04 / 01 / 2009
Vintage sound chips? They are music to my ears
- The Guardian, Wednesday 25 March 2009
A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian Guide featured a tongue-in-cheek lexicon of pop culture slang, which covered everything from mumblecore to dubstep. Right up there on the first page was the music genre “wonky”, a fusion of hip-hop, crunk and electro, defined by the enthusiastic use of glitchy synth noises. What the article didn’t mention was the huge debt this sound owes to the chiptune scene, an international underclass of musicians who create incredible tracks by electronically torturing the sound chips found in vintage videogame hardware.
It sounds sort of geeky, and in some ways it is – a lot of chiptune artists specialise in creating cover versions which sound as if they’re playing on, say, an old Super Nintendo Entertainment system. Clever, but of limited appeal. What we’re seeing now, though, are the first signs of a mainstream breakthrough. The UK chip music artists Pixelh8 and Unicorn Kid have done sessions for Radio 1, while You Love Her Coz She’s Dead made it on to the soundtrack of teen drama Skins. Superpowerless recently won an MTV/Vodafone new music competition with his song Wasted My Time, which the artist described as: “Game Boy-fueled adventure-core.”
Purveyors of mainstream electronica are also taking an interest. Last year, the moody dance act Crystal Castles were accused of heavily sampling the chiptune artists Lo-bat. and Covox, without permission or recognition. More legitimately, several chiptune veterans have created software to allow non-techie musicians to use classic game noises. Pixelh8’s Music Tech Pro Performer Synthesizer can control the on-board sound on a Nintendo DS or GBA, and has been used by Damon Albarn. The duo 8 Bit Weapon have teamed up with Sony Creative Software to create a loop and sound effects library covering various old-skool computers.
So what’s the appeal of the genre? Part of it is the general musical obsession with retro hardware, about digital kids falling for the authenticity of analogue sounds. “We think that now people are starting to realise that these low-fi sound chips are a viable source of inspiration as well as a new soundscape to play with all together,” say Seth and Michelle of 8 Bit Weapon. “You can’t get the gritty synthetic sound of a Commodore 64 anywhere else in the electronic world. You can’t get the phat haunting bass of a Nintendo Famicom triangle wave anywhere else either. Each machine has its own distinct sound and personality.”
But there’s still a stigma attached, an unwillingness to recognise videogame music as a source or inspiration. Josh Davis, aka Bitshifter, a New York chip music pioneer who co-organises the excellent Blip Festival , says artists are scared of attaining a condescending “Mario-at-a-rave” label.
It’s the same as Hollywood and modern TV shows stealing ideas and conventions from games without acknowledging their sources. In the cultural space, videogames have to jostle for every teeny step forward. Sometimes you wonder if it’ll ever change.