Chiptunes have been about for a while now, so it’s only fitting that we should carry on with the internet tradition of putting things in order of “the top 10 of x” format by counting down the top 10 artists of this form of musical expression.
Covox (Thomas Soderlund) is a solid solo chiptune artist with some funky light beats from other synthesisers and sound devices in order to create a light feel to his music. He hails from the increasingly fruitful Stockholm chiptune scene and has been around since his 2003 7” vinyl EP on Swedish label Rebel Pet Set. His first album dropped in June 2005, entitled “Delete The Elite”, which went on to be sold in China and Japan, as well as his homeland of Sweden. Covox has deservedly also had a lot of global success, going on to play in Japan, Holland, Germany and the US amongst others.
Tonylight (Antonio Cavadini) is another European-based chiptune artist, coming from Milano, Italy. He is very much an experimental artist who isn’t afraid to do something different with his music, and many refer to him as occupying the easy-listening part of the ever elusive chiptune spectrum. Tonylight’s first live set entitled Minimal Dinner took place for Start at the Triennale palace in Milano, and was well received in a genre crowded by dance fanatics at the time, early 2005.
“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,” describes Tonylight. 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.”
Not content with taking the Triennale palace by storm, he hit up Live @ Pulsewave in New York City in 2008 to deliver a newer sound, fresh with more dramatic risks and unique, more frequent samples mixed in with a generally darker overtone, which went down a storm and earned him an invite to the prestigious Blip Festival.
8. Tristan Perich
Tristan Perich is an interesting artist, who attempts to blur the line between music and art. He is someone who takes his music and the way he delivers it very seriously, and is keen to try new and brave ideas. For example, take his 1-Bit Music album. Essentially, the album is delivered as a small circuit board glued inside a traditional CD case, with a 3.5mm headphone jack for people to listen to it. Coming with 11 songs (including a frankly beautiful cover of Fischer Spooner’s Just Let Go), it’s a very raw yet explosive collection.
“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,” said Tristan.
“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.”
Tristan’s live sets are also eye raising, as when he’s not playing his trademark drum kit in the crowd he’s performing with other artists in his “Loud Objects” collective, where circuit boards are actually soldered live on stage to create music.
Bubblyfish may be an old-school artist of the genre and is having a very quiet period as of late, but she is definitely one of the best in the business, coming out of the whole New York scene explosion at The Tank (famous venue for chiptunes) at the same time alongside such esteemed artists as Bit Shifter, Glomag, and Nullsleep. She describes her music as ambient and experimental, yet it normally sounds extremely polished and is a treat for the ears.
Her upbeat and faster tempo track “The Edge of Silence” is seen as a particularly good example of her ability to seemingly effortlessly cross the border between all of the tempos in the spectrum of the genre. Apparently, she doesn’t have much knowledge of videogames and therefore she sees gameboys and such as instruments, which goes some way into explaining her generally more restrained attitude in the scene.
“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. The sound is what made me want to write chipmusic, along with the limitations associated with it. In the beginning it was so gratifying for me to have a limited soundset (the NES has five channels and the Game Boy has four), as larger DAWs have such massive and intimidating interfaces. Working around these limitations and squeezing as much sound as you could out of five channels is really something,” says IAYD.
“The aesthetic of chipmusic in general attracted me, too. In the beginning I wasn’t even aware there was a scene for this kind of music; I just wrote small songs with FamiTracker and put them online without knowing there was an established scene of like-minded people doing the same thing as I was. At that point was when I realized I wanted to continue doing this. Chiptune music is my creative outlet, my casual escape from the real world to allow myself full creative freedom. Playing classical music in an orchestra becomes cumbersome and bland, and I enjoy being able to create things that I enjoy listening to and playing. The whole writing process for me is so stimulating that if I didn’t have this platform/medium for my own creativity I’d probably go insane. I enjoy finding new sounds and ways to work around limitations. As for the live performance aspect, I like to make people dance and have fun. 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.”
IAYD has his own individual style, hitting the Gameboy’s iconic sound chip with some deliciously vicious “hard-hitting electronic music”. Quite frankly, his music is a sporadic explosion of sound waiting to erupt at any given moment, bringing forth a tidal wave of raw destructive power. “Like A Phoenix” takes you on a journey from romantic harsh via minimal rest bite and straight back onto the addictive and sugar-coated harsh bass that makes up the majority of the song, a feat repeated with the tenacious “Galaxy Smasher”, a true gem of a track. IAYD is synonymous with ear-splitting manic bass and coupled with his young age, he is a big tip for the future of the scene.
Stockholm is home to so many chiptune prodigy’s these days, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, but one person you should keep your eye on is Random, a very deep and thought-provoking artist who’s not afraid to mix up his genres in each song. His style is mainly within the romanticised hardcore range of the scene, and this has obviously earned him many fans.
However, unlike most artists that clog this style up, he approaches each song with a certain degree of freshness that smashes into you and intoxicates your mind to the simple yet perfect beats. A perfect example of his work comes from the first song on his last.fm page, “Sitges Savepoint”, which features a smashing fade in at the beginning with some superb layering for afters, topped off with a vivid bassline before exploding into a joyous exploration of higher pitched sound.
Hellostereo is a bit different to the rest of the artists listed here, in that he actually sings along to some of his songs and sometimes completely changes his genre between tunes. One second, he could be laying down a sick lick like “Hokkaido Noon 09” with tons of reverb and heavy bass, and the next randomly singing like a distant, chilled out soul in “Get your tongue out of my mouth” over candy-covered beats that never elevates into something stupidly crazy. Hellostereo’s greatest ability is one of restraint, being able to stop himself going completely over-board just before the entrance to the slippery slope of the cheese factory.
3. Henry Homesweet
Mr. Homesweet is one of those artists that came along to the already established scene, tore it apart, found out what made it tick then stuck that in the middle of his completely mental beats. As a musician, his monolithic sound may be attracting the masses, but he is yet to truly test his range, and seems to lack a certain ability the following two artists possess in expanding the genre to the mainstream.
Despite this, his songs are an immense blend between heavy disco harsh with some seriously blood pumping anthems in the mixer, what with “Until I Sleep”, “DanceFloor64” and the massively popular “Simple Pleasures” (which at the time of writing had over 300,000 listeners on MySpace). Henry can bring chiptunes to the mainstream in the UK, and perhaps that’s a good thing, being a part of the youth new mad club scene and literally lighting up every venue he plays.
Something must be in the water up in Ipswich, as following the fellow midland dweller Henry Homesweet comes the widely renowned Pixelh8. No one else has done so much for the UK chiptune scene or has come as close as him to truly spreading it to the masses, and his work has inspired generations to pick up their handhelds and join in the action over these shores.
Pixelh8 has appeared on Radio 1 multiple times, cropping up on Rob Da Bank, Zane Lowe and Huw Stephens’ shows and all over the BBC spectrum on various other radio and TV stations.
“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.”
He has released his own software for free on his website, allowing anyone to try their hand at a bit of chiptune creation. Even though he has had such a busy schedule, he found the time to release four albums (three in 2006 and one in 2007), inhabited a certain Mr. Albarn as a fan and made some truly mind-bending tracks. For example, take “The Master”, a true sonic ranger with some severe pulsation and oscillation that will send you into another dimension or the nostalgic romanticism of “Chocolate Milk”, or the tenacious “Girl Fight”. He has something for everyone and is the best UK chiptune artist.
Nullsleep is an artist that was there from the very beginning of chiptunes in New York City, and has done more than anyone in pushing its influence as far as it can and is the reason you are reading this article. Nullsleep, Glomag, Bit Shifter and Bubblyfish started out together and while they were all very special artists, Nullsleep had the extra kick in order to make his tunes stand out and created a beautiful, psychedelic 8-bit monster that has refused to stop tormenting people’s ear drums ever since, and we love it. Throughout his time as a chiptune artist, he has perfected his romantic, journeying style to consistently deliver something truly special.
Nullsleep is also known for his other contributions to the scene in the form of education for aspiring chiptune artists in actual classes he holds in New York City, and runs the highly popular 8bitpeoples, a site that gives the lowdown on chiptune events and sells music exclusively for chiptune artists, a must in this otherwise label-lacking genre.
Going back to his music, there is no denying his extensive back catalogue, creating eight records and a huge number of tracks. “Ballistic Picnic” is a true exploration through the chiptune sound arena and hides a deeper meaning of sadness and loss behind a veil of happiness and craziness. The unbelievable “Angle of Reflection” was created in 48 hours and also shows some amazing side effects and trebley beats amongst the forever darkly humming bass. “Her Lazer Light Eyes” is a beautiful, sweet, elegant piece for the more chilled out listener. Our final example here before we run out of room is the exquisite “Salvation for a Broken Heart”, which I’m sure anyone can relate to and realise the obvious meaning there.
“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.”
So, there you have it, Nullsleep is an artist that just creates raw emotion with his songs, which we will take over style, pure technical ability and commercial success any day of the week.