I’m willing to wager that there is no city as equally saturated with chiptune projects as Meriden, Connecticut. This is, of course, all thanks to the massive output of one man – his name is Carl Peczynski, although you might know him as Radlib, or Oxygenstar, or maybe Steady C or sadNES or one of his other aliases. Carl is, to me, the great unsung hero of American chiptunes – I’ve yet to meet someone who is more than casually into chiptunes who doesn’t know at least one of his acts, and although he only does a few shows a year, he’s managed to stay relevant. Is it his many personae that are allowing him to meet the changing demands of the scene, never falling into a the trap of making the same thing over and over? Is it because he specializes in gear that often goes unused by others in the world of chiptune? Is it his love of early 90’s hiphop? Honestly, it doesn’t matter – because regardless of the origin of his powers, Carl’s music slays. I had the pleasure of chatting with Carl not too long ago, and the following are the fruits of that interview.
Pre-interview Note: I do want to let you guys know that I tried my hardest to weasel out all the names of Carl’s projects so that they could all be preserved here in one place – but Carl, the rascally rabbit that he is, confirmed all the acts I could name but declined to tell me the rest. I imagine that much like the Arthur C Clarke story The Nine Billion Names of God, any one person knowing all of Carl’s names might mean the end of days. When I asked Carl about all of his musical identities and why he had so many, he explained that it’s really just as simple as wanting to be able to categorize his music. If he starts making something that doesn’t fit with the rest of his work, it becomes a new identity – and he’s always creating, which explains the seemingly unending genesis of new acts. Following his explanation, however…
Adam: You DO always seem to have something new up your sleeve – I feel like any time someone talks to you, you’re always more inclined to talk about a new idea you’ve got than retread old ground.
Carl: Correct. But then I sometimes work on things, and it fits with a project I have. The new Warez Waldo album is an example. The first WW album was Adlib Tracker II, all FM synthesis. I wrote a small album using a Yamaha PSS680 keyboard -that’s FM too, so I’m doing that as Warez Waldo becuase of its similar sound, writing, and style. Just a different medium. And the new Warez Waldo album will be out on Feb. 5 2016. [Editor’s note: That’s today, kids! Check the end of the article for more information!]
Adam: Oh great! I remember back at MAGClassic, you had said that you had had some issues getting your music out, so I’m glad to see you’ve sorted that out. You’re self-publishing on Planet Zaxxon, I assume?
Carl: Yes, it will released by Planet Zaxxon. The Radlib album will be released Thebasebit, both on Feb. 5th. [Editors note: No they won’t! See the bottom of the article for details]
Adam: Oh man, a double release? Looks like that’ll be a pretty slick day. Were you planning on doing physical releases as well? I’ve noticed that for the most part, your work stays digital release only, with the exception of the first Warez Waldo and anything you can shove in a VHS copy of Space Jam.
Carl: Just digital releases on those – if I ever do a full length [album] of something, or something I feel is really worthy it, I will do a physical release. I have lots of other plans and ideas for Planet Zaxxon stuff for physical media, though.
Adam: That’s fair. And actually, this brings me to something I really wanted to ask you about. You’re someone who has a fairly large volume of work behind you. You’re basically never not making something – if you’re not dropping an album, you’re showing up at a show or putting a demo on YouTube or whatever. But the strangest thing is, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you promote your own work – it just gets around by word of mouth. Are you secretly promoting things behind the scenes? Or is the power of people telling people about your work so strong that everyone knows who you are? Because I have literally not met someone involved with chiptunes in one way or another who doesn’t know who you are by at least two of your aliases.
Carl: I never do promotion because I don’t know anything about promotion! And I am always too overwhelmed with creating music and playing out live, etc. I just want to create music, learn more equipment and new things, play out, meet people with similar interests and have fun – which leaves me with no time with marketing or promotional time. I have never learned what that even is. I am just too involved with everything else.
Adam: And yet somehow, by sheer force of will, I’d be willing to venture that you’re what passes for a household name in chiptunes. The fact that the only “promotion” you do is by getting out, making music and meeting folks – it’s like the purest thing I’ve ever heard of in this scene.
Carl: Really? Because I guess I never looked at it that way.
Adam: You’re just doing what you love and people know it and love it too. And just for the record, how long HAVE you been putting out this sort of music? I know there’s a rather old video of Radlib at Blipfest, so I know you were doing it before then.
Carl: I really got into electronic music around 2000, (Plaid, Mouse on Mars, u-siq, squarepusher, Air, Board of Canada) and I started creating it then. I was aware of chiptune somewhat around the the same time but had no idea what was going on with it. I never really learned about what electronic music was and how to make it until about 2005, where I purchased my first midiNES cartridge. I tried to understand chiptune before 2005, but I was lost. I just kept at it and found other avenues for creation and what not. I first discovered LSDJ, Gameboy music, as most did. But I was like, what in the world is this ??? I cant use that tiny screen to write music!
Adam: [laughs] That’s fair. And instead of trying to pull an emulator for LSDJ on your computer, you ended up at the other computer trackers?
Carl: I tried it first, and was like NOPE. Then I tried Famitracker. I was ok with Famitracker but I didn’t know trackers at all, and was too slow with them. Then when I came across midiNES, I immediately bought it because I was already familiar with midi, and using a modern sequencer. So I used that a lot. Then I really got into MS-DOS after that, once I discovered Impulse Tracker and Adlib Tracker. I said to myself, ok I just need to sit down and learn all this. So I spent tons of time with Adlib Tracker, and that became one of my main mediums or music creation. Its the “sound” I grew up with as a kid, so I just HAD to learn it.
Adam: I respect that – I know a lot of younger folks now have that sort of same nostalgia for the Gameboy, but there’s the crew of folks who got interested in…well, I guess they call it keygen music, but that sort of old computer sound as opposed to handheld sound. Or console, of course. But electronic music isn’t the only thing you know, of course – I know I’ve seen you play drums and guitar as part of your acts as well.
Carl: Yes. I love chiptune, and electronic music but love the performance aspect of it as well. So after doing early OxygenStar shows with just an NES, I wanted to add some live instrumentation to the set. I initially played just a keyboard, then tried playing drums to the NES music. But once I discovered Adlib Tracker, I wrote the music specifcally knowing, that I would be playing a live drum kit over it. I played tons of shows in that format. And those songs have still not been recorded, and/or released, but maybe someday!
Adam: Ah, I do recall you had recently released an album of “lost tracks” for Oxygenstar though, so at least there’s some!
Carl: Yes – those were old songs that I just wanted people to have, very early stuff.
Adam: To dig a little deeper there for a second – did you know guitar or drums before you started off on your electronic music quest? Or did you teach yourself those as well once you had started writing music on computers?
Carl: I have been playing guitar and drums since 1995 or so. I grew up with a piano in the house as well. I took a few lessons here and there for guitar/drums but played in some schools bands in high school. I also was briefly in some rock bands. I also played clarinet from 5th to 8th grade. That was my first instrument, and how I learned to read sheet music.
Adam: Ah! Then let me ask you – I’m also a band guy from school (I played euphonium), and I always find it hard adapting from reading traditional sheet music to reading trackers – things like having to translate various rhythms into programming delays and things like that. Did you have that same difficulty, or was switching over to Fami and AdLib more natural for you?
Carl: I found that all trackers are different, and you just have to spend the time and really learn the interface. Learning Adlib Tracker II felt like I was starting from square one. It’s pretty much its own animal. If you have basic knowledge of trackers it helps, but I didn’t at that point. I learned Adlib Tracker II as I was learning how to use a tracker at the same time. I was learning how to notate music on a tracker, as well as delving into the world of sound design via FM synthesis, so it was very overwhelming. I should have started with Impulse Tracker and just used samples to get better introduced into the tracker world of music creation.
Adam: I can definitely verify that trying to learn everything at once is a pretty brain-meltingly painful way to do things – but you clearly made it work. Having all the different music projects makes a little more sense now too – how else would you be able to master all of these various programs without going and putting out a body of work tied to each type of thing you wanted to create?Although it’s not just programs – I know you’ve ended up learning the ins and outs of a lot of hardware too. I feel like every day I see you posting videos or pictures of a new synthesizer, or a MIDI sequencer or an old DOS laptop.
Carl: It is all very time consuming. For me, so much time goes into the learning process before you even have a song starting to form. When I first started making electronic music, it was somewhat VST-based and samples. I slowly got into using actual synthesizers over time, and bought my first synth in 2004 or so: a Roland Juno-106. I loved using hardware much more than sofware/virtual since it was always most confusing to me. And I feel you just have “too much” at your disposal. They are too many options. Researching hardware and finding what caters to you, helps you work with what you got and focus on your design and song writing as a whole. Well, at least for me it works like that. Also, nowadays, you need a really high end computer to run all the software/vst’s available it seems. You can get by with certain VST’s if you do the research though. But with using hardware, and just MIDI, I find it to be a much more stable and streamlined work flow. And it lets me be more hands on as well.
Adam: Would you say that you find it more comfortable making music in platforms that have boundaries?
Carl: I think boundaries make you a better songwriter. If you have 99 tracks, 99 samples, and unlimited CPU power, you can just keep adding more layers, effects, routing, etc. etc. It is so easy to get lost in all of it. Then take the NES for example – it’s only 5 channels, only 5 notes play at one time. You have to really figure out how to write a song that portrays well, with just 5 channels. And its really only 3 channels, of “sound.” The other two are just samples and noise. You have one channel for bass, one channel for lead, and one channel for chords/accompaniment, if you want to look at it that way. So thats how I look at it with using real synthesizers – I buy “multitimbral” synths, so I can write full songs on one synthesizer only. But maybe thats a whole other thing to get into. [laughs] We should probably stick to MS-DOS, NES, etc.
Adam: That’s fine. So speaking of built-in parameters, let’s talk about your laptops. As I recall, you’ve got a few laptops keyed to at the very least the Radlib project – do you have different laptops with different sound capabilities for different projects? Or is it all the same ones running AdLib and Impulse?
Carl: How do I begin this, hmmmm. I have laptops that I set up for live use, for Radlib, Warez Waldo, and when I dj here and there, where I play modules, old school demoscene stuff. I have one laptop that I use for “sound design.” It is a Pentium 1 laptop with 128mb of ram. I run Adlib Tracker II on that, where I create all my sounds for the Radlib tracks – I create my patches/synths/loops on there, and record them into my main computer. Then I cut them up, edit them, then shoot them to a MS-DOS desktop running Impulse Tracker. I then sequence the parts, notate, etc and add drums to it. This is how the Radlib songs are made. For Warez Waldo they are just completely composed within Adlib Tracker II with no re-sampling. I plan to make a video demonstration of the Radlib creation process sometime in the near future.
Adam: That’s so cool! I’ve heard of going from tracker to DAW before to clean things up, but not from going from tracker to loading back into another tracker.
Carl: Yes, originally I went to a modern DAW – I just didn’t like how it sounded. I didn’t get it. So I tested a loop I made in Adlib Tracker II, and sent it back to MS-DOS/Impulse Tracker and then put real drums on it. And I was like, “Ok this is the sound I want.” The tone is just crunchy or something, it’s just different than going to some super clean modern DAW/workstation. So technically speaking, all Radlib music could have been created in the early/mid 90’s – well 1995 to be exact.
Adam: I don’t know what you’re talking about – Radlib obviously only exists in the 90’s, and merely comes to visit our time.
Carl: That’s true!
Adam: But wow – all that on a computer that’s probably less sophisticated than a cell phone?
Carl: WAYYYYYY less sophisticated. Pentium 1, 333 MHZ. An iPhone 6 is a 1.1 GHZ CPU. And not to mention so many revisions newer.
Adam: That’s heavy, Doc.
Carl: Even the graphics processor is crazy compared to 1995 specs, obviously. But its all worth it in the end, because it keeps it simple for me, and I just prefer the tone of the Sound Blaster 16.
Adam: Right, of course. But that’s basically what chiptunes is all about, I suppose – using modern ideas to take old hardware and push it beyond anything that anyone at the time even thought about.
Carl: Yes, but I really just use what I use due to its simplicity and sound. It’s as easy as that.Impulse Tracker is actually pretty nuts for 1995 though. It’s 64 channels, and full stereo capable. I don’t need all these bells and whistles, my music is simple as well, to the point.
Adam: That’s pretty bananas. I don’t think I know of any other trackers that do stereo – maybe Milky?
Carl: I think Milky does too, yes. But Impulse even allows you to automate the panning, for stereo effects. It is pretty awesome, for MS-DOS specs.
Adam: Absolutely – and I suppose that’s the cool thing about having spent so long with a program so constrained as Impulse, is that even with the amount of things it can do, there’s only a finite number of options, so once you grasp that you can do whatever you want or need to. Which you obviously do, of course. To steer this back, because I can feel myself drifting off the rails here trying to process all this – I know you’re busy with real life and getting both of your new albums ready to drop, but you’ve been out and about performing recently too, have you not? Aside from MAGClassic, I mean.
Carl: I recently played a show in Mexico City with Kris Keyser, which was pretty amazing. The FORMAT DF crew is a great bunch of folks. After the show on February 5th, I plan to really take the time to finish lots of music and release it, as well as other ideas for Planet Zaxxon.
Adam: Ah, I remember you posting about [the Mexico show] a while back! I’m glad it turned out well. It’s good to hear you’re taking the time to finish up some more music though – it’s always nice to have proper mixes of songs as opposed to the time honored tradition of “hunting down that YouTube video from six years ago and then trying to isolate the songs or clean up the mix to have a dirty bootleg on my iPod.” Do you want to go into these new plans coming to Planet Zaxxon? Or are these top secret and yet to be unloaded from the mothership?
Carl: I plan to put out a VHS, which gives an introduction of everything I do. Behind the scenes stuff, live shows, tutorials, viewer mail, sketches, music videos. Everything and anything I can think of to cram on a VHS. I recently bought a camera and a rig that allows me to record my own VHS movies rather nicely.
Adam: That is absolutely glorious. I’ve enjoyed the advent of that iPhone app that fakes a VHS recording, and chiptune folks releasing music and things on floppies is nothing new of course, but to drop an actual VHS sounds like a first. Do you have a stockpile of blank VHS tapes? I didn’t think anyone sold them anymore.
Carl: I have a stockpile of blank VHS tapes, yes.
Adam: Now the real question is, why aren’t you releasing on laserdisc? We all know that laserdisc had superior audio qua- I’m kidding, don’t kill me.
Carl: [laughs] I own two laserdisc players, maybe I should get a recorder?
Adam: If you put out something on laserdisc, I’m pretty sure you could comfortably say you’ll be the only chiptune musician to have ever done so! Before things get too silly here, though, I’d say we should probably wrap things up here. We’ve talked about the life and times of the many faces of Carl, and about the past, present, and future of your projects. I can say without a doubt that you’re one of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing, although my one lament is that I don’t know more about synthesizers, because I feel like a long conversation about synths in chiptune and electronica needs to happen. Do you have any final words to impart upon our readers?
Carl: Keep it positive. Make music, make friends, be happy.
So if you were paying attention, you noticed Carl is dropping two albums – or he was supposed to, but the Radlib release got bumped back a ways. The Warez Waldo release is embedded below! (It’s also his birthday. Happy Birthday, Carl!) Carl also FORGOT to mention is that he is playing the very last monthly I/O in Brooklyn with Kris Keyser, Goferboy and Facundo with visuals from NO CARRIER and diy_destruction tonight too! There’s even an open mic, something of a rarity in this age! Don’t miss it!
Once again, it was absolutely wonderful getting to chat with one of the most down to earth dudes ever to tune a chip – and hopefully, you learned as much as I did. Seats out! See you kids at MAGFest!