VGM Remixing: A Hidden Treasure Trove of Video Game Inspired Ear Candy

Video game music has spawned a huge VGM remixing scene - and here's a guide to get you going...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The phrase ‘soundtrack of your youth’ provokes such unique and rich responses that a childhood and adolescence can be perfectly encapsulated. It reveals clues about your age, your social status, the sort of people you hung out with, and the kinds of things you were in to.

Growing up I wasn’t really ‘into music’ in the traditional sense. I didn’t want to be in a band, I didn’t worship musicians and rock stars, I didn’t go to concerts, and I didn’t tend to buy singles or albums. I syphoned all my pocket money into funding my passion for video games. While my peers invested in hi-fis and ghetto blasters, my most treasured possession was a Nintendo Entertainment System (latterly a Megadrive, then a SNES, then a Dreamcast, then a PlayStation…etc.).

Thus the soundtrack of my youth consisted of the melodious beeps and tones pushed out of the rudimentary sound chips that accompanied my adventures in a pixelated virtual world: video game music (or VGM).

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Given the prehistoric hardware through which the chip tunes of yesteryear were presented, it’s easy to overlook just how well composed and iconic some of the earliest VGM has proven to be. The original themes to Super Mario Bros or Tetris or The Legend Of Zelda remain recognisable to this day: indelible sonic branding that is synonymous with such titles – even for those with only a vague knowledge of videogame history.

Look past the primitive tools of their expression and you can’t help but admire the skill that went into producing such memorable and evocative melodies despite the limitations of technology. It makes you wonder how such compositions would sound if expressed through modern music production techniques, or even live instrumentation…

Well wonder no longer, because a community of insanely talented musicians have been doing exactly that for the best part of 20 years.

The VGM remixing scene consists of a vast, eclectic group of enthusiastic amateurs and music industry professionals who have taken a love and respect for video and computer game soundtracks, and reinterpreted their favourites in a variety of surprising ways. The result is an expansive and constantly growing library of tracks and albums that pay homage to an otherwise underappreciated art form.

A good starting point from which to explore this hidden world is OverClocked ReMix: a rich online repository of VGM arrangements, curated by a firm-but-fair community that encourages creativity whilst setting high musical standards. OC ReMix places strict criteria on submitted compositions – both technical and artistic – meaning the judging panel only allows 10–15% of submissions through. The result is a high-quality playlist that exceeds 3,500 tracks – all of them available to download for free.

But who are the individuals pouring their hearts, souls and, presumably, a huge amount of time into these endeavours? The site’s founder and principal administrator, David ‘djpretzel’ Lloyd, reveals that it’s a surprisingly varied bunch:

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“We’ve got a pretty good mix of hobbyists, folks doing music part-time or just starting their careers, and some who’ve ‘made it’ and scored several games. We want to be a community where all three groups can feel comfortable and work together – and where the needs of one group are not favoured over another – which works well with a non-profit model.”

OC ReMix may be a long-standing source of VGM remixing, but it is by no means the only one. In recent years, artists have crowd-funded their own tribute albums, and various specialist music labels have even appeared – such as the Materia Collective – to help them deal with the financial, legal and production aspects of publishing their VGM-related offerings. Scratch the surface, and the sheer volume of musical output paying homage to old computer game soundtracks is mind-boggling.

All this might beg the simple question: why? Why does music that already pre-exists – albeit in a primitive electronic form – inspire such passionate re-interpretation? Why is that same level of experimentation not associated with cherished tunes from film, TV and a hundred-odd years of popular music?

“Well those other scenes exist; they just aren’t as organised for the most part,” says Sam Dillard, a long-standing member of the VGM remix community. “I think the medium itself encourages creativity. Unlike movies, video games are interactive – you actively drive the experience, including the music – and I think this establishes a stronger connection with the soundtrack.”

It’s probably no coincidence that the more popular arrangements are from classic role-playing games (RPGs): titles designed to immerse and engross, and that demand dozens of hours of playtime to be invested. They’re certainly the most popular source tracks at OverClocked ReMix:

“The top spot has changed and cycled over the years,” says Lloyd, but at the moment it’s Terra from Final Fantasy VI, with two favourites from Chrono Trigger close behind. The popularity of these games is definitely a factor, but I think RPGs in general tend to conjure more emotions, which in turn inspire arrangements.”

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There’s also the undeniable thrill of hearing a beloved chip tune – a melody imprinted on your brain through weeks of adventuring – interpreted and expanded upon with modern instrumentation. Such potent nostalgia is certainly a factor to which Daniel ‘Rozen’ Jimenez attributes much of his output’s popularity:

“Music has this special ability to store memories and feelings into a timeless sphere that you can keep adding to as time goes by. It’s like looking at an old photo. And that’s why I think familiarity plays the biggest part in VGM remixes. You can appreciate remixed music from games you’ve never played, but it doesn’t have the same powerful effect of reminding you of a different time.”

Another reason for VGM remixing’s popularity is, of course, the original compositions themselves. Despite the restrictions placed on the composers and sound designers who created them, some of the tunes that accompanied old 8-bit and 16-bit titles were – and remain – beautifully crafted.

“The ultimate draw is probably the strength of these melodies,” says Lloyd. “These are timeless pieces with themes you instantly identify with and love, and their elegance facilitates transformation into many genres & styles. We’ve been around for eighteen years, and we’re still seeing new ideas and interpretations of these themes, and still being surprised.”

The “interpretation” is an important element; very few remixes are straight-up, note-for-note translations of video game themes. Remixing and arranging VGM requires a personal touch, resulting in a creative expression that uses the original melody as a basis but adds the artist’s own unique spin. Even the most faithful translations need to extrapolate and diverge in order to break free of the monotonous loops that are common to older chip tunes.

“Rather than playing something verbatim and swapping out the instruments – which is more like a rendering – we emphasise arrangement, creativity, and some degree of interpretation, because we feel it’s more interesting,” Lloyd explains. “One of the best ways you can honour someone’s work is to create something new, using that work as inspiration.”

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But it’s a delicate balancing act, as Dillard explains:

“Sometimes I love a game tune so much that I don’t want to change it at all, and sometimes I’m not personally attached to a particular song but I know that a majority of the fans are – which means if I change it up a lot, those fans will be disappointed. Generally my goal is to dig into a song and get a feel for what the pure essence of that particular piece is. Occasionally that direction is clear to me from the start, but often it’s more or less just a gut feeling.”

Sometimes remixing offers the opportunity to recreate a chip tune in a style that the original artist was perhaps striving to emulate. Remixer Beverly ‘Rexy’ Wooff sees clues in the original compositions:

“Having a depth of non-VG musical knowledge helps because you get to see what’s going on despite the limitations. With Super Mario Bros, it’s obvious the main theme was going for a Dixieland feel with its writing. With Mega Man, the tunes feel more like melodic rock. And even in 8-bit form, you can sense Legend Of Zelda going for some bold orchestral influences. You don’t need to be an arranger yourself to comprehend it, but it can help you with figuring out the general direction for your work.”

Often, though, artists are inspired to take surprising turns into genres and styles that you might not necessarily associate with video game melodies. The most striking thing when browsing through the OC ReMix archives is the sheer variety on offer. So sure, you have your lavish orchestral arrangements of the Zelda theme, but there is also a Brian Eno-inspired ambient take on Super Mario World, some reggae-jazz from Chrono Trigger, and even a Latin flamenco rendition from Final Fantasy VI. The opera sequence from that latter fan-favourite has been arranged and performed several times using grand orchestras and real life opera singers, but who knew what we really needed was a Queen-inspired take that combined the influences of West Side Story and Bohemian Rhapsody?

“Interpretive arrangement explores the boundaries of what’s possible and avoids stepping on the market for the original composition,” adds Lloyd. “It’s also more in-keeping with ‘fair use’ arguments protecting fan works.”

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Ah yes… the sticky issue of copyright and royalties. Non-profit fan sites that offer their output for free might escape such concerns, but when you crowd-fund an album or sell your work though a label, it becomes a little more complicated.

“This is a bit of a deep topic, as it involves copyright law, music publishing and royalties,” says Jimenez. “But basically, the process involves acquiring mechanical licenses for the works you wish to use, which allows you to legally sell your arrangements of another person’s copyrighted song. It also ensures the original songwriters and publishers get paid royalties for their compositions.”

“A few years ago this was a very complicated and scary process,” says Dillard. “But these days there are quite a few music publishing sites that have built-in licensing services. Often there are fees you must pay, and you usually have to provide some information about the music, which means doing a bit of research.”

But what of the composers whose work serves as the inspiration for these remixes and arrangements?

Grant Kirkhope is a BAFTA-nominated composer who worked on the soundtracks to some seminal video games from Rare’s golden period on the N64, including Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and Donkey Kong 64. His themes are therefore popular among the remix community for reinterpretation. How does he feel about his work being appropriated in this way?

“I love it,” he says with characteristic graciousness. “The time these people put into their remixes is really unbelievable and when they do my stuff it’s often way better than my original. It’s always really great to hear what people do with it; they can often come up with something that never crossed my mind and make it really fantastic. There have been tons of occasions where I’ve been genuinely amazed at how creative people can be.”

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In fact, Kirkhope recently got a small taste of what it’s like to be a remixer himself when he was hired to produce the soundtrack for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle on the Nintendo Switch.

“I really enjoyed re-arranging a couple of Nintendo’s cues. Because neither the Donkey Kong theme nor Mario’s Castle from Mario 64 had been orchestrated at the time, I felt like I had a clean canvas to start with. I’d definitely say it’s easier than writing from scratch as the main theme ideas are already there; all I have to do is try to arrange them in a respectful and interesting way. The hardest part about composing is the composing!”

That final sentiment, however, shouldn’t take away from the skill and effort that goes into producing a popular remix. While a pre-existing melody can provide a good starting point, there’s much more to an arrangement than simply updating the instrumentation, as Dillard explains:

“If you take a pre-made MIDI file from some game and change a few notes around or something simple, then sure: that’s like taking a famous painting and tweaking around with it in Photoshop. But the skills you learn from that are mostly technical and related to working with that particular application. However, if you’re going to paint your own alternate rendition of that scene from scratch, then that’s an entirely different experience.”

Indeed, fan expectations and deep-rooted nostalgia for certain tracks can often make remixing a challenging task.

“I actually find it extremely difficult working on remixes as opposed to original music,” Dillard continues. “There are clearly defined audio benchmarks, musical details, and you are burdened with listener expectations. And there’s no ‘right’ answer for any of it – no matter what you do, there will always be those who are disappointed by your take on music they already had an attachment to.”

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Sam needn’t worry; it’s hard to imagine any fan of the Metroid series or Chrono Trigger being disappointed by his aptly named Cinematica albums, which give these classic soundtracks the full ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ treatment (his Zelda effort releases later this year).

Given the level of polish that many of these remixes possess, you would be forgiven for assuming that such endeavors are prohibitively cost-intensive. In fact, budding composers can get up and running with minimal investment.

“My music-making setup is just my PC, a copy of the Reaper DAW (digital audio workstation), a 10-year-old MIDI keyboard and the samples I’ve acquired over the years,” says Wooff.

“The combination of components you need usually adds up to the cost of a game system, give or take,” says Lloyd. “But the amount of music production power that buys you in 2018 would have cost thousands ten years ago, and tens of thousands 20–30 years ago. I’ve been following music technology for most of my life, and the entry cost for making music electronically has dropped dramatically, democratising music production in an amazing way. It certainly CAN be cost-intensive, but it also doesn’t HAVE to be, regardless of whatever genre you’re arranging in. There are starter/trial versions of most of the major software packages out there, and they cost less than many games.”

The real cost – common to all passion projects – is time.

“It really depends on the style, instrumentation and whether you’re recording live instruments or sequencing everything,” says Jimenez. “A track can take me a couple of days of work or whole months to produce from start to finish. An entire album will take me about 3–6 months to complete.”

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“Often there seems this widespread notion of it being easier and faster to produce music digitally rather than with real life performances,” explains Dillard. “But this is quite contrary to reality. In a live orchestra, the workload is distributed between the composer and dozens of skilled players, orchestrators, audio engineers and so on. But, as a digital orchestral musician, I take on all these roles myself, and that is very challenging and time consuming. So it can take weeks to produce a single track and months to produce an album. And then my cat jumps on the computer keyboard and deletes a song and I have to start over…”

Cats notwithstanding, the care, quality and attention to detail that these artists manage to squeeze into three minutes of nostalgia-tinged aural pleasure is something to be mightily impressed by and grateful for. If you have even a passing interest in the videogame soundscapes of yesteryear, then you owe it to yourself to seek out their efforts.

My parting advice, if you’re interested in learning more, would be to download one of 120 free albums the OC ReMix community has collaborated on over the years, based on a game that you have an affection for – whether it’s Super Mario 64, Final Fantasy VII or Secret Of Mana. The diversity of styles means not every track will hit your sweet spot, but you may discover an upcoming artist or two that end up becoming regular fixtures on your playlist…