That Indie Gamer Sure Plays a Mean Pianocade
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That Indie Gamer Sure Plays a Mean Pianocade

Tinker and gamer Jonathan Guberman is adding a new weapon to Toronto's chiptunes arsenal. The launch party is tonight.

When Torontoist got 31-year-old Little Italy resident Jonathan Guberman, the inventor of the Pianocade, on the phone, our first question was swift and immediate. What even is a Pianocade?

“It’s a chiptunes synthesizer,” was his answer. We required further explanation.

“It’s an instrument that emulates the sound and feel and look of an old arcade video game,” he continued, adding that he got the idea to create the musical tool after participating in the all-night Chiptunes Orchestra at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of last year’s Nuit Blanche. When we ask what chiptunes is, he chuckles to himself.

“It’s the kind of subculture where you could start a Holy War by asking that,” he replies. This was an unexpected turn to a conversation about what is seemingly a jovial white box, complete with shiny, round arcade buttons and a bright red joystick.

Guberman describes chiptunes, in its broadest terms, as a genre that incorporates retro game hardware into its music—a genre that is definitely entering the mainstream with bands like Anamanaguchi, which provided some of the soundtrack for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. A lot of chiptunes melodies are composed in advance, so live performances are similar to DJ sets.

“Toronto is a great place for all sorts of things gaming-related,” Guberman said, so the chiptunes scene here is healthy and growing. “Enough that we were able to get together enough chiptunes performers to do an all-night concert for Nuit Blanche.”

Watching audiences lap up show after show of the chiptunes marathon, Guberman realized the potential to boost live shows with an instrument a musician physically plays, instead of pressing buttons to launch pre-recorded melodies. After months of conceptualizing, designing, building, and taking care of the business end, his final creation, the Pianocade, is ready for its official launch tonight at Bento Miso. Two protoypes will be passed around for attendees to try out, and a special performance by Shaun Hatton (aka Megashaun) is also planned. Guberman, admittedly, is not the performing type (“Some people see LCD Soundsystem and think, ‘I’d love to be that guy.’ I’d think ‘I’d love to be the guy who made those helmets.'”), but he says he has been taking piano lessons since inventing the Pianocade.

The instrument has made a few smaller appearances in Toronto leading up to the launch, including an event at the Interaccess Gallery, where he says the chiptunes musicians were delighted by it. One classically-trained pianist actually pulled off Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee on the Pianocade.

But Guberman says that the Pianocade, much like the Gameboy, is meant for all skill levels. It has features that can be switched on and off like the easy, medium, or hard levels of a game. Most of all, he’s noticed that the Pianocade produces more of an emotional response from the player—perhaps even more than a musical one.

“When you play a minor chord, you get that feeling of encountering a bad guy in a game. You experience the same emotions, you think ‘I know what that sound is.’ It’s really quite powerful,” he says.

Tonight’s launch party will be the first opportunity for Torontonians to pre-order their Pianocade, which means that soon we’ll all be keeping an eye out for Bowser among the bouncers at our concert venues.

CORRECTION: August 15, 2012, 9:45 AM This post originally stated that the Pianocade’s launch party is tomorrow night. That is incorrect. It is tonight (Wednesday, August 15). We apologize for the error.