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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.
In practice, none of this matters. If you're borrowing inspiration from any copyrighted material, even if it seems clear to you that your use is transformational, you're in danger. If your use is commercial and/or potentially objectionable, seek permission (though there's no guarantee it'll be granted) or be prepared to defend yourself in court.Kind of Screwed
Anyone can file a lawsuit and the costs of defending yourself against a claim are high, regardless of how strong your case is. Combined with vague standards, the result is a chilling effect for every independent artist hoping to build upon or reference copyrighted works.
It breaks my heart that a project I did for fun, on the side, and out of pure love and dedication to the source material ended up costing me so much -- emotionally and financially. For me, the chilling effect is palpably real. I've felt irrationally skittish about publishing almost anything since this happened. But the right to discuss the case publicly was one concession I demanded, and I felt obligated to use it. I wish more people did the same -- maybe we wouldn't all feel so alone.
We love chiptunes, the quirky celebration of 8-bit-style music that's become a a vibrant genre of its own with a thriving scene supporting it. The compositions evoke a time when electronic musicians had to make the most of the limited resources offered by primitive computing technology. Keeping that fire alive, the latest compositions are like the soundtracks to vintage videogames that never existed.
As teased last week, we're joining with Safari Books Online, the massive online library of technical know-how, to honor the mighty chip in the form of a Game Dev Challenge. Your task is to make real the imaginary games embodied by chiptunes. For inspiration or technical insight, Safari Books Online is offering Boing Boing readers 30 days free access to five videogame-related books from the library.
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Jeffrey Lim's Impulse Tracker, a freeware DOS app popular among chiptune makers in the late 1990s.
Photo: Dave "SMOKEHARD" Mattt
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