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August 18, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Composing with Electroplankton, Part Two - Luminaria

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.

Fig. 1
Any songs, therefore, built around Luminaria must accept those two limitations: you can't change the pace, and you can't change the key. Additionally, musicians should know that each of the plankton (there are four, one beginning in each corner and colored differently) has a separate voice and tempo.
  • Red: The red plankton is the fastest of the four, traveling to new grid nodes at a rate of 360 bpm (beats per minute). I generally think of it as the equivalent of a 16th note. Red sounds like a piano.
  • Yellow: Yellow travels at half the speed of Red, 180bpm or 8th notes. It sounds like a metallophone.
  • Green: Triggering every quarter note at 90bpm, Green sounds to me like a chime or a bell. There's a lot of treble to its sound, and it almost drops out in the lower registers.
  • Blue: As far as I can tell, Blue and Yellow use the same sound samples. This plankton also sounds like a metallophone, but it is the slowest of the four. In fact, it moves at 60bpm for a dotted quarter note sound, which means that Blue usually adds a bit of a shuffle to the rhythm. If it's started on the same beat as Yellow, they'll match up every three Yellow beats, which can be a very nice effect. When they're out of sync, it'll be much less driving, but there will be a lot more sound.
I'm not sure if Iwai used separate samples for each of the 36 nodes or if he's just running a pitch-shift on them, but you won't get a lot of bass out of Luminaria--odd, since the DS speakers themselves are very bassy (so much so that you can hear excessive treble through the headphones in games that don't compensate). The plankton become muddier and blend together near the bottom or top of the range, while any running through the middle rows of the grid will be much more defined. This can be very useful if you want to accent a certain sound, and if you have a lead pattern to generate you'll want to do it there.

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.

Fig. 2
Bb C D Eb F G
A Bb C D Eb F
G A Bb C D Eb
F G A Bb C D
Eb F G A Bb C
D Eb F G A Bb

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.

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