Archive for the ‘software-hardware’ Category

Lft’s Chipophone: Playing Chipmusic by Hand

July 22, 2010

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” music. He uses soundchips but also programs custom “soundchips” using microcontrollers, often with rather impressive programming. Perhaps not surprisingly, he has a background in the demoscene. In Reverberations he simulated the hands of an organ player with delicate Assembler programming, and executed it on two C64s. Technique and concept in a tight interplay: yum-yum!

In a way, the Chipophone turns this approach on its head. Here, it is hands that simulate chipmusic rather than the other way around. The Chipophone instrument features some of the most characteristic aspects of chipmusic software: arpeggios, slides, looped bars and noise-attacks. Consequently, a skilled pianist can play chipmusic in something similar to a chipmusic platform (8-bit CPU, 1k RAM, 8.5k ROM) and add all the typical chipmusic ornaments with the hands. It’s quite surreal to see Hubbard’s Spellbound actually being performed by hand:

I think that this is qualitatevly different from using, say, Chipsounds and a MIDI-keyboard. The Chipophone is not an emulation – it’s a music instrument that is inspired by the aesthetics of chipmusic. Rather than using modern equipment to mimick something that it will never be, this is a custom-made low-tech platform using an oldschool organ interface. Surely this would inspire musicians to perform in a different way, compared to the hi-tech VST-world.

According to the 00-decade’s discourse of hardware purism, where chipmusic has to use certain soundchips, this is of course not chipmusic. But considering the Chipophone’s low amount of RAM, ROM and CPU and its low-level implementation of typical chipmusic effects, this is a refreshing alternative to the, eh, mainstream chipmusic (LSDj with default samples).

I have interviewed Lft for my (nearly finished) thesis, where we discussed the aesthetical elements of chipmusic among other things. The Chipophone is a very clever way to bring these stylistic elements into a postdigital context, where it is motor skills that condition the music rather than tracker-skills. He demonstrates it so elegantly aswell, by playing some songs from “the chipmusic canon”. Hopefully this can be an inspiration for chipmusicians to experiment with improvisations and performances, rather than doing another playback gig.

Update: btw, look at his combination of 480 bytes & piano: The Swan

The First English Book on Chiptune!

June 27, 2010

Via TCTD I saw Kieran’s tweet about a new chiptune book. As far as I know, this is the second book on the topic, after Nils Dittbrenner’s one in German (which is very good, btw). But this one is a bit different, because it uses content from Wikipedia. But it doesn’t just copy the information. It’s a bit more fancy/trashy than that. Looking at the title of the book it’s quite obvious that it’s automatically generated content. The title reads: “Chiptune: Video game console, Sample-based synthesis, Golden Age, Video game music, Electronic musical instrument, Pulse-width modulation, Elektron SidStation, … Wavetable synthesis, Arpeggio, GoatTracker.” The title was made by using all the links in the order they appear at the chiptune-article at Wikipedia.

I would love to have this book! It’s 76 pages long, so there has to be some good stuff in there. I have some kind of love-hate relationship with these algorithmic attempts to communicate. Spam poetry, etc. The only thing is — the book costs 51 US Dollars!

The publisher of the book, Alphascript Publishing“anually publish more than 10,000 new titles and are thus one of the leading publishing houses of academic research. We specialize in publishing copyleft projects”. So they scrape Wikipedia for content and at the moment they offer almost 40,000 books at Amazon, priced at something like 40 to 80 US Dollars. All the books that I have seen are edited by the same three persons. There are books about blogs and bazookas, eyes and aztecs, the high court of Australia, Lufthansa and intestines, and so on. They also have three other books that mention chiptune. This is probably the most well-published and well-educated editors in the world, as a commenter hinted here.

I don’t know if they have a print-on-demand thing connected to Amazon, or some other smart solution. But I like the idea that Amazon is stocking up on tens of thousands of books full of generated shit-scheisse. How can you get 76 pages from a single Wikipedia-article? Spam-style gets materialized, and injected back into the economy, sitting on some Amazon shelves somewhere. Post-digital and post-algorithmic, yep. Everybody’s happy, because noone is stupid enough to buy these books. Right? We are supposed to be the rational economic man. Yep. Hello.

But please, if you bought the book — step forward. Or scan it and e-mail it anonymously. You will be rewarded with a unique dot matrix copy of my chipmusic thesis, when it’s finished in August. It’s definitely free from auto-generated content. Hand-made information to clean the universe.

Malcolm McLaren made us

April 12, 2010
People say that Malcolm McLaren failed in his attempt to hi-jack the chipscene. I wonder if he did. Maybe McLaren was the antagonist that the chipscene needed to create a community. If he was wrong, then what was right and according to whom? One answer came from, the most popular meeting place for the chipscene at the time. There was not much purist chipmusic there – it was more about a community of lo-fi sound players. They disagreed with McLaren’s idea that chipmusic is about hacking analogue videogames by twisting knobs (to LOL-summarize his ideas). They were against him “packaging, pillaging and taking credit for” chipmusic. But what is this ‘chipmusic’ then?

The definition of chipmusic was becoming a matter of hardware. In the letter, the history of chipmusic starts in the late 1970s with the introduction of soundchips. Such historiographies were getting popular in the early 2000s, but were not used before. It was only the second testament of chipmusic. In the 1990s ‘chipmusic’ refered to sample-based Amiga/PC-music with small filesizes, and in the 1980s the term was generally not used. The transformation of chipmusic in the early 2000s can be seen as a so-called defensive discourse of orthodoxy against McLaren and other ‘threats to the tribe’. It is an (un)conscious strategy to distance yourself from something, and so you develop anti-rhetorics. We are Not like You. You create a connection with the thing you want to step away from.

What if the way we define chipmusic today is an anti-reaction to daddy McLaren? We are still trying to explain that we are not hacking videogames, and that chipmusic did not start with Gameboys. But from a cultural perspective, maybe that’s what chipmusic is (mostly) about anyway. It’s the connection with Gameboys and videogames that made it so pop-popular, right? But that’s unholy according to the second testament of chipmusic, and the Book of PSG. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that had it not been for McLarenoids chipmusic might have been less about hardware and authenticity and more about becoming a musical war machine?

8-bit Music is Not Chipmusic: Amiga Doomcore

March 2, 2010

I have written about Amiga music as chipmusic (or not) before. While it was on the Amiga that the term chipmusic was first used, the “soundchip” of the Amiga does not generate sounds but only copies (8-bit) data from RAM to audio out (although in a characteristic way, often lost in emulation).

From this post at, I found a label that released Amiga music on vinyl 1995-2000. Fifth Era released ten 12″ vinyls with what they call doomcore – “slow, morbid hardcore techno with pounding drum patterns & heavy links to early nineties european techno sounds” [update: 4 of them were only dubplates]. Most of their releases were untitled and contained no more info than the release number. To get the general idea, check this youtube-clip (and the rest at their channel).

This means that my timeline of chipmusic has increased its gap of releases in the 1990s – most of it being gabber/noise/breakcore. Before 2000 it was uncommon to release records with what we call chipmusic today. The earliest one I’ve found is the SNES Mario Paint compilation from 1995, but it’s still more of a conceptual thing than what happened in 1999 with Bodenständig 2000, the Nanoloop compilation, Role Model, and perhaps Nintendo Teenage Robot. According to my timeline, it was not until 2001 that ‘chipmusic’ took over from ‘hardcore’ in 8bit music.

Still in the late 1990s an Amiga was a fast, cheap and convenient way of composing and performing electronic music. Amiga trackers played an important role in the early days of gabber, breakcore and jungle it seems. I have talked to composers and label owners that used the Amiga with various tracker software (usually either Protracker or OctaMED). While their music is hardly what we call chipmusic today, the hardware and software that they used is usually considered as ‘legit’ chipmusic tools. So from a strict technodeterminist perspective this would still be chipmusic.

I am aware that the timeline is missing releases from some of the most famous Amiga users: the Australian pioneers of gabba/core: Nasenbluten and their friends at Bloody Fist and Deadgirl, the German scene around Digital Hardcore Recordings with artists such as Patric Catani and Christoph de Babalon, and the British jungle scene with e.g. Aphrodite. It is difficult to find out which of their releases used the internal Amiga sound. It’s not like they thought it was important to always mention what technology they used, like many chipmusicians do. For good or worse. But I’ve received great help from e.g. Davros, Mulder, people at Low Res Records and Fifth Era, and from Team Doyobi and Osdorp Posse. More suggestions and information is very welcome.

While I think it could be relevant to include some PC-tracker music (like Bogdan Raczynski and Venetian Snares), the timeline excludes music made with FM-soundchips in synthesizers, keyboards and mobile phones. I consider chipmusic technology as an assemblage of (tracker) software and (soundchip) hardware.

VJ on a Chip

December 17, 2009

The American visualist/artist/teacher VBLANK just announced that the Pocket VBLANK is available for purchase again. It’s essentially a low-res VJ-system on a chip that reacts to audio, and it costs $110. The visuals are nice and lo-fi, but I am not sure exactly what it does. Judging from the videos it is not really meant for tightly synchronized visuals. And the hardware is not programmable, although VBLANK has burnt custom graphics onto the chip upon request. Currently it’s only for NTSC, but a PAL-version is apparently coming soon. Read the Blip-interview with VBLANK where he briefly explains about his lo-fi and act-inside-the-box preferences. He also refers to the Amiga as a supercomputer. In the bad sense. : )

The iPhone C64 Emulator and Progress=Change

November 28, 2009

Chipmusic is about accepting the system’s features (aka limitations), and expanding them (aka breaking them). 30 years of new sounds shows how a culture can progress through software and not hardware updates. Competition and community, trial and error & rationalism has contributed to it. But it presupposes that you are allowed to do what you want with the technology.

The C64 iPhone emulator was released in September as the first multi-purpose emulator on the iPhone. But Apple does not allow users to run downloadable code on the iPhone. Apple wants to retain control over what software is running on the iPhone (avoidable by jailbreaking and e.g. cydia). But since the C64 has a built-in BASIC programming language, Apple cannot stay in control. So the solution was to remove BASIC from the emulator, and offer a selection of something like 5 games. In that way, users cannot make their own software and they cannot load whatever software they want. This is the complete opposite to the hippie-libertarian-multimedia ‘coolness’ that has been around Apple since the 1970s. You know, Bill Gates writes a letter in 1976 to promote software copyright and ever since Apple has been cool and Microsoft evil…?

Whatever. But the iPhone C64-emulator transforms the C64-system into a restricted gaming console (but, but). Surely, 8-bit computers are often described as gaming computers. Indeed, they were developed (also) for gaming purposes, and not colourless and soundless business purposes. But they were not read-only and interpassive like consoles, so they should not be remembered, emulated and discussed as such. It is (even) harder to talk about intented uses of computers compared to e.g. Gameboy and NES, in that sense. Ie, there is nothing necessarily subversive about making your own music and software on a C64, even if chipmusic is often described in that way.

While the iPhone C64-emulator is just a piece of entertainment software, it plays part in a larger tendency to reduce old technology to something simplistic, something limited. But limited in what sense, and according to who? I can turn on my C64 and start programming in 1 second, and make music in 1 minute. I can easily have it fixed when it’s broken, or atleast understand what the problem is. I have access to 25 years of software and knowledge, and with a lack of commercial interests I do not have to consider intellectual property regulations. I don’t find 3 channels of sound to be limiting; I think it’s empowering. Of course, digital technology is improving in many quantitative and qualitative ways, enabling users to do more, and faster. But it is not a one-dimensional line of neutral progress – it is change, resulting from economic, cultural, social, and aesthetical values. New technology is not better per se. Even if it is, it doesn’t mean that new ideas require new technology. That modernist idea has been questioned in so many other fields, but is painfully present in digital media.

Oh well. So… here is some of little-scale’s soundchip-related iPhone apps! (Btw, does anyone know how the emulator can be sold, being based on the GPL-licensed Frodo?)

Demoscene Theory With Doctor Botz

November 1, 2009

I recently had the pleasure of getting a sneak peak on Daniel Botz’s doctoral dissertation on the demoscene, entitled “Hacker-Ästhetik” (to be published). I am struggling with reading German, but I’m quite impressed with the extensive research that has gone into it. It has some refreshing views on the history, aesthetics and materiality of the demoscene. Before I got a peak of the dissertation, I was e-mailing back and forth with Botz during the summer. I thought I’d publish some of it here to see if it can lead to some interesting discussions. I am currently bathing in theory for my thesis on chipmusic, and I have been using some ideas from here. I’ve probably upset the radical post-humanist Friedrich Kittler by studying soundchips as social constructions pre-encoded with musical conventions, rather than mere ontological facts. But the idea of inherent aesthetical potentials in materials is refreshingly anti-individualistic.

Choose your youtube Amiga oldschool demo soundtrack: dr.vector or lizardking or tip&firefox or diablo.


Ready > Run Exhibition: What is in a system?

October 13, 2009

A month ago the Ready > Run exhibition opened in Philadelphia, and will run until November 7th at the Esther M. Klein Art Gallery. It shows works from Enso, minusbaby, noteNdo, Nullsleep, VBLANK, Animal Style, MET-Lab, NO CARRIER, Paul Slocum, Dan and Winckler. From the site: “Chip musicians and pixel artists work within the limitations of these vintage technologies by hacking their childhood toys to generate complex new genres of music and visual art that challenge and reflect the identity of contemporary art on an international level.” The text thus places the works as operating within the ‘limits’ of material systems, but expanding symbolic systems through ‘complex new genres’. Is that really what the exhibition does…?

As noted before, chipmusic is usually accompanied by either glitch aesthetics or 8-bit craftmanship; what Heidegger would label bringing-forth and challening-forth respectively. Videogame hardware or software are obviously used, and maybe more often than some artists want to admit (me?!) the symbolics and aesthetics of videogames are also used. This exhibition shows all of these discourses.

Enso and minusbaby represent craftmanship with their good-looking printed pixel graphics.The NES musicdisk Teletype by Animal Style and No Carrier, operates in a similar domain. Animal style also exhibits a Gameboy connected to a home made amplifier. Paul Slocum displays his old work ‘Combat Rock’ where a cover of “Rock the Casbah” has been added to the Atari 2600-game Combat.

There are several works that combine videogames and interaction, with glitch aesthetics. In Data Spills, Nullsleep hacks a NES-game and makes it spill program logic into the representational layer, producing glitch artifacts. No Carrier presents his GlitchNES that you can control with a Power Pad and noteNdo works with hardware-glitches of the NES that can be controlled by intercepting lazer lights. VBLANK also creates glitch aesthetics when he transcodes the ROM of an Atari XE onto the screen, and enables joystick interaction.

These works go beyond the limitations of systems in several ways. There are physical interfaces that are not inherent to the systems. There are no NES-printers and therefore printed NES-graphics can only exist outside the system. There are unfortunately no lazer interfaces to the NES either, and it is possible that the hardware modifications by noteNdo produces effects and artifacts that are out-of-system-experiences; things that software and emulators can only (try to) dream of. The ideal glitches; those that cannot be reproduced or explained.

To me, it is highly relevant to think of what constitutes a system and, from that perspective, define limitations and possibilities. How is a system empowering and disempowering? Chipstyled works are described both as remaining within systems, and transgressing the limits of systems, which seems quite true. But it would be interesting to study more in-depth what a system really is, by studying the transgressive aswell as traditional uses. It is not only relevant for chipmusic; such platform-specific analyses could maybe say a thing or two about popular culture in general. All photos below taken by Marjorie Becker.

Animal Style: Juvenile Amplifier

NES Landscapes by enso

Reset v2.0 by noteNdo

Teletime by Animal Style and No Carrier

More Soundchip Hacking: Realtime SID delay

September 23, 2009

The Norwegian composer Geir Tjelta has introduced a new trick for the SID-chip: realtime delay. The output of the third channel of the SID can be recorded, and by delaying the playback of the sample on the “virtual” fourth channel, you get a subtle echo. This routine doesn’t use much CPU-time either. A nice and elegant trick. Get the exe and mp3 here. It needs to run on the old 6581 chip, since this technique for playing samples relies on a bug that was almost fixed with the new 8580 chip.

Another modern way of making automatic echoes is Neil Baldwin‘s routine for his new NES music editor, Nijuu. Instead of sampling sounds, it detects free spaces in the tracks and triggers notes with decreasing volumes. It uses more CPU but sounds  more obvious than Tjelta’s echoes. Listen to the MP3.

As a sidenote – Geir and Neil are both chipmusicians from the 1980s having recently returned with a boom. Geir also programs an editor together with GRG, Sid Duzz It, which according to the rumours will include this echo effect along with extensive MIDI support in the next version.

Edit Oct 01: Geir says it will not be included in the new SDI.

Note Duration in Chipmusic Software

August 17, 2009

Due to a comment by Viznut, I’ve had quick look into music made with the PDP-1 (circa 1960). This was a popular machine in the early hacker culture that grew out of universities such as MIT. A few of the audio hacks are documented in MIT’s HAKMEM (1972). Writing this post, it gradually turned into a form of platforms studies or media-specific analysis, describing note duration on different trackers/hardware, and considering the compositional consequences of it. The scope of platforms here is limited, and comments about alternatives are appreciated.

Sometime between 1960 and 1964, Peter Samson made the music software Harmony Compiler along with additional hardware, enabling 4 channels of square wave audio. Dan Smith and others used it to compose music, or “encode” as they say themselves, which was saved on paper tape (materiality matters!). Peter Samson had previously made music software for the TX-0 (1956), that you controlled with a light pen! Oh the joy. At bitsavers you can find files that seem to be related to his software. And if you want to try to get in on the PDP-fun you can check this video where Peter Samson talks after 80 minutes.

J.S. Bach, Organ Concerto No. 1 in G Major, 3rd movement, BWV
592 being played on DEC PDP-1.Photographer unknown, from here

Harmony Compiler was text-based. According to Smith‘s memory, a melody could look like: 7t4 7t4 8t4 7t4 9t4 8t2. 7t4 means note 7 at duration 4, and you could replace the t with other letters to change e.g staff (bass, tenor) and tempo. For each note you have to state the duration of it, just like in traditional sheet music. I remember using similar ways to make ringtones on my Nokia mobile phone only a few years ago. And in fact, this principle is still the basis for the dominant way of sequencing music today: piano roll sequencing. For each note you enter, the duration of the note must be graphically declared with the mouse. Replacing mouse with light-pen, this is what you did with Samson’s TX-0 software from the 50s.

In step sequencers and trackers, you don’t have to set neither duration nor tempo in the sequencer. You can if you want to, but each step has a predefined length in time and every instrument has a fixed duration. This is true in particular for trackers using synthetical sounds, with its roots in Soundmonitor (C64, 1986). To vary the duration, you use effects to sustain the duration and alter volume envelopes. For example, in JCH Editor for C64 there is a default volume-setting in the instrument, but by writing ‘+++’ in the tracker, you extend the duration of the sound. So in the picture below, the C-4 note on the right lasts longer than usual. There is also an effect to change the volume envelope, so you can make the duration shorter. But effects are abstracted one level; with the command SXX you point to line XX in an effect table where you set the volume.

jchJCH 20.G4 (C64, 1991), screenshot taken from HVMEC

Synthetic trackers are typically not ideal for playing with more complex volume dynamics. One reason is limitations in the platform that generates the sounds. As a composer you cannot set the volume any way you please; you are dependent on the so called ADSR capabilities of the hardware/software (the volume curve generator). A special example is the C64, where the dynamics are highly determined by the hardware due to the ADSR-bug in the soundchip. It means that you can never be completely sure that an instrument will play with the same volume envelope. It depends on what ADSR-values the previous instrument had, and when it was executed. Also, some ADSR-settings tend to produce clicks, which can make it frustrating to program clean delays for example.

This is easier with sample-based trackers such as Protacker (Amiga, 1990), since you can set absolute volume levels at any point. In these tracker you can also use instruments with fixed volume curve. An audio sample sounds the same each time you trigger it. But the duration varies with different notes, because a higher note means a higher speed, and therefore the sample ends faster. Usually this is fixed by looping the sample, and setting the volume directly in the tracker instead. Each time you initiate the sound, you have to manually set the volume decrease: A0F, A0F in the 1st channel below. Without copy-paste functions, it takes a lot of work to write the same volume envelope each time an instrument is triggered. Being a somewhat lazy composer thus only increases the amount of volume dynamics.

protracker-3.15Protracker 3.15 (Amiga, 1993), screenshot from xmp @ sourceforge

In a sense then, we are back to the explicit note duration style of Harmony Compiler. To complete the circle, we can consider the tracker-like software that works with explicit note duration. HVMEC defines such software as editors, rather than trackers. In the screenshot of DMC below, you can see the pattern editor on the right side. Notes share space with commands (DURation, SouND, SLiDE), which means that step #8 (ADR.00) in this channel, might not be the same place in time as step #8 in the other channels. This adds a new layer of trickery, and I remember cursing a lot when using this back in the days. But the detachment of channels and the lack of overview, means that you can play with polyrhythms very easily – a feature I always appreciated also in LSDj. It is as far as I know, not very common in your average piano roll software, where the master clock is an authoritative master.

dmcDMC 5.1 by Brian & DJB (C64, 1997), screenshot from HVMEC

To conclude then – it seems that from the software discussed here, the sample-based ones give the most direct control over volume duration. In my view, this is reflected in the amount of volume/duration dynamics in Amiga MOD-music compared to C64-music. But, the difference is not necessarily between sample-based or synthetic trackers. In Musicline Editor (Amiga 1995) you can control synthetic sounds with pattern effects for both instrument volume, ADSR and channel volume. But this flexibility is possible only because the synthesis is made in software. In LSDj (Gameboy) there are also different ways to experiment with the volume, but it’s determined by the hardware’s limitations in ADSR.

The point with medium-specific analysis is to keep one thing constant across different media, and even if this was a rather basic attempt, it does give some interesting results and some basics to start from. Then you can start looking at hacks to overcame hardware limitations in volume control, such as for the 2A03.