Name That Chiptune: The Growing Niche of 8-bit Music

Audio has been moving steadily toward higher fidelity and resolution as components become cheaper and more advanced. If it ain’t 24-bit and 192kHz, many people simply aren’t interested. But this week, I’m looking in the opposite direction: 8-bit music. A whole community of musicians use modified handheld gaming devices like Nintendo Game Boys and NES boxes as live musical instruments, thanks to hardware modifications and software sequencers. At first I couldn’t decide whether this is an unholy marriage of adolescent video game obsession with rockstar dreams or a legitimate art form, but my experience at last weekend’s Blip Festival—a series of performances, discussion panels, and screenings celebrating 8-bit music and visual art—cleared things up for me a bit.

On Friday night at the Tank, a cavernous art space located in a defunct bank near Wall Street in Manhattan, the scene was much like a rave, with a big crowd, lots of multicolored lights, a video screen, and music pumping through huge speakers. But the man on stage wasn’t manipulating a set of turntables (or iPods)—he was pressing buttons on a QWERTY keyboard, hooked up to a couple of Game Boys. Behind him was a lightscape of 50 x 20 4-inch panel lights controlled by the visual artists on hand, and in front of him was an adoring crowd. He goes by the name of Bit Shifter (real name: Joshua Davis, 33), and he’s the co-organizer of the Blip Festival, in which 32 low-bit audio and visual artists converge on lower Manhattan for a four-day chiptune extravaganza. I took a few snapshots of the venue—in the spirit of low-bit art, I tried to get some interesting images with my crappy cell phone camera.

(Bit Shifter rocks out rave-style.)

Another co-organizer of the festival is Nullsleep (aka Jeremiah Johnson, 26), and I had a chance to catch up with him recently. He generally performs on a couple of Game Boys and Game Boy Colors hooked up to a QWERTY keyboard, letting him rock out in much the same way a conventional keyboardist would. I asked him what drew him to 8-bit music in the face of the constant forward march of audio technology: “For me, it has a lot to do with the challenge of it. Pushing the limits of old tech and trying to make it do things that it was never intended to is something that I find really rewarding.”

I also spoke with Blip performer Mark De Nardo, who combines music from his PSP—running an emulation of a Game Boy sequencer—with his own acoustic guitar playing and vocals. The combination was striking, and although I initially felt that it was like playing along to canned music, De Nardo did compose the backgrounds himself. Some technical problems on-stage prompted me to ask him how he deals with such challenges. He responded, “I like fighting with my robots on-stage. We make better music when we fight.” Shades of tenor sax great Sonny Rollins, who always contended he gave a better performance when he was really pissed off.

I’ve heard avant-garde artists like Gino Robair make moving music out of a collection of toys and junk he keeps in a suitcase. And I’ve seen extremely talented DJs like Mixmaster Mike coax some incredible performances using a set of turntables. Both of these seem to take on the same principles Nullsleep outlined, and chiptunes are clearly a logical extension of that. The difference is that 8-bit artists focus more on the DIY aspect of actually creating their instruments. Nullsleep points out that “We’re not remixing soundtracks, we’re repurposing video game hardware to make sounds with it that haven’t been heard before—and the results often sound nothing like game music.”

The focus on technology is perhaps most apparent when you look around the venue during a performance—very few people are actually dancing, despite the heavy electronic grooves. They’re transfixed by the combination of music, artist-controlled blinking lights, and a video screen showing various abstract and not-so-abstract scenes. Sounds suspiciously like watching someone play a video game, eh?

Personally, I always hated the programmed audio on my original Game Boy (which has long-since been relegated to my Drawer of Dead Electronics), though I vaguely remember digging Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s music from the end Super Mario Land after saving Princess Daisy. So I was sure I would be somewhat put off by the sounds at the festival, especially being a die-hard acoustic music fan. Nevertheless, the limitations inherent in 8-bit music (and the artists’ sometimes amazingly complex workarounds) are exactly what makes the form so fascinating. And Nullsleep is right—the results are often nothing like game music.

(I’m dedicating this week’s column to the late James Kim, my counterpart at CNet while I was the digital audio guy at PC Magazine. Rest in peace, and may his family find comfort and solace in his memory.)

Data Destruction Tour 2005 [Gizmodo]