Here’s a fun party trick for you…

We live in a very cool time for gaming. Even for those of us who are too young to have nostalgia for the original 8-bit consoles like the Famicom, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Atari 7800 still have a love for these retro graphics and sound through retro-revival games like Shovel Knight and Hotline Miami.

But we’re not just here to talk about games (don’t worry, we never stop talking about tone).

Merging two passions is something I’ve always found exciting, and video games and music are two such passions that work together really well.

Believe it or not, you can bring this nostalgia for 8-bit gaming into your rig using just a few simple pedals!

Whether you’re just looking for a fun party trick or you want to start an 8-bit cover band (I mean, you wouldn’t have to deal with your vocalist anymore, right?), here is a quick rundown on turning your guitar into video game soundtrack machine.

The Foundation

That old-school sound was far from dynamic. With the hardware limitations they were dealing with you had little variation in volume from note-to-note.

This means that we need to start with a very compressed sound. While a compressor is definitely helpful, it’s not the main way we want to achieve that compression. Compressors add a lot of noise to the signal and maybe not get us quite the level of compression we need. Put that thought on hold for a minute.

Developers also had control over the harmonics of the sound, or how much distortion it has. This is one of the key components that will get us to the 8-bit sound.

We can kill two birds with one stone here by simply using a fuzz pedal as our base. A fuzz pedal is a very compressed and outlandish kind of distortion, evening out the volume variations and giving a very gritty and consistent sound.

Any fuzz will do, but certain pedals like the 8-bit fuzz from FXdoctor are designed to be notably more convincing.

As far as settings go, the higher the gain goes the more aggressive and thick the sound will be, with lower gain settings sound more similar to a pure sound wave. Too low, however, and it’ll just sound like a guitar again. Generally speaking, the higher gain settings will be more true to the tone that most of the lead melodies had.

Some Clean Up

Tightening up the sound can take the emulation to the next level, as the old 8-bit systems had a very simple sound system. Sound was on, or it was off. There wasn’t much to speak of in the way of attack, sustain, decay, swells, etc. and what tools they did have for these qualities weren’t used very often.

Using a noise gate (or two) can help with that very clean and precise “on/off” staccato sound. No, that does not mean Koji Kondo was the original creator of djent. Don’t even go there.

The nice part is that you can really crank your gate to its most extreme settings without worrying about making the guitar tone unnatural because that’s precisely what we’re aiming to do.

Adding Color And Polish

It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about pitch shifters sounding “artificial” when pushed to larger interval changes, but that artificial sound is actually rather beneficial in this case.

Playing in a lower or higher register and pitch shifting to the desired octave can – in some cases – end up creating a more convincing sound. It helps to get away from that “guitar sound” and is a tool used by many musicians known for their video game covers, such as Nathan Navarro.

If you’re doing this tone digitally there’s even more fun to be had in the form of bitcrushers! They do precisely what the name implies, they reduce the bitrate, which is by far the most accurate way for guitarists to achieve that sound. Trouble is this is only an option as a recording plugin (save for a few rare hardware units). If you’re using a recording program like Logic you’ll have one built into your DAW already.

Now What?

Now you can look up guitar tabs for your favorite old games and have a ton of fun! Try exploring different techniques for different sound effects, like open string harmonics over the 5th fret to mimic Mario’s coin sound, or scraping your pick across muted strings for a rudimentary Pac Man effect. Don’t just explore songs, but sound effects too!

This isn’t likely to make its way into your band’s new single any time soon, but not only is it a fun little party trick, it’s also a great amount of fun to experiment with while reliving the soundtrack to some of your favorite games. Enjoy!

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