Chances are, if you’re into videogames or into eletronic music, you’ve heard the term “chiptune” before. For those that aren’t very familiar with them, chiptunes are just raw, cutesy, headache-inducing electronic sounds used in old videogame soundtracks. If you start digging, though, it gets a bit more complicated… and a lot more interesting!
Modern chiptunes are often seen as a single unified thing, a “style” or a “medium”, depending on who you ask, but they can be traced back to many origins and can be created in many different ways. On the one hand, we have soundtracks and sounds generated by the sound chips of retro consoles and computers, used to provide background audio to video games and other programs. Think of the Amiga, the Commodore or the original Nintendo and Game Boy, for example; or even before that, to older computers and arcades from the 70s. This is the kind of chiptune that most people think of, even today, and the most popular.
On the other, we have musicians using computer-generated sounds in their music, drum machines and electronic keyboards, usually mixed with regular instruments and a human voice. Think of… Most of the popular music from the 80s, really, which sometimes also added chippy samples and sound effects from popular games of the era.
And then, we have the demoscene, a bunch of clever people who used the first affordable home computers to make music using these same chippy sounds, often nonprofessionally and without a budget.
What did all these kinds of music originally have in common? They used computer generated sounds, made in real time by a soundchip, usually simple waves such as triangle waves, square waves, saw waves or sine waves; or, later, really compressed audio samples processed through a soundchip, which nowadays is also considered to be a kind of chiptune.
But not all of these kinds of music made the same use of these sounds, which is where it gets tricky.
In the case of older consoles and computers, of videogame soundtracks and the demoscene, “chiptune” wasn’t a style, it was a medium. Songs were made entirely using these chip sounds: like pixel-art, chiptune was born out of a technical limitation, so all kinds of tracks in all genres were made using these chip sounds. They were just the closest technology could get to actual instruments. In this sense, most companies and composers were eager to move on from raw chiptunes when sampled instruments were widely introduced in the 90s, while demosceners often reveled in those limitations and took them as a chance to showcase their technical brilliance by getting the best possible sound.
What do we have, then? We have musicians who used chiptune because they had to, until they could move on (videogame soundtracks); musicians choosing to make chiptunes to exploit the technical limitations of older computers (demoscene music), and musicians who chose to add chiptune or electronic sounds in their music as just another instrument. In the first two cases, chiptune was used entirely as a medium, and in the third case, it was a stylistic choice. In the first and third case, it was made by a company or a professional team, while in the second it was usually created independently by an individual or a bunch of friends.
Are they all chiptune? Should we consider chiptune only the ones that use raw waves instead of compressed samples? Or the ones that don’t add a human voice or other instruments? Is all demoscene music truly chiptune, or should we exclude the more modern tracks, which include higher quality audio samples?
And it doesn’t stop here. Nowadays, things are even more complicated! Most chiptune isn’t generated in real-time: instead, people use audio samples of chip sounds, so the song sounds chiptune-y but doesn’t have the limitations of the original hardware. Or they simultaneously mix sound from different chips and add aftereffects, such as playing two Game Boys at the same time through a mixer. Can this still be considered chiptune? A purist will say no, because you aren’t using chiptune as a medium. Others, such as myself, will say yes, because if it sounds like chiptune, if it uses compressed instruments or simple generated waves, who cares how it was made, really?
So what is chiptune? I will say, chiptune is the very definition of lo-fi electronic music, so any song that makes significant use of raw sound waves or really compressed audio samples can be considered chiptune. However, not everyone is going to agree with me, and that’s fine. After all, chiptune isn’t a single unified thing that belongs to anyone, and that’s the fun thing about it.