Chip Sounds

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Photo: Mikael Altemark

Plogue's Chipsounds recreates the audio produced by eight vintage computer systems. The designers claim that it's the most accurate emulator yet, letting artists make authentic old-school tunes with the latest music-making software.

"Chip music sounds like nothing else," said David Viens, who co-founded the Canadian developer in 2000. "It boasts a totally separate sonic spectrum than the other forms of electronic music. It brings back fond memories."

Mimicking vintage hardware like the AY-3-8910 (arcade games), POKEY (Atari 400/800) and the legendary MOS Technology SID (Commodore 64), Chipsounds plugs into apps such as Logic Pro and GarageBand. According to the blurb, musicians can even use the same "abusive" technical tricks that gave the original machines a creative lifespan far beyond their commercial shelf lives.

Most extant emulators fall short of perfection, leading chiptune musicians to do it the hard way, hand-programming ancient hardware or buying expensive recreations.

Seth And Michelle of chiptune duo 8 Bit Weapon (free downloads), for example, produce their own albums and create music for the likes of Disney, Nokia, Microsoft and Sony.

"Emulators are usually a taste of what you are trying to achieve," they wrote in an email. "For instance, SIDplay is an emulator that plays Commodore 64 game tunes without having to load the game to hear the music. ... Although it sounds a lot like a real C64, it's missing a lot of subtle nuances the SID chip is known for, such as the phat analogue style filters and warmth."

Chipsounds, however, nails it: "We couldn't believe how good the emulations were for the chips," said Seth.

Viens, whose favorite chip is Atari's TIA ("Raw, powerful, can make awesome basses and leads"), says that his interest in music and sound began at a young age: a VIC-20 and a Colecovision were his first platforms.

"Another lucky kid on the block had a C64, and I remember I brought a tape recorder in order to record the sound and music it made, so that I could convince my dad how good it was, to help my case."

With two other computer science grads at the Université de Montréal, he founded Plogue in 2000 to develop experimental music software. Bidule, which lets the musician hook sound-making modules together with a tentacular mass of virtual cables, was popular enough to encourage them quit successful day jobs as programmers. They soon scored contracts in the industry, allowing them to "indulge" the sound of classic gaming: trawling eBay and yard sales, buying old music-related cartridges for obsolete game consoles, and building DIY synths with whatever could be found.

Viens, however, found that the clunky hardware worked at odds with his inspiration: "The logic/geek part of the brain and the musically inspired one are very separate." Dissatisfied with existing emulators' poor rendering and poor Mac support--not to mention the fact that no-one had yet attempted to analyze and emulate some classic audio chips--they set about developing Chipsounds.

Freeing musicians from having to acquire, set up and program vintage hardware is no mean feat. To emulate integrated circuits, Viens would mount original chips on breadboard, develop custom software to send the commands they understand, and then sample the output at 192Khz 24-bit PCM audio.

The samples were then analyzed to uncover the mathematical models that generated them. Though the same technique as used by many others, Viens said that the usual focus on game emulation results in variable quality. Chipsounds represents the first time a whole set of chips has been emulated by a team of"sound maniacs."

But it's still not perfect in every respect. Each console has its quirks and secrets, and the most difficult to model was the SID chip. "I can't say that our emulation of it is perfect, but we hope to get it there one day. It's like this great mystical quest."

To non-fans, that "mystical" element may seem at odds with the music's superficial primitiveness. Part of the appeal comes from its clarity, its uncompromising electronic purity. Musicians also enjoy how chip music's limitations force them to focus on the basics, like melody and structure. But it's also fed by nostalgic memories of childhood, of hours spent bathed in square waves and glowing phosphors.

"Thats why many chiptune/micromusic artists tend to gravitate toward one machine to do their music with," said Seth. "It tends to be the one they grew up with. ... Many young people today had never been exposed to the lo-fi glory that is 8 bit chip music. To the new generation, these are raw, almost punk-esque soundscapes that they are just discovering."

Chipsounds is $95 and available from the product page.

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