Digital Sea of Sound



People who know me know that I am possibly one of the world’s biggest connoisseurs of video game music there is. Mostly, this is because I play a whole lot of video games, and enjoy music in all its forms. This being the case, I tend to notice when new things start happening in the video game music scene, or at least when things start to converge in new and different ways. As such, I’ve been jotting down all the observations swimming around in my head and realizing that they could be used to inform others about a pretty neat little trend that’s started to pop up in recent years: Chiptune.

My first experience with chiptune was on Overclocked Remix, a website devoted to collecting and organizing amateur video game music remixes and compositions and releasing them to the public for free. At this point, the VGM community was mostly internet-based and did not have roots in any one location, and due to my geography it was pretty much impossible to know that the VGM community was anything that could possibly exist outside of the internet, especially nowhere near me. Thus, it was quite a few years later that I would get my first introduction to live chiptune.

That introduction came from a chip artist who goes by the stage name ‘Jonny Nero, Action Hero’. He was opening for The Protomen, which was, and still is, one of the best ways for a VGM artist to get exposure. He walked up to a table set up in front of the stage carrying with him a laptop, a guitar, and a game boy. At this point, I was fairly certain that the game boy was a prop, and that I would be treated to some sort of combination of guitar and club music. I was about half right. Surely there was guitar, and surely the music I was treated to was some form of electronica, but I was completely blown away when the primary instrument being played was the game boy. What was this madness? Before this, I thought of music that evoked the 8-bit era as something that must be created in advance, and perhaps looped in the background of whatever was currently being played. I had never seen chiptune played live before. Coincidentally, this was shortly before the Scott Pilgrim movie came out, as well as the accompanying PSN video game. The game was scored by Anamanaguchi, which at that time was about the only Chiptune band I knew of to get that level of real exposure. I don’t know whether this contributed to the awareness of chiptune as a whole, or just my own personal awareness of it, but it was after this that I really discovered the genre.

Chiptune isn’t a new thing, at all. Nor do I want to give the impression that it is. It has been around for as long as video games have. Every game needs a soundtrack, and that soundtrack has always been limited by the technology that the game is produced on. Up until the mid-1990’s, that hardware has been the sound chips in the game systems, which is where the term ‘chiptune’ came from. However, this was always a professional endeavor: taking an orchestrated or simulated soundtrack and transcribing it to the range of sounds that could be produced on that chip. The need for this practice continued until the Sony Playstation era, which was when it became technologically possible to place CD-quality audio into video games and eliminate the need for transcribing a song completely into chip altogether.

For a while, that was that. Just like for a while, pixel art waned as everyone looked to full-3D and FMV as the future of video games. However, it was sites like Overclocked Remix, VGMix, and other, lesser-known corners of the internet where hobbyists began posting their own interpretations of video game music that contributed to keeping the old styles of video game music relevant. It seemed that as games became more and more mainstream and popular, with higher production values, more profit, and all the things that come with that, there was a growing number of gamers who grew up in the 8-bit and 16-bit era that continued to hold onto their nostalgia. It wasn’t so much that the old games were better, because every era has its gems, but more that new games weren’t anything /like/ old games. It was a void that needed filling, and as always seems to happen, people found a way to fill it.

It’s a lot like what happened in the mid-1970’s: groups of people, partially out of nostalgia and partially out of desire to create their own thing, independently began playing styles of music that, within a few years, coalesced into the beginnings of punk rock. And certainly, the two have their similarities. Punk rock was a movement that, musically, was all about minimalism. Songs were self-recorded and self-produced, largely on homemade, DIY equipment in garages. Of course, in the case of punk rock, this was all about revolting against the establishment and against the excesses of mainstream rock. Chiptune, on the other hand, is completely politically agnostic. In both cases, in practice, the music is all about doing the most that you can with the least that you have available to you. Pushing the hardware you have to work with to its absolute limits and making it do things that it was not originally designed to became a point of pride for artists in both movements, and this fostered a sense of community among artists. Of course, both styles are also influenced by what came before them: rock and roll existed before punk, just like electronica existed before chiptune. Industrial rock, synth-metal, techno, dubstep, and similar styles have all influenced, to various degrees, most of the chiptune artists out there. More than anything, though, the similarity between chiptune and punk does stem from that DIY mentality of ‘if it doesn’t exist yet, build it yourself, and if it does exist, alter it to do what you want it to do’. Case in point, chiptune would not exist without people figuring out how to use both hardware and software to break into existing game systems so that their sound chips could be utilized as musical instruments. This mentality also contributes to the amount of pride artists feel in their work, the idea that they have created not only the music, but, at least in part, the tool they used to /make/ the music. Definitely, chiptune artists and those who are heavily invested in the style are a very enthusiastic bunch.

To illustrate this, one must look no further than Brandon Hood, a periodic guest DJ and co-host on the internet radio station Geekbeat LeRadio and the primary organizer of “Chiptune = WIN”, a massive compilation of chiptune music that represents the ‘state of the art’ as it stands right now. Hood came to the experience much the same way I had, having heard chip music primarily on the internet before experiencing a live performance, though his was at MAGFest, one of the largest gatherings of video game and video game inspired music in the country. “I was hanging out with Grant Henry [Stemage, from Metroid Metal] and company at my first MAGFest, MAG 9,” says Hood, “and he was like, ‘Hey, Danimal’s about to do his chiptune set live. Wanna go check it out with us?’ And I was all, ‘Hells yeah!!’ even though I didn’t really know what was going on.” ‘Danimal’ is Danimal Cannon, also a member of Metroid Metal, as well as Armcannon, and is widely considered one of the most technically proficient chiptune artists in the scene. His performance had a profound impact on Hood. He was, as he puts it, “already completely hooked. Danimal explained a bit of what was up afterwards, but it wasn’t until I got home and really started looking up the music and the scene that I got it.” And get it he did. His enthusiasm led him to create a Facebook group devoted to chiptune artists and, using that as a collective gathering point, reach out to all the artists he could to help assemble his compilation. That energy carried him even further when, a few weeks before the writing of this article, he helped organize a showcase of chiptune artists on Geekbeat LeRadio that lasted for more than seventeen hours straight. “I’m still not sure if I’ve completely recovered from that!” says Hood, of the experience.

The difference between chiptune and video game covers is a subtle, but important one. Certainly, there is some overlap between the two circles; many artists do game covers as well as original chiptune. The difference can certainly be simply stated: VGM cover artists recreate old songs in modern (or at least different) styles, whereas chiptune artists use old technology to create brand new music. Even within the umbrella of chip music, there are several different approaches to it. One approach is the pseudo-nostalgic one, as shown by Daniel Capo’s album, “O.S.T.”. In crafting the album, Daniel has created a soundtrack for a game that never existed; or rather, something that could be seen as the soundtrack to the spirit of video games in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Again, the subtlety present in this method is amazing, as it draws from the fact that most gamers who grew up on games from that era experienced very profoundly emotional scenes set to music generated by sound chips. But let me be clear, this is not a cheap grab at nostalgia, this is evocative music that exists /because/ of nostalgia. However, nostalgia is very much a valid motivation to create. Danimal Cannon makes this very clear with his own chiptune album, ‘Roots’. The title itself speaks of the intention of the artist to show the things that influenced him and that his musical ventures are based on, and the album makes good on that promise, with song titles referencing everything from Pokemon, to Star Trek, with a chiptune cover of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to round it all out.

Another approach is the integration of chip music as one piece of an ensemble, or as one instrument in an otherwise traditional band. This is the approach taken most famously by aforementioned band Anamanaguchi, which blends punk-pop with chiptune, using a modified NES system in place of vocals. “Someone at MAGFest that I randomly started chatting with about chiptunes, which was something that happened a lot, told me about Anamanaguchi.” says Hood, regarding how he found out about this style of chip. “I looked them up and found the Scott Pilgrim game as soon as I got back from MAGFest, and it further put the chiptune hooks into me!” Of course, the Scott Pilgrim game was carefully engineered to evoke multiple levels of nostalgia: the art was in pixel, the gameplay was reminiscent of River City Ransom, and the source material was rife with references to old video games, music, and comic books. Just like Bryan Lee O’Malley, author of the Scott Pilgrim comics, Anamanaguchi has been praised for their ability to create new music built on old concepts that stands on its own artistic merit. Others certainly adopt this style as well, such as Boston-area electronica duo Br1ght Pr1mate, who definitely wear their industrial-rock origins firmly on their sleeves. Their album “Night Animals” is a brilliantly crafted work which is reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails, if sung with female vocals and if not taking themselves quite as seriously at times.

Perhaps the most stunning example of full-circle, though, comes from Inverse Phase. Yet another prolific chip artist who is greatly aware of his roots, Inverse Phase recently released a chiptune de-volution of Nine Inch Nails music, cleverly titled “Pretty Eight Machine”. This is an album that, more or less, encompasses every aspect of what it means to be chiptune: pushing the limits of technology, creating something that is, on some level, instantly recognizable and yet completely new, and paying homage to one’s roots while advancing the art as a whole. 

It should be noted that while the nostalgic connection can always be made, some artists make every attempt to distance themselves from that connection, preferring instead the challenge of working within the limitations of the hardware to create music that stands on its own merits. As Hood points out, “Some, especially the young ones who didn’t grow up playing NES & such, draw to it because of how it’s made and the way it sounds, because they have no nostaligia attached to playing those retro games! Some chippers truly do not have nostaligia. Some even hate the nostalgic connection to chip via the old retro sounds.” When asked why that could be, he replies, “I think part of the annoyance that some seem to have is from having people who know nothing about chipmusic see some dude performing with a gameboy and don’t know what’s going on and don’t know anything better to shout out than, ‘Play something from Mario Brothers!!’ or something like that. Which a lot of chippers take akin to a guitarist being requested/heckled/drunkenly shouted at to, ‘PLAY FREEBIRD!!!'” Regardless of an artist’s roots and motivations, though, it’s clear that they are all very passionate about what they do.

As popular as it is becoming in the VGM circle though, there is the obvious fact that it is still a very niche genre of music. Certainly, the possibility of mainstream success for a chip artist is quite a slim one. As pointed out by Hood, “It’s just a bit too nerdy, too niche, too esoteric to really be fully accepted by a mainstream audience. Maybe that’ll change as time goes on, as the generations go, but I don’t think so completely.” He goes on to add that “there’s a big difference in having an 8-bit sample in a rap song than a purely [chiptune] track on the radio”. However, this isn’t a barrier to the artists at all. Services such as Bandcamp allow artists to sell their own music and receive the money from a sale directly. Therefore, they are free to market to whoever they wish. In that sense, mainstream success isn’t a goal, because it is still possible for a dedicated artist to make money without it. It is as Hood says, “I don’t think anyone expects it to truly become mainstream, nor do they want it to.” Unlike any other kind of music, chiptune is something completely ‘owned’ by geeks and geek culture. That isn’t to say that artists don’t find success at all, it’s just that that success comes from a very different source. Quite a few artists, including the aforementioned Inverse Phase and Br1ght Pr1mate, have gotten quite a bit of recognition composing soundtracks for new games that are done in old styles. As the industry trends toward recognizing independent developers with retro design styles, the demand for chip music scores for these games is also rising once more, opening the doors for these musicians to display their talents to a wider audience of gamers.

“My love of chipmusic is threefold,” Hood summarizes.”One, the ongoing joy of discovering it, and experiencing it live with both old and new friends alike. Two, the nostalgic connection; there is no escaping it for me. It’s just part of it! And three, the appreciation of something new being created with something old. That is a damn blast!” And, just like the punk rock music of the past, those who create chip music are an enthusiastic and dedicated enough bunch that it will definitely outlast the ever-changing musical trends, just like the hardware that is used to create it.

[This article is reposted with my permission at Attack Initiative.]

8 comments on “Digital Sea of Sound”

  1. Nice job! The live chip music scene is the lifeblood of the community. I have been documenting & archiving the scene as chip music chronicle for a few years & have amassed a diverse source of that talent on my dedicated channel on YouTube : magfest 9 chip music showcase is included there plus the last 2 years of 8static, Pulsewave, pax, blip, etc. you should check it out!I would definitely encourage anyone out there that can experience the live scene in person to leave the Internet for a bit & visit such events as 8static in Philadelphia, I/O & Pulsewave in NYC, Boston 8-bit, XBIT in the northwest or magfest in DC to be a part of that experience!

  2. Oh – one thing i would add is that there is a misconception from the public (something that i have personally dealt with quite a bit)… people think chip music is a genre, but i caution against that thinking. In reality it's just a medium like "Orchestral Music" or "Guitar Music." Within the umbrella there is a myriad of different genres and styles. That's why this music scene / medium is doing such amazing and new things. It's a huge genre melting pot and it's also a scene where the punk rocker hangs with the jazz guitarist, the classical musician, or the electro dance artists, etc. Its very unique in that aspect and that's why I'm so into it.

  3. Hmm, that's a very good point. I suppose I do refer to it as a 'genre', but I do agree that that isn't really the correct way to think of it. Just like influences and styles can very on any other instrument, so can they with chip.

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