Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Thursday, July 30, 2009

10:05:51 pm , 1199 words, 2916 views     Categories: Animation, Music, Music Video

Chiptune

Something I've always liked in animation is the notion of restrictions. Animation itself seems to impose certain inherent restrictions. Sometimes, more interesting results can be achieved when a set of restrictions are imposed. For example, the way Norman McLaren made a film entirely out of vertical lines scrolling back and forth. (AND one with just horizontal lines) Another example is Kiyoshi Nishimoto's Laughing Moon (2000), in which an entire short film is made by creative reconfiguration of a set of 12 blocks. I haven't been able to find the latter online, but it is available on a DVD from the British Animation Awards. I think having some sort of restriction maybe forces you to be more creative with the available materials, and also focuses the viewer's attention on that creativity by eliminating distractions. Pixel Film by Garth+Ginny is a cute, fun example of this. I like how they've managed to make an appealing film using (presumably) only 50x50 pixels. The material being restricted here is the information resolution. What's the smallest resolution at which a compelling film could be made?

This film is part of a wave of creative work being done in the 8-bit and 16-bit format, both in graphics and music. Stemming partly from nostalgia for the early video game culture of the Atari, Nintendo and other game systems of my youth, people all over the world today are using retro video game equipment to make videos and music, and making it available online for free in user communities like the 8-Bit Collective, which is one of the most vibrant user-driven artist communities I've run across. They are creating art that deliberately embraces the limitations imposed by antiquated technology. To some (including me), a significant part of the appeal of this music is nostalgia for the familiar clipped and pure sounds created by the microchips in these old technologies. Many of the creators active in the genre are too young to have experienced all that as kids, though. For them, and, I believe, most of the great artists working in the genre, called chiptune, it's more than that. Everyone is different, so the motivation of the people making the music is as varied as the music is, but I think one of the fundamental appeals of using retro equipment like this is the creative challenge of restriction; of having to use a limited range of channels and sounds to create a compelling piece of music. That, and the empowerment of appropriating a technology and re-visioning it towards your own creative ends.

I myself had of course heard a lot of chiptune music in my youth without realizing it, and have fond memories of those games and their soundtracks that transported me to faraway lands. Today's chiptune is a direct extension of the music of these games in sound, spirit and execution. There are a huge number of artists active, some of whom are of very high caliber. Even the stuff of lesser caliber is usually always enjoyable. There's something about the crisp, precise chiptune sound that makes the music always fresh and lively. The music itself is extremely varied, since we're talking about a method here and not a style(?). Some of it is peppy and melodic, some has a driving electro beat, some has fast complex rhythms, some constantly changing, some is a symphonic landscape. If you liked the music of Omodaka's Kokiriko Bushi, you might like to listen to some more chiptune. Omodaka is definitely near the top of the pile, but the chiptune community is huge and has many great artists, and it's constantly evolving. It feels like a music that's really fresh and in its prime.

I've become kind of scary-obsessed with the stuff ever since I discovered it through the music of Chinese chiptuner sulumi, two of whose albums I found in a music store in Beijing one year ago. To convey the extent of my scary-obsession, and hopefully spread the infection to others, I shall confer some of my acquired wisdom. Here are a few good places to start for anyone who likes this stuff and wants to hear more.

♦ Compilations: The Crunchy Records Compilation, 8-bit collective compilation and Sea of Ice are a great place to start to get an overview of the genre by some of its best artists.

♦ Net labels: 8bitpeoples and II (Pause) have a back-catalog of great albums by chiptunes' best and are regularly updated.

♦ Albums: Shnabubula's Controller 1 was the revelation of my chiptuned life.

♦ Some 8bc artists: PDF Format, Blitz Lunar, Henryhomesweet, Zabutom

♦ Artists:

    ◊ Shnabubula creates thrilling virtuoso pieces that are whirlwinds of inventive melody and rhythm. Shnabubula is possibly the most musically gifted chiptune artist I've heard. Check out his keyboard chops. ◊ Disasterpeace is the chiptune artist who elevated chiptune to art with his epic musical canvases where the rhythm and melody are constantly evolving. The label he founded, II (Pause Music), is taking chiptune to the next level. (8bc account) ◊ Little-Scale is undoubtedly one of the true geniuses of chiptune, taking an intellectual approach to the creation of music by delving into algorithm-controlled music-creation and hacking the old technologies in intriguing ways to come up with new sounds. (Music, Blog) ◊ Goto80 is one of the mainstays of the chiptune community, a wildly prolific artist who is constantly putting out every manner of sonic exploration. His albums and songs are a bit hard to find because they're all over the place, but he is an incredible artist who creates music that is truly alive in its experimentation. (Blog) ◊ Aleksi Eeben is the iconoclast of online electronic music. I don't know if he qualifies as true chiptune, but he is too interesting to leave out. He creates music with a melodic sensibility that is like nothing else out there. He may not be for everybody, but he is a true original and I never tire of listening to his music. (all six of his albums for free download)

♦ Songs:

    Shnabubula: Dueling ConsolesFighter X: HypergiantWiklund: Fantasy FlightVenn & Euler: Wagering LightsDisasterpeace: Death Satellite EvasionRabato: Ass SlapPDF Format: Walrus ReportMalmen: Chips DoodlesZabutom: Retardation!Goto80: MidivsimperialGrandma: Strawberry Rhubarb OppaiSyphus: PeskimoSulumi: Trembling Stars

A documentary on chiptune came out recently entitled Reformat the Planet, and right now I'm really hoping it will be coming to this year's Vancouver International Film Festival two months from now.

To close on a more OT note, I've been on the lookout for good chiptune music videos for months now, but I have yet to find one that is a true standout as a music video besides Omodaka's Kokiriko Bushi. The promo video for Saitone's Overlapping Spiral is one of the more decent ones I've found, while the video for
Goto80's Polycanyon is representative of the trend in the chiptune community to use 8-bit graphics to provide the video accompaniment to their music. Otherwise, I've found that most of the chiptune videos, like the one for Meneo's Papi, tend to be amusing but not that compelling as music videos.

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6 comments

Happosai
Happosai [Visitor]  

You might like to check out Japanese band YMCK – chiptune sounds with girly vocals. Plus their videos are done in a 16 bit video game style.

07/30/09 @ 22:19
Ben [Member]  

Good recommendation! I don’t like singing in my chiptune, but I agree that their videos are well made and fun and catchy.

08/03/09 @ 17:55
huw_m
huw_m [Member]

(hooray, it works!)

I think one really important aspect of being creative and generating new ideas is limiting the scope of your perceptions so that you can focus on generating new relationships between things. People can only think of so many things at once, after all, so we do much better when restricted…Your post made me think of this article by the brilliant illustrator Christoph Niemann http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/02/i-lego-ny/

That chiptune stuff is great. I had no idea there was such a huge scene. The only thing I could contribute in regards to that kinda stuff is http://hp.vector.co.jp/authors/VA022293/ - Pixel - The dude who singlehandedly made the amazing game Cave Story - He made a nice little app called PXTONE to make the music with. It’s all incredibly catchy stuff. Although chiptune in general doesn’t grab me nostalgically *quite* as much as I imagine it does you, because I’m a bit young for that generation of games. My nostalgic *ahem*…fixation…is crappy 32-bit hypercolour Japanese polygonal graphics instead ( ゚∀ ゚) …

08/17/09 @ 00:52
Ben [Member]  

I apologize on behalf of my prudish blog software…

I like your further comment on this idea. Actually, part of my reason for going to such lengths to so verbosely describe animation the way I do is just what you say - it forces me to form new relationship between things, in this case taking animation concepts and finding verbal equivalents that help me make sense of what I’m seeing. Paring things down to words has been a helpful learning tool for me.

Glad you liked the chiptune. That’s the magic of the internet. It’s given voice to so many sub-sub-subcultures. And I think the best of it speaks to anybody, not just grown-up 8-bit dorks like me. The blogger at Ogiue Maniax made a nice post on this subject recently.

Funny you should mention Cave Story… I’ve been playing that over the last two weeks. Very fun. It nails the essence of these games. Another nice game in the same vein is Knytt Stories, with its many user-made levels.

08/18/09 @ 18:26
Bitpop
Bitpop [Visitor]  

I love chiptune and bitpop. If you like this kind of thing you should check out the likes of “8bit Betty", “8bit Weapon” and “She". Some great little gems there!

08/19/09 @ 07:03
99
99 [Visitor]  

i’d like to recommend artist Mr Spastic, specially his last album ‘Claps & Leads’
You can find him in 8bitpeoples if you haven’t already

11/23/09 @ 12:32