Screaming fans gather in a dark room in anticipation. As lights begin to flash, a musician takes the stage in front of a giant television screen. When the music starts pumping it’s not the twang of a guitar that hits you, or even the scratches of a record, but rather the gritty electronic sound of an old Game Boy. Chiptune is a young music genre that manipulates the sound chips in children’s toys into musical instruments and it’s making noise right here in Rochester.
Chiptunes originated from 8-bit video game nostalgia. Outdated gaming platforms, such as the Game Boy and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), were used to create remixes of popular game music. Since then, chiptune has developed to be less about remembering the past and more about pushing the outdated systems as far as possible. The result is more raw and fresh than the common polished sounds of newer machines. “I always liked it,” says Nick Maynard, a member of Rochester Chip, a local chiptune community. He had begun by making electronic music, and had ended up using the same sounds as chiptune. When he first heard Anamanaguchi, a chiptune band, “[He was} blown away. It was like, ‘oh my god it’s all I want to do’”. Since then, he has been an active member of the community, including helping host a screening of the chiptune documentary “Reformat the Planet” on campus on Friday, April 13, which delved deep into the inner workings of the scene. Afterward, he led a lecture on how to program chiptune music on a Game Boy. Here’s how it works.
The New New Wave
Due to the restrictive nature of the platforms, the music has to be very efficient. The chips in Game Boys, for example, only have four channels to draw sound from: Pulse One and Two, which give off square audio waves, Wave, which can switch between different types of waves, and Noise, which is basically a white noise channel. In order to get full and complex sounding music, each channel has to be pushed to its capacity; even the Noise channel can be manipulated into resembling snare and bass drums. Besides selecting individuals notes, sound sets can be ripped from popular games such as “Castlevania,” “Mega Man” and “A Boy and His Blob,” and mixed into the music.
There are various programs that can manipulate the notes. Though usually used for techno music, the computer program “FruityLoops” can be used to compose chiptune songs. Because it can be used on a computer, some artists from “Reformat the planet” feel that it is easier to use than working directly on a Game Boy. The program “Little Sound DJ” can be used on both a Game Boy with an EMS cartridge (a programmable game cartridge which can connect to a computer via USB) or on an emulator. “LSDJ” has two modes: Sony, which plays sections of notes in a listed order, and Live, which allows the user to pick when music comes in for improvisational performances. It also has a feature that allows the user to hand draw the sound wave they want to create. As chiptune artist Nullsleep explains in “Reformat the planet”, “It basically turns your Game Boy into a synthesizer and a sequencer.” For hardware that does not take an EMS cartridge, such as the NES, a chip can be programmed with a song and soldered into a game cartridge to be played on the console, a favored method of Anamanaguchi. Another way to create chiptune music is to hardwire various switch and plug connections straight to the motherboard and warp the sounds by hand, the preferred technique of artist Notendo.
The Rochester chiptune community is also extremely united. Maynard stated, “I love everyone I meet setting up shows. It takes a specific kind of person to want to learn this pseudo code.” The local community Rochester Chip, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary in November, meets every month with various shows and screenings. While most shows are at the Bug Jar, they also happen on various campuses and in basements. Local bands include Chip’s Challenge and Faking Amnesia (both from RIT), BC Likes You, and Danimal Cannon. Rochester Chip’s next official show will be on May 17th at the Bug Jar and includes the bands Revengineers, Danimal Cannon, and Balto. In the closing remarks of “Reformat the planet,” artist Glomag attests to the value of local scenes. “The community itself is it’s own reward.”
For more information on Rochester Chip, as well as some song samples, check out rochesterchip.org.