The limitation of bit depth in the early video game industry, and the fleeting sentimentality of it’s resulting music, inadvertently led to a new genre of electronic music in the mid-2000’s. What was originally a limitation of an imperfect medium slowly became mainstream and popularized due to the induced nostalgic emotions of an erstwhile era.
Bit depth refers to the method that a particular set of hardware projects and processes sound; the higher the bit depth, the higher quality of sound. In the early age of computing, before our modern day technological advances, most video game hardware, and home computing devices were equipped with audio drivers surpassing no more than 8 bits. According to Philip Phelps, the techniques employed by these devices involved careful control of the available hardware (Phelps 1). One of the earliest examples of this is the game of Pong; a simplistic video game named after it is a most well-known sound effect. The game’s few sound effects sport a specifically strange hollow, almost bass-like sound known as a square wave (“Pong-Story: Atari PONG – First Steps.” 1). Many early video games utilized the basic sound waves: sine, square, triangle, and saw. Due to the limitations of the medium, that is to say, the available hardware, advanced sounds were limited by these basic sounds.
The sine wave is a mathematically simple wave that has a smooth sound, and is centered around a singular frequency; the square wave is physically shaped as it’s namesake (a square), and is formed using multiple sine waves of varying frequencies, each frequency lowering in amplitude the further away they are from the original frequency; the triangle wave bears a shape of a triangle, and, similarly to the square wave, is made of multiple sine waves of varying frequencies stacked on top of each other, however the amplitude decreases at a quicker rate than the square wave; and the saw wave which appears as a right triangle laid on its side, and is created with many different sine waves of different frequencies than the square and triangle wave – the amplitude of these sine waves lowers similarly to the square tone (“Basic Soundwaves.” 1-2). Some hardware sported programs designed specifically for that system. For example, a program going by the name of Magic Synth was a product programmed for the Atari which used hexadecimal values to iterate what sounds would play and when. Many modern-day programs attempt to recreate the nostalgic sounds that these pre-era synthesizers created. YmVST is a program created by Gareth Morris that, “Emulates the built-in YM2149 sound chip with a decent plugin user-interface on [a] PC” (Morris 1). Another example would be Magical 8bit Plug, a software dedicated to the emulation of primitive, basic instrumentation focused around old school game systems (“YMCK Official Website.” 1). While these programs create sounds eerily similar to the sounds of old, they could never truly replace the music which struck nostalgia in the hearts of gamers worldwide. triangle laid on its side, and is created with many different sine waves of different frequencies than the square and triangle wave – the amplitude of these sine waves lowers similarly to the square tone (“Basic Soundwaves.” 1-2). Some hardware sported programs designed specifically for that system. For example, a program going by the name of Magic Synth was a product programmed for the Atari which used hexadecimal values to iterate what sounds would play and when. Many modern-day programs attempt to recreate the nostalgic sounds that these pre-era synthesizers created. YmVST is a program created by Gareth Morris that, “Emulates the built-in YM2149 sound chip with a decent plugin user-interface on [a] PC” (Morris 1). Another example would be Magical 8bit Plug, a software dedicated to the emulation of primitive, basic instrumentation focused around old school game systems (“YMCK Official Website.” 1). While these programs create sounds eerily similar to the sounds of old, they could never truly replace the music which struck nostalgia in the hearts of gamers worldwide.
Chiptune is the name of the genre of music generally derived from PSG sounds chips, regardless of their true nature. A PSG, or programmable sound generator, is a sound chip that utilizes the aforementioned sound waves and produces a coherent sound as a result (“Programmable Sound Generator.”). Chiptune, at its core, is music that is created from these sound chips, whether they are digitally emulated, or physically manufactured. While chiptune was first and foremost generated in tandem with video games, it was not long before chiptune’s influence began to flood the underground electronic music venues. One of the most influential groups to make the integration between chiptune and electronic music was Yellow Magic Orchestra. One of their earliest albums, for example, used audio bits from the popular games Space Invaders and Gun Fight (“Yellow Magic Orchestra”). Chiptune integration did not at just electronic music either, as even more experimental artists began to sample sound effects from popular video games. Beck, a band known for being traditionally alternative rock and Americana, features a 15-second chiptune intro to their song Girl released in 2005 by Interscope Records (“Beck”). Another traditionally alternative band known as The Killers released a song in 2004 by the name of On Top, which also featured a 15-second chiptune reminiscent intro (“The Killers”). America was not the only country to introduce 8-bit music to their mainstream genres, however. Circa 2003, J-Pop group Perfume introduced chiptune beats into their music and continued to do so well into the mid-2000’s (“アイドル検索のWho Idol – J-POP 史変遷.”). Their influence led to many other artists in Japan to integrate that style of music with their own. In more recent years, chiptune had spread its influence worldwide, spawning songs such as Gwiyomi (귀요미송) by Hari, and れをる,ギガ by -No title- (“-No title-”). Furthermore, because of the ease of access to the internet, and the hivemind-like tendencies of its users, a new self-aware genre of music was born, and it spread like wildfire.
Bitpop is a genre of music known for being similar to chiptune but is created using contemporary methods dissimilar to former methods. Despite this, many forms of bitpop concurrently utilize both contemporary and preceding methods. Similarly to chiptune, bitpop carries it’s 8-bit influences, carrying the primitive sounds of the four primary sound waves. The term bitpop in itself is an umbrella term. Due to the ever-increasing amounts of ‘subgenres’, bitpop covers a wide variety of video game reminiscent music styles. Some examples of the subgenres that bitpop covers are complextro, electroclash, future bass, glitch, nintendocore, skweee, and synthwave. While each genre is wildly different from each other, they all share the influence of traditionally 8-bit sounds. The first of many artists to bring PSG sound chips back to the forefront, while staying in touch with modern production techniques, was Welle: Erdball (Mueller 1). One of Erdballs’s many recognizable novelties is the extreme utilization of the Commodore 64’s sound chip. Since Erdball, there have been many more artists drawing influence from antiquated video game music. Anamanaguchi, a traditionally American band sporting New York City pride, is a band that combines the soul of real instrumentation with the nostalgic representations of bitpop (“Anamanaguchi”). Lewis Fitzjohn, known colloquially as DJ Allergy, forwards the notion, “Music from games such as Tetris and Mario has become well recognized among the public. It seems bizarre at first that people would listen to these sounds at home or in their car as music” (Fitzjohn 1). This does introduce an interesting question, why is video game music so popular? It’s almost unbelievable that a primitive form of electronic music would captivate the hearts of people everywhere, but in a way, it should be expected. Recognition is one of the biggest reasons that bitpop and chiptune are popular. Super Mario Bros. for the NES sold 40,240,000 units alone (Rick 1), and of all of the people who played that game, any one of them would be able to point out the theme song if available. Millions of video games introduced with the limitation of 8-bit audio depth were sold worldwide, and many of those games have tunes that are easily recognizable using technology that many of its perusers are familiarized with. Another reason for its popularity is its integration into the worldwide media. Despite original 8 bit music, bitpop does not have the same limitations. With chiptune, there were only a certain set of noises you could make due to the characteristics of it’s PSG hardware and software. Without these restrictions, bitpop has a much higher reception due to the experimentation of modern-day tech.
With all the advances in today’s technology, when it comes to electronic music, the only limitation appears to be the mind itself. Despite this, as artists and audiences, we have gravitated backward to music from an age littered with restrictions and limitations. These primitive sounds have even infiltrated genres that seemingly have nothing to do with traditional electronica, influencing bands such as Beck, and The Killers; and even going as far as to influence bands worldwide, such as Perfume from Japan, and Hari from Korea. These sounds, derived from pre-modern computing chips, have even created a whole new genre of music dedicated to the tribute of old school video games such as Space Invaders. Despite the antiquated methodology of production, people tend to gravitate to these video game reminiscent styles of music. The answer could be nostalgia, or perhaps there’s more; for what reason could the general populous possibly find attractive in a style of music limited by technology?
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