With chiptunes, silicon rocks


Jeffrey Lim's Impulse Tracker, a freeware DOS app popular among chiptune makers in the late 1990s.
Photo: Dave "SMOKEHARD" Mattt

Sine waves, square waves, sawtooth and triangle; white noise for a drumkit, and a cathode ray tube for a stage. Being geeky, I was into computer-generated music as a youngster, long before I caught up with pop music. In an age before cheap internet access, however, there weren't many folks to share it with. So it's with not a little jealously to see today's chiptune scene, fed as much by fresh, unhinged creativity as the nostalgia it often evokes in listeners. One epicenter of all this is 8-Bit Collective, where dozens of new tracks are uploaded daily, sourced from an army of thousands of registered users. Founded by Jose Torres and George Michael Brower, it describes itself as the first file-sharing community dedicated to chiptunes. "Pure malleability," Brower said, describing the essential qualities of computer-generated music. "I'm put off by anyone who refers to chiptune as a 'genre' because of the diversity you'll find under that umbrella."
Though far from the first such site on the web, 8-bit Collective acts like a wiki or repository: anyone can add a new song, and the editorial filtering comes from the comments added by listeners. The vast size of its community--nearly 19,000 registered users--and archive ensures both a constant stream of quality tracks, fertile discussion and an inexhaustible backlist for newcomers to enjoy. Computer-generated music emerged in the 1950s, heralded by what the BBC describes as 'a truncated version of In The Mood.' The success of synthesizers in popular music notwithstanding, an early heyday for music synthesized in real time came in the 1980s, as the soundtrack to a generation of electronic games. Though held back by technology, competition for the pocket money of millions of kids forced developers to make the most of limited resources. "I grew up with a strong love for gaming," said Atlanta musician Judson Cowan, in a 2007 Destructoid interview which neatly describes how old video games inspire new music. Cowan, who releases his albums free-of-charge as Tettix, describes how a childhood affinity became a calling. "I love the musicality of game soundtracks. I love the unabashed hook usage and the freedom that working with such primitive sounds gives to the compositions. When you're not so concerned with creating synths that sound good, with avoiding making things cheesy, it really opens up your options a lot musically." Classics from gaming history are now performed by orchestras to large audiences. But it's also true that those who loved chips sounds have freed the style from its gaming roots: "It's more about the instrumentation," composer Matthew Applegate told interviewer Richard Haugh last year. Brower likes melody, but notes that the collective is home to a lot of music that completely ignores conventions familiar to gamers: "I think chip music can be a really "pure" way to communicate your ideas as a composer. That said, there's a lot of really percussive, atonal chip music. I think that's sort of a testament how colorful the scene is. I think a lot of chip musicians may be too self-conscious to admit it, but the nostalgia factor doesn't hurt either. I'm just really disappointed when people can't see through the novelty of the medium and appreciate some of the incredible songwriting that goes on in the name of chip music." Where to get started, if your own exposure comes from mainstream pop music's mining of the sound, or an occasional video interview? Wade in with Music Radar's splendid glossary of chiptune tech and lore, published just a few days ago. The first entry introduces the AY-3-8910 chip, a classic found in the Amstrad CPC and other popular machines of the 1980s. Chip Flip also has a nice timeline of electronic music, beginning in 1951. Recent chiptune projects include A Kind of Bloop, a cover album of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. By taking the sound of chip music to a Jazz standard, the artists highlight chip music's expressive power: it can embody even the warmest classics, far from the crashing melodies found in games and Blipfest alike. Project organizer Andy Baio introduced the project thus: "I've always wondered what chiptune jazz covers would sound like. What would the jazz masters sound like on a Nintendo Entertainment System? Coltrane on a C-64? Mingus on Amiga? I've researched the topic quite a bit, and was only able to find four jazz covers ever released." The project reached its funding goal within hours of its announcement, and the resulting album is just $5: download it here. Another new project, however, lives firmly in the retro 1980s zone: 8 Bit Weapon's Tron Tribute takes Wendy Carlos' 1982 analog score and renders it as pure chip music, only to mash it up with a chaotic modern sensibility. Last week, chip artist The Disco King remixed Kansas' '76 prog rock classic Carry On Wayward Son. How well did he distill a track "strewn with complex guitar work and rhythmic changes" into pure melody and white noise? Judge for yourself: hear the result at Music Radar. If you like the sound of all this, 8-Bit Collective's relentless deluge of music beckons. Other interesting sites include 8-bit peoples, the Mod Archive and Chipmusic.org. Game nostaliga-centered sites include Amiga Music Preservation and The High Coltage SID Collection. Kohina offers streaming internet radio feeds. Want to try your hand? Hardcore composers craft new sounds with the old hardware. Others use specialist equipment like the SidStation, which uses the same audio chip found in the Commodore 64. A more approachable method is to buy software that emulates classic machinery, letting you attend the old school with modern apps such as Garageband, Logic Studio and MU.LAB. On the iPad and iPhone, bleep!BOX is a fun place to start: the straightforward interface makes composing a cinch even for beginners. And once you're happy with your first attempt, critique is only an upload away. "I'm honored to have had a hand in the creation of a platform that's given so many people an outlet to express themselves," Brower said. "And if its done anything to increase awareness of this 'movement,' style of music, whatever you want to call it, then I'm more than happy."



  1. Amiga Music Preservation and High Voltage SID Collection simply CANNOT be dismissed as “game nostalgia-centered sites”. They contain game music, yes, but most of the material there comes from the demoscene, which represents a continuous 25-year-old tradition of computer creativity. Especially HVSC is an important and comprehensive chip music archive, as it contains tens of thousands of pieces of Commodore 64 music created in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Chip music made outside of gaming context is definitely not a novelty.

    It is apparent that when looking for prior art, Andy Baio only looked at what 8bitcollective.com was able to provide and managed to completely ignore what was available on the more important archives. Commodore 64 music, for example, has a long history of using various musical styles, and Jazz is not among the rarest of them. Using the simple keyword search for “Jazz” on the HVSC, I am able to find 131 (one hundred and thirty-one) matches, and I dare to believe that quite many of these are covers.

  2. If you’re at all interested, be sure to check out USK. I saw him at a Nullsleep concert in Portland last Saturday and he BLEW EVERYONE AWAY with his intense energy and dance music.

    He also gave me a free copy of his CD and told me to copy it for my friends. A real trooper!

  3. Great introductory article!

    On the iPhone, and once you’ve learned your way around the abstract interface, I think the best app to use for all this is Nanoloop.

    Nanoloop was originally (and still is) a GameBoy/GBA cart, often paired with modified GameBoys for genuine chiptune composition.

    The iPhone version has a few differences, but retains the great sound (even if you lose the genuine 8-bit kudos) and eventually intuitive interface. And if you already have an iPhone, the app’s impulse-buy price is a hell of a lot cheaper than a GameBoy and a copy of the Nanoloop cart.

    There are a lot of other options, but that’s my favourite. On the subject of bleep!Box, check out bleep!Box Player – the name is misleading, as it’s a free version of the app with the save function removed and a few parameters removed – an excellent demo.

  4. “I’m put off by anyone who refers to chiptune as a ‘genre’ because of the diversity you’ll find under that umbrella.”

    This. And it applies to the term “electronic music” which could cover anything from Wendy Carlos to Merzbow. We don’t call rock, pop, and country “guitar music” after all.

  5. Ooh! Impulse Tracker was my weapon of choice on the pc (started out on SoundTracker on the Amiga) so this takes me back.

    I have moved on to Ableton and bought expensive synths I couldn’t afford back then, but I remember the ease with which you could flesh out ideas in the tracker format.

    Even though I’m all into Ableton these days, I feel the whole tracker chiptunes phase has given me a great headstart for the electronic dance music I make these days.

  6. How interesting that this article comes out just as I’m re-discovering the Module format, one way to easily create chiptunes.

    I’ve checked out a couple of trackers, and I’m enjoying OpenMPT. It’s an extremely lightweight program and it doesn’t require any special hardware; you can even compose easily without a MIDI keyboard.

    I’d also grab a copy of Audigy for creating the actual samples. You can synthesize basic waveforms, then use OpenMPT to actuall turn them into music.

  7. By the way:
    ” Game nostaliga-centered sites include Amiga Music Preservation and The High Coltage SID Collection. ”
    Those websites are the ones keeping most of the emoscene music archived and available. It;s not about game and certainly NOT about nostalgia.

  8. …you realize that, by the definition you link to, tracker music is not ‘chiptunes’, being very much sample-based.

  9. Most trackers I’ve used would let you draw a waveform a few bytes long and just use those. IT did, I’m quite certain.

    1. And you could take the light pen on a Fairlight and draw a sine wave on the screen, then use that as a sample. Does that make the Fairlight an analog synth? :) It’s the same concept – the AY series, SID, etc mostly generated their sounds directly from function generators and PWM, rather than sampling. Technically, it’s a different sound – it’s still really hard to get the filters and such on a SID sounding right in a pure digital domain.

      I realize I’m probably being *really* nitpicky here, but there’s a cultural distinction to be made. In the 80’s, the most vibrant music scene I can remember was SID tunes on the C64. That sort of developed into the Amiga MOD sampling music as people upgraded, then branched out into the tracker/demoscene (mostly) on the PC. The 8-bit Collective, GB-style chiptune scene kinda came later as the tools came out for that hardware. Computer-generated music is a super-rich field, and it’s hard to lump it all under one thing. It’s all great though. :)

  10. I’ve never fully delved into the whole chiptune scene as much as I probably should, but I do have a Nanoloop cart and a classic Gameboy. You can make some *really* great sounds/beats, but programming it tries my patience. Mostly I just make little riffs and record them into Ableton for arranging. I really want to check out the Chipsounds demo. That sounds killer.

    While I don’t necessarily listen to a lot of chiptune music regularly, I was recently turned on to Anamanaguchi’s Dawn Metropolis, which is incredible. I listened to it straight through the other day, totally captivated. Fantastic songwriting. Highly recommended.

  11. Minor coding glitch in the post – you left off the “href=” on the “hear the result at Music Radar” link regarding “Wayward Son”.

  12. As noted, trackers play back sound files at varying rates to get notes. You can use chiptune sounds, but it isn’t limited to this. It has its roots in the Amiga, which offered 4-channel stereo playback. MOD files used this format, with S3M, IT, etc. files adding on features as sound cards got better.

    If you want to try tracking, Schism Tracker is a modern version of Impulse Tracker that runs on current computers.

  13. God, I miss tracker software on my Amiga. I get more sleep these days, though.

    (BTW OctaMed fans, 90 base 16 i.e. 9 16s is divisible by lots of numbers, so making your tracker sheets that length makes for fun with time-signatures)

    Fuck it, I’ma look for an emulator. right now

  14. It’s a great article, Rob, but I’m kinda surprised you seem to have pointedly avoided discussing 8-Bit Peoples, one of the original & very active cornerstones of the chiptunes scene. I’d say no less than five of the biggest 8-bit musicians put their music out thru them, & they godfather the authoritative salon in NYC, Pulsewave, to say nothing of The Blip Festival. I’m looking to enter the field, & while I may have access that some cannot claim, they’re exactly first on the list of who I sought out for advice. Any article on the topic with just barely a mention seems woefully incomplete.

  15. and no mention of the 8-Bit Operators Kraftwerk tribute on Astralwerks from 2007 either? It was the first (and only?) all chipmusic album to be released on a major label i think and has so many of the greats on it !

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