The idea to produce sounds using a computer reaches back to early history of computers themselves. The first steps in digital music performance were made in 1951, using the two pioneer computers “CSIRAC” and “Ferranti Mark 1”.
Early Chiptune Music
A big breakthrough for Chiptune / 8 Bit Music was definitely the game “Space Invaders”, released in 1978 by Romohiro Nishikado. You’ve probably played it – most people have – but check it out here and focus on the music. Doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but, back then, this game caused a revolution in both gaming and early game music composition.
Here’s the arcade port of Space Invaders, in case you forgot about the menace that this game invoked, partly due to the music.
If you have a second, watch this video featuring an interview with Romohiro Nishikado about Space Invaders and his days working for Taito.
From that point on, the edgy, electronic sounds appeared over and over again in different kinds of computer games released during the golden age of video arcade games like “Rally-X”, “Pac Man”, “Space Tactics”, “Donkey Kong” and many more.
Most of the time chiptune was an underground genre, even as it became moderately popular in the 1980’s and through to the 21st century.
Who would have thought that the sounds of consoles like C64, NES, and Gameboy would influence the development of modern electronic dance music to the extent that it has?
With all that said, you came here to learn about how to make a chiptune? Let’s get into it!
How To Compose Chiptune Music
There are many ways to produce chiptune music. Here are 3:
1) You could use the original equipment like C64, Gameboy, etc. and connect it with your DAW so you could record the played sounds directly.
2) You could use a piece of music tracker software, in which you construct the song vertically (not horizontally like usually). This software replaces your DAW & you have to import samples and sound-recordings – which are processed with different effects you add.
3) The easiest and most fun way I find is to use VST plugins that are designed to emulate these old arcade- and computer console sounds. Now, you might be wondering, what are these plug-ins? Are they perhaps…free? 😀 Well, yes they can be, and here are some suggestions.
3 Free VST Plugins For Making Your Own Chiptune:
These are three of my personal favourite free VST plugins to produce chiptune music. They are easy to install and use. You can modulate most of the sounds either in the instrument itself or by using external plugins.
I am working on Windows and I’m using Cubase as a DAW, so I don’t know how far they work on Mac or with other DAW’s.
You can use KONTAKT with at least 2 of the plugins, and they shouldn’t give you any trouble.
#1 – Tweakbench’s Peach
This VST is based on NES and Famicom games, using an emulator of the PSG processor. It has 30 different waveforms – all designed from classic 8Bit sounds. You have 8 different controls to change the sound until it fits your purpose, including Porta (Glide), Pan (left-right), Crush (distort and crush), attack, decay, sustain, release, and the main volume.
Here’s a quick video demo of Peach by Tweakbench.
#2 – Uppercussion Bitkits
This Kontakt Instrument contains 160 wav samples packed in 10 unique Drum-Kits.
The formats are Kontakt, Machine expansion, Ableton live pack, MPC expansion pack, fl studio, battery, geist expander, exs24, Halion and NN-XT (besides the single wav samples).
I use it mostly in combination with Kontakt, and it’s really easy to use – plug and play.
You can get very creative with it, even though you don’t have much possibility to change the sounds in the instrument itself. For modulations and effects you will have to use external products.
Besides the very nice (even a bit modern) sounding drum-samples, every kit contains also different bleep and glitch sounds.
Here’s an example of a song I found on Youtube that uses Uppercussion Bitkits.
#3 – BPB Commodore 64 Synthesizer Sessions Deluxe
This is another Kontakt-based Instrument. By downloading the Deluxe Pack, you will receive 30 multi-sampled instrument patches, each one recorded directly from a original Commodore 64. Most of the sound patches are single synth-instruments playable over a keyroll, but the kit includes blip and blop sounds as well as a complete Commodore 64 drum kit in the huge library!
You have different modulations inside the retro looking interface of the instrument.
You can switch from mono to poly mode and you can’t miss the easy to use virtual glide knob.
You can use a few filter effects, Frequency, Resonance, Velocity – and have a switch from Hi to Lo filter. It is also possible to connect the filter with a LFO – two knobs to regulate Depth and Speed are making it very user-friendly.
The instrument has 4 faders for the filter envelope and 4 faders for the amplitude envelope. Lastly, it has a knob for the stereo setting and a SID-Vibrato knob.
Here’s a great demo video showing Commodore 64 Synthesizer Sessions Deluxe.
How To Make A Chiptune – Continued.
As soon as you have installed the VST’s and started your DAW, you can start to produce your own chiptune music!
I like to begin either with a Drumloop, a chord progression or a baseline – depending on what my goal is.
For the arrangement of the track you have to imagine a “band” playing, so let’s say we have drums, bass, chords and melody.
Sometimes it can be more useful to leave the chords out (if you want to keep it minimalistic), but you could also play three (or more) melodies with the same (or very similar) rhythms so you build up the chords like that.
Basically it’s just like a usual musical arrangement, but you have to additionally watch out carefully for certain clashing frequencies – otherwise it could easily sound unclear and confusing.
You can find out more about the production process in this video: