "Sedge Tree."



If you enjoyed what you heard, I urge you to check out the in-game version of Sedge Tree, as well as the rest of the orchestral soundtrack. It's really an amazing score, and I'm firm in my belief that the Shenmue games wouldn't be half of what they are without the breathtaking music. Check out the links if you so choose; perhaps curiosity will get the better of you, and one day you'll even join us in the small but passionate Shenmue fanbase.

Until next time,

xds

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Game Review: Dreamfall

With the end of the spring semester about a month and a half ago, I've finally found some time to sit back and actually get some gaming done after a hiatus of nearly a semester. One such game I've had the luxury of recently completing was Funcom's Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, sequel to the critically-acclaimed 1999 game The Longest Journey.

But wait, you may be wondering, wasn't Dreamfall released over four years ago, on the bulky original Xbox that's all but obsolete now? The answer to your question is, of course, yes. I happen to be one of the few gamers who chose not to invest in one of the next-gen consoles (are they even next-gen anymore?), deciding instead that there are plenty of great Xbox 1 games I have yet to enjoy. Accordingly, I've accumulated quite the collection of last-gen games over the past few years, picked up from eBay for a pittance. Sure, occasionally this configuration has its detriments, but my gaming time has been limited enough of late, and fortunately most of the games I really want to play (read: Bioware games) have been available on the PC as well. Thus, I've had little trouble biding my time until something I really want to play releases for a new system. Shenmue III, for example.

Now then, less about me, more about the game at hand. The Longest Journey series revolves around a set of complementary parallel worlds: Arcadia, which has evolved around magic, and Stark (essentially a futuristic Earth), focused on science and technology. Although the universes are technically independent, they are nonetheless inextricably tied in ways not fully understood. The star of Dreamfall is a young Stark native named Zoë Castillo, a recent college dropout who seems to have lost direction in life. Fortunately for her, things quickly take a turn for the interesting. A simple favor for her best friend turns up a sinister plot, propelling Zoë into a journey that takes her not only around the world, but also between them.

My description may sound clichéd, but I still feel the plot of Dreamfall is its strongest element. Strong voice-acting and good scripting add believability and memorability to each of the characters, and the the world(s) simply crawl with history and detail. The story is well-timed, switching between various story arcs at strategic points so as to create a continual atmosphere of tension and mystery. The choice of having three playable characters is a clever concept, particularly when the characters' paths inevitably cross. Still, the plot development is not without its flaws. Despite generally excellent writing, occasional segments of narrative seemed stilted or artificial. Although the concept of two worlds and playing as different characters is pretty neat, some of the transitions can be a little...stark (haha, see what I did there?), with characters often shrugging off their recent extraordinary experiences and simply picking up where they left off. Lastly, the ending was, to put it bluntly, unsatisfying. The last fifth or so of the game felt rather rushed, tying very loose ends to some main plot threads and leaving at least as many hanging. Reaching the end credits of the game was a real "WTF?" moment for me, as I felt the game could easily have accommodated a few more hours of storytelling.


The Chinaman might be the most stereotypical Asian portrayal I've ever seen in a game.

As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, the best way I can describe it is a giant fetch-quest game with some tacked-on combat, puzzle, and stealth elements. Most of the game will involve piloting a character from Point A to Point B, realizing at Point B that you need some item from Point C, going to Point C to retrieve said item, and so forth. Admittedly, the puzzle elements may be more than "tacked-on"; nearly every area has a few challenges that must be completed before advancement, but most can be solved by examining the immediate vicinity for important items or by placing a call to Zoë's friend Liv. The combat elements, however, are less refined; fighting is limited to only a few areas, and can easily be completed using cheap tricks that the enemy AI can't seem to figure out for the life of them. Likewise, the stealth elements are also localized to small portions of the game and usually end up being more irksome than exciting. Certain features like the Focus Field, while interesting in concept, are used so rarely in the game that they're easy to forget about, leading to large amounts of frustration during the game sections in which they're actually necessary.

I've focused much on the negative aspects, but I do want to emphasize that Dreamfall is, in fact, an enjoyable game. Despite its shortcomings, Dreamfall's imaginative world, great cast of characters, gripping story, and lavish attention to detail still allows the game to shine, and shine well. Still, it's important to note that Dreamfall is essentially an interactive story, and even then not without . Even as a self-proclaimed fan of high-story, low-gameplay titles (Shenmue II, anyone?), I found myself wishing, at the end of hours of enthralling narrative, that Dreamfall might have been just a tiny bit more enjoyable.

Final Score: 3.5/5



xds

Friday, June 18, 2010

VGMusic Submission: Paternal Horn

So it's been a while since I've submitted something to the mighty VGMusic.Com, home to the vast collection of MIDIs by composers of all skill levels. My previous entry was near two years ago, and despite wrestling with a number of ideas, I've seen a precious lack of new material since that time. That, however, comes to an end today.

The piece I chose to arrange this time around is from the soundtrack to the video game NiGHTS Into Dreams, arguably one of the best games that nobody's played. Even during its heyday, its mother console Sega Saturn was ever overshadowed by the powerful PlayStation and the innovative Nintendo 64. The fact that NiGHTS hardly achieved commercial success is somewhat of a shame, as many critics agree that the game is one of developer Sonic Team's finest.

The game's soundtrack (born from the talented minds of composers Naofumi Hataya, Tomoko Sasaki, and Fumie Kumatani) is, simply put, incredible. Although I've never played NiGHTS Into Dreams, the music sorely tempts me to track down a Saturn and do so; I find that to be quite the compliment. The soundtrack is rife with enchanting level themes, groovy boss music, and a slew of improvisatory solos that would make a jazz pianist weep with glee. The specific track I chose to get to know better was Paternal Horn: Spring Valley, the music behind one of the game's beautiful early stages. You can watch some gameplay of the tune in context here. So, with no further ado:

Paternal Horn: Spring Valley ~the IDEAL~



Date Submitted: 2010-06-19
Time: ~6 hours
Software: Finale 2008
MIDI Tracks: Glockenspiel, Celesta, String Ensemble 1, English Horn, French Horn, Brass Section, Electric Grand Piano, Electric Bass (finger), Percussion

This was a fun piece to arrange; the tune was generally straightforward enough for me to deduce by ear in a reasonable time (hey, six hours is good for me, OKAY? :P), and it's just so damn catchy. Admittedly, instrument-matching was a bit of a pain; I'm still skeptical about the chosen synths for the beginning ostinato. There was also a touch of guesswork involved with some of the softer synths, but overall I'm pretty satisfied with the result.

Anyway, how'd I do? Feel free to comment with any critique and/or suggestions you may have about this MIDI, or even if you'd like to request another piece of video game literature. With respect to the latter, though, I'll admit I already find myself leaning in this direction...

Cheers,

xds