Adventures in Chiptunes (Part 1) – An Introduction


Before I write about chiptunes, I have two points of introduction.

First of all, check out Kind of Bloop, especially Shnabubula’s version of All Blues, that guy’s a whiz.  This is a good starting point for jazz musicians interested in chiptunes.

Secondly, some news: I recently bought a Nord Stage EX.

This was a big change for me.  I had been a “piano-only” player until I was asked to join a band that required synth.  I became determined to learn about the Nord, especially its synth panel, which, for the inexperienced, looks like spaceship controls.


Learning about synths from scratch, within the capabilities of a new instrument is a complex problem. I became modestly familiar with the Nord’s controls by experimenting, noodling, performing, reading the manual and with some help from Todd Pentney.  I was also trying to imitate sounds I was hearing and spent a lot of time trying to figure out the synth sounds on tunes like Havona.

I was getting better at hearing and emulating those sounds on the Nord, but I still felt I wasn’t building a foundation for using synths. The sounds on tunes like Havona seemed too complex for any fundamental understanding of synths.  I had a vague understanding of how to turn knobs to modify sounds, but I didn’t know the difference between pulse and sawtooth waves.

My attention turned to video game music, particularly from the mid 1980s.  The waveforms are simple, there’s very little modulation and tunes are generally comprised of two or three voices.  Plus, I grew up with this music. I had a Sega Master System as a kid.  This was fun, nostalgic work.

As it turns out, this music was part of the beginnings of chiptunes, a somewhat underground genre of music inspired by the music chips found in computers and consoles from the 1970s through the 1980s.  For whatever reasons, chiptunes resonates with me.  I’ve loaded my iPhone with chiptunes, transcribed multiple music scores from video games, I’ve learned how to hack video games, I’ve learned about assembly language and have written some chiptunes of my own.

Crazy?  Maybe yes, but there’s much to be learned here.  This is what I’ll be writing about.

What are Chiptunes?

From what I’ve learned, the development of chiptunes and its community has its origins in three things.

(Side note: For further reading, I highly recommend this article, “Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes.”  Also check out, probably the oldest and largest chiptune community on the web.)

First are the programmable sound generators, or music chips found in vintage gaming computers and consoles.  These chips could synthesize basic sound waves to produce sound effects and music.  Different PSGs had different capabilities, which contributed to their unique sound (sound effects and music from NES games have a different sound and style than  games for the Sega Master System).

Whatever the differences, the capabilities of PSGs were extremely rigid.  Chiptune composers speak about this often.  Sounds were often limited to one or two sound waves, music had to be limited to two or three voices, and composers had only 5-10 kB of memory to work with (.05% of the 170 kB storage capacity of a floppy disk).  Composers found, and still find many inventive ways to work within these tight structures.  Their solutions contribute to the style and tradition of chiptunes music.

Monty on the Run Excerpt

Another thing that contributed to the development of chiptunes was the development of music trackers.  Obviously, in the early years, composers couldn’t use traditional music notation to communicate with computers.  They had to use an assembly language to convert commands into the binary bits of information that a computer understands.  In the picture to the right, each hexadecimal number corresponds to binary bits of information that commutates instrument, note, duration, effect, etc.

As you can imagine, this made composing and programming music extremely tedious and time consuming.  In response to this, Karsten Obarski released the first known music tracker called Ultimate Soundtracker (1987).  With a tracker’s interface, it was easier for a composer to write video game music without spending hours writing in an assembly language.  Within a few years, clones, updates and improved versions of Ultimate Soundtracker appeared and the specialized knowledge needed to write and program music slowly disappeared.  A whole musical subculture developed around tracking and chiptunes.

Ultimate SoundtrackerIronically though, trackers used samples to synthesize sound waves rather than the programmable sound generators. Although trackers can be partially credited for the proliferation of chiptunes music, they also stretched the meaning of the term, since chiptune music could now be created without using the actual “chips” in the computers and consoles.

The third thing that contributed to the development of chiptunes and the chiptune community was the culture of cracking video games.  Unauthorized versions of games would feature custom-made, multimedia title screens, which included chiptune music.  These displays became increasingly complex as cracking groups formed rivalries, trying to outdo one another with inventiveness and sophistication.  Sounds similar to jazz cutting contests, no?

Eventually, the music became so sophisticated that a composer’s music could stand on its own, without accompanying a cracked game’s title screen.  From Endless Loop:

“In the 1990s, spurred on by big rave-like parties in Europe, online competition, and the explosive growth of international communication via Fidonet and the Internet, tracker music and chiptunes became increasingly independent of their origins as the backgrounds of games and demos.  Musicians and groups released collections of tracker music called musicdisks or musicpacks, complete with artwork, liner notes, and customized players. In 1997, a tracker contest sponsored by the Hornet Archive fielded over 300 entries, and the next year, they estimated that over 500 users participated.”

Stay tuned – More about chiptunes in future posts.


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