A Dummy’s Guide to 8-Bit Music Past and Present

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One of the more enjoyable things we came across on the internet this morning was this 8-bit remix of the Game of Thrones theme, and it got us thinking about how 8-bit music and culture has slowly threatened to work its way into the mainstream over the last few years. In a way, it makes sense — the generation who grew up with Commodore 64s and NESes are in their 30s now, and very much a target market for retro chic. Systems like the C64 and NES were amongst the first genuinely affordable home computers, and they had rudimentary sound hardware that could create simple and distinctive sounds. Musicians soon started to explore how these sounds could be used, and in the years since, 8-bit music has grown to encompass everything from the world of chiptune — which faithfully uses vintage hardware to create new music — to a selection of artists who take 8-bit influences and work them into hybrid sounds. So here’s an exploration of 8-bit sounds past and present.

Koji Kondo – “Theme from Super Mario Bros.” (1985)

Probably the most well-known 8-bit composition ever, Koji Kondo’s loping calypso-flavored theme to Super Mario Bros. was an early example of what could be accomplished with the Nintendo Entertaiment System’s relatively simple hardware — two square-wave oscillators, one triangle-wave oscillator, a noise channel and a rudimentary digital sampler. In the same way that games of the time worked within their limitations and used them to best advantage, focusing on gameplay and design rather than spectacular graphics etc, so too did their accompanying music. The Super Mario theme retains an unparalleled ability to get stuck in your head, as anyone who grew up in the 1980s will attest.

Rob Hubbard — “Music from International Karate” (1986)

The Commodore 64 contained a chip called the sound interface device, or SID. The SID was a great leap forward from what was contained in other systems of the time – it had three oscillators, each with four waveforms, along with a filter, ADSR controls, a ring modulator, and an external input. In short, it was a self-contained little analog synthesiser, and could be programmed by composers to do all sorts of things. Among the first to realise its potential was Rob Hubbard, who worked at UK studio Gremlin Games. Hubbard is responsible for plenty of the music from iconic games of the era, and the music for International Karate was performed live by a full orchestra in 2005.

PixelH8 — “Girl Fight” (2008)

One of the quirks of the SID was that at first, at least, it needed to be programmed in BASIC. As such, many of the compositions of the era started life as lots and lots of code. This method of programming music lives on in the contemporary chiptune scene. Take, for example, UK composer Matthew Applegate, whose 2008 album The Boy with the Digital Heart — from which this track is taken — was written entirely in code and produced with a Commodore 64.

Diplo — “Diplo Rhythm” (2004)

There are still artists out there using the SID to create original music, and these days it also has a second life — as a source of samples. Timbaland got into all sorts of trouble a few years back for lifting a piece of SID music from a remix of a track by Finnish chiptune composer Janne Suni for Nelly Furtado’s single “Do It.” Displaying a little more subtlety and creativity was this 2004 track from Diplo, which samples the music from 1987 C64 game Platoon to good effect.

Sabrepulse — “Famicom Connection” (2005)

As well as the C64, contemporary 8-bit artists are fond of various other bits of vintage hardware. Foremost amongst them is the Nintendo Gameboy, which contained similar audio hardware to the old NES (two square waves, one pulse wave, a noise generator, and an audio input). UK-based producer Ash Charles, aka Sabrepulse, is something of a pioneer in the 8-bit/chiptune world, having released six albums since 2004. He creates music with a vintage Gameboy and a laptop, and the title of this album of this album alludes to NES, which was called the Famicom in Japan.

Tugboat — “El Scorcho” (2009)

Given the inherently geek-focused nature of 8-bit music, it’s perhaps no surprise that there was an album of 8-bit Weezer covers released a couple of years back. Beyond its novelty value, there’s some surprisingly good stuff contained therein, such as this version of “El Scorcho” by Brooklyn-based artist Jesse Novak (aka Tugboat).

Covox — “Computer Love” (2007)

It’s also not particularly surprising that there’s an 8-bit tribute to electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. 8-Bit Operators — An 8-Bit Tribute To Kraftwerk was released via Astralwerks in 2007 and contains contributions from a number of prominent chiptune artists — as well as this fantastic track from Covox, there’s work from Bit Shifter, 8-Bit Weapon and plenty of others. And really, an 8-bit version of “Computer Love” has its own kind of cosmic symmetry.

Grandaddy — “AM 180” (1997)

As well as the world of chiptune, 8-bit sounds can turn up in the most unexpected places — like this song from Grandaddy’s fantastic 1997 debut album Under the Western Freeway (you may also know it from the soundtrack to 28 Days Later ). Generally, the problem is incorporating such distinctive sounds into a conventional track without them sounding out-of-place or like a gimmick. When it works — as it does here — the effect can be strange and compelling.

Zomby — “Spliff Dub” (Rustie remix) (2008)

At the darker end of the musical spectrum, the unpolished nature of 8-bit synthesis can be used to create some dark and nasty-sounding sounds. Parts of the dubstep world, for instance, are fond of the bitcrusher, an audio effect that works by reducing the bitrate at which a sound is sampled, creating a harsh, distorted waveform. This remix of a track London producer Zomby takes the idea a step further, incorporating 8-bit sounds directly into the tracks and creating a disconcerting contrast between the bleeping arcade-game sounds and the lyrical mantra “One spliff a day keep the evil away.”

Crystal Castles — “Alice Practice” (2007)

Also fond of breaking out the bitcrusher are Crystal Castles, who share a name with a vintage videogame. Their use of 8-bit sounds hasn’t been uncontroversial — they were accused of lifting a whole bunch of samples and ideas from the chiptune scene without credit, an accusation that seems to hold a reasonable amount of merit (as does the one that they ripped off an artist’s design for one of their t-shirts). But love them or hate them, they were at least partly responsible for bringing these sounds to the attention of the Pitchfork set, and never moreso than with their debut single, which sounds like someone taking to an NES with a hammer.

Lo-Bat — “My Droid Needs a Little Hand” (2004)

One of the artists whose work was “borrowed” by Crystal Castles, Belgian producer Lo-Bat is also part of 8-Bit Peoples, a loose collective that draws together artists “sharing a common love for classic videogames and an approach to music which reflected this obsession” and whose “primary interests [are] to provide quality music for free and most importantly to have fun.” He gives away most of his music for free, and was fairly sanguine about the whole Crystal Castles controversy – check out his website if you’re interested in listening. (The fan-made video above gets huge extra credit for using vintage footage from Doctor Who, by the way.)

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone — “Half Ghost” (2003)

Owen Ashworth’s early albums were written and recorded entirely on cheap Casio keyboards (hence the name). Back in 2003, around the release of his third record, Twinkle Echo, Ashworth told this writer, “I started playing Casios because they’re readily available – they’re the kind of thing that everyone got for Christmas when they were about 10. I think they’re replacing acoustic guitars in terms of availability; they’re folk music for now.” And he’s dead right – it was the cheapness and availability of the material required to make 8-bit music that kickstarted the genre in the early ’80s, and continues to make it such an inclusive genre nearly three decades later.