Saturday, May 13, 2017

Chiptune on vinyl: a preview

So here you have me after deciding to buy a new record player, the AT-LP3, browsing through Amazon's vinyl offerings for new records to try out, when, at the soundtracks section, I came face to face with my first videogame chiptune vinyl. This was Castlevania released by Mondo and my first reaction was that of excitement. Just imagine the wonderful tunes from Castlevania re-created and on vinyl no less. However, my excitement soon turned to puzzlement as I dug deeper. This was no enhancement, or orchestration, but the music almost straight from the NES to the vinyl. Why?

Backside of Castlevania III
You may know all about it, but this is not just a one-time event. Several record producing companies have released over the last 3 to 4 years videogame music on vinyl. Immediately after Castlevania I came across Mega Man, Zelda, Street Fighter 2 and many many more totaling about something at least two dozen titles. All these belong to a category named "chiptune" which is a subgenre of electronic music and mostly refers to music from the 8-bit and 16-bit era and new original music composed in the same style.

Why the sudden surge of interest from the labels? The vinyl revival has been going on for close to a decade now and that adds the underlying push to any musical enterprise on the format and that, granted, is a factor. I have not zeroed in on the reason (my guess is demographic trends, our desire to own and nostalgia), but I can identify some common aspects revolving around this surge of video game music on vinyl:

  • Most of the music appears to be without any enhancement.
  • The releases are expensive. Plain and simple with no qualifications. In comparison with regular soundtrack releases one is paying more per LP and some titles can go quite high even while still in stock. Street Fighter II retails for $75 for instance; Persona 5, a recent RPG, for $100 and that's just the standard version. Shorter soundtracks go around $20-$35.
  • The availability is not that great. From what I've seen each release is typically limited to 1000 copies, though there are some that go up to 2000 and not much beyond but that's including all variants. Represses of sold-out titles do happen, but this is chancy as even popular titles have it dim. I entirely missed the Mother/ Earthbound series.
  • Some releases (Persona 5, Undertale, SF2) include what appears to be every sound which I feel is overkill. Does one really need to listen to (and pay for) everything only to get to the good parts? I'd rather have a carefully selected album than every bit of incidental sound, but that's just me.
  • Out of stock releases seem to fetch high prices at Discogs.
  • Acoustically speaking, I can understand on some level why it would make sense for something recorded digitally on good equipment, say, from the CD-ROM era onwards be transferred to the vinyl format. However, I find no reason why chiptune would sound better on vinyl. Without rehashing all the analog versus digital controversy, I do find that magic does happen when the needle strikes the wax. For that to happen, the medium and the needle have to have something to work with and it is my belief that chiptune doesn't cut it. The beeps and boops do not seem rich enough. I am yet to experience an actual chiptune recording, so I'll withhold verdict for now.
  • There are complaints online about some releases in respect of quality control. Surface noise and off-center holes do happen with some frequency.
  • Artwork is the third factor of the composition-wax-looks triad. In the wider encompassing soundtracks category, as well as in our current niche discussion, care, artistry and ingenuity have been poured into the releases of our current generation. The visual designs are generally all-new for all labels recovering the essential elements of the seminal works. This ramps up the visual enjoyment of owning physical media and firmly establishes many of the releases into the collectible sphere. While some labels do slack a bit going for minimalist designs on some albums, there are others that appear to bring out consistent eye candy (Wax Work Records comes to mind). I am somewhat against collecting as a hobby, as it distracts from religious duties for one, but I just cannot help drooling over some releases. It's hard to keep myself in check.
  • Returning to video game vinyl some releases include obi strips. The vinyls themselves for the most part are anything but black. There are your standard colored, but also transparent, with splatters, swirls and half-and-half.

I find that I am not that interested in most of the releases. The ones that I would really pay for are re-issues or re-recordings of the Dragonquest series (orchestral!). And maybe the release of The 7th Saga.

So what did I do? I, of course, despite my misgivings, bought the three available Castlevanias at once because Symphony of the Night is expected to be released later this year and and that's a must get for its musical merits. I thought that it would be best to assemble my whole Castlevania set now that I had the chance and not regret missed opportunities later. Later, if I decide to stick with just a few, I can resell the extra ones. And I was lucky when I ordered, because I got the flat-rate shipping from Mondo and about a week later Castlevania III did go out of stock. For now, I'm skeptical of the musical value of chiptune on vinyl, but I'll wait until I have the complete set and write you a review on them.

I'll leave you now with some resources you can click on:

Recording labels:

Ship to Shore Phono Co.

Lists of music on vinyl (though long, both appear to be incomplete!):



These guys appears to be on top of things:

Blipblop has a list of upcomming releases which you might want to check out.

Info on particular releases:


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