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Archive for the ‘Games/Tech’ Category

Getting Started with 8-bit Music

In Games/Tech, Music on May 2, 2011 at 1:37 AM

some items used in making chiptunes (from web)

I recently became interested in making what is usually called “8bit” or “chiptune” music. There is a lot of it out there, and some of it sounds pretty good. Some bands with an 8bit sound like Anamanaguchi (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHmYC8a_4cI) have actually developed decent followings in the mainstream. Alright, but what is it?

Basically, 8-bit involves using the capabilities of early electronic gaming consoles, e.g. Gameboy, Famicom, or NES, to mix and perform pieces of music. You wouldn’t necessarily expect it, but this hardware can produce a pretty phenomenal variety of sounds ranging from the characteristic bleeps to relatively complex drum kits and dubstep-like basslines.

The beauty of 8-bit is that it is relatively accessible. You don’t need a physical instrument or specialized skills (beyond a general knowledge of music). The first thing you’ll want is tracker to allow you to mix the tunes. For the gameboy, a good choice is Little Sound DJ (LSDJ) (http://www.littlesounddj.com). The physical cartridges to put in your gameboy are relatively hard to come by and maybe a bit pricey, but you can get the newest version as a file direct to your PC for $2.00, which beats the hell out of buying a keyboard. The file is worthless by itself though – you will also need a gameboy emulator which will simulate the gameboy on your PC. A good, free choice is Visual Boy Advance, which you can get at http://www.emulator-zone.com/doc.php/gba/vboyadvance.html (make sure you’re downloading the actual file at the bottom of that page – there are some misleading advertisements on that site; sigh).

Once you’ve got your ROM and emulator, you’re ready to make chiptunes. Open the emulator and open the LSDJ file from there – this will bring yo to the starting screen:

LSDJ starting screen

My mission in this post is just to get you started, so I won’t go into the specifics of manipulating the tracker here. I can direct to several tutorials that I found very helpful though! Take a look at these:
http://www.nullsleep.com/treasure/lsdj_tutorial/
http://8bc.org/wiki/index.php/LSDJ_Tutorial_by_Sabrepulse
http://littlesounddj.wikia.com/wiki/Little_Sound_Dj
…and you’ll be making your own music in no time! Be sure to check out other people’s garage creations on www.8bc.org. It’s a good place to post your own tunes (once you’re ready) or just check out other talent for some inspiration! There’s a good forum as well.

I hope this was helpful – I had a bit of trouble when I first looked into this a few weeks ago, but I’m having a great time now. I find the whole prospect very interesting – music created and performed exclusively digitally might just be the future. LSDJ is impressive in its own right, but we also have autotune, synthesizers, MIDI, and software like Symphony. Now I’ll admit that people don’t always have the nicest things to say about some of those things, but think about what they have to offer. Even if you aren’t a gifted singer when it comes down to your concrete vocal chords, you might have beautiful things to say ayway. Technology like autotune helps you to find a voice that people will want to hear.

Our self-expression is getting more and more technological, at least in my appraisal of the situation. What this means is that more and more people are getting the opportunity to connect with others in an artistic way. You might be thinking that our conventions are the problem – we should applaud singers like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits precisely because they go against our common conceptions of beautiful singing voices. In that regard, technology like autotune is harmful because it locks-in arbitrary restrictions with regard to what sounds we find appealing. These are reasonable fears, but I think that our technology will open up whole new avenues of expression – although it sometimes constricts, it also liberates. We can’t forget that this is about access and opportunity.

Minecraft and Creative Space

In Games/Tech on April 28, 2011 at 1:40 PM

People like Jaron Lanier (http://www.jaronlanier.com/) worry about the limitations which technology places on our creative pursuits. The staple example is MIDI, the music system which demands precisely-defined musical notes with a digital context that computing software can understand.

The problem with this, according to Lanier, is that life as experienced through human consciousness is not precise and transcribable; cramping it up in a piecemeal system does violence to human creative potential. Practicing what he preaches, Lanier provides many flighty, humanistic metaphors like, “Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith” (5). That sort of statement doesn’t fly in an operating system (or a dictionary for that matter).

There’s certainly some truth to Lanier’s fear. The tools we use will always have a limiting effect on our production. Violins work woderfully for certain types of music, synthesizers for others. Nevertheless, I think Lanier might focus on the wrong end of this process when he laments the loss of creative capacity which comes from selecting a particular tool. When I choose to use a blog rather than writing on paper, my product will obsviously reflect that decision, and maybe some things are sacrificed. But at the same time, choosing this particular tool affords me a wealth of new creative opportunities.

Take for instance the sensational game called Minecraft (http://www.minecraft.net/). This game independently developed by Mojang enjoys an enormous cult following despite its simplistic graphics and basic gameplay.

Minecraft allows players to harvest simple blocks of resources which they may then use to construct buildings and other structures. This premise is ridiculously limited – players literally only have access to a bunch of colorful cubes (similar to MIDI’s precise notes?). Nevertheless, players are able to take these little blocks and use them in awe-imspiring ways. How uniquely human and creative are entire cities made of blocks? Or a giant, blocky version of the earth? Even a 1:1 scale model of the starship enterprise?

The point I’m driving at is simple: while our technologies do confine us within certain parameters, no matter what medium we are discussing, they also open up new creative avenues which we would be unable to pursue on our own. I think it’s pretty cool that I can log on to Minecraft and build a city. What makes our technology so human is its contribution to our basic biology.