Photo by Su1 Root
We’re getting ready for Lebowskifest on June 4th! We’re very excited for this event, especially the pre-movie performance by Chipocrite. He’ll be performing songs from the soundtrack using his 8-bit audio technology from his Game Boy. We had a chance to sit down with Chipocrite and ask him some questions about his unique musical stylings.
When did you get the idea to incorporate Game Boy with your music?
I first learned about “chip music” in about 2004 or 2005 when a friend of mine introduced me to a Japanese group called YMCK. I was fascinated by it and obsessed with the sound and concept. I totally wanted to do it myself, but I had no means to learn how they were doing it, and it just seemed way too complicated and scary. A few years later, my interest was re-sparked when I learned that a scene was developing right here in the U.S. involving. Artists like Bit Shifter and Animal Style were creating similar music with Game Boys, and even though I still had no idea how– it seemed a little easier to. Fortunately for me, Philadelphia was developing its own great chip scene, and some of the people involved started hosting a monthly event called 8static in West Philly. The very first 8static I attended featured a short pre-show seminar on how to get started using Little Sound DJ, and that 15-minute presentation was enough to get me hooked.
So I went home that night, bought a license for LSDJ, downloaded it and a Game Boy emulator to run it, and got started right away. Eventually, I got the necessary hardware, flashed the software onto a writeable Game Boy cartridge and was working on the actual console. The obsession grew from there, and I quickly discovered that I didn’t just enjoy the sounds of the old video game chips — I also just really connected with the software as a songwriting tool. I’ve been attached to it ever since.
What is the most challenging thing about using this technology?
The challenges are really what make it fun and exciting to use, to be honest. These old sound chips don’t just play back pre-loaded songs and sampled sound effects that are stored on the cartridge — data in the game’s code tells the console what sounds to generate based on its sound chip’s capabilities. The Game Boy has four sound “channels” that you can control using LSDJ, and that’s really it. This means that basically, if you’re only composing with one Game Boy at a time (which is generally how I operate), you can only play back four sounds at any given time, so the challenge is to “trick” the listener into thinking there’s a lot more going on. Before I got started with this, I had never really used my brain the way I have to when writing chip music — it’s almost more like problem solving at times, figuring out how you can fit all the sounds you want into the limited space you have to make your song as full as possible. For me, it’s not enough to just have repetitive patterns and standard drum beats over and over. I like to push the limitations as far as possible and always create something interesting to listen to in the confines of what I’m working with.
Aside from that, there’s also an element of challenge involved with the fact that old hardware can be sorta “crashy” when it wants to, and sometimes, unlicensed and handmade/shady third-party cartridges can be straight-up frightening to use because you can lose literally days of hard work if something goes wrong. I’ve heard horror stories of cartridges getting wiped during live performances… It’s scary, but it’s rewarding when it all goes right!
How long does it take you to produce a song?
Depends on the song, really, and what goes into the production process. By “production” I mean composing, arranging, tracking, tweaking, reworking, editing, etc. etc. etc. If I basically have a song’s structure planned out in my head (or if I’m doing a cover of a song that already has a structure, which was primarily the case for Lebowski Fest), once I sit down to track it out with the Game Boy, it might only take a few hours to get down, then a few more to add some transitions and flourishes. Some songs written specifically on the Game Boy take more time than that, since I also have to figure out arrangement and such. I’d say it ranges from five to maybe as much as like, 10 hours to do a whole song.
Did you have a favorite “song” with one of your childhood games?
Man, there are so many to choose from. It’s hard to pick one specific song, but a few entire game soundtracks come to mind. Interestingly, I always loved games where you could tell they really tried to do something unique with the music — for example, a game like Maniac Mansion for NES, which had a different song for each of the characters all matched up with the characters’ personalities. Or Super Dodge Ball, in which you toured the world trying to kill the opposing team by beaning them with a volley ball (really) — that game was especially great because each country had its own incredibly clever, albeit borderline stereotypical/offensive theme music. One more unsung classic soundtrack I loved was Predator, which had a lot of really interesting recurring themes and really emotional songwriting (though the game itself was atrocious). I don’t think I could choose just one song from any of those games, but I would be lying if I tried to say they didn’t influence my stuff nowadays.