Remember the music from your original Nintendo games? How about your first Game Boy or Commodore 64 system? That seemingly simple, decades-old digital music is finding new life in a growing audio-visual art form called chip music. We spoke with Philadelphia-based chiptune artist Don Miller, aka NO CARRIER, about the burgeoning 8-bit music scene in Philly and why so many people find it compelling.
Keystone Edge: What is 8-bit music, or chip music, and how do you make it?
Don Miller: Chip music comes from the idea that you’re making music based on a sound chip. [Usually] when we say a sound chip we mean modern music that is performed on computer consoles–that’s all sample-based. Whereas a lot of older music on the Gameboy, the Nintendo and the Commodore 64 is generated from a sound chip. That’s why if you listen to an NES or a Gameboy or a Commodore you hear a very unique set of sounds. Chip music is music that uses those sounds from the old hardware in new ways and allows people twenty years on to still create music based on the sounds of the old machines.
KE: So are you hacking into these computers chips and reorganizing the sounds to make original music?
DM: Some people do kind of hack in and do their own thing for some of the consoles and computers but luckily there is a lot of software out there already available. So for the Gameboy, which is probably one of the most popular platforms for chip music, there are a couple of programs, most notably one called Little Sound Dj or LSDJ, or another program is called nanoloop. And these programs are software created on a cart, a Gameboy cart, that you can purchase and put into your Gameboy and then you can use that to sequence the music. So it’s not as much hacking into the actual hardware as it is custom software created for these consoles that allow you to make music. There are a lot of people on the scene that continue to innovate and make their own software and do a lot of hardware hacking and hardware bending and experimentation. But for the most part the majority of musicians use tools already available–just like a lot of other musicians use guitars and keyboards that other people make. These tools allow musicians to express themselves, in chip music, on these old consoles.
KE: Is it technically complicated? That is, do you need special training to do it, or musical ability, or can you just rearrange the sounds based on your natural inclination?
DM: That’s a great question. Just like making electronic music anywhere else, on a modern computer there are a number of different ways you can go about it for chip music, and some of them require a heavy technical background. For example, there’s a text-based type of musical notation language available for Nintendo. So you actually have to enter in, in a text document, note values for different channels on the NES. But luckily programs that are a lot more accessible, like LSDJ, Little Sound DJ for Gameboy, are literally programs that come up on the screen that have a user manual just like any other game that you would get, and they show you how to run the program, to create the sounds. Most programs used to make chip music are what are called trackers. Trackers are very common on the Commodore 64, the Amiga, and old PC computers as well. Instead of a horizontal arrangement like you’d see when you read music, the notes are arranged vertically. Most people are used to trackers, who have been making computer music for a while. So when it comes to chip music it’s a small step to get used to some of the software there. It’s a small learning curve, I should say.
KE: What is the chip music scene like in Philadelphia?
DM: One thing I wanted to do when we started 8static was to not only build a local scene but to get more people involved. Every month at 8static there is an admission fee but we always have a free workshop. So even if you’re slightly curious or you can’t stick around for the show you can always come out for free and get educated about chip music. And we always have people that are artists performing that night or artists who have performed in the past or are performing in the future coming out and showing you how they do things and how you can do it as well. Jordan Gray [Starpause], who’s coming from San Francisco, is headlining this weekend but he also has been working on a workshop for the last couple of weeks to present to people. So it kind of makes it a little more legitimate because a big problem with chip music is that you see the Gameboy but most of can’t fathom how the music is coming out of the machine. It’s great to have a workshop beforehand because then you have the actual performer telling you how he’s doing it and then you see him perform later and it kind of completes that connection for the audience.
KE: Growing up with the classic Nintendo and Comodore 64 computer games, how do you think this kind of music effects listeners of a certain age in terms of nostalgia?
DM: That’s a really big thing in chip music because it’s kind of a debate, almost. Are people into it because it’s nostalgic? Or can you be into chip music independently of ever having played video games? It’s a really interesting question. I would say that for the majority of the people that first get into chip music there probably is a strong element of nostalgia. They hear a sound, they relate it to a certain time and they like that. But I think as you get into it more and you explore the form and the possibilities it really becomes something interesting and legitimate on its own terms.
8static is Sat., July 18, 2009 at Studio 34, 4522 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia. Free workshop at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m., $5 with flier, $8 without.
John Davidson is the managing editor of Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.
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Don Miller, aka NO CARRIER
Jordan Gray, aka Starpause