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Steve's interview with two inventors of music programs for nintendo gameboy.

In Italy it is easy to forget that making music is, among other things, a form of play. In English, German and French, for example, the verb to play applies both to games and to music. The great popularity of video games has led to a natural hybrid that continues to grow in popularity around the world: 8-bit music, also known as “chiptunes” or “micromusic”. A true aesthetic, that of sounds generated by microprocessors, free of the mimetic pretenses of sample-based synthesis. The 8-bit sound is honest and light, with just enough limitations to let creativity run wild. And the tribe seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, as proven by the recent Blip Festival (november 30 – december 3 2006) in New York. The following is a conversation with the inventor-programmers of two of the most widely used software applications for the creation of 8-bit videogame music. Johan Kotlinski (in arte “Role Model”, born in 1979 in Sweden) is the inventor and distributor of Little Sound Dj (LSDj), and a fine micromusic composer in his own right. Oliver Wittchow is the inventor and distributor of Nanoloop, a very popular micromusic program that runs (like LSDj) on the Nintendo Game Boy Advance. One of the coolest things about Game Boy music is the possibility of linking consoles together, allowing many people to have an 8-bit jam session. More than a concert, the experience of an 8-bit performance is often more like a happening, with the participation of lots of console jockeys, all wired together. In the near future bluetooth linkage will make this social aspect of the music-making process even more intriguing.
Steve for inSound: How did you get the idea of inventing new software for commercial game hardware? Did it evolve out of something you were already doing?
Johan: I have a background in hobby programming, and trying to do something with the Game Boy was a fun project for me. Also, as a musician, I had been looking for some kind of portable musical notepad for a long time. It was a very interesting challenge to see how good I could make a music program for the Game Boy - I wasn't too satisfied with the music programs already available. LSDj was finally ready for shipping (I handle orders for the cartridges directly) in 2000.
Oliver: In late 1997 I was sitting around with a friend and we plugged the Game Boy into his home stereo to listen to game music. Then he said it should be possible to program the Game Boy just like his old Commodore 64 computer. Suddenly we both realized that we wanted a music program. I had never programmed anything before, but my friend taught me some BASIC basics, and then gameboy basic (programming language). So it just evolved, out of nothing.

Steve: Did the availability of virgin cartridges for Game Boys happen because people were hacking/copying game programs?
Johan: I guess most people want to use rewritable "backup" cartridges for copying games, and without piracy, maybe these cartridges would not exist. But there are also a lot of valid, legal uses, such as allowing people to make their own software. I hope the good causes equal the bad, and that the backup systems can stay alive.
Oliver: The first blank flash cartridge was a pure hacker tool (the "carbon copy card" by Jeff Frohwein). It was not really available but rather a set of instructions how to modify an existing game with a flash chip. One could also buy it as a ready-made cartridge, but that was rather complicated and expensive. It was not useful for copying games but just for freaks like us who wanted to program our own stuff by any means.
The commercial cartridges that appeared a bit later were meant for game piracy, "homebrew" (do-it-yourself programming) was just a side effect. Their makers certainly profitted from the hacking knowledge that was available, and on the other side the wider availability of flash carts (carts is short for cartridges, ed.) made hacking/programming much easier.

Steve: Can you think of any other commercial products that could be modified using a similar approach? Are there any products on the market today that would lend themselves to reprogramming or some combination of software and circuit-bending?
Johan: I think the Nintendo DS looks like a lot of fun, but unfortunately I haven't had a lot of time to look into it.

Oliver: There are many commercial products which are improved/hacked by users today. Common examples would be the iPod (with ipodlinux), AIBO robots, routers, cellphones, etc. And of course there is a lively scene of underground console-development, including programs for Nintendo DS and Sony Playstation. Given the number of websites and computer magazine articles dedicated to re-programming of consumer devices, it seems like it has become a popular sport today.
I think the old Game Boy is still the most appealing device because it's cute, cheap and very robust. There are not too many new projects for this hardware, but the Dot Matrix Gameboy was the first to get a wide audience, and became sort of a prototype for circuit bending.

Steve: I always find it exciting when somebody manages to subvert mass-market technology and turn it to a new, more interesting purpose. Even the start of the hip-hop movement, which I personally witnessed in NY in the early 80s, was about grabbing control of the means of production… recording studios were expensive, the industry was closed to new ideas, so guys started to 'play' turntables and mixers, looping riffs, interfacing drum machines with vinyl loops, 'stealing' riffs from commercial music and rapping on top of them. The 8-bit scene has a similar social dynamic, you can participate in the music making, not just consume it as a passive 'victim' of what the industry wants you to buy. Any thoughts on the situation at present?
Johan: Well, of course it's possible to compare 8-bit music to hip hop, punk and what not :)
The difference is that hip-hop was very visible from the start, while 8-bit music has a 20-year long practically underground history behind it. Only in recent years have the people who are interested in this stuff become more self-concious about what they are doing, and started to blend in more with the "real" music business, starting clubs, record labels, all that. I think the Internet helped a lot with this. New social networks have been formed, together with new channels for spreading information, music and knowledge. And people who are into doing this, now feel they are part of a global movement, instead of just being the lone nerd of a city.

Oliver: LSDj and maybe especially nanoloop certainly pushed the "democratization" of electronic music production to a new level. That's where I see a social dynamic: people who never were in touch with electronic music before start to play nanoloop, have some instant fun and quickly develop their own style. Some of them spontaneously form music groups with regular meetings, performances and even releases. It's great to see such things happen.

I'm a little sceptical about that subversion myth though. I think emancipation of a tool's intended purpose does not necessarily mean "misuse", that's just one option. And naturally that emancipation can't be delivered by the tool but is solely the user's business. Using a conservative, boring tool like, say, Garage Band may be just as subversive or creative as using a Game Boy, even when using that tool straight within its specification. In this context, LSDj and nanoloop are just well designed products with a strong brand, not fundamentally different from other music tools. Whether their users feel like passive "victims" or like creative artists is only up to them, we can't help them with that.

In those early days you mentioned, people extended the use of limited equipment because they had no access to studios, etc. Today, semi-professional tools are quite affordable, everyone with a PC can easily "grab control" of music production and participate, so the social situation is significantly different. But with the arrival of all the new possibilities, many found that it was the limitations -which were just vanishing- rather than the possibilities that drove innovation in those good old times. Thus they now actively seek new challenges on limited platforms like the Game Boy - although many of them do have a little studio in their PC and the situation is not the same as in the 80s.

5 Have you had any feedback from the game industry? Has Nintendo offered you a consulting contract or anything? What would be your reaction if they did?
Johan: Nothing at all, so far. I really think it is below the radar. It's not anything like a normal game, and it's aimed for musicians, rather than kids. So it's not very similar to anything a game publisher might be interested in - unfortunately!

Oliver: Nintendo never reacted to my (few, careful) attempts to contact them. With regard to their business model I understand there is no other way to deal with nanoloop than just ignoring it: they can't "legalize" it and give me a developer/distribution license because that would encourage others to produce unlicensed games and would be unfair against those who follow the traditional (long and expensive) path to publishing. A niche product like nanoloop would not fit with the production and marketing machinery for official Game Boy games and would probably be a commercial flop.

On the other hand, they don't do anything against nanoloop because there are no legal grounds for that. Nanoloop does not violate laws, and a campaign like that would just bring them bad publicity.

Of course all this is just conjecture, as I said I never actually spoke to Nintendo.

While Nintendo remained mute, a couple of companies for music hardware and software have contacted me and there was temporary cooperation with some of them. One intended to take over the entire nanoloop project. However, I decided it was better to handle nanoloop by myself, loosely networking with other people and other small businesses. It's a niche product and would probably not be profitable when handled "professionally", e.g. blown up with marketing campaigns, long distribution chain, etc.

With the next generation of consoles (PS3, xbox360, wii), there finally seems to be some careful opening in the business model, allowing small companies to distribute their products online. We'll see how far that goes and what the conditions are.

Steve: The notion of a "lo-fi" aesthetic has spread beyond music to other arts
and even into philosophy, urging a new attention toward more essential
things, a kind of accent on the content over the container. The paradox is
that some people end up making lo-fi art with very expensive, sophisticated
hi-fi tools.

Any relationship between this and the 8-bit aesthetic? Does an identifiable
8-bit aesthetic exist?

Johan: Yeah, it's probably a good live strategy for people to press play on their laptops and wave around Gameboys on stage for the show. :)

Steve: Making music with technological means, I've been getting more interested
recently in finding ways to make time more elastic... sometimes I really appreciate the elastic time you can find in classical music, where the performer is constantly stretching or compacting time in an expressive, flexible way. Not the same as notching up a sequencer...

Johan: I would have to say it is a valid critique, I myself always keep the tempo locked during the entire song. However, I feel it is very much up to the musician. I know some electronic musicians who are quite good at consciously using pitch and tempo changes both as a mean of composition, and as a way to interact with the audience. For example
Goto80, and a lot of breakcore people like Overthruster, DJ Scotch Egg and OVe-NaXx... Especially when it comes to sample-based breakcore, it's not very possible to modify the sounds a lot while playing, so using tempo changes come very handy.

Of course it is true for all ways of making music, the production methods very much influence the way you work with it. If you can achieve the same goal (e.g. a gradual increase in intensity) in different ways, I think it is reasonable that people choose the least
tedious way of doing it. And obviously a pianist would have to choose a very different approach than a violinist. Personally I like to play a lot with timing, but I tend use polyrhythms and syncopes instead of playing with the BPM or rhythm signatures.


http://www.nullsleep.com/ (includes good LSDj tutorial)

PLUS: two interesting new Italian links