Flat four


Chiptunes - Nintendo music

This is a transcript of the programme broadcast as part of the chiptunes series on Flat Four Radio in 2005. The programme can be downloaded from the Internet Archive.

 [YMCK - Pow Pow]

PRESENTER: This programme is about people who make music using old
computers. Specifically, Nintendo games consoles.

PRESENTER: The Nintendo corporation is the longest running company in
the history of video games. They began in 1889, selling playing cards,
but it wasn't until 1983 that they released their first video games
console, in Japan, called the Famicom. In the West we know it as the
Nintendo Entertainment System or NES.

Since then, they have produced the Super Famicom (also known as the
Super Nintendo or SNES), the Nintendo 64, the Gamecube, and the hugely
popular Gameboy line of handheld consoles.

You might have thought that these machines were only for playing games
on. But as we're about to find out, some people like them for their
musical qualities...

So if you want to be creative with a games console, what can you do?
Paul B Davis is an 8-bit musician and artist, and one of the things he
does is hack into Nintendo cartridges and change what they do.

 [Rugar - My Girl the Princess]

PAUL B DAVIS: They're just computers that have a bit of extra graphics
and no keyboard and some joysticks and stuff. So basically you get a
little box, like a regular Nintendo cartridge, but instead of having the
ROM chips in there that it came with, one or two - cos there's two in
each cartridge - one or two are removed and replaced with a programmable
ROM that I've programmed.

Some of them just play songs, some of them make video pieces, some of
them play the same game but with different graphics - like, manipulating
the characters in a game but the gameplay's still the same.

You can make something completely from scratch, you can combine some new
stuff and some pre-existing stuff. It's a little weird for a lot of
people at first because there's not that many games that are made as
art. People sort of look at it, and a lot of times don't know how to
approach it.

 [Tadpole - Tilt-O-Whirl]

PRESENTER: You can make music for the Nintendo in a more straightforward
way. It's possible to get software for a PC which allows you to compose
music for the NES's sound chip. What's more, once you've composed it you
can use emulator software to listen to the music. You don't even need to
go near an actual NES. That would spoil the fun, though...

 [Tadpole - Aliens and the Eclipse]

PRESENTER: This is by an artist who goes by the name of Tadpole,
demonstrating that even in the 21st century, the Nintendo Entertainment
System continues to be some people's instrument of choice. Similarly,
this next track is an NES tune by x|k:

 [x|k - The Bytemaster]

PRESENTER: In 1989 Nintendo released the Game Boy, the handheld games
console. It quickly became the most popular handheld console ever.
People all over the world were bowled over by its green-and-black
screen, its cute design, and the sound all of its own...

 [Gameboy power-on sound]

PRESENTER: Here's Emma, from Micromusic.net:

EMMA: There's a lot of people using Gameboys to make music at the moment
because it's a cute little thing... I mean, that's what I think people
like it for. Because people see other people performing with the
Gameboys that aren't into electronic music, or don't know about Little
Sound DJ, and you always see people, or overhear people, going "Oh my
god, is he really playing that, or is it just a game?" because people
can't believe that the music can come from the tiny little box that it

Everybody's set, they turn on the Gameboy and it goes "duDING" and
everyone cheers because they all know it's gonna be Gameboy.

 [Lo-Bat - Twinkle]

PRESENTER: The most famous Gameboy tune is undoubtedly the Tetris theme.
You've probably heard it before, but did you know it was a traditional
Russian folk song, called "Korobeyniki"?

All classic computer game tunes get remixed by their fans, and
Korobeyniki is no exception. This version is by DJ Pretzel, who runs a
website called "Overclocked", dedicated to video game remixes.

 [Korobeyniki - DJ Pretzel]

JOHAN KOTLINSKI (ROLE MODEL): My name is Johan Kotlinski and I make
music on old computers like the Commodore 64 and the Gameboy, and it's
called chipmusic, and I also made my own music programme for the
Gameboy, it's called Little Sound DJ.

 [Role Model - Design by Contract]

JOHAN KOTLINSKI: I started a long time ago, in the beginning of the 90s,
and actually I wanted to make music with real synthesisers and stuff,
but I couldn't afford to back then, so I just had to do it on my Amiga.
But then it turned out that I liked it better than synthesisers anyway.

I just started programming a little for fun, and I thought it could be
useful for making music too. Especially when you're in the subway or
something and have nothing to do.

The sound is pretty special. It has four different channels and each
channel has some special characteristic, like, one-by-one they sound
pretty crappy but together they are still OK enough to be used

I think I like the most that I've been able to make a music program
that's customised for me, and it doesn't have a lot of buttons or stuff
to fiddle around with - it's just a few buttons - it's not too hard to
keep track of everything you're doing, so you can keep everything simple
and finish your songs pretty fast, that's what I like the most.

 [Role Model - Snare Rush Disco]

PRESENTER: Lots of musicians agree with Johan that the Gameboy is great
as a musical instrument. Here's an artist called Lo-bat:

 [Lo-bat - White Russian]

PRESENTER: And here's Bud Melvin, a performer who combines Gameboy and
slide guitar:

 [Bud Melvin - Mood Indigo]

PRESENTER: In Poland there's even a Gameboy orchestra, lining 6 Gameboys
up together to play improvised concerts. Here's an excerpt of a
performance in Paris:

 [Gameboyzz Orchestra - Excerpt from Paris live concert]

CLAIRE: I'm - collectively we are Printed Circuit, I'm Claire.

ANDREW: I'm Andrew... hi.

 [Printed Circuit - boyGenius]

ANDREW: There's live keyboards along with MP3s... bascially.

CLAIRE: Omnichords and two gameboys at the moment, that's pretty much
all we use.

CLAIRE: One of them is an old grey Gameboy Classic that runs LSDJ, that
we sometimes use and sometimes don't. The other one is a DS which is
running Electroplankton, which is a game I bought in Tokyo. Well it's
not really a game, it's more of a sort of... it's hard to describe it.
It's got 10 different programs on it and they do different things, you
can make little tunes on it. It just runs imbetween the songs, and you
can - you press the touchscreen and it makes up melodies and puts in
sound effects and stuff like that so we use that as well.

It's one of the first things that came out for this new Gameboy, well,
"DS", as it was called, and, lots of people bought it thinking it was a
game or that they could have some sort of crazy fun with it, but
actually it's just some sort of strange little experimental application,
it's not a game, you just move leaves around and fish jump on to them
and it all goes "ding ding ding"...

There's different things on it. One that we use the most is just a
little thing where you have a diagram which is about 6 lines, and each
line has all the notes in the octave, and you can just play it and it
plays it in the right key, so you can just play with it live and
everything always fits in.

ANDREW: Yeah, you can't mess up.

CLAIRE: So it just runs to a backing track and you put notes over the
top. There's a couple of sampling things in it. Just crazy things where
you draw a line and a fish will swim down the line over and over again,
so you draw another one and it'll swim down that one.

ANDREW: It's different every time.

CLAIRE: Yeah, but the one that we use the most, the backing track's
always the same.

ANDREW: And it's quite annoying. De-de-de-de-de-d-de-de-de-d-de-de...

 [Printed Circuit - Mobira]

CLAIRE: It's quite tricky to get to use because you have to use,
obviously, four buttons and the arrows to do everything, but once you
get the hang of it it's really good, you can do a lot with it.

I like playing around with it - and I think it's cool that you can do it
cos I like the sounds that old consoles make anyway. But - I think it's
very limited, I think there's only a certain - you can do very abstract
things, and you can do very melodic things, but there's not that much
imbetween, and I think if you've heard one person doing really really
good melodic Gameboy music - Covox or Role Model for example - once
you've heard them, everybody else is just kind of a few stages back from
what they're doing, because they're really good at it.

ANDREW: I think it sounds good making fun, melodic music. That's what
it's best for, I think.

CLAIRE: Yeah. People have used Gameboys in their own songs, people like
Felix Cubin and Max Tundra did a very good job of that, and in that
sense that's a really good, that's a new way of using it. It's become an
instrument that you can use within something else. So in that sense,
yeah, it's moved things on a bit, but purely in its pure form as just
using a Gameboy, I don't think that it's gonna revolutionise anything.

ANDREW: You can't get away from the computer game sound.


ANDREW: The barman last night, he was like, "I really like that, but I
felt like I should have a controller in my hand while you were playing",
I was like, OK, yeah...

PRESENTER: Whilst the Nintendo music scene continues to make use of
these old systems, Nintendo themselves keep on innovating, releasing
more and more advanced systems, like its latest product, the Nintendo
DS. Will products like the original Gameboy be considered to be the
pinnacle of electronic retro instruments, or will they take the new
products to heart? Time will tell...



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