Adventures in Chiptunes (Part 4) – Music Software is a Musical Instrument


Recap: For over a year, I’ve been investigating chiptune music.  I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about myself, my music, my creative process and more.  I hope some of this is relevant to you.  Thanks for reading.

Here’s an excerpt of one of my own chiptunes. From Myriad3’s album Tell, it’s Ernesto Cervini’s tune Disturbing Inspiration (Part 1).


I’ll pick up from where I left off in the previous post:

If there was a musician who developed his/her jazz skills exclusively through listening, watching and studying YouTube videos, wouldn’t that be interesting?


It could probably be done, if it hasn’t been done already.  In fact, considering the vast resources available now, I bet they could develop their skills far beyond mine and in a shorter amount of time without attending one live music performance.

There’s magic in live performance.  There’s also magic in a YouTube video.  Whether for our students or for ourselves, the point is figuring out what’s best for finding, optimizing and maintaining flow.  Maybe it’s one, or the other, or both, or neither.

There isn’t only one path to finding flow.  There are as many paths to finding flow as there are students. Flow will elude us if we’re unaware of all the paths available or too narrow-minded to appreciate them.  In this regard, my adventures with chiptunes have humbled me considerably.  There is so much diversity at our fingertips for learning, finding flow and finding our “voice” so to speak.

The next few posts are filled with ideas that were foreign to me before my adventures in chiptunes.  If your education and knowledge of music and jazz are anything like mine, these ideas are probably foreign to you as well.  Maybe they’ll inspire you as they’ve inspired me.

Your Software is Your Instrument

The idea of an “instrument” shouldn’t be restricted to musical instruments.

My laptop is an instrument.  Its software and interfaces are also instruments.  A chiptunes artist’s creative flow is dependent on his physical and perceptive relationships with the instrument. Changing a keyboard shortcut, or redesigning an interface for example, could potentially disrupt that flow, just as adjusting the height of the piano bench could disrupt mine.

Unless you’re skilled at writing assembly language, making your chiptunes requires some kind of sequencing software to organize your music.  Most professionals are probably fluent in multiple programs like ProTools and Logic.  Amateurs may be more familiar with programs like GarageBand.  Some chiptune artists are known for loading sequencing software onto old Gameboys allowing them to use the limitations and capabilities of its music chip.

My experience with sequencers is limited.  So when I sought to create my own chiptunes, I had to go through the process of choosing a program to organize my music.

It occurred to me that I’ve never before chosen an instrument.  I’ve been playing piano for as long as I can remember.  When you don’t already have an attachment to one instrument or the other, the act of deliberately choosing can be daunting.  So many choices!

How do you Choose?

Just try them out!

Choosing sequencing software from scratch is akin to choosing a wind instrument from scratch.  A flute isn’t necessarily better than an oboe or a trumpet.  It just has a different set of capabilities and limitations.  You make a decision based on how you interact physically and perceptively with those parameters.

A player’s physical relationship with a trumpet will be similar and different from his/her relationship with an oboe – a new player will respond positively and negatively to all of these variables.  It’s important to fit square pegs into square holes and choose an instrument that feels most natural and intuitive.

I trialed a number of sequencers including GarageBand, Reaper, Renoise and Ableton Live.  None of them made sense at first, but some made more sense than others. Renoise for example, is part of a class of sequencers called “trackers.”  From what I researched, the development of trackers since the 1980s was connected with the development of chiptunes, so I thought I’d give it a try.

As it turns out, I’m not fit for using trackers.  A tracker’s interface is completely unsuited to how I visualize, perceive and organize music.  Musical events in Renoise are organized vertically and represented with numbers and letters.  In other sequencers, musical events are organized horizontally like a musical score.

I stopped using Renoise immediately.  Its design is probably more suited to the workflow of computer scientists and programmers.  It’s not better or worse than the others, just different.  And interesting!  To realize that some people are fluent in visualizing and organizing music in this way was a humbling shock.  I may experiment with trackers in the future, but I’m not ready for them yet.

The first non-tracking sequencer I tried was Reaper.  All of its capabilities made it equally overwhelming.  So I experimented with GarageBand, which is known for its limitations and ease of use.  This helped me familiarize myself with some basic, common features in sequences and build a foundation.

Eventually, I was ready for something more powerful and somehow I settled on Ableton.  With limited experience, sometimes it’s best to just jump in and get your feet wet.  Before deciding which program is best for your workflow, it’s important to develop a workflow in the first place.

Decisions are Never Final

I’ve been using Ableton for less than a year and I still have much to learn.  I may discover tomorrow that Logic’s MIDI interface is actually better suited for me.  I’m not settled, but I’m happy for now.

It’s important to remember that these decisions are never final.  This is a good thing.  Circumstances are always changing. If you’ve found your voice today, you could still lose it tomorrow.  Preventing this requires us to be constantly reexamining, realigning and updating our skills, biases, instruments and environments.

Drummers, vocalists and instrumentalists often contact me about piano lessons.  They want a fresh perspective.  I admire their diligence.  These kinds of changes, however slight, can be challenging and frustrating.

But it can also be liberating.  A pianist learning to play the drums is freed from the confines of pitch and harmony.  I find it liberating to compose using sequencing software because I’m not confined to the piano and traditional music notation (interfaces often include an interactive grid for notating music).

On a similar note, I don’t expect to be a professional pianist for my entire life.  This can be difficult to admit to myself, but it’s true.  I much prefer going wherever the flow takes me.  It could be liberating to be free from the confines of music and a musician’s life.

It may be a case of trading shackles for shackles, but I prefer to have the option of trading.

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