What Is Chiptune And How To Make Chiptune Beats
November 29, 2023 | Tero Potila
Chiptune is a unique genre of electronic music that utilizes the sound chips found in vintage arcade machines, computers, and video game consoles popular in the 1980s. These classic 8-bit sounds evoke memories of the early gaming and home computing days.
This music style embraces the limitations of early technology to create a unique aesthetic.
Chiptune music's origins are rooted in the technology used by early game composers and the sound synthesizers of the time. Various subgenres have emerged within the chiptune sounds, ranging from the distinctive tracker format to the more experimental wonky hyperpop.
The genre is surrounded by a passionate and creative community that continues to push the boundaries of what can be achieved using vintage sound chips.
Understanding Chiptune Music
8-bit Era and SID Chip
In the 8-bit era, when 8-bit computers and consoles ruled the gaming world, chiptunes were all the rage. The SID (Sound Interface Device) chip was a notable component in creating chiptune music.
This chip, often found in Commodore 64 computers, allowed musicians to produce impressive sounds with only three audio channels. The SID chip played a huge role in developing and popularizing the genre.
Characteristics of Chiptune
Chiptune music has some distinct characteristics that make it stand out from other music genres:
Limited sound channels: Early sound chips could only produce a limited number of simultaneous audio channels, often ranging from one to four.
Simplistic waveforms: Basic waveforms like pulse, triangle, and noise were used to generate the sounds.
Arpeggios: Rapid note sequences were utilized to create the illusion of harmony with limited channels.
Looping patterns: Short, repeating sequences of note patterns saved space and memory while creating catchy tunes.
Famous Early Chiptune Artists
Several early chiptune artists made a lasting impact on the genre, solidifying its place in the world of electronic music. Some of these pioneers include:
Rob Hubbard: Known for his work on many Commodore 64 games, he utilized the SID chip to create memorable game soundtracks.
Tim Follin: An influential chiptune composer, Follin worked on games for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and NES.
Martin Galway: Another Commodore 64 specialist, Galway pushed the boundaries of chiptune music with his soundtracks and unique techniques.
These artists, among others, helped craft the chiptune sounds we know and love today.
Rob Hubbard - Monty on the Run Theme [C64]
Creating Chiptune Music
Digital Audio Workstations
Originally, Chiptune was created using tusic trackers like FastTracker. Nowadays, thanks to advancements in technology, creating chiptune music has become more accessible than ever.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like Soundtrap allow you to emulate the sound of vintage hardware, using 8-bit MIDI instruments, and blend it with contemporary electronic music, giving birth to new sonorities within the genre.
How To Make Chiptune Beats in Soundtrap
Start by selecting an 8-bit instrument that fits the vibe you’re going for. You can find instrument presets by opening up a new track and selecting “Synth”. Experiment with instrument settings like Delay, Frequency, and Resonance to capture the signature sound of early portable game consoles.
Try utilizing arpeggios and simple melodic motifs to evoke the simplicity of 8-bit melodies. You should also work within the limitations of chiptune instruments and explore the unique character each instrument offers to craft distinctive and memorable retro-inspired beats.
Adjust the effects chains with, for example, Vibrato, Pitch Modulation, EQ, etc. to fine-tune your sound.
Programming Sound Waves
Chiptune music has a distinct sound primarily because of its unique waveforms. The most common ones used are:
Square Wave: It has a sharp timbre and serves as the primary melodic instrument in most chiptunes.
Triangle Wave: This waveform is less aggressive than the square wave and is frequently used for basslines.
Pulse Waves: You can create variations of the square wave by adjusting the duty cycle, resulting in pulse waves.
The Role of File Size
During the 8-bit and 16-bit era, game developers had limited storage and RAM space for game data, including music. As a result, game music composers had to find innovative ways to create engaging tunes within tight constraints.
We, of course, don't have these restrictions today, but when you want to create realistic chiptunes music, it's good to set limits to how many resources you're using so that you capture the essence of retro game music. This includes using simple waveforms, few instrument tracks, simple melodies, and retro-sounding drums and basslines.
Chiptune in Video Games
Nintendo and Chiptune
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) played a significant role in popularizing chiptune music in video games. A few memorable titles that featured catchy chiptune melodies include Space Invaders and Donkey Kong.
As you play these iconic games, you can easily notice how the simple, synthesized tunes add to the game's overall experience.
Original Game Boy Sound
As chiptune continued to gain popularity, the release of the original Game Boy was a significant milestone. This portable video game console brought an entirely new era of gaming and continued to expand the chiptune music genre.
With its unique sound capabilities, the Game Boy enhanced gamers' experiences by introducing them to various delightful and memorable chiptunes.
Here are some iconic soundtracks in the chiptune genre that have left a lasting impact on video game history:
Super Mario Bros.: Arguably the most recognizable chiptune melody, the Super Mario Bros. theme has become synonymous with the game and can often be heard whistled or hummed by fans.
The Legend of Zelda: Known for its adventurous and uplifting tones, the chiptune soundtrack for this beloved series sets the perfect atmosphere for exploring the magical world of Hyrule.
Tetris: The catchy Russian folk-inspired tune of "Korobeiniki" featured in Tetris has become famous worldwide, bringing players a sense of urgency as they attempt to clear lines in this classic puzzle game.
Mega Man: With its fast-paced electronic beats, the Mega Man series features a chiptune soundtrack that perfectly matches the action-packed platforming gameplay.
These soundtracks have not only shaped the history of video games but have also become an integral part of pop culture.
Super Mario Bros. Theme Song
Modern Chiptune Scene
Over the years, chiptune has evolved into a thriving scene with a dedicated fanbase. Live performances have become a significant aspect of the genre, creating an energetic atmosphere for artists and audiences.
During these events, artists often use a combination of modified vintage hardware and modern synthesizers to produce an authentic chiptune sound with a modern twist.
The growing popularity of chiptune has led to the establishment of dedicated music festivals. For example, Chipwrecked is a chiptune festival on a Danish island that successfully hosted its second edition.
Attending such events allows you to dive into the heart of the chiptune scene and celebrate this unique form of music with like-minded people.
Cultural Impact of Chiptune
Influence on Electronic Music
Chiptune continues to shape and inspire modern electronic music. Even as technology advanced, artists across genres have embraced chiptune's unique sound and cultural context in their compositions.
Here are a few notable ways chiptune has impacted electronic music:
Sample usage: Popular music producers frequently utilize chiptune samples, bringing those nostalgic sounds to new audiences.
Genre blending: Sub-genres, such as chiptune jazz or chiptune-infused EDM, showcase the versatility of chiptune within a wider musical landscape.
Hardware and software: The development of chiptune-inspired tools, like trackers and synthesizers, ensures that new musicians can create and enjoy chiptune sounds.
Chiptune's Unique Appeal
What makes Chiptune so appealing? It's not just the distinctive retro sound that captures people's hearts; chiptune also provides a unique platform for creative exploration. Its limitations make you think outside of the box.
The familiar 8-bit sounds can evoke powerful memories and emotions tied to early gaming experiences and youthful adventures. Chiptune can also create emotional connections beyond gaming nostalgia, transcending cultural boundaries and resonating with a diverse audience.
Working within the sound constraints of chiptune allows artists to develop innovative techniques and push the boundaries of their creativity.
The chiptune scene also fosters a supportive, inclusive environment where artists and fans can bond over their shared love for the music and culture.
Chiptunes evokes many great memories for those of us who grew up playing the first game consoles and vintage home computers. This retro sound has evolved into a vibrant and influential genre of music. Its unique blend of different sounds and iconic 8-bit chiptune style has left an indelible mark on video games and electronic music.
From the pioneering days of the SID chip to modern genres merging chiptune influences, this style of music continues to captivate audiences worldwide.
Today, creating your own chiptune music is easy using online DAWs like Soundtrap. These tools allow you to pay homage to the nostalgic sounds of the first video games while pushing the boundaries of creativity.
About the author
Tero Potila is a professional music composer and producer. His career combining knowledge and experience from music, TV, film, ad, and game industries gives him a unique perspective that he shares through posts on teropotila.com.
Soundtrap — the online music studio
Making music is more than just a hobby — it’s a form of self-expression, a way to unleash your creativity, and a means for you to bring your unique voice to the world.
Soundtrap is the ultimate audio production software for music makers and producers to easily collaborate and create music online, with thousands of audio loops, instruments, and samples only a click away.