As the rest of the world braced for Armageddon on May 21, 2011, chip musicians from across the globe gathered at the Eyebeam in Manhattan for the final night of Blip Festival, 2011. Shawn Martin (guitar) and Ryan Stailey (drums) of Noisewaves kicked off the night with a brilliant blend of Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), live drums, and Cyclone guitar.
Chip music, aka chip tunes, is an instrument not a genre. No Carrier explains that chip music uses specific sound chips that came from older hardware such as the NES’s dedicated audio chip. Unlike today’s computers, older chips came with specific sounds built into them. Chip musicians, such as Ashley Charles of Sabrepulse, apply this instrumentation to many genres of music. When I asked Damon Hardjowirogo of Starscream about video games he said: “Chip music is as much about video games as astronomy is about telescopes.”
Jeremiah Johnson of Nullsleep, cofounder of 8bitpeoples, organizer of Blip Festival, explains that the NES chip is a 4-channel audio setup: Two channels are pulse generators, one is for pulse-code modulation (PCM) playback, and the fourth is a noise generator. Mixing these four signals gives you NES chip music.
Every chip music performance at Blip Festival included a live, visual art projection on the three large screens behind the stage. DeadBeatBlast explains that the mixing of chiptunes and live visuals is a throw back to the 1980s demoscene where people distributed floppy disks with music and visuals written into a small program. Often the visuals would comprise some floating text and computer animation, and some would even sample very short video clips.
Most of the time a visual artist will team up with a musician but in rare cases the same artist will provide both the music and the visuals, which is technically very challenging. One artist that was able to provide both the audio and live visuals was Starscream (George Stroud on drums, Nathan Ritholz on guitar, and Damon Hardjowirogo on keyboards). The show went off without a glitch. Boasting an impressive discography, Starscream was recently featured on MTV’s Skins. Damon explains that selling the band’s swag and appearing on Skins gave Starscream the capital to produce their new album Future, Towards the Edge of Forever. When Damon was sixteen he saw Anamanaguchi playing The Tank in TriBeCa. Peter Berkman’s guitar strap broke and he held up his guitar for him for the rest of the song. That was when he was a fan-boy. Now Damon and Pete are friends and Starscream is a prominent member of the chip-musician community.
Henry Homesweet finished off the fest with great stage presence and heart-pumping, face-melting experimental electronic music. He even played an encore, which required some on the spot programming, and brought up a vocalist. M7Kenji supplied eye-watering live visuals on the three screens set up behind the stage. These young artists pull off incredible technical challenges while making it look easy and having a lot of fun doing it. This writer will be sure to check out Blip Festival 2012 and highly recommends the experience to anyone looking for a good show.