Chip Music Appreciation Part 1

We do a lot of talk about the hottest developers, studios, and game engines, but I feel like we’re overdue in showing a little love to our fellow musicians. We all know newer games with more worthy soundtracks have been releasing their tracks on mp3, and sometimes even vinyl for deluxe box sets which is very cool. However, I’m not talking about our current generation of music. We hear hard rock and epic orchestral music every day on the radio, TV, and in our favorite movies. That style of music has been formulated to a point where almost anyone can create something with the right software. What I want to do is step back and pay homage to the guys who have truly crafted a musical art form which is the 8-bit soundtrack, aka “Chip Music”.

What Makes That Cool Retro Sound?

In the original days it was referred to as computer chip music.  This mainly had to do with the fact that if you wanted music in your game, someone had to program it in for you.  It wasn’t just a simple wave or .mp3 file that you could dump into your game. The computer/game system would have to take electronic impulses from computer code and change them into analog sound waves in order to make a sound. This was also the same way that sound effects were generated, and in early games you actually had a very limited number of sound channels so you usually would have to pause one sound to play another. The result was early games like Pac-man which only had music at the start of a level before the game play begins. The Atari 2600, for example, was only capable of generating two tones at a time.

Where do I plug in my guitar?

Nintendo really changed the game with background music in the 80’s with their Famicom system, AKA the original Nintendo Entertainment System.  This system allowed for five simultaneous sound channels, one which was capable of PCM samples, which really opened up the door for background music in games. It also wasn’t long before additional sound generating chips were being developed into the games to open up the door for a wider range of tones, as well as the introduction of using MIDI data and sequencers which helped to create the melodies.

Why is ours so much bigger than theirs?

I want to make 8-bit music

In working on the extended theme song for The Horrible Show, I really wanted to incorporate some of that nostalgic sound that makes all of us retro lovers warm and fuzzy inside. I love games, but I’m not nerdy enough to rip open my NES and start writing code to generate the actual tones that I’m hearing in my head. I decided to go the midi route. After hours of running different samples through a combination of digital sequencers on my computer and adding different levels of distortion i finally started producing the tone I’ve been looking for. But that was just step one.  If you really listen to the music of your favorite NES games there are many layers used. Being able to recreate all of the melody, bass, and drum parts using pretty much one sound at different frequencies is actually kinda hard.  It’s really easy to have too much going on where it either all blends together or becomes indistinguishable.

Maybe hacking an NES would be easier.

This process has definitely been a learning experience and it really made me start to appreciate the genius that is behind some of our favorite retro games. Composers like Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda), Koichi Sugiyama (Dragon Quest), and Hirokazu Tanaka (Metroid, Kid Icarus, EarthBound) did an amazing job with the tools they had in creating some of the most memorable theme songs that metal bands all over are still playing today. As a musician and a gamer I can really see the work they’ve put into their craft and would like to say nice work. It’s possible that our generation that grew up with these games are the last to really latch on to and appreciate that retro sound, but we’ll do what we can to keep it alive.

To Be Continued

The NES greats have inspired musicians all over the world to form their own “Chip Music” as well as complete metal band tributes. I’ll dive more into these genres and point out some of the groups and you should check out in Part 2.  Stay tuned.


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6 Comments Chip Music Appreciation Part 1

  1. Tommy

    Great write-up Andrew. I’ve wanted to dive into chip music so many times, but I’ve never been successful with sequencing.

    For Mac users, there’s a pretty decent plugin for Garageband from the great Japanese chip music band YMCK called Magical 8-Bit plugin, and they just released a pretty sweet iPhone app too.

  2. Coop

    Hey thanks man. I’ve always wanted to get into it too, and what I’ve been messing with for the Horrible Show theme update is my first stab at it. I’ve gotten close with the sequencers in Reason, but it still isn’t that exact tone you get from the old chips. I’m kind of an audio snob when it comes to recording and tones, so I’m sure I’ll keep playing with it until I can get it close to perfect.

  3. Josh Lee

    Great article. I love me some chiptunes. Can’t wait to see what stuff you recommend in the second part.

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