Thursday, May 9, 2013

Fakebit 'til You Make It

Chiptunes, if you're unfamiliar with the term, are pieces of music made with old videogame hardware. Specifically, the dedicated sound chips from systems like the Commodore64, old Atari consoles, original Nintendo Entertainment System, and Game Boy. That's by no means an exhaustive list, but I'm particularly fond of the sound of the Game Boy. Chipzel is one example of an artist doing lots of extremely cool stuff with Game Boys.

For me, the sound of the Game Boy is an iconic element of the soundscape of my childhood. I had an original Game Boy, and I carried it with me everywhere I went.

True chiptune artists often go to a lot of trouble to wire up the actual hardware, or use cartridges which contain sequencing software instead of games. The culture is obviously enamored with the retro videogame sounds, but just as much, chiptune musicians are interested in creating music within the constraints of these systems. The limitations imposed by minimal polyphony (number of instruments that can play at once) and restricted sound palette pose a challenge to prospective music producers. Forget hyper-sampled 64 bit new millennium hotness, you have two channels and some filtered noises for "drums". Make it sound good. Go!

Fakebit is what I'm doing. I recently purchased Plogue Chipsounds, a plugin for my virtual studio that emulates this hardware. Plogue has gone to extreme lengths to recreate, as faithfully as possible, the exact sound and all the intricacies and even limitations of the hardware. But I'm still benefiting from a modern digital audio workstation, with all the ease-of-use and effects and production tricks that entails. This means I'm free to bend or break the rules as I see fit, and in some ways lacks the true spirit of chiptune culture.

Unless I choose to restrict everything I do to the rules that govern the various chips. And sometimes I do.

Here's an offering of brief chiptune experiments I've made so far. Some are NES music that follow the rules and are just like something you might have heard on the old system. The Game Boy tracks feature a little tiny bit of cheating. I don't think mastering (in this case applying some EQ and compression) is really violating the spirit of chiptune creation, but I overtly broke some polyphony rules and used reverb and delay to fatten some things up. Then again, some real chiptune producers use more than one Game Boy at a time. But a single original Game Boy would never have played music exactly like this, even though it's still pretty darn close.

Some Chip Tunes by Mike O.K.

As far as Plogue Chipsounds as a software package goes; it's great! It took me a few minutes to find the chips I was looking for and figure out the all-important wave editing mode of the Game Boy (this is how you design some really unique and fun Game Boy instrument sounds), but once you get going, you have a very authentic sound and it's tons of fun to use.

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