Music Stuff: Getting Started with Chiptunes
This is an excerpt that Cutman wrote about a year ago as a guest blog author. While this is some stuff many of you probably already know, it goes great with our indie musician series and is the perfect place to start if you’re thinking about delving into creating your own tunes!
8-bit music, or Chiptune, is the art of creating new music with classic, nostalgia-inducing sounds found in antiquated video games and computer hardware, like the Nintendo Entertainment System and Gameboy. Originally restricted to almost exclusive use within video games, Chiptune music has now grown well beyond the cartage into its own unique style of electronic music.
The word Chiptune was affectionately applied to this sub-genre of electronic music in the 90′s, as communities of musicians around the globe began to assemble around the love of this classic sound. The word “Chiptune” was given because the music was primarily created on a system with a single hardware sound chip (much unlike modern computers and recording equipment) Now-a-days, there are many ways to create this type of music, from running homebrew software on a modified Gameboy, to downloading standalone software and plug-ins for modern Digital Audio Workstations (DAW).
In this post, I’ll take you through a few methods of creating Chiptunes, from the time-honored Tracker software, to modern emulation and sampling. But first, let’s listen to a classic and familiar Chiptune here.
Ah, the Super Mario theme. It would be a rare set of ears that this tune hasn’t graced in one form or another. This particular tune was programmed for the Nintendo Entertainment System’s 2A03 sound chip, with its nostalgic waveforms and noisy percussion.
There are a plethora of hardware options to create Chiptune music, each noted for its signature sound chip. I’ll go over one of the most popular for the modern day Chiptune composer, the Nintendo Gameboy.
Nintendo Gameboy (DMG-001)
Loved for its nostalgic, expressive, and noisy sounds, the Nintendo Gameboy is arguably the most popular method to create Chiptunes today. This rise in popularity is due largely in part to Johan Kotlinski’s homebrew software Little Sound Dj (LSDJ). The software is offered as a downloadable ROM that you can play on a computer’s emulator, or copy onto a USB Cart and play it on a regular ol’ gameboy. A lot of Chiptune musicians (myself included) started writing Chiptune music on an emulator, and later on invested in a Gameboy and a cart for live performances or for studio recordings. The downfall of emulating, is the sound produced isn’t as accurate as with a real Gameboy, and can sometimes sound thin, or less listenable. (when you start working with a gameboy, you’ll find making unlistenable music surprisingly easy
If you’ve seen a live Chiptune show, you’ve probably noticed Gameboys modified with lights, knobs, wires and switches that Nintendo had nothing to do with. Groups like Modolith have made an enterprise of modifying and repurposing Gameboys with backlights, professional sounding outputs, and more hacks to make them a flexible live instrument.
Here’s a shot of mine, outfitted with a backlight, RCA outputs and a 1/4 instrument out for an amplifier. Even with these modifications, the heart, soul, and sound chip of the Gameboy remain in-tact.
Traditional Chiptunes are programmed on software called Audio Trackers, which allow for step-by-step programming of music. Popular trackers include MilkyTracker, FamiTracker (for producing music for the Nintendo Entertainment System AKA The Famicom), and Renoise. A comprehensive list of trackers can be found here. Trackers have a unique culture and workflow, and in the right hands can be a very powerful method of music composition.
If you’re more of a fan of modern music composing, or have some experience with DAWs like Pro Tools, Live, Garageband, or FL Studio, there are many plug-ins that can create Chiptune waveforms. This will allow you to create a Chiptune sound with MIDI data, instead of having to learn new software like a tracker.
I use a plug-in by Japanese band YMCK called Magical 8bit Plug. It features five wave forms (square, triangle, 25%pulse, 12.5% pulse and noise), each with its own characteristic qualities. Magical 8bit also offers the basic synth controls (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, Sweep) and will run in any DAW that accepts VST plug-ins. I like its simplicity, and it uses a relativity low CPU load. I find Chiptune plug-ins usually require some amount of EQ , post-processing or mastering to sit well in a finished track..
Other plug-ins like Plogue’s Chipsounds offer much more comprehensive emulation of various Sound Chips, including two of my favorites, the 2A03 (NES) and the YM2615 (Sega Genesis). Plogue has nailed these sounds down to the detail, including options to limit range based on their original system specs, and other idiosyncrasies that make these sounds so nostalgic.
There are a variety of 8-bit sample packs available online, like this one by Bucky. Sample packs offer recorded versions of Chiptune sounds and instruments. This eliminates the need for plug-ins, and can be used with trackers or other DAWs. Samples can be a great way to quickly gain access to Chiptune sounds, but you lose some creative flexibility by not being able to generate the sounds in real time. I like using Chiptune samples for remixes and instrumental works, such as for my GameChops remix series, which are almost entirely composed with samples.
We’ll do a more extensive article on hardware options later on. Next up in the series, is all the other gadgets and gizmos you will need to get a proper home studio for producing your own tunes.