Talking Chiptunes with 8-Bit Retro Gaming Music Maker Daniel Kern

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Today YTMS had the opportunity to sit down with Daniel Kern, Austrian music producer and someone who makes retro style gaming music known as chiptunes, AKA 8-bit music.

daniel kern


young coconut youtube

In addition to indulging in several other genres, Daniel has spent some time playing around with making chiptunes, both for work and for fun.  Indeed, he has spent several months working on a chiptune album with Young Coconut, resident Fauxtown Records musician and creator of original songs in his own capacity.  As it happens, Young Coconut (heretofore referred to as YC, and Daniel as DK) conducted the interview himself with DK, and the two musos talked chiptunes late into the eve, with the first question being “What is a chiptune?” and then going off of that into a colourful discussion on the topic of said tunez.  Enjoy!

YC: Hey Daniel, how are you?

DK: Hey there! I’m fine, how about you?

YC: Good, good! I wanted to grill you about chiptunes for a moment.

DK: Sure! Shoot.

YC: For those who don’t know, what is a chiptune?

DK: Well, a chiptune is 8-bit music. You know, back when games were developed on consoles like the Atari or even Gameboy. The soundchip, as it was called, couldn’t process the huge amount of sound information that a computer can now.

YC: I’ve heard this type of chiptune music referred to by different names. C64 music, Amiga music, Atari.  Just naming it after the type of gaming platform in those cases, really.

DK: Yeah the Commodore was one of the earliest computers that had music of this sort. Same idea. Keep the amount of files to be processed to a minimum.

YC: Yeah, I get that.. small files.

DK: Never heard those other names.  I just know the terms Chiptune or 8-bit…”retro gaming music” I suppose, but it all makes sense though.

YC: I remember cause I used to have Commodore 64 since I was 3 years old.

DK: “Gameboy music” would be near to the mark in terms of a name for this genre as well.

YC: The music for these old platforms I always thought was interesting, very raw, and exciting!

DK: Uhh yeah, thats great you got into gaming early! Then I guess you got more experience with the” real thing” than me, in terms of the original platforms you played on when they were first released.

YC: Yeah, I had like 50 floppy discs with like 1000 games.. lol…I started early, glued to the screen for hours in my room.. I was a gaming addict from a young age…played Commodore for like 7 years or so…then Nintendo came along, and eventually switched over.

DK: Haha damn thats great! Which one was your favourite Commodore game?

YC: Oh man.. there were so many great Commodore games.. the graphics weren’t very sophisticated, but I prefer the old school graphical style in many cases.  More focus on gameplay and story.  Umm…Moon Patrol comes to mind.. Jumpman was definitely a favourite…Jumpman Jr. as well lol.. Impossible Mission was always kinda creepy and good…but man I could go on all day about those games…there were so many…but the soundtracks always interested me a lot.  Anyway, do you think nowadays chiptune music is a genre that gets a lot of props or respect?  Or do people just see it as a novelty genre or just some retro thing?

Check out a quick playthrough Jumpan Jr. and enjoy the sound FX

DK: I thing most of the people see it as a retro thing..BUT..history repeats…So I think especially in the time we are in now, where guys like us, who grew up with old school game, from Commodore to Nintendo consoles are the “grown ups” now, and still like the classics best.

YC: Are you a fan of any particular type of chiptunes?  Any series, game, etc?

DK: I loved the Metroid Prime Soundtracks.

Check out some awesome Metroid Prime soundtrack music below

YC: Any other ones?  Are you into battle music at all?

DK: Pokemon on the Gameboy was also very nice as far as I remember.. and yeah the battle tracks were definitely very, very fine in Metroid Prime and in Pokemon you actually had very different styles in effect.

YC: Chiptune seems to have some subgenres as well, from what I hear.  There’s like chiptune dubstep, breakcore, ambient.. you can get really creative with it I guess as a composer.

DK: Definitely!  But you have much less of a variety of sounds you can use. I mean, still a huuuge amount..but no “real” instruments, so to speak.

Check out this chiptune by Daniel Kern below called Mr Midnights

YC:  So by sounds you mean VSTI’s?…is that where the sounds are coming from?  Virtual instruments?

DK: Well not only that.  That is one way to produce 8-bit nowadays. Back in the time of Commodore, etc, the sound was produced by PSG’s…ie. the soundchips, and there are some ways to simulate these soundchips called “tracking”.

YC: Is that what Milky Tracker is all about?

DK:  I guess so.. Im not that well educated in using trackers, to be honest.

YC: I remember once using a C64 sound player.  It was like a jukebox for C64 games and the sound files were.. different, I can’t recall the format.

DK:  By having the opportunity to work in my “normal environment” I was quickly convinced that I can get to nice results by using VST’s, otherwise it would have taken me years to finish a track…Different how?

YC: I don’t know, I forget the file format but the emulator was just kind of interesting…it had sound files that I don’t recall but i think they were original C64 sound files. Oh ok, I just looked it up.. they’re called SID (sound interface device), which is what the sound chip was.  I just dug up a sample of the music.

Check out this compilation of C64 SID music

DK: It’s a whole different approach to work with those emulators.  Most confusing is at the beginning I guess is that instead of showing the track you’re creating horizontally, it goes vertically.

YC: oh like uhh kind of like Renoise does?

DK: Yeah like Renoise!  But, I’m also not that familiar with Renoise. I just heard about it and researched it a bit…I’m a cubase guy at heart haha I know how stuff works there, so I’m comfortable using that DAW.

YC: So is that your normal DAW environment.. Cubase?

DK: Yes…exactly.

YC: So how many VSTI’s will you actually use for a chiptune?

DK: That depends completely on the track I’m creating.  It can go from 5 – 50.  Sometimes more with some chiptunes.  Most of the time I use about 5-10.

Watch this video of Daniel making a chiptune in Cubase, his favourite DAW

YC: So back to the soundchips…and how chiptunes try to emulate is that done?

DK: Well while we have up to 32 bit sound right now.  Back then, it was only possible to use 8-bit…which made the sound quality more “edgy”.

YC:  Have you ever seen one of these sound chips up close?

DK: Just on pictures…I never wanted to destroy one of my retro-consoles.  Those VST’s like Peach or Bitkits (in Kontakt)…they try to emulate the well known sounds from different games but give you the option to change and adjust them – so you could have completely new ones.  How Peach works, I spoke about in another article.

Read Daniel Kern’s article about working with Peach by Tweakbench

YC: Ah yes, so when you say you use 50 VST’s, you mean totally different VSTs, or like using Peach but like 10 different things within it?  I’m not quite clear on how that works.

DK: With chiptunes I mostly use Peach and Bitkits, using different settings and create various stems with it…but with some orchestral works it could go up to 50 different VST’s, although that of course is a totally different style of music.

YC: Right.

DK: Or, let’s say, maybe 30-40 and 50+ stems.  It can really accumulate once you get into the music and what it requires compositionally.

YC: So what’s the most stems you’d use for a chiptune, do you think?

DK: Well thats a tricky question.  It has to be one good end product, so that’s the bottom line. I’d say that in chiptunes, generally speaking, the drums are not that important, while the most important element there is would be the lead melody.  But, you know, its kinda like choosing which of your fingers is the most important.  No reason to sacrifice a finger if you don’t have to!

YC: Right.  There’s only so many elements that can be the focus, like any song.

DK: Yeah, but like I said.. with the lead melody alone you could show somebody a chiptune, and they’d get the idea.  With the drums alone, not so much.  Still, it works as a whole thing all together and it just depends on what you want to create.

Listen to this chiptune Daniel made covering Childebeast called Death Mask

YC:  Hm hm, so when you’re making a chiptune you kind of go for the sound of which retro console mainly? Just one, or it depends?

DK: It really depends.  If Im trying to work on a “chiptunes cover version”, I will use the sound that it reminds most on the original one.  For example, an e-guitar might sound distorted and bending, if that’s what the original has.

YC: Yeah, so in that case it’s more like a real cover.. copying the feel, etc.

DK: Exactly!  If I’m working on own compositions, I just go with the flow…Feel what fits and do it.

YC: Would you say most chiptunes artists are doing covers and stuff? Care to generalize?

DK: Well, I guess thats what brings most attention to somebody – if you cover a well known song. But I wouldn’t generalize.  I personally just do what I want, or, if it’s a job, do my best to capture the spirit of the original.

YC: Because chiptunes, as a genre, has gotten pretty big wouldn’t you say?  Lots of artists, big fanbase, etc.  

DK: I would say so!  I guess many of the millenium-generation like to get reminded on how things were, and that’s the appeal to them.  I guess thats a big plus for the chiptunes genre.  But very often it’s used in a more modern way.  

Check out this chiptune 8-bit fest in Philly called 8static from 2017

YC: Do you not think there’s some forward thinkers in the genre or is it pure nostalgia?

DK: No, no, there is, but there is a difference in producing chiptunes in a retro manner and using the 8-bit sounds for modern projects like electronic dance music.

YC: Yeah, I see the difference, but would you say if its not retro then it’s not a chiptune?  Kind of a philosophical question.

DK: Yes, I would say so.  Chiptunes is a music genre I would say, soo, if you are using 8-bit in a modern genre it doesn’t make it chiptune, just like using a electric guitar in a jazz tune doesn’t make it rock.

YC: Yeah, definitions of these kinds just get confusing to me anyway.  It’s interesting to think about, but really, is it that important?  But some people are always concerned about that stuff.  The technical qualifications of this or that.

DK: Yeah.

YC: So, in a way, it doesn’t really matter but I guess there is no right or wrong.

DK: I’m completely with you there!

YC: That said, as far as you’re concerned, you have a loose definition and you go by it and consider yourself somewhat of a chiptunes guy, because you’re following the formula more or less.  Is that it?

DK: Well, if I am making actual chiptunes haha.  If I’m creating something else and use 8-bit sounds, well, then, I’m just doing something else entirely.  It’s a bit easier in jazz, which is a genre I work in a lot as well.  I mean, if something is outside of the “regular” style or “box”, you can just say its “fusion” xD

YC: Yeah lol gotta love fusion!  But it’s all cool anyway, whatever it is. So, besides the names of the VSTI’s you use, do they have other names that are like made up by the industry?  By this, I mean, generic genre names for certain things.  I’m thinking like a sine wave or something.  Dedicated chiptune instruments that don’t fall under “guitar” or “drums”.

DK: Ok, so to try to answer your question: Bitkits I mostly use for drums, they have about 6 drums “samples” in each of the 10 presets.  With Peach, I try to emulate sounds like bass and guitar, but because all the sounds in chiptunes being digital, it’s pretty hard to name them. All of them created by sound waves.  Is it square, saw, or sine?  Know what I mean? haha

YC: I guess people will just have to read our other interview on how to make a chiptune to see more about your hands on approach to it.  Hey, have you been to any good chiptune concerts?

Read our article with Daniel, “How To Make A Chiptune”

DK: No, I have not.  I haven’t been to a concert in a while, actually, and when I do go, it’s usually live jazz.  I do love chiptunes though.  Maybe they will become the “new goa” style haha.  8 bit music can be definitely trippy, that’s for sure!

YC: It’s a cool sound. 

DK: Goa or 8-bit? 🙂  I like both, at a normal dose.

YC: What’s goa?

DK: Well actually, it’s an area in India, but it’s also a genre.

YC: ohh, I think I knew that…maybe.

DK: And thats where the goa music style came from.  Pretty trippy stuff, with thousands of sub-genres.

YC: Cool, would you say goa is similar to chiptune somehow?

DK: Not really, besides that its also electronic music.  Maybe vaguely similar.

Listen to some Goa trance music

YC: Daniel, do you know any other musicians who make chiptunes other than yourself, or are you just a chiptune guy living in your own 8-bit bubble when it comes to that genre?

DK: I would say the second one!  I don’t really know anybody who makes chiptune type music other than me, so I guess I’m a bubble boy!

YC: What got you into it? 

DK: Well I tried a bit before, just for fun, but I’d say the Young Coconut album was the first thing that made me take it more “seriously”.  Still, I was always interested in it 🙂

Listen to The Spiders of Old Montreal, another Daniel Kern chiptune

YC: Oh yeah that guy lol

DK: Growing up with Nintendo games, it gave me that nostalgic feeling to make the music now, way later on…and haha yeah that guy xD

YC: You do a lot of other stuff right, like totally opposite styles.

DK: I wouldn’t necessarily say opposite styles, because its still music, after all.  You can learn tricks from every genre, as a composer.  I do dabble in many styles, yes.  

YC: I mean in terms of the samples being like high def you could say vs. bleepy chiptune sounds…those textured orchestral suites, etc.  I just mean the VSTI’s you use are vastly different in sound from one another.  For instance some of your hip hop stuff uses fancy sounds, not 8-bit at all.

Check out this song by Daniel Kern that sounds a bit like Massive Attack

DK: Yeah in that case, you are right 🙂  but hiphop and electronic music are somewhere between I’d say.  I do try to work on (nearly) everything in between.  Chiptunes is just a passion of mine.

YC: Yeah for sure.  It’s good to have that variety!

DK:  Lately, I’ve gotten into those chinese instruments haha

YC: riiight, that stuff hehe…get anywhere with that yet?  I remember you said it was tough to pick up.

DK: Well, I am proud to say that I can play twinkle twinkle little star at last haha.  That erhu (chinese violin) is really hard to play, as I said.

YC: Oh, that raises an interesting question.

DK: Yeah?

YC: Are there any VSTI’s for chiptunes that aren’t like bass/drums/guitar…what about chiptune erhu?

DK: Well, I guess you could try to emulate it.  It’s a lot about bending, based on the fact that you have 2 strings and pretty much “glide” over them.  Nearly the same approach like an electric guitar, just no distortion and waaay less attack, because you are bowing it and not plucking.  If somebody would recognize it is another question haha

YC: Right, so do chiptune VSTI’s never try to emulate like.. a flute? Or something other than typical rock shit?

DK: Sure I guess they do.  I mean let’s take Zelda 🙂 It never really sounds like a flute, just like it never sounds like an e guitar.  It’s just the 8bit equivalent to it id say, with the next generation being 16 bit.

YC: Is there a chiptune VSTI called “sax”…I mean that you know of?

DK: I wouldn’t know of any.  

YC: With Zelda, it has some fake ocarinas and stuff, right?

DK: Actually I think they are real ocarinas.

YC: Oh well then.. my bad.

DK: But with the 16 bit soundchips, it was just possible to sample reaaally short sounds, so they played them very fast behind each other, trying to make it sound as one long note.

YC: Ah, interesting.

DK: Thats why Id say somehow you are right about the fake ocarina 🙂

Check out Gerudo Valley from Ocarina of Time

YC: Can one combine 8-bit and 16-bit chiptune VSTI’s to create a hybrid?

DK: There are still a lot of digital sounds in 16 bit that could have originated from the 8 bit sounds, but chiptunes don’t use samples.

YC: Hmm..

DK: So if you combine it, I would say it’s a 16 bit sound with 8 bit elements.

YC: So it’s using.. what? if not samples, it’s just making some noises?

DK: Yeah pretty much haha, it’s using sine waves (and square and saw) to produce digital sounds, synthetic, basically what synthesizers like the moog are doing.

YC: Yeah, but in plugin form, or VSTI I should say.

DK: What do you mean with in plugin form? Combining 8 bit and 16 bit? I think 16 bit is already the combination of samples + advanced 8 bit sounds.

YC: I just mean that chiptune VSTI’s are plugins, right?  Plugins that you use in, say, Cubase, to produce the sounds, whereas a synth is a synth, and it makes sounds on its own.

DK: Yeah but so do the plugins, eg. virtual instruments.  There is the original Moog, and then there is a digital version of the Moog as well, called the Moog modular.

Hear the Moog Modular 15 synth in demo form

YC: Right, but with chiptunes it’s VSTI’s you download, played on a midi controller type of thing, correct?…and then recorded in your case through Cubase.  Chiptune sounds don’t come from a chiptune device, right?

DK: Well, they do come from the chiptune PSG soundchip.  You also have a soundchip in modern synths.

YC: So there is an actual chip?

DK: in the VST’s, there is an emulator of that soundchip, yes, but still the sound is produced in the VST.  That’s why many VST’s you also can run as a standalone, without Cubase or any equivalent DAW.

YC: Ah, so that soundchip…when did they stop putting that into consoles?  I‘m getting more at the history of chiptunes now I guess.  They just called it a “soundchip”?

DK: Well, PSG, or Programmable Sound Generator.  I guess things changed with the arrival of the SNES…Because, like I said before, 16 bit sounds were using samples, not any kind of sound chips.

YC: Right, so certain devices have the chip and others lack the chip and rely on other ways to make the sounds.

DK: Yeah, I think until Gameboy colour and maybe the Advanced as well, Gameboys were completely 8 bit sound wise, but SNES came earlier than gameboy, if I remember right.

YC: Umm…yeah i think so?

DK: I suppose that’s also because of the size. SNES was a bit bigger than a Gameboy, so, yeah, with the fourth generation of video games, the change came, from 8 to 16 bit.  

YC: I’m sure some old Nintendo employee would know these things better than we.

DK: haha definitely! And I’m sure he could explain it better as well.

YC: Well, it’s just us and Google at the moment.

DK: I’m in china at the moment, so for me no Google haha

YC: I guess whatever the Chinese search engine is, you could look this stuff up.

DK: haha yeah Baidu, but that’s just cruel.  I’ll pass!

YC: A bit off topic, but I guess it (Baidu) sucks?

DK: Yeah it does haha

YC: Sad!  Ok, so yeah i think we’ve covered a lot of things along the way, even if we were postulating a bit on some stuff.  If people read this far, god bless em!

DK: haha word! If somebody reads that far – please leave a comment guys!

YC: Alrighty then. Well kids, if you want to hear some of Daniel’s chiptunes, here’s another one.

One more chiptune called Mind The Gap

DK: Yes, please do comment and if you have any questions, again.. throw those in the comments as well and we’ll do our best to answer them!

YC: We’ll see everyone later!

DK: Goodbye, until next time!

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