A Message From a Nonhuman Intelligence

I seem to have a knack for finishing projects literally a month later lately. The zoo page (which I didn’t post about here, but tons of cool pictures from my zoo trip with borb) was posted October 7th, while the photos were taken September 7th. Devon got me most of the proper album tracks I included with this project on September 14th, and I finished this one just last night, October 14th.

FreQuency screenshot
Static screenshot to preserve the contents of your stomach. The game is a literal spinning rave.

“This one” refers to the soundtrack to a little game called FreQuency, being the very first title from Harmonix, who of course would go on to make Cammy’s childhood games Guitar Hero and Rock Band. FreQuency is the sister game to Amplitude, still a game I adore a lot and one I still occasionally set PBs in, but that game was a friendlier (and that’s not saying much, because it’s still weird) face on a lot of electronica and rock tunes.

On the other hand, two things jumped out at me about FreQuency when I played through it:

  • “Wow, this is horrifically broken to play! I’m having to play the notes before they happen!”
  • “Wow, this music is fuckin bizarre and it’s kinda awesome.”

Amplitude was aiming for mainstream acceptance. You don’t put David Bowie, blink-182, P!nk, and Run-DMC in a game without trying to appeal to pop heads. FreQuency has no such intentions. Certainly anyone who knows their 90s electronica will recognize Paul Oakenfold or The Crystal Method, but by the time you’re getting to stuff from Juno Reactor, Meat Beat Manifesto, Roni Size, certainly the songs written for the game–you’re getting into weird kid music.

Sometimes, it’s just funky though. (“Luge Crash” by SurgeCore)

And that’s great. This is not my area of expertise at all, but I’ve been hungry for some new styles to listen to and these songs are just excellent, regardless of the game you put in front of it. I only wish the game wasn’t so ridiculously tight as far as its hit window goes, because it really does sap the enjoyment out of songs I’d be able to play just fine in a less broken engine.

Only, there’s a problem. Amplitude would have this problem–if it didn’t come on DVD and pack in a Soundtrack mode for just straight up listening to the songs. FreQuency has no Soundtrack mode, only a “listen to the song” cheat during the normal game. To facilitate the Remix mode, Harmonix cut these songs up into samples of individual kicks, snares, synth stabs, vocal syllables, and so on, and it works nicely in the context of the game–but it does mean that extracting the audio becomes a minor process, to say the least.

Thankfully, one of the tool guys in MiloHax, Onyxite, started work on a tool that could put these samples back together into kinda-sorta-stems (they’re never perfect, but they’re more than usable and listenable) called Samplitude. The Amplitude support is already there and pretty much perfect, but I held off on FreQuency stuff because I heard it was a bit rudimentary and preliminary. It’d give you stems, but sometimes, chunks of audio would be missing, or the pitches of certain samples would be off.

And this is all true, but I’ve mixed about half the game, plus two songs for Guitar Hero, and only on three songs or so did I notice any proper issues. Most commonly, I just had to extend out the length of a minute and a half long track or recreate outros, which I always managed to do.

For about half the soundtrack, I had Devon torrent me the proper CD versions of the songs, where they existed. Aside from a single song (which I got from another friend) and the Symbion tracks (which were mostly unusable aside from “FreQ Out”, but I got those either from the game files or from Bandcamp), I was able to put together about half the soundtrack this way. The rest–no way around it–run Samplitude and mix the bitches.

Some of the tracks to recreate a single song from FreQuency
I tried my best to fit all the tracks on this song in one screenshot, I really did. Some of these mixes are super dense.

Another issue, though not necessarily one Samplitude is at fault for, has to do with the low sample rate of a lot of the samples. I don’t know if this was to conserve space (FreQuency only takes up half the CD-ROM) or to keep the sample reconstruction engine from straining, but the majority of the game’s samples are stored at 22KHz–effectively lowpassing them at about 10KHz. These are very, very audibly muffled once you know what to listen for, and I thought that, alongside the full-frequency CD mixes of some songs, people would notice.

So I got creative. I remembered the existence of plugins called exciters about halfway through reassembling the soundtrack. Exciters are interesting tools in that they essentially overdrive (or excite, make louder) the higher frequencies of a sample, generating more of what are called overtones, which are the weaker tones that help to color a certain sound. In short: when you hit, say, the C key on a piano, you’re not hearing just a C. The C is just the fundamental tone of that note. There’s other tones in there called overtones that color the note, usually making it sound fuller and more pleasing to the ear.

Exciters generate those overtones artificially, which can help brighten up dull sounds. They get used a lot in restoring especially older music, since microphones, tapes, and vinyl back then all had a pretty poor frequency response, certainly falling off by 15KHz. Exciters don’t work miracles; if used carelessly, an exciter can make things sound artificially metallic and crispy, but with care and on the right instruments (especially drums), it seriously helped to improve the sound of the mixes. Listen from about 35 seconds onwards in these two example clips and you’ll be able to tell:

“Control Your Body”, Komputer Kontroller, no exciter
“Control Your Body”, Komputer Kontroller, final mix with exciter

This is absolutely kind of a labor of love project, since it took forever and the vast majority of people, even Guitar Hero people, have never heard of or have zero interest in FreQuency, but the music absolutely deserved it. It’s a playlist thought up by obsessed Boston-based music nerds who liked playing with cheap synths and didn’t care if it would sell whatsoever.

The original version of the FreQuency soundtrack rip artwork
For both this and my Amplitude soundtrack rip, because I didn’t want the cover art to be too clean, I ran the games and then defocused my camera and took a picture of my screen. I like how they both came out, very dynamic.

And that should be cherished, in my opinion. Grab either the MP3s or the FLACs on archives.(And for anyone who does know their FreQuency–“Why”, “Godspeed” and “Scratchotronic” are included, yes. Cammy’s thorough.)

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