Back in 2012, during a period of inactivity for Nine Inch Nails, an odd tribute album caught our attention: Pretty Eight Machine, a complete remake (or “demake,” if you will) of NIN’s first LP, as if it were made with the same digital instruments contained in the classic 8-bit game systems from the late 80’s. As the album is set to see an expanded CD release, we caught up with the artist behind it, Inverse Phase, and discussed his past and current projects.
So, to start things off, how did you get into making music, and into the specific genre you’re in?
I’ve been around music all my life, and video games have been with me for about the same amount of time. I used to mess around with a Casio SK-1, trying to get game-y sounds out of it. I started programming at age 5, learned to use the PLAY command in BASIC. We also had Music Construction Set, and I wrote crappy little ditties with both to imitate songs. The day I built my first computer, though, I discovered Tracker music – unlike MIDI, these files sounded the same no matter what hardware I played them back on. It was fascinating! I got a sound card for my computer I had built and I found music software that would save these tracker files. I started remixing things and wrote music for games for my friends.
Several years after my first game remix, sites popped up like OC ReMix and VGmix. Bands like the Minibosses played songs from NES games. Everyone was breathing new life into game music. After a long chain of events, I decided to go to MAGFest, where I discovered Virt (Jake Kaufman), a game remixer who also dabbled in the dark arts of chiptuning and had a few Game Boy soundtracks to his name, using the same software I did. Using my tracker to write retro music had never occurred to me, only sampled music and the like; I decided I’d do the opposite of video game covers… “demakes” or “retrocovers.”
So, when you got into chiptuning, you were immediately attracted to the idea of covering music in that format?
I think every musician tries something “familiar” before taking on originals or the unknown, akin to guitar players learning Smoke On The Water, or whatever.
But had you heard any music similar to that before?
If you mean chiptunes, generally speaking I consider all video game music from 8-bit systems to be chiptunes, so yes, I’ve been listening to them for almost my entire life. Game music being chiptunes is sometimes hotly debated among chiptuners because hearing “hey man, I really liked the Mega Man song you played” after playing original chiptunes on stage is often quite a buzzkill.
If you mean chiptune covers, that’s also a yes. I listened to some stuff Virt and a few others had done (incredible stuff, really). There’s also movie/TV/cartoon license games that would have renditions of the theme songs when you started them up and/or throughout the game. All of it was heavily inspiring.
Do you think most people who get into chiptune are trying to make soundtrack work for retro-styled games (or movies, shows, etc.), or are they just interested in making music for the sake of it?
Well, I know I wanted to write game music from a very young age, but I’m sure not everyone has had that goal. Chiptuning is really just another way to make music, it might sound esoteric but there’s nothing particularly different about it from regular music in my mind. Some people just like the ability to have their entire music production studio on their Game Boy, some people do it for nostalgia, it varies pretty wildly.
Chiptune “demakes” certainly became a lot more popular in recent years – you can even find insane stuff like a 30-minute-long Mars Volta song in 8-bit format. What do you think made all these people suddenly dedicate themselves to this kind of project? And why in the late 2000s?
Actually, this has been going on for awhile now (case in point, I have Depeche Mode chipcovers from the 80s), but as far as “chipcovers” being on the radar for “everyone,” I think several things made it happen:
First, 8-bit systems are old enough now that we know them inside-out. We’ve tinkered with the Nintendo and we know exactly what it’s capable of. Because of that, we were able to develop hardware like flash cartridges, making running old music software easier. Also it sped the development of new software for old hardware. As an example, LSDJ, one of the most popular Game Boy composing tools, came out in 2000. Second, the timing is right for retro gamers that have musical tendencies – someone that played a ton of Metroid as a kid can now head up an incredible music act (see Metroid Metal, started by my buddy Stemage) and there are enough people out there that “get it” and think that it’s cool.
There’s also one thing my fellow chiptuner Danimal Cannon calls “the 8-bit cash in,” and free software on the Internet that will play back MIDI files (also freely available all over the Internet) with a chiptune aesthetic. Often times folks will just grab a MIDI that someone else has arranged, run it through this program, and upload the results straight to YouTube with a pixelated image of the album cover. The long and short is: these are fake, not possible on typical hardware, and they kind of take a steamy dump on chiptuners who spend a lot of time intricately programming, sequencing, and arranging our tunes by hand.
As some of your earlier projects were more game-focused, what made you pick Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine for your first full-album demake?
NIN is one of my favorite acts, and Pretty Hate Machine is probably the most recognizable. I was honestly both surprised at how few NIN chiptune tributes there were, given the electronic nature of NIN, plus Trent is all about vintage synths and esoteric sounds. I already had ideas going on in my head for how I would do it, so I guess Pretty Eight Machine was just perfect.
How was the reaction to the project, and did you get surprised by it? Any reaction from the NIN camp?
P8M has been full of surprises. When I first announced it, things were surprisingly quiet. After a few days, some people posted my kickstarter page on online forums, and I got a lot of support, but also a lot of backlash that I wasn’t expecting. After I worked on the album for over a year and earned a little bit more respect from various folks, it was time. On release night, we had a listening party with good turnout and everyone loved it. I felt good. I hit the release button when the show ended and went to bed.
I woke up early to maybe a dozen sales. Then I started hearing twitter noises from my phone and I noticed tweets from the NIN Hotline and Rob Sheridan. The buzz after that was incredible, the tone changed on the forums for the most part; a little surprising but definitely nice. There are still a bunch of naysayers (not surprised) because this kind of thing isn’t for everyone. Others can’t believe that I would charge for a tribute, but they don’t know that (legally speaking) even free tributes are supposed to pay mechanical licensing. For better or worse I often join the conversation and try to provide another point of view. I do think meeting Trent Reznor and Rob was probably the biggest surprise. That’s an experience I will never forget.
Regarding Kickstarter: What do you think about people who consider it a form of begging? Do you think it’s only suitable for up-and-coming artists, or is it free-for-all?
When I kickstarted P8M, some people called it “begstarter.” Sure, sometimes people promote too much, or ask for too much. Sometimes they’re wicked famous and could probably afford it on their own. The fact of the matter is this: The site really brings creators close to the people that want to support projects, gets them out there, and sometimes you have to know if enough people are into an idea before you dive headfirst into something crazy. Also, the staff I’ve dealt with is awesome. So, fuck the haters. This is definitely an indie standpoint, but I probably couldn’t have raised the cash to do P8M on my own without it. I’m glad it exists to help projects get off the ground.
Regarding the sales of the album, after it blew up on Twitter, did you get as many as you expected?
Things always cost more than you expect, but sales got me out of the red and I was able to buy some cool new gadgets, some of which I’ll be using to make music with on future albums. Sales have almost met expectations; it was the experience that really exceeded them.
And how do you feel about having all your music carefully organized and available for download in a variety of formats on torrent trackers? Flattering, or insulting?
I’m honored that people like my work enough to want it in any form, especially lossless. If you’ll forgive the sales pitch, though, that’s one of the reasons I’m on Bandcamp – because when you buy, you can choose from several formats. So, of course I’d rather you get my music straight from me. There are people that won’t buy unless they can listen first; that’s fine, I enabled free streaming for all of my stuff. Torrenting and piracy is a mixed bag for musicians. A big pro is exposure in many forms. Hopefully I’ll get new fans. Maybe those people will talk about me or go to shows and that’ll turn into sales. Private trackers offer community and feedback. There’s more accessibility to people that are unable to purchase for reasons ranging from “unable to afford” to “PayPal doesn’t work in my country.”
The cons? More copies of P8M have been pirated than sold. Perhaps you can spin that positively and say it’s a metric of success; it’s desirable, after all. For the little guys, that only feels good for a little while. Most of the pros are theoretical and all of the cons are painfully real. I’m only able to live off of music because I’ve learned to live on the (extremely) cheap. The main thing I try to tell myself is that people that didn’t buy my music wouldn’t have done it anyway, no matter what the reason might be. Anyway, I’m not here to be an anti-piracy ad, and I don’t hate folks that download but don’t buy, but if you’re going to do that, at least follow me on social media and help me spread the word. Be a fan. It doesn’t cost you anything.
Which other NIN album do you think would lend itself best to the 8-bit format?
Well, I think PHM was the best choice for a NIN chip tribute, but I’ve had some really good ideas in my head for lots of other NIN tracks. I think I’m probably going to just roll in order. Some friends want to tackle Broken with me, and then I’m going to do The Downward Spiral on my own. My favorite NIN album is The Fragile, but that would take a long time (and income) to put together.
Are there any other albums you’d like to see transformed into the 8-bit format? Or game soundtracks you’d like to see revisited in a more complete instrumentation/setting?
I thought a Depeche Mode tribute would be pretty great, and just as I was about to announce I was going to tackle one, I was asked to join the 8-Bit Operators’ tribute titled Enjoy The Science, which drops the 27th of May. As for game soundtrack tributes, I will say that Ys and Wonder Boy don’t get much love from tribute bands.
Where do you see 8-bit music going in the near future? And do you think the nostalgia factor ever runs out for it?
The only direction is up! Most chiptuners consider their consoles or computers to be their instruments, so for many it’s not even about nostalgia, just about making music with a cool piece of hardware. All sorts of popular music acts are incorporating (and sometimes plagiarizing) chiptunes into their work, which validates it as a medium to the general public. So, I think the interest level will stay high. Plus, true to our demoscene roots, we’re constantly trying to come up with new, interesting sounds and push our hardware to the limit.
So, what else are you working on next?
It’s a busy year! Next, probably some sort of U2 tribute album and more NIN, as I mentioned. Since Q magazine recently did an Achtung Baby tribute album, I think it’ll probably do a Greatest Hits type of chiptune tribute. I also have a few original game soundtracks in the works and I really want to finish an originals album. Oh, and I think I’m on a couple of upcoming compilations. Those so inclined can join my fan club, watch my social media stuff, or I also have a Patreon for announcements and releases if you’re interested in that.