Robert DeLong On Making Music With Game Controllers

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Robert DeLong, whose song “Long Way Down” entered the Billboard Alternative Top 10 this week, writes about his love of videogames and why he uses videogame controllers to make his music.

My sister was an ice-skater when I was young, and my earliest memories involve me hiding out in the videogame section of the ice rink, pretending to play Toki and Donkey Kong. My mom would treat me to a couple quarters at the end of every day, and it was perhaps the most exciting thing to me, though actually playing the games was a bit harder than wiggling the joystick about and pretending my movements were influencing the game demo reel. I think, like most people my age, videogames have been a constant backdrop to my life.

That being said, my parents were more than a little suspicious of videogames, and never let me get a console like Nintendo or Sega Genesis. My exposure to these types of videogames was limited to begging my friends’ parents to let me play whenever I slept over. However, since I was about 4 or 5 years old, there was always a family PC about the house, starting with an AMD 286. This is where I found my videogame outlet.

The difference, of course, was the level of computer proficiency needed to play videogames on a pre-fab console versus a desktop PC. The personal computer required at least a rudimentary knowledge of the conventions of software installation, navigating an operating system, and at the time, a knowledge of command-line interface. Learning these skills as a child immediately led to creative use of computers, which, in my case, swiftly evolved from the ability to install and play The Secret of Monkey Island or Castle Wolfenstein, into programming my own text adventures in Q-Basic or creating 3d animations in trueSpace.

Thus, sort of indirectly, a childhood lust for videogames led me to creative computing, which in turn, as I developed as a young drummer, led to learning recording software, and eventually producing electronic music. Fast-forward 8 years, a college degree in audio engineering, and innumerable experiences in a myriad of nerdy recording-based musical projects, I began to perform my own music live, and saw an opportunity to exploit my childhood fascination with videogames in a concert setting.

Learning how to hack computer-based videogame controllers was, in truth, quite simple. The first performance I used a Wii remote live, however, was a turning point for me. At the time it was just a novelty—I was playing Redlands College outdoor something-or-other party thing, and a bunch of secretly inebriated students got to see me wave a Wii remote around with direct sonic results.

The reaction was illuminating for me—everyone loved videogames, or was at least familiar with them, so incorporating them into a live musical performance was more than novelty, it was a direct connection with some latent childhood fascination with gaming. People liked it, and told me so. It wasn’t long before my set heavily involved a myriad of game controllers in more and more venturesome ways. The result was two-fold: a cool visual performance element of the show that kept people on their toes, and a certain type of control over sounds that I was intimately familiar with. Using a joystick to control filter cutoff and pitch on a synth was as natural as flying a Sopwith Camel on Air Duel: 80 Years of Dogfighting. Playing samples on a gamepad utilized muscle memory developed playing a cracked version of Tony Hawk 2 that far exceeded my skills as a piano or keyboard player.

The cultural landscape of videogames is now one of ubiquity—whereas gaming was once a subject of novelty, it is now so hyper-integrated into our everyday experience with smart-phones and laptop web-browsing that it almost acts as an additional appendage. I have seen toddlers who can barely walk or talk navigate smart phones with ease, only to boot up some modern iteration of a 30 year old game like Tetris or Bubble Bobble. I for one am excited for the future—I can’t even begin to imagine what the next generation of child gamers will use to create music, but I’m sure it will be super rad and ultra dope-sauce.

Robert DeLong’s EP Long Way Down is out on Glassnote Records.