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Chip off the old tune - chip music for the masses - apologies for the strained, non sequitur, idiomatic headline...

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 28, 2009 01:13pm | Post a Comment
Trailer for Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet

Chiptunes (or chip music) is a genre of electronic music made using (now) old video game and computer hardware. The limitations of 8-bit technology present considerable challenges that require surprising creative solutions. Kōji Kondō, pretty much the Mozart of the scene, composed the score for Super Mario Brothers that shows how brilliant the music can be. Using a remarkably tiny sonic palette he managed to create a catchy electro-Afro-Cuban melody that could be looped over and over without driving the gamer completely insane, even in shameful, febrile, all night gaming sessions. When the DJ Jubilee-led Take Fo' Superstars used it in "Do the Mario," it was amazingly still fresh. Witness:



The roots of chiptunes date back to the 1970s. In the first part of the decade, video games like Pong used sound effects sparingly. With the introduction of the Atari 2600 and the Apple II in 1977, video games and computers began to use music more extensively. Then Asteroids debuted in 1978 and ushered in video games' golden age with distinctive bleeps, blops and white noise.


The music and sound capabilities were a selling point for video games, and computers and programs like 1980’s Atari Music Composer and 1987’s Ultimate SoundTracker (preceded by the 1982 introduction of MOS Technology SID in Commodores) allowed users to make chip music. Eventually, Atari’s POKEY, Nintendo’s Ricoh 2A03, GI’s AY-3-8910, Yamaha’s YM2612 and other hardware fueled the growth of chip music.


Celebrated professional chiptune composers of the golden age include Ben Daglish, Chris Hülsbeck, Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka, Jochen Hippel, the aforementioned Kōji Kondō, Martin Galway, Nobuo Uematsu, Rob Hubbard, Tim Follin, Yuukichan's Papa and Yūzō Koshiro.


Prominent amateur chiptunes composers include Baroque, Duz, 4-Mat and Turtle. Their preferred way of making their music available was through computer files, although, by the late ‘90s there began to be CD releases of chip music – roughly coinciding with contemporary video game scores moving toward indistinguishablity from those used in films, relying increasingly on full orchestrations or collections of popular songs. Nonetheless, there remains a dedicated movement of musicians who still make chiptunes.
General Instrument AY-3-8910

In many of the musicians’ cases, they’re probably too young to have played video games that used 8-bit technology, which probably leads some to dismiss the practitioners as engaging in hand-me-down nostalgia. That may be partly true (although chiptunes have recently been revived for several new games). Some chiptunes musicians bristle at the suggestion that their music is merely a retro trip and distance themselves from the music’s video game roots, attracted more by the unique aesthetic, timbres and artistic limitations of the format than an ironic revivalist spirit. In fact, many newer acts don’t limit themselves merely to chip music, instead using the technology (and samples of it) into more conventional genres like indie rock, heavy metal (e.g. Nintendocore) and dance.


Newer chiptunes progenitors, in addition to releasing recorded music, have, unlike their forebears, turned to live performance (although some professional video game composers have adapted their scores to symphonic performance. This era was ushered in with 8 Bit Weapon’s 2005 performance of "Bombs Away" and "Gameboy Rocker" on G4's Attack of the Show! Today, performers like Alex Mauer, Aliceffekt, Anamanaguchi, C-jeff, Firebrand Boy, mcfiredrill, Paza Rahm, PDF Format, Random, Role Model, Sabrepulse, Solemn Camel Crew, Trash80, Virt, XC3N and YMCK incorporate chiptunes to varying degrees in music in many cases made available through netlabels like 8bitpeoples, 8bitcollective, micromusic, Pause, superbutton and mp3death.

For more about chiptunes, check out these links:

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2000s (40), 1980s (49), 1990s (42), 1970s (41), Video Game Music (1), 8-bit (1), Video Games (26), Chip Music (1), Microscenes (37), Subcultures (38), Computers (2), Computer Music (1), Chiptunes (1), Computer Games (8)