Chiptune - Overview


The game technologies used in chip music production were marketed for consumers between the 1980s and mid-1990s. Popular systems include retro computers such as the NEC PC-88, Commodore 64, MSX and Amiga, and consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, and Mega Drive / Genesis. These systems earmarked a shift in the technological development of video game audio to a period where consoles used dedicated hardware sub-systems or sound chips to create sound.

It was after this period that video game audio progressed onwards to sample playback and wavetable synthesis techniques, replacing the dedicated sound chip-based techniques that had been used previously to synthesise sounds in real time. Sample playback uses computer memory to store a pre-recorded sound, which may be played back at a fixed or variable pitch, and can be repeated in a continuous loop to extend the duration of a sound without increasing the memory requirements. Low quality sample playback as used in various Amiga machines, and tracking software such as Renoise is still often accepted within chip music communities, depending on the sonic properties and hardware used in composition.

In fact it is arguable that the term "chip music" was originally used in reference to the sample based tracker style of music on the Amiga and similar platforms; however, in its modern form, the terms "chip music", and "chiptune" refer to music made by the sound chips found within early gaming systems and microcomputers.

A waveform generator is a fundamental module in a sound synthesis system. A waveform generator usually produces a basic geometrical waveform with a fixed or variable timbre and variable pitch. Common waveform generator configurations usually included two or three simple waveforms and often a single pseudo-random-noise generator (PRNG). Available waveforms often included pulse wave, the timbre of which can be varied by modifying the duty-cycle, square wave, a symmetrical pulse wave producing only odd overtones, triangle wave, which has a fixed timbre containing only odd harmonics, but is softer than a square wave, and sawtooth wave, which has a bright raspy timbre and contains odd and even harmonics. Two notable examples of systems employing this technology include the Game Boy, with two pulse channels (switchable between 12.5%, 25%, 50% and 75% wave duty cycle), a channel for 4-bit PCM playback, and a pseudo-random-noise generator. The Commodore 64 on the other hand made use of the MOS Technology SID chip which offered 3 channels, each switchable between pulse, saw-tooth, triangle and noise. Unlike the Game Boy, the pulse channels on the Commodore 64 allowed full control over wave duty cycles. The SID was a very technically advanced chip, offering many other features including ring modulation and adjustable resonance filters.

Due to the wide range of video game systems available, with different sound chips and processors running them, each system, while sharing the same basic synthesis techniques, had a fairly unique sound. Even within a specific system, sound qualities often varied between batches of sound chips, as happened with the many SID revisions used throughout the production of the Commodore 64.

The term Chip Music has been applied to more recent compositions that attempt to recreate the chiptune sound, albeit with more complex technology. Currently, chip music composers use modern computers to aid them in either composition, recording, or execution of the art form. Modern computers are also used for networking throughout the global chip music "scene". The evolution of the Internet has helped chip musicians connect with each other, share ideas, and create public events. The recent popularity of Creative Commons over Copyright in the chip music scene has also helped many musicians learn and develop their craft through an open source environment. Emulation of the original sound chips has become more prevalent and accepted because of the increasing rarity and fragility of the original video game systems and microcomputers used.

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