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Creativity Bytes: A Brief Guide To Chiptune Music

Here’s a quick reference guide that will seek to explain the trends, terms, and movements of the brave new media world of art and technology. So you can skim, digest, and be a pseudo-expert next time you’re cornered at a Speed Show exhibition in your local cybercafe. Because, hey, life is short and art long. This week: Chiptune music.

So, what is chiptune music?
Remember all those consoles and computers from the 1980s and ’90s? Of course, we all still pine for their retro aesthetic. Well, their sound chips are now being used for music production and performance by chiptune or 8-bit musicians. Practitioners of chiptune music use the vintage hardware from these systems—the Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Atari, the AY-3-8910 chip often found in arcade games—and create music using them as instruments. Along with this traditional way, the sounds can also be produced by emulators such as Chipsounds, which reproduces the 8-bit era sound chips.

Where did it come from?
When the earliest computer games invaded suburban homes in the early 1980s they brought with them the early video game soundtrack. Not as developed as the sound effects found in arcades, they quickly became as familiar a sound as the meowing of the family cat, prog rock, or the rebellious snarls of punk coming from an older sibling’s bedroom. Game developers, beset with the sonic limitations of this early technology, embraced the tonal challenges. But it wasn’t until the release of the polyphonic audio capable MOS Technology SID used in the early C64 that a giant leap forward for chiptunes happened, enabled by a broader musical palette to play with. Throughout the 1980s, chiptune music was mainly practiced by video game soundtrack composers like Rob Hubbard and hobbyists. Then came tracker tool software like Karsten Obarski’s Ultimate Soundtracker (1987) and making computer music became easier and more widespread. In the 1990s musicians were releasing albums made using these applications which had nothing to do with computer soundtracks. From this tracker culture the more modern form of chiptune music, via the Gameboy generation, evolved focusing on live performance, record releases, and cover songs, infusing everything with a retro 8-bit aesthetic.

Rob Hubbard’s music for Commando on the Commodore 64

This week you’re really digging…
Chiptune duo 8-Bit Weapon’s original Tron soundtrack tribute, Tron Tribute EP, using a Commodore 64, NES, Game Boy, Apple II, and Atari 2600. And Bit Shifter’s low-res audio mayhem.

Nano talk
The chiptune sound has now been incorporated into the mainstream with everyone from Fiddy to Justin Timberlake to Zombie Nation to Nelly Furtado using its blipped out styles. Still, don’t fret, the underground scene is still going strong. The annual (since 2006) Blip Festival is a place to meet fellow blip bloppers and continues to keep the scene energized. Attach a Gameboy to your utility belt and head along to this year’s gathering in New York, take some time out to reformat yourself while raving along to an old NES tune or mosh out while getting kicked in the megabytes. Then take a digital stroll over to 8bc for news on grooves.

Describe yourself as…
A lo-fi guy/girl in a hi-fi world.

Keywords
Gameboy, hacking, console, eighties, tracker, 8-bit, synthesis, computer.

8 Bit Weapon’s Tron Scherzo (Sarks Revenge Mix) from the Tron Tribute EP

Difficulty level
Press start to continue.

Age range
8-bits and under.

Tagline
Digital folk music for the pixel generations.

To recap:
The soundtrack of computer games is now the soundtrack to a night out raving, where a bedroom love affair has given way to a global music scene.

Next week: Light painting

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