In the summer of 2019, the musical instrument company Korg released an updated version of its Gadget application for the Nintendo Switch, which includes sound samples from the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive and Taito's arcade synthesizer. The brief announcement on the technology blog Engadget notes that the cost of the app would “be a small price to pay if you want to create chiptune-like compositions without resorting to exotic hardware.”1 Around the same time, a portable playback device was released—the MegaGRRL—that allows users to play old Sega Genesis soundtracks. The primary difference is that the latter boasts the YM2612, the exact sound chip used in the original Genesis console. But whether used for musical creation or simple playback, who cares if the sounds come from emulation or the actual original hardware? To some, it matters a great deal. To understand why, we can turn to Kenneth McAlpine's Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes. McAlpine defines chiptune as “lo-fi electronic music written using, or in the style of, programmable sound generators, typically from 8-bit computing platforms and video game consoles” (280). His monograph is a much-needed exploration of the hardware, software, prominent figures, and cultural phenomena that have defined the chiptune scene over the past fifty years.
Bits and Pieces contains ten chapters, roughly grouped into three main areas of inquiry. Chapters 1–4 explore the history, hardware, and influences of a single computer or console. In chapters 5 and 6, McAlpine redirects our attention to the some of the prominent individuals and methods that exploited and advanced the capabilities of sound chips and chip music. Chapters 7–9 primarily examine the cultural aspects the various chiptune scenes, such as live shows, cover bands, chiptune fandom, and reactions to the evolution of chiptune culture. In the final chapter, McAlpine further examines these scenes by reflecting on the potential future of chiptunes.
Chapter 1 introduces readers to the Atari VCS (Video Computer System) and its Television Interface Adaptor (TIA), which uses “two independent audio circuits … whose output was multiplexed with the display components and sent to the television speakers via a radio frequency modulator” (16). Through a brief historical account of tuning and temperament, McAlpine demonstrates how the 1-bit restrictions of the TIA constrained programmers who were trying to successfully port many of Atari's arcade games into their home systems. This sets up one of the primary themes of the entire book: technical limitations often lead to increased musical innovation. Before Atari's decline in the home console market, the company's recognition of the importance of game music led them to hire composer Ed Bogas (32). McAlpine points out that Bogas's soundtracks “signalled the growing influence of music on video games … and Atari's hiring of an established film composer … points to the beginning of the convergence between video game production and the studio model of movie production” (33). Furthermore, early music programmers like Bogas mark the original generation of “authentic” chiptune composers.
Chapters 2 through 4 essentially follow the same organization as the first. Sinclair Research Ltd's ZX Spectrum, the topic of chapter 2, was limited by a single 22-millimeter “beeper” speaker, “which provided just a single-channel of 1-bit playback across a 10-octave range” (40). Yet by skillfully using compound melodies, granular synthesis (the combining of tiny sound elements or grains), alternations of melody and accompaniment, and manipulation of Spectrum's speaker through pulse width modulation (PWM), programmers were able to develop a wide variety of sounds and soundtracks. Other advancements and experiments with the Spectrum included games with MIDI routines, synchronous soundtracks on cassette tapes, and the introduction of Wham! The Music Box (1985)—one of the early digital audio workstations (DAWs) aimed at a non-specialist public. Sinclair eventually ceased production of the Spectrum line of machines, even though it included updated systems with more powerful audio capabilities.
Chapter 3 is one of the longer chapters of the book, and perhaps rightfully so. McAlpine delves deeply into the Commodore 64 (C64) and its powerful Sound Interface Device, or SID chip, which remains one of the landmark devices used for writing chipmusic today. The not-so-easy programming language for the C64 was both the challenge and charm for Commodore's primary “programmer-musicians,” notably Ben Daglish, Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, and Dave Whittaker (86). They pushed the SID chip to its limits by finding ways to economize the computer's physical memory, which resulted in some of the unique sounds and techniques now deemed foundational to chipmusic.2
After a brief description of Nintendo's history (beginning in 1894), in chapter 4 McAlpine delves into the capabilities of the Nintendo Entertainment System's audio processing unit of its 2A03/2A07 chip3 and offers detailed descriptions of each of its five channels. The highlight of the chapter, however, is clearly the account of Koji Kondo's musical innovations. The young composer differed from his colleagues at other companies: “Rather than pushing the hardware beyond its capabilities, Kondo's approach was to work to its strengths, stripping harmony in particular back to its fundamentals and focusing on getting the most out of just two or three channels, looking instead to the rhythm to create complexity” (121). McAlpine goes on to say that Kondo's greatest innovation “was defining the formal grammar and style of a new form of media music, the interactive game underscore” (123).
The technical jargon employed throughout these initial chapters may either excite or frustrate the reader. At times, the alphabet soup of acronyms tends more toward a hearty stew. Those who possess facility with such technical language—which McAlpine clearly does—should have no difficulty. A more general readership, however, may find themselves constantly flipping back to the page where they first encountered the term PAL (which stands for the phase-alternating line system), or bookmarking the very helpful—though not exhaustive—glossary at the end of the book. The preponderance of these terms certainly does not inhibit the quality of the overall read, however, and the later chapters do not use them nearly as frequently. Collectively, the first four chapters establish a solid historical context for the afterlife of chiptune culture in the decades to follow.
Part of this rise of an independent chipmusic scene was due to the development of soundtrackers, which are “music sequencers that combine sample playback or synthesis for sound generation and pattern-based layout for editing song data” (284). This is the primary topic in chapter 5, in which McAlpine discusses “the notion of interface and how the emergence of soundtrackers in particular changed the way chip music was conceived and written” (7). Although McAlpine examines a number of trackers in the chapter, the real crux is his account of the emergence of the emulators, which begin to divide the chipmusic culture based on authenticity (the use or non-use of original hardware). Chapter 6, “Going Underground,” furthers the story in a thorough account of cracktros (a “cracked intro,” which uses graphics and chipmusic as a program loads), the demoscene, and demo competitions (or “compos”). An additional bifurcation of opposing forces emerges, that of the first generation of computer hackers and their corporate rivals (including the likes of Bill Gates and IBM).
Chapter 7 significantly brings together the ideas of the previous six chapters into a singular focus—the chiptune scene surrounding Nintendo's Game Boy. This hefty chapter may represent the central core of the entire book. A brief but elegant history of handheld gaming devices and their audio capabilities precedes a discussion of the Game Boy, highlighting its appropriation into chiptune development and dissemination. McAlpine brilliantly points out all of the factors that lead to the prominence of the Game Boy, including a convergence of hardware and software advancements, collisions of musical cultures, and new concepts of performativity.
At first, the following two chapters might seem like afterthoughts to chapter 7. They include collections of seemingly unrelated topics, some of which are already mentioned in previous chapters. However, they importantly continue McAlpine's chiptune narrative into the present day. In chapter 8, “Netlabels and Real-World Festivals,” McAlpine explores the rise of online record labels and the various live events that emerged to help propagate the cultural chiptune product. Chapter 9, “Fakebit, Fans, and 8-Bit Covers,” expands on innovations and advancements of the chiptune scene. Fakebit embodies the core conflict between those who believe that the original hardware is necessary to produce chipmusic, and those who have no problems with capturing “the sound of 8-bit but in whose production the original hardware is ditched in favour of DAWs driving emulators, samples, software plugins, and hardware synths” (238). The reader now has an answer to why some individuals prefer original hardware for producing chiptunes. Video services like YouTube and 8-bit cover bands (often dubbed Nintendocore) have caused an explosion of exposure to the chiptune sound. “That sound,” McAlpine concludes in Chapter 10, “is not just the sound of nostalgia … [it] places chiptune on a musical timeline that pulls in influences from video gaming, from film, from television, and from youth culture” (257).
As a whole, Bits and Pieces touches all the necessary bases to portray the rich history of chiptunes. Yet a comprehensive study of the topic is nearly impossible in a single monograph, thus some bits and pieces will inevitably be absent. For instance, readers may pose the question, “What about Sega?” Aside from a few mentions of games or composers, neither the Sega Master System nor the Genesis is given much, if any, attention. Although Sega's run in the home console business ultimately failed, the company was still very much part of the 8-bit history as one of the primary competitors to both Nintendo and the Commodore 64. Some enthusiasts clearly believe that hardware differences between these systems, specifically their sound chips, is significant. As Hackaday contributor Lewin Day writes, “the Sega Genesis took a different path at the end of the videogame chip music era, packing a YM2612 FM synthesis chip to deliver fat basslines and searing solos … The sound capabilities of the YM2612 are of an entirely different character to most chiptunes.”4 Clearly, McAlpine could not cover every gaming system and its sound chips, but the book falls victim to a widespread problem in game music studies: a Nintendo bias.
One of the main strengths of Bits and Pieces comes from seamless integration of a variety of interviews. McAlpine himself conducted many of these interviews, which include a number of pioneers and leaders of the chiptune scene. Coupled with occasional references to his own experiences, he provides a firsthand connection to nearly every topic throughout the book. This creates an intimacy for the reader, both with McAlpine and with the topics he explores. McAlpine acknowledges that this book amounts to a “very personal story” (260), but it is a story in which he invites the readers to be a part, thus creating a partnered journey through the vibrant and living history of chiptunes.
McAlpine's adroit navigation of the development and evolution of chipmusic over the past half century establishes a method of inquiry that future game music research would do well to heed: an intimate partnering of technical knowledge and cultural context. Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes exemplifies the ever-expanding scholarship of the field and will establish itself as a foundational text for chiptune research, to which all others should refer.
Jon Fingas, “Korg's Music-Making Switch App Offers Genesis and Taito Game Sounds,” Engadget, July 6, 2019, https://www.engadget.com/2019/07/06/korg-gadget-switch-adds-genesis-taito-sounds/.
These include a bouncing bassline, similar to 1980s synth-pop (83), minimalistic techniques similar to Terry Riley and Philip Glass (97), arpeggiated chords (100), and digital sampling (101).
The 2A03 CPU was used in the Japanese and North American markets, while the 2A07 was used primarily in the European market (108).
Lewin Day, “A Genesis Inspired Synthesizer That Has Nothing to Do with Phil Collins,” Hackday, January 25, 2019, https://hackaday.com/2019/01/25/a-genesis-inspired-synthesizer-that-has-nothing-to-do-with-phil-collins/.