Gameboys are back in fashion as music makers for the masses

A new craze is sweeping clubs with music makers armed with Ataris, Gameboys and Commodore 64 and utilizing their old music making software to create clubbing anthems

(SABREPULSE) – It was a cultural icon of the early nineties and now the Nintendo Gameboy is back in fashion but for a different reason: it’s one of a number of old consoles being utilized by musicians to create a wave of music called chiptune, chip music or 8-bit music.

Irish-born Niamh Houston is considered one of the most prominent artists in this counterculture scene, where she is known as Chipzel.

“Chip music is music that is composed on old computer hardware or retro consoles,” she explained. “So those would be like consoles that you might have played back in the day like the Atari systems, the Commodores or Gameboys like I use and you can use what’s known as a tracker programme to hack into the sound chip in these consoles and use it as you would a synthesiser.”

Although chiptune originated in the 1980s, when it enjoyed significant popularity, that popularity eventually waned. In the mid-2000’s the scene suddenly erupted again with artists such as Beck, The Killers, and No Doubt using samples in their tracks and more recently artists such as deadmau5, Kesha and Timbaland have done the same.

Now, the scene is gaining popularity particularly in Japan, USA, UK and Australia where club nights and festivals are on the rise, according to Ashley Charles, another prominent chipmusic maker and DJ known to his fans as Sabrepulse.

He explained: “I think the main appeal of chiptune music is it’s quite nostalgic in that it’s using video game software and hardware from the 1980s and early nineties to make sounds that sound like modern sound but using the old hardware.”

Although the scene might seem to outsiders as niche, it’s a hobby anyone can take up.

“To get the software and get the Gameboy, it’s so easy,” explained Chipzel. “You can go onto eBay and can find a Gameboy – someone’s unwanted old Nintendo Gameboy and I’m talking the big brick, the original one – you can probably get that from between £10 and £15 at most and then the software is actually donation and the guy is quite humble and he makes this software and he updates it regularly but you can choose what you pay for it.”

“If you’ve got a background in music it helps, but you also don’t need to,” said Sabrepulse. “It’s a really good intro into making music to start off with and that’s what a lot of people like me and Chipzel and similar musicians starting off making chiptune music and then went on to different things or have yet to move onto different things.”

Chipzel may be still hooked on her Gameboy for music production, but she has moved on to other things. She is now the star of a new computer game, ‘Spectra’. The game’s makers, Gateway Interactive, were so impressed with her album that they decided to make it the centrepiece of their new game rather than just adding it on at the end of production.

“The whole game is built around the music and that is a very literal translation so we’ve not designed anything in the game,” explained Gateway Interactive’s studio director Louis Deane. “What we did instead is we built algorithms, very much like search algorithms that run something like Google. What those algorithms do is they listen to the music and then they use the energy of the music to generate the rest of the game so everything you see and interact with in the game is somehow influenced by the music.”

According to Sabrepulse, with more and more artists picking up chiptune for their singles – like Kesha with ‘Tik Tok’ – the future of music is retro. “I’ve been doing it for about 10 years and I’ve seen it go from such a small niche sort of thing to big bands using these sounds and in the charts, you can hear quite a lot of influences from the styles that you can make with the Gameboys or Ataris or Amigas, you start to see like big musicians and pop musicians using these things and integrating them into their music as well,” he said.

‘Spectra’ is out now on Xbox One, PC and mobile phones.