Genre Crash Course | Chiptune

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The story of Chiptune goes back to the 1980's where using 8bit audio was the only way to implement music into games. Because of this, we had a myriad of famous tunes from games like 'Super Mario Brothers', 'Legend of Zelda' and 'Space Invaders'. All games owned by yours truly as a child. Fast forward 30 years, and you have huge advances in the sound quality within our games, making that 8 bit sound retro. Below is an example video of modern day Chiptune.

In steps the genre Chiptune, and some will argue it is just a means to make music, almost like a technique and not a genre. That is where those people and I disagree. I believe Chiptune is a genre, and I can say that with confidence because it sounds unique and employs innovative and artistic composition methods to capture a noticeably different form of electronic music. An example of why this genre is the real deal can be seen in the ways it is discussed, performed and distributed under the genre label Chiptune. In this blog I will discuss the various techniques and equipment Chiptune adopts and go through a brief history of this grandpa of video game music genres. In the video below, Niamh Houston talks about how the limitations placed on her by Chiptune, gave her more freedom creatively. 

A Brief History

As mentioned above the 1980's was the breeding ground for this new way to play games that had sound. The 8 bit sound had also come around at a time when personal computers were becoming more popular. Out of this came a digital art movement called 'Demo Scene'. This new age of artistic expression also included a mode of composition which we now know as 'Chiptune'. The genre that sparked some of the most well known game theme songs and sonic tones in the history of video games. In the beginning of the movement audio was made through programming languages with very limited capability for sequencing. Some of the limitations included a lack of layering instruments and a crushed sample rate through which to playback, forcing the audio programmer to write memorable melody lines with only one layer. 

Common Elements of Chiptune

The Consoles

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You can think of Chiptune as one of the last electronic musical styles that has tried to emulate a more analogue signal flow. It is limited to the machines it utilises. Those machines could be just about anything that played an 8bit sound through its circuits. Most commonly the Nintendo Gameboy has been used in conjunction with a sound chip called an 'LSDJ', which allows the user to create and sequence a series of loops to create a layered track.  

 

LSDJ Sound Chip

The LSDJ cartridge or Little Sound DJ as it is called in the long form, boasts a huge range of options for sequencing music. It comes packed with some of the most well known drum machines in the music industry including the TR-808. This versatile piece of hardware is the engine that drives the gameboy side of this genre.

 

8-bit and 4 bit Sound

As an audio term, the bit-depth of a sound wave is represented as the number of 'bits' a waveform uses to calculate amplitude. This degrades the quality of the waveform into a less detailed sonic tone. Most audio practitioners would cringe at the thought of reducing the clarity of a sound source by this much, but for this genre it is necessary in order to represent the nostalgia of the genre. Below is a diagram that represents how bit-depth works. 

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Conclusion

The style and creative flare that this genre leaks out of it's oversized cartridge glands is what makes this genre so unique and fun. The deconstruction of electronics and re-build in order to make music is what drives the passion for many of these artists and gives rise to a community of like minded nerds who enjoy nothing more than emulating the games that were the pre-cursers to some of the top game titles out on game consoles today. This genre may never lose it's flare as long as it is tied to the curse of consumerism and companies keep building consoles with quirkiness. The nostalgia for simpler systems is what has made this nerd sub-culture such a cool and interesting underground experience and the ideas and methods mean it's open to anyone. As a musician and producer, I find these ways of making music interesting and a good use of old machines. Re-use, Recycle, Re-Chip.  

 

References

Best of Chiptune [8 bit music, retro visuals]. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rf_p3-8fTo0

Chiptune emerging from underground. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-12774683

Demoscene - The Art of the Algorithms Looks At The History Of A Digital Subculture. (2018). Retrieved from https://creators.vice.com/en_uk/article/nzdmex/idemoscene-the-art-of-the-algorithmsi-looks-at-the-history-of-a-digital-subculture

Dithering Explained: What it is, When to Use It, and Why it’s Important. (2018). Retrieved from http://darkroommastering.com/blog/dithering-explained

Ecosia - the search engine that plants trees. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.ecosia.org/images?q=gameboy#id=A011FF3FB6A2953E0466EAF12C8B5A2C318F4A0E

Kolhatkar, S., Glasser, S., Zauner, M., Sorkin, A., Mayer, J., & Kolhatkar, S. et al. (2018). Bleep Bloop: The Charms of Chiptune. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/bleep-bloop-the-charms-of-chiptune

Little Sound Dj. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.littlesounddj.com/lsd/index.php

LSDJ: An Introduction. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oodkwr6Wb4U

We are all hackers | Niamh Houston | TEDxWandsworth. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOW7JZaqKGA

Stephen RumphComment