Chiptune (also known as chip music or chip style) is a style of music heavily derived from the sound capabilities of early video game consoles (typically Nintendo Entertainment System, or Game Boy) and home computers (typically NEC PC-88 and Commodore 64). The scene rose in popularity as years went on, with the help of newer programs to synthesize with, as well as the rise of underground chiptune festivals.
Computer synthesized music has been around for a long time. As early as 1951 saw public performance of computer generated music, but the chiptune scene was much more heavily inspired by the culture of the 1980s. Chiptune rose out of the styles of punk and especially electronica, characterized by its unconventional nature and sound.
Video Game Origins
The earliest examples of video game chiptunes date back to the late 1970s. An early example was the opening tune in Tomohiro Nishikado's arcade game Gun Fight in 1975. The first video game to use a continuous background soundtrack was Tomohiro Nishikado's 1978 arcade hit 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. Both Gun Fight and Space Invaders were the first games to be sampled in pop music, in the 1978 Japanese electro-pop hit "Computer Game" by Yellow Magic Orchestra (Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi), a band that would in turn have a strong influence on the emerging chiptune scene.
The first video games to feature continuous background chiptune music were Shigeru Miyamoto's Sheriff in 1979 and Namco's Rally-X in 1980, which featured simple tunes that repeat continuously during gameplay. Rally-X was also the first known game to use a digital-to-analog converter to produce sampled sounds. That same year, the opening tune to Namco's Pac-Man became widely known to worldwide audiences, and was sampled in the 1982 American rock hit "Pac-Man Fever" by Buckner & Garcia in 1982.
The earliest known example of chiptunes on home systems was the Atari Music Composer on the Atari 400/800, which allowed users to program their own music using the computer's capabilities (and limitations). The introduction of Yamaha's FM synthesis sound in the early 1980s allowed the creation of more sophisticated chiptune music in both the arcades and on Japanese home computers such as NEC's PC-88 and PC-98 platforms, which developed its own independent chiptune scene that gave rise to famous video game music composers such as Yuzo Koshiro, Nobuo Uematsu, Mieko Ishikawa, and Ryu Umemoto.
SID Music and the Crack/Demo Scene
Chiptunes really began developing into a subculture with the Commodore 64. The SID chips (MOS 6581 and 8580) played a large part in the advent of chiptune music upon its release. There weren't any programs to modify these chips to produce certain sounds, so early chiptune artists used machine code monitors in order to code them. Due to this, it was difficult to transfer the music from the sound chip onto another medium. Some musicians managed to rip music as standalone executables, and this caused it to play a large part in the crack and demos scene (where SID music was used for intros to game cracks and background music for demos).
Modifying SID chips to play sounds would have to be done through hexadecimal, where each string of values represents a separate sound for the chip to produce (containing information on pitch, waveform, filter, length, etc). Rob Hubbard, a prominent developer for the Commodore 64, described how he would be jumping back and forth between a hex editor and listening to the results, a much more tedious picture of chiptune composition than modern day chiptune programs.
Some crack groups delved into creating their own music, instead of using the standalone executables. Jeroen Kimmel was an early chiptune artist known for his crack and demo introductions. In addition, some early chiptune artists were featured in popular Commodore 64 magazines. Chris Hülsbeck was featured in the European 64'er magazine, due to his program Soundmonitor, which allowed users to develop chiptunes much easier. This same magazine later hosted a Commodore 64 music contest; one of the first.
The next Commodore computer, the Amiga, also played a large part in the chiptune scene, due to its sample based nature. Trackers (which allowed users to organize notes and loops) such as The Ultimate Soundtracker (created by Karsten Obarski) made development of more complex chiptunes easier, and many early chiptune artists began with the Amiga, some of which are still active today (such as 4mat and Baroque). This soundtracker created a graphical representation of the sounds being coded, requiring far less programming knowledge to use. This was also the time when the name chiptune began to be actively used. Like the Commodore 64, the Amiga's tracker chiptunes were commonly used in the warez scene. The Amiga (as well as most Tracker software) was capable of producing more complex sounds than the basic waveforms that is characteristic for chiptunes, given enough storage it could handle close to CD quality sound, but chiptunes remained popular due to their small size (a full song could fit in 1kB, compared to the hundreds of kilobytes, sometimes over a megabyte that tracker music with digitized samples could use).
Characteristics of a Chiptune
As a point of clarification, there is a difference between true chiptune and chip style. Chiptunes legitimately use the hardware of older computers, as well as the limitations and benefits, while chip style uses emulated sounds, which may be accompanied by other instruments, post-processing, modification, etc. Chip style has become more prevalent as time has passed, but there is still support for true chiptune, with programs like LittleSoundDJ.
The most commonly used "instruments" of chiptune music are the sound chips themselves, trackers, and synthesizers. Originally, the term chiptune was used to describe the sample playback of the Commodore Amiga, but has changed into a descriptor for any music created from early video game consoles and computers.
Chip music is commonly characterized by sine, square, sawtooth, or triangle waves. The limitations of early sound chips causes chiptunes to typically be much more fast-paced, with quick sweeping arpeggios. The limited channels made it difficult to create chords, so these are emulated by placing multiple sounds on one channel. Percussion is often simulated by white noise, or low-quality samples.
True chiptunes utilize the sound chips themselves. Common sound chips are the MOS Technology SID (Commodore 64), Ricoh 2A03 (NES), and AY-3-8910 (Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, MSX, ZX Spectrum). The Game Boy, widely used for chiptunes, doesn't actually have a dedicated sound chip, but uses digital logic integrated in the Game Boy's central processor. Chiptune artists manipulate the capabilities of these chips to produce waves, samples (typically synthesized), white noise, etc.
In the past, there have been numerous file formats associated with chiptunes themselves (although nowadays the majority of chiptunes are distributed in MP3 format). These include SID (which contains data allowing replay on an actual SID chip), XM (a file used by several tracker programs), MOD (first used by The Ultimate Soundtracker), dedicated Amiga formats, SNDH (used primarily by the Atari ST), and several more. Occasionally, these formats are still used, but not as widely as other popular formats (MP3, WAV, etc). Chiptunes were rarely ever distributed in MIDI format, due to the fact that MIDI does not store instrument synthesis information.
Modern Day Chip Music
The 21st century has seen large developments in the chiptune world. The widely used LittleSoundDJ (or LSDJ), a custom cartridge for the original Game Boy which allows musicians to take direct advantage of the Game Boy's sound chip, was released in the early 2000s, and is commonly used in live performances of chiptune pieces. A similar application, Nanoloop, appeared in 1998, but LSDJ has more capabilities. The widespread usage of emulators, plugins, and modified hardware has made it much easier to develop chiptunes than the 1980s and 1990s, causing an exponential growth in popularity.
Other software exists for other platforms. On the NES, there is the MidiNES, a cartridge which transforms the system into a synthesizer. The Commodore 64 has Mssiah, another MIDI synthesizer. Some chiptune artists even use commercially available products like Korg DS-10 to create faux-chiptune songs, although that is not as widely used. In general, modern software and hardware modifications are used to create live performances.
Chiptunes have been more common in mainstream culture in recent years. An hour long documentary focusing around chiptunes was released in 2008 by 2 Player Productions, detailing artists such as Nullsleep, glomag, Bubblyfish, and Bit Shifter. Reformat the Planet was centered around the emergence of chiptunes as a subculture, specifically the growth of the yearly Blip Festival.
There have been performances of chiptunes in television and film. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World featured several chiptune songs, composed by Brian LeBarton. One of the first live performances of chiptunes took place in 2005, when 8 Bit Weapon came on Attack of the Show to play two of their songs (Game Boy Rocker and Bombs Away). Other artists have had television performances as well, such as Br1ght Pr1mate (on Fox News), Dot.AY (on an Australian television series titled Good Game), and on Engadget (a variety of artists).
The internet has played a large role in the growth of chiptunes. 8bitpeoples, a record label started by Nullsleep, releases chiptune albums for free download online, and occasionally releases paid hard copy albums. 8bitpeoples has released numerous well-known chiptune albums, from artists such as Anamanaguchi, Sabrepulse, Nullsleep, Random, she, glomag, Bit Shifter, and many more.
Bandcamp is another popular venue for distributing chip music (as well as a variety of other types of music). Here, artists are given the majority of the profits from their music, which is a large draw for independent musicians. Many chiptune musicians can be found on here, such as Infinity Shred, Disasterpeace, Souleye, and Electric Children.
Chip Style in Video Games
Chiptunes have been featured prominently in video games in recent years, especially among independent and retro styled games. Anamanaguchi, a chiptune group which employs the usage of a hacked NES in combination with electric instruments, was the composer for 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game. Games like VVVVVV and Dark Void Zero are also prominent examples of chiptune usage in modern video games, hearkening to the retro style of the NES.
As a movement characterized by retro sounds, chiptunes are most often used in faux-retro or retro styled games, such as Mega Man 9, Mega Man 10, Tetris DS, Cave Story, the BIT.TRIP series, and Retro City Rampage.