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?
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!