Music Made On Game Boys Is a Much Bigger Deal Than You'd Think

"Chiptune" is a musical genre inspired by bleepy video game music from the 1980s. If that sounds scary and confusing and troublesome, don't worry: chip artist Chipzel has written a complete history to help you understand.

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Nov 4 2014, 12:00pm


Chipzel (Photo by Bjørnar Bongotromme)

It's early summer in 2011 and I'm at a venue somewhere in New York's Meatpacking District, about to perform to a crowd of at least a thousand people. I'm very much a newcomer to the scene at this point - 19 and totally fan-girling, surrounded by people I've followed and idolised for years.

I look to the stage and see my humble little setup - two original Nintendo Game Boys connected to a DJ mixer, a common choice for your typical chiptune artist. Excitement builds as I accept the fact that I'm finally here (albeit completely shitting it) at Blip Festival, the most renowned event for chiptune enthusiasts in the world. What had seemed like a dream when I started out stared back at me two thousand-fold from the crowd.

The official trailer for Reformat The Planet, a 2011 documentary on chiptune

I was introduced to the world of chip back in 2005, when the contemporary scene was well in its stride and the UK scene was growing. My music collection included an extreme variety of genres - from Enya to Mindless Self Indulgence - and, like all narcissistic, MySpace-loving teenagers of the time, I was constantly on the lookout for the music that "defined" me, AKA music I could add to that player that used to appear on the left on your profile page.

And so, after scouring through Last.fm in search of the perfect song to welcome friends and total strangers to my life, I discovered a track called " Tokyo Boy" by Sabrepulse, an artist who wrote music using a Nintendo Game Boy. I was both intrigued and totally confused about the concept, but immediately loved it. Within a matter of hours I had his entire discography and a very long list of other artists to check out. It was perfect.

Sabrepulse, live at Blip Festival, 2007

You may still be wondering, 'What the fuck is chiptune?' And that's perfectly understandable. So here's an explanation: although often confused as a genre in itself, chip music is a style of music composed / sequenced using retro consoles and old computer systems - archaic machines of your youth, like the Game Boy, Commodore 64 and Amiga. It's an art form defined by its technology, rather than its structure, within which an artist can create their own unique compositions based upon their individual musical influences.

Making chiptune music is essentially a form of hacking - the user operates a piece of software, known as a "tracker program", which allows the sound chip within to be programmed as if it were a synthesiser. Falling under a variety of terms - 8bit, micromusic or bleep-bloop (my personal favourite) - chip music is recognised by its distinctive "bleepy" characteristic. Anyone that's played video games prior to the PlayStation era will know the sound all too well, and understand the emotional nostalgia that comes with it.

"Endless Fantasy" by Anamanaguchi

Perhaps you're already familiar with artists in the current chip scene - like Anamanaguchi, for example, a four-piece 8bit boy band from New York that recently broke into the mainstream. The success that followed their Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game OST led to a record-breaking Kickstarter, a debut TV performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and an official music video for "Endless Fantasy", which featured the guys sending a slice of pizza into space, because why the fuck not?

You may have caught Dan Behrens' (aka Danimal Cannon) TED Talk about chip music, or heard the incredible OST for the indie game FEZ by Disasterpeace. Or maybe, I'll humbly add, you've even heard my own works in the BAFTA-nominated, rhythm based arcade game Super Hexagon.

Super Hexagon trailer, with music by Chipzel

The current scene is the first musical movement to spawn directly from the internet. Its roots are held in the demoscene subculture of the 1980s and early-1990s, a time where all computer and video game music was essentially chip music.

Demosceners comprised a generation of computer-savvy teens, equipped with the latest Commodore, Amiga and Atari systems. Highly influenced by video games and motivated by the possibility of gaining anonymous notoriety, these hackers began using their adept programming skills to remove copyright protection on games and software, before distributing the results to the public via file-sharing sites - a practice commonly known as "cracking". Through the use of sites such as BBS, users could log in, create their own profiles, upload and download data and exchange messages with other users - similar to the basic functions we have on social media today, only way cooler. Seriously, look at this - it's like a Teletext mescaline trip:

This spreading of software eventually led to audio-visual presentations that played in the opening sequence of cracked software, known as demonstrations, or demos. The intention of the demos was to show off the programming, artistic and musical skills of the creators, and promote their BBS profiles. The entire movement was competitively devoted to the idea of pushing the limitations of the hardware, to make it perform "impossible" things - an ideal that is still firmly worked towards within the contemporary chip scene.

Eagle Soft "Cracktro" on the Commodore 64

This movement inspired advancements in music software - the first "tracker program" to gain popularity, Ultimate Soundtracker, was developed for the Amiga by Karsten Obarski. It allowed users to create computer music without a skilled knowledge of programming, shaping the format for modern-day electronic music software. The tracker became the most common tool for chipmusic creation and was used by distinguished UK demoscene artists such as gwEm, 4mat and TDK, who are still active in the chip scene today.

"Eternity" by 4mat / Ate Bit

With the graphic and musical capabilities of computers improving into the 90s, sample-based music began to replace demoscene's old "bleepy" sounds. Some demosceners even began to make appearances on large record labels, such as Aphex Twin's Rephlex Records. This is likely where the demoscene split in two; with different ideals and a "purist" attitude, some returned to the old computer systems they adored, choosing to disregard the practices of modern computer music composition and keeping chip alive well into the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Early into the new millennium, several websites emerged covering the scene, notably micromusic.net, a place where chip enthusiasts from all over the world could create a pseudonym and upload their musical creations as MP3s. Soon after came the 8bitpeoples net-label, which became a hotbed of new, exciting and influential talent - sort of like our Factory Records, or Warp. It featured the very first releases of now-established chip artists such as Bit Shifter, Nullsleep, Trash80 and Anamanaugchi. Chip music was on the rise once more.

With a broadband connection in every house, the kids who grew up with their Game Boys, Sega Master Systems and Ataris began to research how to make music on their beloved consoles: it was no longer limited to the geekdom of its precursors. The sense of nostalgia had a huge impact on the explosions of artists who arrived in the mid-2000s.

"At Teh Disko" by Trash80

Artists began to perform chip music to live audiences, bringing chip sounds from the bedroom to the stage. The response inspired the 8bitpeoples label-heads Jeremiah Johnson (Nullsleep) and Joshua Davis (Bit Shifter) to found Blip Festival in 2006, an arts event that brought musicians and visual DJs together from all over the world to perform live over three days. Playing became a huge honour, a way to finally match a face to a screen name. To play there felt like you'd "made it" in the chip scene.

The New York Blip Festival spawned more events in Europe, Japan, the US and Australia. It led to the very first UK-wide tour for chip music, The Chiptune Alliance, featuring a fresh new generation of artists influenced by dance-orientated music. Acts included Henry Homesweet, Shirobon and international artists like Fighter X and USK.

"Out-House #10" by Henry Homesweet

Here's where I enter the scene. I began to write chip music not only because I loved listening to it, but also because it was an affordable way to make music as a teenager. With my £3-an-hour part-time job, I didn't exactly have the money to splash out on a programme like Logic or Cubase - but I could pick up a Game Boy and a copy of LSDJ, a very common Game Boy tracker made by Johan Kotlinski, for under £20.

The beauty of chiptune, for me, was the ability to create music without expectation or standards. I was free to create whatever I wanted, allowing all my teen angst to flow into a hectic, three-minute piece of emotional bleeps and bloops. As the years went on, I became more interested in what the software could do - how much I could push its limitations, and what mesh of genres I could reconstruct into my own style.

An LSDJ screen

It's honestly unlike any other scene. If you're a drum 'n' bass DJ, it's unlikely you'd start out playing shows with Shy FX or Andy C; but with chip you could find yourself opening the show for Anamanaguchi, Trey Frey, Dubmood or Sabrepulse.

Blip Festival sadly closed its doors in 2012, but the torch was quickly taken up and we now have a new wave of festivals emerging all over the world - for instance, SuperByte in Manchester, EINDBAAS in the Netherlands, Square Sounds in Australia and Japan, or lWlVl in NYC. Or, if you're in London, pop in and see us at one of the monthly Turbo City or Analog Attack nights.

The trailer for Europe in 8Bits, a 2014 documentary on chiptune

Some might say we're a generation of people who never really grew up, or a community that never moved away from its toys. The Amish community of the music industry - those who decided to quit keeping up with technology sometime around 1999. But I'd argue that's symptomatic of the society we live in, where you'd sooner throw out the old than properly appreciate and celebrate its quirks.

We love our scene. We love the movement, the sounds, the shows, the visuals and, most importantly, the variety of creative personalities coming together to create something bigger than all of us. It's a refreshing experience that's completely at odds with the corporate music industry. We don't care if we don't know how to dance; we don't care about the norms and structures of modern-day music; we just want to have a good time.

Written with help from Ashley Charles. If you like what you've read and heard here, Chipzel has put together an introduction to chiptune on her website.

@chipzel

Previously:

Why Do All These New Video Games Look So Old?

A Disgusting History of Gore in Video Games

The Dos and Don'ts of Making a Horror Video Game

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