Beyond all the glamour and pageantry of the blips & blops, a misunderstood way of making chip music has grown and bloomed away from the spotlight of the scene – yes I’m talking about FM Synthesis. Of course, this is not a complaint, as we say in Spanish: “para gustos los colores”. The point is that, most of the time, a lot of cool things happen under the surface, things that are worth talking about and, from time to time, seem to be buried in the huge mass of crunchy sounds. The album series I’m covering today is not that. I can even say that it’s well known by everyone nowadays, precisely because the intention was –and still is– to direct your attention to the music and techniques used by those incredible musicians. Today I want to go back to one of the greatest compilation series centered on the FM side of the Micro Music, Demoscene, and Chiptune. Apt for newcomers and veterans, it will make you move and ignite the fires of love and interest in this particular approach to chip music in your soul – hoping the inferno grows so big that it encourages you to search for new music or even make your own. So let’s take a look over the ‘SOUNDSHOCK’ Series by Ubiktune.
It was the year 2007 when the FM legend Zinger opened up a space for the discussion, learning, and sharing of all sort of things pertinent to the FM Synthesis. The name of those forums: SOUNDSHOCK. As we can read on their blog: it was “a place for FM enthusiasts to meet”. Then in 2010, Seajeff (a.k.a. C-Jeff) approached Zinger in order to make a solo album for Ubiktune. It was then when Zinger came up with the idea of making a compilation album from the forum instead. The world wasn’t entirely ready for what it was to come; sometimes I feel like –eight years later– we are still not ready yet. Now that we have some history, let’s delve into these wonderful tunes.
SOUNDSHOCK: FM Funk Madness!!
Progressive, mellow and pleasant, that’s the nature of Madbrain’s contribution to this release with ‘Oskari the Heimfanker’. The eloquent manner in which each phrase is articulated – moving freely, but, at the same time, with a high sense of direction – is shocking. The changes in the sequence and instrumentation play a crucial role in the development of the song; passing from deep, heavy funky vibes to a more melodic, jazzy section, which expands the harmonic value of the tune and provides contrast without conflict – it’s more like the B Side that completes the musical picture. Probably the only two aspects I look at almost automatically when analyzing music are the structure of the drums and the bass. I always praise a good, solid pattern on those instruments and that’s thanks to these compilations. Madbrain, like practically everyone else on these three albums, is not stingy with those aspects. The robust bass groove dominates the whole track as it advances on its progressive march with the rhythmic “rigor” that the genre demands. It’s right on that rhythmic knitting where the pure spirit and texture of the funk makes a presence. I can’t stress enough how a natural sensation on the use of cymbals helps to strengthen the groove, which along with a wide use of all kind of cymbals– is a constant on these tracks. ‘Oskari the Heimfanker’ has everything where it has to be, from the strong natural accents to the fantastic patches that are used (like the saxophone and clavi ones). But those are my words; you just sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience.
SOUNDSHOCK 2: FM Funk Terror!!
If you’ve not yet listened to ‘Bubble Bath Aftermath’, I strongly recommend you stop reading here and press that play button above immediately. It would be a shame if your first listen were to be sullied with my words. If this is not your first time listening to it, go ahead and listen again before reading ahead anyway.
To speak of FM Synthesis is, inherently, speak of sound design. To speak of sound design using FM Synthesis is, unequivocally and inevitably, to speak of bass and piano patches, but Mr. Kaufman takes this to a completely different level. As soon as the song begins, a melody that later in the track will act as a bridge is exposed by a combination of almost all the instruments that will be used. The result is a thick line with a nice, crispy edge that grabs the listener’s attention, creating expectation for the next movement. The surprising division into the classic three-part arrangement (keyboard, bass, and drums) in the following section gives enough room to appreciate how all the sounds fulfill a function in an overwhelming display of musical clarity. The amount of detail put into every part is mesmerizing; the effects, the layers of sound, the variations, the geniality of the modulation in the B section, the structure of the track itself; everything flows with a remarkable smoothness that will leave whoever dares listen to it stunned. The more attention you pay, the more details you find. Just listen to the hi-hats and the bongos’ line for example. The last thing I want to make mention of is the solo; a balanced and energetic piece of the track that builds up excitement and gives the whole tune a fresh flavor. ‘Bubble Bath Aftermath’ is a masterclass in how to make a banger in all aspects, from sound choice to thematic development, spicing it with a little bit of harmony and rhythm and, even with all of that, managing to keep things simple, without a single hint of pretension.
The experience, passion, and joy for the work that Mr. Kaufman pours into every single note goes beyond just plain fusion. The natural charm, the clear and thorough assimilation of every single element that gives this song its character, plus the impressive show of talent that this track features takes the solid amalgam of sounds one step beyond to become some kind of musical synchrony. It’s inevitable to think of the P-Funk, the blues, or VGM while listening to it. This track utterly demonstrates how to have a good sound design, it’s fundamental to put together an unforgettable track, but don’t rely on it to sustain the work. It is vital to assure that it will be complete, round, and memorable. The rest is pure magic.
One thing I want to add is a little acknowledgment. If for some reason you happen to read this, thank you so much, Mr. Kaufman. This track of yours helped me to strengthen, open, and change my vision of music, especially chip music.
SOUNDSHOCK 3: FM Funk Nirvana!!
Music transcends time and occasionally, in a context like the one that concerns us, seems to be reflected as an anachronistic exercise of creativity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, on the contrary, it allows a major diversity in styles and brings to us some gems – like ‘Modulation to Move the Mind’. The clear call to the eighties’ synth-pop is not just impressive on the technical side, but it’s also sprinkled with unmistakably faithful recreations of the feeling of that time. The potent vocal quality of Aya Majiro (formerly known as Aya Futatsuki) guides us through this experience. The low tones and the warm character of her voice explode into a powerful ecstasy complementing perfectly the lyrics by BouKiCHi in a breath-taking performance. The arrangement doesn’t stay behind; naruto establishes a silky progression that moves providing support to the voice all the time. The extraordinary use of all the elements he has to his disposal (like that insanely good trumpet patch or the smart use of the percussions) makes a bright, clean piece with an ethereal essence and a unique aesthetic value .
Regarding the lyrics, there’s a lot to say. All the winks and metaphors with the process of the FM Synthesis are as alluring as the music itself. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s strictly cryptic or you have to be an expert to enjoy it. Finally, I’d like to quote a verse of the lyrics that, in my opinion, could perfectly illustrate the intention, not just of this track, but the whole album series:
(Kimi no Carrier ni todoke, watashi no Modulation. “I’ll reach your carrier with my modulation” – or something like that, again, traduttore traditore.)
This is just a snippet of the stature of the music you can find in the series. These three albums have something for everyone and, as much as I’d like to keep writing for days about all the fantastic music here (like the songs ‘Ripple Boogie’, ‘Yamaha Action’, ‘CAVE BOUNCER’, ‘Shuffle On’, etc) my word count is through the roof. It’s undeniable how high the ‘SOUNDSHOCK’ Series put the bar for almost everyone, bringing together legends of the chip music (like coda, Shnabubula, Joshua Morse, the always awesome Bomb Boy, cTrix, Kulor, Blitz Lunar, and many, many more), leaving a reference for anyone in and around the scene. They did what they had to do, what it was necessary to do – now it falls to someone else to once again raise the bar, and I can’t wait to see the result! In closing, I’d like to quote Mr. Simon Stålenhag’s words about the first ‘SOUNDSHOCK’ album:
“I was suddenly made aware that some kind of musical mutants, cursed with immense superpowers are hiding all around us, waiting to shift into their true form at the first opportunity they get.”
Don’t miss the forest for the trees. By nature and definition, chip music is called to eclecticism, to fight the dichotomy. Try new things, raise the bar, but more importantly: listen to what the world has to offer.
Thank you so much for reading, see you next time