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Magical Game Boys: Demystifying The Live Chiptune Performance

I haven’t been playing live shows as a chiptune artist for very long compared to some of my peers, but nearly every time I do, people ask me the same question: “What are you doing with that thing!?”
Janus Rose
New York, US
May 21, 2011, 12:16am

I haven't been playing live shows as a chiptune artist for very long compared to some of my peers, but nearly every time I do, people ask me the same question: "What are you doing with that thing!?" They're referring of course to my Game Boy, the world-famous portable gaming system that chip musicians have re-purposed as a self-contained 8-bit synthesizer.

For many of these artists, the Game Boy (or one of its variants) is the focal point of their entire performance. As such, onlookers are oftentimes left completely bewildered as to how a videogame system with four buttons and a d-pad can possibly be used as an instrument. Sometimes they're even snarky or downright rude. Both however are unsurprising reactions to a decidedly non-traditional form of live musical performance. It seems to me that this question of 'how chiptunes work' needs to be addressed, and that's exactly what I'll be doing today.

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The Software

Ultimate Soundtracker for the Commodore Amiga (1987)

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Practitioners of chip music have traditionally used trackers to compose music for the vintage computer systems they perform with. This type of software, which was typically home-brewed and distributed on the Web — or initially, diskette — originated in the days of the Demoscene, providing a stripped-down but nevertheless adequate method for composing music on early computers. The first of its kind, Ultimate Soundtracker landed on the Commodore Amiga in 1987.

Here's where most people slip up in their understanding of chip music production: Trackers are sequencers, and the process of writing music on them is nothing like placing notes on a staff. In fact, it's more comparable to programming computer code. Whereas modern software has afforded us all sorts of conveniences through graphic user interfaces, trackers typically use hexidecimal characters to map out the progression of the patterns and phrases that make up a song. It's not glamorous and it's certainly not convenient, but with practice and a little bit of acquired know-how, it gets the job done.

The 'Phrase' screen of LSDJ, where note and instrument data is written

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Little Sound DJ (or 'LSDJ') and Nanoloop are the trackers of choice for Game Boy musicians. Created in the late 90's—early 00's by Johan Kotlinski and Oliver Wittchow (respectively), these were the first trackers written for a portable console (unless you count Trippy H, the micro-sequencer that's part of the Game Boy Camera software). Both are 4-channel sequencers that can be used to build custom instrument patches, play back small compressed samples and program effects. With the right equipment, the programs can be copied to homebrew Game Boy cartridges, which you can usually find if you're lucky and looking in the right places. After that, simply swap out your old copy of Tetris and start writing music. But keep in mind you're operating within the limitations of the Game Boy's 8-bit processor. One of the most challenging (and fun) aspects of chip music is finding creative methods of circumventing the many technical hurdles that the hardware presents.

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'Game Boy DJ' or 'Just Press Play'?

Most trackers are designed for playback, not performance. Because of this, most of what you'll hear during a typical chiptune set is pre-programmed. But the special thing about LSDJ and Nanoloop is they take into consideration a musician's need to actually perform, and have built-in features that allow for live improvisation. From here, the methods are as varied as the performers themselves. Some musicians use only the software, changing loop patterns and instrument properties on the fly to make every set unique — Think of it like DJing, except with original compositions instead of vinyl and 8-bit microprocessors instead of turntables. Sure, you could just hit play and dance around if you really want to, but I feel as if many of the more progressive minds in the chiptune community tend to look down on it. However, by doing a bit of research into electronic music (and picking up some choice pieces of gear), you'll find that there are plenty of ways to jazz up your set while remaining active on the stage.

Adding Layers

The stage setup of Australian chip artist cTrix: 2 Game Boys, an Amiga 1200 w/ LCD display, a Casio keyboard and a Korg Kaoss Pad

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While plenty of chiptune artists are fine with using just software and a mixer, there are some that use additional resources to make their performances more dynamic. The most obvious kind is live instruments like drums and guitar. Groups like Starscream and Anamanaguchi are indubitably prime examples of how effective that can be. But thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of a handful of individuals, there are even more options available.

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Let's start out simple — Using the Game Boy link cable, multiple systems running LSDJ or Nanoloop can be synced to the same BPM and control one another. This is a common method among artists who make dance music, allowing them to maintain a consistent tempo during their sets without the need for additional hardware. This won't give you any kind of extra control over what's being played, but it's a simple and effective way of adding more sound into the mix.

A custom Arduinoboy setup by Ultrasyd

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In addition to pioneering the Game Boy 'ProSound' modification, Timothy Lamb (aka Trash80) created programmable MIDI interface software for the Game Boy in 2008. By loading the open-source code into a programmable Arduino board, Arduinoboy allows any MIDI device to interface with Game Boy music software like LSDJ, Nanoloop and mGB. This means that if you're crafty enough, you can set multiple Game Boys to be controlled by keyboards, drum pads and other control surfaces, providing a much more complex and rewarding performance environment. It also makes you look significantly cooler than someone fiddling with their Game Boy on stage, but please note that chipmusicians generally are not known for getting dates.

Joey Mariano's custom Game Boy foot controller interface

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Joey Mariano (Animal Style) is another notable pioneer in live chiptune tech. A few years ago, he completely rewired his Game Boy to feed into a custom hardware box that receives signals from guitar foot pedals. Controlling the software loop patterns with the foot controllers leaves him with two free hands to accompany the arrangement on his 8-bit 'fuzz'-effected guitar. Check out the video of the whole setup in action here.

There's a lot more out there and a whole lot more to come. One recent project even proposes a self-contained MIDI keyboard that uses the Game Boy's processor as its only source of audio. But no matter what crazy new methods or techniques arise in the future, it will always be hard to know exactly what's going on behind the bleeps during a chiptune concert. The solution to this is simple, however: Ask the artists. You'd be surprised how willing most chip musicians are to talk about their work, and how inspiring it can be to learn how different artists approach the same hardware in different ways. "How did you do that?" is still a good question, and it's a question whose answer might bolster your own creativity, should you choose to take up the chiptuner's path.

Read our past articles on the culture behind the chiptune movement and the Demoscene, and don't forget to watch our documentary on the Bent Festival for more DIY music goodness.

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Originally published June 2010; Blip Festival 2011 starts this week.