An under-the-radar music genre being popularized in big cities such as New York and Philadelphia, chiptune or 8bit music turns video game consoles into instruments.
Once a month, the city’s geeks, nerds, hipsters and obscure-music enthusiasts alike crowd the upstairs of Studio34, an arts and yoga center in West Philadelphia. In the summertime, passersby can hear strangely familiar electronic music blaring from the second story windows.
The audience members are all gathering to listen to a genre of music dubbed “chiptune.” Chiptune music is created on old videogame soundchips that have been modified to create, essentially, inexpensive synthesizers. Artists work in these unique constraints to create music nostalgic of the era in which this “8bit music” dominated video games – a period many college students grew up in. The music transcends its video-game associations to create something different from the highly produced electronica and dance music dominating the genre.
Chiptune style can range from videogame-esque loops heard from artists like Alex Mauer, to hard electronic beats used by artists like Nullsleep. It is influenced by everything from jazz to metal, and musicians can perform chiptune covers of songs by any artist or band that interests them, from Weezer to the Misfits.
The chiptune scene prides itself on its do-it-yourself quality, made possible by the cost-effectiveness of recycling Gameboys, Ataris, Comadors, Sega Genesis consoles and Nintendo Entertainment Systems for synthesizers.
“Instead of going to Sam Ash and buying a $100 Moog synthesizer, I can look through some trash and find an old Gameboy,” said Joey Mariano, a Philadelphia-based musician who performs as Animal Style.
“People make their own instruments,” he said. “There are very DIY aspects to it.”
The self-imposed simplicity and raw musical styles are reminiscent of the punk movement of the late 1970s and ‘80s, which evolved in response to the heavily produced music of the times.
“A lot of people that are in the scene now were in the punk scene 10 years ago,” said Don Miller, who creates visuals that accompany the music at these events, under the pseudonym No Carrier.
“I think it has that same kind of energy and draws that same kind of crowd,” he added.
Chiptune musicians not only use inexpensive instruments to create their sounds, but many strive to make their music affordable – often free – and accessible for fans. In fact, most of the music is available free online.
“I think it’s stupid to sell music today,” Mariano said. “I haven’t sold a CD since 2004.”
Mariano will soon release an album on a Nintendo cartridge, which he calls “the vinyl of chiptune music.”
Chiptune’s fan base is often as diverse as the musical styles that influence it. Since the culture largely surrounds the Internet, its supporters come from all backgrounds and meet on such online forums as 8bitcollective.com. Oftentimes, the makeup of an “8bit” audience will consist of gaming enthusiasts, ravers, electronic and dance listeners, casual listeners and a few interested locals who may have been lured by posters throughout the city.
This diverse crowd has been gathering at Studio34 since Oct. 18, 2008, the date of the very first 8static show, the monthly concert event conceived by local chiptune enthusiasts. It is one of only two monthly chiptune events in the world, the other being New York City’s Pulsewave event, making Philadelphia a hub for this unique scene.
This past Saturday, chiptune artists Animal Style, Glomag and Trash80 played November’s 8static. The event was preceded by a workshop taught by chiptune musicians, intended to help those who might be new to the hardware and software but are interested in making chiptune music.
Abe Rosenthal can be reached at email@example.com.