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Games

Can Anyone Make Chiptune Music?

We found out during an LSDJ high with Chipzel, the musician behind the scores for 'Spectra' and 'Super Hexagon.'

by Julia Hardy
Jul 9 2015, 9:20pm

Only one of these women truly knows what she's doing. (Hint: it's not the author, on the left. Which means it's Chipzel, on the right.) All photographs courtesy of the author

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Gamers seldom let go of the past. They're like the moaning, slipper-wearing old bastards in the corner of the pub, going off about how many shillings used to be in a pound—except they're blathering about Final Fantasy VII.

You only have to look at the long history of Nintendo regurgitating their old franchises, with about as much innovation as buying a slightly jaunty hat, to see how legacy so easily begets originality. But in some cases that's not a bad thing. If something works, why change it? People love Mario, and if he ever does decide the hat's not working out, perhaps a short spell on Weight Watchers could help with his tormented sibling rivalry with Luigi. (Don't deny it's not there. That's like saying Poppy Delevingne doesn't secretly cut out the eyes of her sister Cara's Vogue shots when she's alone, crying with wine. She was the model first, after all. What a cruel, cruel world.)

The multi-format announcement trailer for 'Spectra'

People love the past, and the sound of eight-bit chiptune music warms the cockles of gamers' souls like little else, reminding them of the good old days. It's a Pavlovian response, the same way the PlayStation start-up jingle immediately has you craving a joint. It's during moments like these that we realize we've all been successfully brainwashed. Good job, gaming!

While technology's improved in immeasurable leaps and incredible bounds since the days when owning anything being eight-bit was a legitimate brag, the chiptune sounds of the 1980s and 90s continue to prevail, inspiring musicians the world over. One of these active artists is Chipzel, who previously penned a VICE guide to this singular strand of electronic music, and who has provided the soundtrack to Gateway Interactive's new fast-paced space racer Spectra, released for PC and Xbox One on July 10. Think Wipeout meets Temple Run—it's certainly the sort of game that I lack the necessary skills to master on first contact.

See, learning is happening.

But I'm at the game's launch for something other than a hands-on preview. I'm getting a one-on-one session with Chipzel herself, who's going to teach me how to create my own awesomely bleepy beats. Well, she's going to try.

Do check out that guide for the full story on chiptune, but to nutshell it for you: The genre is all about the process of making music by playing around with the built-in sound chips of out-dated, mostly obsolete computers and consoles. It's deliciously geeky, but it's also genuinely great to see old kit being lovingly reused. Sorry, is my gamer petticoat showing?

Chipzel—Niamh Houston to her friends and family (presumably, anyway, as saying, "Hey Chipzel, pass the salt," at a family gathering just sounds weird)—is the mastermind behind the frenetic score to the twitch-puzzler Super Hexagon. That game, from Terry Cavanagh, got so intense that its better players could see through space and time, if it didn't melt their eyeballs some hours earlier. Spectra is calmer by comparison, but challenges the reflexes nonetheless. You'll need to be frisky with your left stick to complete its courses, each one accompanied by a fresh Chipzel track.

From an outsider's perspective, it's easy to bend an ear to chiptune and think: "Well, that can't be that hard to make, can it?" And I've certainly felt that way before, mainly because I once spent half an afternoon on Garageband and reached grade two at saxophone (before I pawned it—sorry mom, I didn't really leave it on the bus), which naturally makes me an authority on these things. But, of course, it's all more complicated than its archaic aesthetic suggests.

Sweet nostalgia, sing for me.

If you're making chiptune, you need more than just some retro hardware—you need to be able to hack the shit out of it, courtesy of some handy software. Chipzel's rarely without her trusty Game Boy, her weapon of compositional choice, but today she pulls out a SNES, Super Game Boy already slotted into place, so that we can see the creative process unfold on a (slightly) bigger screen. I need all the help I can get.

A bundle of energy from the moment I meet her, Chipzel tells me that she always wanted to get into music, and chiptune represented a relatively cheap and easy way to do that. Get a Game Boy—what are they, like, $20 off eBay these days?—and some software from 2000 called LSDJ—it stands for Little Sound DJ, and nothing else, OK?—and away you go.

There is magic going on here, I swear.

As Niamh starts to go through the simplest of music structures and menus, I feel that school moment where you are totally lost but still nodding along with whatever the teacher's saying. She talks about triangle waves, but my brain translates this as a new, innovative future-hipster greeting gesticulation. This is why I never learn things. But once the sensation of secondary education confusion shudders away, it all actually, surprisingly, begins to make sense. The LSDJ's layout is as easy to read, with clear categories and a map that even a small child could decipher. You make your loops, and then you chain them to form songs. Simple, in theory.

But could I do it?

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Yes! Albeit with assistance to get through the basic structure. It works something like this. Your main menu has five options. The first is songs, within which each has four channels, which is all the Game Boy has to offer. Each song is made up of chains, up to a maximum of 256, and every chain is composed of phrases, which you can have 12 of. Phrases are made up of notes, and can be modified by selecting different instruments, adding delay, and so forth. Finally, the table lets you mix it all, adding character to every element of your arrangement.

LSDJ provides you with a lot of potential, but its super-simplified interface means you're just sort of putting in notes until it resembles something cool. Well, cool when restricted by the limitations of the Game Boy's sound chip. But that's an appealing limitation to have, and encourages the user to come up with interesting solutions with the slimmest options.

Chipzel gives me some notes to input, and it's all a bit like chess—C5, C4, C3, D5, D4, D3—with the letters being notes and the numbers the octaves. It's like painting by numbers, with sound, and I daren't go over the lines or else we'll never end up with... Hey, I've made myself a sexy eight-bit rendition of some Final Fantasy music. Sure, Chipzel's steered me to this point like a seasick tugboat captain dragging a derelict tanker, but come on: I made music, me, and it actually sounds OK.

Totally just made some music.

Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I think what I just went through is much like what Real Life Proper Making Money musicians do in coming up with new material: just dick about for a while and see what sticks (until the one with the talent decides to take control and polish a potential turd into a smash hit). Or, at least, something that doesn't sound like a dozen tins of spanners falling out of a fire exit. There's no way that today's pop sorts are contemporary Beethovens, seeing the music before them and fitting it together like an aural interpretation of a particularly twisty Game of Thrones episode. Pop music's not chess, is it? I don't suppose any one of the Jonas siblings can plan any number of moves ahead. Play is the cornerstone of all creation, and "happy accidents" are present all across the arts. LSDJ boils music down to its basics, and in doing so proves a damn sight more enlightening than grander software for more casual users.

I play around with it some more, diving deeper into menus that have weird names and do things I'll never fully understand but essentially make everything a bit more wibbly. But there's no barrier here, and I don't need any formal training to get results. It is completely possible to make something from nothing. I come away from my introduction to chiptune tempted to dig out my old Game Boy and make some beats on my commutes. To be honest, it's something that anyone could, and should, have a crack at, because the more people who make music, the quicker we can all stop listening to Madonna, forever.

Spectra is released on July 10 for PC and Xbox One. VICE Gaming editor Mike has been playing it on the latter a little bit this afternoon and, from what he's seen, fans of endless runners and futuristic racers alike should have a wedgie of fun with it. Just don't expect it to fill the Wipeout or F-Zero voids that we all feel. Pull a finger out, Ninty—we all wanna race as Captain Falcon again.

Chipzel is online right here.

Follow Julia Hardy on Twitter.

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