- Gorgeous New York was an online magazine created to showcase the hidden talent in New York through a written profile, video interview, and photo shoot.I interviewed artists on the production set, researched for supporting material, wrote profiles, and was Editor for all written content on the site.Joshua Davis took me into a world I knew little about, but was nostalgic for. As a kid, I coveted my brother's Gameboy and begged him to let me play with it. To see these devices resurrected as musical instruments and uncover the large community supporting Chiptune artists was inspiring.
- 8-Bit RevolutionJoshua Davis mixes blips on his Nintendo Gameboy
By Ella Mei Yon Biggadike
Remember those revolutionary portable gaming systems that let you bring Mario on the road? Kind of like the great great grandfather of your DSi or PSP? Just when it seemed the Nintendo Gameboy was settled into retirement, experimenting musicians like Joshua Davis taught it a new trick: CHIPTUNE .
Chiptune, chip music, or 8-bit music is created from the sound chips in early video game systems. That buzzy, metallic, electronic sound that, when strung together in different tones, became the soundtrack to Mario’s quest for the princess. It was the sound that seeped upstairs from late 80’s basements equipped with that chunky grey Nintendo box and those sandwich shaped game cartridges. It was the beepy Tetris tune that drove your parents crazy on long car trips.
- Not anymore. Using modern homebrew software Joshua turned his Gameboys into synthesizers, playing the 8-bit sound chips as a traditional musician would play notes. The challenge and the beauty in making chiptune is that the older sound chips, unlike modern sound cards, only produce a finite number of tones and combination of tones. That’s like trying to play the piano without a C note or G chord. You can’t make every sound that you imagine, which forces the composer to get creative. Joshua thrives on working within those limitations. He has described this as “a symbiotic process between me and the hardware.”
As a child, Joshua played piano which he admits he “never really practiced.” He also picked up guitar for a number of years. But neither instrument sparked the passion in Joshua that chiptune did. He first encountered the musical movement through a website featuring Nanoloop –– the cartridge developed by Oliver Wittchow that can physically make your Gameboy play music. Intrigued by the possibilities of remixing those favorite 80’s videogame tunes, Bit Shifter ordered one. And was hooked. The more he played, the more he discovered others doing the same, playing and revolutionizing the way that music is played on Gameboys.
Little Sound DJ, another homebrew software company created by Johan Kotlintski is one of Bit Shifter’s preferred tools. It turns your Gameboy, according to their website, into a “full-fledged music workstation.” It is complete with a sequencer for simple and complex composition; samples including 59 phonems for programmable speech and recorded drum kits; four channels of 4-bit sound chips; and synchronization capabilities (yes, that’s two Gameboys playing music together in beautiful chiptune harmony.)
When you get a handful of these synthesizer-Gameboys outfitted with Nanoloop and Little Sound DJ and synched to each other you can mix music the way DJs do. When you get an 8-bit DJ like Bit Shifter, you can throw a party. Birth: the Blip Festival, a 3 day Woodstock-like music festival where chiptune lovers come to see who is shifting the coolest bits and how. It’s the brainchild of a community called8bitPeoples, which Bit Shifter helps to run as co-administrator.
- 8BitPeoples, founded in 1999 by chiptune artists Jeremiah Johnson aka Nullsleep and Mike Hanlon akaTangible, began as a community obsessed with old school video games and spreading the 8-bit love. Now, it includes free chiptune music downloads, free disc art, a listing of chiptune live shows, the Blip Festival, an online shop, and even a research and development team that’s expanding the possibilities of what 8-bit can do.
At Blip Festival 2008, Bit Shifter hunches over an arsenal of Gameboys. By manipulating the directional, A, and B buttons the way a DJ would manipulate records on turntables, he starts with a low fast beat. Heavily graphic images are changing frenetically on a projector screen behind him. When a heavier beat comes in the crowd starts jumping. Then Bit Shifter picks up a Gameboy in each hand and extends his arms to the sky like he’s offering up the world for one long note. When the note breaks back into beats the already screaming crowd goes crazy, jumping and head banging in utter ecstasy. Joshua grows with the crowd, gettting more powerful as the crowd gets louder. You can tell he’s consumed in the rhythm and chaos of the sonic bits clashing together on stage; it’s an amazing sight.
To date, Bit Shifter has performed live over 100 times internationally delivering an energetic performance that is at once nostalgic and surprising. You are definitely reminded of the old video game low-fi sound, but you never would expect that those sounds could also be so musically sophisticated. The music is fun, yes, but it is serious music too. It’s not the gimmick that it could be mistaken for and Bit Shifter understands the viewpoint. He says “while there is a truthful argument that the sound is very primitive and brash and very basic sounding, there is also the argument that that can be kind of interesting.” It’s more than interesting, it’s revolutionary.