Monday, February 28, 2011

Chiptunes: today's folk music to gamers and a brief history of.

Huh? Chiptunes? That’s what most of you have said but little did you know if you’re around my age 25-35 you’ve already heard of it. The Amiga, Atari, Commodore, Gameboy and every old system played chiptunes aka video game music. That is just one side of it, I’m here to open the curtains some more on the underground movement that has been around for many years. Chiptune artists are just like any other musician but with a mission to pump out amazing and ear-pleasing tunes from these old systems that go straight to a gamer’s heart and mind, giving them a flashback of the good old days. Here’s a basic rundown that I’ve put together through some research, there is much more but one could spend many months or years trying to learn the intricacies of this style.

Computers can do more than just math and pong:
Chiptunes have been around since the 1980s albeit the scene and its purpose have changed dramatically throughout the years. At first people could only squeeze so much out of the hardware that was available until someone with sufficient programming skills could create software or reverse engineer it to repurpose the hardware and create what they wanted out of it. Thanks to various pioneers/programmers like Rob Hubbard, David Whittaker and Martin Galway who’ve worked on the Commodore 64 MOS Technology SID (Sound Interface Device) which helped bring video game music to whole new levels, though editing the music properly was still far from perfect. Still, it did not prevent enthusiasts from noticing as people began ripping music from games into executable files to share while others used them as music for crack, keygen and demo intros which are still used to this day.

A burgeoning culture:
In the mid-1980s the popularity of creating original music from these components grew with hobbyist, especially overseas where a young German named Chris Hulsbeck, who went on to become a well-known video game music composer, created software called Soundmonitor which allowed users to create more advanced SID music. The software was published within a German commodore enthusiasts’ magazine called 64’er which was noted to have held some of the earliest chiptune competitions. Nowadays, the term "chiptune" is also used to cover chip music using actual chip-based synthesis, but some sources, such as the Amiga Music Preservation project, still define a chiptune specifically as a small tracker module.

Cue back to modern day:
Various open source chiptune websites have popped up throughout the years that have helped artist share, collaborate and perfect their music. More often than not they are small, tight-knit communities who shun others that don’t follow their version of how the music is made. Other artists have grown and expanded on their own like Tommy Tallarico (Video Games Live, Electronic Playground) who’s known as the most successful and revolutionary video game musician in the industry, also video game bands like Protomen and Minibosses have made their mark and chiptune DJs like DJCutman and my friend Francis Yoan Rodrig. Here’s an interview (and the first I’ve ever done) I’ve had with him recently to give you a glimpse of how they do things:

The basics:

What do you call yourself?

How did you come by it and does it have any special meaning to you?
Bxcenoxyzs then shortened it to xcen eventually and then converted ack when I played MMO’s I couldn’t find a name that wasn’t taken, I started with it to XC3N. Very boring stuff.

How many years have you been doing chip tune music?
I’ve been doing chiptunes since 2007 and before that tracker music since 1996.
In your brief own words, what is chip tune music?
Music that is produced from PSGs (programmable sound generators) , often on vintage computer or video game hardware

Where are you based?
Griffintown, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Comparison with mainstream:

What do you think chiptunes have to offer compared to today’s mainstream/pop music?
Hmm, to say that it's better would just be arrogant... I would say that, for me and for hundreds of others, it possesses a soul like no other type of music and perhaps a sense of accomplishment of sorts, the conquering, outdoing of what others now regard as obsolete garbage. It feels great to re-appropriate and go further than the original vision. The YM2149 is a great example heh.

What do you call a chip tune performer?
I guess I would call him that lol, a chiptune performer. 
Do people ever compare your to a regular club DJ? Would you be insulted by this?
Yeah, people easily get confused and think I 'm a DJ. I get somehow offended because it's really nowhere near what I do. Even when it comes to my radio show, I'm a host not a DJ... but I do handhelds DJ sets lol

Why go to all the trouble to modify all those equipment and crating the software? Why not just buy modern synthesizers?
Most of the devices I use don't really need to be modified that much to be used and I don't create software, although I do what I can to influence software development. As for the reasons, for most devices the primary reason is transportability. You can carry a gameboy in your pocket, get it out and powered within seconds and do music right away, regardless of where you are even though you can still do music with a laptop they are nowhere as convenient to use. Some kind of kick obtained from derailing a device from its original purpose and some kind of nostalgic aspect where you get to create with the sounds that fascinated you as a kid playing video games.

XC3N's modded gameboy

Tools and creation:

Is hacking (dismantling your old toys and creating software) the core of chiptune music?
No I wouldn't say it's the core of chiptune music. I mean, the philosophy (wanting to understand and outperform technology) is at the core of the scene that was the forefather of chip music (demoscene). But nowadays that aspect is not always present but without hackers, there might be no chipmusic as we know it today, yes.

Can you give me a rundown of what hardware and software you personally prefer to use when making your music?
It depends, I'm always touching different things but let's say I love LGPT (Little GP Tracker, as it originated on GP32), on GP2X or PSP, LSDJ(Little Sound DJ) on a DMG(Dot Matrix) is an unavoidable classic although I like the harshness of the GBA SP hehe. Right now I am having a love affair with musicmon 2.5E on Atari ST(16bit computer from the late 80s).

How much time and effort is placed in what you’d call a good tune? 
There is no constant for that. You can spend hours on something and not be satisfied. Some of my most appreciated tracks were done in like an hour. It all depends on how well your session(s) flows.

And what would it take to satisfy you as an artist when making music?
Oh man. I don't think I'm ever satisfied, I just get bored with things and then I go "oh well, that'll be that”.

Are you usually creating music solo or with a group?
Solo. I mean, I do belong to collectives that release music together but the creation is always solo. I tried working with people, which is something I would really really like but I never seem to find someone I get a working flow with. I think I might be too much of a jerk.


How did you get started?
I thought it was pretty cool, and then I looked it up on the internet+????=PROFIT. I discovered digital sample trackers on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). Basically read the instructions of scream tracker after having installed it and figured out the f***ing tracker then evolved to Impulse Tracker then modplug then I flirted with milky tracker and psycle but that didn't do much. Then came the VST dark ages and after that the MPC, all of which I ditched for LGPT. I sold my MPC2500 because of that. I got a gp2x at some point and I found LGPT, but I never used LSDJ (Little Sound DJ) which LGPT is based on so I started looking into both LGPT and LSDJ on the internet which lead me to the HEXAWE collective. I started hanging out with that crew and it built up over the years basically. Oh I forgot renoise in the lot, it's the tracker I'm using now on desktop but I play with all kind of shit and then get bored and/or lazybut the collective knowledge gained is useful aha!

Just how passionate are you about the whole chiptune scene and how does it affect you as a person?
I am really passionate about it, I found a lot of friends, people to share with, people to get inspired by... it's a community unlike any I've ever been part of, there is a lot of trust and sharing and I am really happy to be part of it
Do you sleep with your Gameboy or Amiga at night? Do you nickname your tools?
Haha no. Although I could've fallen asleep with a gameboy in my pocket. My amiga 1000 takes a LOT of place, too. I don't really nickname my tools although I've modded and painted some

What are some of your personal favourite chiptune artists and songs?
Oh man! There are too many uncanny talents to recognize. ??? (yes it’s an artist based in Montreal), oxygenstar, m-.-n, starpause, videovalvontaa, rhinostrich. F***. I'm going to forget someone and regret it later. Dark Angel, Mr Spastic, PDF_Format, 8gb and Stu. Let's leave it at this and say there is no way in hell I can make a comprehensive list of everyone deserving a mention. As for songs, anything from ??? and the above list of artists.

In what ways have they influenced you?
By sharing sources, inspiring me, giving feedback, advice, or participating to compositions.

Visual aspect:
I’ve seen some live shows using mind blowing and colourful pixel art and videos. Are you trying to tell us a story with the music to bring it all together or just something that seems apropos to the style of music you play?
Well, given that I don't do visuals and music at the same time, I don't have control over this. Musicians usually get paired up with local VJs and so don't have much say over what is being displayed. On occasions, I'll pair up with a VJ I know and then we can try to make something happen, but I generally go with shocking people when I can hah.

That sounds interesting and fun, shocking people in what way?
Haha me and pocaille (a VJ) drunkenly had the idea at blip fest to display pixelated hardcore porn as visuals. Especially on big screens where you can't really make out what's going on if you're too close.


Tell me about the crowds and fans you find at your live shows, are they gamer enthusiasts, people hungry for a new sound or else?
It's pretty much all of that. Fan of the genre, gamers, and a lot of curious people

I’ve noticed that some chiptune communities tend to be internationally oriented. Would you consider it important and how does it contribute to the movement?
Hey that's the wonders of the internets! I think it's important, it allows us to get crash spots all over the planet! =P
Obviously it's very interesting to exchange with people from different cultures, it's also interesting to see how the scene works out in different parts of the world. And then, of course, this augments the possibility that you might be able to play in different countries.

What are your favourite places on the web to go to for chiptunes communities?

Not just bleeps and bloops:
One cannot just snub it as simple or plain. Chiptunes are just as varied, complex, deep or simple as any other genre. Some are influenced more by their favourite games, other artists or genres like techno, jazz, dubstep and rap. Many of you have probably listened to some but just did not know it. One can say that it has definitely grown more and more in popularity and recognition as more bands and shows have come out of the woodwork. At PaxEast2011 alone they had a room dedicated to chiptune and video game bands that played during most of the convention. Even the group 2playerproductions has made a documentary on the scene and music that was 5 years in the making.

The artists show a true love for what they do, the passion is seen in their work as they tweak their hardware to get the right sound, you can see the enthusiasm as they rock to their own beat during their shows (sometimes more so than the crowds they play for). Who knew that you could make such amazing things with your old toys? So put down your Halo, your God of War or your FF7 orchestral soundtrack and pop in a classic game on your old console or emulator, buy and download some chiptunes as well and relish in the old childhood and carefree days as I did.

References and examples of chiptunes:

Software used to create tunes:

Chiptune communities and groups:
DJCutman, chiptune artist
Wired article:
Rick Roll: Your favourite meme as an 8-bit
One-winged angel 8-bit style: Imagine if FF7 was made much earlier.
Tommy Tallarico’s bio:
Wiki page on chiptunes:

Video game performers:

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