Chiptune, or 8-bit music, has become a widespread phenomenon that sparks a bit of nostalgia when you hear the combination of warm, tinny, and crunchy sounds. It has become an artistic outlet for many musicians, amateurs and professionals alike. Whether its a simple cover rendition of the latest pop tune or the creation of a full film score, this easily recognizable “sound” has made an impact.
But, what is it that makes 8-bit music what it is?
In this spotlight, we’ll take a quick glance at the inner workings of chiptuning and some of the hardware/software involved. Hit the break to find out more!
At its core, chiptuning is basically synthesized music. Without getting too involved, synthesized sounds are the electronic reproductions of sound waves and its manipulations of the “envelope.” The envelope of a sound is made up of four parameters: the Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release. In essence, it’s the beginning, getting to the middle, the middle, and the end, respectively, of a sound that is played.
What gives chiptuning its unique sound lies within its name; the sound chip. The particular chips are located within vintage computers and gaming consoles. Each chip is manufactured differently, which gives a unit its unique sound, or timbre. The timbre (tam-ber) is a characteristic tone; one reason we can tell a person apart from another by the way they sound.
If it wasn’t obvious enough, that’s why game consoles are used to achieve that retro gaming sound. Emulators also exist to reproduce sounds with a similar effect, but for the purist, it’s not the same. Some of the popular choices for chiptuning include the Commodore 64, the NES, and a line of Game Boys.
Next, we’ll take a glimpse at chiptuning with the Game Boy, a unit I personally use.
-My custom backlit and painted Gameboy Color
There are a bunch of programs out there for the Game Boy to start chiptuning with. Nanoloop, LSDj, and Pixelh8 are a few of the popular sets.
Seen here is LSDj, or Little Sound Dj. It’s designated as a tracker program that is fully customizable, as well as containing drum audio samples and speech programming. It seems a bit daunting since all you see is numbers on numbers on numbers, with the occasional hexadecimal letter. However, once you spend time and play with it, it gets easier and fun. Haphazardly playing with parameters allow you to stumble across interesting sounds.
The basic setup of LSDj lies within its pages, which consist of the Song page (seen above), the Chain, Phrase, Instrument, and Table pages. You can relate each page as a body of written work (song), the paragraph (chain), the sentence (phrase), and the language (instrument, also sound). The table consists of very specific commands on how a note will sound. LSDj also has the ability to link with other Game Boys and you can essentially build an entire orchestra.
For me, the difficulty with this program is trying to stay organized. The bigger the music project, the easier it is to lose track of certain lines. However, it doesn’t keep me from writing new tunes.
The following audio is a short song I whipped up from a melody that came to me on a flight recently. I hope you enjoy!
Well, I’ve given you just a taste of what chiptuning is. There are many venues to pursue and if you want to join the 8-bit revolution, here are a few resources (mainly Game Boy) to check out if you want to get into chiptuning.