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."