From Neil Baldwin to Killer Collectivism: 1980s NES-music

There is an interview with Neil Baldwin at Original Sound Version. It’s a good interview and very well-researched, so check it out. Neil did his first game music for the NES in 1990 and hasn’t stopped since. He’s recently returned to chipmusic by describing all game music he’s made at his site, work on a new text-based NES music software to make full use of the NES (mentioned before), and he has produced some new music! Don’t miss his last one, Cleptoplank, full-force triple-speed NES-action literally beyond the chips.

Neil started on the C64 and there are interesting comparisons between C64 and NES. Neil says: “I think the most difficult aspect technically was coping with the different approach required for a ROM-based medium. All those self-modifying-code tricks that you could do on C64 were just not possible. As I’ve said before, we also lacked proper technical information, so it was very much trial and error. It’s not actually correct to say I used C64 drivers, but the NES ones were definitely modeled on the same token/sequence/track format that I (and most other people) used to use, which was probably invented by Rob Hubbard.”

He mentions his bottom-up way of composing. Ehm, that doesn’t sound right. What I mean is, while some composers write the composition before the code (like Hubbard wrote scores on paper that he transcribed into assembler), others find their way through the hardware/software and gradually come up with a song. Neil: “I never sat down and planned out a song as a traditional composer might. From that point-of-view, I was constantly messing around with the audio programming side, trying to invent new ways of making the NES sound different…”

On the question of favourite NES-composers, it’s interesting that Neil only refers to Western composers “(apart from the obvious Japanese guys)”. Not being a real NES-music freak I might be wrong, but I feel like there is a gap between Japanese and Western NES-music in the 1980s (ie, Europe & America). Musically it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Western composers were more oriented towards rock. (or..?) I’m talking more about the methods of production, about how you treated technology. It seems that Western composers wanted to stretch the limits of the soundchip, to break out of the system. For Japanese composers it was more important to stay within the systemand focus on composition rather than production, so to say. Respecting the materiality, like a guitar builder.

It would be interesting to hear your views on this. Surely there are exceptions. But it is weird that on the C64 it only took a few years until the experimenting got pretty hardcore, while on the NES it is difficult to find transgressive uses of the 2A0basic master3 in the 1980s. It cannot only be becase the NES is a console and the C64 was open for any freaks to explore, right? Why did Japan never have a something like a demoscene? The first homecomputer was Japanese (pictured). Were there any network hackers in Japan? Were the 8-bit computers not so popular since 8 bits could not include all the Japanese characters? So were computers predominantly expensive 16-bit business machines? Any answers would be very welcome. Meanwhile, I have another idea.

Western composers had been fostered in an individualistic culture where hacking and (personal) computers had to do with self-realization. Counterculture and commerce united in a Californian ideology that portrayed computers as tools for Freedom. I don’t know the history of hacking or creative computing in Asia, but it seems unlikely that such libertarian ideas would develop in more collectivistic culture such as Japan. Western thought has been pre-occupied for centuries with the idea of transcendence rather than immanence. You know – free will, independence, and objectivity is better than submerging into a group and a system of beliefs. That’s the individualistic system of belief. ;) It might be far-fetched, but I think that centuries of thought is bound to have some effect on how music is made, also with soundchips. Again, I don’t know enough about Japanese culture, but maybe it could be a sign of disrespect towards Nintendo to use the soundchip in any way you please. Maybe that is a property of your culture that you are not supposed to just ‘break’. For a hardcore individualist, that way of reasoning would be a sign of Japan’s Killer Collectivism (LOL).

And Neil, if you are reading this … I don’t know what to say. I am sorry I dragged you into this mess. :)

4 Responses to “From Neil Baldwin to Killer Collectivism: 1980s NES-music”

  1. Neil Says:


    Good stuff, as always Anders.

    You make some interesting points and it’s a subject I’ve (introspectively) thought about a lot recently.

    I tend to get more excited about wringing something out of the NES that I do sat in the studio with a mixing desk and a ridiculous array of realistic-sounding software instruments. Maybe I *need* the challenge of the NES to drive me? Maybe I’m more comfortable working with narrow bandwidth? Maybe I think I can get away with more on the NES? Probably a bit of all three :)

  2. yonxUP Says: <- this seems to be what the japs were doing instead of demos..


    […] works. In Japan art, commodities and play is more intertwined. That also seems to relate to my previous ideas about the absence of “critical” uses of the NES soundchip in […]

  4. 80% listening, 20% improvisation. A Modern Composer? « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] made me wonder (again) how human-machine relationships are thought of in Japan. Over here, it’s very controversial […]

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