The Enlightened Nerd: Chiptune Music Series


The Enlightened Nerd is a column designed to enlighten the inner nerd in all of us through local whimsical and intellectual events, people, and places. Know a nerdy person, event, place, or thing in Vancouver? Send it in here or tweet it to @karolinathecat (#theenlightenednerd)

Photo: Max Pixel
Photo: Max Pixel

What ever happened to all of our beloved game consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Gameboy, and the Commodore 64? Besides becoming collector’s items, these vintage consoles are being used to create music!

Chiptune, or 8-bit music, is harmonized electronic music, which is made from the programmable sound generation (PSG) sound chips found in these older machines. In other words, chiptune is the art of making original music using old video and computer game sound hardware. Combined with heavy bass, the low-bit tracks pack a nostalgic punch.

While mostly an underground genre, chiptune is an important piece of the 21st century electronic music scene.

Vancouver celebrated its first chiptune showcase back in September 2016 titled the OVERFLOW Series, and now its second instalment returns to the Vancouver Arts and Leisure next month. A blast for audiophiles, gamers and techies alike, the night will feature four different experienced composers creating tunes off of obsolete gaming consoles. The artists include boaconstructor and GLOOMS from Seattle, and Hitori Tori and Fastbom from Vancouver.

In the spirit of the upcoming show, The Enlightened Nerd spoke with Bryan Chan, chiptune musician and chief curator of the OVERFLOW Series. Bryan writes and performs under the pseudonym bryface. He is a part of the global chiptune community and wants to create a dynamic space for the unique genre in Vancouver.

Q: How would you describe chiptune music to the unconverted?
 The beepy, lo-fi “8-bit” sound that most people know comes from old game systems using cheap, simple circuits to generate sound with basic waveforms.  Chiptune musicians write music using custom software that controls (or at least imitates) these very sound chips.

Over the years, chip music has advanced by leaps and bounds far beyond the wildest expectations of even the original game composers and sound hardware designers.  There is some seriously innovative and heavy stuff being made, from bassy futuristic dance music to avant-garde jazz, that deserves to be heard and enjoyed by a wider audience.

Q: How did you get into making chiptune music? What appeals to you from this unique musical genre?
A: I used to write electronic music via conventional methods, but I often encountered writer’s block because the tools for creating music kept getting more numerous and complicated!

By contrast, writing authentic chip music means adhering to some pretty severe limitations: only a few basic sounds are possible, and only three or four notes can be playing at any given time.  But as I started writing music in this style I oddly found myself being more productive and creative; it turns out that these very limitations allowed me to settle upon creative decisions quickly.

With chip music there is of course a certain nostalgia that evokes the simpler days of childhood.  But to me, it’s always been more about these sounds having a certain unadulterated rawness and bite to them that I really like.

Q: What are you looking forward to most at the second chiptune showcase?
A: With OVERFLOW, we’re committed to showcasing the wonderfully diverse variety of styles and approaches to chiptune that exist today.  Our first show back in September featured musicians that were funk, progressive metal and jazz; this next show will be more dance- and techno-heavy, with darker, more experimental elements.   We’re also serious about occasionally featuring great musicians outside of our city, and as such we’re featuring a couple of friends of ours, boaconstructor and GLOOMS, who both come from Seattle – a city itself blessed with an abundance of chiptune talent over the years.

Beyond that, we’re just really excited to follow up on the interest that was built from the first show.  People are starting to get a sense of the dent we want to make in Vancouver’s cultural landscape – a fun and unique show where people can expect to be wowed repeatedly by what obsolete machines can do.

Q: Bonus question, what’s your favourite video game and on which system?
A: My vote would have to go to Kirby’s Adventure on the Nintendo Entertainment System.  This game was made very near to the end of the NES’ lifecycle, and it really shows; the art, music, animations and technical achievements are unparalleled!  Yet another example of what can result when you achieve full mastery of a piece of technology by having a deep understanding of its capabilities.

Overflow 001: Live Chiptune Music
Thursday March 23rd, 2017
Vancouver Arts and Leisure Space
Tickets: $12 online and $15 at the door