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An Interview with GLASYS: Tugging on my Heartchips

GLASYS Gil Assayas

GLASYS (Gil Assayas) was a winner of the MIDI Association's 2022 Innovation Awards for artistic installations. He's a keyboard player, composer, sound designer, and video content creator who currently performs live with Todd Rundgren's solo band. The internet largely knows GLASYS for his viral MIDI art and chiptune music.

We spoke with Gil to learn more about how he makes music. I'll share that interview with him below. First, let's have a quick review of his newly released chiptune album.  

MIDI Art that Tugs on my Heartchips

The latest record from GLASYS, Tugging On My Heartchips, debuted January 2023 and captures the nostalgia of early 8-bit game music perfectly, with classic sound patches that transport the listener back in time. The arrangements are true to the genre and some of the songs even have easter eggs to find. 

Gil created MIDI art to inspire multiple songs on the album, elevating the album's conceptual value into uncharted meta-musical territory. He even created music video animations of the MIDI notes in post production. On track two, The MIDI Skull Song, you can almost hear the swashbuckling pirates in search of buried treasure. Take a listen here:

The MIDI Gargoyle Song features an even more complex drawing, with chromatic lines to put any pianist's hands in a pretzel. Once the picture is finished, Gil's gargoyle comes to life in a funny animation and dances to the finished song. It's the first time I've seen someone create animations from MIDI notes in the piano roll! 

Heartchips delivers all the bubbly synths and 8-bit percussion you could want from a chiptune album. But with Gil, there's more to the music than aesthetic bravado. Where other artists lean on retro sounds to make mid-grade music sound more interesting, GLASYS has mastered the composing and arrangement skills needed to evoke the spirit of early 90s games.

It can take several listens to focus on each of the album's sonic elements. The mix and panning are impeccable. Gil rolls off some of the harsh overtones in the instrument's waveform, to make it easier on our ears. But there's something special happening in the arrangement, that  we discussed in more detail during our interview. 

Drawing from a classic 8-Bit technique

The playful acoustics of Heartchips mask Gil's complex harmonic and rhythmic ideas like a coating of sugar. 

Gil gives each instrument a clear sense of purpose and identity, bringing them together in a song that tells a story without words. To accomplish this, he uses techniques from early game music, back when composers had only 5 instruments channels to use.

In the 1980s and 90s, as portable gaming consoles became popular, there was a limit to the number of notes a microchip could store and play at once. Chords had to be hocketed, or broken up into separate notes, so that the other instrument channels could be used for lead melody, accompaniment and percussion.

As a result, the classic 8-bit composers avoided sustained chords unless the entire song was focused on that one instrument. Every instrument took on an almost melodic quality.

While Heartchips doesn't limit itself to five instrument channels per song, it does align with the idea that harmony and chord progressions should be outlined rather than merely sustained as a chord.

When GLASYS outlines a chord as an arpeggio in the bass, you'll often hear two or three countermelodies in the middle and upper registers. Each expresses a unique idea, completely different from the others, yet somehow working perfectly with them. That's the magic of his art.

There are a few moments on the album when chords are sustained for a measure at a time, like on the tracks No School Today or Back to Reality. These instances where chords are used acquire an almost dramatic effect because it disrupts your expectations as a listener.

Overall, I found Tugging on my Heartchips to be a fun listening experience with lots of replay value. 

What's up with GLASYS in 2023?

In February 2023, GLASYS branched out from MIDI piano roll drawings to audio spectrograms. This new medium grants him the ability to draw images with more than MIDI blocks.

A spectrogram is a kind of 2D image. It's a visual map of the sound waves in an audio file. It reads left to right, just like a piano roll. The X axis represents time and the Y axis represents frequency.

Some other artists (Aphex Twin, Dizasterpeace) have hidden images in spectrograms before, but those previous efforts only generated white noise. GLASYS has defied everyone's expectations with spectrogram art created from his own voice and keyboards.

Here's one of his latest videos, humming and whistling accompaniment to a piano arrangement in order to create a dragon. It may be the first time in history that something like this has been performed and recorded: 

An Interview with GLASYS (Gil Assayas)

I've really enjoyed the boundary-defying MIDI art that comes from GLASYS, so I reached out on behalf of the MIDI Association to ask a few questions and learn more. Here's that conversation.

E: You've released an album in January called Tugging On My Heartchips. Can you talk about what inspired you to write these songs and share any challenges that came up while creating it?

G: Sure. Game boy was a big part of my childhood. It was the only console we had, because in Israel it was more expensive and harder to get a hold of other systems.

The first games I had were Links Awakening, Donkey Kong, Battletoads, and Castlevania. I loved the music and what these composers could achieve with 4 tracks, using pulse wave and noise. Somehow they could still create these gorgeous melodies.

My experience growing up with those games was the main inspiration for this album. I never really explored these sounds in previous albums. I always went more for analog synths.

E: Your first GLASYS EP, The Pressure, came out in 2016 but your Youtube channel goes back almost a decade. Can you tell me a bit about the history of GLASYS?

G: When I first got started, I was playing in a band in Israel and every so often I would write a solo work that didn't fit the band's sound. So I created the GLASYS channel to record those ideas occasionally. After moving to the United States, I had a lot more time to focus on my own music and that's when things started picking up.

E: Can you tell me more about your mixing process? Do you write, record, and mix everything yourself?

G: Yes, I write everything myself and record most of it in my home studio. Nowadays I mix everything myself, though in the past I've worked with some great mixing engineers such as Tony Lash (Dandy Warhols, Elliot Smith).

E: I think the playful tone of Heartchips will carry most listeners away. It's easy to overlook the difficulty of creating a chiptune album like this, not to mention all the video work you do on social media to promote it. You've nailed the timbre of your instruments and compositional style.

G: Yeah, mixing chiptune can be trickier than it seems because of all the high end harmonic content. None of the waveforms are filtered and everything has overtones coming through. I found that a little bit of saturation on the square waves, pulse waves, and a little bitcrushing can smooth out the edges a bit. EQ can take out some of the harsh highs, and you can do some sidechaining. These are things you can't do on a gameboy or NES.

E: How much of your time is spent composing versus mixing and designing your instruments?

G: Mixing takes a lot longer. Composition is the easy part. The heard part is making something cool enough to want to share. I can be a bit of a perfectionist. So I'll do a mix, try to improve it, rinse and repeat ten revisions until I'm happy with it. That's one of the reasons it can be better to do the mix myself, haha.

E: Before this interview, we were talking about aphantasia where people can't visualize images but they can still dream in images. Do you ever dream in music?

G: Dreams are such an emotional experience. When you get a musical idea in your dreams, more often than not you forget it when you wake up. But when you do remember it, it's very surreal. Actually, my first song ever was based on a purple hippo I saw in my dream. I was 5 years old, heard the melody, figured it out and wrote it down with my dad.

E: What inspired you to get into MIDI art?

G: Well, there were a couple of things. Back in 2017, an artist by the name of Savant created some amazing MIDI art - I believe he was the first to do it in a way that sounds musical. He inspired other artists to create MIDI art, such as Andrew Huang who created his famous MIDI Unicorn (which I performed live in one of my videos).

There was another piece in particular that blew me away, this Harry Potter logo MIDI art that uses themes from Harry Potter, masterfully created by composer Hana Shin. I don't particularly care for Harry Potter, but I just found the concept and execution really inspiring and I thought it would be awesome to perform something like that live. In 2021, Jacob Collier did a few videos where he spelled out words in real time, which proved that it's possible and motivated me to finally give it a shot.

My idea was to build on the MIDI art concept and draw things that were meaningful to me, such as video game logos and characters - and do it live, so I needed to write them in a way that would be possible to play with two hands. I actually just wanted to do it once or twice but it was the audience who motivated me to keep going. It got such a huge response, I've ended up doing nearly fifty of them. I'm now focusing on other things, but I might get back to MIDI art in the future

E: Do you have any advice for MIDI composers who struggle coming up with new ideas?

G: Sure, I do get writers block sometimes. As far as advice goes… I know how it goes where you keep rewriting something you've already created before. Everyone has their subconscious biases, things that they tend to go to without thinking. So even though they're trying to do something new, they end up repeating themselves. It can be a struggle for sure.

If you find yourself sitting in front of your daw not knowing what to do, then don't sit in front of your daw. Go outside and take a guitar with you and start jamming. Sometimes a change of environment, breaking the habit and getting out of the rut doing the same thing over and over can really help you.

Listen to something entirely different, then new ideas will come. A lot of the problem comes from listening to the same stuff or only listening to one genre of music. So everything you write starts to sounds like them.

Listen to music outside of the genres you like. For example, if you never listen to Cuban music, listen to it for a week. Some of it will creep into your subconscious, you might end up writing some indie rock song with cuban elements that's awesome and would sound entirely new.

E: Are there any organizational tricks that you use to manage the sheer volume of musical ideas you come up with?

G: Yeah I used to have a lot of little ideas and save them in different folders, but it was too difficult to get back to things that I had written a year ago. Time goes by, you forget about how you felt when you wrote that thing, you feel detached from it.

If I decide to do something, I work on just one or two tracks until I'm done with them. I don't record every idea I have either. I have to feel motivated enough to do something with it.

E: Do you have perfect pitch? Can you hear music in your head before playing it?

G: Definitely, yeah I can hear music in my head. I do have perfect pitch but it has declined a little bit as I get older.

E: What can we expect from GLASYS in 2023?

G: Lots of new music and videos - I've got many exciting ideas that I'm looking forward to sharing!

To learn more about Gil's musical background, check out interviews with him here, here, and here. You can also visit the GLASYS website or check out his Youtube channel.

If you enjoyed this artist spotlight and want to read more about innovative musicians, software, and culture in 2023, check out the AudioCipher blog. We've recently covered Holly Herndon's AI music podcast Interdependence, shared a new Japanese AI music plugin called Neutone, and promoted an 80-musician Songcamp project that created over 20,000 music NFTs in just six weeks. AudioCipher is a MIDI plugin that turns words into music within your DAW.

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