Chiptune

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video game music

A chiptune, also known as chip music, is synthesized electronic music often produced with the sound chips of old computers and video game consoles, as well as with other methods such as emulation. In the early 1980s, home computers became cheaper and more accessible; this led to a proliferation of personal computers and gaming consoles that were abandoned as users moved on to the next generation of software, and the hardware to run it. Small groups of artists and musicians continue to use these forgotten computers to produce audio and visual work.

The game technologies that are typically used in chip music production are those produced from the 1980s up until the early to mid 1990s. These systems, including the NEC PC-8801, Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Nintendo Game Boy, were aimed at the domestic consumer market. These systems were unique in that they marked a period in the technological development of game audio in which dedicated hardware sub-systems or sound chips were used to create sound.

It was after this period that video game audio progressed onwards to sample playback and wavetable synthesis techniques, replacing the dedicated sound chip-based techniques that had been used previously to synthesise sounds in real time. Sample playback uses computer memory to store a pre-recorded sound, which may be played back at a fixed or variable pitch, and can be repeated in a continuous loop to extend the duration of a sound without increasing the memory requirements. Low quality sample playback as used in various Amiga machines, and tracking software such as Renoise is still often accepted within chip music communities, depending on the sonic properties and hardware used in composition.

In fact it is arguable that the term ‘chip music’ was originally used in reference to the sample based tracker style of music on the Amiga and similar platforms; however, in its modern form, the terms ‘chip music,’ and ‘chiptune’ refer to music made by the sound chips found within early gaming systems and microcomputers.

Due to the wide range of video game systems available, with different sound chips and processors running them, each system, while sharing the same basic synthesis techniques, had a fairly unique sound. Even within a specific system, sound qualities often varied between batches of sound chips, as happened with the many revisions of the Commodore 64.

Emulation of the original sound chips has become more prevalent and accepted because of the increasing rarity and fragility of the original video game systems and microcomputers used.

The earliest precursors to chip music can be found in the early history of computer music. In 1951, the computers CSIRAC and Ferranti Mark 1 were used to perform real-time synthesized digital music in public. Chiptune music later began to appear with the video game music produced during the golden age of video arcade games. The first game to use a continuous background soundtrack was Taito’s 1978 arcade game ‘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.

The first video game to feature background music was ‘Rally-X,’ an arcade game released by Namco in 1980, featuring a simple tune that repeats continuously during gameplay. It was also the first known game to use a digital-to-analog converter to produce sampled sounds.

In the late 1970s, the pioneering electronic dance/electropop/synthpop group Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) were using computers to produce synthesized music. Some of their early music, including their 1978 self-titled debut album, were sampling sounds from popular arcade games such as ‘Space Invaders.’ In addition to incorporating sounds from contemporary video games into their music, the band would later have a major influence on much of the video game and chiptune music produced during the 8-bit and 16-bit eras.

In 1984, former YMO member Haruomi Hosono released an album produced entirely from Namco arcade game samples entitled ‘Video Game Music,’ an early example of a chiptune record and the first video game music album.

A major advance for chip music was the introduction of frequency modulation synthesis (FM synthesis), first commercially released by Yamaha for their digital synthesizers and FM sound chips, which began appearing in arcade machines from the early 1980s. By 1983, Konami’s arcade game ‘Gyruss’ utilized five synthesis sound chips along with a digital-to-analog converter, which were partly used to create an electronic rendition of J. S. Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor.’

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