A Comment on an Endless Loop

One problem with chip music is that there is 1) scarce research on it, and 2) a lot of people that claim to know the truth. Interviewing one chipmusician hardly helps in getting a broad understanding (maybe even the opposite?). In that sense, it is an advantage to be involved in this culture so “you know what you’re talking about”. But you have to watch out so you don’t know everything, because then you are obviously doing something wrong.

It was nice to find the text Endless Loops – A Brief History of Chiptunes (via 8bittoday). It was written by media scholars Kevin Driscoll & Diaz who don’t make chiptunes themselves, as far as I can tell. They present the technical processes of making chip music without getting technocratic, and they claim to make a sorts of discourse analysis of written online texts to find common folk-historical threads.

They take the first step in the beef between Malcolm McLaren and gwEm (representing micromusic.net), whose letter is seen as emblematic for chip musicians at large. By chosing McLaren vs “Micromusic“, they capture a transformation that atleast I have observed during the 2000s. Micromusic was the first communitarian effort to bring chip music onto dancefloors, and it was characterized by playfulness and non-purism. The activity at micromusic.net has faded, and 8bitcollective has emerged as an alternative, which seems synchronized with a broader attention for chip music in USA (from my European perspective). Technological purism has gained momentum – especially with the Gameboy – and the rhetorics of McLaren might have had a larger influence than we think. You know – subverting fake capitalism with authentic hacking and reverse engineering. So McLaren’s words can give us insights into the history of chip music – a term that has changed and will continue to do so.

Driscoll & Diaz use a materialistic definition of chiptune – music as an unavoidable consequence of technology. “The strictest definition of chiptune” then, is music made with sound chips in old computers and consoles. An alternative materialist approach would be to see chip-producing as the strictest form of chiptune composing. As far as my own research have shown, the word chiptune was first used around 1989 in the Amiga demoscene to refer to songs with sampled waveforms (MOD-files, possibly also “softsynth” software such as SidMON). As I understand it, this was the first time there was a need to distinguish between different forms of music with computer-generated sounds. It was also rather common to remediate or refer to old C64-songs. So in fact, chiptune was essentially a matter of preference rather than necessity from the (etymological) start.

Driscoll & Diaz sketches the history in four parts: 1) home computers & consoles, 2) tracking, cracking, demos, 3) micromusic.net & gameboy, 4) 8-bit cover bands. The text describes a transformation from hardware-bleeps to samples, and from games to demos during the 1990s. It is a well-executed historiography of chip music as connected to videogames. It would be different if we started the historiography with computer hobbyists of the 1970s, now gaining momentum with people programming microcontrollers. The authors briefly note this issue, and I too think that research on chip music will change once we step away from McLarenoid pop-politics. Bending and subverting is a sign of our time.

Some more anal notes:

1.1 Gareth Morris did indeed write a letter about McLaren’s chipmusic rants, but I don’t think he’d approve of being called a “chiptunes community leader”.

2.2 The lack of in-game music was probably more due to social aspects than technical ones (as Collins suggests elsewhere). Making the beeper beep wouldn’t really be costly for the CPU, right?

2.5 The envelope generator handles the volume, not the timbre. The modulation effects they refer to for creating bells and chimes, is ring modulation or oscillator sync, not filter. The SID6581 has four waveforms: triangle, sawtooth, noise and pulse (not square). SID8580 has additional combined waveforms.

2.6 There were also software available on tape and floppy disks. Also, the metaphor of “knobs and faders” might give the wrong idea of the complexity of sequencing and arranging music in an assembler.

2.13 It’s not about storage space, is it? 3 kilobytes of music makes it more about RAM-capacity.

3.3 Modem-linked crackers were also active on the Apple II already in 1979. Cracktros became demos already in mid-1980s.

4.1 Which chiptune netlabels were around in 1998? Micromusic.net is inbetween community and netlabel, since what gets published is controlled by micromusic.net staff.

4.2 Jahtari is not chiptunes, or am I missing something? 8bitpeoples don’t sell vinyl records.

4.6 It wasn’t reverse engineering. It was about cracking and copying games, and writing software (for example demos) from scratch for the Gameboy. Just like for C64 and Apple II and so on. Both Nanoloop and LSDJ is still in use today (not only LSDJ).

4.7 LSDJ does not have MIDI since the late 1990s, and neither is it the first connection between chiptunes and studio music. (Neither is Sidstation – there were MIDI-sequencers combined with interal sound for Atari/Amiga/C64)

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13 Responses to “A Comment on an Endless Loop”

  1. TRUE CHIP TILL DEATH » Goto80 one-ups the rest Says:

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  2. ignacio Says:

    great , I liked the original article anyway . but its good to see the inacuracies ! i was scraching my head while reading about the crackers and others details in the original article , yes!

    the facts about the integration to mainstream music or professional studios… now its some kind of trend about “8 bit” (errr) :/

    in the past video game music were in the dancefloor and imho some people would had emigrated or ditched from chiptune or amiga scene to house or rave music, right ?

    there were also another trend in the late 70s and early 80s about arcade icons , iconic computer and alien sounds, bleeps, space, sweeps, in a disco enviroment. ( s.p.a.c.e. , droids, ganymed, off, etc

    i’m trying to be clear, maybe i just cant achieve that ! thanks for all that light

  3. nitlogic Says:

    Where can I read about pic16f84 microcontroller in your blog ?!

  4. chipflip Says:

    @ignacio: i liked the original article too, but there were maybe a bit too many factual errors and not enough about the demoscene.

    there are indeed mainstream artists and others, who use 8-bit sounds, but personally i see it as normal and unavoidable. i don’t see how a rather strong subculture like chip music could become sell out anyway.

    video game music in the dancefloor? i am not sure what you mean? but definitely chip/amiga-composers have went to perform more hi-fi dance music. also, i think that some (more than we know) of the 1990ish dance hits were made with 8-bit samples played by amigas or ataris.

    @nitlogic: i have no idea, i blame google!

  5. Platonist Says:

    well now here’s someone who “knows what he’s talking about”..
    i was pretty late .. being born in 1984 (i got my NES with 30 games in ’89) i realized that there was a scene in the first place when i got internet in 1996 .. so the “middle-ages”, or “medieval times” of the “scene” or “scenes” depending on how you see things, was for me the dawn of mods and chip music..
    i really appreciate these kinds of articles, for they explain to me more what i want to hear, rather than that regular “west-coast” (amiga) “east-coast” (PC) bs ..
    .because.
    nowadays, all is, no matter what scene you originate from, retro. and even the micromusic.net and gameboy lsdj things which i also experienced in the early 2000s with artists like Puss (woho!) i would call
    retro..
    what people tend to forget is the fact that it’s now somehow bigger than ever, even if it’s not that big at all .. and we thank 8bc and 8bp for that mostly i guess .. the golden times are definitely over .. but there are new times ahead.

    excuse my rambling, im tired and old ^^

    • chipflip Says:

      @platonist: you mean that all demoscenes are retro? maybe in a technological sense (but what about hi-tech demos?), but not in a political sense: subverting/maximising/appopriating almost any technology. and for example, the ways that demosceners distribute works (raw music files, exectubles) and communicate is still kind of “non-retro” to me. what is not retro to you?

  6. Dubmood Says:

    I didnt read their text but about your comment on jahtari. My jahtari release was strict chipmusic 100% atariST exept for some voicesamples from ataricomercials. that makes it chip ye? btw ta dig in på irc lite oftare!

    • chipflip Says:

      @dubmood: yeah, but one chiptune release doesn’t make jahtari a chiptune label imho. oh ja, jag kanske ska ta och irc:a lite mera, nån dag. just ja, ska jag fortfarande göra den där remixen?

  7. Dubmood Says:

    yeah you are right, but then… tons of music with chipsamples & chipinfluences + 1 chiprelease makes them as much of a chiplabel as any other netlabel claming to be chip imo. and thats without them even claiming to be one! =)

    Ja remixen är högaktuell! jag ringer dig i veckan.

  8. Kevin Driscoll Says:

    Hi everyone! I think my previous comment was trapped in the spam filter.

    I’ve enjoyed and appreciated all the care and attention you’ve given the article that Josh and I wrote. As fans, outsiders, and North Americans, we knew that there were limits to our research and it is really helpful to read all of your comments.

    For the record, I first encountered chiptunes (both as a term and a sound) as a peripheral part of the tracker scene in the mid-90s. I participated largely through my local BBSs and later via Trixter’s listserv and the Hornet compos. It saddened me when I realized how much of that history was quickly fading into web cruft.

    Hopefully, the warts and inaccuracies in this article may inspire further revision, detailing, and historical work to bring out even more of the richness in chip music and its culture!

  9. chipflip Says:

    @kevin: hi kevin, thanks for stopping by! thank you for writing a great article. despite what my criticism might imply, it is among the best texts i have read on chip music. i tend to be very critical of any writings on chip music and the demoscene. it’s great to have this to base further writings on.

  10. First 8bit impression for the compo Says:

    Of bankruptcy and, comfortable stroll around?Why shouldnt it, evaluate your cast.Authority Directory of, The website was.Directly into content First 8bit impression for the compo, the word or needed links If.This faxless or, Ones main objective.,

  11. chipflip Says:

    <3 SPAM

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