16 BIT SESSIONS #4: John Carpenter – Escape From New York

16 BIT SESSIONS is where James tries to figure out all this Mega Drive music business by covering songs and trying out different sounds. This time, it’s a cover of the theme for Escape From New York by John Carpenter.

Quick bit of housekeeping up top: VILLAINEST make our Horseshoe Tavern debut on Monday 16th MarchNo cover. It’s going to be a lot of fun and you should come if you’re able to! I can tell you no lies.

Now.

I had to do a John Carpenter track. Had to. For one, he’s got a new album out and it’s one of the best full albums I’ve heard in a long time. For another, he’s been a huge influence over my tastes and choices in deciding to make lo-fi synthesizer-based music, so it’s only fitting.

My love for John Carpenter movies doesn’t actually go back that far. My love of movies in general isn’t that old, though I’ve made up for that in spades in recent years to the point where it’s yet another passion of mine that probably makes my family think I’m a bit weird. And, especially since coming to Canada, there’s legitimately nothing I enjoy better than to spend an evening with friends watching trash.

I saw Assault on Precinct 13 first around late 2007; I was in Sheffield, spending my nights watching movies and drinking a surprisingly varied selection of beers. In the weeks and months after, every time my housemates picked up a guitar they’d play the Assault theme. It drove me crazy, but seeds were sown and when I later came to discover They Live and the Escape films and all the good and bad and brilliant stuff John Carpenter has to offer I found in them a group of films and soundtracks that really speak to me on a kind of wonderful, trashy level.

For all that’s been written about his technique, I don’t think J.C. is too meticulous and from recent interviews I think he’d agree. The Assault soundtrack was recorded in a day and as such was necessarily sparse, though of course that works in its favour. Other times, of course, he records stuff that is insane and gets reviews that say “too many heavy metal guitar solos”, which is of course crazy talk because there can never be too many heavy metal guitar solos.

Like many of my favourite musicians and composers, J.C. has the quality of being able to touch an instrument and immediately create music that sounds uniquely like him. Carpenter’s soundtracks are equally as important as the films themselves. You can notice them immediately, and this theme in particular jumps out a mile. I had to do it. It’s slow, it’s menacing, and it’s ridiculously catchy. The harmonies are pretty weird and sometimes jarring. It’s great.

The Mega Drive is actually pretty well equipped for Carpenter-type sounds! All those super deep bass sounds – there’s no EQ on that! And they’re straight from my console. I can’t really remember too many games making use of the bass frequencies, which is crazy because they sound so good! And that shrill, ridiculous, obnoxious wave that comes out of nowhere towards the end? Oh man do I love that part, such a joy to try and replicate with a limited set of sounds. It’s so high in the mix it jumps you right out of your seat, which should be the point! I’m probably pushing the limits of console plausibility, but I couldn’t resist.

This track doesn’t have the brilliant, moody dynamics that make Carpenter soundtracks so good. In a way, that’s on purpose – I wanted this to sound a bit like the intro screen of a bad movie tie-in game from the 1990s (actually, the Judge Dredd soundtrack there might disprove my bass theory above as it has some fantastic bass sounds). So some of the voices have operators an octave higher than usual, and things don’t really fade in and fade out so much as cut out completely.

There are also way too many layers and, as before, a slight detune/chorus effect of about 10% on two voices to help them sit a little better.

Keen eyes staring at my dumb self in the cover art may note: that’s a bootleg Escape shirt I bagged at Black Market on Queen Street that I was wearing while I finished THIS VERY TRACK. Relevant!

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