27 February 2012
Like many expanding niches, the strong undercurrent of chipmusic – a genre-agnostic approach to writing electronic music using long superseded consumer electronics – is starting to change what is happening on the surface of popular music. The joyful tones of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega MegaDrive and the Commodore 64 are finding their way into pop songs. Popular chipmusician Joshua Davis (known in the scene as Bit Shifter) has commented that chipmusic has "begun to percolate upwards into popular culture." With the exponential growth of this underground scene, it is hardly a surprise to see the effects on the surface.
The more popular tools of the chipmusic (or chiptune, or 8bit) trade were made from the early '80s to the early '90s, when the most efficient way to add sound to a video game or computing experience was with a sound chip. These sound chips are limited, there are no two ways about that. Usually they're restricted to a small number of voices (sounds that can be played at once) and the palette of sounds themselves are set to a handful of presets that the chip is capable of creating. As a result of these limitations, the sounds created by these electronic devices are unmistakably distinctive.
Working within the limitations of a particular soundchip to create bigger, better and brighter music (a lot of which has reached a point that it could comfortably be played back to back with music made with more modern tools) has become a continuing challenge amongst a vibrant and expanding subculture.
This practice is by no means a new thing. In fact, writing music for these devices has been happening since they started being manufactured. Some of these machines offered consumers ways to write music from the outset, with others it took retrospective home-brew development to create the tools used by today's composers. A prime example of this is Little Sound DJ which was first released in 2000; a little over ten years after the release of the first Nintendo Game Boys. The program is a tracker, designed to exploit almost every facet of the Game Boy's music making capacity. This was one of the first steps in the explosion of 'modern' chipmusic. LSDJ (as it is known) is used widely within the community and is still supported and under constant development.
A LSDJ composition performed by Australian artist little-scale.
A tracker, for those unfamiliar with the term, has been described by Patric C, a longstanding member of the tracker scene, as "a system developed for games and demos based around columns going down." These columns are usually filled with numbers and letters representing commands, to be carried out by the computer in real time to create ordered sounds. "The trick is to use your few tracks to make complex music in a minimal way." This common style of music workstation became a standard of sorts. Chip musician Jeremiah Johnson (known as Nullsleep) stated that "once you know one tracker, it is easy to adapt to a different platform." Which has an impact on the learning curve of learning to compose for other devices. Sebastian Tomczak, who has a PHD in music (known within the community as little-scale), has said that "tracking in itself - if you're good at tracking - is very fast ... I can't sequence music in a modern DAW as efficiently as I can track, and I am quite efficient." As Patric said, trackers date back to the demo scene. The demo scene itself was (and continues to be) a creative computer subculture which rose most notably in Europe (a big influence on American chipmusic). There is a lot that can be said about the demo scene and chipmusic's origin in that scene (and the visuals used very often in the scene), but we'll have to deal with that separately.
It only took a few years from the birth of LSDJ for chipmusic to truly graze the mainstream in a big way, with an article from Wired Magazine, titled 8-Bit Punk, written by Malcolm McLaren (who you may know as the man who 'created' the Sex Pistols). It praised the movement, but harboured some slight mistruths which, in effect, begun an open dialogue of sorts amongst the community about the movement. An insular, yet global scene – linked via online communities and blogs such as Europe's micromusic.net, Japan's VORC and later the American 8bitcollective – was starting to gain attention, for better or for worse. Joshua Davis has commented that "chipmusic for a long time has been decentralised, but very connected." This, and the history of association with the demo scene, saw the spirit of sharing music and insider tricks of the trade see the first signs of exploitation. "Crack demo distribution, pre-Internet, greatly influenced the distribution models of chipmusic, in the form of netlabels and so on… not only distributing the music for free, but [also] the knowledge of how it was made."
The knowledge of how the music was made is an interesting topic. A lot of the information shared between artists was in the music files themselves. The distribution of music in file formats such as .mod and .xm meant that people could open the tracks up in editors and see the notes as the original artist had entered them. The distribution of music in open source formats helped educate people across the world about how chipmusic was being made.
While this was true for a lot of places in the world, it should be noted that Japan, for example, traversed a different course. As the home of a lot of game music (not to mention Nintendo itself), it is interesting to note that the chipmusic scene rose out of a love for game music as opposed to a demo scene. Japan used different hardware and less trackers, opting for code-based music composition languages like MML or Music Markup Language. Jeremiah notes, "MML is kind of like HTML for music." Although Japan's scene came from a different place, the VORC blog (which ran for about six years according to Joshua Davis) and sites like Famicompo (a site dedicated to anonymous Nintendo music competitions) bridged the gap to the global scene, and in particular the US scene.
In the years following this initial breach of the community by popular culture (with articles like the aforementioned McLaren article), there were a number of cases of music theft. It seemed that the fact that chipmusic was often (and continues to be) freely shared, gave rise to a lack of understanding (or respect) for artists' ownership of their music outside of the scene. Sections of songs began to appear in other artists music without credit and in some extreme cases songs were simply lifted and re-released with little more than a vocal laid on top. A Norwegian duo, Fitts For Fight, did just this and almost had the opportunity to play festivals before being exposed and dropped from the festival.
Infamous copyright exploiters, Crystal Castles, also had some run-ins, with some of their sounds seeming awfully familiar to those of an artist named Lo-Bat (not to mention their use of a portrait of Madonna as album artwork without clearing it first). This trend of theft went as high in the ranks of popular music as Timbaland, who allegedly stole both motifs and samples from Tempest's Acid Jazz Evening for use in a song on Nelly Furtardo's 2006 album Loose.
These examples are the tip of the iceberg. There were countless incidents of smaller-scale chipmusic theft. It saw a high percentage of artists begin to be far more clear about their licensing. Creative Commons licences began to be used everywhere and the cases over time (while probably never completely over) began to slow down.
While 2006 saw one of the first court cases regarding the theft of chipmusic by artists taking the sound to the masses, positive things were also happening within the community to increase its exposure. Two New York City-based Game Boy musicians (Bit Shifter and Nullsleep, mentioned earlier, also responsible for the now-infamous 8bitpeoples record label) and the artistic directer of a non-profit arts space in the same city, Mike Rosenthal, hosted the first Blip Festival. It brought together artists from across the world to perform in the one room over a number of days (including a number of international artists).
The event was documented by 2playerproductions and released on DVD for the world to experience. This happened again in 2007 and 2008. This festival formed out of the Pulsewave event series, which spawned around 2005, borrowing heavily from Microdisko in Stockholm. This model has since been appropriated across America and the world, including the Netherlands, Canada, new events in Japan (it should be noted that the Japanese event lowbitplayground started of its own accord in 2005) and even a few cities in Australia, particularly in the form of the SoundBytes and Pocket Music event series.
These captured Blip Festival performances are understood to have played a pretty important role in the growth of the movement. Though, at this time, it wasn't only the performances being caught on tape. In 2006, Marcin Ramocki released 8 BIT, a documentary focusing on the expanding trend towards low-resolution aesthetics in art, music and gaming. This film covered chipmusic in and its growth towards recognition in quite some detail. 8 BIT even enjoyed an Australian premiere in Melbourne in early 2008.
Also in 2008, 2playerproductions released a documentary focused on the US chip-scene and in particular, the Blip Festival concert series and associated events (such as Pulsewave) in New York City. The combination of performance videos, particularly 2007's Blip Festival videos, and the Reformat The Planet documentary really puts the focus on chipmusic towards NYC. Blip Festival became a mecca of sorts for English-speaking artists and fans alike.
In the years between 2008 and 2012, the Blip Festival concert series has expanded to Europe, Japan and, as of February this year, Melbourne in Australia. Thankfully more documentation is taking place as well, with films such as europein8bits on the way. The next few years are going to be an exciting period for chipmusic.
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