Chipmusic – hardware or software?

After writing about Linus Åkesson’s work, I have been thinking more about the definition of chipmusic. Again. So, his hardware chiptune project is really hardcore – programming a chip from scratch to generate music. But, it can also be seen as the complete opposite to chipmusic.

If we use a technical definition of chipmusic – any kind of sounds synthesized by a soundchip – Åkesson’s project is not chipmusic. The sounds that his program generates could might aswell have been something completely different, that wouldn’t sound like chipmusic at all. But, when you use a machine with a specific soundchip inside it (which computers and consoles had until the mid 1990s), the chip has a framework that you need to adapt to. A Gameboy or a NES can play four sounds simultaneously, a Commodore 64 can only play three.

However, most music software goes beyond the absolute limitations of the soundchips. With LSDJ for Gameboy, one of the channels can play two 4-bit samples at the same time, by mixing the sounds. On this channel you can also use a software-synthesizer, which produces sounds not inherent to the chip. On the Commodore 64, clever programmers quickly figured out how to play samples on a “fourth” channel of the soundchip already in the early 1980’s.

Back in the days, it was important that music could be used in games or demos. Composers could not make music that used a lot of processor power to generate sounds, since programmers needed the power to make cool games or demos. Today music seems highly prioritized in the development of games and demos, but back then music wasn’t supposed to use much of RAM or CPU. (Collins) Still today, a lot of software used to make chipmusic doesn’t use a lot of CPU-power, although it is usually not made for games or demos. LSDJ is one example of a tracker that uses more software synthesis, although it was actually used in the Gameboy demo Demotronic (2002) by 1.000.000 BOYS. (and although I am biased here, I think it is one of the best demos ever)

I still argue that the birth of chipmusic as we know it today was around 1990. Although computer music had been made for almost 40 years already, the term chipmusic was not used. Also, it seems it was around this time that chipmusic as a genre was formed. Before the home computer revolution in OECD-countries in the 1980’s, computer music was mainly made in the name of science and fine art. It seems it was about technological progress and pioneering, or conceptual art based in cybernetics, sci-fi, and social critique. (Chandler & Neumark 2005) Basically, it was a lot more abstract than what we call chipmusic today.

I have not seen the term chipmusic in use before the Amiga demoscene started mentioning it around 1990. The term referred to music that flirted with the game music of the C64 and was essentially used in intros and cracktros. But, the sounds were not synthesized by a chip – it was sampled waveforms. It is a fact often forgotten in contemporary history writing of chipmusic. In its infancy, chipmusic was not about realtime synthesized sounds but rather a musical genre – and I would argue this is still the case. But personally, I like the technical aspect of the term chipmusic as I can easily label my music without saying what music style I make. It’s like saying I make “guitar music”. Very convenient + confusing.

Apparently I’ve missed out on good stuff, but thanks to the c64music blog I found out about little-scale who makes very nice chip-related things. Right now, I want to mention his automaton ep (2008) which uses the same technique as the early Amiga chipmusic composers: extremely short samples. All the songs on this EP are based on a single 11.6 millisecond sample, and it effectively proves that this technique can result in pretty complex soundscapes. I made something similar in a tune called Jonkvrouwe (download). This tune is some kind of quick n’ dirty bleep reggae, but it illustrates this technique in an interesting way. There is just one sample of a a screaming girl and I change the loop-positions of the samples while playing the song. When the loop is short enough it sounds like chipmusic! I wonder if it is?

4 Responses to “Chipmusic – hardware or software?”

  1. Linus Åkesson Says:


    While everybody agrees that genres and labels are never clear-cut, but rather subjective and overlapping, I think you’re on to something quite interesting here.

    The word “chiptune” might refer to a tune played by a chip. But in the early demo scene, everything you came across more or less sounded “chippy”, so it was simply called music. As you mentioned, it wasn’t until the next generation of home computers arrived, with next generation sound hardware, that people needed a new word to distinguish the old school chip music from general computer-generated music. And there has probably always been confusion as to whether the term “chip music” refers to music played by a hardwired chip, or merely music sounding as if it were played by a hardwired chip, whatever that means.

    Personally, I wouldn’t consider Stockhausens experimental music built up from small loops of magnetic tape as coming anywhere near chip music, whereas I sometimes hear chip-like structures in Bach. But that’s from a purely aesthetic point of view. Technically, it would end up the other way around.

  2. chipflip Says:

    Yeah, I am trying to find out whether the term chipmusic was actually used before the days of sample-looping-chipmusic of the Amiga demoscene. (it seems like it..) Also, I’m trying to find out what terminology they used in the 1970s to differentiate computer music that used external soundgenerators and the ones that was 100% DATA ACTION. (seems like it was all computer music though).

    It’s also worth mentioning that the story of USA being first with computer music is not true, since it was in Australia many years before Max Mathews, and I think it was realtime generated as opposed to Mathews’ music. Check the timeline here..

    I am happy that you can’t separate completely between hardware and software either (so, it’s not just about me not being a hardware/software-expert). : )

  3. Lft’s Chipophone: Playing Chipmusic by Hand « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] chipflip Linus Åkesson, aka Lft, is a programmer and musician who has mentioned featured several times at Chipflip. He works a lot with combining the aesthetics of chipmusic and “classical” […]

  4. Famichord and Other Elements of Chipmusic « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] good ol’ lft made a presentation about chipmusic (on his custom-built powerpoint-chip). There’s some […]

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