In less provocative territory between games and culture, Jeff reminded me that Q Entertainment (Rez, Meteos, Lumines) will include a sequencer in their next game. Which is pretty cool for people who thought Electroplankton was too unstructured--but the test will be how it lets you store and share tunes.
Had a long meeting this morning and passed some of the time thinking about this Electroplankton project. I realized I've been going about this all wrong--I'd been thinking about ways to use the DS as a processor/sampler, but that's no good. Part of what shook me out of it was picking up my harmonicas for the first time in a while, an instrument that requires a microphone for amplification, and which doesn't treasure fidelity in reproduction. The other revelation was remembering that I already have an extensive rig for live sampling and looping, from the pretentious solo project.
Instead of trying to use the DS as a replacement for equipment I already have (or trying studio tricks that I don't fully understand), I should be putting it in front of the pedals I've learned to use skillfully, sampling it and looping it. In other words, doing what I've been saying all along and treating EP as an instrument, not as an oddly-shaped rack unit. Immediately I have a whole new concept on how to put this song together, revolving around the ability to loop one plankton, mute the DS and switch to another. The ideas are coming in fast, and I can't wait to get home and try them out.
I've been asked to contribute to an Electroplankton-based musical compilation. They're fine with letting me sample my bass, and I can do anything in "studio" that I need to do. Most of the other pieces are apparently going to be very electronica in nature, so I'll probably stand out--this is my chance to put my money where my mouth is with all of those guides and see if I can actually make some music with it. It'll be distributed by torrent--I'll put up more info when I've got it. This post is partially to motivate myself, because I've been putting it off.
You may remember that my Composing series kind of ground to a halt, after I wrecked the microphone input. I have tools now to get better access to the guts of the DS, but I'd rather not use them, and the headsets I brought back from France are basically useless. As far as I can tell, they actually connect both mike contacts to the same wire, which leads to a nasty high-pitched hum. However, someone drew my attention to the fact that the iPod third generation wired remote has almost the exact same connector, albeit with more sleeve contacts on the 3.5mm plug. Unfortunately, Apple sells its remote for the mind-boggling $40, so it's a bit hard for me to get one for experimentation. If anyone has one and can just verify for me that the plug does indeed fit, I'll see if I can score one off eBay.
There are several Electroplankton that can use the microphone for input. Nanocarp responds to claps and note patterns. Volvoice warps a short recording through a variety of filters. And Rec-Rec, which is rapidly becoming my favorite, actually acts as a four-track tape loop with variable speed, all fed from the microphone input.
However, if you're really interested in using Rec-Rec musically, you won't want to use the built-in microphone. It's too noisy, too weak, and positioning the console for use and recording simultaneously is much too difficult. Instead, you need to access the front headset jack that Nintendo has thoughtfully built into the DS.
Now, as far as I am aware there are no adapters for the headset jack available in the US as of this time. The only commercial possibility I've found (which might be vaporware) is here, but would require you to mail-order it from England just to cut it apart. Even so, don't set that possibility aside just yet.
Your other option, until headsets become available domestically (my guess: possibly soon, with Nintendogs out, but more likely at the end of the year when Animal Crossing and Mario Kart hit), is to make your own adapter. This is not hard, especially if you know how to solder, but you do need to be careful. Both the onboard mic and the headset jack share a circuit, so if you short one you will also short the other, and then you won't be able to use any microphone input.
So in order to run my bass into the DS, I just bought a standard 1/4" jack and some wire. I soldered mine together, but that's just because I'll take any excuse to break out a soldering iron--those who don't want the hassle can use a crimp-style connector, or possibly just buy a guitar cable and cut one end off. That's the easy part. The hard part is finding a way to make the connection with the contacts inside the DS mic port that A) won't touch the wires together, creating a temporary short that transmits no sound, and B) will make reliable contact, possibly staying put even if the DS is bumped or carried around. My first attempt at a solution was to buy a set of motherboard jumpers, which looked to be about the right size to hold the ends of the wires. Unfortunately, the port is just slightly too narrow.
Reading comprehension test: under no circumstances should you try the bare-minimum approach shown in Figure 2, which is just the wires looped over and jammed into the mic socket. The reason for this is that the contacts for the socket are very, very delicate. Really, they're just thin metal leaves. If you bend these contacts too far with brute physical force, you will short the entire microphone bus, and no audio input will be possible at all, although everything else will still run fine. This is, of course, exactly the mistake I made. In order to fix the short, you'll need to have one of Nintendo's crazy three-pointed screwdrivers (available from Lik-Sang), and even then the port may be flush with the motherboard in a sealed assembly--I can't tell from pictures of the internals. Since I don't own the screwdriver and at that point didn't want to risk any more damage, I took the DS to an EB Games and traded it in for a new one. Clearly, this requires not just a tolerance for blatant dishonesty (or as I prefer to say, contempt for The Man), but it'll also run you some cash for the trade-in value. Either way, it's not a satisfactory outcome.
The whole debacle makes me unlikely to try such a connection again right away, but if I were to do so I would stress using materials that will give easily, and won't force the contacts. You might try using thin stranded wire, but keeping the hot and ground separated will be difficult. Another option is a set of metal leaf contacts similar to the DS's own connection, but you'll still need something to hold the wires. That's why I stated above that you might not want to immediately dismiss the idea of importing Big Ben's headset if possible, as linked above, and tear it apart for your audio connection. It solves both problems with a homemade adapter: the contacts are safe, and the integrated earphone connection keeps the whole assembly firmly attached.
The worst part of it all is that I had a lot of fun using the microphone input before I realized the problem I'd caused. The DS either has a very hot preamp or expects very low-powered input (more likely) because my passive single-coil bass was almost overdriving Electroplankton, and my pickups aren't that loud. You might have to put a volume pedal at the end of the signal chain to bring it down, particularly if you're using effects like chorus or distortion. Once the volume is at the right level, the signal is fairly clear, although it's hardly going to be hi-fi. A more sophisticated adapter (or someone with a better soldering technique) might get better returns.
If you have better luck accessing the microphone, or you know of a better way to put this together, please let me know in the comments or by e-mail. As we'll see when I finish putting together my Rec-Rec article, the ability to record directly into the DS is probably key to Electroplankton's most powerful tool.
Electroplankton comes out today in the United States (it'll be on shelves tomorrow). Obviously, I recommend it to musicians and open-minded gamers. It was my first software import, and since the US doesn't seem to be getting the special edition package with headphones and a Iwai-designed box, I think that was a pretty good deal.
Here's a retrospective: Electroplankton still isn't a game, and people who try to review it as such are still missing the point. When Davis complains about the lack of replay value, or the fact that you can't save the music (except through the analog hole), he's trying to fit it into a mental framework that's ill-suited for its purpose. Gamespot has no more business trying to review Electroplankton than Keyboard Magazine should be reviewing Dance Dance Revolution.
I haven't hauled it out for a while, because I've (as usual) gotten distracted with other projects. I did try to do some soldering work on the adapter for the microphone the other evening, but my ColdHeat iron just doesn't have the juice to get it done, and I've misplaced my plug-in iron. The contacts on the adapter are also only a few millimeters wide, and I'm just not that dextrous, frankly. It's forcing me to consider the idea of using the software more as a beatbox and lo-fi sampler than as an actual performance looper, at least until better hardware arrives in the US. However, I continue to believe that the potential is great for combining EP with live performance, especially if you could get the visuals projected up for the audience.
The Electroplankton manual, translated from Japanese but retaining the hand-drawn charm of the original, can be found here. I like Iwai's notes at the end, for a glance into his mental process when he wrote each piece.
You may remember that when I first started this project I decided on three Electroplankton types that would be useful on stage: Hanenbow, Luminaria, and Beatnes. After spending some time with Beatnes, it became obvious that it had several notable drawbacks live. In contrast, Rec-Rec (which is quite similar in some ways) has been shown to be much more powerful.
Basically, this plankton is a four-track recorder with drum machine and variable speed. To me, as a looping artist, that's very exciting. I paid $300 for the Line 6 looper, which includes a speed shift and up to 30 seconds of recording, but generally I use it for a recording/overdub of only 2-4 measures. Rec-Rec provides the minimum of functionality for about a fifth of the price, and includes some features that the Line 6 doesn't have (such as the ability to erase and rewrite distinct tracks). I can already see ways to create pop and rock music this way, and I'll put up some .mp3 samples at the table of contents post when I get a chance.
If it has a physical equivalent, Rec-Rec is a lot like a tape loop--the recording time is technically inflexible (two measures), but you can speed up/slow down the playback with an accompanying pitch shift, using left and right on the d-pad. Each of the four fish represents one track, or a tape loop distinct from the others. The drum pattern in the background is the fifth track, since it speeds up or slows down along with the others, but you can't record over it. Instead, using up or down on the d-pad will change between different beats, which NTSC-uk's excellent translation defines as follows, in ascending order:
The time-shift feature is useful and a lot of fun, but it does have a few imperfections. First, the shift isn't very musical--although it's close to a half-step in pitch, the inaccuracies add up, and quickly become atonal. I'm pretty sure that the 200% and 50% shifts will remain in key, but it may be best to use this sparingly. Second, when recording, the speed will always revert back to its normal pace of 120bpm. You can't record something while shifted up or down, thus applying different pitch shifts to different tracks. This is too bad, because one of my favorite looping tricks on the Line 6 DL-4 is to shift the speed down, record a rhythm chord part at half-tempo, then shift it back into normal speed, leaving my chords sounding like a ukelele.
It goes without saying that all of this looping and recording is easier if you've got a clean patch into the DS through the mic jack. The sound is much cleaner. However, if you do run directly into the audio bus, you will need to split the signal--Rec-Rec only outputs the "wet" part of the loop. It doesn't pass what the mic hears, even when recording, probably to avoid feedback. It also drops the output signal while recording a track. You should probably be using an A/B box with Electroplankton anyway. I recommend using the Boss LS-2, an excellent pedal-based line mixer. Set it to "A+B Mix/Bypass" mode, feeding the DS from A Send and routing its output to A Return. You'll always get a clean instrument signal from the B Send or from the Output in bypassed mode, and you'll get the DS and instrument mixed while the pedal is on. You can also route another instrument into the B Return if two people want to play along, but the second person won't be able to record onto Rec-Rec. A second instrumentalist who triggers Rec-Rec while playing another DS (with Marine Snow, Beatnes, or Lumiloop) into B Return would really make for an interesting experience. With three DS systems (one on the LS-2 Input to Rec-Rec instead of an instrument), you could have a complete electronic band going.
Have any ideas for articles or questions about previous segments? Leave them in the comments, or send me an e-mail.
In the second part of this series, I said I planned to contrast Beatnes and Rec-Rec against each other. I was overhasty to do so. Although both Electroplankton modes have a lot in common on the surface, their musical purposes are very different. As Kathy Griffin would say, let me walk you through it:
When you load up the plankton, you'll see what look like five floating kites against a blue/red background. Each of the plankton has a head, a tail, and eight segments in between. The head and tail play short sound bites from NES games. The middle eight segments are diatonic notes, starting with the lowest at the bottom (so for the key of C major, from bottom to top the segments would play C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C). The notes are the same across all five columns.
After a little chirp, the star music for Super Mario Bros. will begin playing. Pressing the select button will scroll the plankton offscreen, replacing them with a new set against a different colored background. Unfortunately, there is no "blank" background. Note that all the modes share the same loop length (8 beats), but have different sounds, key signatures, and beat patterns. In order of selection, here are some of their individual features:
|Koopa Hit||Fireball||Block Hit||Jump?||Mario Damage|
|Coin||Laughing Dog||Shot||Hit||Duck Flight|
|Notes Up||Notes Down||Missed||Explosion||Score Chime|
|"Left"||Score chime||"Up"||Arpeggio Up||"Right"|
|"Open"||Item chime||"Down"||Arpeggio Down||"Close"|
Like Luminaria, Beatnes will quantize your sequences for you to the nearest 16th or 32nd note, so that nothing will be off-rhythm. Between the waving motion of the segments and the automatic quantize approach, however, the notes may sometimes trigger a 16th after when you think you keyed them in. Because you can't stray from the tempo, they won't be too jarring, but it may add a little accidental swing to your lines. Luckily, you can alter the tempo of the Beatnes by pressing left and right on the d-pad. Altering the tempo does not change the pitch of the samples or sequences. Like all the Electroplankton, you can also pause the song by hitting Start (Iwai has cheekily labeled this "Intermission").
Between the two primary drawbacks of Beatnes (limited memory and preset drum patterns from familiar NES cartridges), it can be hard to integrate this into original music. Since you can't access the samples without the intrusive background sounds, you pretty much have to use these ridiculous drum patterns, even if you just want to use the synth functions. Depending on your audience, this will either make you the hippest girl or guy at the party, or you'll be accused of copyright infringement (more on that in a later installment).
The role I can best see Beatnes play is as an extra electronic instrument, perhaps played by a vocalist or multi-instrumentalist. The player would need to have an A/B switch handy, in order to match the Beatnes tempo to the song using in-ear monitors, much like a DJ. Once that's done, it could be used to build a nice cheesy synth solo. You could also use Beatnes as a portable synth band-in-a-box--but you're not going to get very much variety out of it, and it's unlikely that you could play it and sing/play another instrument at the same time. Although I originally thought Beatnes had a lot of potential as a jamming tool, I think the NES source ultimately limits it too much for use by aspiring electronic musicians.
Luminaria pose an interesting problem for musicians compared to the other Electroplankton. First, they are the only exhibit with a definite beat but no way to change the tempo. Luminaria tunes must all run at the same speed. It's really too bad, because this is probably the busiest and most musical of the plankton types, and by far they are the most accessible. Luminaria are well suited to fill in background space, since they basically generate cyclical chord patterns in the key of Bb major.
Speaking of the grid, it's a 6 by 6 space composed of arrows, each aiming a plankton to one of the eight surrounding grid points. The arrows will wrap the screen on all four sides, so a plankton can exit left and enter right, for example. Arrows can be set manually by tapping on them, in which case they'll increment clockwise with each tap, or they can be set to spin automatically with the 16th notes by holding the stylus on them. The latter basically creates a random effect, but since the spin is regular (completing two full spins each measure) it can be predictable. You can use the randomness to sort the plankton across overlapping paths, since they'll hit it at different times, but since it is hard to time precisely, you won't necessarily know which plankton will end up on which path.
It's also possible to adjust the arrow pattern with the d-pad. Up and down will cycle through set patterns that may be useful, although they may change the time signature, since the paths change lowest common denominator. Left and right will align all the arrows in the same direction, starting pointed up. Arrows set to spin automatically will not change with the rest, but will keep on spinning. The arrows will remember their last aligned state shift and base their mass rotation on that, ignoring all other changes and set patterns made since the last left/right press.
As I've said, Luminaria are tuned to Bb (which makes them well suited for band and orchestral instruments, particularly clarinets and other woodwinds in the key of Bb or Eb). There are five octaves contained in the note grid, with the lowest in the upper left and highest in the lower right. They increase in pitch reading left to right, just like text. The following table details the pitch of each grid point. I've colored the starting points for each plankton.
I should note that because of the locked rhythm, defined key, and easily-abused set patterns, Luminaria compositions will tend to sound very similar. Using manual, point-by-point settings will help avoid this tendency, as will active involvement in the paths for the plankton. Remember that you don't have to use all four at one time, and grid spaces can be occupied by multiple moving and stationary plankton--use the d-pad to shift arrows underneath the corners if necessary. Setting up new paths for the plankton manually before you start them off will also break up the monotony.
Next up in the series: I plan to explain the contrast between Rec-Rec and Beatnes for sequencing and drum patterns. I'd also like to talk about hard-to-use plankton, such as Tracy and Lumiloop, and their role as musical accents.
I started a one-man rock band for four reasons.
Now, some of the DS's best software, oddly enough, is audio-focused--and I'm not talking about shrapnel like Meteos, even though the sound design for that is brilliant. In Japan, two games have been developed expressly for music/audio: Band Brothers (soon to be released here as Jam with the Band) and Electroplankton. I'm still waiting anxiously for Jam with the Band to show up stateside, because it comes with a fully-functional MIDI sequencer built-in, and that sounds just about perfect for my purposes. Electroplankton, on the other hand, is not anticipated to show up in the US, so I imported it a couple months back (my impressions are here). The purchase was largely inspired after I saw Toshio Iwai and his daughter perform an Electroplankton-violin duet at a developer's conference (that video and links to other creative uses can be found at the Electroplankton Wikipedia entry). Go watch it, because it really is amazing.
I'm considering something along the same lines. I tried a little bit last night, and I'll continue to write up my experience as I learn my way around it. Here are my first few thoughts: