I wrote this a while ago, but Mana Bar is hosting a special Valley Fiesta chiptunes festival so bone up on it here then check out their Tumblr for details.
I finally got down to the Mana Bar the other day, though I am sickly and much beleaguered with uni work. The things I do for you, dear readers! It was tiny! Like a baby bar. A mini bar. Haw haw. Sorry. So while I was down there I caught one of the chiptunes DJs, Alex aka DJ dot.AY, and asked him what the hell chiptunes is all about anyway.
First, a little background. Chiptunes, or 8-bit music, is a type of electronic/dance music made using the synthesiser chip inside old gaming consoles (hence chiptunes). Alex told me unlike modern gaming consoles, old rigs like the Gameboys he uses along with all the ‘classic’ consoles have a dedicated sound chip with a limited set of ‘noises’ it can make. The article Endless Loop: a Brief History of Chiptunes offers, “Born out of technical limitation, their soaring flutelike melodies, buzzing square wave bass, rapid arpeggios, and noisy gated percussion eventually came to define a style of its own, which is being called forth by today’s pop composers as a matter of preference rather than necessity.”
You know the twee little Super Mario theme? Sure you do.
It’s like that on crack.
This type of music composition is a relatively new thing outside of the gaming world where the technology was developed. In 2000, A Swedish dude named Johan Kotlinski developed a gaming cartridge that was actually a composition device and he called it Little Sound DJ or LSDj. It allowed musicians to tap into the music chip’s abilities by representing the codified sounds on screen, and providing a program to alter them meaningfully.
Aside from the methods the LSDj and its offshoots can offer, there are also performers who simply sample game sounds, use ‘chip demos’ to produce the effect with keyboards or computers, bands use ‘8-bit fuzz’ pedals to give that Eighties edge to their guitars and much more. Phew! Did you get all that? Basically, these DIY programs give anybody the ability to make music with their Gameboy, just like DJ dot.AY.
“So Alex, I bravely dive into the deep end in the name of journalistic integrity/trying to look like I have the slightest idea what he’s telling me, “could you tell me the big names in chiptunes? Like, the AC/DC of 8-bit?
“I dunno if it’s like that,” he responds, grinning.
Damn. “Alright well who’s your favourite performer at the moment?”
“I really like a guy called Saitone. He’s from Japan. But if you want to check out 8-Bit Peoples’ website, that’s the major 8-bit label at the moment. Guys like Bit Shifter and Nullsleep are the big names in chiptunes.”
What about Brisbane? Is dot.AY all alone up here? Well, yeah, mostly.
“It’s huge globally, but not a lot is happening in Brisbane.” Most of the dedicated chiptunes artists have been represented by Mana Bar already. Dot.AY and Andy Expandy seem to be the most ‘professional’ of the lot, actually playing gigs rather than just mucking around with chiptunes at home. Perversely, he adds: “Brisbane is one of the only cities in the world that has a dedicated chiptunes club night [at the Mana Bar]. You only really hear about it in New York and Tokyo otherwise.” Nationally, though, there’s a good crop of artists (Australia must have the most musicians per capita besides Iceland) and it’s growing rapidly with the rise and rise of geek culture.
It’s a brave new world, with the act of composition itself the final frontier. Each console has a unique set of sound parameters and the way in which musicians use them is vastly different. DJ dot.AY is known to bust out a Dance Dance Revolution gaming mat during live shows which produces another layer of sound in complex and somewhat unpredictable ways – because DDR is a game, if you misstep the sound will be different.
Game Music 4 All interview; “The composition process is usually pretty spontaneous, it’s rare for me to pick up the Game Boy with a preconceived notion of what I want the end result to be, although that occasionally happens. The process usually involves a combination of deliberate composition and exploration / exploitation of happy accidents — for instance, entering a short melody or sequence of sounds, and then altering sound parameters to introduce an element of chance, changing the sound & amp; behaviour of the notes in ways that can have unpredictable results.”
As a digital DIY style, it seems fitting that there’s so much 8-bit music available on the internet for free. DJ dot.AY’s music is available on his website for nothing; I thought it was so good I was willing to pay the measly 10 bucks he was charging to get a hard copy of his self-titled album with some very rad sleeve art. There’s a plethora of music available, straight off Google or through geek blogs and dedicated sites like Game Music 4 All.
Even if you don’t own a Super Nintendo or a pocket protector, this music is catchy, energetic, and far more exciting than bland techno beats being pumped by clubs at the moment. Its DIY culture and online presence represent the possible future of music: punk’s not dead, it just went digital.
If this article has piqued your interest you can grab a really good compilation of Australian chiptunes from Alex’s website here, complete with cool cover art and tidy track listing, completely free.