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MOS 6581 and 8580 Commodore 64 SID chips

A chiptune, or chip music, is music written in sound formats where all the sounds are synthesized in realtime by a computer or video game console sound chip, instead of using sample-based synthesis. The "golden age" of chiptunes was the mid 1980s to early 1990s, when such sound chips were the most common method for creating music on computers. Chiptunes are closely related to video game music, which often featured chiptunes out of necessity. The term has also been recently applied to more recent compositions that attempt to recreate the chiptune sound for purely aesthetic reasons, albeit with more complex technology.

Early computer sound chips had only simple tone and noise generators with few channels, imposing limitations on both the complexity of the sounds they could produce and the number of notes that could be played at once. In their desire to create a more complex arrangement than what the medium apparently allowed, composers developed creative approaches when developing their own electronic sounds and scores, employing a diversity of both methods of sound synthesis, such as pulse width modulation and wavetable synthesis, and compositional techniques, such as a liberal use of arpeggiation. The resultant chiptunes sometimes seem harsh or squeaky to the unaccustomed listener.


[edit] Technology

Historically, the chips used were sound chips such as:

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 does not have a separate sound chip but both instead use digital logic integrated on the main CPU.

Paula is known as the sound chip on Amiga, but is not really a sound generating chip by itself. It is only responsible for DMA'ing samples from RAM to the audio output, similar to the function of modern day sound cards.

Most of (but not all) chip sounds are synthesised by simply dividing a clock square wave to get a square wave of desired frequency, and sometimes using a sawtooth/triangle wave from volume LFO or an (ADSR) envelope to get some kind of ring modulation. LFOs are used to control or influence a sound parameter such as pitch or filters in a repeating cycle.

The technique of chiptunes with samples synthesized at runtime 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 limitations of the older sound chips.

The standard MIDI file format, together with the General MIDI instrument set, describes only what notes are played on what instruments. General MIDI is not considered chiptune as a MIDI file contains no information describing the synthesis of the instruments.

Common file formats used to compose and play chiptunes are the SID, YM, SNDH, MOD, XM, several Adlib based file formats and numerous exotic Amiga file formats.

[edit] Style

Generally chip tunes consist of basic waveforms, such as sine waves, square waves and sawtooth or triangle waves, and basic percussion, often generated from white noise going through an ADSR envelope–controlled synthesizer.

For the above reasons the classic chiptune 8-bit sound can be recognised from its synthesised square or pulse wave instruments, simple white noise percussion and heavy use of ultra-fast arpeggios to emulate chords of three or four notes on a single channel (due to hardware limitations, several notes must be placed on the same channel).

Demoscene intros came to feature their own particular style of chiptune music. Although chiptune could historically refer to any style of music, the term is mostly used today to refer to the style of music used in these intros, since other styles of music have moved on to more sophisticated technology.

More recent "old school" or "demostyle" MOD music, although sample-based, continues the style of the chiptunes used in these intros; new compositions in this style can still be regularly found at (new chiptunes from old computers/formats can be found here as well).

[edit] Today

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 Nintendo 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. 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[1] for the Nintendo Game Boy and the Pro Performer[2] for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS which turn both machines into real time synthesizers.

Contemporary interest in chipping has also led to numerous web sites dedicated to the history of music groups, artists, and antique platforms.

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, Seiklus, and Tetris DS.

Chiptune music is relatively unknown in North America, and most of the chiptune artists are European, Australian or Japanese. Due to Myspace, chiptune artists have gained some notoriety. There has however been a small amount of artists coming out of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

A notable chiptune artist today is 8 Bit Weapon, who has completed chiptune music projects for Disney, Cartoon Network (Europe), Crystal Castles, Microsoft, Nokia, Kraftwerk, Information Society, Erasure and has even appeared live on national television via G4TV's Attack of the Show.

The June 2008 issue of Paste Magazine has an article on chiptune artist Jeremiah "Nullsleep" Johnson, and the included sampler CD features chiptune song "Local Hero" by Crazy Q.

[edit] UK Chiptune music

Another contemporary UK chiptune artist is Pixelh8, who has performed for Apple Inc. iTunes and BBC Radio 1 at the Maida Vale Studios and has designed chiptune software for the likes of Imogen Heap and Damon Albarn.

January 23, 2009 The National Museum of Computing released a press statement [3] saying that Pixelh8 would be composing and performing an entirely new piece of music for the museum, using some of the "earliest and rarest" machines such as Colossus computer and the Elliott 803 entitled "Obsolete?".

Skam records Team Doyobi are often cited as originators or godfathers of the UK chip tune scene due to their early use of obsolete computers as serious musical instruments taking the sound away from the demo scene and presenting it to techno/IDM audiences. Their compositional techniques exploit the sound and synthesis of the machines themselves and not their use as sequencers for external hardware devices. Their early releases were entirely created using Commodore sound chips with no use of MIDI, synthesizers or other musical hardware.

[edit] Film

The chiptune scene was recently the subject of a documentary called Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet by 2 Player Productions[1]. This film was an official selection at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.[2] The Premier took place on March 8, 2008 at the Dobie Center.

[edit] Representative artists and ensembles

[edit] Classic chiptune composers

[edit] Media

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

[edit] Further reading

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