zophar53's Blog

Posted on Apr 4th 2021 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under RF Jamz, Chiptunes, music, game music

When most people think of video game music, they think of the songs that play in the background while we play our favorite games. Then there's game music covers, where fans use their musical talent to recreate their favorite tracks with real instruments or in a different genre/style. But all too often, people tend to forget about another way video games and music cross paths, and that's chiptune music. In looking over the recent RF Generation donation drive prize lots for 2021, I was excited to see a bundle of chiptune music as one of the options (big thank you to site member ugr for that, by the way!). I also thought it would make for a fun opportunity to celebrate the wonderful music that can be created with retro game consoles.

The complete history of chip music is beyond the scope of this article, but the usage of PCs to create real-time synthesized music can be traced all the way back to 1951. It was pretty limited until the late 70s, when the First Philadelphia Computer Music Festival produced the first computer music albums. As the 80s brought improvements to PC hardware and the first home video game consoles, the previous generation hardware started becoming cheap and abundant enough that people started experimenting with them in new ways. The other thing that started gaining popularity in the 80s was electronic music and digital synthesizers. In retrospect, it seems pretty natural that as digital sound chips got more powerful and video games started incorporating them, musicians would do the same, sampling game sounds and eventually creating custom software to create their own original tracks.

Game Boys are the most common chiptune instrument, but artists also use NES, Genesis, Atari, even Commodore 64 hardware.

While the popularity of chip music dipped in the 90s, it had a resurgence in the 2000s, helped along by music creation tools such as LittleSoundDJ (LSDJ) for the Game Boy and more of an emphasis on live performance and formal album releases rather than the more random nature of demoscene culture. While still nowhere near the prominence of mainstream music, the chiptune scene in the modern era is alive and well, evidenced by festivals such as Super MAGFest and others. These days, it's also not uncommon for chiptune DJs to be hired to create original soundtracks for video games.

One such example is Chipzel. Hailing from Northern Ireland, she began making chip music in the early 2000s and produced several independent albums and performed at Blip Festival using tracking software to perform using not one, but two Game Boys. In 2012, she was approached by Terry Cavanaugh, creator of Hexagon and Super Hexagon. She would go on to lend a couple of her tracks to the game and create a couple new ones for the games, sharing in their success. Since then, she's continued to create her own music as well as contribute to more video game soundtracks, including River City Girls and Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer.

This game is a lot of fun, but man is it hard, and anxiety-inducing.

While chip music tends to be heavily focused on electronic dance music, that is in no way the only genre to which it can be applied. Big Giant Circles is an artist who's extensive discography includes a large variety of music. For example, his soundtracks for indie mobile games Threes and Puzzlejuice shy away from the crunchy bass beats and tinny melodies of 8-bit sounds. Instead, they present calm, clean, atmospheric tunes suitable for the puzzle games for which they accompany. Actually, they're great background music for writing. One of my favorite original albums of his, The Glory Days, feels like it was ripped straight out of an NES game that never existed.

The title track for Big Giant Circles' Extreme Road Trip 2 soundtrack pairs chiptune with guitar riffs and drums to create an awesome rock song.

One of the most popular, and unique, chip bands is none other than Anamanaguchi. Their music starts with traditional chiptune melodies, but instead of a typical rhythmic dance beat, are structured in the style of having distinct lyrical and chorus sections, making them feel more like individual, standalone songs. On top of the chiptune tracks, they layer actual band instrumentation. This results in a skillful blend of chiptune core, wrapped in indie rock/pop/punk, smothered in j-pop influence. It's unlike anything you're likely to find in either the chiptune or mainstream music space.

Anamanaguchi started gaining popularity in the indie music scene in the early 2000s and toured small venues around the country with their first couple of albums. In 2010, they gained a new level of fame when they were approached by Ubisoft to compose the entire soundtrack for the River City Ransom-inspired Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. This led to more visibility, and eventually they would perform on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and appear as guests on Chris Hardwick's The Nerdist podcast. Their song Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues remains the theme for the podcast (now called the ID10T podcast) to this very day. They've even performed live with Japanese vocaloid Hatsune Miku.

Regardless of your interest in the music itself, one thing you won't be at an Anamanaguchi show is bored.

Most chiptune concerts are like going to a DJ show. The artist performs, but the point is to dance and enjoy the sights and sounds. But an Anamanaguchi show is more like a traditional concert. My first time seeing them was not long after the Scott Pilgrim game came out, and I wasn't really prepared. It was lively, the crowd was enthusiastic, and their light show includes not just a backdrop screen, but also big flourecent light tubes. If you have any interest in chip music, or just want a fun, unusual concert experience, I highly recommend checking them out live. I mean, whenever concerts become a thing again.

They may be a chip band, but one look at the instrument tracks in Rock Band is all it takes to convince you they're genuinely talented musicians. The drum track in particular is sick, and super fun to play.

Finally, you have instances where a chip artist re-creates popular songs in a chiptune style. These are always a fun surprise to stumble upon, and showcase just how versatile simple retro sound chips can be when in the hands of a skilled musician. RF Generation member ugr's Inverse Phase, for example, made a chiptune cover album of Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine. The original album was already infused with some heavy synth sounds, so it's not necessarily surprising to learn that a chiptune version works so well, but it's still really cool to see this kind of thing happen.

These are just the tips of the iceberg when it comes to chiptune musicians. From well known musicians like Disasterpeace (the game Fez, the movie It Follows) and Jake Kaufman (Shovel Knight, Mighty Switch Force) who focus primarily on creating music for games, to more DJ-like musicians like Nullsleep and Sabrepulse, there's a big, wide world of awesome music out there being created with old video game hardware. If you've never explored this genre of music, I highly recommend doing so. It's a fascinating medium and yet one more way in which people's passions have been used in unique, creative ways.

What about you, have you explored any of the artists above and want to share your thoughts? Do you have any chiptune artist recommendations or stories of chip music shows or festivals you'd like to share. I'd love to hear about them.

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Great stuff, zophar! Lots of great chip tune music coming out. A couple more I'd recommend are [url=https://kemikziel.bandcamp.com/music]Kemikziel[/url], and the long-running [url=https://8bitweapon.bandcamp.com/]8-bit Weapon[/url]. If you're looking for something that's chip-inspired, but isn't *exactly* chip music, check out the great stuff from [url=https://mudprintsmusic.bandcamp.com/music]Studio Mudprints[/url], which complements their YouTube channel (and many of their tracks make their way into videos & live streams), or the "chip"-metal band, [url=https://masterbootrecord.bandcamp.com/music]MASTER BOOT RECORD[/url]. It's heavy metal, but made all with keyboards, synthesizers, and programming, and it's pretty great. I think I own most of his discography on vinyl at this point. It's all inspired by late 80's and early 90's computer technology, hence the name.
@MetalFRO: Thanks for the recommendations! I was listening to some 8 Bit Weapon earlier today, great stuff. The chip metal sounds really intriguing, def going to check that out.
Don't know if most of it is still available, but Chiptunes = Win is a great creator of chiptunes compilations where you can find new chiptunes artists. They used to sell a USB drive of all of their releases, which was a steal at the price they were asking. Their site is https://chiptuneswin.com/

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