Thursday, August 7, 2008

Hot Chips [published August 7th in NASHVILLE SCENE]

I was 7 years old when Nintendo unleashed a gadget that would hook me and every kid I knew with an addiction that would last some of us the rest of our lives. Video games were soon all we cared about. Every afternoon after school was a race to see how many levels we could beat before dinner. There wasn't anything we didn't love about the Nintendo Entertainment System, but the one thing I don't recall really giving much of a damn about was the dinky, blippy music that came out of it.

It was nothing to like or dislike. It served its purpose, but it wasn't real music. The songs and sounds were nothing we thought about when we weren't playing for hours on end. At the end of the day, we'd still turn to the Fresh Prince when it was time to rock out. And this was pretty much the prevailing attitude toward video game music for the next 10 to 15 years—that is, until game discs became advanced enough to hold prerecorded music. Then, not only did games feature strings that actually sounded like strings, but you could listen to Bad Religion while playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. These days, narrative-style games are being scored by big-time composers, and games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are built entirely on using popular radio hits as their focus.

But wait...what about all that old 8-bit, glitchy, esoteric, overtly synthetic-sounding stuff from the '80s? A sizable underground movement of composers, hackers and DIY musicians is cracking open old Ataris, Segas and Nintendos, converting them into fully programmable synthesizers and building a blossoming subgenre of electronic music that sounds identical to the 8-bit soundtracks of yore. Video Game Music (or VGM) isn't just what you have to listen to while hunting ducks with a plastic gun anymore. It's being released and distributed everywhere you can imagine on CD, MP3 and cassette by bedroom-based indie artists and labels. People are listening to it in cars and on headphones—not just out of the TV.

The term "chiptune" or "chip music" refers specifically to music where sounds are made by synths rigged from video game console sound chips. Those not mechanically inclined enough to mod out their old Game Boys and Commodore 64s, however, can still find plug-ins and software and make authentic-sounding stuff on their computers. Musically, chiptune sounds exactly as you may remember: Percussive stabs and puffs of filtered white noise provide the beat while echoey blips and boinky bass provide the rhythm and melody.

One proponent of chiptune is Chicago's William Sides, who's been releasing video game music on his label No Sides Records since 2005. His band, William Sides Atari Party, is comprised of just himself, a pimped-out Atari 7800, modified synthesizers and various other electronic noisemakers. Sides is touring the South and Midwest with fellow VGM artist Ian Henningson, who plays under the moniker Giveupnewyork. Hennsington's tunes are composed and performed entirely using the Nanoloop program—a cartridge that plugs right into an old Game Boy system, providing an interface that lets the user access all the sounds contained inside and sequence them into their own compositions. The two are slowly making their way out of basements and VFW halls and into proper music venues.

Sides' love of 8-bit music dates back to when he played the Mega Man games as a kid, but he says there's no way nostalgia accounts for more than a fraction of its general appeal. "It's kind of odd because I see a lot of young kids into it, but I don't think they care about the history of the genre or anything," he says. Then again, why wouldn't youngsters gravitate to the most simple, obnoxious sounds available, created on an instrument they built themselves?

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