|Stylistic origins||VGM, electronic music, computer music|
|Cultural origins||Late 1970s–early 1980s, Japan|
|Typical instruments||Sound chip, tracker, synthesizer, drum machine, personal computer, audio programming language|
|Bitpop • Game Boy music|
|Chip-ska • Nintendocore • Glitch • Skweee • Chipcore • Picopop • Complextro • Synthwave|
A chiptune also known as chip music or 8-bit music, is synthesized electronic music produced (or emulated) by the sound chips of vintage computers, video game consoles, and arcade machines, as well as with other methods such as emulation. In the early 1980s, personal computers became less expensive and more accessible than they had previously been. This led to a proliferation of outdated personal computers and game consoles that had been abandoned by consumers as they upgraded to newer machines. They were in low demand by consumers as a whole, and not difficult to find, making them a highly accessible and affordable method of creating sound or art. While it has been a mostly underground genre, chiptune has had periods of moderate popularity in the 1980s and 21st century, and has influenced the development of electronic dance music.
The game technologies used in chip music production were marketed for consumers between the 1980s and mid-1990s. Popular systems include retro computers such as the NEC PC-88, Atari 8-bit family, Commodore 64, MSX and Amiga, and consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis and Sega Master System. These systems earmarked a shift in the technological development of video game audio to a period where consoles used dedicated hardware sub-systems or sound chips to create sound.
It was after this period that video game audio progressed onwards to sample playback and wavetable synthesis techniques, replacing the dedicated sound chip-based techniques that had been used previously to synthesize sounds in real time. Sample playback uses computer memory to store a pre-recorded sound, which may be played back at a fixed or variable pitch, and can be repeated in a continuous loop to extend the duration of a sound without increasing the memory requirements. Low quality sample playback as used in various Amiga machines, and tracking software such as Renoise is still often accepted within chip music communities, depending on the sonic properties and hardware used in composition.
In fact it is arguable that the term "chip music" was originally used in reference to the sample based tracker style of music on the Amiga and similar platforms; however, in its modern form, the terms "chip music", and "chiptune" refer to music made by the sound chips found within early gaming systems and microcomputers.
A waveform generator is a fundamental module in a sound synthesis system. A waveform generator usually produces a basic geometrical waveform with a fixed or variable timbre and variable pitch. Common waveform generator configurations usually included two or three simple waveforms and often a single pseudo-random-noise generator (PRNG). Available waveforms often included pulse wave, the timbre of which can be varied by modifying the duty cycle, square wave, a symmetrical pulse wave producing only odd overtones, triangle wave, which has a fixed timbre containing only odd harmonics, but is softer than a square wave, and sawtooth wave, which has a bright raspy timbre and contains odd and even harmonics. Two notable examples of systems employing this technology comprise the Game Boy and the Commodore 64. The Game Boy uses two pulse channels (switchable between 12.5%, 25%, 50% and 75% wave duty cycle), a channel for 4-bit PCM playback, and a pseudo-random-noise generator. The Commodore 64 on the other hand made use of the MOS Technology SID chip which offered 3 channels, each switchable between pulse, saw-tooth, triangle and noise. Unlike the Game Boy, the pulse channels on the Commodore 64 allowed full control over wave duty cycles. The SID was a very technically advanced chip, offering many other features including ring modulation and adjustable resonance filters.
Due to the wide range of video game systems available, with different sound chips and processors running them, each system, while sharing the same basic synthesis techniques, had a fairly unique sound. Even within a specific system, sound qualities often varied between batches of sound chips, as happened with the many SID revisions used throughout the production of the Commodore 64.
The term Chip Music has been applied to more recent compositions that attempt to recreate the chiptune sound, albeit with more complex technology. Currently, chip music composers use modern computers to aid them in either composition, recording, or execution of the art form. Modern computers are also used for networking throughout the global chip music "scene". The evolution of the Internet has helped chip musicians connect with each other, share ideas, and create public events. The recent popularity of Creative Commons over Copyright in the chip music scene has also helped many musicians learn and develop their craft through an open source environment. Emulation of the original sound chips has become more prevalent and accepted because of the increasing rarity and fragility of the original video game systems and microcomputers used.
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Generally chiptunes consist of basic waveforms, such as square waves and sawtooth or triangle waves, and basic percussion, often generated from white noise going through an ADSR envelope, low-quality PCM samples, or FM synthesis.
For the above reasons the classic chiptune sound can be recognized from its simple instruments, white noise or low-quality samples used for percussion and heavy use of ultra-fast arpeggios to emulate chords of three or four notes on a single channel (due to hardware limits, several notes must be placed on the same channel).
The earliest precursors to chip music can be found in the early history of computer music. In 1951, the computers CSIRAC and Ferranti Mark 1 were used to perform real-time synthesized digital music in public. One of the earliest commercial computer music albums came from the First Philadelphia Computer Music Festival, held August 25, 1978, as part of the Personal Computing '78 show. The First Philadelphia Computer Music Festival recordings were published by Creative Computing in 1979.
Video game origins
Chiptune music began to appear with the video game music produced during the golden age of video arcade games. An early example was the opening tune in Tomohiro Nishikado's arcade game Gun Fight (1975). The first video game to use a continuous background soundtrack was Tomohiro Nishikado's 1978 release Space Invaders, which had four simple chromatic descending bass notes repeating in a loop, though it was dynamic and interacted with the player, increasing pace as the enemies descended on the player. The first video game to feature continuous melodic background music was Rally-X, an arcade game released by Namco in 1980, featuring a simple tune that repeats continuously during gameplay. It was also one of the earliest games to use a digital-to-analog converter to produce sampled sounds. That same year, the first video game to feature speech synthesis was also released, Sunsoft's shoot 'em up arcade game Stratovox.
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In the late 1970s, the pioneering electronic dance/synthpop group Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) were using computers to produce synthesized music. Some of their early music, including their 1978 self-titled debut album, were sampling sounds from popular arcade games such as Space Invaders and Gun Fight. In addition to incorporating sounds from contemporary video games into their music, the band would later have a major influence on much of the video game and chiptune music produced during the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. Sega's 1982 arcade game Super Locomotive, for example, featured a chiptune cover version of YMO's "Rydeen" (1979); several later computer games also covered the song, such as Trooper Truck (1983) by Rabbit Software as well as Daley Thompson's Decathlon (1984) and Stryker's Run (1986) arranged by Martin Galway. In 1984, former YMO member Haruomi Hosono released an album produced entirely from Namco arcade game samples entitled Video Game Music, an early example of a chiptune record and the first video game music album. The record featured the work of Namco's chiptune composers: Toshio Kai (Pac-Man in 1980), Nobuyuki Ohnogi (Galaga, New Rally-X and Bosconian in 1981, and Pole Position in 1982), and Yuriko Keino (Dig Dug and Xevious in 1982).
Also in the late 1970s, video game consoles and microcomputers started to have integrated circuits with dedicated sound logic. A notable early example is the TIA chip of the Atari VCS (1977) featuring two voices with separate volume and waveform setting. As several microcomputers were marketed with their music and sound capabilities, commercial music software became available for many models. An early example is the Atari Music Composer released in 1980 for the Atari 400/800. These programs were typically simple and easy to use, but very restricted in their capabilities. In order to really take advantage of the sound chips, programming skills were required.
A major advance for chip music was the introduction of frequency modulation synthesis (FM synthesis), first commercially released by Yamaha for their digital synthesizers and FM sound chips, which began appearing in arcade machines from the early 1980s. By 1983, Konami's arcade game Gyruss utilized five synthesis sound chips along with a digital-to-analog converter, which were partly used to create an electronic rendition of J. S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Other arcade game composers utilizing FM synthesis at the time included Konami's Miki Higashino (Gradius, Yie-Ar Kung Fu, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Sega's Hiroshi Kawaguchi (Space Harrier, Hang-On, Out Run).
By the early 1980s, significant improvements to personal computer game music were made possible with the introduction of digital FM synthesis sound. Yamaha began manufacturing FM synth boards for Japanese computers such as the NEC PC-8801 and PC-9801 in the early 1980s, and by the mid-1980s, the PC-8801 and FM-7 had built-in FM sound. This allowed computer game music to have greater complexity than the simplistic beeps from internal speakers. These FM synth boards produced a "warm and pleasant sound" that musicians such as Yuzo Koshiro and Takeshi Abo utilized to produce music that is still highly regarded within the chiptune community. In the early 1980s, Japanese personal computers such as the NEC PC-88 and PC-98 featured audio programming languages such as Music Macro Language (MML) and MIDI interfaces, which were most often used to produce video game music. Fujitsu also released the FM Sound Editor software for the FM-7 in 1985, providing users with a user-friendly interface to create and edit synthesized music.
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The widespread adoption of FM synthesis by consoles would later be one of the major advances of the 16-bit era, by which time 16-bit arcade machines were using multiple FM synthesis chips. A major chiptune composer during this period was Yuzo Koshiro. Despite later advances in audio technology, he would continue to use older PC-8801 hardware to produce chiptune soundtracks for series such as Streets of Rage (1991–1993) and Etrian Odyssey (2007 onwards). His soundtrack to The Revenge of Shinobi (1989) featured house and progressive techno compositions that fused electronic dance music with traditional Japanese music. The soundtrack for Streets of Rage 2 (1992) is considered "revolutionary" and "ahead of its time" for its "blend of swaggering house synths, dirty electro-funk and trancey electronic textures that would feel as comfortable in a nightclub as a video game." For the soundtrack to Streets of Rage 3 (1994), Koshiro created a new composition method called the "Automated Composing System" to produce "fast-beat techno like jungle," resulting in innovative and experimental sounds generated automatically. Koshiro also composed chiptune soundtracks for series such as Dragon Slayer, Ys, Shinobi, and ActRaiser. Another important FM synth composer was the late Ryu Umemoto, who composed chiptune soundtracks for various visual novel and shoot 'em up games.
SID music culture
Named by PC World Magazine as one of computing's most important inventions, the Commodore 64's MOS Technology SID played a major role in chiptune development. By 1985, several Commodore 64 programmers, such as Rob Hubbard, David Whittaker and Martin Galway, were exploring the musical capabilities of the SID chip in order to produce varying and interesting video game music. In the absence of sufficiently advanced music editor software, machine code monitors were typically used for the purpose.
At the same time, several computer hobbyists were taking efforts in "ripping" this music out of the games. The ripped music was spread among hobbyists as stand-alone executables containing one or more pieces of game music, and it was also used as background music in crack intros and demos.
Later on, several demo groups moved to using their own music instead of ripped game music. In 1986, Jeroen "Red" Kimmel studied Rob Hubbard's player routine and used it for original demo songs before writing a routine of his own in 1987. Hobbyists were also writing their own dedicated music editor software, such as Chris Hülsbeck's Soundmonitor which was released as a type-in listing in a 1986 issue of the German C-64 magazine 64'er. The availability of such software made it possible for a wider range of computer users to compose advanced SID music. The 64'er magazine also hosted the earliest known competition for Commodore 64 music in 1986.
These developments in the Commodore 64 culture were reflected by similar developments on other popular microcomputer platforms of the era.
The practice of SID music composition has continued seamlessly until this day in conjunction with the Commodore 64 demoscene. The High Voltage SID Collection, a comprehensive archive of SID music, contains over 40,000 pieces of SID music.
Commodore Amiga (1985), with its wavetable and sample-based sound synthesis, distanced the concept of microcomputer music away from plain chip-synthesized sounds. Amiga tracker music software, beginning from Karsten Obarski's Ultimate Soundtracker (1987), inspired great numbers of computer enthusiasts to create computer music. As an offshoot of the burgeoning tracker music culture, a type of tracker music reminiscent of Commodore 64 SID music was born. This type of music came to be called "chiptunes".
Earliest examples of tracker chiptunes date back to 1989–1990 and are attributed to the demoscene musicians 4-Mat, Baroque, TDK, Turtle and Duz. Tracker chiptunes are based on very short looped waveforms which are modulated by tracker effects such as arpeggio, vibrato, and portamento.
Musicians like Random Voice later included the technique of rapidly repeating series of offset waveforms in order to fully emulate one single SID instrument with trackers.
The small amount of sample data made tracker chiptunes far more space-efficient than most other types of tracker music, which made them appealing to size-limited demoscene demos and crack intros. Tracker chiptunes have also been commonly used in other warez scene executables such as keygens.
Nowadays, the term "chiptune" is also used to cover chip music using actual chip-based synthesis, but some sources, such as the Amiga Music Preservation project, still define a chiptune specifically as a small tracker module.
Steps toward the mainstream music world
The heyday of chiptune music was the 1980s. The earliest commercial chiptune records produced entirely from sampling arcade game sounds have existed since the mid-1980s, an early example being Haruomi Hosono's Video Game Music in 1984. Though entirely chiptune records were uncommon at the time, many mainstream musicians in the pop rock, hip hop and electronic music genres were sampling arcade game sounds and bleeps during the golden age of video arcade games (late 1970s to mid-1980s), as early as Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Computer Game" in 1978. Buckner & Garcia's "Pac-Man Fever" and the album of the same name were major hits in 1982. Arcade game sounds were one of the foundational elements of the electro music genre, which in turn inspired many other electronic dance music genres such as techno and house music, which were sometimes referred to as "bleep music". Space Invaders inspired Player One's "Space Invaders" (1979), which in turn provided the bassline for Jesse Saunders' "On and On" (1984), the first Chicago house track. Warp's record "Testone" (1990) by Sweet Exorcist sampled video game sounds from Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Computer Game" and defined Sheffield's bleep techno scene in the early 1990s.
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After the 1980s, however, chiptune music began declining in popularity. Since then, up until the 2000s, chip music was rarely performed live and the songs were nearly exclusively spread as executable programs and other computer file formats. Some of the earliest examples of record label releases of pure chip music can be found in the late 1990s. Chiptune music began gaining popularity again towards the end of the 1990s. The first electroclash record, I-F's "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" (1997), has been described as "burbling electro in a vocodered homage to Atari-era hi-jinks," particularly Space Invaders. The Beastie Boys outer-space sci-fi themed album Hello Nasty (1998), included, among other potentially influencing tracks, the distinctively video game sound themed original composition track UNITE; garnering mainstream recognition years ahead of the popular video game tune genre and movement. The techno / tech house hit "Kernkraft 400" (1999), often played at sports events worldwide, was based on a chiptune sample from the 1984 Commodore 64 computer game Lazy Jones.
By the mid-2000s, 8-bit chip music began making a comeback in mainstream pop music, when it was used by acts such as Beck (for example, the 2005 song "Girl"), The Killers (for example, the 2004 song "On Top"), and particularly The Postal Service in many of their songs. The low-quality digital MIDI styling of early game music composers such as Hiroshi Miyauchi also began gaining popularity. In 2003, the J-pop girl group Perfume, along with producer Yasutaka Nakata, began producing music combining chiptunes with synthpop and electro house; their breakthrough came in 2007 with Game, which led to other Japanese female artists using a similar electronic style, including Aira Mitsuki, immi, Mizca, SAWA, Saori@destiny, and Sweet Vacation. Electro house producer Deadmau5 in the late 1990s, with a chiptune and demoscene movements-influenced sound. Three self-released compilations Project 56, deadmau5 Circa 1998-2002 and A Little Oblique were finished in 2006.
In 2007, the notable, entirely chiptune album 8-Bit Operators: The Music of Kraftwerk was released on major mainstream label Astralwerks/EMI Records, which included several prominent and noted chipmusicians, including Nanoloop creator Oliver Wittchow, and LittleSoundDJ creator Johan Kotlinski who appears as the artist Role Model. Kraftwerk founding member Ralf Hütter personally selected the tracks. A vinyl 12-inch single version was released on February 24, 2007 as a precursor to the full-length CD, and reached as high as number 17 on the Billboard magazine Hot Dance Singles Sales Chart. In March 2007, the CD release reached as high as number 1 on the CMJ RPM (North American college Electronic) charts. Edinburgh born electronic musician Unicorn Kid has helped further popularize chiptune, especially with the song 'True Love Fantasy' and other songs from the EP 'Tidal Rave' being played on late night radio, including on BBC Radio 1, where he played live on the Festive Festival 2011. In Canada, Eightcubed and Crystal Castles helped the popularity further via the Toronto underground club scene and created a lasting impression with the music video "Heart Invaders" debuting on MuchMusic in 2008  and the blistering single "Alice Practice" hitting 29th on NME "150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years".
During the late 2000s, a new wave of chiptune culture took place, boosted by the release of software such as LittleSoundDJ for the Game Boy. This new culture has much more emphasis on live performances and record releases than the demoscene and tracker culture, of which the new artists are often only distantly aware. In recent years, 8-bit chiptune sounds, or "video game beats", have been used by a number of mainstream pop artists. Examples in the Western world include artists such as Kesha (most notably in "Tik Tok", the best-selling single of 2010), Robyn, Snoop Dogg, Eminem (for example, "Hellbound"), Nelly Furtado, and Timbaland (see Timbaland plagiarism controversy). The influence of video game sounds can also be heard in contemporary British electronica music by artists such as Dizzee Rascal and Kieran Hebden. Grime music in particular samples sawtooth wave sounds from video games which were popular in East London. Dubstep producers have also been influenced by video game chiptunes, particularly the work of Yuzo Koshiro. In 2010, a BBC article stated that the "sights and sounds of old-school games" (naming Frogger and Donkey Kong as examples) are "now becoming a part of mainstream music and culture." Complextro pioneer Porter Robinson has also cited video game sounds as an influence on his style of music. He has also cited the influence of video game sounds, or chiptunes, as an influence on his style of music along with 1980s analog synth music.
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- the MOS Technology SID on the Commodore 64
- the analog-digital hybrid Atari POKEY on the Atari 400/800 and arcade hardware
- Ricoh 2A03 on the Nintendo Entertainment System or Family Computer
- AY-3-8910, or 8912 on Amstrad CPC, Oric 1 and Atmos, Sinclair ZX Spectrum 128 and Atari ST (Yamaha YM2149), Atari Falcon (Yamaha Y3439-F), MSX
- SN76489 on Sega Master System and Sega Game Gear.
- Yamaha YM2608 on NEC's PC-88 and PC-98
- Yamaha YM2612 on Genesis/Mega Drive
- Yamaha YM3812 on IBM PC compatibles
For the MSX several sound upgrades, such as the Konami SCC, the Yamaha YM2413 (MSX-MUSIC) and Yamaha Y8950 (MSX-AUDIO, predecessor of the OPL3) and the OPL4-based Moonsound were released as well, each having its own characteristic chiptune sound.
The Game Boy, like the NES, does not have a separate sound chip but both instead use digital logic integrated on the main CPU.
On the ZX Spectrum 128k models, Amstrad CPC, and Atari ST, chip sounds are synthesised by simply dividing a clock square wave to get a square wave of desired frequency, and then using a sawtooth/triangle wave from volume LFO or an (ADSR) envelope to get some kind of ring modulation. The actual sound generation on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum/Timex series and later badged Amstrad non-CPC version evolved from a variation of the combined oscillator system that made up the tone generation system for the tape/cassette output on the original ZX80/81 series; even in the Spectrum, this slaved oscillator was used to provide the output tones for the tape/cassette output, in contrast to the discrete sound chip based system system used by the Amstrad CPC and Atari ST and a discrete tone generation circuit used for tape/cassette output on the Amstrad CPC series.
The technique of chiptunes with samples synthesized at run time continued to be popular even on machines with full sample playback capability; because the description of an instrument takes much less space than a raw sample, these formats created very small files, and because the parameters of synthesis could be varied over the course of a composition, they could contain deeper musical expression than a purely sample-based format. Also, even with purely sample-based formats, such as the MOD format, chip sounds created by looping very small samples still could take up much less space.
As newer computers stopped using dedicated synthesis chips and began to primarily use sample-based synthesis, more realistic timbres could be recreated, but often at the expense of file size (as with MODs) and potentially without the personality imbued by the limits of the older sound chips.
General MIDI is not considered chiptune as a MIDI file contains no information describing the synthesis of the instruments.
This is an example of a modern-day chiptune track distributed as a stand-alone music file without being a part of a video game soundtrack.
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Modern computers can play a variety of chiptune formats through the use of emulators and platform-specific plugins for media players. Depending on the nature of hardware being emulated, 100% accuracy in software may not be available. The commonly used MOS Technology SID chip, for example, has a multi-mode filter including analog circuits whose characteristics are only mathematically estimated in emulation libraries.
The chip scene is far from dead with "compos" being held, groups releasing music disks and with the cracktro/demo scene. New tracker tools are making chip sounds available to less techy musicians. For example, Little Sound DJ for the Game Boy has an interface designed for use in a live environment and features MIDI synchronization. The NES platform has the MidiNES, a cartridge that turns the system into a full blown hardware MIDI controlled synthesizer. Recently, for the Commodore 64, the Mssiah has been released, which is very similar to the MidiNES, but with greater parameter controls, sequencing, analog drum emulation, and limited sample playback. The Commodore PET has the open-source PetSynth software, which uses the PET's 6522 chip for sound, allows the computer to be played like a piano keyboard, and features many effects. On the DOS platform, Fast Tracker is one of the most famous chiptune makers because of the ability to create hand-drawn samples with the mouse. Chiptune artist Pixelh8 has also designed music software such as Music Tech for the Game Boy and the Pro Performer for the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS which turn both machines into real time synthesizers. A homemade 8-bit synthesizer (incorporated inside an old electronic organ), the Chipophone, has even been built.
In the last couple of years, chip music has returned to modern gaming, either in full chip music style or using chip samples in the music. Games that do this in their soundtrack include Mega Man Battle Network, Reset Generation, Seiklus, Tetris DS, Sonic Rush, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, Super Meat Boy, Bit.Trip Saga, VVVVVV and Super Hexagon. Furthermore, the Electronic Frontier Foundation in December 2010 used a faux 8-bit game with an 8-bit sound track by crashfaster to demonstrate its notable legal achievements for that year.
On March 16, 2012 the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "The Art of Video Games" exhibit opened featuring a chipmusic soundtrack at the entrance by artists 8 Bit Weapon & ComputeHer.8 Bit Weapon also created a track called "The art of Video Games Anthem" for the exhibit as well.
The chiptune scene was the subject of a documentary called Reformat the Planet by 2 Player Productions. This film was an official selection at the 2008 South by Southwest. The premier took place on March 8, 2008 at the Dobie Center.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World features chiptune versions of the Universal sound mark, with a low-resolution pixelated production logo, and of the song "Threshold," performed by Brian LeBarton, during the ending credits.
There have been a number of television segments featuring chiptunes and chip music artists in the past few years. On April 11, 2005, 8 Bit Weapon played their songs "Bombs Away" & "Gameboy Rocker" on G4's Attack of the Show live broadcast Episode #5058.
Br1ght Pr1mate, a Boston-based chiptune band, performed on Fox News on July 10, 2010.
There are a few shows that make use of chiptunes as background music. Some of these include the Nickelodeon TV series Yo Gabba Gabba! and Cartoon Network's shows Adventure Time, The Regular Show and Steven Universe.
Chiptune music is repeatedly featured on episodes of The Engadget Show, often with live performances from chiptune artists, including Bit Shifter, Glomag, Neil Voss, Nullsleep, minusbaby, Zen Albatross, and Kris Keyser.
- Atari Punk Console
- Circuit bending
- Elektron SidStation – Professional synthesizer with a built-in SID chip
- HardSID – A PCI card for modern computers that features from 1 to 4 actual SID chips
- SLAY Radio – Commodore 64 Remixes
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