8-Bit: Eight is Enough

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8-bit music is something of a moving target, more of a movement than a genre. Even a name can't be agreed upon–the closest to universally accepted terms are "chiptune," "micromusic," and "8-bit," but new variants are being churned out every day, with varying degrees of cleverness ("bitpop," "blip-hop," etc.).

The most identifiable common element of the 8-bit scene is an aesthetic association with the sound and style of early console and home-computer videogames, but this form can take on different guises. Some producers fixate on the unembellished output of a single four-channel, 8-bit sound chip; others meticulously reconstruct 8-bit sounds using modern equipment. Some songs overly nod to game soundtracks; others are distant descendants, exploring game music's textures but not its conventions.

Although the idiom's practitioners approach this style from every direction imaginable, low-bit music is nothing new–its lineage parallels that of home computing, stretching back more than 20 years. The current micromusic mini-movement is actually a derivation of computer-game hacking; it claims roots in mid-'80s "crack intros," where videogames were "modified" and animations, music, and codenames added to the intro screens–a nerd-world equivalent of graffiti. These embellishments became increasingly elaborate until the intros eclipsed the game as the object of interest, turning into standalone showcases of programming prowess called "demos."

This impulse to push limits continues in today's low-bit music. It has spurred the creation of homebrew programs, hardware, and techniques, making it possible to construct live, beat-driven tracks on an Atari 2600, control a Nintendo Entertainment System via MIDI, and turn a Game Boy into a portable, pocket-sized music workstation. And for all of the scene's stylistic chaos, this moment is a rare snapshot of the healthiest time in a movement's development–a free-for-all of diverse experimentation that can probably only happen in the absence of a definition. Joshua "Bit Shifter" Davis

Artificial Intelligence
It's game on for Brazilian 8-Bit head Artificial.

You probably remember the days when your parents desperately asked you to turn down the volume of the TV while you were playing Nintendo. Judging from the kind of sound Kassin extracts from a simple Game Boy with his Artificial project, you can only imagine his mother suffered a lot more than the rest.

The idea behind Artificial is simple: to make music using Game Boy's blips and beeps. Doing it is a little more complicated. Instead of turntables and a laptop, Kassin's live PA consists of two Game Boys, a MicroKorg keyboard, and two delay pedals, all plugged to a four-channel board. This lo-fi approach comes as quite a switch for Kassin, a well-known Brazilian producer who has worked with Tropic·lia's Caetano Veloso, Bebel Gilberto, and even Japanese pop stars.

All of Kassin's gigs as Artificial are improvised, mixing pre-recorded beats with live effects to create a rough-sounding collision of electro, Miami bass, and breakbeat. Relying on heavy electronic drum sounds, some songs gravitate loosely towards house, while others could be a bed for hip-hop lyrics or point to new possibilities for baile funk.

In order to access the videogame soundbank, Kassin utilizes two specially made cartridges, which transform the toy into a synthesizer and a sequencer of 8-bit beats and noise. "I read about this LSDJ program that allowed you to program a Game Boy and I bought it online," says Kassin. "When I talked about it to my partner, Berna Ceppas, I found out that he had just bought a similar one called Nanoloop."

The technical limitations of such rudimentary tools are not a problem; rather, they fit perfectly with the music's aesthetic. "Every time I feel limited by the programs, I just use something else," says Kassin. "When I'm missing some chords, I use the keyboard. It's the drums and the bass I like the most. I also use a laptop with some beats programmed in it, just in case–basically because the Game Boy has let me down a couple of times."

The laptop came in handy during 2005's Sónar festival, when his Game Boy failed. "It was great nonetheless," recalls Kassin. "I programmed the show on the plane on the way to Spain. I had a great time at these concerts. The reactions were funny, because people didn't expect me to sing in falsetto, for instance. And a lot of people danced."

Released through his own label, Ping Pong Discos, Free U.S.A. captures some of this live action. An American citizen (his father is American), the idea for the record came during a trip to the United States. "I was on a US tour with my band, +2," explains Kassin. "It was just before the war [in Iraq] had begun. In Minneapolis there were flags with "Free Iraq" written on them in front of every house. I thought this was such ignorance–comparable to the Nazis–that I recorded an album called Free U.S.A."

Smack My Bit Up
Sacramento Band 8-bit Conquers the World with NES Beats and Ninja Stars.

Jay-Z's "99 Problems" galloped to the tune of the Legend of Zelda theme before 8-bit took the floor. We were at Sacramento's Old Ironsides club. The rappers of the group 8-bit were cloaked in fashionable radioactive suits and they were swigging beer. They had an iPod running their backing tracks. And they had charm.

One felt it in their choppy rhymes, which recalled Run-DMC. It was written across rapper Le-frost's bespectacled face, which poked out of the cubbyhole of her helmet to lead a chuorus of "I'm grabbing my nuts." It was distilled in catchy, fuzzy melodies and thunking beats, the kind that would be at home on any Nintendo game. Even after robots intoned "Suck my dick, bitch!" in the hook of one of their songs, the charm remained.

After the show, bandmate Robo-T asked Le-frost, "What is it that we make fun of about rap? "We make fun of ourselves," she replied. "That's basically it."

Parked outside the club was the group's cramped tour van. They bought it with Beck's money–well, with the money they got from last year's Ghettochip Malfunction remix of Beck's "Hell Yes." Beck's brother happened to be an 8-bit fan, and the star's manager gave them a call. The crew then laced the hip-hop original with a melody choked out of a dusty Game Boy cartridge, and found themselves in the company of Ad-Rock, Boards of Canada, and El-P on the Guerolito compilation.

8-bit was one of the more curious groups to emerge from the LA underground in the early '00s. They began as a joke. Robo-T and his brother, Anti-Log, are Indiana transplants who moved to Highland Park, where they met Le-frost at a bowling alley. 8-bit first got the hang of sampling by yanking tunes and noises from NES classics like Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, Rygar, the Zelda games, and Wizards and Warriors 2. "We just grew up with Nintendo and liked the way it sounded," explains Robo-T. "We started out sampling it and putting beats on it to make our own music."

He says that his group now produces the majority of their vintage sounds from scratch. True to the NES sound, the melodies and rhythms are usually repetitive, but attention grabbing. So, too, is 8-bit's packaging. Their self-released CDs on their Ninja Star imprint are sometimes wrapped in handmade origami throwing stars.

As for their new record, The Chrome Album, a few 8-bit members describe it as "proggy" or hip-hop-meets-noise-rawkers Hella. "We're trying to be the Rush of rap," clarified Robo-T. Le-frost is counting on this approach being so successful that she'll be able to buy a Bentley soon; the others are more pessimistic. "Whatever we do, we'll have to do it quick because we're going to die quickly," Spacey-K said. Robo-T chimed in, "Yeah, I plan to be hanging from a rope in the next six months." Cameron MacDonald

Heavy Artillery
8 Bit Weapon Decodes His Music-Making Set-Up.

LA's Seth D. Sternberger bristles with more artillery than the dudes from Contra, his every piece of gear on par with the Spread or Laser Guns and not a lame Fire Ball in sight. Known in the burgeoning micromusic scene as 8-Bit Weapon, he's been performing live and turning out material (both original tunes and Commodore 64 covers) since 2001. Intellivision Music launched their label with his EP and a remixed re-release of the limited-edition "Vaporware Soundtracks" is available for order from his website. The ever-excitable Sternberger is busy working on a score for the Disney short Catch 1up and a top-secret multi-platform game for Nokia, but took time to spec out his sound for us. Matt Earp

XLR8R: What's your setup for playing live?

Seth Sternberger: I have a series of backing tracks running off a laptop as well as some MIDI sequences. Then I perform on a sandwich of a MicroKorg vocoder, a C64 computer running Music Machine, and a C128 computer running SID [Sound Interface Device] cart 1.0.

How do you process all that at once?

Primarily, I use a MIDI sequencer to control my 8-bit weapons, such as the MIDINES and the SIDstation. I sequence the Game Boys with LSDJ, a cart synth/sequencer combo for all Game Boys and I have an Atari 2600 that you can manually sync up to a handful of MIDI clock tempos. But it's a lot more fun to lay down a rocking drum track off the Atari synth cart and get a fat lo-fi bassline, then record it into Acid. I also now have three new weapons that use Apple computers: the Apple IIe drum machine, using a "Drum Key" Card; the Apple II (or IIc/IIe) synth sampler; and the famous "Crap-O-Phone"–it's a 2x4-looking orange controller that allows me to play an Apple II like a guitar!

Do you end up using certain 8-bit systems for certain parts of the music, like basslines?

The SID chip is the most dynamic audio chip ever to rock the microcomputer scene! Its digital/analog features allow it to be an incredibly versatile synthesizer. SID has great bass potential as well as amazing lead sounds and wild sound effects. It's also great for chord arpeggios, especially with a nice low-pass filter sweep! The Game Boy has great bass too, the old grey one. It also has very distinct waves. The magical thing about the NES is the triangular wave bass! The most awesome micro-bass ever!

Are any of the instruments too delicate to leave the studio?

Yes, the SIDstation. It's been through hell and back and I can't bring myself to put a good friend like that in danger ever again.

Is there any piece of equipment universal to most performers in the scene?

The Little Sound DJ and Nanoloop carts for Game Boy, the Synthcart for the Atari 2600, and recently the MIDINES cart.

You seem able to make all your sounds with existing software and hardware. Is anyone doing hardcore computer hacking or modding?

gwEm made his own tracker for his Atari and my evil twin brother, FirestARTer of Germany, made his own SIDstation-like synth, a MIDI Game Boy interface device; he even made a C64 into a TB-303! My other buddy, Paul Slocum, makes his own software and hardware mods. Paul made the Synthcart for the Atari 2600 and the SID cart for the C64. He has also made a dot matrix printer synth! He is crazy!