Revisiting the Chiptune
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN AND, from Mega Man 9 and 10 to Scott PilgriM VS. the World, demakes are the new remakes. The 8-bit canvas and the chiptune soundtrack are going through a nostalgic renaissance, where what once was technical limitation is now quirky fun with a retro flair. For many of the audio professionals working on these titles, this means a return to audio tools that they grew up listening to, tools that were out of date and passé by the time they cut their first loops.
» Without a doubt, the largest number of demakes are done in the seminal style of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Thankfully for those new to chiptune music and sound, the NES and Game Boy have been a favorite of remix artists and electronic acts for years, so a wide variety of options exist when it comes to emulating the sounds of these classic systems.
The first step to understanding chiptune music is to recognize the classic palette that gives it the unique sound a generation of gamers consider the soundtrack to their childhoods. The original NES console had the ability to generate four types of simultaneous audio: two pulse waves, one triangle wave, and a white noise generator. The pulse waves were capable of pitch bend, 16 different volume settings, and a frequency range of essentially A1 to F7. The triangle wave was a fixed volume and had a range essentially from A0 to well beyond the C8 range of a MIDI keyboard. The white noise generator had 16 different volume settings and was the source for all percussion. Complicating matters further, each of these four voices was monophonic.
More than 25 years on from the NES’s debut, there are a vast number of ways to achieve the same sound palette synonymous with classic gaming. These options basically break down into two categories: software and hardware. Perhaps the most common software solution for chiptune music is Propellerhead’s Reason. Whether working within Reason’s own sequencer or via Rewire into your DAW of choice, Reason’s Subtractor Polyphonic Synthesizer is an excellent solution for the pulse wave, triangle wave, and white noise source sounds, and is one of the most popular go-to programs among chiptune enthusiasts. Working with Reason or a similar software-based monophonic synth within a DAW environment means that the technical limitation of only four available voices is removed. Composers and sound designers will need to decide how authentic they want to be and whether they want to stick to the four-voice limit imposed by the old hardware.
Aside from the soft synths common to pro audio production, there are also a number of VST plugins dedicated entirely to chiptune audio production. Tweakbench’s peach is a sample- based NES chiptune tool and one of the most highly regarded for its authentic sound. Additionally, Tweakbench also offers triforce,
a soft synth-based tool, and toad, which is an NES-inspired drum kit. All are free downloads.
Once you have the palette, you’ll need to understand some of the compositional tricks of the trade. Thankfully, the Internet is full of chiptune tutorials, and there are some great instructional videos on YouTube. In particular, check out the “Fake N Bake” chiptune series by Judson “Tettix” Cowan (www. youtube.com/user/cicadacom) or Michael “Skitch” Schiciano’s “Famicom Friday” series (www. youtube.com/user/skitchmusic).
For those looking for a hardcore level of authenticity, there are also hardware solutions for NES chiptune music. The MidiNES is one of those ubiquitous gray NES cartridges with a MIDI cable connected directly
to the circuit board. By inserting the cartridge into an original NES console, it allows for direct MIDI control of the NES hardware. Nanoloop is a German homebrew creation that turns the classic Game Boy into a step sequencer via a specific Nanoloop cartridge. iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch users may be interested in checking out Nanoloop for the iOS.
» The NES isn’t the only game in town though, and chiptune emulation tools exist for a number of other classic platforms. Some of the most popular are those centered on creating music akin to that found on the Commodore 64. basic64 by British software developer de la Mancha is a VST plugin based on
the SID chip from the Commodore 64. Another well-regarded C64 option, Odosynth’s Unknown 64,
is currently unavailable as the Odosynth web site claims to be on a brief hiatus.
For composers looking to emulate the 16-bit sounds of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (or SNES), a fan-driven community of SoundFonts exists. These SoundFonts have been sampled directly from classic SNES games, and each bank tends to be named after the originally sampled source game. Composers and sound designers looking for SNES SoundFonts can find them with names like chrono trigger, legend of Zelda: a link to the PaSt, Secret of Mana, or f-Zero. Each of these SoundFonts will open directly within Kontakt as would any other Kontakt instrument.
The technological options available to composers and sound designers today have made achieving a retro sound a fast and easy process. What now takes only minutes to set up and program can help to create a flood of nostalgia that warps your listeners backwards in time to the blips and bloops of simpler days.