Rob Kovacs is a classically trained musician from Cleveland, Ohio who works to arrange, perform and preserve the music from NES games of the 1980s on piano. His work can be seen on his YouTube channel 88bit. The version of Bloody Tears from Castlevania II that he discusses here has since been released. As he was leaving the interview, and we were bemoaning the lack of information about the original composers, my mind drifted to the old delta blues singers of the 1930s. Legendary artists like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt were mostly forgotten until the folk revival of the 1960s, when they were coaxed back into studios to make the documents of their music that continue to inspire to this day. Will video game music composers be viewed by subsequent generations with the same reverence? Rob thinks so, and he gets specific on the techniques he uses to produce his arrangements, as well as his personal history and connection to video game music.
T: How did you start playing video games?
R: I actually started because my family, my Dad, acquired ten arcade games: Super Pac-Man, Donkey Kong Jr., Popeye, Centipede, Space Invaders, Asteroid, a game called Star Castle, which we don’t have anymore. I don’t know how long ago it was, but I talked to my dad, and he doesn’t even remember that we had it. My Mom does sort of, my sister does, but there’s a debate of whether or not we had this tenth game.
T: Have you replayed them?
R: I was at my parents recently, about a month ago, and I thought “I’m going to replay Centipede.” And the cool thing about Centipede is that it saves your top scores. It’s the only one we had that did it. So we had top scores for twenty years. Me and my brother-in-law would battle who would get the top score. So we would keep trying to get each other’s name off. I eventually had all the top scores. I thought, “I’m going to to play again,” and I ended up playing for almost an hour trying to beat my top score. My gosh, I might beat it. My nephew who is thirteen started watching. I got so amped trying to get my top score. I surpassed my top score which had been up for fifteen years.
T: Was this an introduction to home console, with longer games
R The only thing my sister had was an Atari. I think I was five or six, I got the nintendo for Christmas. Most amazing Christmas ever. I got Karate Kid, Golf, Mario Bros was in the box.
T: Mario had distinctive music. And you were a music kid too, right? So you’ve been playing music as long as you’ve been playing video games?
R Yeah, that’s accurate. When I was three, I would tinker around the piano, and my sister played piano, she’s twelve years older. She’s pretty decent. I loved when she played, so I would try to copy her. I started making up my own little tunes. Real little, started taking lessons.
T: The two things are linked, your family’s connection to video games and your family’s connection to music?
R: They’ve been a part of my life from the very beginning.
T: Which became more important to you? When did one over take the other?
R: When I was 14, music became more important. I sold almost all my Nintendo games. I had about 40 at that point. In a way, that was so I could focus more on music. I sold them all with the box and everything for $2 a piece. And now I’m a collector. It was the biggest mistake of my life. I didn’t get rid of all of them. I didn’t fully give up on video games. I kept the multiplayer ones that I could play with my friends. And I kept the Super Nintendo. And still played computer games. The newest system I’ve ever owned to this day is a Super Nintendo.
T: So the two are definitely linked. What do your parents and sister think about the 88bit thing?
R: My sister thinks its cool. She’s always been super supportive. My parents saw me, I got to play at Severance Hall, at the smaller hall, I can’t think of the name, for make music day. I did a short 20-minute set on a huge Steinway piano. My parents wanted to come to that. It was the first time they’d seen it live and they were curious.
T: Do they understand that nostalgic connection for you?
R: I’m sure they do. The songs I play are the less known ones. That’s what I played at the concert. I didn’t think they’d be into it or really get it, but they do like classical music and piano music so I asked what they thought. And my Dad said, “It’s like classical music. I’m really impressed. It’s really good,” and I was really glad for that. That’s what I’m going for. I’m trying to take this music out of the toy realm and present it to people who might have never listened to it. Or if they did, they’re older than me and it’s just kids playing it and it’s obnoxious sounds.
T: When did you start thinking it was music?
R: I was in high school and my friend who was pretty internet savvy found a transcription of the Mario Bros theme, with all three voices. And he played some of it on piano. I thought, “This is so cool” and I had my band do an arrangement for the High School Rock Off 2000. We did an arrangement of Super Mario Brothers. In the US, I have to imagine, it had to be one of the earliest video game covers, live. At least that I’m aware of. It was a blast. It was at the Odeon. It was packed. People started crowd surfing as soon as we played that song.
T: Was it a rocking arrangement?
R: Yeah. We blended the first and second level. We added the pause button. Everyone would stop and pick it back up.
T: I know that you went to conservatory and really started focusing on contemporary classical music . You did your thesis on Steve Reich. Where was video game music in your head for you at that time?
R: Pretty non-existent. When I first started there, I did that arrangement of the Mario Bros theme that the band did. But I wasn’t thinking about video game music during college. No one else was.
T: Did you play games to relax?
R: I didn’t play much. I played some during the summer, computer games.
T: So you did classical music, and then you had a pop band, Return of Simple. What made you come back to video game music after your experience in pop and classical?
R: I was living in New York and I can’t remember exactly why, but I wanted to make an arrangement of Airman Theme from Mega Man II. Even before then, me and Gary Thobaben who was the bass player in Return of Simple, we played some games at home. He was living with me and once talked about doing a vocal arrangement with our then drummer who could sing. I don’t know if there are any vocal arrangements of Mega Man. That would be pretty insane. But that was just talk. Then I moved from New York, and decided the arrangement for Airman. It took a ton of work to arrange it and practice it and play it up to speed. But I finally made the video and it did really well. It has about 10,000 views pretty quick. It got a small interview by Game Informer and a couple other blogs. It did well, and I wanted to do the whole game, but I never got around to it. I never finished another video.
It wasn’t until a several years ago when I was teaching. I had a student who wanted to learn Bloody Tears from Castlevania II, Simon’s Quest. I figured out a simple version for her, and I thought I could do a really cool version. So I started arranging, and fleshed out a very classical sounding but very true to the original, just putting it on piano and adding octaves. It sounded badass, and I thought I should do as many Nintendo games as I can. This sounds sweet. The challenge is really high and I love it. One day, I had this idea to arrange music for video games, specifically NES games . I love the limitations that it has just the three sounds and the noise channel.
T: I know next to nothing about the technical process by which music was created. How is that music being played on the NES? What’s going on?
R: People think it’s a recording that’s being played, and that’s not the case. It’s a sound chip which produces the sound, like synthesizer. It’s an 8 bit sound chip. I’m not a computer guy, so I’ll explain it as best I can understand it. So the sound chip is making the sounds and it gets told to make the sounds by a code that’s already been written. So when you play the game, it will cue the codes. Plus the sound effects are when you get a mushroom and it cues that. Or it shoots a fireball. So all these sounds are technically being performed by the game.
T: But there’s not much variation? It’s not like if you play a piece on a violin or a different violin over there?
R: Yeah, they all sound the same, and the part will be on a loop and will sound exactly the same every time.
T: You mentioned they work on a loop. How do you think of taking a looped thing and arranging it into a piece that has an arc?
R: Sometimes I will just loop it, if it’s short. But as I’m arranging it and learning it, just get several ideas. Hmmm… I can expand it? Just like composing, you start off with an idea and think how can I do more with this? Same kind of idea with these small video game pieces. Not all of them. I try to expand them, give a little bit of shape, a beginning, a middle and an end.
T: You’ve played Final Fantasy, and I love that game because, and this won’t surprise you at all, is because it’s so narrative. You have to get your levels up and have some action, but ultimately you’re watching a story. When you play pieces from Final Fantasy, it seemed like you were pretty keyed into the game. How do you add the other emotional content of the game into the song?
R: Stuff from Final Fantasy is so well-written. It’s clear that Nobuo Uematsu is on different level. I recently transcribed the battle theme from the original Final Fantasy, and I barely had to do anything with it, other than solve a few of the limitations of the sound chip itself, moving a few notes up and down the octaves, where they should have been.
T: What’s the register of the chip?
R: The chip is actually pretty wide, but as you get further away you have different problems. You also have the limitations of the TV that they’re probably hearing the music on. They don’t have subwoofers. Nintendo is mono anyway. Fixing some of those, it came out really easy. I didn’t have to do anything with it. Some of the other pieces, more rare games, there’s this game called Arkista’s Ring, it has a couple looping songs and there’s a lot room to make it grow. Those are the games I have more fun with.
T: Do you think that comes from your experience in minimalism, where you’re often presented a theme with subtle changes? Is it hitting that button in your brain?
R: I wonder that. I think there’s a lot of crossover between minimalism and video game music, especially early video game music, because video game music was so short. The themes are not long, they’re looped. But they’re not minimalistic in the way Philip Glass or Steve Reich is. They’re not small bits of information. There’s usually a melody. But I think there is some crossover.
T: But the skill in general. Jazz improv is different from the mutations of a minimalist piece, which is different from a noise artist. Where do you see the additions you’ve made?
R: I guess more closer to minimalist, because I’m not going full classical romantic. Some people do and they sound great. Martin Leung, the video game pianist, he does great stuff and it’s very flourish-y. I try to stay away from that. I try to stay true to the feeling of the game. Just trying to get all the notes is super difficult, but if I can add to it, that also enhances the feeling the music is trying to convey, not a lot, maybe some harmony, maybe some octaves, maybe some percussion somehow.
T: You mentioned the sound chip has an effects channel. Do you do the coin blip from Mario to add grace to it?
R: Yeah, so you touch on two things. There are five channels on the NES. One is sound samples, sometimes you’ll have voice over, it’s usually pretty poor, crushed voice sample. Sometimes they use it for drums. Mario 3, for instance has a sampled bongo in it, these Jamaican-sounding drums, and those are samples. They sound great. That’s a rarely used channel. The other channel is a noise channel that doesn’t have any pitch, just white noise. A lot of times that was used for drums. Now you have three left, and those were your tones. You can have up to three notes happening at the same time. Those were your limitations of the NES. Sound effects also used the music channels. Like in Mario, when you jump, that takes away one of the music channels. The music drops out. You don’t notice it. They usually pick the counter voice or the middle voice and that’s gone every time there’s a sound effect. Sometimes, yeah, I will try to throw in different elements. Like in Marble Madness, I’ll try to throw in the death sound. When you beat the level, there’s a little victory theme.
T: What do you draw on when working this? Do you record it and play it back and try to figure it out? Or do you try to extract it from the cartridge and digitally transfer it?
R: From what I’ve researched, there isn’t a good way to rip it from the rom and put it into notation. What I end up doing is, there are NSF files that are the music files, and I’ll put them through another program called Famitracker NSF Import, which will import the sounds and play it and show all the notes being played. That also allows me to isolate every channel. So I use that and then transcribe them into a notation program, Sibelius, and write out each voice, all three, and sometime the sound channel as well. So once I have the notes all transcribed, then I try to play them and to figure out a way to combine all three voices.
T: When you transcribe in that fashion, that’s not like what you would hear when you play the game?
R: First is just figuring out what the notes are and the rhythms and then writing them out in three different lines, like if you had three singers or three violins. Then I have to arrange and combine them into two staffs for a piano. Where to put the third voice is usually the hardest part. Because it’s usually some sort of mix of both hands.
T: In most piano music, there’s a bass and treble. Do most video games operate on a similar principle?
R: A lot of times on piano, there’s a lot of chord action and you can’t do that. Because a chord is three notes, and it would take up all three notes and there would be no melody. So a lot of time you have melody and the bass and for the chord, they’ll arpeggiate it. So that middle voice is moving a lot.
T: It can’t actually play a chord, but it suggests it.
R: I try to play it like it is, that’s the challenge. It’s harder. It’s more similar to Bach or baroque music where you have three or more voices happening at once and there weren’t a lot of chords there. It was single voices that, when they line up, they create a chord. In that way it’s very similar, except it’s a lot more rhythmic, super syncopated and super fast, especially Mega Man, very high bpm. A lot of stuff is 150-180, and that middle voice they’re just making a counter melody and it’s super busy and funky.
T: A lot of Bach music was played on harpsichord which has difficulty forming chords. So the synthesizer chips were unable to play chords?
R: You could, but it would block it out. You could only play up to three notes at once.
T: Could you change the timbre?
R: You had two triangle waves and one pulse wave. Maybe I have that backwards. From there, you could vary the shape a little bit. Especially the square wave.
T: But your piano is going to have a piano sound. You make your best guess as to what fits where?
R: Sometimes all the voices will be in the same octave, in the same register. Mega Man, I keep going back to Mega Man because it’s great, all three voices for Metalman are all right around Middle C, so I have to pick what’s supposed to be the bass, and they do that by changing the timbre. Even though it’s not actually lower than the other pitches, it’s more woofer sounding, I’ll drop that down and the melody is higher and clearer sounding.
T: And then you spread that out to make it playable on a piano.
R: Yeah. The chord thing is interesting. Composers get around that by programming a chord in one of the voices, and it would oscillate through the notes super fast, arpeggiate through the notes.
T: So if you’ve got three voices, one goes 1-3-5, the second does 3-5-1 and the third 5-3-1?
R: You could do that. That happens that sometimes when they’re doing a delay effect. Even just the one voice alone. One voice was bass, one voice was melody, and then one voice would sometimes do a chord by cycling through the notes super fast.
There’s a guy named Tim Follin, who does amazing stuff. If you listen to his work with the game for Silver Surfer, for solstice. You’ll hear that. You’ll hear these glistening sounds, and its one of these voices being a chord.
T: This brings up another equally interesting question. What do you know about the composers who worked on this?
R: I know very little. It’s hard to find and I want to know more. I recently watched a cool documentary called Digging in the Carts which explores the composers of video music, especially early on. They interview the guy who did the music for Gimmick and he just works on a rice paddy and doesn’t do music any more. The game wasn’t released in the US, but the music is great. They interviewed him and he talked about how much effort and work went into it and how much pride he had, but he never got any feedback because all the people playing it are kids. They’re toys. So recently he found out the band The Advantage did a cover of it. He was so thrilled and so happy to hear that his music was staying alive.
T: A lot of these people are still alive, right? If you were a 20-something composer for hire in the ’80s, you’re only in your fifties now.
R: I know two of the people who worked on Sonic the Hedgehog live in Cleveland. One I know really well, Leonard Dicosimo.
T: You’ve joked about using this as an excuse to rebuild your video game collection. What are you working on next?
R: It justifies me having over 300 video games. As far as the music I’m working on, I’m working on Star Tropics. Working on more Final Fantasy. Bunch of Megaman 2 stuff, Castlevania 2. I just recorded Bloody Tears recently—I’ve had that for a while—I’m going to release that soon.
T: Is the goal to have an album based on one video game or one composer?
R: Yes, I d love to do an album based on one composer or group of games. Or by publisher. I’ve got to figure out the copyrights.
T: You’ve also talked about publishing the arrangements as sheet music. Who gets paid there?
R: Probably the companies that released the game. I know it’s up in the air. At one point, it wasn’t even considered copywritten music because it wasn’t recorded, it was performed by the chip. A lot of big games have been re-released, and that music is clearly copyrighted, but a lot of the rarer games.
T: I’ve heard the term abandonware, because everyone associated with it is gone from the industry.
R: I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it. I want people to play it. Part of the reason I’m doing this is to help preserve and keep this music alive. Music needs to be performed to stay alive. I don’t want to be the only one performing it. I want to make arrangements that other pianists can program in their own concerts.
T: What do you know about who else is out there?
R: Martin Leung is really popular. He went to CIM actually. He’s not from here, but he went to school here. He does more romantic style. When you think of big romantic piano pieces, that’s his style. He’s done hundreds of games. His first video was him blindfolded playing all Mario Brothers in the early 2000s. One of the early viral YouTube videos. He’s had a career now playing video game music. There’s tons of band that play and make arrangements. Descendents of Erdrick, Bitforce, the Marcado Brothers.
T: What other types of performances would you like to do with it?
R: I’d love to put on concerts, like classical concerts. An hour and a half with an intermission of just video game music on Steinway piano. Some ensemble stuff as well. In addition to that, I’ve started playing video game conventions. I was in Austin recently for the classic games fest.
T: How much do you think people need to know video games in order to get it? Or do you think it stands up on it own?
R: I think it stands on its own. I think if you played anybody the raw sounds from the video game, the 8 bit sounds, not everyone is going to like that sound. In fact, anyone who didn’t grow up with that is not going to like that sound. My parents do not like that sound, for example. It sounds annoying. But when you take it off that sound and put it on real instruments , it gives it a more human quality and the music can speak for itself. My parents didn’t recognize the music, but they enjoyed it. My parents are biased, so that’s a bad example. But I played at neosonic fest here in Cleveland, it’s a new music festival, contemporary classical, I did a 45-minute set of video game music, and I had a lot of people in their 50s-60s who have never heard any of this stuff. They were like “I’ve never heard any of this stuff. That was fantastic. This is from a video game?” I was so happy to have that response because that is what I was going for.
T: Was that due to its similarity to classical music or on it’s own merit?
R: I think it sounds new. It has a fresh sound to it. It sounds like nothing else you would hear on a piano.
T: What’s your plan for the future of this? How do you want people to hear this?
R: The YouTube channel is a lot of people’s first exposure to it. That’s generating requests and bookings for live performance. I’d love to do a full evening classical concert. But I’m definitely going to keep doing YouTube.
T: And publishing the transcriptions?
R: I don’t publish them commercially. I offer a PDF download as an award to my Patreon subscribers. I don’t think we talked about Patreon at all. I’ve had it from the very beginning when I posted my first video. I sent out a mass email and some social media posts and a handful of friends jumped on. It adds a huge motivation for me. I get some monetary support and just knowing people care enough about what I’m doing really makes a difference.