The often-overlooked chiptune genre has seen a recent resurgence as of late, with the tenaciously vicious yet symphonic beats from yesteryear becoming one of the music industry’s less publicised secrets. In this genre, old, vintage sound chips and synthesisers replace the current high-tech, highly-computerised technology, and this creates a much sharper yet hypnotic sound.
Classical choices for sound chips normally come from older computers and video game consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Commodore 64, and the grossly underestimated Sega Mega Drive. This ability to reuse older equipment and bring it into a newer setting is obviously not a new one, but the way in which chiptune artists view their work and their equipment is different to most genres, they seem to have a much deeper connection to the sonics and capabilities of their devices and honour them before honouring themselves, a trend forgotten about in this increasingly image-dominated music industry.
Perhaps then, that’s why chiptunes are never topping the charts and the genre is supported by a closed niche audience. In effect, the genre and its audience have a kind of kinship that stretches beyond the creation of sound, there’s a further degree of respect, mixed in with nostalgia of the golden age of chiptunes of the 80s and 90s when sound devices like these were the only choice for computerised sound at the time.
“I really got into music heavily on the Amiga 500 using Deluxe Music Construction Set with it’s terrible attempts at emulating Strings and Piano etc, but when the PC came into the home with its artificial samples of orchestral instruments it was far worse. I decided to use the PC not as an instrument but a gateway into other older machines, learn about emulation, schematics and technical documents. There is nostalgia for these kinds of sounds now; these are the sounds a lot of my listeners grew up with in their homes in the arcades. I think it’s a very natural thing for a composer to do, to take the sounds from around them and use them to create music or at least try to emulate the sounds around them, Mozart did this with the birds in his garden, I am doing this with the NES in my living room,” said chiptune artist Pixelh8.
“It’s a game; the machines have natural limitations, cultural associations. What you use and alter to create something new is both a technical challenge as well as a musical one. Chip tunes could potentially be swallowed by “pop” music, it won’t be long before some record exec signs up someone and proclaims to the world “this is what chip tune is” and people will get a very narrow view of it, that is one way it might go. Hopefully it will carry on like it has successfully growing expanding in its range and depth, chip tune isn’t a genre and that is what a lot of people misunderstand it’s a choice of instrumentation. Two chip tune artists can use exactly the same tools but sound completely different, and can create anything from ballads to dance floor fillers.”
Nowadays, people have more freedom and time to create what they want to in music, as well as a much greater emphasis on experimentation in order to create something different from the norm, and this is how the chiptune scene has started to flourish recently, with a large multitude of artists spanning from bedroom-dismantlers to globe-trotting performers such as Nullsleep.
“I make music using a game boy mainly because it’s small, portable and sound great. I love playing music, for me it’s like a matter like wood. It’s like I build something without doing anything, I’ll play till the end of my days. The best way to enjoy this type of music is a Microparty, the funniest party ever. Thanks to my game boy I’ve played worldwide and I’ve met people from all over the world. I can’t ask for anything better,” said chiptune artist Tonylight.
Other artists and groups to check out include Bubblyfish, Jellica and IAYD. Chiptune artists know how to put on a show and utilise technology much better than other musicians, and regularly offer their songs for free on the internet in order to promote themselves and the genre, and there seems to be a mutual respect between listeners and the creators, a much greater balance than the poor state of most music in general these days. In addition, the public’s opinions are actually listened to and acts will take their advice, in a way that is unprecedented with most music at the moment.
“Like most kids growing up I played a ton of video games…(that however has no influence on my music) but when I was about twelve I had been really attached to the sound of old NES soundtracks. I figured that there had to be a way for non-game composers to create this kind of music and I began my search. I was really excited when I found a small music making program that had a feature called “bitcrusher”, but in the end I realized that that was not going to help me do what I wanted to do. I scrapped it, and eventually, when I was fourteen, I found FamiTracker via some forum posts and some MySpace pages. As soon as I downloaded it my heart nearly flew out of my chest,” said chiptune artist IAYD.
“There’s so many new artists emerging in the scene and so many great things are happening everywhere that it’s impossible for me right now to gauge what we’ll be seeing in the next couple years. The chipmusic scene is constantly evolving with the advent of new hardware and software, and the constant music releases coming to the surface along with the new musicians that in the future we very well could be doing something completely different from what we do now. I’m looking forward to the future.”
“I started making chip music because I was attracted to the sounds. I grew up with the Atari 2600 and the NES, and once I had an internet connection, my brother and I spent a lot of time downloading and watching demoscene productions. The use of square waves, triangle waves, white noise, and low-bit crunchy samples as the primary forms of instrumentation was appealing to me. It was a stripped-down aesthetic that I felt could be very expressive,” said chiptune artist Nullsleep.
“Chip music has kept me interested for over 10 years now because I feel like there is still a lot left to explore. I’m very interested in the themes of appropriation and limitation, which are important aspects of this form of music. There is this great William Gibson quote, “the street finds its own uses for things,” and that really resonates with me. I like the idea of taking these old video game consoles and repurposing them as cheap synthesizers and sequencers — totally subverting their original commercial intent. The fact that this early generation of hardware was quite technically limited also has its appeal. I think that working within those limitations can actually help focus and foster creativity. It’s impossible to say what the future of chip music is, but I hope that it will continue pushing in interesting new directions.”
The musical mainstream has been in a mood of embracement lately, chopping and changing itself in order to attract a bigger crowd back into music, or actually paying for what they listen to. Acts are increasingly looking for more niche influences in order to flush out their tunes and promote themselves as the new big thing, or stating they have a whole new fresh sound. For example, look at the recent introduction of Crystal Castles, who have obviously been influenced by the sound synthesisers of old and bringing that into their bizarre yet chaotic mix of chopped up vocals and disturbing samples to create a truly mammoth sound. However, Crystal Castles are a controversial bunch. They have been accused of sampling chip music artists without credit, allegedly breaking Creative Commons license terms in some cases. The band have distanced themselves from the chip music scene when approached about it in interviews, but bizarrely claimed to have hacked Atari soundchips into their keyboards, which isn’t physically possible.
Regardless, even love to hate figure Calvin Harris has started to borrow some of the core chiptune beats for his latest songs, most prevalent in his latest self-indulgent piece “I’m not alone”. For further mainstream listening check out DJ Zinc’s remix of La Roux’s Bulletproof for a snippet of chiptune foray, with some delightful bleeps and bloops complementing La Roux’s usual powerful vocals and some dark lower frequency naughtiness from Zinc himself.
“In a way, I’m a bit of an outsider in the chiptunes scene. My work is relevant since I create electronic music with microchips, but not because I don’t use old video game systems to do so. My approach is grounds-up circuit construction, rather than re-appropriation of hardware. That said, the low-bit aesthetic is really inspiring, and our sounds are similar, so we end up playing a lot of shows together. Sometimes that means a string quartet of mine with electronics is juxtaposed with a hardcore dance chiptunes track by another artist,” added Tristan Perich.
“Creating electronic sound from microchips is profound for me. They embody the notion of digital music, which is ultimately sound based on a sample rate and a bit-depth. For me, the bit-depth is always 1, so I restrict my palette to on/off signals. This is conceptually meaningful because the speakers I put on-stage with my musicians become my instruments, played by the on and off pulses of electricity I send to them from my microchips, which I program from scratch in assembly. Microchips are small computers, but unlike a laptop, or even a GameBoy for that matter, they have a direct connection between hardware and software, so that commands in software are realized in tandem by simple commands in the hardware. There aren’t as many layers of emulation between the sound production itself (on/off electricity) and the logic that creates it (realized by gates in the microchip). I find this a nice parallel to how traditional acoustic instruments create sound, like a vibrating violin string,” he continued.
“I’m personally interested in the cerebral direction some chiptunes artists have headed. The chiptune sound palettes are unique, visceral and of our time, and the music doesn’t need to stay limited by the social constraints of the scene as a whole. My own path is to combine it with classical instrumentation in formal compositions. There’s a lot of exciting experimentation to do.”
It may not be incredibly popular at the moment and perhaps isn’t enough to sustain dramatic critical success, but the genre is definitely spreading and all but the most drugged up electronica experts are tipping chiptunes to become a much bigger part of remixes and soul-searching massive bass tunes to come. Evidence of the genre’s slow and steady rise to fame comes from an annual event held in New York City; Blip Festival (http://blipfestival.org). Since its recent creation in 2006, the festival has been gaining momentum and last year it attracted nearly 40 acts to Brooklyn’s new music venue, the Bell House. Furthermore, it was the subject of a recent documentary entitled “Reformat the planet”, a good starting point for all those wishing to explore the myriad world of chiptunes.
“The appeal chiptunes have lies not only in their nostalgic quality but also in the restrictions inherent in their creation. More so than in other electronic music genres, the limitations of early sound chips in particular are adopted, incorporated and even celebrated,” said Joe Sayer, CEO of Massive J Productions. “Anybody can load up a sampler or soft synth and key out a melody in a MIDI sequencer, but few connoisseurs would accept this emulation. A master chiptune artist is expected to interface with hardware directly; the more obscure the better, with sound chips originating from 80s games consoles proving particularly popular.”
To conclude then, chiptunes are surprisingly emotional and joyous creations destined to gradually gain popularity, just waiting for an artist or band to really push it into the limelight in order to fully take off. The sentimentality of the era these tunes represents show a different side to the older dance and electronica scene, but you only have to look at the resurgence of electronica lately to see it’s became incredibly relevant to today’s modern age, and this is where chiptunes could step in and sweep the competition away as people of all ages can relate and enjoy them.