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The Glowing Stars: Professional Music, Game Controller

Photo credit: Riki Feldmann

Matt Payne of The Glowing Stars uses a Rock Band 3 keyboard controller on stage in his band. Below, he tells us all about it and then talks to HMX Alum Sean Baptiste about the band and their history.

Matt Payne breaks down how he started using a Rock Band keytar in The Glowing Stars

The first MIDI controller I ever owned was my Roland AX-1 keytar. It was flashy and fun in cherry red, with about four octaves of keys, tons of presets and a bevy of MIDI features. I used it in a number of other bands before Lizzie and I started The Glowing Stars. It served me well enough, but since it was the only controller I had access to, it often spent time sitting on a stand rather than hanging from a strap so it never saw much abuse. When I initially bought it though, some of the plastic screw posts were already falling apart, and I had to wrap tape around the cutaway.

When we decided to put a keyboard solo in our song "I Know Now", we wanted to keep it in the chipmusic realm, so I loaded up a Game Boy with a copy of Trash80's mGB, which turns the Game Boy into a MIDI synthesizer engine, along with an Arduinoboy Game Boy MIDI interface that I built from Trash80's plans. It worked fantastically... for our first show.

The AX-1 didn't wear well though, and I started losing screw posts rapidly, and the case started to separate. It also didn't travel well - road cases for this behemoth must be built custom, and they can cost almost as much as the keyboard itself. Flopping around in the truck loose, usually wrapped haphazardly in a packing blanket, she started to take a beating. Dropping it at the end of the solo to jump back on the drumset every night probably didn't help either. At more than one show, it refused to function entirely. Sometimes I was able to bring it back after the fact, usually by opening it up and re-attaching some of the internal ribbon cables, but the keytar solo was one of the high points of the show, and in the moment, it really sucked to get hung notes, weird transpositions or - most frequently - dead silence.

The battery life was also awful! It originally came with a flimsy insert that took 6AA batteries, and connected to a 9V style battery snap. That thing died a pretty awful death, and I started using 9V rechargeables, which the keyboard drained pretty mercilessly, especially when I left it on accidentally.

Eventually I took it apart to repaint it canary yellow (which looked pretty rad, if I say so myself), and my problems increased. I had hoped I'd be able to reinforce the wiring by soldering the ribbon cables directly, but they were flat, pressed in cables. There was very little I could do. Its behavior became erratic and unpredictable, and I finally decided it was time for another solution.

I recalled an article I read about certain Rock Band 3 controllers coming with MIDI functionality. At the time I thought it was super exciting - a very affordable entry level MIDI controller that people already have in their hands! What a great way to get people making computer music! I looked up the keyboard controller. The benefits definitely outweighed the limitations - MIDI channel 1 only, no aftertouch. I started calling around to the local video game stores I knew about to see if anyone had one in stock. I finally had luck at GameStop, where they sold me a Rock Band 3 Wii Keyboard bundle, and bought back the game disc (I don't own a Wii, and admittedly don't really play many console games younger than about 1995). Total cost around $60!

I got it back to the rehearsal space and hooked it up to my arduinoboy - worked perfectly right out of the box. The keyboard feels great - better, in fact, than the AX-1, which is a dedicated musician's $500+ keyboard! Since then, I've abandoned mGB and the Game Boy for my synth engine and I've started using a MIDIbox SID, which uses the Commodore64's SID sound chip as a monosynth. The Rock Band 3 Keytar has been great here too. As long as everything is set to MIDI channel 1 (which is generally a default setting on most devices), I've had no problems!

All in all, the RB3 keytar has been a fantastic find, fixing all the problems I had with my original keytar. Cheap, plentiful and easy to find, durable (I've dropped it a ton of times with nary a scratch), functional, fun to play. People notice it and recognize it and are comfortable with it, which is awesome. Easy to use, pretty easy to modify . Robust enough - easy octave switching controls and useful MIDI implementation worked into the game buttons are a great tool! I'm glad that Harmonix thought to add MIDI features to this guy, it's really been a lifesaver!

An Interview With Chiptune Mastermind, Matt Payne, of The Glowing Stars

HMXSean: What initially drew you into the chiptunes scene?

Matt Payne: I went through a phase in high school where I was trying to get music and sound out of basically every object I owned due to a simultaneous desire to experiment and lack of funds. I was in a band which used almost all of these odd pieces of equipment, including my original beige brick of a Game Boy. We had a song about Mega Man which used samples from Mega Man II - but since I didn't have a sampler, I actually played the game and paused it just before the desired sound effects, and manually "played" the effects by playing the game. Someone saw us performing this song, and told me about this thing called LSDJ which you could use to write your own music for the Game Boy. I ordered a copy that very week (at the time it shipped on a dedicated cartridge... I think it was version 1.2 or so - this was around 2001). I used it for a few songs and enjoyed it, but never got super in-depth with it and I never realized there was a "scene" at all.

Fast forward to 2010 - Lizzie and I had played together in a punk band for a year or two, and had talked about starting a video game related music project, which eventually became The Glowing Stars. She didn't even know that chiptune was a thing, and when I pulled out my old LSDJ carts, I really took to it in a way that I definitely hadn't the first time around. Chiptune has a fascinating combination of nostalgia for the sights and sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s, along with a sense of achievement for overcoming the limitations of the hardware, as well as a great DIY astheti; those things along with a strong sense of community and camaraderie keep us in the scene.

HMXSean: What is your favorite sound chip to pull from?

MP: The Game Boy's four channel synth (built into the custom Z80 processor at the heart of the console) is still my #1, although I've really been warming up to the SID which I use with the Rock Band 3 Keytar . We also have access to the synths in an NES (similar channel count to the Game Boy), a Sega Genesis (complex FM synthesis), a Game Gear (doesn't do too much) and I'm working on an Atari 2600. I'd love to expand our sound more, but the Game Boy has a very comfortable working environment.

HMXSean: You have a cool balance between traditional rock instruments like guitars/drums and the MIDI. How do you manage all of that in a live setting with just two people?

MP: I've been cultivating a custom in-ear monitor rig that we use onstage to keep us connected to each other and in time with the Game Boy, which is running on its own most of the time. That and practice! The music is written pretty carefully to create a sense of interplay between the chips and the "real" instruments.

HMXSean: When you’re writing songs or working on a cover do you initially arrange in MIDI? What’s your process?

MP: Typically songs either start out as a guitar and vocals song idea from Lizzie - maybe with some keyboard or lead lines - which I then flesh out and arrange and program into the Game Boy. I'll often send it back to her for more lyrics or guitar ideas, sometimes I'll write guitar ideas for her to learn. It's all a toss-up though, every song is different. Sometimes I send Lizzie a scrap of something I wrote in LSDJ, and she'll write a song around that, and every now and then I just write a whole song myself, like with "Group Study."

HMXSean: Where does “The Glowing Stars” name come from?

MP: Apparently - and I didn't know this when we took the name - it's from a Weezer lyric. Lizzie is a huge Weezer fan.

HMXSean: How can people catch up with you online and see you at a live show? is our centralized hub where we announce all shows, releases, and other surprises. We're always talking about side projects, good stuff our friends are doing and more on Twitter @_glowingstars. We're playing a ton of shows at home in the greater San Francisco Bay Area right now, we're hoping to hit Los Angeles around E3 this year, and we're looking into touring farther - perhaps the east coast or other far off locales. Keep an eye on us! We love to hear what people think of our music - don't be afraid to email us or tweet at us!