Technologicology: You Can Dance If You Chiptune, You Can Leave Your Friends Behind

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After the jump, Das Kirker introduces you to the bold new old world of the Chiptune scene. Mario Brothers fans, step right this way.


Technologicology: No-Carrier, Cheap Dinosaur,
And Animal Style Prove There’s Life After NES

While Dino Lionetti of Cheap Dinosaurs plays a pre-composed melody from his original Nintendo Gameboy, Don Miller of No-Carrier flips on his NES and a character from Balloon Fight flashes on a projected screen.

As Lionetti’s beat picks up and envelopes the room in the Gameboy’s four-channel synthesizer, the pixels inside the balloon-fighter shift color algorithmically. A lead string takes over the melody and the character cycles vertically on the screen. Using a video mixer and an NES Advantage turbo controller, Miller controls the speed, color, direction and intensity of the image projected.

Lionetti plays a second track that sounds like a Gameboy cartridge being stretched on hallucinogens. The screen changes to fuzzy lines that once meant it was time to blow the dust out of your NES; this time, Miller is in complete control.

Familiar art from games like Araknoid, Shadow Gate, and Bomberman pulse with the song, crashing toward the center of the screen in a hypnotic rush, the mirrored, confusing images calling up memories of getting yelled at for stealing your neighbor’s turn at Zelda.

Someone at the Barbary might wanna get in touch, because this scene has potential. It’s called Chiptune.

The Visuals

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Don Miller’s vintage NES setup should make you feel like an a-hole for even thinking about upgrading to HD.
Photo Credit: Mike Korostelev

Everyone always asks, why don’t you just use a computer? I’ve always been fascinated with NES graphics. I’m still trying to push the limits of what artists were doing 20 years ago.
Don Miller of No Carrier

He ain’t kidding about the limitations. The system’s processor runs at 1.79mhz and has only 2kb of external RAM. But, that’s no big deal for Miller. It still has movable backgrounds, color cycling, and can show up to 64 sprites at the same time, features that he considers “powerful.” What he showed off on Saturday at a Make:Philly event was gorgeous, even for such old technology. Windows Media Player visualizations everywhere are jealous.

The Music

It’s music production broken down into its component parts which is trying to make the human ear hear something that doesn’t really exist. When you try to make chords but you only have a few channels to work with, it’s about the limitations and going as far as you can with that.
Dino Lionetti of Cheap Dinosaurs

Defining Chiptune is dangerous, according to Joey Mariano, who runs FileFreakout, a Philadelphia-based Chiptune music label. “Some people say you have to use specific hardware, but I think Chiptune is a piece of music that might remind you of a video game or something retro. I’m a little bit more liberal,” he said. Mariano, also known by his performing name Animal Style, considers himself a Chiptune artist although he incorporates a guitar and other instruments. He even rigged up a custom controller, which he calls a “Gameboy with tentacles,” to improvise his Gameboy samples by foot, a mod that has been featured on Make: Blog.

It was originally a bunch of music nerds with Commodores who used Basic to make music.
[Chiptune] is an extension of what the composers in the 80s were doing.
Joey Mariano of Animal Style

Philly Is On, Like, Level 2.1 On The Mario Continium For The Entire Chiptune Scene

In comparison with New York City, Philly’s Chiptune scene is virginal. BlipFest, founded in ode to 8-bit production, called New York home this year and more then 2200 onlookers and 40 artists showed up from around the world. But we’re growing: Local Alex Mauer—one of FileFreakout’s artists—opened the show and No-Carrier got to show off his skills, one of only five artists working the visual spectrum.

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Sorry for the pic, Don. You do look pretty B.A., though.
Photo Credit: Mike Korostelev

In order to compliment the burgeoning Chiptune scene, and after realizing that something was missing from FileFreakout online releases, Miller worked with Mauer programming visual elements to go along with the tunes, and the two released the first NES album. “I take apart an old cartridge, reprogram fresh microchips and solder them in. I code the software using Assembly, same way that old programmers made the games,” Miller said. You need an NES to play one, but that beats the hell out of some of the most elite record collections in the cool department.

I feel like an asshole even calling HTML a language. When I look at [languages other then Assembly] I’m like ‘look at all this English in here. I can always blame my lack of skill on the NES’s limitations. — Don Miller of No Carrier

Continue Or Reset

Lionetti still uses his original Gameboy that he had as a kid in 1990. Miller explained that the only real experience he has is the time spent playing video games when he was young. The projected 8-bit art and analog-synthesized music combination is nostalgic, a throwback to being raised on retro video games. But the approach, working beyond the limitations of 25-year old technology, gives these artists real cred.

No-Carrier will be performing live with Animal Style on Monday, January 28, at the Tritone.

No-Carrier will be performing live with Animal Style and Cheap Dinosaurs on Wednesday, March 21, at the Rotunda.

Brian James Kirk is a writer and adventurer living in Philadelphia. By adventuring, he means occasionally to friends’ homes for games of Balderdash. If you know a Philadelphia technology scoop that would fit this space, you are graciously encouraged to get in touch.

Previously: Technologicology: Air To The Throne

  • dmac

    I’m a big fan of the work of 8bitpeoples, who do a lot of good Game Boy work. A couple of those guys were at the Khyber a few years back, maybe ’05?

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