The Sound of Playing:

In 2007 Alex Yabsley (dot.ay) made an ethnographic study of the chiptune community, which is available online: The Sound of Playing. This may be very old news, but since it is 39 pages I wanted to give it some attention and mention some of the parts I liked in particular. I hope you don’t mind that I bring out your old university work, Alex! : )

He made interviews or questionnaires for 7 participants from the UK, Sweden, and USA, and also did participatory studies of 8bitcollective and Statistically speaking, seven people is not representative for a large subculture, but that is usually not the point with a qualitative study anyway. I think Alex rightly generalizes some of the results.

* Chip music composers usually talk about limitations when they motivate why they make chip music, and secondly about timbre. Newcomers seem instead to talk about this culture being “fresh and new”, what Alex describes as cultural reasoning rather than musical creative reason. No one really talks about videogames. Far from everyone has a background with making alternative electronic music.

* “Whilst the demoscene is responsible for much of the infrastructure on which modern Chiptunes are built, it seems that it has become quite a separate community. However, it is a noticeable phenomenon that, as newcomers become more informed of the history of Chiptunes, they develop an interest in the demoscene.” I would like to add that they were always quite separated, considering the low amount of chip musicians from the demoscene that are active outside of it. But I think Alex has an interesting point in that chip music has become a gateway-culture for the heavier stuff!

* “[..] Småm believes that just playing sequences back and pretending your doing something is something of a live standard for Game Boy musicians. This is partly the case.” Is it really? Do you know of any chip musicians that play more live than others? I was once forced to play my only ever Gameboy-only set (due to other broken hardware) in a forest in Gothenburg a few years ago (with Småm actually). I thought it went alright enough though, since I always enjoyed improvising with LSDj. Does it get boring after a while, or why do Gameboyers not do more things live?

* The part about the compositional effect of technology was very good and could have been even longer! Bitshifter’s answer about Nanoloop versus LSDj is spot on about how most chip music software uses traditional notation while Nanoloop doesnot, encouraging music that is more focused on texture and rhythm rather than melody. Pixelh8 said “If you were painting a picture you wouldn’t ask someone else to choose your colours would you?” referring to him making his own software. I think a better musical metaphor for colours is the timbre of the sounds, ie the audio waveforms inherent to a chip. Software is more like the brush and canvas, to me. Most brushes and canvases do a very similar work, but a few stand out from the rest either by offering variety or novelty.

* Chip music composers gain more from listening to chip music than an average consumer. By having used the same hard- and software, you know what is easy and difficult, and worthy of admiration. “This further builds and develops both the community and the quality of work produced, as the limitations allow for a simple shared understanding, which is how the demoscene has operated for years and how it continues to be a system conducive to high quality creative work.” A very good point, I thought. Although some would say it is elitist technofetishism, you could might aswell call it craftmanship. That makes me think why there are not more competitions at, say, 8bitcollective.

* Hope you got a good grade .AY!

25 Responses to “The Sound of Playing:”

  1. TRUE CHIP TILL DEATH » The Sound of Playing on CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] The Sound of Playing: « CHIPFLIP. Share […]

  2. 10k Says:

    Onya Alex. It’s great to see this getting blogged!

  3. Dot.AY Says:

    Hey thanks Anders!
    I completely agree that the small number of people that I spoke to by no means even remotely covers the gamut of people creating this music… I like that even with a small number it was nigh on impossible to draw generalizations…
    I also really enjoyed the part about compositional effect of technology, to the point where it could of been the dominant theme of the paper had I not already laid out a structure….
    I think I should of avoided the comment about Game Boy musicians just hitting play, it was something said in passing during the interview that can easily be taken out of context (although Rigo from Meneo made a similar comment in a recent interview), I am hopeful that all/most gameboyers strive to make an interesting live show (incorporating elements of improv etc).
    Finally a lot has changed at 8bit Collective since that paper was written the proliferation of so many new artists the competition only really exists between those who can get in the charts and this has a lot more to do with the personal taste of the community than examples of technical expertise.

    //end rant

    • chipflip Says:

      Did you read any other good texts about technology’s effect on composition (preferrably regarding low-tech stuff)?

      As for live performance, I know myself that I am (too often) too lazy to do as much things live as possible. And talking to other performers of electronic music, that is often the case. So you might be very right, and it wouldn’t be very surprising. I just think that really doing compositional performances with a Gameboy would be a very good point to show that cybernetics is best with low-techs!

      Re 8BC, I see what you mean. Interesting! Rankings/charts are quite problematic, and in that sense I think that a demoscene party competition (where everybody listens to all the songs, and rate them) is a more fair way of competing with music. One way of putting it, maybe, is to say that the focus on technical skills is overshadowed by music genre and culture at 8BC then. Form before medium. Would you agree?

      • b-knox Says:

        Is it Battle of the Bits cryptic interface that keeps it from being recognized as another chip community? Well, yes, the site has hifi remixes too. And, yes, I’ve been slowly rebuilding it from scratch over the past year. But it is inspired by the demo culture competitions and I go to great lengths to try and incorporate as many chiptune formats as possible for our major Winter Chip competitions. I keep codings!! ^__^;

  4. chipflip Says:

    baron! yeah, battle of the bits keeps staying pretty unknown. i always did i appreciate its position somewhere inbetween demoscene and , dare i say it, the mainstream chip music culture. but i never even submitted a tune :(

    nevertheless – what do you feel about the results at botb? is it possible to draw any general conclusions? for example, are there specific types of music that usually score well? do u feel like there is enough paid to technical skills? etc etc, yeah!

  5. Dot.AY Says:

    I think BOTB is a perfect example… Seb and I were actually discussing that exact fact.. and also that I do not go there or participate near enough :(

    In terms of texts the main stuff was in regards to electroacoustic music, papers by Smalley, Waters, Emmerson.. I think the book is called “Music, electronic media and culture” … lots of stuff about humans interfacing with machines and what that does to compositional process etc…. unfortunately nothing I can recall that is specifically relating to low-tech

    Finally I really do think that 8bc has evolved a kind of style over substance (form before medium as you put it)… This is partly inevitable in a community that prides itself on being a completely open chiptune-related media repository there is some really technically talented stuff that gets recognized on 8bc that I think more than justifies not only its existence but importance to the Chip community. As mainstream chip music becomes more widely embraced through 8bc are mainstream acceptable (non-experimental) forms of Chip music always going to be more popular?

  6. chipflip Says:

    yes :D

  7. b-knox Says:

    Imho, BotB’s chiptune results are typically driven by both compositional and technical skills. I don’t really feel that if you follow a meme on BotB it will get you anywhere. I can’t speak for all the BotBrs, but the core old school crew, folks like ui, strobe, miau, and many others are always encouraging to n00bs trying new things. For the big chip compos the more formats you can track for the more submissions you can enter.

    The obvious big difference between 8bc and BotB is 8bc being an open submission site while BotB is only really active during a compo. They had a simple approach to building their site, taking a phpbb-type forum and expanding on it to what it is today (I could be wrong but that’s how it feels). I’m building BotB from scratch for the second time now. It might have gone much smoother if I dumped all of BotB’s contents (~2200 submissions) but that would have been a shit move. So, now that the backend is finally getting it’s act together I can start to focus on usability of the site. The big goal of BotB is for it to be a digital creative MMORPG. You’ll see — some day we’ll start having duels and then clans and then clan duels, and finally, for the love of god, a tournament. Damns, I just spilled my guts! :X

    But if you want to really know what results are like for a BotB chip compo check some out yourself from Winter Chip IV —

  8. chipflip Says:

    yeah, the balance between composition and technique definitely seems to be there. from what i see, it seems similar to the demoscene in how the top places tend to go to more “traditional” music. and technical novelties. this might be an over-generalized statement though.

    as for web-interface, i think that unconventional ways might attract a bit less people (which is not necessarily a bad thing). it might exclude some of the bitless people! (joke of the century)

    looking at the results of the botb compos, it seems that names from 8BC/(net)labels/micromusic/etc are not very well represented in the top 10 positions. the amount of gameboy music also seems to be a lot lower at botb. tbh, there are a lot of names that i haven’t heard before. are they demosceners? hmm. what kind of people hang out at botb anyway? :)

    did you ever study the vote results as to who votes for what, and if there are patterns in there? (such as voting for names, machines, music genres, …)

  9. b-knox Says:

    The interface is definitely not n00b friendly. At least for now. I think that was a turn on for certain BotBrs. Once you get the hang of it, you can just navigate around using the icons (at least with the old version).

    I don’t know exactly what kind of people frequent BotB. I know many are riff-raff from the scenes you listed. A lot of people came on from IRC server where One Hour Compos are semi-regular. BotB has been hurting since the OHC engine has been down from the upgrade.

    The lack of gameboy tunes? I think it may be because BotB is so format-centric when it comes to our chip compos. The gameboy seems very iconic of chiptunes but it’s only one fish in the pond. NSF seems to be our most popular format. We’ve also got the ‘wildcard’ format for those who don’t want to work with console limitations.

    As far as the votes go, I have looked them over from time to time. I haven’t done any statistical analysis on them. My last bit of math was geometry in high school about 15 years ago. I can see that some like to vote tracks high/low and this is also reflected by a BotBr’s aura. If you vote lower than everyone the aura gets darker, higher makes lighter, and close to the average makes it grey.

    Really, I think I would rather be composing than coding this site. :D But since I like using the site there is only one option: keep making it better. I’m not really a good programmer either. I just have a lot of determination.

    Sorry it took so long to respond. WordPress never sent me my response emails!?!?? :D/

  10. 10k Says:

    This is the best public discussion on this topic I have ever read. I feel like this deserves it’s own blog post/study.

  11. chipflip Says:

    10k: glad u like it, and i actually agree. too bad to see these things only in blog-comments… i am planning to write something, but i first have to finish my paper for the re:live media art history conference, which would still mean that there is *some* chance of me coming to australia in a few months. fingers super-crossed!

    baron: just to clarify – i see the lack of gameboy music as a positive thing, and also that the names are not the normal names from demoscene/chipmusic. sometimes we forget that some people are not or don’t even want to be, part of any scene.

  12. yonxUP Says:

    [quote] Chip music composers gain more from listening to chip music than an average consumer. By having used the same hard- and software, you know what is easy and difficult, and worthy of admiration. [/quote]

    i am not so sure about that.. i often wish that i could listen to music like an ‘average listener’ taking the music for what it is instead of focusing on what equipment has been used, sampleorigins etc.. is it not possible that not knowing about how the music is created is introducing a mystical property into the music which might enhance the experience for people who don’t understand the technology?

    we have also seen examples of chipmusicians not being able to appreciate chipmusic where the musical content is top-notch but where the timbres are not “complex enough”:

  13. chipflip Says:

    @yonx: yeah, i really like to hear music decontextualized – on an unlabelled cassette, where you ideally know nothing about how/how/where. but it usually doesn’t work – i still try to figure out those things. after all, we don’t live in vacuum.

    i agree that a composer does not necessarily gain *more* from listening to music, but like you say it is a different way of listening. i think that demosceners tend to take this way of listening to the extreme, by criticizing technique sometimes to the point of total obscurity. it can lead to a good kind of competition, and healthy progress, but it can also lead to purism, traditionalism, a stagnation of experimentation. like we see too many examples of in the demoscene.

    btw, your avatar’s resolution is lame :D

  14. yonxUP Says:

    i still dont understand where that avatar came from.. datamagic to the fullest!

  15. Akira Says:

    “Do you know of any chip musicians that play more live than others?”
    Yes, there’s a bunch that do, like Mr. Spastic or Trash80. I’ve seen Zabutom playing a keyboard on top of his tunes at Blip’08, also Cheap Dinosaurs who is amazing. There’s Animal Style too, who plays all the guitar riffs live.

    I believe people just won’t dare to delve into the intricacies of actually doing something live with the music you have and stick to the simple “press play and dance” attitude, specially since this is approved by most consumers of this music… ‘Why do more if this is accepted?’ (read more of: self quality control).

    Personally the first sets of 8GB were all sequenced on the go, both in LSDj and in Reason (which is what I used first). Soon I changed my mind about live playing, realizing this just didn;t work and actually made the set more stiff. Today my set is based mostly in Ableton Live, maybe like Little Scale’s (another one who is steong on the live performance, from what I been told).

    “Chip music composers gain more from listening to chip music than an average consumer”[…]“This further builds and develops both the community and the quality of work produced”

    I don’t see any of this, though.
    That chip music is so self-referential seems to be one of the many problems it has, as it becomes close minded. I also do not believe there’s a curve of increase in production quality, actually, I believe the curve is descending. Most of the chipmusic released today (not talking about demoscene chipmusic) is usually of poor quality, or too samey (here’s where I think self referencing is bad. Chipmusicians would gain a lot, I think, from looking at many other types of music).

    Baron, really, I never enter BotB because of the “interface” :P Micromusic kept me off for years too, because of a similar GUI issue. Heh.

    END RANT (for today xD)

  16. chipflip Says:

    hey akira, we like your rants, keep ’em coming! would be nice to see some more live improvisation with chipmusic, but i guess most software/hardware setups simply don’t allow for it. but with LSDj there’s no excuse! … and neither with defmon. :)

    i don’t think that some sort of Quality gets better/worse by the tech-oriented listening, but it definitely has some kind of effect. you’re right that it can cause a convergence if there are too many adaptors active in the scene. and that might be something that’s going on.

    but i dont see any problem per se with an introverted (sub)culture. i actually kind of like the idea of small islands that are persistently staying with their kind of thing. what would the demoscene be without that kind of attitude? or chipmusic, for that matter…

  17. Akira//8GB Says:

    Even if the subculture seems closed and introverted, they are secretly looking outside and wanting to do lots of things that happen out there! But they won’t admit it. At least that’s how I think about the demoscene :) They are sticking to some values and premises, but that doesn’t make them completely removed from their environment.

    But that’s what I actually don’t see in modern cheaptoon, I gues the supposed values it is based on, are not what I would think of in a forward thinking activity. It used to be about breaking limitations, but I don’t see too ,much of that nowadays. Just thefact that you managed to sequence a song in a tracker, apparently marks you as “broke limitations”.

  18. Akira//8GB Says:

    And ah’m sorry that I talks too much shit! :(

  19. chipflip Says:

    Yeah, breaking limitations. Yeah, definitely that was a basic part of the demoscene. But maybe there’s a difference in actually breaking limitations, and pretending that you are. And for the demoscene the prior gives more cred than the latter, I guess. Because, as you know, 10 years after Nanoloop/LSDj, making Gameboy music still means breaking limitations. It definitely takes long to wash that McLaren rhetorics away :)

  20. Akira//8GB Says:

    Exactly what I mean! :)

  21. b-knox Says:

    Akira – I know what you mean by the micromusic interface. I still don’t interact with it. Much food for thought. Thanx. =P

    In my performances I often do hit play, DJing between two copies of winamp. xD But the thing that makes it live, more than my dancing antics, is my VIC20 which I use as a live instrument. The keyboard gives me two and a half octaves, the paddles are (a bass square and a noise) pitch/fire controllers. I’ve messed a bit with LSDj livemode as well, but I find myself kind of playing the song back the same way each time. Might as well keep my hands free? :|

    I think the only limitations left to be pushed is discovering your own musical character. Sure, you might find that new awesome hack with code but I know I’m not that guy. I’m too slow at code to spend endless time executing hunches on different aspects of the hardware. I’d rather be working on music. A lot of amazing tools have already been built!

    I’ve also been gearing myself towards writing songs with lyrics, or ukulele, or lyrics and ukulele, or rock the party jams, or all the above simultaneously at the same time. ;D One things is for sure — my head has been focused on the live element for the past year or so. Whereas before I would play back the most insane tracks I could develop, I now pick the ones that deliver.

    I recently got a job as a doorman at the only decent club in Ann Arbor for local & small touring acts. So, I’m slowly using my inside advantage to get decent gigs for myself rather than ratty house parties. Most of our house party houses have been dissolved anyways. My hopes are that I can slowly grow some kind of local support. My band had it before our hiatus and my shit isn’t lumped into the ‘punk band’ category. But we shall see. At least I know better gigs are happening already.

    The chip scene as it stands to day is a massive convolving mess. And part of me wants to take the stand that MC Chris did over nerdcore rappers : total verbal disassociation. Of course I don’t have Adult Swim as a leaping point but I’m sure you understand the point of straying from a concept like ‘because you wrock a gameboy you also wrok’. But’s that just a slander against n00bs and not how I really feel about the chip artists I actually know. All’s I know is chiptune is about two thirds my set and that what generators I use to get my music out is of little consequence to the actual music. I love hifi, dirty beats too. So I’m gonna play hifi, dirty beats topped with phat VSTs. Not a problem! \=D/

    I think I had more to say but I already spent too much writing too much! :x

  22. Akira Says:

    You live in Ann Arbor? My cousins live kinda close to there, in Farmington Hills. So when I visit them, you will have to set me up a gig in that club xD

  23. b-knox Says:

    Lol you have family/business everywhere!! =0

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