HOW TO TRANSCRIBE RETRO VIDEO GAME MUSIC
Retro video game music has been a huge influence on me ever since I picked up the first Pokémon games and Super Mario Bros. So much so that while I was studying music in college, I would track down my favorite pieces and analyze whatever transcriptions of them I could find on the internet. Just one problem: the sheet music I found could be better described as arrangements (for piano, violin, etc) rather than an exact, one-to-one transcription of precisely what the console sound chips were producing. Not to say there’s anything wrong with these arrangements, but for a composer who wants to “look under the hood” and pick apart the style, they simply just didn’t cut it.
So about five years ago I set off with the goal to transcribe 8-bit music as faithfully as possible. What started as rough and frankly inaccurate sheet music of Pokémon’s Title Screen and Pallet Town pieces eventually turned into perhaps the biggest project I’ve ever tackled: to transcribe the entire soundtrack of Pokémon Red and Blue. This was a huge undertaking made all the more intimidating by the fact that my ear was (and still is) not that great. I don’t have absolute pitch. My relative pitch is nothing to write home about. But with a little patience and a tried-and-true method to break down 8-bit pieces into smaller, more manageable parts, the project was a success! You can find the full score for Pokémon Red and Blue here as a video or here as a PDF. If someone like me could pull off a transcription of Battle! Wild Pokémon with all its chromatic runs then I guarantee that even the most basic musician can get to that point.
I’m not sure I can teach you how to be more patient, but I can definitely share with you my method that was the key to making the transcription process easier and my work more accurate. The method hinges on the fact that all retro console sound chips contain a discrete number of independent waveform generators. To take the Game Boy for example, its sound chip has four channels: two pulse generators, a customizable waveform generator, and a noise generator. Each channel is monophonic — i.e. it can only produce one pitch at a time — so all Game Boy music is made up of a maximum of four “instruments” playing at once.
Think of the sound chip as a string quartet; all the instruments are playing their unique parts that create a rich and interesting piece, but try to transcribe all of them at once and it can seem impossible. Just when you think you hear the violin melody clearly the viola crosses into the same range and distracts you. It gets confusing. Frustrating. But have the violinist play her part for you while the rest remain quiet… and hey, maybe this actually seems doable.
Let’s apply this concept to the sound chip! Because its generators are independent of one another, our goal is to isolate each of the channels and transcribe them one by one. Instead of transcribing one big composition, we are notating three monophonic melodies and percussion. If you can notate the vocal part of your favorite pop song and write out drum rhythms then you can transcribe some of the most difficult 8-bit pieces. And the beauty of this method is that it’s not only easier, but we also get to see exactly what the composer is doing! It's a win-win situation.
So now that we know what we want to do, let’s figure out how to do it in four easy steps:
Get the music file from the game you want to transcribe. For Game Boy games, that is the .gbs file (this you will have to find on your own)
Download Audio Overload, open the game music file, and identify which channels are generating which waveforms from the drop-down menu on the right (see below)
Isolate each channel using the drop-down menu and record them separately through your computer audio using a program like Audacity
Transcribe each channel. Don’t be afraid to use tools like filters, speed reduction, playback looping, etc
And there you go! Combine your transcriptions and you’ve got your piece in all its complex glory. Remember this principle applies to other console sound chips as well; the only things that will change are the number of channels and their technical capabilities. Anything from the Sega Genesis to the NES… I’m sure there’s at least one retro game out there tugging at your heartstrings.
So what are you waiting for? Get transcribing!!