A few decades ago, when Commodore, Atari and Nintendo chipsets entered the marketplace, many computer users were underwhelmed by the way these devices reproduced music. The intriguing 8-bit music scene has rendered such ideas moot. In 2007, 8-bit artists are creating very listenable, and at times downright beautiful music using the square-wave based sound generators of decades old devices.
No matter what you call it: bitpop, chiptune, lo-fi, or chipset – the 8 bit scene is here. It’s been covered by major media players from Rolling Stone, to Wired to the Village Voice. Astralwerks has released an album of 8 bit artists performing Kraftwerk tunes, and musicians in the scene play on stages from New York City to San Francisco, from Stockholm, Sweden, to Kobe, Japan.
We hooked up via email with the highly visible 8-bit artist Jeremiah Johnson, the Manhattan-based cofounder ofwww.8bitpeoples.com who records under the name Nullsleep (www.nullsleep.com ), and whose Depeche Mode Megamix is considered by many to be a classic in the 8 bit genre. Johnson’s lo-fi version ofKraftwerk’s “The Model” is a standout on the 8 Bit Operators album, a disc loaded with retro-futuristic renditions of the influential German quartet’s tunes. As if these weren’t credentials enough, Johnson’s documentation manuals on popular (but sometimes arcane) 8 Bit interfaces have guided numerous lo-fineophytes in their collective quest to create chip music of enduring value.
Johnson tells us: “Early on I began using the Nintendo Game Boy and, shortly afterwards, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as my primary means of music production,” he says. “They appealed to me in that the limitations of the hardware posed a significant challenge. In order to compose a song with a substantial sound to it, you had to really get to know the hardware and the software, figure out tricks you could use to play with the listener’s perceptions and generally squeeze the most you could out of these cheap electronics.”
Other machines used by artists in the 8 Bit scene include the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64, and the new Sidstation, a midi sequencer built by Swedish-based Elektron, featuring newly-produced SID 6581 chips (the sound chip used in the previously mentioned C64.)
Equal parts programmer and musician, Johnson put his interest in computer science to good use, messing with any synth, sequencer or tracker he could get his hands on – and through trial and error eventually came up with the Nullsleep sound around 1999. At about the same time, Johnson teamed up with his friend Mike Hanlon to form 8 Bit Peoples.
“The idea was to bring together people interested in pushing the limits of old / disused technologies, such as early videogames and home-computers,” Johnson told me. “We’ve kept things going and grown in ways that I’m really proud of since we initially formed eight years ago.”
A Global Scene
Fueled by the Internet and the collaborations it encourages and a growing number of live shows and festivals (with the recent help of 8 Bit artist Josh Davis aka Bit Shifter), 8 Bit Peoples has grown into a collective featuring dozens of albums by nearly as many artists – with many of their creations available free for download at the 8 Bit Peoples’ website. And though a wide variety of artistic approaches can be found there, from the eclectic sound of Japan’s Kplecraft to the innovative avant-dance sound of Mr. Spastic, all of them incorporate some element of 8 bit technologies into the creative process.
Other artists featured on the site include the fascinating I, Cactus, disco denizens Trash 80, as well as the placid digital sounds of Twilight Electric (created by Johnson’s younger brother, Patrick Johnson). Be sure to listen to music from the “crazy in a good way” Gordon Strombola, the progressive chip-rock of Virt, and the brilliant inventions of the artist known as she.
You might say that the 8 Bit Music scene is another example of how Nintendo handheld devices have helped encourage positive global relations (if you don’t think so, you’ve never watched kids on opposite ends of the planet use their Nintendo DS game systems to exchange Pokemon characters across a wireless connection.) In a global electronic medium, space limitations are non-existent.
Johnson reinforces this point of view.
“It’s turned it into something of a global community, where people band together on projects in order to get them done or help spread the word,” he says. “When you’re operating within a network like this, you have more visibility than you do an individual out there in a vast expanse of other individuals. In my experience, there is also very little ‘ego’ involved in this scene, so people are always eager to help each other out — whether it’s by sharing knowledge on message boards / mailing lists, helping others book shows, or whatever. There are a few major metropolitan areas that sort of have their own local scenes, but in the end this is really a global scene that’s tied together by the Internet.”
Studio Time — Anywhere
8 Bit Music technology democratizes the process of music creation by providing a basic studio setup in a small device that can be used anywhere, bypassing the need for expensive software or studio time.
“I would say the vast majority of people writing chip music don’t really care much about multitracking, nor do they have any need for expensive software like Pro Tools,” Johnson told us. “They write a tune on theGameBoy, plug a stereo cable from its headphone jack into the line-in on their computer and record the song in one go, encode the .wav into an .mp3 and put it on their website. It’s a really quick and dirty process, and I think that’s great. That is more or less my own approach in most instances as well.”
Johnson favors an on-the-fly, handheld style of digital 8 bit music creation, with the Little Sound DJ (LSDJ) for GameBoy being his interface of choice. “I just find it really quick and easy to use at this point,” he says, “partly because I’ve been using it for so long I’m sure, but also because it just has a really well-designed and thought-out interface. It’s also great because I can just throw it in my bag and I’ve got ‘studio time’ on the subway, in the park, during lunch, whenever. Its nice to have a really portable studio.” (For a fairly comprehensive list of available 8-bit interfaces, check out this link .)
Still, Johnson and others like him have no qualms about using high-end audio software, if it suits their artistic needs. “My most recent album was actually multitracked out in Pro Tools with the help fellow chip musician and good friend, Glomag, “he says. “I wanted to try something different and it was a good experience. But overall the character of the sound remains the same no matter how you approach recording.”
The sound typifies the age-old collaboration between man and machine, a machine that in the case of 8-bitimposes limitations encouraging the artist to try new things. “In general the biggest limitation is the polyphony or number of channels you have to work with,” Johnson tells us. “On the GameBoy you’ve got a total of four channels: two of these can only generate pulse waves (variable duty cycle squares), one generates ‘shape-able’ white noise, and one can play back low quality samples or user-drawn waveforms. So you’re very limited in the breadth of instrumentation that you have access to, and in turns you’re forced to dive in really deep in every song that you compose.”
That’s where programming technique comes into the picture, Johnson says. “Interweaving 2 melodies in a single channel isn’t uncommon in order to fatten up a song,” he tells us. “Similarly, playing extremely fast looped arpeggios to simulate chords is also common.” In particular, these looped arpeggios are used by Johnson to beautiful effect in his Depeche Mode Megamix.
As with other art forms, emotions play a large role.“In general I just follow the mood that I’m in and let that come out in the music I’m making,” Johnson says. The songs on Electric Heart Strike span work from a couple years, and encompass a few different sounds and styles. ‘Her Lazer Light Eyes’ and ‘On Target”’ are pretty straightforward synth pop songs, while ‘Destination Tomorrow’ and ‘Dirty ROM Dance Mix’ are a bit more hectic / experimental in nature and ‘Ballistic Picnic’ sort of straddles the line in between. I really don’t make too much of a conscious decision beforehand about what type of song I’m going to start working on, I like to just let it develop naturally and see where it goes.”
Curious? With tons of downloads and a total of seven new 8BitPeoples Releases slated for the remainder of 2007 alone, there’s no reason not to discover this intriguing musical art form. Don’t miss the new compilationIce Cream For 8 Bit – it’s brilliantly delicious!