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August 21, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Composing with Electroplankton, Part Three: Beatnes

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:

  • Both Beatnes and Rec-Rec boast preset drum patterns. However, as we'll see, they produce and manipulate those patterns in distinctly different ways.
  • Beatnes and Rec-Rec will both repeat the input that you give them, but they accept completely different kinds of input--one is a synth sequence, and the other is an analog recording.
  • Either plankton can provide a repeating, eight-count pattern of drums and user input. Yet as we will see below, Beatnes is perhaps most useful as a standalone instrument, while Rec-Rec can be used as a powerful backing looper.
Because of these differences, I'm going discuss these two separately. Since it's my personal belief that Rec-Rec is more powerful (and because proper exploitation of its abilities will require some hardware hacking), let's explore Beatnes first.

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:

  • Blue/Red (Mario): Set in the key of C major, the first Beatnes pattern is the invincibility powerup music from the original Super Mario Bros. It's a bit hard to use this one in a song, unless you're the Minibosses--your audience will immediately know the theme and the sounds. If you do decide to use it, the sound effects at the top and bottom are as follows:
    Coin Jump 1-Up Powerup Pipe Down
    Synth Note Segments
    Koopa Hit Fireball Block Hit Jump? Mario Damage

  • Black/Red (Metroid?): Unlike the others, this Beatnes theme is set to the key of A minor, which makes things a little more interesting. Also unlike the others, I can't really peg the sound effects for this one. If anyone can identify them for me, send me a note or leave a comment and I'll update it. I also understand that this mode may actually be Kid Icarus.

  • Red/Yellow (Duck Hunt): The Duck Hunt Beatnes is set to the key of C major, and contains the following sound effects. Again, these are pretty familiar to anyone who owned an NES (most of America, I'm sure).
    Coin Laughing Dog Shot Hit Duck Flight
    Synth Note Segments
    Notes Up Notes Down Missed Explosion Score Chime

  • Blue/Grey (Robot): The Robot theme is creepy, with several voice samples (in quotation marks). It might be good if you were a square dance caller. The segments produce notes in the key of C major.
    "Left" Score chime "Up" Arpeggio Up "Right"
    Synth Note Segments
    "Open" Item chime "Down" Arpeggio Down "Close"
So for each of these themes, you're given a background drum-and-synth line, and the ability to play short sequences on each of the plankton, which will then repeat. However, the five plankton have a Memento-esque memory problem: whatever you tap into them within the eight-count loop will be repeated four times, and then it will vanish. You can have multiple sequences going at one time, to create harmonies and different melodic or percussion parts, but anything you play will fade after four repeats. This makes Beatnes a little unsuitable for easy background accompaniment--you'd have to keep keying in your bassline or chords over and over again.

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.

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