GAMEBOYS IN THE METRO

Back in 2014 I had an article published in The Metro newspaper about my experiences with Chiptunes (making music with old games consoles). The original article, as of July 2019 at least, can still be found at this link but as I wrote it, I’ve copied and pasted it all below. Note that if you read the original, I can only assume that the Metro has some kind of auto-correct built in to it’s publishing software/portal/whatever they use as it’s incorrectly changed every instance of the term “LSDJ” (a popular chiptune program) to “LSD” (a popular controlled substance) among other incorrect “corrections”. First world problems, I guess…


HOW TO MAKE MUSIC ON A GAMEBOY

A couple of years ago while on holiday in Italy it rather unexpectedly rained. My girlfriend and I retreated to our hotel room where we were unfortunately consigned to for the rest of the evening, being stuck half way up a mountain with nothing but shorts and T-shirts in our suitcases.

While holed up, we had the choice of about eight TV channels for entertainment: BBC News (the international version), some Italian music channels (which if you’ve ever been to Italy you will know are appalling), Al Jazeera and. It was on the Arab news channel that I found an unusual programme exploring popular music from all over the world. It was here that I first heard proper chip music!

The featured band was a group from Japan called Omodaka whose song, Kokoriko Bushi, fused Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing with a traditional Japanese Enka song. But the element that really caught my attention was that all of the instrumentation was made up of sounds from my youth – the 8-bit sounds of the games consoles I played as a child. There was always something wonderful about the melodies and timbres that accompanied games before full 16-bit audio arrived and this was like a wonderful fusion of my love of music and my love of games!

Suffice it to say that as soon as I got back to England I downloaded their music and have been enjoying it ever since but as a musician myself I often wondered how these sounds were made and assumed I would have to hack a Game Boy into a million pieces and get a soldering iron out if I was ever to emulate what I’d heard – much like the ‘circuit-bending’ craze of hacking up old toy keyboards. How wrong I was…

Skip forward to August of last year and I was clearing out some old boxes at my dad’s house. I found a GameBoy my brother had been given by his friend 10 or so years ago and promptly rescued it for the charity pile. It was missing its front screen protector and had a few scratches and dents but it was at least working so I figured now would be as good a time as any to see what it would take to make a musical instrument out of this beast.

Rather surprisingly, all I needed was a blank USB enabled cartridge (£30 online) and a piece of custom software called Little Sound DJ or LSDJ for short, coded entirely by one single very clever chip music enthusiast.

What I must first point out is that making music on a GameBoy is not like making music on a guitar, keyboard or other instrument. LSDJ is a “tracker” which means you have to input lines of music by telling the machine when to play a note and what note to play. You then press play and hopefully what you’ve told it to do sounds good!

Some degree of musical knowledge is useful, such as a knowledge of simple musical scales and keys, but it’s not essential – a lot of people manage to get something that sounds reasonable with a little trial and error and as the electronic sounds lend themselves to dance music, which by it’s nature is usually fairly musically straightforward, passable results are very achievable. LSDJ does have a very steep learning curve but there are lots of guides available online.

Trackers are not the only option, however. There is a program called MusicTech for GameBoy which maps a note to each button on the Game Boy. You then play notes “live” by pressing the buttons. There are several downsides to this, however. Firstly, there are only eight buttons: four on the D-pad, A, B, Select and Start, so you only get eight notes. The other downside is that it’s very difficult to press the buttons in time – we’ve all struggled with rhythm action/QTE sections at some point or another, I’m sure!

In addition to the already DIY nature of the software required for music making on the GameBoy, there is a big modification scene. Any serious chip musician will want the Pro Sound modification, which alters the audio circuits of the console and lets you plug two phono plugs or a mini-jack into the top of your Game Boy for improved, less buzzy/noisy sound.

Another mod is the backlit screen – essential for anyone who wants to remove the eye-blistering strain of looking at the unlit LCD display in anything less than perfect sunlight (those of you who have owned an original GameBoy will understand!). If you’re feeling lazy, there’s also a considerable market in pre-modified consoles.

For more dedicated electronic musicians who want to incorporate the unmistakable GameBoy sound into their general gig or studio set-up, it’s possible to connect it to a PC or other musical instrument using the standard MIDI protocol and the mGB software. A USB adapter is available from Nanoloop or you can make a connection box using the Arduino electronics platform – an ArduinoBoy. Simply add an old link-up cable like the one you used to use to trade your Pokémon with your mates and you’re away, triggering notes from your computer or a MIDI keyboard, for example.

Some of the more talented chiptune composers have produced incredible work, especially when you consider the Game Boy’s inherent limitations. It has only four audio channels: pulse one, pulse two, and wave, all of which are able to produce musical notes. The fourth channel can only produce white noise, which was typically manipulated for sound effects such as explosions within games so technically there are only three musical channels available, which almost beggars belief when you listen to how complex some of the pieces are.

But it is often said that the limitations on the original systems and games only served to inspire the composers to absolutely maximise the hardware available to them and there are plenty of great (and not so great!) examples on ChipMusic.org, which is a community frequented by many prominent chip musicians.

In short, it’s surprisingly easy to reinvigorate your old Game Boy and barrier to entry for even the most tone deaf person is relatively low. Similar products are available for the NES, too, though they are comparatively expensive and far less common as they are more complicated to produce than the relatively simple GameBoy set-up. If you just want to make music with the classic 8-bit sounds there are several programs you can use on computers that completely circumvent the need for original consoles, though as a bit of a purist I enjoy seeing my GameBoy brought back to life and steer clear of the emulators.

There are also artists who use several GameBoys linked together to make a bigger, more musically complex sound, or who use recording technology to multi-track one machine or manipulate and increase the musical possibilities of the sounds the GameBoy can produce. Opinions are mixed on whether chip music should simply be the sound one console can make without external interference or whether the use of additional technology only enhances the ability and musical scope of what is essentially a very basic synthesiser. The most important thing as far as I’m concerned is to get involved, give it a go and make some cool-sounding music!


So, that’s my Metro article. If you want to hear just what a GameBoy can do, take a look at this video which is my festive cover of Low’s “Just Like Christmas” - a favourite of mine which I made for a charity Christmas compilation. It was made by feeding the Gameboy’s audio into a computer recording program and multi-tracking the sounds to create a much bigger musical arrangement than would be possible with just the GameBoy on its own. Every sound you hear, sleigh bells and all, is produced by the GameBoy itself (with the obvious exception of the vocals).

THE SANDRA SHEVEY CELEBRITY INTERVIEWS

For several years I’ve been working with a journalist, author, film-biographer and London tour guide(!) called Sandra Shevey. Sandra has written several books including The Other Side of Lennon and The Marilyn Scandal, had numerous articles published in magazines and newspapers and considers her specialist subject to be the life and work of Alfred Hitchcock who is also the subject of the location tours and walks she runs around London.

Sandra first got in touch with me as she was interested in making her vast archive of celebrity interviews available to the public via a YouTube channel. At the time Sandra was interviewing her subjects (mostly the 70s and 80s) the conversation would be recorded to cassette tape and referred back to when writing the article. While Sandra and I have worked on around 20 videos to date we barely scratched the surface of what she tells me is an archive of around 500 tapes spanning musicians, movie stars, directors and more.

One of the most viewed videos is Sandra’s interview with Priscilla Presley which was the first interview Elvis’s wife had given following the beginning of divorce proceedings. The audio was later written up and published i Ladies Home Journal. There have been several articles written on this rather rare audio coming to light including this one at Country Music Nation: https://countrymusicnation.com/hear-priscilla-presleys-very-first-interview-after-leaving-elvis

Many of the other interviews were also later written up into published articles while, for various reasons including changes of editors or general journalistic politics, other interviews remain unreleased to the public. Until now!

While there could have been several approaches to publishing the interviews on an online video platform including simply uploading the tapes in their entirety, Sandra was keen to offer only snippets, each accompanied by an introduction of her own thoughts, memories and assessments of the meetings with each of the various “megastars”.

As an engineer and pop-culture enthusiast, the desire to go through the tapes with a fine-tooth comb and cut together all the juicy bombshells that are no doubt hidden within was my first thought but it’s been interesting to see how Sandra’s channel has grown to over 75,000 views and which videos and celebrities have proven most popular.

You may notice that Sandra has opted not to allow comments on her videos - something we spent some time discussing. It was decided that the interviews should speak for themselves and not be subject to too much of the external opinion and even trolling the often occurs on social media.

Sandra still retains rights to the majority of her interviews and has expressed interest in publishing some of them in full, particularly her seminal interview with Alfred Hitchcock. Watch this space and perhaps there’ll be a new series on Radio 4 before long!

Sandra’s YouTube Channel can be found at Sandra Shevey Interviews.

THE MISS HIGH5S, EMI AND A PUBLISHING DEAL

Gather round for a tale of record labels, publishing contracts and music industry nearly-men, won’t you?

Our story takes place in the topsy-turvy world of the early 00s indie scene. YouTube wasn’t yet a thing. People still downloaded music to keep (mostly illegally) in formats such as MP3 through torrents and P2P sharing services. They also still bought CDs and CD singles. The music industry mainly didn’t have a clue what was going on and was throwing money about in the hope that something would still stick. And I was in a band called The Miss High5s.

We’d started out around 2003 in my hometown of Bouremouth and towards the end of 2004 I moved to London, joining my bandmates and hoping to have a stab at the “big time”. Our guitarist, Adam, had spent months frequenting a bar on Bethnal Green Road called The Pleasure Unit hoping to coerce it’s record-label-running owner to sign us up, too (it shut years ago and is currently The Star of Bethnal Green).

Meanwhile, I was making the most of a friend I had at the online music magazine and record label DrownedInSound.com who offered to be our manager. If you’re not familiar with DiS as it was affectionately abrev’d, they signed Kaiser Chiefs and released some of their first singles, as well as releasing Martha Wainwright’s album and working extensively with Brett Anderson of Suede. Their founder, Shaun, is also the man responsible for signing Keane when he worked at seminal indie label Fierce Panda (he also apologised profusely for this when I met him).

My contact at DiS had engineered a favourable review of one of gigs at a student bar called The Hayfield in East London (it’s now a DIY shop). A quote from that review:

The crowd are singing along with every melody-rich hook (which, criminally, is no more than 50)…

And he was right, it was no more than 50. It was no more than 30 either. Possibly no more than 20, but definitely no more than 30. That’s journalism, folks (and probably the reason he’s gone on to manage Bloc Party, London Grammar and various others since - I did say this was a story of nearly-men!).

Luckily, his article on the site helped generate a bit of buzz and got us onto a DiS-run show at Whitechapel’s 93 Feet East with some bigger, more established bands. We were bottom of the bill but at the top were Leeds-based iLiKETRAiNS who went on to release several albums.

The Miss High5s’ set had been finely honed at this point. We had a really solid 30 minute set of catchy indie-pop tunes and were backed up by our EP Now MH5 and a bag full of pin badges with our name and logo on it. Our website had a message board with a few semi-regular visitors and we were ready to step things up. We brought a decent crowd of mates along to the 93 Feet East show and it was then that I met Shaun from DiS. It was a brief encounter but as he stumbled past me in his inebriated state he called out, “I want I’m Available as a single!” and off he went.

Sadly, that was the last we heard from Shaun but in the meantime, we’d had an offer from Adam’s contact at The Pleasure Unit. Adam’s months of networking looked like they’d paid off! The bar was decked out like it was the 1960s and had a floor to ceiling photo of Rod Stewart and the Small Faces as wallpaper across the entire width of one of the walls. The colour scheme was beige with gnatty purple accents. It also doubled as a music venue and we’d played there a few times.

To add to the pomp and ceremony of The PUs offer, we were invited to spend the afternoon rehearsing on their stage, after which we’d all have a sit down and be given the contract to have a look over. I’m not sure how this sort of thing is supposed to go down but we were each given a copy of the contract and very little was said about it other than they wanted us to make an album for them. No terms were read to us, no details were discussed beyond that, we were just given our stapled pages of A4 and off we went into the night with the expectation that we’d come back in a day or two with gleefully signed copies.

At this point we were all exceptionally excited. A record deal! This was what we wanted, right? There was a Nandos across the road so we went ordered some chicken and sat down to read through all the details. This is where our teenage indie dreams began to shatter.

I can’t overstate how much time Adam had spent at that bar speaking to the owner about his record label. He’d been down there with a bunch of mates at least once a week for the best part of a year spinning some records at their open DJ night and updating the owner on what The MH5s had been up to. Him and our friend Mark had even worked on music videos for one of his already signed acts called Kellerton Road. We’d heard their EP and were utterly confident we could record something even better.

As we read through the contracts, we began to realise just what a waste of time it had been. We never entered the music industry expecting to get rich quick but we also didn’t think that we’d be taken for total idiots, either.

Our immediate concerns were stipulations that the album we were to record was to be “at least 45 minutes in length and with at least 10 tracks”. We were known for 3-minute catchy pop songs so 45 minutes would probably have been a bit of a stretch, plus we were well into The Hives at the time who had several 12 track albums that were well under 30…

There were out clauses that meant the label would essentially collect royalties on absolutely everything including radio plays, sales, the use of the music in films, TV, adverts etc. and more than 50% of proceeds from merchandise sales so we couldn’t even print t-shirts ourselves without handing a ton of it over to the label. They’d also own the rights to our songs. On our EP, I’d written 6 of the 7 and wasn’t keen on that at all - we’d be signing away any opportunity to earn money from our best songs for the rest of time. No royalty cheques coming through the post during retirement, no beer money now. Nothing.

I think we knew before we started that it would be a bit of a small-time independent operation but this was just a blatant money grab. We stood to make literally nothing out of the arrangement in exchange for someone paying for a recording for us and taking the rights to our (my) songs.

Despite our disappointment we had a good laugh about this over the Nandos and never set foot in The Pleasure Unit again. I’ve not even been in The Star as it is now!

Luckily, my friends at DiS was still pushing us hard (and he shared an office with all the embittered members of Simply Red who had since started a music law firm so he had plenty of inside info at hand!). He and his colleagues all seemed to have their fingers in various band pies and Shaun was obviously quite influential in the industry. I had received several calls about forthcoming meetings between our manager (and it turned out, his colleagues too) and Simon Williams of Fierce Panda. Some more background: Fierce Panda released early singles artists including the aforementioned Keane, Coldplay, Placebo, The Bluetones, Embrace, The Polyphonic Spree and one of my then favourites Simple Kid among many others. Long story short, many of their fledgling artists have gone on to be absolutely massive.

A few weeks later and something concrete came through. I hadn’t had an update for a while but this time we had an offer. The company was EMI. Everyone’s heard of EMI. This was serious!

But it wasn’t as simple as a record deal. And in fact, a record deal is a bit of a crock anyway. Let’s say you’re offered a £1 million record deal. All that essentially means is you’ve got a million quid to pay for your recording studio, promotional gumpf and anything else you need to get your music out there. If your album doesn’t make the label’s £1 million it back, you technically owe the label the difference. In reality, that probably just means you’ll be dropped from the label and the label will write the loss off against one of their more successful acts - I happen to know that the other artists on the Must Destroy label were very keen beneficiaries of The Darkness’s massive success in the early 2000s and almost certainly sold tens of records in some cases…

But back to our offer from EMI. It was a “publishing deal”, not a record deal. This was a bit of a grey area and it took some looking into for us teenage know-nothings but it essentially meant this:

EMI offered to pay us £10,000 in order that they would own rights to the 7 songs on our Now MH5 EP.

As before, we would earn no royalties from the deal - ever. Because the songs would then be owned by the label, it was possible they could also take the songs and give them to another band or group, perhaps one that was better looking than us but couldn’t write songs, or one they’d got together and manufactured. We were given assurances, however, that it would be easier for EMI to simply keep us and the songs together as we already knew how to play them and they suited our style.

Another key point was that if the songs weren’t making money then EMI would have wasted £10,000. Even with the much weaker state the recording industry is in now, £10 grand is not a lot of money to chuck away on a speculative punt, but it was in EMI’s interest to make sure these rights were used and generating income and to that end, that was a good thing for us as it meant we’d be recording and releasing this material and building our careers, playing gigs to promote it, hopefully appearing on TV…

Ok, £10,000 wasn’t a fortune to me but as the most interested party (as songwriter I stood to receive six sevenths of the money) it was enough to keep me going for a few months - maybe I could even quit my day job as things start picking up!

This started to seem like quite an enticing offer, particularly with the might of a major label behind us. However, as our manager was dealing with all of this we never had a hand in any of the negotiating process or any of the meetings.

It was at this point that the spanner of greed was thrown into the works. While our manager did us proud in generating an offer, he had a colleague who was also pushing a band called Battle to EMI and they’d had an offer far in excess of ours and it was of our manager’s opinion that we were worth at least as much given how good our songs were (link at the bottom of the article if you’d like to judge!).

In the interest of detail, Battle later released an album and were also offered a very healthy nummber of thousands of pounds to have one of their songs used in a Cadbury’s chocolate advert or something or other. In one of those small world coincidences, I started work at a school 4 or 5 years later where the wife of Battle’s drummer worked. It turns out that the subsequent argument over the integrity of selling their synchronisation rights to a chocolate bar and the fact that one of them slept with the other’s girlfriend meant they’d split up in the week prior to the album being released!

But it’s interesting to know that had we gone ahead, it’s possible that we could definitely achieved something. Our manager had made no secret of the fact that EMI were throwing a lot of shit at the wall to see what sticks but there was quite an influx of East-End indie bands dropping releases at that time. I’m almost certain that the wonderfully monikered and fellow Pleasure Unit regulars Vincent Vincent and The Villians were also part of this scattergun strategy. They were never massively successful but they appeared on Top of The Pops and I liked their album…

Anyway, dear reader, it may have dawned on you by now that we never made an album, appeared on TV or had unhealthy foods accompanied by our music. Thinking that £10,000 wasn’t enough, our manager went back to ask EMI for more but sadly there was no second offer and the first had apparently already been rejected.

And that was essentially that. I recall interest from Independiente (Travis, Gomez, So Solid Crew[!}) asking for a CD and hoping to come and see us live - yes, you really had to send an A&R guy your CD as internet streaming wasn’t a thing. There were a few more too but it began to fizzle out after that. We tried changing our name to The Munichs, Ollie, our multi-talented bassist, left the band to concentrate on his University drumming course and although we replaced him briefly with a lovely chap called Gareth Jones, he decided to move away from London and we were back at square one so called it a day.

So where are they now?

Well, Ollie focused so hard on drums that he’s now LEAD GUITARIST in touring nostalgia show That’ll Be The Day. No hard feelings, pal, we know where we stand!!

Sarah spent a few years drumming for Cat Bear Tree who I did some production work for and i s also working on some new material and playing a few gigs in South London.

Adam and I started another band which we stupidly tried to market without the use of the internet by calling it something difficult to find online: Cat Videos. We came full circle to play our final show at 93 Feet East a couple of years back.

As for those famed Miss High5s songs? You might find one of the 100 limited Now MH5 EPs knocking around in the charity shops of Bournemouth and Poole but you can still stream and download them for free at Bandcamp, repackaged as what I fondly called The 10k Collection.

It was quite an interesting and aspirational time for us all and the dillusions of grandeur we thought we might reach but I really hold very little resentment about any of it. It makes quite a good talking point on a CV, at least! But to quote the League of Gentleman, “It’s a shit business anyway”!