Today we’re going to be exploring the final facet of chiptune creation – using VST plugins (Virtual Studio Technology) in the form of instruments and effects to achieve that 8bit sound. We’ve already had two articles exploring chiptune software trackers and how to make chiptune with hardware, so check those out first if you’re interested in this kind of thing.
Those of you who just like to listen to wonderful, computer-generated music will appreciate this article which is jam-packed with resources for the discerning listener.
Using VST Instuments & Effects
VST plugins come in two flavours – VST effects and VST instruments (VSTi). Effects are often used in chiptune creation to process clean sounds into lo-fi samples, whereas VSTi plugins are often “played” as if they were real instruments. Similar technologies include Audio Units (AU) on Mac, DSSI/LV2 on Linux and RTAS by Digidesign.
These plugins require a host – a piece of software (or in some cases hardware) that can make use of them – and many DAW solutions support VST plugins. If you’d rather use a tracker (and let’s face it, that’s the purest way of composing chiptune) then I’d recommend OpenMPT (which is free) or Renoise (which isn’t, but only costs around €60). Wikipedia has a good list of commercial and free software for hosting VST plugins.
Similarly if you’d like to use VST plugins on their own, either as a live instrument or just to test then there are a few excellent hosts, with VSTHost on Windows being a free and simple solution.
From Japanese 8bit heroes YMCK comes this amazingly powerful yet effortlessly simple VST or AU (for Mac users) that generates square, triangle, noise and pulse waves that sound delightful. The plugin also comes with a ton of other parameters, including attack, decay, sweep and sustain. YMCK have also released a paid iPhone app called YMCK Player ($1.99) which is great for chiptune-on-the-go.
It’s Christmas come early for anyone looking for a treasure trove of VSTs, as Tweakbench have a bounty of plugins for generating all manner of sounds. I’d personally recommend Toad (a drum machine), Peach (synth) and Triforce (another synth) for starters, though they’re all worth the download. If you pay a measly $5 you can download every VST in one click and feel good about supporting the author for making such wonderful toys.
Jack Dark’s Darkware Legacy [No Longer Available]
An intriguing selection of VST instruments and effects, all with a glitchy and sinister twist. Not everything will be of use here, but I’d recommend BITBOY which claims to be a “circuit bent chiptune synth” (it’s pretty crazy) and the bit-crusher plugin BIT BASHER for crushing your pristine samples down to size.
pooBoy 2.0 [No Longer Available]
If it’s Game Boy emulation you’re after then you can do a lot worse than pooBoy, a delightfully presented and powerful Game Boy VST. Featuring classic Nintendo sounds, 25 presets and of course the ability to twiddle settings and come up with your own patches, pooBoy 2.0 is more than just a silly name!
Emulating the Atari ST YM2419 sound chip, ymVST does a stellar job of generating some beautiful old school sounds all from the comfort of a stylised, pixellated GUI. There’s a slight learning curve due to lack of presets, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what’s possible once you’ve played around with it.
38911 Bytes v4 [No Longer Available]
For some reason the creator’s website (Odo Synths) has been offline for years according to the Wayback Machine and the only place I could find this hosted was on freemusicsoftware.org. Not to worry, because it’s fully functional and does an excellent job of emulating the classic SID sound chip from the Commodore 64. Packed with 66 presets and plenty of parameters to fiddle around with, this is easily one of the best C64 VSTs out there.
Not specifically emulating a particular system, ICECREAM is a delightful sounding poly and monophonic synth with a lovely interface and lots of presets to get you started. It’s easy to come up with your own bubbly noises then crush them down to 8bit or just manipulate what you’ve already got with the Kaoss-pad style XY controller.
Not an instrument but an effect, CMT Bitcrusher is ideal for taking clean samples and turning them into dirty retro noise. Simple, free and effective.
All of these plugins have been tested with OpenMPT and all work as expected. This concludes our foray into the world of chiptune creation, if you have any questions, recommendations or links you’d like to share then make a comment below this post.
Do you use any VSTs for chiptune creation? Do you prefer samples and a tracker? Or maybe you’re a hardware guy? Share your thoughts in the comments below.