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People may be quick to pawn the old game boy in their closet in exchange for the latest game system like the Wii. But some musicians are reverting back to vintage consoles like the Game Boy and Nintendo Entertainment System to create unmistakably new music. These musicians are involved with a movement called chiptunes, where artists use programs to manipulate the sound chip on these systems into original compositions.

 

Parris Haynie writes Chiptunes music under the pseudonym Dauragon C. Mikado, a name inspired from the main villain in the Playstation 2 game, The Bouncer. In his room, Haynie says, he creates his hip hop infused Chiptunes songs using a program called Nanoloop. He presses the buttons on the clearly aged game boy to form patterns of notes in the program and the small speakers output this.

"A lot people have chiptunes in their mind and they think itís just like happy, bouncy, you know, Super Mario world. Itís all just like techno. Everyoneís just raving with glow sticks in the air, and I just feel like no, Iím not going to do that. I keep going for a low end. I keep trying to make nastier sounding bass lines, and harder drums and percussions and lower notes and more syncopation and rhythms" Haynie says.

The terms Chiptunes and 8-bit have been used interchangeably, because the consoles that artists use are 8-bit processors. Chiptunes music is not limited to just game boys, says Justin Johnston. He's the host of 8-Bit Radio at the University of Marylandís radio station WMUC.

"The term Chiptunes refers to how they used to make games back in the days of Atari and the NES. Each system would have a propriety chip and that chip would be able to make a certain range of sounds and you would use that to make music for the video games," says Johnston.

Donít expect to hear Chiptunes artists to randomly interject high-pitched sounds into a Mario theme song. These artists stray away from the familiar.

Kurt Feldman of The Depreciation Guild uses a Famicom, the overseas version of the Nintendo, to layer the systemís synthesized sounds over guitars and drums. Inspired by his childhood pastime of playing video games, he thought it would be an interesting project to combine Chiptunes and modern pop rock music like in the song "Butterfly Kisses."

"I guess just growing up like I would always love the sound of Nintendo music. And I would always be humming the songs I played as a kid you know just like walking around and stuff. I guess I just had an attachment to that. Even before I heard about Chiptunes or even knew that it existed outside of the scope of playing video games on a console, I always wanted to be able to make that type of music," Feldman says.

Chiptunes is not simply a phenomenon sweeping the United States. Blip Festival--the annual chiptunes event held in New York City--draws artists around the world from Singapore to Sweden. Thanks to the internet, artists can share their music and interact on online forums like 8bitcollective.

"Every place you can imagine there's somebody's doing it. They all kind of come together and everybody talks to each other usually on like 8bitcollective," Haynie says.

The Chiptunes community will continue to grow, Haynie says, but the movement will not break the top spot on Billboard. Feldman says the music must draw in listeners with basic components of a pop song before it reaches the mainstream.

"You've got to give something to latch onto that they know like pop music they have to hear that with guitars and vocals. That's why we're taking that approach. We hopefully will be the band to take Chiptunes above the niche market and into the mainstream. I think it would be really cool if we did that," Feldman says.

So, can anybody join the ranks of these chiptunes artists? Haynie says that programs like Nanoloop make music composition fairly simple for beginners to learn the basics.

"Itís easy to learn, hard to master. Which is kind of like any instrument really. You know, anybody can pick up a guitar and learn a few chords, you know, but not everybody ends up being like Jimi Hendrix."

For Intern Edition, I'm Nancy Chow.

 

© NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008