Originally published in ORANGE Magazine's first PDF issue, in the spring of 2014.
Yoshi gulping down an apple in one bite. Super Mario blasting through bricks to collect coins. The heartbreaking song that can only be reminiscent of the end of a life in Super Smash Bros. Now, these sounds are no longer limited to the keys of Zelda's Ocarina or millennials’ childhood memories. A subset of gamers and musicians are combining the two forms to create a symphony of electronic nostalgia. Because those old Gameboys have no business in the local Gamestop bargain bin, this society of niche musicians have decided to employ them in a much more productive fashion.
Chip music, also known as 8-bit music, is synthesized electronic music produced by the sound chips of vintage software, mainly game consoles, such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and the Gameboy. Chip artists manipulate the programs run on video games to create songs that sound consistently redolent to Nintendo games, but also lend themselves to the artist’s choice of genre. Houston chip artist, Jeremy Buzek (Ten Pixels Tall), describes chip music as “a broad medium, one which allows everyone’s personality to show through.”
This new medium used to create music received national attention when NY chip band, Anamanaguchi, composed music for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: the Game” in 2010. Now, Austin is the main hub for a large chiptune scene, known as TX Chip, which is home to nearly 30 chip bands and artists.
TX Chip was originally formed in Houston in 2010. It fizzled out for a while, and was then resurrected in Austin in 2012. Artists from cities all over Texas, including Houston, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Lubbock and Dallas, have helped TX Chip become a statewide organization. Buzek makes Gameboy traditional chiptune music and pixel art, and, although his art is not the main focus of the organization, he says TX Chip has been nothing but supportive and excited about his music endeavors. “As you’ve probably figured, this is not the most mainstream of musical styles. The people who are aware of chiptune are sadly few and far between, and people that actually make it are even more sparse,” Buzek admits. “Creating a collective hub in a place such as Austin is beneficial to any community of this nature.”
Organizer of TX Chip, Jacob Weiss, says the organization provides a special kind of community that is very assistive and helpful for chip artists looking for ways to gain exposure and opportunities to play shows. “At every show we have had in the past year, we started the night with an open mic. Anyone who showed up with a computer, phone or gameboy could play a song. We met so many people that way,” Weiss says. Through these open mic sessions, Weiss says the organization size has nearly doubled.
Speaking to this sense of community, Weiss says the most helpful part about the organization is its ability to bring artists together to collaborate. For instance, Weiss is part of the band Chalkboards, which has recently formed a “super group” with another local chip band, Hashtagyoloswag. The two bands, individually made up of two people apiece, come together and play each other's songs as a four-piece. Weiss says this helps the songs sound much more complete. In addition, TX Chip has produced and put out huge compilations of members’ work altogether.
TX Chip also tries to make sure chip bands are paired with a visual artist, who create and project background visuals live at shows. Rachel Weil, also known as Party Time! Hexcellent!, is one of TX Chip’s visual artists. “My visuals for chip music shows are performed live,” Weil said. “I use NES controllers to affect animation and glitching, keeping the visuals in time with the music. I have also created some interactive pieces in which other people can control visuals and sound themselves.”
Guitarist of Hashtagyoloswag, Michael Dillon, says the aesthetics of chip music cannot help but be reminiscent of the sounds that their audience grew up listening to when playing video games. “That is something that really helps us connect to the audience on a different level from most bands,” Dillon says. “While most of our songs sound so incredibly different from the compositions of those games, the hardware ensures that people will continue to make those comparisons, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.”
These same comparisons can also be confusing. Dillon says that the familiarity of chiptune music can sometimes mislead listeners to think the bands’ songs are unoriginal. “The ultimate fear of an artist in our genre though is that people think we are just playing some game on stage, that couldn't be further from the case. We've dumped countless hours into writing these songs in this archaic format because we love it, and we love what we can do with the medium,” Dillon explains.
Although the Chiptune audience may be small, chiptune “purist” Michael DuFault, also known as MicroD, says TX Chip has done a great job of being open-minded and supportive. “The shows I’ve performed at and attended have always been enormously positive experiences. I think that benefits the guests as much as the artists,” he says.