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Video Game Remixes: How, Where, and Why?

We interview one of the veterans of the video game remix scene to discuss this most curious phenomenon.

Eliot By Eliot Van Buskirk
Technology Editor
February 9, 2005

The chocolate of music and the peanut butter of video games make for a pretty tasty combination, as this entire Music of Games package suggests. The video game remix is one of the more "out there" hybrids of music and games. This two-headed beast consists of various sounds from new or vintage video games all mashed up with beats, samples, and ingenuity to create something entirely new, yet still somehow evocative of the original.

I recently interviewed one of the leading figures of this scene: David Lloyd, founder of Today is the fifth anniversary of his site, an online community for video game remixers and enthusiasts of the genre.

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I know you have beginner's guides on your site, but in a nutshell, can you describe the process of remixing a game?

The process varies depending on each mixer's style. Some will listen to a piece over and over, transcribe it note for note or import it from an existing MIDI file, and [then] use the piece essentially verbatim as a starting point from which to deviate. This can be a little dangerous, because anything that's too close to the original--say, for example, something where the mixer has only added a drum loop or changed the instrumentation--doesn't really qualify under our standards. Not enough interpretation/expression going on. But using the exact original as a point of departure is something many artists do...with great success. Others will begin with an original musical idea, as if composing a totally new piece, and then at some point begin to morph their beat/riff/motif into an existing game track. My own approach is to go by memory, which is very often only partially accurate, and to arrange not based on transcription but more on the "feel" of the original melody.

Because what we're calling "ReMixes" really amount more to rearrangements, the process often involves changing the entire genre of a song, [like] taking game music that was originally techno, for example, and doing an orchestral version.

I think the key, to some extent, is to ask why you're remixing that specific track in the first place. If you're just trying to take the original and produce a version with glossier samples and breakbeats layered on top, that's not really what we're about. For us, it's more about honoring the original composition by putting your own spin on it, interpreting it, [and] making it your own, while at the same time maintaining enough of the source material to [make it] recognizable. When the Warsaw Philharmonic plays Mahler, it's a different ballgame from when the London Symphony Orchestra performs him. And we're trying to give game music a similar degree of respect by showing how it can be reinterpreted.

From an artistic perspective, it all begins with an idea. From a technical perspective, the process usually involves selecting a piece you're going to remix and establishing a basic structure in one of the common software sequencing packages--Reason, FruityLoops, Cubase, etc.--and [then] layering/building the piece up from there. Maybe you'll throw out the original song's percussion entirely and come up with your own beat. Maybe you'll keep the drums but slow the whole thing down and add original harmonies and mix up the instrumentation. There are a number of ways to approach the process, and it varies from mixer to mixer and [from] mix to mix.

Was there a "first video game remix in the world," and if so, what was it?

If there was, it would definitely predate the existence of OverClocked ReMix. The Commodore 64 scene, which specifically remixes music from C64 games, existed before OCR was started. I looked at what they were doing and said to myself, "This idea would really work for any computer or console. Why limit it?" I don't think anyone can irrefutably claim to be the very first to have taken game music and rearranged/remixed it, but the Commodore 64 crowd was the first community that popularized the concept, and [it's] still going strong today.

How has grown? Was it slow and steady or all at once? Because right now, it looks like the biggest site of its kind on the Web.

It's been relatively slow and steady, but certain events have triggered influxes of new visitors over the years. The site's been mentioned on Slashdot a couple times, [it] was featured on an episode of the Tech TV show The Screen Savers, [it was] spotlighted in Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine, [it was] mentioned briefly in SPIN, etc. Every time it's covered somewhere like that, there's usually a whole new group of people that's being exposed to the concept for the first time, which is excellent. We don't toot our own horn or self-publicize, so word of mouth goes a long way, and simply being around for five years and consistently posting free, quality music is something that attracts people and keeps them coming back.

My little brother once remixed the theme to Super Mario Bros. He basically just added big beats on top of the song as it played normally, and people would go nuts when he drove by with the song blasting out of the car windows. I've heard of other people remixing the same song. Is it the most popular game to remix, or is something else getting more play?

While his remix might not get posted on OCR, there's no denying that when people realize they're hearing a song from one of their favorite games, their eyes light up. As far as popularity goes, Mario certainly gets his fair share of attention, but Zelda, Mega Man, Chrono Trigger, and the Final Fantasy series would all probably edge out the feisty plumber if a poll were run. While covering the classics is certainly something that's bound to happen, is quite natural, and has broad appeal, we also really like to emphasize more-obscure game soundtracks. There are plenty of great games that were overlooked in their time, and there are even more games that might not have been so hot but had excellent soundtracks. We feel like it's just as important, if not more so, to spotlight game music that may not be familiar or recognizable but which represented significant artistic contributions to the medium in its time...and still kicks significant amounts of posterior today.

What's the remixing software method of choice for the video game remixing community? Ableton Live? Acid? Garageband?

I'm sure we've gotten submissions that used each of those applications, but the more common weapons of choice are apps like FruityLoops and Reason, on the relatively affordable end of the spectrum, and Cubase SX (what I use) or Cakewalk Sonar, in the somewhat pricier range. Of course, we get live performances that are recorded directly, as well as pieces that were put together using an amalgamation of high-end software packages and effects. FruityLoops and Reason may be the most common choices, but there's a vast array of tools, including free software like Buzz, that can get the job done admirably.

I noticed that there are a full 1,258 remixes on your site today, and the songs I listened to were all really well-put-together. I noticed that you screen submissions through a standard process. What, approximately, percentage of songs make it onto the site? Do you offer feedback to rejected remixers on how they might make it onto the site?

The submission standards are what define OverClocked ReMix, really. Way back in the day, the process was very casual, and I essentially posted those mixes I thought sounded good enough using my own personal set of criteria. As the site grew and a community grew around the whole concept, things became more defined. I realized--we realized--that we were really not just talking about taking game music and putting drum loops on top or swapping in higher-quality samples, but [we were talking] about rearranging the whole piece, sometimes going so far as to change the genre [by] adding original solos and lyrics, too.

To closer evaluate submissions and implement more-refined, clarified standards, a judges panel was created. Nowadays, I take an initial stab at weeding out mixes that clearly violate our standards, but everything else goes to the judges panel to vote on. So you get a good degree of consistency and quality for every mix that's posted. Of course, it's a political process, and as Lincoln quite quotably noted, "You can't please all of the people all of the time." It's a difficult task to fairly and objectively evaluate remixes from different games in different genres. Nevertheless, we feel this quality-control process is vital to fulfilling the fundamental goal of the site: posting reinterpretations of game music that honor the originals through their creativity.

I'd guess that only 15 percent of submissions get posted, on average, but that's just a guess. The point being that this is something that does take a while to get good at, and our judges will stick to their guns on our standards. Even if we know a submission would be wildly popular because it's from a popular game, if it doesn't mix things up and truly reinterpret the original song, it won't be posted. The evaluation criteria are equal parts production--sound quality, effects, mixing, etc.--and arrangement. We offer as much feedback as possible and will often work directly with a remixer if a mix is very close to being posted but has a few small, remaining issues. When it's clear that someone hasn't even taken the time to read our standards, though, we've got a form letter for that, or [we] will be more concise in our evaluation.

Have you gotten any feedback from the guys who originally scored these soundtracks? Were they into the concept?

Tommy Tallarico, Jeremy Soule, and The Fat Man have all chimed in with positive comments. Jeremy and George "Fat Man" Sanger have actually submitted their own remixes, and Tommy mentioned OCR on an episode of G4's Electric Playground. Hiroki Kikuta contacted me personally indicating he enjoyed my take on his theme from Secret of Mana, and several other composers have made positive comments or gotten involved as well. We've never gotten negative feedback from a game composer or game publisher, and I hope we never do. Like all communities surrounding fan works, we're out, first and foremost, to honor that which we love, and I think the concept and goals have been well received all around.

Why do you think so many people prefer to remix older games?

Well, for many, part of the charm involves a certain sense of nostalgia, [so] it's a bit hard to be nostalgic about last month as opposed to last decade. :) Another aspect is that, though they came up with amazing compositions, game composers of yesteryear often had limited hardware with which to work, unjustly earning game music a reputation for being "bleeps" and "bloops." And part of the appeal of mixing older stuff is to bring out these classic melodies and, in a sense, prove how viable and timeless they really were. Furthermore, it's my personal belief that hardware limitations forced game composers to emphasize original melodies more, which in turn makes those tracks more attractive to reinterpret than something that's primarily ambient or groove-based. I'm not saying that game composers today don't come up with good melodies--they certainly do--but there's something to be said for working within limitations. Having all the sound possibilities in the world available to you can actually prohibit, not facilitate, certain aspects of composition.

That being said, there's plenty of excellent coverage of newer games happening, too, and they're just as viable candidates for the remixing process. The notion of preservation and nostalgia may not be as immediate, but the notion of paying homage to game composers remains just as strong. OCR is designed to be open-ended, so console and computer games, old and new, can be interpreted in any genre. We've seen this open-endedness yield some amazing work, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

What's next in video game remixing? Are there any new trends happening?

More of the same...only in a positive sense. Actually, one thing we've seen a bit more of in the last year or so, relative to the first several years, is artists adding original lyrics to their remixes. Having an original vocal opens up some new avenues, both in terms of genres as well as adding a narrative that wouldn't be immediately clear in an instrumental. And there've been several mixes that used rapping or singing to great effect. Beyond that, I'd say there's a general trend towards being less prolific [and] less concerned about making a large number of remixes, [while] focusing more on the quality of each individual release. I think there's always been a trend of people using game music remixing as a way of challenging themselves artistically. When I started the site, part of the purpose was my own personal goal of attempting to work in multiple genres, and I love seeing established remixers taking risks and trying out new tricks and styles.

Some people ask me if I think game music remixes will ever be as mainstream as something like Britney Spears, etc., and I'd say probably not...not due to quality but simply because not everyone is into a broad variety of musical genres. And some people instantly reject the notion of listening to game music, in any form, when not actually playing a game. However, I hear tons of stories about unsuspecting listeners being exposed to music from OCR without knowing it was from a game. [They end up] loving it, finding out, and being cool with that. So I hope this trend continues: that people listen to these songs not as novelty items, pieces of nostalgia, or background music, but rather, the way they would [listen to] any of their favorite commercial bands or artists. In other words, as works of art. That might be asking a lot of some people, but if my grandmother can dig a funk remix from Sonic the Hedgehog, I'm guessing the appeal is broader than many might think.


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