The Brains And Boxes Behind Blip: Six Video Game Consoles To Use As Instruments, And The Geeks Who Love Them
NYC's annual three-day Blip Festival, which starts tonight, is the world's most important celebration of "chiptune" music, wherein gamers-turned-composers write songs using their favorite ancient video game consoles. Wanna see how the sausage gets made? Let's take a look at the consoles that will serve as the backbones for the festival's music.
Riding high on the success of their popular Pong machines, Atari ushered in a sea change when they released the console that would come to define the early home gaming era for years. The release of the 2600 marked the shift from dedicated one-game arcade-style systems to platforms with removable game cartridges. And then they started licensing the most popular titles from the arcade machines and releasing them for home use, thrilling ravenous fans who couldn't get enough of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. You may find this machine in the hands of cTrix at the tail end of the Friday night lineup, perhaps when he's coughing up the abrasive spurts of his song Triple Pump.
This weekend's champion of this odd Milton Bradley-produced monochromatic box, a platypus of home-entertainment electronics if there ever was one, is longtime 8bitpeoples stalwart minusbaby. Well, maybe also this guy:
This disastrous entry into the video game market was distinguished by its built-in screen--one circa-1982 ad boasted: "Take it anywhere! Just plug it in! It's your own personal arcade!" Nintendo wouldn't release the Game Boy for another seven years, so the Vectrex actually qualified as a portable even though it had all the finesse of a dorm fridge. Minestorm, the Asteroids clone that was built right in for cartridge-free play, always crashed at level 13, making the Vectrex debatably one of the worst consoles of all time (though in Mr. Monopoly's defense, the linked review seems to concern itself mostly with making Valtrex jokes). It did have two major advantages: the built-in handle made disposing of it easier when you eventually decided to move on to an Atari; and its clunkiness makes me feel especially smug about writing all this on a tiny netbook 30-ish years after its release.
OK, seriously though: minusbaby raves about this thing's audio, even if he might have used it more for its graphics chip and his vector artwork than for musical purposes at first. Aussie mad scientist little-scale, who was himself one of the highlights of last year's Blip Festival, is working on developing a new MIDI interface for the console, so maybe we'll hear from it more in the future.
(And speaking of the future: somewhere today a beautiful baby girl was born, and when she gets to be my age she's going to write nasty things like this about the iPad.)
Nothing but love here for Ultrasyd, whose stronger pieces balance chiptune's occasionally comical approach to melodic overindulgence with a maturity that almost seems out of place--and it certainly doesn't hurt that his web site has the most 8-bit audio equipment porn you'll probably ever see in once place, or that he gives his songs titles like "Bouncing Banana" and "Reboot Your Cat". His archives are actually sort of organized according to the systems used in each song, so it's especially easy to track his use of the grimy basslines emitted by the "Colour Personal Computer" introduced in 1984 by the British electronics corporation Amstrad, which has since given up on consumer products entirely to focus on IP and satellite TV devices. The CPC actually used the same sound chip as the Vectrex; make a beeline for the song "&0D4A" if you want to hear it, or better yet, compare the CPC song "Lonely Robot" with the version he released for the Atari ST.
Amstrad founder Alan Sugar, who serves as Donald Trump's counterpart on the UK version of The Apprentice and is referred to by the British press as "Lord Sugar" even though that makes him sound like a sleazy sexagenarian rapper, reportedly said at the time that his primary design goal was just to keep the CPC from looking like "a pregnant calculator." Which it doesn't especially, so perhaps this one now qualifies as a rousing success? Dreams really do come true--as long as you set the bar pretty low to begin with.
The C64 housed the CPU and keyboard in a single case, which hinted at the beige-box days that would come during the 90s. Adjusted for inflation, the $595 you'd have spent for a C64 in 1982 amounts to over $1300 today--more than enough to buy a you a top-shelf modern laptop--yet some of its competitors were still up to twice as expensive. It was appealing as a gaming product because it could plug into your TV and had a huge library of available titles (Bubble Bobble!), but at the end of the day it was still a general-purpose machine that could also be used for more productive ends; all of this made it the most successful home computer of its era.
Today it's also one of the key tools of Barcelona composer Ralp, but his last album was weighed down by a sloppy abstract noise aesthetic that makes almost no sense to me, so instead of trying to coherently explain his whole deal and failing miserably I'm just going to put a bunch of Wingdings here.
This handy little box quickly turned into the Stratocaster of chiptune because it's portable, it's powerful, and it tickles all the nostalgia nerves. The Blip Festival will have so many Game Boy devotees in attendance that trying to direct you to one or two favorites would be magnificently misguided. But newcomer Niamh Houston, a.k.a. Chipzel, is nonetheless notable. Chiptune, much like gaming culture, is more male-dominated than most corners of the music world. (I blame Duke Nukem.) Bubblyfish and The Hunters have both delivered wonderful sets at Blip Festivals past. But this UK teen is always precocious and sometimes downright spectacular, handily slipping subtle rhythmic complexity into the embellishments buried beneath the usual flurries of 16th notes. She's also got the first set of the festival, and you better not miss it. See you at 8 p.m. tonight.
There are two major tools and schools when it comes to Game Boy composition. Little Sound DJ is a "tracker" program that represents notes as concurrent vertical columns of text; Nanoloop creates a small musical grid and sends a flashing cursor flying through it as you tweak small icons representing sound parameters and even draw in your own waveforms with the directional pad. And a quick additional thumbs up for Nanoloop 2, a separate branch just for the newer Game Boy Micro; it somehow packs unbelievably sophisticated filters and oscillators for subtractive synthesis into a gorgeous minimalist greyscale grid, which makes for one of the most soothing and meditative music composition spaces I've yet seen on any platform, bigger dogs like Pro Tools very much included. Nanoloop might actually be the best way for non-chiptune musicians to dip their toes into this world--you can't very well duct-tape a proper keyboard to your acoustic guitar, now can you?
NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
Does this console need an introduction? Can't you already hum the themes from Mario, Zelda, and/or Mega Man? Not to say that those pieces of music should be your lone musical reference points in this case--the Anamanaguchi boys, in particular, have rather insightfully griped to me at length about how phrases like "Mario at a rave" are absolutely dismissive of their music. Consider that one of the most popular ways of musically tapping into the NES is the Wayfar midiNES, a custom cartridge that actually leaves a MIDI cable dangling out of the console's cartridge slot; you can then plug any digital instrument in and use it as a performance controller for the system's built-in sound banks, making the creative potential of the NES essentially endless.
Its ubiquity does, however, bring us to Nullsleep. If you're looking for a Quincy Jones- or Dr. Evil-style kingpin in all this, Jeremiah Johnson is your man, which of course is also why he'll be greeted with especially riotous applause come Saturday night. He was instrumental in starting 8bitpeoples, the NYC-based chiptune collective that still serves as the scene's most important pool of tastemakers even though it's mostly just an online netlabel. He also drove forward the evolution of the art itself, with prolific output and a theoretical grounding via his Columbia degrees in both music and computer science. When on stage, he actually tends to use two Game Boys linked together with a mixer, much like a DJ's turntables. But if chiptune composers were to be magically turned into their consoles, he'd end up as the NES--lovable, awesome, and massively important.
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