Famichord and Other Elements of Chipmusic

So, good ol’ lft made a presentation about chipmusic (on his custom-built powerpoint-chip). There’s some very refreshing ideas and concepts. It’s a nice mix between engineering and musicology (just as expected), so it’s similar to my thesis where I interviewed him, only that I had more political aspects.

First of all – he starts with a diagram of frequencies. The idea is that the early cheap digital hardware could only work with low frequencies, but gradually became able to play rhythmic frequencies and then finally refined pitches and timbres. The software caught up with it around 1995 and now – as we all now – it can be quite complicated to distinguish between software and hardware. I really like how this frequency-centric perspective resonates with the sonic theories in Sonic Warfare.

He talks about compositional strategies for various limitations in a very clear way. Some things are especially worth noting. Returning to the importance of frequency, he discusses what happens when effects are played at the frequency-rate of pitch/timbre. In other words – when soundchips play samples and sounds it was not intended to play (lol). It’s an important point, since a soundchip can do pretty much anything just if you play it fast enough.

On a similar note, he mentions something I didn’t know about tempi. There’s one tempo-setting that is the same for PAL and NTSC: 150 BPM. Otherwise, the tempo is different between PAL and NTSC since it’s a multiple of the frame rate. In other words – international chipmusic is in 150 BPM!

He also uses the term “channel sharing” to describe how musicians try to get as much as possible into one channel. At the rhythmical rate by putting bass and snaredrum on the same channel, at the structural rate by obsessively adding just about anything when there’s a bit of space in the lead, for example. He uses Hubbard’s The Last V8 as a great example.

But what I liked the most was his concept of the famichord. This is a chord that is mostly found in NES-music. Since the Japanese game musicians wanted to make jazz, they tried to use 4-note jazz chords, but with the lack of channels it wasn’t really possible. So they had to remove notes, while still keeping the jazz flavour. They removed the 5th so it became a maj7no5 chord. This is quite unusual, since the 5th makes the chord sound less dissonant. So in non-chip music this is really uncommon. But on the NES, this became very popular. Reminds me of Karen Collins’ idea that the tonality of the Atari 2600 influenced rave music, which has similar tone scales.

Good work Linus!

3 Responses to “Famichord and Other Elements of Chipmusic”

  1. chunter Says:

    The “famichord” was something I knew (and have used) through observation, but I never noticed the 150 bpm observation before.

    I particularly like his parallels to conventional music, because indeed, professional arrangers will rewrite pop song scores so that grade schoolers learning wind instruments can try, as well as the simple historic fact that all musical instruments have had limitations since the beginnings of music in the first place.

    Slightly unrelated, I stumbled on a wiki article where Handel is said to have sneaked to the attic to softly play a clavichord until terrible hours of the night, proof that music-making by insomniacs is as old as the Baroque.

  2. Johan Says:

    It *is* pretty common to drop the fifth in non-chip music – especially when playing fast chord progressions… it’s simply not that needed…

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