My band YamaYama is releasing a new album of video game arrangements called "HELLO RAINBOW: An Aural Guide to the ZX Spectrum"! This was a crazy project that I was in charge of that was really thrown together in a very short amount of time. Normally I would think of this as a criticism, but in this case, the entire project was built on the fact that we had a few untreatable and unfixable problems, like: having one less member, having only about a month to do everything, no rehearsal time, and two days to record 14 songs. How was this an advantage? Let me show you through the power of demonstration and examples!
First, a shameless plug for the album, which you can preorder and get sweet perks by ordering before April 15th! Click here to check out the preorder! The playlist of the tracks we've released so far is at the top right.
This project was largely inspired by stumbling onto a Youtube video of a bunch of ZX Spectrum "beeper" music. The ZX Spectrum was a personal computer that was popular mostly in Europe around the early to mid 80's and the "beeper" was the tiny speaker built on to the circuit board (bottom right of this picture). This machine was built with the only audio capabilities being 1-bit, meaning either the sound was on or off (for example, a square wave is a 1-bit version of a sine wave, rounding off the sound wave to either on or off). There was a lot of incredible music coming out of something that "realistically" should only create one note at a time, and in particular one composer caught me: Tim Follin.
Tim's music was the first thing that got me thinking about constraints and how to use them to your advantage; his music for the beeper was often 4 to 5 voices with drums and I am still amazed at how that is even possible. For perspective, here is a picture (left) of the waveform from YamaYama's version of Follin's "Future Games" next to the beeper version. Notice the uniformity of the shapes on the original ZX version and how dynamic of a wave form our recording has.
With the constraint of only being able to use 1-bit data entry to make his music, he was still able to make some crazy prog-rock heavy metal insanity. I really really wanted to cover some of the tunes of the ZX Spectrum, including some of his, and so I foolishly thought: what constraints could I put on myself to try and emulate the constraints that these composers had?
HELLO RAINBOW Begins
I based a lot of this project on the idea of February Album Writing Month (FAWM), which is where each participant composes, records, produces, and releases 14 songs in 28 days. So the original idea was to follow that model and start transcribing and arranging 14 tunes for a three piece band in February, record them all over a couple days, produce them, and release them. Sound impossible? It was. This idea was expanded so that normal humans could actually accomplish this task. We ended up with these constraints:
- 3 people on stripped down instruments (except saxophone) to hold us back, emulating the restraints that the ZX had; a 4-string bass tuned to Eb with a fuzz pedal, and a three piece drum kit
- Arranging everything starting on January 18th to be ready by February 12th and 26th (for each session)
- Rehearsing and recording all 14 tunes in 2 days (except for "Antiriad")
- Have someone not in the group to have total artistic license in the mixing process
The first constraint was a necessity: our keyboardist was out of the country for all of February and so we only had three people instead of four. The stripping down of the accessories we had (one pedal, three-piece drums with one cymbal and hi-hats) was a hat tip to Deerhoof's Gary Saunier and his hilariously small set up, which he consistently destroys. I also tuned down my bass a half-step to accommodate all of my open strings to the saxophone's more easy keys.
The arrangements was another interesting constraint. Having so little time to get into the music and arrange it led me to really trust the people much more than the music I wrote down, leaving the charts pretty sparse and assuming they would handle it. I am a bit of a control freak with charts (at least I think so), so this was a good trust exercise for me, and the results were beautiful performances all around. I pretty much always put in slashes for the drums so Merlin is pretty much improvising everything the whole time, too.
So rehearsing and recording these tracks in two days was NUTS. The energy was at a peak for each session and I can feel it in most of the recordings, which is awesome, but the thing about making us do SO MUCH in such a ridiculously short period of time was that it put everything we did into an extreme sense of flow; like there was no time for debate, we just made decisions and did it. Some stuff in the music didn't work, so a suggestion was made. Knowing that time was on the line, we changed it, recorded it, then moved on. Things we wouldn't often do in our other recording sessions were done without hesitation and we owned it out of the constraint of time. The charts which were already often based on quick often thoughtless decisions were further changed without a deep pondering, and I feel it leaves the charts feeling really fresh. I'll post up some charts and show you some examples.
After these sessions, we handed them to our friend Mason Kline to mix. I wanted us to have as little involvement in the mixing process as possible so that Mason had as much freedom to do whatever he wanted. We like Mason because he goes the crazy route without warning and often (you'll hear it in a minute).
The Plot - (PDF)
I started out by just transcribing this whole thing as it was in the original recording (here) and seeing if there was a style that fit it best, which ended up being a kind of Purdie-shuffle funk. You can see in the chart here, I added some stuff that wasn't in the original recording to try and liven it up a little bit: a "Gospel Sax Solo", a "HEAVY Drum Solo", and the ending with a chord of which I couldn't find what I wanted, hence there being three stacked on top of each other.
The "Gospel Sax Solo" was axed on the first run through because it felt gross; in other charts I get all prideful about cutting things and have a hard time, which in this instance I totally didn't because of the time. The ending we decided really quickly we wanted to end on a B7#11 or something like that. However the thing that made this chart really special was Scott's idea to make one section much much slower and much much quieter than the rest, which you can hear pretty obviously. That was a decision made on the spot in the roughly 35 minutes we had with this tune rehearsing and recording it.
Future Games - (PDF)
This chart also started out with a totally straight transcription, but stood tall in it's composition and required little to no input from us as a group or from me as an arranger (please listen to the original!). I had to change some things so that it was actually possible to play, but otherwise this is a direct read. This chart was significantly more reading for us because of the tempo changes, time signatures changes, and very specific affects of the tune. But there was one thing that was changed fairly significantly.
I've heard it said often by many people that "desperation breeds ingenuity", and the sax solo in this recording is no exception. I had transcribed the exact cadenza that was taken in the original and put it in Scott's part to record, and when he came in, he had already decided he was over that, so he was going to just do some other kind of mixolydian stuff, riffing on the chord we held out. We tried doing a take, Scott was clearly OVER IT (which was inevitable when you are recording for HOURS), and so he just started doing whatever he wanted. The result is what you hear in the recording and it's epic.
Through this whole process, I came upon a few important ideas that have been pushing my brain around a bit recently:
- Using constraints; in this situation, was extremely deliberate. However, when I am in situations where the constraints are applied to me, I get frustrated or burn out. Do you need to be in control of these constraints to make them work for you, not against you?
- I feel like this process has me realizing that the key to getting better at something is to do a LOT of it, regardless of how it turns out, just keep doing it. My arranging and musical fluidity is much more potent now.
- I can trust my fellow musicians more than I think I should because THAT is where the magic happens.
- A lot less time could be spent making decisions and a lot more time could be spent just doing it.
I personally have had an incredible time working on all of this "HELLO RAINBOW" stuff and hope I've imparted some of that excitement over to you! If you liked what you saw/read/heard, I would love for you to check out the pre-order that is currently on sale for the upcoming "HELLO RAINBOW" album, which comes with a bunch of fun perks you get for being an early supporter!
Thank you for reading and don't forget to subscribe to YamaYama on Youtube to see the rest of our ZX Spectrum covers and consider becoming a patron of YamaYama on Patreon. We are having a BLAST and would love to have you there with us!