Limitations can often spark creativity. When an artist is given a blank canvas, the endless possibilities can be overwhelming. Only when the artist decides the paint, image, and brushes to use does creativity really kick in.
This is the same for 8-bit music.
8-bit or Chiptune music is a genre consisting of and deriving from the video game soundtracks for retro gaming systems. While it’s easy to dismiss this genre as an out-dated and obsolete form of music, the composers and musicians that keep this style alive show notable ingenuity even.
Because of the limitations of space and capability of the consoles and game cartridges of that era, the sounds available for music have serious constraints. For example, the NES only has 4 usable channels of 8-bit sound, meaning there could only be four sounds happening at once. That’s why in Super Mario Bros when the player jumps, part of the music is muted out to allow the jumping sound effect to play. While the specifics vary from console to console, like the technically advanced SNES which has 8 channels of 16-bit sound, the effect is the same: a refreshingly new, retro, and lo-fi tune that fits into your nostalgic memories of early gaming.
There’s several ways of producing 8-bit music. Most traditionalist repurpose old consoles, allowing them to use the exact sound capabilities of old-school game soundtracks. This cover uses multiple Gameboy systems to create the complexities of modern music.
Notice how the performer literally plays the Gameboy to make music.
Another popular way to make Chiptune is to modify retro consoles into amps. This allows 8-bit sound to integrate with traditional instruments. Take New York based Chiptune band, Anamanaguchi, for example:
At the surface, they’re a regular 4-piece band, but their usage of NES and Gameboy amplifiers for their instruments give them that distinct 8-bit sound.
While the systems 8-bit music runs on are out-of-date, the music is still alive and well, while popularity for the genre continues to increase. Although there’s constraints and undeniable lo-fi feel, the compositions for this type of music is beautiful. It almost has to be to compete with the fidelity of modern music. And games like Scott Pilgrim vs the World: The Game and more recently Undertale that feature original soundtracks composed entirely in Chiptune have proved that great music can still come from the bleeps and blops of the genre. Limitations of 8-bit music sparks creativity in the composition.
If you’re new to Chiptune, listen to the Undertale Soundtrack by composer Toby “Radiation” Fox. It’s a great example of how 8-bit artists use new age techniques with the lo-fi sounds of retro gaming.