Destroying Chipmusic Myths

Chipmusic is music with sounds generated in realtime by a chip

As the term got popular in the early 1990’s demoscene, it referred more to sample based music rather than music made with synthetical sounds – the default sounds of the computer, so to say. Although sample based, the songs sounded very bleepy. It was because the samples used were only about the size of 100 bytes or so, and when loops are this small they don’t sound like a sound looping but rather a tone. This way of producing sounds is also used in synthesizers – for some examples check out the “natural waveforms” section here.

However, there has been music made on computers since the 1950’s. A lot of this music was played with sounds being generated in realtime by the computer. This was the technical pioneering of chipmusic. I tend to see the definition of chipmusic more in a social context though.

Chipmusic is made by hacking videogames

No. Or, a few times. But chipmusic is mostly made with (tracker) software copied from other users or downloaded off the internet. The composer usually doesn’t alter the software.

Composing chipmusic is very complex

Although the typical tracker interfaces of chipmusic software is not very intuitive and graphical, it is really not that diffucult to play around with after a few hours of learning the basic principles. Getting busy with a Commodore 64 using a tracker program might not suit a computer illiterate but I would say that most chipmusic composers are not programmers. It should also be mentioned that it can potentially be extremely complex by programming algorithmic and generative networks of interactive 8-bit machines. Or something.

Chipmusic is about remixing and DJing

Just like other electronic music, there is the possibility to perform live when you are actually just pressing the play button. Tracker software is often not very good for re-arranging songs, manipulating sounds or improvising in general. But there are ways of actually performing songs live and the Gameboy-program LSDJ is a good example of the possibilities of re-arranging and manipulating a song live. As for remixing – there is a point to be made about “the disease of the chipmusic scene to make covers” as Glomag expressed it at Blip Festival 2006. However, when we’re talking about non sample based chipmusic, every bit and byte is actually programmed by the composer. You could see this as the complete opposite of (a traditional view on) remixing.

Chipmusic doesn’t hide behind fancy sounds and production tricks

Saying that about a music style that is defined by its sound is sort of strange. The limited amount of channels and waveforms gives you a rather thin spectrum of technical possibilities. The sound of the song is defined by the technology, if the user doesn’t make an effort to do otherwise: the composer doesn’t have to care about the sound.

On the other hand, there are some people that prefer the 8-bit sound instead of other sound styles. They like a composition if it’s in the form of chipmusic, but not if it’s made with modern machines or a rockband. The point is – a chipmusic composer is defined by the sound, and therefore hides behind it. Just because the technology is cheaper than the ones in a studio doesn’t mean you can act all anti-commercial DIY-style and say that this is more pure and true than using a $666,666 computer. The real challenge, which is still very important for some people, is to really escape the limitations to make sounds that were not meant to be. But this is a standard saying for chipmusic composers and it might have lost some of its content by now.

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