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A little later than advertised (apologies for that) it’s time to take a second look at chiptune creation, this week focusing on using hardware in the form of native music trackers that run on original systems.
If it’s software trackers you’re after then check the previous article, and if you’re just interested in listening to chiptune then we’ve got some great resources for that too. Today might just be the day you dust off your old Game Boy, dig out the Commodore 64 and start creating chiptune like a pro.
Chiptune gets its name from the individual sound chips that have historically created the bleeps and boops on various computers and games consoles of years gone by. Many swear that the “purest” chiptune sound comes straight from one of these chips, and many artists make use of vintage systems when playing live.
Much like creating music on a software tracker, these tunes need to be composed in a similar fashion (either on the device or composed elsewhere and transferred for playback). Unlike modern software trackers these chips are restricted by hardware limitations which affect the number of available channels, tones and pitches produced. These limitations are what draw a lot of chiptune composers to the genre, with many attempting to push the old hardware to its absolute limit.
Now it’s time to take a look at some classic systems, their chips and solutions for the budding chiptune composer.
Nintendo Game Boy – DMG-001 – Little Sound DJ
Little Sound DJ is a comprehensive tool that will put your Game Boy (which actually uses the main CPU for sound production) through its paces. Unfortunately LSDJ stopped producing cartridges a long time ago and there are currently no plans to restart production. Luckily, it’s still possible to use LSDJ using a backup device like this one (backup devices are also a must-have for bomb-proof backups of songs and transferring other music for playback).
The software costs $2 and promises only a “slight” learning curve and tons of features. LSDJ uses 4 channels (as per the hardware restrictions), includes waveform generation, a powerful arpeggiator and classic samples to get you started. It’s even possible to sync two Game Boys running LSDJ with a link cable, for 8 glorious channels of 4 bit fun.
LSDJ also works using a Game Boy emulator, which is great for trying out the demo version but less than ideal for true chiptune connoisseurs. If you’re looking for the perfect Game Boy and have the cash to flash then specialise in optimized handhelds.
Nintendo Entertainment System – Ricoh 2A03 – NTRQ & Chip Maestro
The original NES makes a lovely noise, and now there are two solutions for making excellent use of it – NTRQ and Chip Maestro. NTRQ is a native tracker for the NES that allows you to compose and play music using the console’s Ricoh 2A03 chip. In order to use it on original hardware you’ll need to buy a PowerPak, though it is possible to use an emulator too. There is an excellent NTRQ manual available in PDF format here.
Chip Maestro is a bit different. It provides a MIDI interface that hangs out of the front of your console, allowing you to literally “play” the NES as if it were an instrument. It is also possible to run standard software trackers through Chip Maestro for instant authenticity everyone will love. You can check out the inventor’s musings on the subject.
Commodore 64 – SID (MOS Technology 6581) – CyberTracker & GoatTracker
This CyberTracker project hasn’t seen an update in almost 10 years, but is still available for download and runs natively on the Commodore 64. There are already some excellent SID emulation solutions out there but for purists (and anyone with that iconic machine) a native tracker is as good as it gets, especially considering the C64 used analog components.
Unlike older C64 trackers which used numbers, CyberTracker supports graphic envelopes as well as a few other “advanced” features considering the hardware limitations. There is an excellent, comprehensive manual available too. Similarly, GoatTracker is another popular C64 tracker which (unlike CyberTracker) allows for export in the .SID format.
For information on running downloaded software on your Commodore 64, see here. If the legendary SID chip floats your boat then you also might want to check out HardSID.
Commodore Amiga – Protracker, OctaMED & AHX
The dawn of affordable and capable home computers provided budding musicians with a solution that didn’t involve shelling out on a whole studio set-up. Thanks to a few fantastic music trackers produced at the time, the Amiga became a respected and powerful tool for creating music. Three of those trackers are Protracker, OctaMED and AHX.
OctaMED is probably the most famous tracker listed, and has been used in mainstream releases like DJ Zinc’s iconic “Super Sharp Shooter” drum and bass hit and even Calvin Harris’ hugely popular album “I Created Disco” as recently as 2007.
You just can’t beat the genuine article, even if you’ll need expensive add-ons to get it all working. For classic systems then eBay is always the best bet, though I’d recommend trying out much of the software on an emulator first before spending the money.
There’s still one more chiptune article in the works, and that’ll be a killer selection of VST plugins (virtual studio technology) that simplify the creation process even further. Stay tuned!
Have you tried LSDJ or any of the above? Do you remember CyberTracker or OctaMED? Do you use an old system for music creation? Let us know in the comments!