An Ode to AughtTube Cover Artists

Earlier today I found myself in want of a term that describes my extremely terrible aesthetics for amateur video game music covers. The correct term is probably lo-fi, in the sense of, quite literally, low fidelity. Horrible, tinny, noisy recordings of flawed performances. Recordings that feel like the equivalent of having a friend over and them asking you to play the Dragon Roost Island theme in your living room, then stopping halfway through because the cat wanted attention. That performance isn't going to win you a Grammy, but it was fun, your friend thought it was impressive, and you might cherish the memory of it for a long time.

A piece recorded in someone's bedroom with terrible equipment, when that is all they have access to, is not really lo-fi. However, someone with access to better tools deliberately choosing terrible ones? That is. Lo-fi is a genre which pointedly produces "worse" recordings and generally has a close relationship with nostalgia: it evokes music created in the past, when more limited resources were all musicians had access to, even though those limitations are now gone.

So, if I make music now, in 2021, evoking music from 15 years ago and using tools from 15 years ago (or techniques to emulate the sounds of those tools) -- that is lo-fi, and hipster to boot.

So I am here to talk about the specific past influences that color my brand of lo-fi. To discuss the particular era that was formative for me, and which now informs my uniquely bad aesthetics. And since other musicians of the past have written self-important thinkpieces on their inspirations, then I don't see why I can't do the same.

I was a tweenager on the internet in the mid 2000's. I was also a cellist and an obsessive fan of certain Nintendo games. My biggest musical inspirations - musicians I looked up to, but whose work still felt tangible and achievable - were amateur YouTube video game cover artists. Their works were so distinctly a product of this era that I feel I owe it to them to honor their creations as my inspirations, while placing them within the specific constraints musicians on YouTube were working with at the time. Out of a desire to coin a term for no reason, I'm going to refer to the pieces from this era as "AughtTube" covers.

Video: piano cover of "A Link to the Past: Hyrule Castle" by Pascal von Stekelenburg, aka NightShader1; posted July 24, 2007.

First of all: this, and all of the covers I'll be posting, slaps.

NightShader1's face is not in this video. You see their hands playing the piece in what is unambiguously a live single-take recording. There is no production quality to speak of. The video recording is in 240p. The purpose of this video is to demonstrate "look! I played this!"

This video is actually pretty close to a perfect or ideal performance, which isn't always the case for AughtTube covers. These covers are virtually all recorded in a single take - after all, have you tried comping low quality audio/video in Windows Movie Maker (2007)? It's not going to work out for you. Any splice is going to be more obvious than a small error, so in general, artists opted to just try for the single best take they could get and then post it.

Also, given how poor most cheap and available audio recording equipment was (crappy 2007 phone mics or crappy 2007 USB mics; pick your poison, they're both terrible), there was more impact in a cover if you could show that you played it yourself in one go.

Video: piano cover of "Wind Waker Ocean Overworld," by Nunquam; posted Feb 3, 2007.

Video description: "Here's the sailing music from the Wind Waker on the piano. Sorry for the mistakes and the really bad video skippiness."

This is a perfect demonstration of AughtTube cover values: if an artist recorded a take that was good enough, they posted it. Again, the only part of Nunquam that we see here are their hands, as proof that they are playing the music we hear. The primary focus is on the fact that Nunquam is the person playing the music we are hearing, and we can appreciate that because we can see their hands producing the notes. The recording quality is "this was probably recorded on a cell phone," but that doesn't matter, because this cover was never going to be put in an album and sold. It was only ever going to be posted to share a performance, as a bit of fun, and a bit of a flex.

AughtTube covers were not intended to produce a studio-quality piece of music for consumption. They were equally about conveying the act of performance as they were about the pieces being played. A few wrong notes are excusable when the audience can see you worked hard producing them, and that heck, you're proving you can play an instrument at all. That's impressive! It's something to be proud of!

Video: piano/synth cover of "Zelda, the Wind Waker - introduction story," by Anadin, posted Sep 2, 2007.

You may have noticed that these are all Zelda keyboard covers so far. Here is where I have to admit that my capacity to rigorously and extensively look at AughtTube covers as a broad genre is, uhh, limited. This is because:

  1. I am, unfortunately, searching on YouTube in the year 2021. It is extremely, extremely difficult to find anything 10+ years old recorded in poor quality on long-dead channels using the search function. Thus...

  2. My main tool for citing these videos is my own playlist that I made in the 2000's with my favorites. Half of the videos are no longer accessible, but thankfully many of them still are. This means that my sources are biased by what past-me, personally, decided that I wanted in the playlist.

And, well, I really liked piano covers, and I really liked Zelda. So Zelda piano covers are what I have to work with. I would be delighted to receive recommendations for other AughtTube covers, featuring other instruments/covering pieces from other games, if any readers happen to have any.

This one's fascinating because look at this VARIETY!!! We get to see a bit of Anadin's torso in addition to their hands. They changed up the camera angle a bit, nice innovation. Also love the synth texture, this isn't any old keyboard piano cover this is using unique instrumentation. You go, Anadin!

I don't think I need to point out that, again, we are focusing on Anadin's hands, proof of performance, and the recording quality isn't anything to write home about. I am thinking that at this point, most of you get the picture.

(Another interesting and related note: the internet culture of the mid-2000's was much more interested in anonymity than the present day. I think the fact that we don't see any of these players' faces is a byproduct of a desire for anonymity, in addition to a focus on the performance. Filming a face instead of a hand was out of the question, but filming a face in addition to a hand was not desirable either.)

Video: piano cover "Bryan plays Outset Island," posted by paulosimmons Oct 13, 2007.

Video description: "Bryan playing a song he likes."

I particularly love this one. This one has a slightly different intention than the others, which were all self-recorded and self-posted; this one is recorded and posted by someone else, and has Embarrassing Supportive Dad energy. I think my favorite part is when someone unrelated is running up the stairs in the background, and how it ends with Bryan going "sorry."

Despite the slightly different framing, I think this one as well as the previous all demonstrate very well the idea I'm hoping to communicate here: AughtTube covers all feel exactly like someone playing for their school's talent show. There is no commercial value in these pieces, they are all about showing off a performance, and there is no notion that the performance must be world-class in order to merit showing it off.

There is a reason I am specifically framing this around video game covers. I know that "gamers are an oppressed minority" is rightfully a meme because pretending being a Gamer(TM) makes you special in 2021 is a stupid take. However, when I was a kid who almost exclusively listened to video game soundtracks (this has not changed), most of my peers at school wouldn't recognize the songs I listened to, save a couple who are still my close friends to this day. Music is a part of one's identity, and as a kid, it meant a lot when I had people I could share the music I liked with. And for the most part? I found that online, rather than in person.

No one else at my school was going to play Outset Island for the talent show, but some kid on YouTube did. So I added his performance to a "Zelda" playlist that I listened to.

This is where the informal nature of AughtTube covers is in fact the appeal: they are approachable. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of extremely professional-quality covers on YouTube today by talented, hard-working, and accomplished musicians. But when I was a kid, I don't think watching those would have inspired me as much as watching this random person fumble a bit and say "sorry" before the 240p video abruptly cuts off.

And this is what has curated my personal flavor of lo-fi. I make certain music out of a desire to inspire other musicians. I want someone to hear my slightly-shitty work and think "oh, I could probably do that," and then do that. I want to put music out in the world that is out-of-tune enough, poorly-produced enough, and relatable enough that it inspires someone else to pick up their instrument and give it a whirl.

So: I now wrap this up with some shameless self-indulgence, because that's what this entire essay has been at its core. I recently wrote a cover of FFIX's "Battle 1" for a midterm project. While I did use a decent microphone, my room acoustics are poor and I used effects in post that make the voices sound a little piercing. And although I did comp together several takes for each line, I stopped recording when I got bored and did not get enough to produce a really perfect recording. The mic placement is intentionally close so you can hear the crunch and snap of my bow pulling on the strings.

Someone in class suggested that I could try using pitch correction to fix some of the blatantly out-of-tune notes. My response was "no."

EDIT/AMENDMENT: it's worth noting that the first video posted is in fact also advertising the musician, in that it includes the performer's name and also a link to their (still up!!) website. This probably explains why it's of a higher quality than many of the others posted, which do not appear to demonstrate a similar purpose.

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