Rob Kovacs on Video Game Music and Vulnerability

Photo by J. Bartholomew Photography

If you’re looking for examples of Rob Kovacs’ virtuosity, you pretty much have your pick. In 2004, his senior year in the Conservatory of Music at Baldwin Wallace University, he became the first solo pianist to perform Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, a piece written for two performers in different shifting tempos–he played one part on each hand across two pianos. More recently, he’s accomplished feats of precision in the world of video game music. He performs for YouTube and convention audiences as 88bit, arranging pieces composed for the Nintendo Entertainment System, which were written around the limitations of sound chips, not the human brain.

But Kovacs had more personal boundaries to push in the making of Let Go–his first album of original songs released under his own name. You can hear his fingerprints in the breathtaking piano pop arrangements; there’s probably nothing with as many notes as his rendition of “Bloody Tears” from Castlevania II (feel free to try counting), but he brings the same ferocity to “Reach You,” a more cathartic spilling of the heart than he’s ever attempted. 

Let Go centers on an ill-fated relationship; it’s a concept album that strings together six original songs and three instrumental interludes to tell a chronological story of hopes dashed and a longing for human connection left unsatisfied. But any timeliness of that sentiment is purely coincidental, as the songs have been in his repertoire for about 14 years now. To finally be releasing them in 2021 is an achievement of a different kind, but one Kovacs takes a lot of pride in.

Before the release, he spoke to The All Scene Eye about struggling to let go and to be let go, the computer music communities that inspire him, and his soundtrack work for Straylight, an upcoming VR game.

You started recording this album, I believe, in 2014, which is when this idea for the record kind of came into focus. How much of those initial recording efforts are still here in the finished product?

Yeah, 2014 is when I started recording it, and honestly was trying to make a different record. I had recorded about 15 songs, which were pretty much all the songs I had written that weren’t recorded at that time. I still wasn’t sure if I was making the next Return of Simple record, which was my previous band, or if I was going to do it solo, or start a new band, and I kind of went through all those phases. [laughs] I did start a new band during this process and ended it before the record got finished, and just ultimately decided to release it as a solo record. But yeah, it started with 15 songs, and four of those tracks are on this record, and are the same recordings that I started with.

I separated them because they didn’t fit with the other songs. They were a little weightier, so I thought, “Well, these are all kind of about the same thing, and I can release maybe just an EP, get these songs out.” I don’t remember when that flipped. I think somewhere around 2015, 2016, I switched it and asked people to start recording on it–drums and bass and guitar and everything–and then decided to finish two other songs that were started the same time all these other songs were started.

2007, 2008, all the songs were at least thought of. Two of them weren’t finished until 2016 or so, when I was like, “Oh, I can make this into an album, kind of a concept album all about the same relationship.” And honestly [laughs] I was like, “This isn’t the record I would want my first record to be”–it’s not my first record, but it’s my first one under my own name–just because it’s so heavy and serious. I would want my introduction to the musical scene to be more well-rounded, but it is what it is, and I’m proud to have made it. It is a very vulnerable record, and it makes me a little uncomfortable at times.

What were those first four songs that you set aside for this?

“Bitter Memory” and “Here in the Future” were definitely going to be on the record. I had recorded “Fizzle” and “Should-Haves” also, but wasn’t really planning to put those on the record. Then the other main two tracks–“Reach You” I had completely musically done. The melody was done, I had some of the lyrics ending in the bridge, and had none of the verse or the chorus. “Momentary Bliss” was written last. The other tracks are little interludes that were formed out of the other songs.

As somebody who has such a background in classical music, I’m interested–when you’re writing for a project like this, what is it like to think in terms of verses, choruses, and bridges versus things like movements?

I love form a lot, and thinking about form in different ways, and that definitely spawns from learning about classical music, especially minimalism and Steve Reich. The form of his music is born out of the concept of the music. Music for 18 Musicians, for example, has a bunch of different sections based on a chord, and we’re gonna keep expanding that chord in certain ways, and then retract that chord, and then that’s the section. I love concepts like that.

“Bitter Memory” breaks from the traditional form. It’s really just five verses, but each verse gets longer. The second verse adds an extra couple measures, and then the next verse adds a couple chords, and then the time between the verses gets shorter. The first two verses, there’s four measures before it. The next two verses, there’s only two measures. Then the third and fourth verse, there’s no measures, so they just elide into each other, and it creates this intensity–this ramp-up in momentum throughout the buildup of the song, so you get to this big release through the piano solo and the guitar solo. The ending is just another verse, but much quieter. Yeah, I love playing with form.

Something else I’ve read is that these songs are all related to each other in terms of the key centers–you said there’s a lot of D flat and A flat. Why do you think you gravitated to those areas when you were thinking about the story of this record?

I don’t have an answer as to why; it wasn’t a conscious choice. You know, the musical idea comes first, I just happened to play in those keys. I do like the flatter keys–D flat is kind of my favorite. That’s just where the songs started, and it ended up being convenient. I was able to overlap tracks, and I’m really happy with how the flow turned out. And the shifts of key centers, too, because a couple of the songs will change from D flat to A flat, but very subtly. There’s no, like, “Ah! There’s the key change!” It’s just a, “We’re now in a different key,” but there’s not really a moment where it’s changed.

They’re all in the same keys, except for the last song, which is in F, which is a completely unrelated key. I like that as well because in the story, it’s years later. It’s a different place and a different mindset, and it sounds like a big shift. As soon as that song hits, it’s startling.

The album title comes from that last track, “Bitter Memory,” and it’s called Let Go, which are the last words on the album. What does that title mean to you?

I didn’t really want to name it Let Go at first because it’s common to use. [laughs] I know at least two albums that are called Let Go–I love both. But it was the perfect title. It means a couple things to me. Letting go is something I’ve always struggled with. Like, moving on, forgiveness–a lot of what this record really is about is my experience in an intense relationship and trying to move on, trying to let go of what I was longing for, was hoping it would be. Also, wanting to be let go. Wanting someone else to let me go. That word comes up twice in that song, and it’s used both ways.

Is there a kind of paradoxical risk for you that making an album like this is actually holding onto these feelings, especially when you then end up promoting and performing these songs after the fact?

I don’t think so. I honestly think releasing the record is further letting go. It was a long time ago, so I’m fairly removed from it. Making it and releasing it has just further helped to literally release the event–the emotions. Me and this person had forgiven each other and made up years ago, I think before this record was ever even an idea. I think if I was still in it, it would be a lot harder to release something like this. Then you’re emotionally attached and making decisions based on emotions, and that would be a little harder. It definitely helps that it’s been a long time, and I feel I have moved on.

This album is powerful in the way it does revisit and grapple with moments from that story. You filmed a music video for “Reach You,” which feels like such a kind of centerpiece of this record, in how things come to a head in that track. How did that song come to be?

Yeah, that song is a standout track to me. That was a weird song to write. That was one that I had mentioned earlier that I started in 2007 or 2008 and then didn’t touch for years until I wanted to do this particular album, Let Go. Like I said, all the music was written, the ending lyrics were written, the bridge was written from before, I just had no verse and chorus, so I was able to fill in the story. I went back and read through all my journals and tried to get myself in that place, in that moment. I was also going through a real breakup, so I used that energy to help write this song.

It’s definitely the most intense one. There’s a mix of emotions in there. A lot of longing, frustration, confusion, and to me, that song is really about just the deep desire to connect with someone, and not being able to.

What was it like filming the video? Had you ever done a concept video, versus just performing on camera?

No, I had not, so that was new. I put a lot of trust into the director–I mostly gave him free reign. He really loved the album and was into the music, and was excited to do it, and I was excited to work with him, so we bounced some ideas back and forth. One concept that I wanted to come through: we really never touch in the video. There’s some fantasy involved–you know, “What are they doing in this moment?”

Filming it was actually really fun. The other actor, Genevieve Jencson, is so great to work with. She was so comfortable, which made me more comfortable. Ultimately, it was fun, and I’m happy with how it turned out. We filmed it during the pandemic, so not touching was also necessary. [laughs]

You mentioned your mixed feeling about putting a record like this out as your solo debut. How has your relationship to this project changed over time, and what does it feel like now to be making this your debut?

I’m very relieved. It’s taken so long–way longer than I ever could have anticipated. I feel ashamed or embarrassed that it’s taken this long, but it is what it is, and I’m glad that it’s coming out. My relationship with it is, I’m proud of it, and I just hope people listen to it. Definitely a vulnerable record, and I think that’s what makes me feel uncomfortable the most. 

For one thing, just to release music. Music is a reflection of you no matter what. If someone criticizes your music, there’s going to be an element of taking it personally, somewhat, but ultimately, you just have to be okay with people not liking your music, or not liking you, [laughs] which is going to happen. But there’s an extra element of, there’s so little to hide behind. This is very much me, or at least who I was or how I felt ten years ago. There’s an extra level of vulnerability, which I’m forcing myself to be comfortable with.

I certainly hope that people do connect with it, and if they do connect with it, connect with their own emotions that maybe they’re less comfortable expressing or acknowledging. That is something I certainly struggled with during this period, was simply recognizing my own emotions and accepting them. Really, music and writing music is, as the cliché goes, to express the inexpressible, and that can be different for different people. For me personally, struggling to express emotions, certainly earlier in my life, has led me to feel compelled to create music, and creating music has helped me to connect more with my own emotions.

What has it been like seeing the first few singles from this record come out and having those moments of really intense vulnerability?

Once they’re out, it’s like, “Oh, well. Alright. It happened.” The feedback I’ve gotten from people has been really great. You know, it’s mostly people in my own circle, so I’m mostly going to hear positive feedback, but just getting that has been really, really great and really rewarding. And surprising, from the people it has come from. A lot of people in the video game music community have found and embraced my original music, which I am kind of surprised by, but having gotten to know the community, also not surprised by. [laughs] 

The video game music community is the best music community I have ever been a part of, or been in, or experienced. There’s all kinds of music groups, and I’ve been part of them all–musical theater, classical, jazz, the local rock scene–and they’re all different. There’s support there. There’s competition. There’s pettiness that can get in the way, but the video game music people are just so open-minded, so supportive, and just want to embrace all music, especially with video game music. Like, you can play it however. [laughs] You can be at any level–really excellent, or just kind of trying out–and they’re going to be supportive of you. The fact that they’ve embraced my own music has meant a lot.

Why do you think that community is so much more positive that way?

I don’t actually know! [laughs] They just seem to love music, and they embrace the people who are making VGM, and as I’m one of them, they’re really embracing anything that I do.

You started this project 88bit a few years ago–how did you get connected with that community?

I made a couple videos, then I started playing conventions. I played Classic Game Fest in Austin, Texas, and they were the first one to accept my submission. And I was a nobody. I only had a few videos and they didn’t have a lot of views, but they were a retro game convention, and I’m doing retro video game music, so it was a nice fit.

That’s really where it all started. Right off the bat, I met this guy named DJ R.O.C.K.M.A.N. I played my set–it was earlier in the day, so not a lot of people there in a huge convention hall. It was kind of empty, and I was like, “Aw, man. No one really cares.” But he came right up to me and was like, “Dude, that was awesome! I’m doing an event at PAX, we gotta get you out to that, and then maybe SXSW, if you want to come down for that too,” and that was just like hearing, “Oh, wow, someone really thought what I was doing was super cool.” That gave me a lot of encouragement. I met Mega Ran at that event too, and ended up jumping on stage with him.

Then started doing more conventions, meeting more people, played MAGFest–got to play for the composer for Mega Man 2, met a bunch of people there, and just kept doing more and more events, putting out more videos, collaborating with people. I ended up going on tour with Mega Ran. I’ve collaborated with him quite a bit–he’s quite an amazing person. The more conventions I’ve done, the more content you put out, you connect with more people, and it’s been awesome. It’s been truly, truly great.

I really loved the video you did with 8-Bit Music Theory. How did you end up getting connected, and how did that project come about?

We met at a really small con called VGM Con in Minneapolis, and I think this was my third convention. They were also one of the first to book me for something. [laughs] I think we met in a really small jam space, and he was playing drums–he’s an excellent drummer. I was playing drums too at first, but I’m not an excellent drummer. I love to play drums for fun. Then I was on keyboards, and he was jamming on drums, and we just were like, “Oh, you’re really good,” [laughs] and we connected that way. Then we realized, “Oh, I’ve heard of your YouTube videos,” and–I don’t know if he’d heard of mine at the time. He might have, because I think he saw me at MAGFest, actually. We had an idea of who each other was. 

That’s how we met, and then we ran into each other again at another fest, MAGWest, and became friends. We talked about collaborating, and then he had this idea for the Kakariko Village one, which was really helpful to my page. Mine is much smaller, and my subscribership doubled from that. He’s an excellent guy, and it’s fascinating that his YouTube channel is as big as it is. A music theory channel that’s about video game music–I love it.

I think there’s so much deep-rooted childhood wonder and love for that music that it makes the jump easier to then say, “Oh, I’ve heard this melody a million times, and when you break down and explain to me how that works, there’s something really magical.” Where maybe in a classroom setting, hearing about intervals and things is less exciting, you know what I mean?

Oh, 100%. My degree is in music theory.

And you’re a teacher. [laughs]

Yeah, I teach private lessons, but I get how music theory is taught very, very dry and alienating. Honestly, the way it was taught in college–I have issues with what was focused on and what was important. We put a lot of time in college on part-writing, and it’s good to know, but [laughs] practically, not that useful for a majority of musicians. He does a great job of talking about music theory in a very down-to-earth way and really gets at what’s important, and he does it in a fun way. Because music theory is fun. Music theory to me is just understanding why music makes us feel the way it does, and that’s cool.

What was it like for you in making that video, hearing all those reharmonizations and playing around that piece of music so many ways?

It was fun–I was teaching that day and I was trying to get it recorded between lessons, and some of them, I really had to practice. I couldn’t just sight-read all that stuff. Some of the ones at the end are pretty weird. The very end one, he has a chord with a sharp 15, which he had labeled as something else–I think it was a nine and a flat nine. I was like, “Rather than a split nine, this is really more of a sharp 15 the way you have it. Jacob Collier opened up that door, you should call it that.” Which he did, and it ended up kind of being a highlight of the video. But yeah, working on it with him and just playing, I didn’t really change anything. A note here or there. It was definitely fun to play through it and hear his reharmonizations.

Have you been able to keep having private lessons under pandemic conditions?

Yes, right before the pandemic, I was supposed to be in a different state playing for a new musical, so I was already preparing my students to be virtual anyway. Right next week, everything was going to be online, and I’ve been teaching virtually for five years also. I don’t advertise it, but I was on a website where people could find me if they Google enough, so I had been teaching people throughout the country, or even certain parts of the world.

I was already familiar with teaching online, so the transition was pretty smooth, and it definitely helps me survive [laughs] during the pandemic. I actually gained a lot of students too. A lot of teachers weren’t able to teach virtually, and as I ended up playing a lot more concerts virtually, I got more known. I ended up having more people want to take lessons from me that way. I recently just took the last two months off from teaching so I can focus on this soundtrack for this video game that I’m trying to finish.

Straylight, right? How’s that going?

Yeah…good. [laughs] This’ll likely be my next record. It’ll come out later this year–totally different record. The soundtrack is all synthesizers, mostly a Prophet-5, which I’ve never really gotten to work with before, so it’s been a lot of fun. It’s very tedious, but the sounds of this instrument are so great. I can’t use any other synthesizer once I started using it–the sounds are just so great. We keep expanding on the game, so that means I have to write more music, which I’m happy to do, but it is taking a lot of time. The plan is to release it in July. 

I’m really excited for people to hear this record. Like, there’s no vulnerability on this [laughs] this EDM-inspired, prog-rock synth music. It’s a ton of fun.

Who are the composers who inspire you in that realm?

The NES-era composers definitely inspired me. David Wise, Takashi Tateishi from Mega Man 2, Kenichi Matsubara from Castlevania II. As I really dive deep into NES music–which is some of the first commercially-consumed computer music, and really the first video game music that you can actually call music. There’s stuff with Atari, but it’s really hard to call that music, and even the copyright office doesn’t [laughs] consider that music. It’s just code. 

I get a sense that they felt they were breaking new ground. They certainly were, but it seems like they knew that as well. I find there’s a lot of experimentation in their compositions, and just–you know, they could do whatever they want. Now, if you write video game music, you have a history to fall back on, like, “What have other people done?” But they didn’t have that, so they were setting new trails. That, to me, is inspiring, because I’m writing for a VR game, which is the wild west of video games right now. Our game is a space platformer. You basically fly around space in VR, and it’s an incredible experience. Super fun, and nothing really quite like it in the VR space right now, so I feel like I’m doing something new.

At the same time, you don’t have the technical limitations of composers writing for NES. What has that been like?

The biggest limitation that I’ve imposed on myself is using a Prophet-5, which can only play up to five notes at once. I’m enjoying finding ways to get around that, doing lots of layering, but yeah, I do have free rein to make the music as long as I want, as thick as I want. There is some dialog, and there are some sound effects, but there’s no foley. There’s no atmosphere sound. I don’t have much to compete with, sound-wise, so that’s pretty fun.

The biggest hurdle technologically is this old synthesizer, which doesn’t always work correctly. It has to warm up. If I don’t put it on for a couple days, the buttons don’t work. The keys will have inconsistent connection–I kinda gotta work ’em. I’ve had to do a lot of soldering. That’s the drawback. They released a new Prophet-5 this year, which is amazing. Maybe one day I’ll get a new one. [laughs]

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