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The Inner Workings Of A Chip Tune Empire: Here's How Datathrash's Musicians Use Game Boys And More To Create 8-Bit Magic

In each article of this three part series, we present three chip tune artists from Datathrash Recordings and their music setups, with all the nitty gritty details of their Game Boys, vintage computers, keyboards, and more. First up: Comptroller, Environmental Sound Collapse, and A vs B.

8-bit, chiptunes, chip music, whatever you want to call it, it’s here to stay. Though the style of music created using classic video game consoles was relatively unknown outside of specialized circles just a few years ago, the upswing in nostalgia for classic games, as well as the mainstreaming of electronic music, have brought this blippy style onto the radars of lots of new listeners.

But just because lots more folks know what 8-bit sounds like, doesn’t mean they understand how it’s made or know of the people making it by name. When you hear a chip tune, the first thing you generally recognize is the shrill tone most often heard as the background music of a Game Boy game. The next thing you notice is that you don’t recognize the melody, that someone has somehow taken the apparatus used to make that classic video game music and harnessed it to make something completely new.

Well, we wanted to know how this stuff works, so we went right to the source.

Based in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Datathrash Recordings is one of several chip tune collectives in the US, with a roster of guys who not only have different approaches to the creation of their music, but who are also an insane cast of characters. What we’ve got below is a snapshot of each musical act, a little about their persona, and an image of their production setup, which each musician has kindly labeled so that we can better understand exactly how this stuff is made. Because this can get rather technical, we’ve linked some of the more obscure components to their descriptions. Let’s dive in!

Comptroller

Comptroller is a producer based in Edinburgh, Scotland who has been making music using machines since 2006, and he “will not stop, so please don’t ask.” Using a combination of Game Boys, a classic Commodore computer, a black and white television, and a cluster of MIDI setup components, he creates music that is simultaneously melodic and abrasive, sort of like taking The Nutcracker and throwing it into the garbage disposal. Or filling a paper bag with Temptations songs and smashing it open with a spiked bat. Hmm, none of these descriptions are really doing him justice. Listen for yourself below…


The Gear

Nintendo Game Boys: Each running native tracking software Little Sound DJ, as programmed by Johan Kotlinski. Original ‘DMG’ models, backlit so you can see what you’re doing in the dark.

Commodore 64C: The C64C model comes with the more reliable/clear 8580 model SID chip, hence selection over original ‘breadbin’ C64 with 6581 SID. Both are good, it’s just a matter of preference.

MSSIAH: A suite of sound software on cartridge for the C64 that allows you to control the SID chip via MIDI (among other things).

GP2X CAANOO: I’m running LGPT aka “Piggy tracker,” a sample-based tracker that can also send MIDI signals, which I use to control the C64.

Piggy=>MIDI Interface: Special MIDI-out converter box, as designed by firestarter & low-gain.

Micromys PS/2 Adaptor: Lets you use a standard PS/2 mouse with a Commodore 64. Very handy since original C64 mice are hard to come by these days.

B&W Portable TV: Connected to the C64. I need to see what I’m doing in MSSIAH.

Mixer: Just an ordinary mixer.

Environmental Sound Collapse

ESC is based in Chicago, where he creates songs inspired by “gruesome murders, relationships gone wrong, society in decay,” and other little foibles. Though he creates within the chip tune format, ESC doesn’t consider himself a purist, and uses circuit-bent drum machines and analog synths alongside standard game consoles to set “a thick mood of impending doom.” If he’s anything besides dark, ESC is prolific as hell, having dropped scores of his own releases, as well as appearing on comps with the likes of Venetian Snares and Matmos.


The Gear

GP2X F200: Korean made game console running a piece of homebrew software called LGPT (or Piggy Tracker), which is an 8-channel sample & midi tracker program.

Piggy→MIDI: Breakout adapter to run midi out of a GP2X and LGPT.

Kenton THRU-5: One in, five out midi splitter.

Nintendo Entertainment System: The original Nintendo, unmodded stock.

MidiNES: Hardware NES cart which allows you to control the Nintendo sound functions via MIDI.

Nintendo Game Boy: The original, but this one is modded to have a backlit screen and a higher output level for the audio, running Nanoloop One

CAANOO: Another Korean game console, used for Super Pikix (visual software) and LGPT.

Edirol V4 video mixer: Four channel video mixer with effects, all controllable via MIDI, mixes video from Kaptivator & Caanoo, plus used for live video feedback generation..

Korg Kaptivator: 40GB video work station/sampler, also with with full MIDI control and some built-in effects.

Roland TR-626: Classic Roland tr drum machine, unmodded, run through guitar pedals.

Boss SD-1 overdrive: Smooth overdrive, kicks from the TR-626 run through here.

Boss OC-2 octave: Glitchier and rawer than the OC-3, all the 626 drums besides the kicks go through this pedal for extra thud.

Boss DS-1 distortion: World’s most-omnipresent distortion pedal, all 626 drums go through this as well.

Mackie 1202-VLZ3 mixer: Does the job like a true workhorse.

Korg KP mini: Takes the aux sends of the Mackie for additional live effects, usually the delays, filters & distortions.

Yamaha CS01: With Highly Liquid midi mod (installed by Low-Gain), allowing for full midi control over a 61 note range. used mostly for triangle or PWM analog leads, sometimes bass.

Dave Smith Instruments MoPho: Mono analog synth module. Lots of bass and sub bass out of this little beast.

A vs B

A vs B is a 19-year-old kid from Montclair, New Jersey, but unlike most of his cohorts, he doesn’t stop at just playing video games—he uses their hardware to create sonic madness. Starting out with an 8-bit Garageband plugin called Magical8bitplug, he later switched to LSDJ, LGPT aka The Piggy for PSP, and a program called Renoise for PC. His updated setup comes together for a sound that’s “loud, fast, and scary for those who don’t understand it.” And if you have the fortune of seeing him perform live, “you will laugh, you may cry, and you will certainly create or be inserted into a mosh pit!” And yes, that is a watermelon he’s wearing on his head.


The Gear

Playstation Portable (PSP): Used solely for LGPTLittle Piggy Tracker (LGPT). an eight channel sample based tracker program.

Anywhere from one to three Game Boys: I can run 1 or two LSDJ trackers at the same time, and a single nanoloop program on my
Gameboy Pocket.

Macbook or Mac Mini: Both used for Garageband running “Magical8bitplug” and Renoise. Also serves as a backup
LGPT if my PSP is dropped and broken during my set.

KAOSS Pad (Not pictured): Used for adding effects on the fly while playing live shows

Stay tuned for more Datathrash madness in parts two and three of this series

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