Back in 2014 I had an article published in The Metro newspaper about my experiences with Chiptunes (making music with old games consoles). The original article, as of July 2019 at least, can still be found at this link but as I wrote it, I’ve copied and pasted it all below. Note that if you read the original, I can only assume that the Metro has some kind of auto-correct built in to it’s publishing software/portal/whatever they use as it’s incorrectly changed every instance of the term “LSDJ” (a popular chiptune program) to “LSD” (a popular controlled substance) among other incorrect “corrections”. First world problems, I guess…
HOW TO MAKE MUSIC ON A GAMEBOY
A couple of years ago while on holiday in Italy it rather unexpectedly rained. My girlfriend and I retreated to our hotel room where we were unfortunately consigned to for the rest of the evening, being stuck half way up a mountain with nothing but shorts and T-shirts in our suitcases.
While holed up, we had the choice of about eight TV channels for entertainment: BBC News (the international version), some Italian music channels (which if you’ve ever been to Italy you will know are appalling), Al Jazeera and. It was on the Arab news channel that I found an unusual programme exploring popular music from all over the world. It was here that I first heard proper chip music!
The featured band was a group from Japan called Omodaka whose song, Kokoriko Bushi, fused Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing with a traditional Japanese Enka song. But the element that really caught my attention was that all of the instrumentation was made up of sounds from my youth – the 8-bit sounds of the games consoles I played as a child. There was always something wonderful about the melodies and timbres that accompanied games before full 16-bit audio arrived and this was like a wonderful fusion of my love of music and my love of games!
Suffice it to say that as soon as I got back to England I downloaded their music and have been enjoying it ever since but as a musician myself I often wondered how these sounds were made and assumed I would have to hack a Game Boy into a million pieces and get a soldering iron out if I was ever to emulate what I’d heard – much like the ‘circuit-bending’ craze of hacking up old toy keyboards. How wrong I was…
Skip forward to August of last year and I was clearing out some old boxes at my dad’s house. I found a GameBoy my brother had been given by his friend 10 or so years ago and promptly rescued it for the charity pile. It was missing its front screen protector and had a few scratches and dents but it was at least working so I figured now would be as good a time as any to see what it would take to make a musical instrument out of this beast.
Rather surprisingly, all I needed was a blank USB enabled cartridge (£30 online) and a piece of custom software called Little Sound DJ or LSDJ for short, coded entirely by one single very clever chip music enthusiast.
What I must first point out is that making music on a GameBoy is not like making music on a guitar, keyboard or other instrument. LSDJ is a “tracker” which means you have to input lines of music by telling the machine when to play a note and what note to play. You then press play and hopefully what you’ve told it to do sounds good!
Some degree of musical knowledge is useful, such as a knowledge of simple musical scales and keys, but it’s not essential – a lot of people manage to get something that sounds reasonable with a little trial and error and as the electronic sounds lend themselves to dance music, which by it’s nature is usually fairly musically straightforward, passable results are very achievable. LSDJ does have a very steep learning curve but there are lots of guides available online.
Trackers are not the only option, however. There is a program called MusicTech for GameBoy which maps a note to each button on the Game Boy. You then play notes “live” by pressing the buttons. There are several downsides to this, however. Firstly, there are only eight buttons: four on the D-pad, A, B, Select and Start, so you only get eight notes. The other downside is that it’s very difficult to press the buttons in time – we’ve all struggled with rhythm action/QTE sections at some point or another, I’m sure!
In addition to the already DIY nature of the software required for music making on the GameBoy, there is a big modification scene. Any serious chip musician will want the Pro Sound modification, which alters the audio circuits of the console and lets you plug two phono plugs or a mini-jack into the top of your Game Boy for improved, less buzzy/noisy sound.
Another mod is the backlit screen – essential for anyone who wants to remove the eye-blistering strain of looking at the unlit LCD display in anything less than perfect sunlight (those of you who have owned an original GameBoy will understand!). If you’re feeling lazy, there’s also a considerable market in pre-modified consoles.
For more dedicated electronic musicians who want to incorporate the unmistakable GameBoy sound into their general gig or studio set-up, it’s possible to connect it to a PC or other musical instrument using the standard MIDI protocol and the mGB software. A USB adapter is available from Nanoloop or you can make a connection box using the Arduino electronics platform – an ArduinoBoy. Simply add an old link-up cable like the one you used to use to trade your Pokémon with your mates and you’re away, triggering notes from your computer or a MIDI keyboard, for example.
Some of the more talented chiptune composers have produced incredible work, especially when you consider the Game Boy’s inherent limitations. It has only four audio channels: pulse one, pulse two, and wave, all of which are able to produce musical notes. The fourth channel can only produce white noise, which was typically manipulated for sound effects such as explosions within games so technically there are only three musical channels available, which almost beggars belief when you listen to how complex some of the pieces are.
But it is often said that the limitations on the original systems and games only served to inspire the composers to absolutely maximise the hardware available to them and there are plenty of great (and not so great!) examples on ChipMusic.org, which is a community frequented by many prominent chip musicians.
In short, it’s surprisingly easy to reinvigorate your old Game Boy and barrier to entry for even the most tone deaf person is relatively low. Similar products are available for the NES, too, though they are comparatively expensive and far less common as they are more complicated to produce than the relatively simple GameBoy set-up. If you just want to make music with the classic 8-bit sounds there are several programs you can use on computers that completely circumvent the need for original consoles, though as a bit of a purist I enjoy seeing my GameBoy brought back to life and steer clear of the emulators.
There are also artists who use several GameBoys linked together to make a bigger, more musically complex sound, or who use recording technology to multi-track one machine or manipulate and increase the musical possibilities of the sounds the GameBoy can produce. Opinions are mixed on whether chip music should simply be the sound one console can make without external interference or whether the use of additional technology only enhances the ability and musical scope of what is essentially a very basic synthesiser. The most important thing as far as I’m concerned is to get involved, give it a go and make some cool-sounding music!
So, that’s my Metro article. If you want to hear just what a GameBoy can do, take a look at this video which is my festive cover of Low’s “Just Like Christmas” - a favourite of mine which I made for a charity Christmas compilation. It was made by feeding the Gameboy’s audio into a computer recording program and multi-tracking the sounds to create a much bigger musical arrangement than would be possible with just the GameBoy on its own. Every sound you hear, sleigh bells and all, is produced by the GameBoy itself (with the obvious exception of the vocals).