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Someone got an NES to play its sounds through real instruments

By Matt Gerardi • October 7, 2013

People have been pumping out recordings of themselves performing video game music since the dawn of internet video. (Remember this guy?) But this might be the first time we’ve come across a video of a video game console performing its own music (and sound effects). First published in August, the above video from a YouTube user that goes by Roboband (and whose real name might be David Thompson) showcases a fancy automated rig that uses a couple of cheap micro-computers—specifically, Raspberry Pi computers—to interpret the sounds coming out of an NES and reroute them to a robotic piano/percussion setup, which plays it in near real-time. (The contraption’s creator mentions that there is normally a half-second delay between the game and the robo-band, which was taken out when the video was edited.)

This rig checks all the boxes for a cool video game-related internet thing, but it also illuminates a couple of finer points about the nature of sound on the NES and the way it evolved through Nintendo’s games. The console had a very limited number of sounds that could be played at the same time. What at first appears to be the robo-band struggling to keep up with Super Mario Bros. is actually a reflection of this limitation. Background music and sound effects both take up some of this audio capability, so when Mario munches the mushroom, the sound of his growth replaces some of the musical details. This tradeoff becomes especially apparent when you’re hearing—and watching—it happen with live instruments.

The video also lays out the increasing audio complexity of the early Mario games. Juxtaposed with the original, Super Mario Bros. 2’s ragtime score sounds more lush and alive. And the detailed soundscape of Mario 3 sounds like a total mess with its added effects for everything from Mario running to the skid as he quickly changes direction. And yet, nothing is quite as attention-grabbing as that initial lonely tone that plays when Super Mario Bros. starts up.

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15 Responses to “Someone got an NES to play its sounds through real instruments”

  1. Cloks says:

    That’s neat and all, but tell me when he puts in Ducktales and goes to the moon level.

    • Cloks says:

      Seriously though, this is great and shows an application of Raspberry Pi beyond the stupid home media server that everybody uses it for. It’s a really great board for the hobbyist and I find projects like this fascinating – my favorite one is a guy who made a vaporizer built around a Pi.

    • George_Liquor says:

      I would really like to know if this setup works with every NES game. A few actually use audio samples for voices, instrument sounds & sfx. I wonder how or if this setup plays them too.

    • CrabNaga says:

      I want to see him play Megaman 4 and just hold a charge shot the entire time to see how chaotic the track gets.

  2. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    This is sort of like Skynet for Captured! by Robots

  3. lokimotive says:

    This is pretty cool, but the drums seem straight out of a Shaggs song. Like, it’s almost right, but not quiet.

  4. vinnybushes says:

    So you’re telling me that to have the most complete home audio system for older games I have to throw out my surround sound system and buy a player piano and drum set? Best Buy is gonna have a field day with me… (The scary thing is that even now I am semi-seriously considering doing this)

  5. Roswulf says:

    I never owned an NES, and have very limited emotional associations with any of these games. And yet I found this video genuinely moving. So wonderful.

  6. MathleticDepartment says:

    Oh man, that dream song at the end of Super Mario 2 brings back memories I didn’t know I had

  7. Dariusz G. Jagielski says:

    Nah, they just hired bunch of ghosts to perform whole thing.

  8. Toparaman says:

    Excellent video, though I do wish that he did some non-Nintendo NES games (Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania).  Especially Mega Man.  Maybe in a sequel video?

  9. taramorris says:

    I have really Like it Instrument .

  10. robthom says:

    Holy sh!t!

    That was awesome.