Chipmusic: Producing Music With Vintage Computer Sounds

Chipmusic perpetuates the sounds of vintage computers and videogame systems
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FOR WHATEVER reason, a huge proportion of people of all ages and backgrounds know the first 16 repeating bars of the Super Mario Bros. theme music, either by heart, or they know it when they hear it. Plenty of people who never even played the best-selling Nintendo Entertainment System game can hum along to the monophonic melody with greater accuracy than they can to the “Star Spangled Banner” or even “Happy Birthday.”

Certainly, hundreds or even thousands of hours of direct or indirect exposure to the Super Mario game burned the music into our brains. But also, the melody and the timbre of the sounds have found their way into our hearts. There’s a nostalgic emotional connection to the sounds and music of many classic ’80s videogames, such as The Legend of Zelda, Tetris, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Burger Time, and Mega Man; the list goes on and on. So it’s not entirely surprising that when certain musically inclined ’80s videogame addicts came of age, they were attracted to making music with the same distinct sounds that emanated out of their videogame and vintage-computer friends. Thus, chipmusic was born, around 1990.

The label chipmusic is more of a catch-all term applied retroactively to almost any form of electronic music made entirely or partially with the sound microchips (or the main CPU) from early computers and videogame systems such as Amigas, Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari computers and game systems, and Nintendo DS, NES, and Game Boy—most of which are 8-bit chips. These days, producers can also make chipmusic with dozens of plug-in emulators in a DAW or on mobile apps on a phone or tablet. The term chipmusic encompasses many other monikers for music, including 8-bit, Bitpop, Chiptune, Gameboy music, Micromusic, Nerdcore, Chip-Hop, and others.

Some music software, such as primitive soft synths and trackers, began to trickle out for these computers in the mid- and late ’80s, and some recorded music followed soon after. However, easily accessible, surviving examples of what we now call chipmusic don’t date until about 1991. (See Nebula II’s “Séance” on YouTube: http://bit.ly/1sVa91Y.) That year, Urban Shakedown’s “Some Justice” hit the UK Top 30. Since then, chipmusic has exploded, and ridden several waves of popularity. The “demoscene” surrounding chipmusic congregates in online communities, sharing music, free software trackers (which became the standard for sequencing chipmusic), and ideas, between plans for getting together for themed lived music events in meatspace.

Today, chipmusic is as common and accessible to make as ever. It’s easy to spot 8-bit chip sounds in different genres of popular music, but pure chipmusic crossover successes are rare. Beck released an excellent chipmusic remix EP in 2005 called GameBoy Variations. One of the most well-known chipmusic acts, Anamanaguchi, uses live instrumentation along with hacked Nintendo game systems. The band scored the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World game, and its song “Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues” is the opening music to Chris Hardwick’s popular Nerdist podcast. Let’s run through some basic tools and resources.

CLASSIC HARDWARE

COMPUTERS: AMIGA 1000/ 500/1200/OTHERS
SOUND CHIP: PA ULA
YEARS: 1985-1992

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The Amiga’s Paula sound chip supports four PCM sample-based sound channels with 8-bit resolution. Teijo Kinnunen released a popular tracker program for Amiga called OctaMED in 1991, which through software mixing allows eight or more virtual channels. The computers were known for good sound output, and third-party sound cards enable DSP, multitrack recording to disk, additional hardware sound channels, and higher audio resolution.

COMPUTER: APPLE IIGS
SOUND CHIP: ENSONIQ ES5503
YEARS: 1986-1993

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Apple produced about 1.25 million of these machines, and they included the same Ensoniq ES5503 8-bit sample-based wavetable synthesizer chip that Ensoniq used in its Mirage samplers and synth keyboards of the day. The ES5503 supported 16 channels and 32 voices, with a whopping 64KB of dedicated RAM.

COMPUTERS: ATARI ST /STE /TT/FALCOM
SOUND CHIP: YAMAHA YM2149
YEARS: 1985-1993

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The Atari ST family of computers were the first to come up with built-in MIDI ports, which led to their mass adoption by musicians and music software developers. Both Cubase and Logic started out on the Atari ST platform, and some high-profile producers, such as Fatboy Slim, used the computer line long after it was discontinued. You can still get native chiptracker software for these machines today.

COMPUTERS: COMMODORE CBM-II/64/128/MAX MACHINE
SOUND CHIP: MOS TECHNOLOGY SID (SOUND INTERFACE DEVICE) 6581/8580
YEARS: 1982-1994

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The Commodore 64 is still known as the best-selling single computer model; this and the Commodore 128 are estimated to have sold more than 20 million units. And their SID chips are among the most revered in the chipmusic scene. Bob Yannes, who later co-founded Ensoniq, engineered the SID chip and infused it with his experience in the synthesizer industry. The SID’s features read like synth specs: three programmable oscillators, each with four waveforms, oscillator sync, and an ADSR amp envelope; a multimode filter; three ring modulators; external audio input; and a random modulation generator. There are many chiptrackers available for the Commodore 64, and even more software or hardware DSP emulations of the SID chip synths. In 1999 boutique synth favorites Elektron bought up a bunch of the still-functioning SID 6581 chips and packaged them into a professional hardware synth with MIDI In/Out/Thru called the SidStation. It added four individual routable LFOs for plenty of funky modulation options. It still retains a lot of its value on Ebay and would be a great find for chipmusic makers.

GAME CONSOLE: ATARI 2600/VIDEO COMPUTER SYSTEM
SOUND/DISPLAY CHIP: TELEVISION INTERFACE ADAPTER (TIA)
YEARS: 1977-1992

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In 2002, Texas artist Paul Slocum of the band Tree Wave created the Synthcart cartridge for the Atari 2600. It requires two Atari keyboard controllers, rather than joysticks, and it lets you create two-voice synth arpeggios along with one or two pre-programmed noise beats. Other Atari 2600 mods allow it to be controlled via MIDI. Indie band Black Moth Super Rainbow has been known to use Atari 2600 sounds.

GAME CONSOLES: NINTENDO GAME BOY/NES/DS
SOUND CHIP: VARIOUS
YEARS: 1983-2007

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The chipmusic universe centers itself around these three Nintendo machines more than anything else. With more than 300 million combined units sold worldwide, there’s plenty of fodder to keep chippers glitching out for years to come. All of these machines have accessible cartridges available for making chipmusic, although their current availability is spotty at best. You can access classic 8-bit sound of the RP2A03 chip in the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) by purchasing the MIDINES 1.1 cartridge/hardware interface, which allows MIDI control of the NES chip. The cartridge also includes 256 vintage drum machine samples and other chipmusic staples.

For one totally awesome recent example of a modded NES, go to Thereminhero.com, where you can find the NESKeytar, made from a still-functioning NES, a Guitar Hero controller neck, a toy keyboard, some Arduino boards, MIDI I/O and more.

In 2001, the Little Sound DJ (LSDJ) cartridge for Game Boy came out, and it exploits the sound capabilities built into the main Sharp LR35902 CPU to offer four channels with 4-bit sound. It includes a tracker-style sequencer, 59 phonems for programmable speech, and sampled drum kits from 15 classic drum machines, such as the Roland X0X series. You can sync two Game Boys running LSDJ together, or sync one running LSDJ to one running Nanoloop, the other great Game Boy music option.

Nanoloop came out in 1999, and produces simple noise and synth waveforms for its sequencer. The more updated Nanoloop 2 for Game Boy Advance takes advantage of the upgraded 8-bit sound and has a more advanced sequencer/soft synth feature set. Modified versions of Nanoloop are also available for iOS and Android mobile devices.

Jeremy Kolosine of Receptors and 8-Bit Operators (see sidebar) calls the Game Boy with music software “the ultimate music machine designed for a human’s opposable thumbs only.” Judging from the way the Game Boy seems to dominate the chipmusic space, many people agree with him.

The Nintendo DS is the second-highest selling videogame console of all time, and it also has the most accessible music software available for it. You can get the NitroTracker for 16 channels of vintage tracker-style composition, or for a more modern experience that starts to fall outside the realm of chipmusic due to its high sound quality, you can get Korg DS-10 for the DS or Korg DS-10 Plus for the Nintendo DSi model. The Korg program gives you six tracks of sequencing, including two very modern and fully featured synth parts and four drum/synth parts.

MODERN CONVENIENCE

Diving into chipmusic in the purist fashion using only the vintage hardware, whether asis or modded, can require a considerable time commitment to track items down and then learn how to use and/or modify them. Luckily, you don’t have to decide to take that leap right away. There are plenty of freeware options or commercial plug-ins available that do a convincing job emulating one or more of the most sought-after vintage 8-bit computer sound chips.

And remember, you can add a little 8-bit flavor to any of your sounds at the drop of a hat just by applying a bitcrusher effect to them. No bitcrusher plug-in packed with your DAW? No problem. Here are three free bitcrushers that come in both VST and AU formats for Windows or Mac.

VIRTUAL CREATIONS 3LI73 REDUCER 2.1
A bit/sample rate reducer with pre- and post-cutoff filters, it’s a quick way to inject some lo-fi into drums, instruments or vocal tracks, whether chipmusic or otherwise. WWW.VIRTUALCREATIONS.DE

TOBYBEAR PRODUCTIONS DECIMATOR
This one gives you a bit quantizer and sample-rate reducer followed by a lowpass/highpass filter.
WWW.TOBYBEAR.DE

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TAL BITCRUSHER
This low-CPU bitcrusher has low- and high-shelf EQ, as well as a noise cross modulator. It comes with 10 presets for bass, leads, and drums.
KUNZ.CORRUPT.CH

Now, why not dive into those irresistible vintage computer noises by way of modern plug-in software? These Windows/Mac emulators sound great; they usually add way more features above and beyond the originals; and they’ll save you all the potential headaches of setting up 30-year old hardware. We won’t tell if you don’t tell.

REFX QUADRASID
This Commodore 64 chip emulator will set you back $55, and for that price you could probably buy a whole C64 computer with music software. But QuadraSID will let you choose the original SID 6581 or the later SID 8580 chip emulation, and it gives you up to four chip emulations per instance. Bonus features include independent oscillator volume, an arpeggiator per oscillator, four LFOs, and MIDI modulation.
REFX.COM

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CHIP32
This tiny 8-bit wavetable synth does the job of sounding an awful lot like the NES RP2A03 chip for the low, low, cost of nothing. There’s a graphical wavetable editor, ADSR envelope, basic filter, bitcrusher, and not much more other than a smile on your face. It also supports MIDI CCs.
WWW.KVRAUDIO.COM/PRODUCT/CHIP32_BY_SAM/DETAILS

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VOPM
You’ve probably always wondered what the Sega Genesis sounded like, because you know you didn’t have one. Nobody did. But that doesn’t matter, because the VOPM plugin emulates the Yamaha YM2151 FM synthesis chip from the Sega Megadrive and Genesis systems. You can control the many sliders of its four FM operators and the LFO with MIDI CCs. It sounds like ’80s Japanese game shows.
WWW.KVRAUDIO.COM/PRODUCT/VOPM_BY_SAM/DETAILS

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PLOGUE CHIPSOUNDS
If you’re sold on the whole idea of emulating old sound chips, maybe you’re open to shelling out some money to get all of the emulations in one place. Chipsounds ($95) has you covered with emulations of the chips from NES, Atari 2600, Commodore 64, Game Boy, Amiga, and more (15 chips in all). It’s kind of like dying and going to chiptune heaven, except that your computer will still use a mouse instead of the those Minority Report air-grabbing GUIs.

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Enough of the emulations; you can still get authentic chipmusic hardware in a modern package for a downright reasonable price. Check out Twisted Electrons’ AY 3 SYNTHESIZER with two audio outs and MIDI In. It is built to order with two General Instrument AY-3-8912 chips, which give the AY3 6-voice polyphony and an absolutely huge sound when in unison mode. The AY-3-8912 is the most common variant of the AY-3-8910 chip, which was used in the Amstrad CPC computer and the Mattel Intellivision game console. The AY3 is a compact desktop module, but still offers 64 presets, a 16-step sequencer, glide mode, a mod matrix, and five pots with one push-button encoder to do all the programming. With its stellar sound, programming and low price of €197, the AY3 has the potential to be a cult classic.
TWISTED-ELECTRONS.COM

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CHIP TRIBUTES
8-BIT OPERATORS HAVE THE SCENE COVERED

According to Jeremy Kolosine—and a quick YouTube search—there’s no shortage of cheap chipmusic cover versions out there that are little more than public MIDI files of popular tracks fed through 8-bit emulator plug-ins. “I’m not against any of those tools, as long as the finished product is an actual artist’s representation,” Kolosine said. “You have to change something.”

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After exploring electro-punk with Futurisk in the ‘80s and synthy shoegaze in the ’90s with Shakespace, Kolosine fell into the chipmusic scene in 2003 after a fascination with the handheld General MIDI synth/sequencer Roland PMA-5. After trying the handheld music capabilities of the Nintendo DS and Game Boy (using cartridges like LSDJ and Nanoloop), he fell in love with 8-bit sounds. Under the name Receptors, Kolosine has released albums using the Commodore 64, Ataris, Nintendos, and circuit-bent creations, as well as an entire album using only the Nintendo DS with Korg DS-10 cartridge.

Since hooking into the sprawling social aspect of chip music, Kolosine started 8-Bit Operators, which he calls a “chip-scene collective,” to put out tribute albums to “bands that are highly important to the evolution of electronic pop music.” Since debuting with a tribute to Kraftwerk in 2007, 8-Bit Operators have taken on The Beatles (2009), Devo (2012), and now Depeche Mode, with the new compilation Enjoy the Science. The New Wave icons have been on Kolosine’s most-requested list since he started 8-Bit Operators, and the album comes a decade after Nullsleep’s chipmusic classic, “Depeche Mode Megamix” (Nullsleep.com). “In a way, this is a tribute to that tune,” Kolosine said.

Much more than a simple rehashing of Depeche Mode’s monster tracks, Enjoy the Science presents the full spectrum of moods, styles, and sounds that chipmusic can encompass, which may pleasantly surprise the uninitiated. Some of the strongest tracks are stellar versions of the band’s earliest singles, such as “New Life” by Patokai and “Dreaming of Me” by Gameboymusicclub. Awesome instrumental versions of obscure album tracks like “(Set Me Free) Remotivate Me” by Aonami and “Boys Say Go” by Goto80 prove that these artists don’t need to lean on the hits to impress.

Enjoy the Science also showcases some of the evolution of chipmusic, where live instrumentation and analog synths are sprinkled in with the trademark videogame and computer sounds. For example, Crashfaster lays down some chunky guitar backdrop to “Never Let Me Down Again.” “Because it’s a guitar song, I put it at 11 in honor of Spinal Tap,” Kolosine said.

The 8-Bit Operators series is now 75-tracks deep and includes dozens of chip-scene artists, including the most “popular” acts like 8-Bit Weapon, Anamanaguchi, and the aforementioned Nullsleep. It will go on, and while Kolosine doesn’t want to say which band will be honored next, he did drop some hints pointing to both Sparks and The Cure.

For now, however, Enjoy the Science transcends mere novelty, definitely deserving repeat listens for any Depeche Mode fan. The band seems to approve, as well, having linked to the album from its Twitter and Facebook feed. “This has been amazing,” Kolosine said. “Even the negative stuff I always expect and kind of enjoy, like ‘oh, that’s such a nerdy vocal.’”

So-called “nerdy” vocals on “Enjoy the Silence” by Herbert Weixelbaum and the vocoded vox on “Strangelove” by ComputeHer just add to the charm of the album, which Kolosine thinks shows the overall strength of the chipmusic scene. “People were singing the death tolls of the movement,” he said. “But I think it’s being taken seriously again. You can’t even keep track of it now because it’s so big.” —MARKKUS ROVITO