8 bit Gaming Sounds

Smart Tips: Inject Some 8 bit Gaming Sounds Into Your Music!

Okay, so it’s not just the 8-bit era that had the cool music, but it’s those chunky boxes of yore that people tend to associate with retro game sounds.

How do you go about adding chip sounds to your own tracks? Let’s find out

‘Chip tune’, as it’s affectionately called by its afficionados, is a genre all of its own; a purist chiptune composer picks a system and sticks to it – limitations and all – but there’s many a chip tuner that prefers to go fast and loose with the rules, and in recent years video game styled sounds have found favour in a huge variety of music genres. How do you go about adding them to your own tracks? Let’s find out.

The real question is this: what are the things that make old school sounds old school sounds?

  • Low sample rate and bit depth. Be prepared to leave the high fidelity of the 21st century behind and listen to the crunch of a less accurate generation. As sample rate drops, we’re more likely to get aliasing, which is down to the inability of the sound DAC to keep up with the signal accurately enough to give a ‘true’ depiction of the pure sound. Think of it like when you see the spokes on a wheel spinning fast and your brain can’t quite tell which direction they’re going in, but with audio. It can lead to errant harmonics that can dramatically alter the tone of a basic waveform, and set just right you can get a eureka moment when shooting for an 8 bit sound. Don’t go too far, though. Crushing the bit depth of the signal will decrease the Signal to Noise Ratio of the sound, making it more noisy and less accurate… just like the old school.
  • Basic waveforms and filters. Don’t expect to play around with the kind of crazy waveforms you can find in modern synths and happen upon a classic sound – stick to classic square, saw, and sine waves! Oh, and don’t forget a bit of noise. Always pick the least powerful filter you can, too – 8dB/o is a good starting point and if you can get lower then do!
  • System limitations. Polyphony in classic systems was really low, and keeping it as such is an important step in fooling our ears into thinking we’re hearing the classics. Effects were basic or non existant, and often basics like delay were simulated by altering volume on the track.
  • Composition techniques. Due in part to the way classic computer music was made with grid based ‘trackers’, a quickfire style of composition with fast runs and arpeggiators was very popular. Try going into 32nd or even 64th notes to draw in notes, and either choose an arpeggiator pattern or if you’re feeling adventurous why not pick a key and draw in a wild pattern of your own into the piano roll?
  • Glitches. There are a million little idiosyncacies in those old sound chips, from inaccurate clocks to dropped polyphony to the kind of craziness that circuit bending nutjobs (no offence, experimenters) try and capitalise on by joining traces and mangling things up on the boards. In order to insert a little unpredictability of your own into proceedings, why not try assigning your synth’s pitch, filter, or anything else for that matter to an LFO and picking the most irregular shape you can find?

Here’s how to actually get those sounds.

We found an awesome free plugin for Mac and PC that hands the chiptune sound to you on a plate: YMCK’s Magical 8bit Plug. The only drawback is it can be a little unstable on certain hosts. We also rustled up a cross platform freeware bitcrusher plugin: TAL BitCrusher. Use it on a basic subtractive synth and experiment…

Plogue’s Chipsounds succeeds in nailing a wide variety of classic sound chips

If you’re a Windows user, you’ve got a lot of options when it comes to ready made plugins to give you a retro sound, mainly because the relatively simple sound generators required are ripe for independent software developers to cut their teeth on. Mac users have less choice, but for both systems when it comes to recommendations above and beyond the freeware we’ve mentioned, as far as we’re concerned the be all and end all is Plogue’s Chipsounds (which we reviewed here). It doesn’t just go for ‘sounds like retro’ sound, it really tries – and succeeds – in nailing a wide variety of classic sound chips. If, however, you find a particular favourite emulator then let us know!

Chipsounds 1.5

Review: Plogue Chipsounds 1.5

To a particular subset of the population, those whose formative years fell inside the 80s and early 90s, the blips and bloops of the primitive sound chips of classic computer and video games machines are our lullabies. Something primitive endears sounds of our childhoods to us irrevocably, and thus ‘chip tune’, the art and science of utilising those sounds to create music, even today sounds magical – but yet, not just to the people who were around at the time. Plogue are firm advocates of both the art and the science of chip tune, and have done their best to create the ultimate emulation of 15 classic sound chips. How successful were they?

Chip tune really is both an art and a science. Much more involved than simply running a few synths through a bit crusher, classic sound chips like the Commodore 64 SID have idiosyncracies that not only define their sound, but inform composition styles best suited to them.

classic sound chips like the Commodore 64 SID have idiosyncracies that not only define their sound, but inform composition styles best suited to them

Chipsounds combines two approaches in an attempt to create the most authentic emulations of the 15 instruments it offers – oversampled oscillators and mathematical emulations of the chip characteristics are combined with sampling some of the more idiosyncratic chips’ waveforms and characteristics – striking a balance between creating the most organic emulation and capturing the real world eccentricities that it would require chaos theory levels of computing power to accurately synthesise. To all intents and purposes, the results are uncannily similar – the only thing belying the sounds in the end is the character given to the audio by the original enclosures and speakers involved.

The ominous silhouettes that are conjured by selecting the various ambiguously lettered soundchips include Nintendo’s NES and Gameboy, Commodore 64 and 16, Atari’s 2600 and ST, the Spectrum 128, and the BBC Micro

In what is presumably an exercise in lawsuit avoidance, care is taken not to be too explicit about the exact systems Chipsounds emulates. The ominous silhouettes that are conjured by selecting the various ambiguously lettered soundchips include Nintendo’s NES and Gameboy, Commodore 64 and 16, Atari’s 2600 and ST, the Spectrum 128, and the BBC Micro.  There are even more obscure console and arcade sound chips on offer, and interestingly not only a Casio VL-1 keyboard chip, but a chip appropriated by Korg in, amongst other things, the Poly 800.

Of course, the original chips that Chipsounds emulates were limited by low bit depth and sample rate, low polyphony, and various other restrictions. Chipsounds allows you to circumvent some of these limitations in the name of usefulness, but the manual does its best to point out practices you should keep to if you want to stay faithful to the originals. One of the most conspicious of these limitations is pitch accuracy, and you can choose to either work with their limitations or use a pitch perfect ‘fantasy’ version when selecting the chip.

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