Chiptune Artist Interview with Niko Igorevich of Decimu Labs

Chiptunes are a style of music that has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, but in many ways it never really left the hearts of true fans. 

As video game music from the 1980’s gets increasingly retro, the appreciation for the actual sound of this music has never really wavered.  Fans that were there in the initial phases of video gaming music, for PCs such as Commodore 64 and Amiga, not to mention 8-bit gaming platforms like the NES and the original Sega Masters System, these fans fell in love with what were essentially game soundtracks, and to this day they still love these same games, as well as the music, which have taken on the moniker of being called a “chiptune”.

So, in the spirit of these old games with their particular style of sounds coming from the early days of video games, there are people making chiptunes now who are looking both forward to the future and back at the past at the same time. 

Niko Igorevich of Decimu Labs (design cinemu music) is one such chiptune artist. 

As well as creating his own tracks, he specializes in remixing peoples’ non-chiptune songs into new chiptune compositions, using his keen ear for melody, harmony, and arrangement.

As luck would have it, we here at YTMS cornered Niko for a Q&A to see if we could grasp some of his secrets and tricks of the trade he uses when creating his chiptunes, not to mention hear about what he’s up to in the music scene these days.  

Enjoy our Q&A with Niko Igorevich!


Q: How long have you been making chiptunes?

It seems this is my 6th year in chiptune remixing, haha I had to check it. I tried remixing a song I wrote for a webseries in genesis/megadrive style. That was my first one:

Q: Cool! How did you get into chiptunes in the first place?

Well, I’ve always loved video game music, specially the Sonic the Hedgehog series for sega megadrive/genesis.  I’ve been a musician for about 15 years and started becoming interested in audio production and computer audio about 10 years ago.

I worked in several soundtracks for webseries and movies and eventually started investiganting about retro chiptune music, and found several VSTIs (virtual instruments) that emulated the retro sound.

First I found one for Sega, then for othere systems (nes, old computer midi or samples like the Amiga system), and SNES.

Q: What DAW do you use, and also which chiptune VST’s do you like to use?

I started working in Nuendo and Cubase, but later realized that Reaper was the best choice for music production, despite what a lot of people say about it. I work with several VSTS, my favs are Vopm and Chipsounds, but I’ve have also used others such as Peach and Toad, which are not synth but sample based (when talking about chiptunes only)

Q: Cool. So what makes Reaper the best choice for you?

I don’t know if that is my best choice, but it’s the best software I’ve found, because it allows me to do lots of things that other don’t, such as change the fx chain order, complex channel connections, etc.

Also it is really light and makes everything work perfectly. In addition, it is cheaper than other daws, which makes it a great choice, despite of what sound pros say.

Q: Cool. Sounds like a decent DAW to use. Do you use Reaper just for chiptunes or for all your projects? Also, what other styles are you working in, ie. genres?

I use Reaper for almost everything regarding music production.  I have tons and tons of VST to use.

My last big project was Kirlian Ghost Radio. ( www.lafrecuenciakirlian.com.ar )

It has english subtitles if you want to check it out!, for which I composed the soundtrack. Its mostly electronic, but I’ve also composed pop and orchestral pieces too.

Q: Very nice. Do you approach chiptunes differently than other types of music when you compose?

Yes, it has to be approached in its particular way, they have special harmonies, textures, sounds and intentions depending on each console, so they are a special way of composing.

Q: Can you describe your method of putting together a chiptune at all?

The process is quite simple, obviously it depends on the capabilities of each console sound (or sometimes it can be a free version, which is quite simple). Then, it is just writing a midi (in style) and instrumenting it with the appropiate chiptune sound. After that, just some simple mixing and mastering, and that’s all.

Q; Overall, what do you get out of making chiptunes as opposed to another style of music?

The result is really different, but the feel is similar, as they all imply midi sequencing. I would say that I prefer this kind of composing/arranging over the others, as they sound more authentic than, for example, a midi orchestra.

Q: Can you link us to one of your best (according to you) chiptunes?

Wow, that would be really difficult, but perhaps my favorite (original one) is this I made for a tv program: (it is hosted in a colleague soundcloud but it is mine)

Chiptune Interview with Chaotrope

Chiptunes are a fascinating genre of music that has been around since the early days of home PC gaming, using systems like the Commodore 64 and the Amiga, among others, to create tunes to accompany the games you’d play on such systems, using a specific kind of waveform to create the sounds themselves. 

The origins of the chiptune genre is interesting to us music buffs, as chiptune draws from multiple genres at once, including soundtrack music, rock, pop, punk, heavy metal, krautrock, as well as what you’d more expect, as in the more epic synth-based artists of the ’70’s, such as Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, and even psychedelic rockers Pink Floyd. 

Oh ok, fine, we’ll throw down some Tangerine Dream just for context. 😀

In fact, the initial purpose of chiptunes at the time were to go along with the games they were featured on, making the genre’s origins specifically very soundtrack oriented by nature.

Here is an example of a chiptune so you can hear what it sounds like, if you have not before feasted your ears on such sounds.  You’ll notice it isn’t simply background music, for it features lead instruments, which could be vocals but here are represented as various synth leads. 

Indeed, when a chiptune is arranged, it often accounts for every instrument you’d normally hear, like drums, bass, lead guitar, piano, extra percussion, and translates them each into their appropriate chiptune counterpart.

BTW, the footage for the video below comes from a perennial favourite game from the C64 library; a game called Space Taxi.  The musical artists featured on the track…well, that’s a cunning bit of foreshadowing. 😉

A Bit More Info About 8-Bit Chiptunes

Although the sounds are often referred to as 8-bit (which is more of a colloquialism of the genre more than a fact), ie. primitive, they can be used to compose some very dense arrangements that compares to any symphony. 

This was realized early by folks who were (and maybe still are) part of the demoscene who appreciate the epic-ness of a good chiptune and accompanying visual.

Indeed, the fans of chiptunes today are a dedicated crew who often would rather listen to these old school sounds than their newer synth-driven counterparts.  It is said, “once you go chiptune, you never go back”.  I heard that somewhere. 

Also, it should be noted that current genres of synth-based music and even pop music incorporate these sounds into them, such as mash-up guru Beck, who used a bit of the old school bleep-y-ness for his hit song, “Girl”, from back in 2005.

Chaotrope Interview

But, we’re not here to talk about Beck all day.  We are here today because we actually managed to snag an interview with a chiptune artist by the name of Chaotrope, who has been making chiptunes for many, many moons now, as well as exploring other forms of music for the purposes of both business and pleasure.  

(insert edgy photo)

Being such a prolific individual and a seeming expert in the realm of chiptunes to our feeble understanding, we decided it would be best to delve into the recesses of Chaotrope’s mind to see what information lay there which we could grasp and pull out to share with our loyal readership.  

And so, a so called “Q&A” was conducted, and here are the results of those inquiries.  We hope you enjoy!

YC:

What is your background with chiptune music? How’d you get into it?

chaotrope:

I have a pretty long history with video game music actually! My first experience with chiptune was playing the Sonic games on the Sega Genesis at age 5. That legendary soundtrack, as well as a couple more in that era, have been very big influences on me. I didn’t start making chiptune music until I finally found some good 8-bit instruments, but once I had found the right ones, I couldn’t stop making chiptune. It’s really fun, although you kind of have to think differently, since some of the 8-bit instruments don’t sound good in certain ways. Once you learn how to work around the differences, it’s one of the most fun genres to compose, in my opinion.

(insert legendary 1991 Sonic The Hedgehog soundtrack)

YC:

Cool. What software do you usually use to create chiptunes?

chaotrope:

I use a program called Mixcraft Pro Studio 8. I’ve used Mixcraft to compose since I was a young teen, and honestly it has everything I could want for a pretty good price. I’ve thought about upgrading to higher-end software but I think Mixcraft has everything that I could need for now.

(at the bottom we’ve included a video called “Mixcraft 8 Introduction” if you’re interested)

The instruments I use for chiptune music are mostly from Kontact 5, a huge library of virtual instruments I purchased. However, there are also quite a few free virtual instruments for chiptune out there that are of great quality.

*Read more about Native Instruments Kontakt here*

YC:

Are chiptunes VST’s labelled as such in the software, or do you have figure out which ones are just by knowing somehow?

chaotrope:

It really depends, some are labeled and some aren’t. It’s not too hard to figure out which instruments will work well once you are familiar with the genre.

YC:

Which ones do you tend to use / like?

chaotrope:

I tend to use the more retro ones, the ones that remind me of old games I used to play probably. It changes based on the song I’m composing though.

YC:

Yeah, what would they be called those retro ones?

chaotrope:

Oh, I don’t think they all have a specific name. 8-bit instruments, maybe chiptune instruments. A lot of them are made with simple sine waves and stuff.

YC:

Do you prefer doing original chiptunes, or do you like to rebuild others’ or do remixes? what’s your favourite?

chaotrope:

Well I’m a composer at heart, so I enjoy making my own more. Remixing is a unique, fun challenge, but it’s a different process than composing.

YC:

When you compose a chiptune of your own, what kind of characteristics are you after generally, or are there no specific boundaries?

chaotrope:

Just as long as it sounds good to me, I try not to limit myself. I’ll probably never escape my metal influences, but I don’t see a reason to set boundaries unless I’m trying to have the song fit a certain style.

YC:

Is being a famous maker of chiptunes on your radar at all, or would you rather be more like the next Slayer?

chaotrope:

I’d love to be a famous composer of course, whether I get there through chiptune or metal doesn’t matter to me. Video game music is my focus though, if I were able to choose, I’d like to work on a successful video game.

YC:

So when you sit down to make a chiptune of your own, is there any particular emphasis on any one thing, such as a type of beat, or do you focus on the emotion of the track first? I find chiptunes to have a lot of emotion packed into them, however, it comes across as more fun due to the actual sounds you hear.. they’re just fun. What’s your take?

chaotrope:

I tend to start on the drums and the bass, they tend to be the backbone of chiptune music. The beat can make a track have completely different emotions depending on how it’s written, so I think it’s important to have a good beat to work off of. After that, I don’t really have a set order, I just build the song as ideas come to me. It’s hard to explain! 🙂

YC:

Ah the creative process is a mystery by nature, it’s true.  :slightly_smiling_face: So I guess you don’t aim for any overall effect with your tunes – for instance, you’re not trying to be the most adrenalin charged chiptune artist in the world then? I guess you mix it up depending on mood? Because I think some people want to be known as the person who does this or that in terms of music, or any field really.

chaotrope:

I used to be known for my Progressive Metal music, but for the most part, that was because it was the music I was best at writing. I’ve branched out to almost every genre now that I’ve started freelancing, and honestly I’d rather be known for my versatility. People might notice someone more if they stick to a genre, but I think being able to compose in any genre is the smarter move in the long run.

YC:

Ah ha. So can you tell me (and anyone else reading this) what the scope is of your services, since we happened to meet on Fiverr and I don’t think it’s a secret that’s where you do some freelancing.  :slightly_smiling_face:

chaotrope:

My most popular gig is for video game music, but I can do almost anything music-related. I have gigs for recording guitar, even one for making phone ringtones! I’ll make original music for anything, although I excel at a few specific areas. That’s probably the best way to put it.

YC:

Mixing too?

chaotrope:

Yep, I consider mixing to be part of the composition process.

YC:

Wrapping up here Chaotrope, are there any artists doing chiptune today that you look to for inspiration? Or maybe just any band or artist that gets your motor running?

choatrope:

Some of my favorite chiptune artists are Chipzel, aaaa (ああああ), and Anamanaguchi! Some other bands I like include An Endless Sporadic, Dream Theater, and Plini. All these artists have been big inspirations to me, and I’d recommend them all to everyone!

I post most of my newest music at https://soundcloud.com/chaotrope. Here are some of my other links:

Fiverr (freelancing) – https://www.fiverr.com/chaotrope
Youtube – https://www.youtube.com/user/shinymonkey8
Twitter – https://twitter.com/jcunningham6392
Bandcamp (older music) – https://chaotrope.bandcamp.com/
Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/chaotrope

Chiptune Interview with Music Producer Omar Zin

There are a growing number of people taking an interest in what are lovingly called chiptunes, which is a form of retro-sounding 8-bit style music that you might have heard in an old computer or console game back in the ’80’s or ’90’s. 

Home computers such as Commodore and Amiga, and even old Atari, NES, and Sega gaming platforms were, back in the day, prime sources of cool old school compositions that were as catchy to some people as the latest radio hit – sometimes even more so. 

There was also a phenomenon known as the demoscene that was a source of chiptunes as well as stunning visuals, with the impact still being felt today as it keeps going strong.

These days there are even artists like Chipzel who perform using a Gameboy, which is an interesting twist on the chiptune genre.  

These days, chiptunes are considered a sub-genre of electronic music, but, in many ways, they technically pre-date that genre, since old video games were popular well before techno became a true genre of music.

Here is an example of a chiptune for you to check out if you haven’t heard one…

The interest in chiptunes is not just coming from the listeners who are discovering the genre every day, and who enjoy listening to such tracks either for nostalgia’s sake, or simply because they gravitate to the old school digital sounds that chiptunes have.  Nay, dear reader, more and more chiptune creators are adopting the genre as their own, as the songs are fun to make, and can be a challenge to compose. 

One maker of such tunes is Omar Zin, aka Ozey, who is currently 23 years of age and hails from Morocco (North west Africa).  He is a professional music producer who specializes in hip hop and trap beats, as well as EDM music and .. yes, chiptunes! 

We found this mug shot of him to share with you.
Chiptunes are an interesting topic to learn about as a style of music, since they are both retro and contemporary at once, straddling several generations of listeners and composers now. 

Omar, in particular, stays busy on Fiver doing chiptune-style compositions for his various clients, with both originals and remixes, digging deep into the nuances of the genre.

Hence, we wanted to ask Omar a few questions about chiptunes, so see what kind of inside info he has. 

Here is our interview with Omar Zin, we hope you like it!


Q: What is your definition of a chiptune?

A chiptune is a type of music that uses basic types of sound waves (square, triangle, sine…) as instruments to compose melodies and 8-bit designed or sampled drums for the beat.

Q: How did you get interested in chiptunes?

I’ve always been a fan or Chiptune, from the Mario days, Popeye, Dandy, Ali Baba…

And i always get goosebumps when i hear some song from these days that samples some Chiptune or uses 8-bit effects on a modern song. And i wanted to have that skill for myself, and do something new with it.

Q: What age were you when you made your first one?

Generally, I have been producing music for 4 years now, and making chiptunes for about a year now.

Q: Cool. What software did you use to make your first chiptune?

During all this time, I’ve been using FL Studio. For the past year, I’ve been using FL Studio 12 for the Chiptunes and for producing generally.

Q: How did you learn FL Studio?  Did you teach yourself, or did Youtube teach you? 🙂

I got lucky to have met a great person who is an audio engineer. I learned pretty much everything from him i will be always thankful for him. I do use Youtube also from time to another.

Q: Do you make original chiptunes, or only remixes?

Yes i do both. On my gig page, you’ll find 3 samples that present the 3 types of services i offer.

The first is called « Basic », where i make a Chiptune with a simple composition.

The second called « Advanced », where i produce a Chiptune with a more complex composition.

They both are my original compositions and the third service is for the remakes.

Q: Do you make chiptunes for yourself, or mainly commissions for others?  What is your preference?

Yes i do Chiptunes when i get a request to do so.  About my preference. I don’t really have a specific style to follow, I just like my sound to be clear and musically correct.

Q: Tell me, beyond some DAW like FL Studio, what do you need to make a proper chiptune?  Have you tried any other DAW’s?

Many producers underrate FL Studio and prefer other DAW as Logic, Pro Tools or Ableton.

You can do anything you wanna do in Pro tools in FL Studio too, you have the same tools (Compressors, EQs…).  The same effects(like Reverb, Delay, distortion….) you get high quality VST for both (instruments, synthesizers, drums)

So it’s all about the method of work and the good ear to make good music with a good audio quality.

That’s why i’ve been using FL Studio all this time.

Q: What VST’s make for a good chiptune in your opinion?

You can use any synthesizer to design the good 8bit sound, especially subtractive synthesizer.

Again, It’s all about the method of work.

For me, i use a VST named « 3x osc » and the famous « Sytrus » from time to time.

Q: So how many VST’s will you use in one chiptune?

I can use one, duplicate it many time, design the sounds i will use on each copy, and add the beats of course.

Q: Do you require the stems to do a remix or remaking a non-chiptune song?

Having the stem is way better, to focus on the details or to be free to mess around with the song tools. If it’s not available, i just deal with the mixed song.

So i can do both.

Q: So you just use your ear to hear the song details when you have no stems?

For remakes, that’s what i always do. I hear the song well, several times, detect all the instruments it has, transcribe all the instruments, drums and vocals, put the same melodies and beat. Mix and master the whole thing.

Q: I see.  Wrapping up here, do you have any favourite chiptune artists from today?

Actually, i haven’t really known any Chiptune artist by name, i’ve just learned how to make the 8-bit sound work with my way of making music.

But ofc, big shout out and big love to all the artists who made the music of the 80’s games that made our childhood.

Q: Do you like more an upbeat tune, or rather a slow depressing one? 🙂

I like em both actually! My purpose is making  music that will give the listener the feeling that i wanted him to have.

Q: One more thing.. where can people hear your music?

On my Soundcloud channel, here:

Soundcloud.com/ozey-prod

And you can contact me in Fiverr by visiting my profile:
https://www.fiverr.com/ozeyzin

The Evolution of Tommy Tallarico

One of the fun parts of watching the technology scene is watching the same names come around through different generations. One massive surprise, at the same time Atari is trying to drag its hardware corpse back from the dead, is Intellivision having another go at arcade fame.

The project is led by Tommy Tallarico, a name that should ring a bell for any 16-bit gaming fan. He’s the audio brains behind Earthworm Jim 2, NFL Blitz, Batman: Revenge of the Joker and many more.

The recent news that he has acquired the rights to the Intellivision brand and plans to relaunch it shows how much love people have for even the oldest technology. Intellivision was famous for its numeric keypad and the $299 console sold millions in its early years.

Expect more news on this in October, when the project goes live. You can sign up to the website for more details.

When he’s not composing or launching new businesses, Tallarico is famous as the leader of the Video Games Live concerts. Perhaps the best way to see games music live, Tallarico will often take to the stage to play his hits from Earthworm Jim and others while the games play on giant screens in the background as a full orchestra belts out the tunes.

Not a bad encore for a guy who mostly has “sound designer” on his resume. Check out a full rendition of Video Games Live here.

Diving back into his personal archive, Tallarico has over 300 games to his credit as composer or sound designer.

At Virgin Games, his first job was on the Game Boy Version of Prince of Persia, bringing the sound of the orient to Nintendo’s curious mix of a pair of pulse wave generators, and a PCM 4-bit wave sample plus noise generator. It’s not the most thrilling of soundtracks, but helped get Tallarico out of his game tester role at the company and into the music side of the business, where he promptly formed his own company.

Things hit the big time with the Cool Spot soundtrack, a game tying into the 7-Up brand. Opening up with a version of the Beach Boys’ Wipeout, this was always going to be a hit game and the antics of the red blob hero made the game a big seller.

Moving things up a big notch, as new systems came to market, came the chance to work on the Terminator Games for the Sega CD with its full-strength audio capabilities.

Tallarico’s orchestrating capabilities came to the fore with epic renditions set around the cyborg anti-hero’s arcade shooter. These helped highlight his prowess with the guitar and synth.

With more freedom to choose projects. Tallarico’s studio won plaudits for MDK an all original title that packed in an hour’s worth of creepy, spacy sci-fi tunes with a hectic pace to keep up with the shooting action.

The great work continued with a BAFTA Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design nomination for Nintendo’s Metroid Prime in 2002.

His work continues in the modern era with Advent Rising on Xbox given a full orchestral soundtrack with vocal contributions from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The game’s sales may have failed to live up to the epic soundtrack, but truly demonstrated the class of the composer, and likely led to the ideas for Video Games Live which also started touring in 2005.

Tallarico also started releasing albums of his gaming work. Starting with Virgin Games Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 in 1994, helping create the market for game music in the west.  Albums covered MDK, Bond game Tomorrow Never Dies and an Earthworm Jim Anthology.

For more, check out a recent interview with the man, always good for name-dropping his cousin Steven Tyler!

What is the Demoscene?

Demoscene may be a word you have not heard before. Reading it or saying it aloud conjures different associations depending on your background or interests.

One may summon thoughts of band demos, promotional, raw versions of songs that the band may send to record labels or event co-ordinators. However, that’s not it at all. It does have something to do with music.

Are you into computers? You may be familiar with game demos, which are promotional versions of a game featuring sneak peeks or tidbits. Demoscene is, in fact, software that has been coded to produce audio-visual artworks.

Origins in Digital Graffiti

Demoscene is a genre that sprung up in the very late 1970s/early 1980s as a result of the emergence of computer technology. Coders or “crackers” would hack/crack into games to remove their copyright protection and would add their own visual presentations to the games. These began as introduction screens with plain text listing the crackers.

These were known as signatures, the way a graffiti artist may go around and tag walls with just their name/initials or symbols. It was rather a way of showing off their ability to have cracked the game. Sometimes these intros were more technically advanced than the games themselves.

Eventually coders and viewers lost interest in the games and began making their own stand-alone demos: thus Demoscene was born.

The thrill came from creating things with computers rather than simply playing games on them. Viewers went from passive audience to active creators.

Early Days

Back then, all computers had basically the same hardware, so any changes made were fully credited to the programmer rather than one computer having better hardware than the next. This bred a very competitive atmosphere, challenging coders to create better effects than their counterparts.

In the early days, demo-making was borne of disbelief at the things computer users would see on the screen. Demo-makers would then play around to show their skill at what they could do with a computer. A large motivator has always been and continues to be the quest to find new and interesting ways of rendering graphics.

It was in 1980 that Atari, Inc., caught onto this new craze and began using a demo, on loop, that gave both visual and audio effects to show off their Atari 400 & 800 computers, which were available in stores.

Five years later, they released a demo for their newest 8-bit computers, which featured a three-dimensional walking robot and flying spaceship set, of course, to music.

It was in 1986 that Demoscene was created: or at least given a name. The original demo groups were 1001 Crew and The Judges, both from Denmark.

Demoscene remains to this day largely European and male-centric. These groups competed in 1986 with highly involved and impressive demos comprised of their own graphics and music. In the late 1980’s, the demo scene began to rise, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Demoscene Today

Demoscene is largely enjoyed by coders because of its possibilities. It enables coders to follow a system or create abstract works, making it a very popular international computer art subculture. They can – and will – work to get every last bit of performance out of their computer, since they work to produce visual and audio works. They will even extract techniques and effects not intended for the original hardware. The resulting artwork is one that shows one’s ability to program, as well as the visual and musical component. This subculture has a large following online (as you may have surmised), where users share their creations.

Demoscene to this day is mostly competition based, where the artists – whether working individually or within groups – compete to show both artistic and technical skill. Everyone in the scene must follow the implicit rules such as creating entirely original content, making the effort to figure out answers rather than ask for help and to make contacts within the scene. It is subculture that prefers to stay underground without mainstream attention. It is estimated there are about 10 000 participants.

The goal of the demoscene video is to create an experience similar to watching a music video, one that provides entertaining visuals to the sound of pleasing audio music, all entirely generated by software coding. It is also common for coders to work with musicians and graphic artists to create the demo. Most demos are created by a very small number of people.

Essentially the goal is enjoyment from start to finish: coders enjoy the artistic creativity and the technical challenge, while creating a finished product that is both entertaining and pleasing to watch.

So who are these coders? They do not go by their real names so as to avoid the attention of law enforcement, but demoscene is more about self-expression than its origins in cracking copyrighted software. Therefore, their stage names are more about the theatricality than the legality. It should be known that demosceners tend toward legal activity. Individual demosceners will have their own names, and their groups with have a name, so the demosceners will be known as (illustrated example) My Name of Certain Group.

There are often voting parties where difference demos are presented to the public and then the public votes. Traditionally they would have voted for the more technical side of demos but now the emphasis is more on overall impact or mood. Of course the subjectivity of the public is not reliable and so in recent years, Scene.org Awards has gathered a jury of renowned members to vote on the best productions. The scene was more social and casual in the 1980s with demomakers meeting to create and share their software, while the competitive side emerged in the 1990s, taking focus away from illegal activity and putting it into competitions.

Demoparties

Demoparties take place typically over a weekend where demosceners can socialize and partake in competitions, where they design demos all day and then show them at night. Often the visitors bring their own computers, but the party will provide a large space with tables, internet and of course, electricity.

Demosceners typically socialize more than they work on their computers when attending demoparties. These events are most often found in Europe with nearly a party every week, while in the United States, for example, there may only be two or three demoparties per year.

The events typically gather visitors from a single country, with the average attendee list from dozens to hundreds of people. Larger international parties also take place, hosting thousands of people.

Attendees will bring gadgets and decorations to set up at their workspace for the weekend. They will sleep either under their desk or in appointed rooms on air mattresses.

Female attendance at these events makes up less than 20% of the total attendee population; they usually get in for free, which is meant to encourage their participation.

Chipzel – Featured 8-bit Chiptune Artist

Chipzel

Today our featured chiptunes artists is the amazing Chipzel. 

Chipzel is is the stage name for London-based, Irish-born chiptunes musician and video game music composer Niamh Houston. Her albums and soundtracks are both created and performed by using music tracker software and Game Boy portable gaming devices.

For her live performance, she utilizes two Nintendo Game Boys, a music tracker program, and a mixing console.

Over this past decade, she has garnered a dedicated following in the 8-bit electronic music underworld, as the revival of retro gaming sounds grows in an intriguing nexus of nostalgia and futurism.

Using Little Sound DJ software (LSDJ), Chipzel experimented for a few years before releasing her first EP in 2009 titled Judgement Day.

For those interested in creating their own 8-bit music, the Little Sound DJ cartridges are now out of production, but they can be found used, here and there, on sites like Amazon, and a software duplication exists otherwise.

For more information on LSDJ you can check them out on their official website at http://www.littlesounddj.com/

Little Sound DJ

Cracked software and user shareability has existed in the digital underground since the 1980’s, but has only grown with the abundance of softwares of all types and also with the increased participation from the ever-growing hacker population. Early evidence of the hacker era came from such communities as the demoscene.

demoscene

“Demos” are audio-visual creations made from shared and cracked software – the creators would use existing softwares in new ways to showcase new computer art made from old familiar mediums.

With innovation and artistic ego as the prime mover – rather than the more basic values of fame and fortune, the demoscene emerged to allow creative competition between demo artists, many who used machines familiar to the 8-bit or chiptune music scene such as the Nintendo Game Boy, Atari, or Commodore64.

demoscene 2

Chipzel says of this cracked software sharing: “It’s the essence of the digital era: where hackability is to participate, instead of being a passive consumer. We can invent the future that we want, and not the one that we’re given.”

Octahedron Chipzel

Since 2009’s Judgement Day, Chipzel has released four more LP’s/EP’s, which respectively include 2010’s Disconnected; 2012’s Phonetic Symphony; 2012’s Fragments; and 2017’s Chipped of the Necrodancer.

Further, in 2012 she partnered as the soundtrack artist for the UK game Super Hexagon – which was nominated by BAFTA in 2014 – and has since released seven more video game soundtracks. They are: Spectra (2013); Size DOES Matter (2014); Adventure Time: The Secret of the Nameless Kingdom (2014); Interstellaria (2015); Chime Sharp (2015); Crypt of the Necrodancer (2017); and Octahedron (2018).

Niamh Houston’s 2016 TedX talk “We Are All Hackers” offers insight into her artistic essence, which resonate deeply with the creative process overall, stating that using outdated machines with few capabilities “…forced me to overcome limitations in a creative way”, and that, “…having fun and dismissing standards was the focus”.

From her modest beginnings as a chiptunes experimenter, Niamh Houston as Chipzel has become a celebrated and award-winning artist.

Super Hexagon, a UK game that featured her soundtrack, was nominated for a BAFTA in 2014. She has been named VGMO’s best independent composer. And in 2015 she received Best Music Award in XBLA Fans’ Game of the Year.

Chipzel 2

You can check out Chipzel on her official website http://chipzel.co.uk/, just one of many relevant artists using old technologies to create new sounds and new artistic cultures.

Interview with Video Game and Chipmusic Artist 4Mat

Today we had a chance to chat with the amply skilled video game composer, chipmusic and electronic artist known as 4mat (AKA Matthew Simmonds) who has been creating his own inimitable songs since the demoscene back in the 1980’s, and hasn’t taken much of a break from composing since. 
With a discography brimming with equal parts effervescent nostalgia and experimental forward momentum on his bandcamp page, and a mind-bogglingly extensive video game soundtrack resume dating back to the early 90’s, 4mat has seen and taken an active part in the evolution of the chipmusic genre as it has developed and morphed over decades, to the point now where the genre is finding itself to be part of a larger cultural limelight than it perhaps once was in previous decades. 
 
With new fans being turned on to the once underground-dwelling genre all the time, we wanted to get 4mat’s take on things, from his creative process, to his influences, history, inspiration, and more…
 
Here now is our interview with 4mat, and we hope you like it!
 
Q: Do you consider yourself a chiptune artist, or is that too restrictive a term?
 
A: I’d say chipmusic artist, though honestly I just put electronic artist on things now. I like the vagueness of electronic artist.
 
Q: You’ve been making music for a while now. When did you actually start composing?
 
A: Late ’80s using the Amiga, doing music in the demoscene.
 (speaking of Amiga…)

Q: How do you go about writing a song? Do you have a particular process you go by or is it always different?
 
A: 4mat music is always different. Can be a melody, a sample, anything. Sometimes it’s quick, sometimes things can hang around for years.
 
Q: Does your recording studio have any windows or do you prefer windowless environments?
 
A: For the 4mat stuff it’s all written in trackers, so I can write it anywhere. (this new album – check teaser here– was written in 4 different places I think). When I’m focused on something I don’t really need a particular environment to get on with it either way.

Q: What generally motivates you to write music either in the past or now? For example, do you wait for inspiration to come out of the blue (emo style), do you just treat it like it’s a job (duty calls style), or wait patiently for the cold hard cash to land in your waiting palm before you touch an instrument (heartless capitalist style)?
 
A: 4mat tracks are all inspiration led, when I have time and motivation and both of those things line up which isn’t often these days.
 
Q: How much thought do you usually give to album sequencing?
 
A: A lot, I think it’s one of the most important parts of the process. I’ll have a playlist running very early into a new album and that will fluctuate until the release date usually. I like to have a list of, I dunno, ‘touchstones’ of artists/albums and theme of where I want this one to be going, and it’ll not necessarily be style choices but something from each of those will end up an influence.

Q: Any particular musicians who have influenced your style early on and lately?
 
A: Early on would be Talking Heads, YMO, hiphop like BDP or Public Enemy, Konami’s music team working on the MSX carts and various C64 musicians. Lately Joni Mitchell, Serge Gainsbourg, J Dilla, Scott Walker, Bowie, Talk Talk, it always fluctuates though I listen to a lot of music.
 
Q: What kind of games did you play growing up, and on what system? (I was always a C64 kid myself)
 
A: I was C64 as well, it’s funny the sid chip gave us a hands-on class in audio theory, having that little modular synth in there you could program. I went back to investigate the c64 rather than the Amiga when I came back on the scene because of that chip, new things are still being discovered on it.

Q: What would you say has changed about chiptunes in the past 10 years?
 
A: Well the resurgence of it in general as a thing I really had no idea about, until Nullsleep got in contact with me in the mid-2000s. For me, at least before then, chipmusic was always a demoscene thing: no live gigs, no albums (beyond musicdisks released in the demoscene), media on the hardware and that was it. So that’s certainly different. In the last 10 years I think it’s stopped being a novelty which is good, it’s not really a gimmick to be doing this stuff now.
 
Q: Any contemporaries that you like to listen to who are active today?
 
 
Q: Anyone (musically) that you can think of that disappeared off the face of the earth that you wish had stuck around, or maybe someone who was dope who just took an extended break who you think should come back?
 
A: Cats. They were great, very different.
 
Q: Broad question – do you hear any difference between US and UK-based chiptune artists?
 
A: From my generation yes, can’t really comment on newer artists. The older artists were much more influenced by home computers than consoles, and the style of game music evolving in Europe at the time had a different feel to elsewhere. It’s particularly the instrumentation, the music drivers are more geared towards that arp-driven/frame-based instrument table sort of sound.
 
Q: Best show you’ve ever played?
 
A: I’ve played so few as a chip artist I can’t really comment, but I’ll say Blip 2011.
 
<and so ends our convo with 4mat…stay tuned for more, as always>

What Are Chiptunes?

what are chiptunes?

A while back I stumbled into the esoteric world of chiptune music. This is synthesized electronic music made from old sound chips from retro computers and video games. Sometimes referred to as 8-bit music or chip music, the genre or writing approach has also been more colloquially conveyed as “Nintendo music”, though this is simply a brand association, and the world of chiptunes covers much more than the NES samples.

For instance, here is an example of a chiptune, just for reference.

The term chiptune or chip music is derivative from the sound chips that were used in the programmable sound generators from these older consoles or computers. Today the term chiptune covers a broader expanse of chip-based synthesis, though the original definition views it specifically as a small tracker module, something I will delve into a couple paragraphs down.

Chiptune Origins

Chiptunes may have come about as many things do through necessity, being the mother of all invention as they say: as computers and video game systems became more affordable over the decades from the mid-1970’s onwards. 

As consumers kept trading up and up for the best and newest versions, the older systems faced obsolescence and became cheap and accessible, opening up a new world of opportunity for DIY electronic musicians to explore – one which was simultaneously affordable but also appealing to audiences due to its nostalgic reminisces of sounds from a generation past. In a larger field of electronic music where faster, newer, and more expensive often equates to “better”, chiptunes would float defiantly in its own bubble for those seeking creative and affordable ways of creating electronic music with an audience appeal.

DAWs and Music Trackers

Chiptunes can be created in a few different ways, but one of those ways is by using a type of DAW (digital audio workstation) called a music tracker. Many people who are familiar with using popular DAWs such as Ableton or Reason may not be aware that these DAWs fall into a classification called Music Sequencers. They are probably so used to seeing the left-to-right horizontal layout of the bars that that format seems the most intuitive or logical way to look at it – like looking at sheet music essentially.

Here is an example of a typical DAW that goes left to right, as we are discussing.  In this case, we’re looking at Cubase.

In comparison to these relatively more modern music sequencers (eg. Cubase, Reason, Ableton, ProTools, etc), there is a different format of DAWs called music trackers, where the music is tracked from top-to-bottom, vertically, and rather than recorded bars of music you will often see musical notes (eg: A# or G) written in text, those notes being processed with effects after the fact.

Here is an example of this top to bottom musical tracker format.

This is a different way of viewing and creating music that may feel less organic to musicians of more classical instruments, however, it is only a matter of time upon using these music trackers before they start to feel familiar, and after that, things can get really fun, as the creative process of songwriting becomes stimulated upon the very fact that you are faced with a new approach to songwriting.

Read our article, “Music Sequencers Vs. Trackers – What’s The Difference?”

As mentioned, chip music appeared as early as the 1970’s, in popular games such as Taico’s Gun Fight and Space Invaders, and in 1980, Namco’s Rally-X. 

As video game consoles were appearing more prevalently in homes throughout the 80’s, chiptunes were popularized by systems like Commodore64, Sega, and Nintendo. The history of computer music goes back even further, to the early 1950’s, the dawn of the synthesizer and also real-time musical performances by computers (the Ferranti Mark 1 and the CSIRAC in 1951, notably).

Here’s a video of the Ferranti Mark 1 in action, complete with old school proto-chiptune music.

As one idea inspires another, chiptunes have broken out of their origins from video game soundtracking and into popular electronic music albums and film soundtracks.

Chip Evolution

By the mid-80’s, frequency modulation synthesis was eventually introduced into the chiptune world, originally by Yamaha for their synths and sound chips, and the digital FM synthesis made room for more complex samples and effects. This expanded the field of possibilities and meant that warmer tones and more fluid transitions and gradients were achievable, still while using PSG (programmable sound generator) sound chips.

Some other notable musical subcultures have spawned from the chiptune culture, one being the SID music culture, based on the MOS and Commodore SID chips.

These chips are no longer manufactured and have become highly sought after as the decades have rolled on. They feature two 8-bit analog-to-digital converters, an external audio input, three different and separately programmable oscillators, four different waveforms, three ring modulators, and an envelope filter.

Using these chips, coders and musicians began writing their own original music with their own uniquely coded samples and waveforms, as far back as the mid-80’s.

Other subcultures include the demoscene, a subculture based on creating demos of self-contained programs for audio or visual presentations; or “cracktros”, which are demos created by means of software cracking – where one alters the code of video game waveforms to circumvent copyright protection and uses the newer altered code for their own creations.

There is something exciting about old things becoming new again, giving them a certain nostalgia value, which most people can relate to through seeing a favourite childhood movie remade anew, or an old favourite band of ours getting back together for another album or tour after a decade or more of inactivity.

Chiptunes bring back old fond memories, not only of the artist or artwork in question, but of that entire part of our lives through association, and in that way we can relive old moments by seeing one particular aspect of it brought back to life again. I think this is the essence of the chiptune appeal.  At the same time, there are many musicians creating chiptunes now that are pushing the envelope and creating new sounds as well.

Overall, I’d say the chiptune or retro gaming sound is a fun sound that attracts people not by flashy glamorous production but rather edgy hard notes and crushed synth effects that we can all relate to our favourite 80’s arcade games and soundtracks. Dive into the chiptune universe, and have fun!

Here’s a little chiptune playlist I made to feature some of my favourite artists of today who are making chiptunes.  Lots of good stuff here!

Vinyl Helps Retro Games Fire Up Interest in Chiptunes

We’ve already written about new games help to renew interest in chiptunes, with epic soundtracks accompanying challenging new titles that don’t need a developer team of thousands and a full orchestra to create the soundtrack.

New games help bring back the magic of the classic era. But sales are usually quite small bar a few mega-successful titles. To help boost sales along, developers are also looking at small production run physical copies with extras (maps, plushies, statues and other goodies) plus  vinyl limited edition releases to maximise their revenue.

This helps both the music artists and the developers raise their profile as collectability is high. It can also help attract a big name musician to a project as they likely get a larger cut of the profits. Take for example, the recently announced 198x, an almost Funded Kickstarter project that mixes up some classic arcade game types.

Check out the trailer for 198x and it’s haunting first soundtrack, but expect a great deal of chiptunery for the in-game audio.

The Hi-Bit team has managed to attract legendary video game composer Yuzo Koshiro returns to his chip-based roots with brand new, retro-inspired music for ”198X”. Responsible for the likes of Streets of Rage, Actraiser, and Revenge of Shinobi he is known as a King of FM synthesis chiptunes.

Revenge of the Chiptunes

Revenge of Shinobi and games of that era helped set the highest standards for gaming audio, with deep, haunting or tension-building tunes that linger in the minds of gamers today, helping build the nostalgia, while younger gamers get to discover these amazing audio soundscapes for themselves in new ways. 

As more games provide vinyl as the ultimate listening platform for retro gamers, expect the old 12-inch album to continue its recovery among music fans, reaching the warm notes that CD and MP3 can’t quite reach.

Sega were notably ahead of their time when it came to audio production on their cutting edge System 16 hardware that powered the likes of Space Harrier. It came with two audio variants, a YM2151 running at 4 MHz with SegaPCM sound 15.625 kHz and the higher specification YM2203 that could drive SegaPCM at 31.250 kHz for improved quality.

Yuzo Koshiro and Hiroshi Kawaguchi (Space Harrier, Out Run, Enduro Racer and Sonic the Hedgehog) were among Sega’s audio stars. As part of the company, rather than most western composers who went from freelance job to job, they had a stellar legacy of games to their names.

Both are still active, with Kawaguchi recently working as producer on the soundtrack to the Yakuza series for Sega. Koshiro founded Ancient Corp with other musicans to work on games, TV and movie music, working on Shenmue (making a comeback) and now 198x.

Listening to Greatness the Way It Wasn’t Meant To Be Heard

Alongside all the new retro music, classic games are also getting a fresh listen with vinyl releases of legendary gaming soundtracks. For information on your favorite game, check out the video game vinyl reddit for the latest news on the likes of Quake, Space Harrier, After Burner along with modern games like Retro City Rampage, that should all have a place on a collector’s shelves.

Isn’t it odd that digital music is now going vinyl to find a new audience? The fight back against as-a-service and not owning the things we buy is gaining momentum. Physical releases of even formerly-only-digital content including games and music help the creators earn money for their work and help bring the whole system full circle.

Whatever the music, from minimalist chiptunes to multi-layer synthesizer pieces. The growing interest in gaming culture and the music integral to the game can be enjoyed in isolation, in more ways than ever. If you want to jump on some retro vinyl, check out stores like Iam8bit for gaming music from all eras. Start picking up Limited Editions as an investment as well as the best way to enjoy gaming history.

Best Original Rock Soundtracks in Video Games

The arrival of sampling and MIDI in the 16-bit era meant that musicians and coders could suddenly be a lot more creative over the bleeps and boops of the SID chip generation. Add in the rise of games on CD and then DVD and we now have endless space for musicians to get creative and enjoy using the instruments of their choice.

One of the benefits was the arrival of rockier soundtracks, sampling guitars and drums. Over the years, plenty of rock bands have appeared in their own games, from Iron Maiden to Motorhead, Motley Crue to KISS. There have also been that endless sludge of Guitar Band and Rock Band play-along games allowing anyone to murder a classic song.

However, this post focuses on games that took original guitar music and used them to best impact in games, from shooters to arcade racers and pixel adventures. Check out our guitar section to find the best electric, acoustic and bass instruments to bring the noise to your soundtracks.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night

The launch of PlayStation might have been all about the electronic and EDM generation with launch games like WipEout. But 1997’s Castlevania epic still showed there was a place for dark and brooding guitars in the soundtrack.

Doom

We’ve talked about Quake and Trent Reznor’s demonic efforts in a previous piece, but before all that came Doom. The 1993 game not only launched 3D gaming, first person shooters and made it acceptable to slap mature ratings on game boxes, it also took sampled guitar twiddling, thudding bass lines and buried them into a gothic-tinged soundtrack.

Valfaris

From games that are familiar to all to one that is yet to arrive on PlayStation 4. Valfaris is a sci-fi shooter, packed with bloody pixels and exotic weaponry. A sequel of sorts to Slain, which took a swords and sorcery approach, both games are laden with doomy riff-heavy soundtracks. They also show developers don’t need a massive budget to get big sounding music in their titles.

The music for both was written by Curt Victor Bryant of Celtic Frost fame and add epic amounts of atmosphere while promising violence and blood to the audience. A solo effort, Bryant talks about the creative experience in an interview, where he tried to write a mixture of riffs and rhythms that mesh and melt organically.

Halo 2

Known around the galaxy for its epic soundtrack, Bungie’s Halo 2 let lose some guitar action thanks to Steve Vai to add some much needed kick. There are various versions that soon seque into the usual chanting monks and the other choral epics that soundtrack the Halo universe, but this is one of the most popular tracks among fans of the series.

Bastion

There are plenty of games that drop in an acoustic piece or tune from time to time, often during a break in the action or the lull before a furious storm. Kudos to Bastion’s developer for taking a different route. When the character comes across a girl in the game, she plays this whole song, that the player can choose to listen to. Raw fret noises and strumming accompany the song, helping the scene of a raw, wrecked and impure world in need of repair – a true thing of beauty.

Let us know what your favorite guitar tracks are from games, the ones that raise hairs on your neck or make you want to smash things up with an ax!