For most people, video game music probably occupies the same shallow depths of the brain as elevator music. But chiptune music (often referred to as “8-Bit” or “chip music”) is evolving from its origin in 1980s video games to shape an altogether new culture in Philadelphia. Communities like 8Static, which organizes live shows and conducts workshops dedicated to the style, are helping to fully establish the genre, equipping it with unique arrangements and precise instrumentation.
To find out more about the hidden world of chiptune, we sat down with one of Philly’s most prominent 8-bit musicians, who actually uses a Game Boy to perform.
Aroundphilly: How did you first get interested in chip music? What draws you to it?
Paul Weinstein: I was first exposed to chip music around my third year of college, I think. A friend of mine sent me some songs by this Japanese group called YMCK. I had no idea how they were doing it, but it sounded like they were creating awesome, original music using sounds generated from an old NES. It was incredibly catchy, jazzy, and fun… But it was also really impressive. The songs kind of sounded like they could have been from a game, but they were actually full-on, well-developed compositions. I was immediately interested in making this kind of music myself, but I figured it was just way too complicated. I had no idea if they were hacking the hardware or the software, doing some kind of crazy programming, or maybe just sampling existing games.
In any case, I just had no time or means to figure it out on my own – I was involved with a lot of other music, mostly my main band at the time, an instrumental rock/funk jam band called MJ Project. Lucky for me, a few years later, Philadelphia started to develop its own incredibly talented chip scene, with people using all kinds of old video game systems — NES, Game Boy, Genesis, etc. — to create their own original music. The guys involved were trying to build up a monthly concert/showcase that they called 8static, which I had heard about and really wanted to attend to expand my limited knowledge of chip music. At my very first 8static, there was a pre-show seminar hosted by Animal Style – who is one of my favorite chip artists and now a good friend – demonstrating how to use a Game Boy-native music-tracking program called Little Sound DJ (LSDJ). Finally, live and in person, I was seeing someone explain how to generate music using the console’s on-board sound chip. I was totally hooked right away. I went home and started using LSDJ on a Game Boy emulator on my PC that very night. Eventually, I upgraded to actual hardware and never looked back!
AP: Can you tell me how the process differs from making “normal music,” if at all? How exactly do you produce the 8-bit sound?
PW: It’s definitely pretty different than making “normal music,” though I should say that, at this point, I’ve been working with Game Boys for who knows how many hundreds of hours, so it certainly feels like a “normal” instrument that is just totally natural in my ears. But I know what you mean – for most people it still sounds like a toy, basically, and it’s massively different than playing in a band. You’re no longer responsible for just one bass part or one guitar part. You have to arrange all the parts of the song, across every instrument, yourself. But more importantly, you have to do it within a pretty specific set of limitations. In fact, those limitations are a huge part of what makes chip music so unique, but also so much fun.
The Game Boy sound chip has four sound “channels” with varying sound-generation capabilities, which means that basically it can only generate four sounds at once. The secret to really good chip music is tricking the listener into thinking he’s hearing more than what’s actually going on. There are a million ways to do that, and the real fun is trying to figure out the best way to arrange a song idea so it comes across within those limits but still sounds as full as possible. And that’s basically what I do to create the 8-bit sound – LSDJ provides a great interface for musicians to track or sequence songs using those four sound channels, instead of requiring the user to know some archaic programming language and compile a program every time you want to play it back. Instead, you can work more like a songwriter, with pretty instant feedback: You create “instruments” for each channel by setting various parameters, build patterns of notes assigned to those instruments, chain those patterns together and then play those chains back all four channels at once, and bam, you have a song. That’s obviously a massively simplified overview but I think it sums it up.
AP: Can you explain what exactly the Game Boy is controlling when you perform live?
PW: The best way to describe a live chip performance is to compare it to a DJ set, only instead of turntables, the music comes directly out of Game Boys. To be totally honest, most of what I’m playing has been arranged and tracked in advance. However, it’s important to me that I’m not just up there hitting “Start” and letting LSDJ just run through the song without any interaction. So I like to tweak things like instrument parameters, sound wave shapes, volume envelopes, things like that. LSDJ has some cool button shortcuts for muting or soloing channels, so that can be fun to mess with too. I try to put as much thought as possible into my setlists, making sure most of the songs have some kind of logical flow into whatever’s next. Over the past several months I’ve also tried some new things like adding extended intros to a few tunes so the live show is different than the recordings.
As for implementing the Game Boy in my act, it kind of IS my entire act at this point! I do play electric bass along with it for a few songs, and I’ve been trying to do more of that as I continue to add more and more songs to my repertoire, but the Game Boy is the basis for most of what’s happening onstage. I’ve always wanted to do some kind of unique, intelligent solo electronic music, so this is just totally perfect for what I’m into nowadays.
AP: What is your favorite video game music?
PW: In terms of game music, I’ve said before that I always really liked game soundtracks that went beyond just programming some crappy 30-second clip that at least sounded OK in the context of a level. With certain NES soundtracks, you could just tell that the composer really went the extra mile to come up with something creative and complex that brought the game to a whole different level. So a game like Maniac Mansion, where each character had a unique soundtrack that matched his or her personality, really had an impact on me. Recently I’ve been very influenced by the work of Tim and Geoff Follin, whom I didn’t know by name when I was growing up but I have an insane amount of respect for now. These guys were basically writing supremely intricate, incredibly impressive chip compositions that just happened to be game soundtracks more than 20 years ago. Go listen to the Silver Surfer soundtrack on NES without even playing the game – your mind will be completely shattered.
AP: How important are video games and video game music to chip music? I know I fell in love with the music from Mega Man II (Flash Man) and consequently, chiptune music.
PW: A lot of chip artists argue that video games are not important to the genre. It’s a complicated issue, and sort of a catch 22. At the end of the day, if you’ve written a good enough song that really just sounds great to someone’s ear, it shouldn’t matter what instrument or medium was used to execute it, even if that medium is traditionally used to play games or not taken seriously for some other silly reason. But at the same time, I could never pretend that the Game Boy didn’t still sound like a video game console, no matter how complex the music coming out of it sounds. I’ve already said that my interest in chip music probably stems from growing up with and getting some kind of extreme comfort out of the sounds these systems make, so it’s definitely difficult to separate that fact. If someone likes chip music because it also reminds them of the games they used to play as a kid, that’s totally fine and totally awesome, as far as I’m concerned. You just don’t want it to be thought of too much as game music yourself, because then you sort of just become a novelty act, and that’s probably where most chip musicians draw the line. I think we all hope that anyone who’s seriously into our stuff has crossed over from “This sounds like Mario at a rave!” to “Wow, this guy really put a lot of thought into this song! It’s being played on a Game Boy but clearly it’s not just a soundtrack for a toy.”
AP: Is there a large chiptune following in Philly compared to other cities?
PW: The Philly chip scene is not EPICALLY massive, but I see a decent, reliable crowd at every chip show I attend, and that crowd is always growing. I’ve watched attendance at 8static grow pretty steadily over the past two and a half years. And the more I talk about it outside of shows, it seems like more and more people have at least heard about it, even if they haven’t been to a show yet, and they are intrigued by the concept. Also, something I’ve noticed that’s pretty neat is that a lot of the fans themselves have, at some point, tried making their own chip music or 8-bit visuals themselves, so there’s also a constantly growing number of great chip artists in the area. It’s always great to hear or see someone new and what kind of unique ideas he or she brings to the table.
AP: Can you tell me more about 8static?
PW: 8static is a monthly showcase/concert/awesome fun party for chip musicians, visualists and fans. It is almost always held the second Saturday of every month, and we always have it at Studio 34, located at 45th and Baltimore Ave. in West Philly. The way it is structured, we start the night with some kind of pre-show seminar or presentation, and whether it’s a music or visual demo, a history lesson, a tech class, or really anything you can imagine related to chip culture, the crowd can always take away something useful. There’s an open mic, which is a great way to discover new names and also an excellent opportunity for artists to get over their awkward nervous fears and get their songs out in front of a receptive audience. (I got my start at the August 2009 8static open mic!) And of course that is followed by the scheduled acts — usually three or four musicians and someone doing live visuals to accompany the songs. Also, we often have vendors selling classic or rare video game gear and other interesting electronics.
I realize that I have a special connection to it since I’m so involved with it now, but I have to say, I look forward to 8static every month, and I consistently have a great time and am impressed by almost every musician who plays. There are just way too many positive things to list about 8static. I recommend checking it out for anyone who has even a slight interest in chip music or gaming culture, retro or new.
AP: Are chiptune fans a specific type of people, or do they run the gamut?
PW: Man, that question is probably more complicated than you realize. Definitely difficult to answer without potentially insulting someone, so I apologize in advance, friends! I don’t want to generalize, but yeah, I think there are definitely a few things that a lot of chip music fans have in common. You can often see things on Facebook, for example, that resonate with the community – certain geeky memes, perhaps. There’s kind of a particular brand of dorky but hilarious chip humor that’s hard to explain but you see it on a lot of message boards and such. Goofiness aside though, there’s also a level of dedication and love that’s pretty prevalent amongst the hardcore chip kids. It might seem kind of snobby but since the scene is still relatively “off the radar” for most music fans, it feels great when you meet another chip music enthusiast who just “gets” it the same way you do. But I don’t mean that in a “Let’s keep it to ourselves!!!” kind of way. If anything, we want MORE people to appreciate it that way!
That being said, my chip friends all have a wide range of musical backgrounds and other completely unrelated interests. I mean, I’m still deeply rooted in the hippie music/jazz world, while I have chip friends who also play in a cappella groups, punk bands and more. And that variety goes for the crowd as well — I’ve definitely seen a huge and sometimes surprising spectrum of people show interest in and thoroughly enjoy chip performances, so the appeal is certainly potentially larger than a few underground music fans. I recently played a set opening for Lebowski Fest — basically, a travelling fan convention celebrating the cult cinema classic, “The Big Lebowski” — when it made its stop in Philly at the TLA. I was admittedly nervous to be playing Game Boy music for a crowd that mostly had no idea what was going on, even if I was playing covers of songs from the soundtrack, but I was very pleasantly surprised when most of the audience seemed to really dig it! I spoke with people of all ages and with really different personalities after my set who all appreciated it, even if they had never heard of people making music with old video game hardware before. So the point is, you never know!
Chipocrite will be playing at a new monthly Chiptune show in Baltimore on Aug 6th and a convention in Chicago on Aug 19th. Be sure to check out 8Static every second Saturday each month to learn more about the process from local, 8-Bit musicians.
Photos courtesy of Ben Mason