Perfect Sound Forever

8-chip music


by Michael Downes
(April 2009)

8-Bit Peoples Upon entry, the Bell House feels more like an old square dance hall than the infant performance space it is. A sepia-on-wood painting of a buffalo is tacked to the network of crosshatched, rose-finish beams above, and two massive Dutch chandeliers light this modified warehouse. This building was transformed into a performance space only three months ago – renovation photos have been circulating Brooklyn blogs since the summer – but on the afternoon of December 6, any sense of historical continuity had vanished. The music blaring out the loudspeakers was a grainy, head-bludgeoning rush of digital noise; imagine a Switched-On Bach LP playing at 45 rpm. A man was sitting on stage in front of about twenty young people, all male except for a few girlfriends and a young woman knitting a scarf. He had a laptop, a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and an unruly half-beard growing on the left side of his face. On the giant projector screen next to him numbers were falling top to bottom against a dark background like in The Matrix. His name was Baron Knoxburry, he claimed to be a multi-Hutangweeian dimensional time traveler, and he came to explain why the video game systems you collected as a kid should be the core of the recording studio you assemble as you grow up.

This was the site of Blip Festival ‘08, New York City's annual celebration of chiptune music. From December 4-7, artists and fans from around the world gathered to revel in the turbo-tempo, seizure-inducing sights and sounds of hacked video game consoles.

On the third day of festivities, Knoxburry was running a workshop on a piece of music production software called FamiTracker. Ary Warnaar, guitarist and Game Boy programmer for the band Anamanaguchi, explained that these programs are called "vertical sequencers" and are a fundamental composition tool for chiptune artists. Today's PCs will rarely contain anything below a 64-bit processor; FamiTracker was designed to emulate the NES's 8-bit computer. Early Nintendo consoles, Warnaar says, use only five primitive synthesizer modules to generate a game's complete range of music and sound effects: two square waves, one triangle, a noise generator and a complicated sample processing mechanism called the differential pulse code modulator. The falling numbers on screen were actually musical notes manually converted into hexidecimal code, and the sound produced is unlike anything you'd hear from a real synthesizer. The harmonic distortion inherent in 8-bit music makes the sound supernaturally abrasive, and each note attacks like a glitch. Knoxburry's supersonic spaceship music was constructed with the same palette Japanese composers used in the 1980's to build the soundtracks for games like Super Mario Land and The Legend of Zelda, and the overall effect is something that sounds retro, cheap, obnoxious and endearing all at once.

Don't be fooled by the links to kiddiedom though- today's chip music is not fluff. Knoxburry has more in common with electronica guru Aphex Twin than Donkey Kong. He mixes tracks live like a traditional DJ, but instead of expensive synths, samplers and turntables, he's tweaking buttons on an archaic game controller. The direction controls – up, down, left and right – are used to switch between pre-programmed rhythms and melodic patterns. The remaining buttons are often programmed to trigger certain sound effects or harmonies. It's clear that each show requires a tremendous amount of time spent coding beforehand, but during the set there actually might not be much for an artist to do. The members of Anamanaguchi play guitar, bass and drums behind the NES's blips to invigorate their instrumental power pop, and Knoxburry plays a bass guitar to vary the texture of his dark, glitchy music. But many artists will simply pump their fists and jump around to rally audience support.

The problems of using pre-recorded music as part of a performance are not exclusive to chip music – electronic musicians and DJ's often joke about checking email or playing solitaire during a set – but the Blip Festival organizers were prepared for this; instead of fending for themselves, each act shared the stage with an 8-bit video artist. Don Miller, a middle school English teacher with chiptune alias NO CARRIER, ran a workshop on Saturday that covered graphic production. "The other night I saw kids looking over the stage trying to figure out what was going on up there," he said. "It's actually pretty simple." Like the musicians, the visual artists were working within restricted boundaries. An 8-bit system can only store a certain number of pixel blocks, or sprites. That is to say, every frame is not drawn freely by hand; there are only a few images an artist may store in a file. As an example he pulled up Megaman 9, an interactive music/video piece inspired by the game of the same name. "This is a very sophisticated animation," Miller said as a monster sprite hopped up and down in time and Megaman blinked his eyes. There were only two sprites of each character: monster on land, monster in air, Megaman eyes open and Megaman eyes closed. Because there are so few processes going on, an animator has little trouble modifying the video to insert, say, a Megaman heel click here or a monster backflip there. Once again, much of the production must be handled at home before the show, but the simplicity of the process means it's not so hard to dig in and change things.

These folks have struck a preternatural harmony with technology. During the FamiTracker workshop, someone in the audience asked where to go for additional help with the software. Baron Knoxburry responded, "The program was designed by a guy named jsr. I've never met him, but you can usually find him hanging out in the forums on the [FamiTracker] website." The true identity of jsr has been lost somehow; review those forums and it will remain unclear whether this is a man, a woman, or some super-groovy artificial intelligence. He (or she?) left only one clue at the foot of the software homepage; "FamiTracker is made by jsr. I'm not affiliated with Nintendo." But the ambiguity is excused, for this abstract being is a force of benevolence. Jsr fixes bugs and updates versions without pay and without provocation. The person who developed this program, which is a foundation of this community, has no face, name or claim of ownership.

The members of Anamanaguchi are not so content with virtual anonymity. Their music is not about subtlety; it's hard-driving, melodic and accessible pop rock, like Andrew WK pixelated. And so it's not difficult for them to lure in new listeners. They've worked hard to build a high profile web presence, and now they're pushing for more tangible success. Countless hours spent designing pages, constructing videos and working heavy-traffic community sites like and seems to be paying off; the band's up to 400,000 hits on MySpace, and has been interviewed by mtvU and the online gaming magazine N-Sider. Their biggest hurdle is breaking the cycle of passivity among casual audiences who gobble up web content but won't venture to the nightclub. Warnaar explains, "We have a huge online fan base, and they're not at the shows." But Blip Festival attendance has improved. Last year the event packed the Chelsea venue Eyebeam to its maximum capacity of 500 two nights in a row, and this year Warnaar expects the turnout to be even higher.

Though their audience is growing, the band is not pulling a profit. "It's a supportive community," says Warnaar, "Any money is put towards the good of the community. Money in Blip Fest stays in Blip Fest." The biggest cost is flying in performers from Japan, Thailand, Sweden and Singapore. Most headlining acts work outside of music, and the prevailing opinion is that an invited guest shouldn't have to pay to play. Even Anamanaguchi relies on the community chest; their drummer goes to college in Los Angeles, and must fly to the East Coast for every gig.

But the momentum the band generates has other benefits; a slew of supporters have helped to minimize the costs and smooth the production of Dawn Metropolis, the group's forthcoming album. Justin Gerrish, a staff engineer at Avatar Studios who has worked with Mark Ronson, John Mayer and Muse, was so impressed with the young group that he offered to mix the recordings for free. And the album's financier, the Normative Music Company, had engineer Greg Calbi work on the record at Sterling Sound, one of the world's great mastering studios. Normative, a service company that works with artists on a project-by-project basis, has pushed back the release date to run a stronger marketing campaign. Right now, they're poised to become the first act nurtured by the 8-bit community to find success outside that world.

On the final night of Blip Festival, hundreds of fans were in the Bell House, with all eyes locked on the stage. Now the chairs were gone and the lights were down. The lumber had lost its steakhouse luster; instead it caught reflections of the schizophrenic video show. The walls were flashing blue, green and red. On stage, a musician from Singapore named Ikuma had programmed beats modeled after house music, and was singing into a device that turned his vocals into synthetic chords. After the music stopped, he hoisted his NES overhead and shouted, "This thing raised me!" The crowd erupted in cheers.

Between sets, audience members scrutinized the merchandise tables in the lobby. In addition to t-shirts and CD's, vendors were selling floppy disks loaded with digital art and music, strange contraptions to plug electronic keyboards into Sega consoles, and an array of homemade circuit boards. It wasn't particularly crowded, but the excitement among festival-goers was palpable. Many of the forty performers had filtered back into the crowd, and they were mingling with fans. A man who was discussing sound design in Windows Vista with the bouncer mentioned that he had performed on Thursday. Moments later, he was being interviewed by a young man in an NYU sweater with a hard drive voice recorder.

When Anamanaguchi took the stage, the otherworldliness and goofiness of earlier sets evaporated. Peter Berkman spun his arm in a windmill and hit his guitar, letting a huge Pete Townshend chord ring out. "This song is called ‘Helix Nebula,'" he said while hitting a button on his laptop. The arrangement was closer to actual game music than any other Blip musician. Warnaar had explained this before, "Pete learned how to make music from video games." The guitars were playing heavy and distorted power chords, without the NES the band might have sounded like an up-tempo Weezer. But the live instruments sat behind the Nintendo in the mix, and the computer had a tight grip on the performance. There were few variations from track to track, but the instrumentalists knew each song cold.

As the songs progressed it became obvious that older people were making their way out to the lobby, while the teenagers and children were moving closer to the stage. One bearded man left the hall early with a cigarette, leaving behind two young children he seemed to be chaperoning. They were probably brother and sister, standing side by side. Neither could have been older than thirteen. Halfway through "Helix Nebula," the boy started bobbing his head and tapping his foot to the beat. The girl, who was younger, caught wind of it and began to make similar silly motions. They kept up the awkward dancing for the rest of the set.

Even if the phenomenon doesn't hit another growth spurt, there's an excitement here that isn't containable. It's the same thing that was there the first time you sat down with a video game. And it's going to last, in its amorphous glory, waiting to strike at generations to come.

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