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)