The End of Chiptune History

Thomas Gilmore offers a brief history of chipmusic, whose practitioners "make complex music in a minimal way."

The more popular tools of the chipmusic (or chiptune, or 8bit) trade were made from the early '80s to the early '90s, when the most efficient way to add sound to a video game or computing experience was with a sound chip. These sound chips are limited, there are no two ways about that. Usually they're restricted to a small number of voices (sounds that can be played at once) and the palette of sounds themselves are set to a handful of presets that the chip is capable of creating. As a result of these limitations, the sounds created by these electronic devices are unmistakably distinctive.

What I love about it is the reminder that it isn't a new thing: music was always written for these devices, and many of them came with consumer-friendly composition software from the outset.

One thing about this history that's not quite right—and many of us in geeky indiedom make the same mistake—is in believing that this stuff is only just "starting to change what is happening on the surface of popular music."

On the contrary, this stuff has been mainstream for a good decade now, and the interesting thing is that all these pixels and bleeps are not just another passing fad. The undercurrents of dependence between nostalgia, avant-garde and mainstream culture obscure the way they've become weirdly, persistently invisible to one another. Derrida probably coined a word for this sort of thing 30 years ago, but I can't hear you looking it up because I'm listening to pseudo-orchestral dance arrangements of classic arcade chiptunes.


  1. I’m not sure you can call electronic music back in the day “chiptunes” — they were trying to create the most realistic music they could but were limited by technology. Chiptunes are when you are *going* for that effect even if you can make more realistic sounding music. It’s like how people may shoot movies in b&w today for artistic reasons.

    1. Not all of it was going for realism. Though I guess it was most of it, especially when digital sample storage started getting inexpensive (and turning up in arcade games as instrumentation rather than show-off noises) — Sega PCM and the like.

  2. I like the original article, but I have a few issues with the way you have presented it here.

    I think that chipmusic IS just starting to scratch the surface of the mainstream.
    By just starting I mean in the last few years, not this week.
    Sure these sounds existed elsewhere previously, but because it was what was possible at the time.
    But the choice of say Timbaland to sample a C64 track to use was an aesthetic choice. (And just laziness he thought no one would trace back)
    He could have used Massive or whatever VST he had at his disposal though.
    He may have done it in a moment of “lol this sounds like a videogame” or maybe he was thinking “this is a banging track I’m going to use this sound”

    This also ties in to your comment about ” listening to pseudo-orchestral dance arrangements of classic arcade chiptunes.”
    Songs from the “classic arcade” are not something I would refer to as a “chiptune” or “chipmusic”.
    This article, is about people who are taking the technology, and making an aesthetic and artistic choice to use them to produce contemporary music.
    The author himself produces chipmusic that sounds nothing like you would have heard in any videogame. The fact it is a gameboy is not even a consideration when you listen to the music.
    There is quite a far division between what happens in the VGM scene and chipmusic.
    Chipmusic has as much to do with old videogames as the new Taylor Swift song does with Skyrim.
    Both were produced and can be consumed on the same hardware platform, but you wouldn’t draw that comparison.
    I think this also relates to your reference to “a dependence on nostalgia, avant-garde and the mainstream culture”
    For a lot of chip musicians, nostalgia is not an element. Though I admit it does exist within the scene. There are a lot of chip musicians who have their first experience with a gameboy or amiga as a music tool.
    Is this music avant-garde? Not particularly. There is very little cutting edge and experimental about chip music. It is using an existing sound palette (however pushing this to it’s limits) and modern production styles and techniques (electro, dubstep, punk rock, prog – all well established.)
    As for the blending of the “avant-garde and the mainstream” this happens all the time in gradual amounts.
    While the underground moves in leaps and bounds, the mainstream slowly introduces new elements with already proven appeal. This is what is happening currently to chip music.
    It may be propelled by “nostalgia” in the main stream, but I think that to expect the scene to be driven by that element is short sited and limiting the appeal of this music.

    Furthermore, the idea that this is just part of “geeky indiedom” is a discussion I will leave with disapproval.

  3. If you read the article, it does mention about this track, and that Timbaland got in some trouble for sampling the source. Yes, chiptunes have made some high-profile but extremely marginalized appearances in mainstream media. This does not mean they are mainstream in and of themselves. It remains a remarkably niche scene, despite press & other exposure. The most amateur hiphop MC probably attracts bigger crowds than do some of the most established chiptune acts. This is not to say I don’t enjoy it for its open-door exclusivity, though I would like to see artists I enjoy be able to make more of a living off their art without compromising their integrity (this can also be said of my other true media love, comics).

  4. That’s the reason why I mentioned that particular song. Extremely marginalised appearances are the way things move in to the mainstream.
    Think of how long dubstep was happening before we started to see elements show up in popular music, leading to the current explosion where we are seeing dubstep acts as crowd pullers on mainstream festival line ups.
    While chipmusic will probably not end up enjoying the popularity that dubstep currently appears to, it is an emerging scene. More an more people are understanding what it is.
    Half the battle that chipmusic faces is getting over the videogame and nostalgia associations. That is the biggest thread to artist’s integrity.

  5. “the palette of sounds themselves are set to a handful of presets that the chip is capable of creating”

    Um, no. Depending on the chip, of course, but most of them were pretty flexible. The kinds of techniques you could use to make sounds were limited (especially with early digital chips) but within that range there were a lot of options. Consider the SID chip in the Commodore 64, still one of the favorites of chiptune makers — the description reads like that of a general purpose modular synthesizer:

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