Chiptunes…

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

One thing that annoys me is the recent fad in ‘8-bit’ music. Especially when people also refer to it as ‘chipmusic’ or ‘chiptunes’, then claiming that this is because of the sound chip generating the music. Well… you’re wrong!

Why would people even want to refer to the sound chip in the 8-bit era? These were the days before digital audio and DACs on sound chips, and obviously long before software synthesizers and mixing became feasible. So all music was generated by the synthesizer of the onboard sound chip by default. And indeed, at no time during my Commodore 64 years did I ever hear the term ‘chiptune’. So where did it come from then? The first time I heard the term, was on Amiga. Which ironically enough was one of the first computers that did not have an onboard synthesizer at all. Its audio chip was little more than 4 DACs, allowing two digital channels on the left and two on the right. And ironically enough, the Amiga is not an 8-bit machine.

If you look at the Wikipedia page for chiptunes, you will already see somewhat of a hint to the Amiga anyway:

In fact it is arguable that the term “chip music” was originally used in reference to the sample based tracker style of music on the Amiga and similar platforms; however, in its modern form, the terms “chip music”, and “chiptune” refer to music made by the sound chips found within early gaming systems and microcomputers.

This is also how I recall it. “Chiptunes” or “chipmods” on Amiga were tunes that were made to be really small, by having very small samples. Each instrument was generally a sample of only a few cycles long at most, which was looped constantly, and would only occupy a few bytes. They were very popular for small cracktros (which might explain how they later got used for keygens on PC, and why people now sometimes call them ‘keygen music’). These tiny samples might explain the term ‘chip’: you can see the samples as tiny ‘chips’ cut off from longer waveforms:

Chip sample

However, clearly, these are still samples, rather than generated by a sound chip, as on the older 8-bit machines. Also, especially the Commodore 64’s SID chip was famous for the effects you could apply with its filter and ring modulator. The Amiga could do no such thing, it could only play the samples as-is.

There are also similarities of course. These short samples were generally quite simple and ‘pure’ waveforms, much like the simple block, sawtooth or triangle waveforms that the sound chips of most 8-bit computers would generate. Chords would also often be simulated by playing quick arpeggios with a single voice in chiptunes, much like the music for many 8-bit computers. And even filter sweeps were sometimes simulated in chiptunes, by preparing a number of pre-filtered samples, and switching between them.

However, chipmods generally kept regular sampled drums rather than simulating them by shaping noise, as most 8-bit sound chips do. As a result, chipmods tend to sound more crisp and hi-fi than regular 8-bit music:

As the Amiga Music Preservation website describes it:

What is a chiptune then?

A chiptune is a module that has a maximum size of approximately 50 Kilobytes. Most of the samples are usually synthetics so they don’t sound like any other music. Some people claim that real great composers are the ones who do chiptunes, as they would be more difficult to compose. Chiptunes on Amiga were very appreciated by cracker for their crack intros, as they require a very limited amount of disk space. Recently a tv documentary on Arte TV said that chiptune represents the future of music in the 21st century.

So there you have it. Chiptunes are not what you probably thought they were. And imagine how silly you sound when you try to defend the notion that chiptunes are named after the soundchip of 8-bit computers. Yes, tunes are named after the soundchip of 8-bit computers: SID tunes!

Update: Here is a topic on Pouet.net where the origin of chiptunes is also discussed. The general consensus is that 4-mat may have been the first to create music in this style on Amiga, around 1989-1990: http://www.pouet.net/topic.php?which=5718

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40 Responses to Chiptunes…

  1. John Young says:

    I think you are over-thinking this…..

    Was SID not a chip?

    Now I normally find your posts interesting and informative, but your tendency to argue with things that just are, is not good.

    Wasn’t TIA/AY/SID all 8 bit chips? So then their music is considered chip tunes?

    I could be wrong, but I doubt it,

    Keep up the blogs anyway, 🙂

    • Scali says:

      I think you are one of the typical n00bs that don’t get what my article explains here.
      Unlike all these people who weren’t even born when the C64 was on the market, I’ve had a C64 since around 1985 or so, and an Amiga a few years after that.
      Things “aren’t”, as you put it. I know so, because I was there at the time (which makes YOU and other ignorant people like you the ones arguing, I’m just stating facts).

      Also, you don’t get the point. Yes, the SID is a chip, as is the TIA, the AY, and whatever other chips…
      However, they all sound completely differently (not to mention that they are completely incompatible, so the songs are not interchangeable), so why would you possibly use a generic name such as ‘chiptune’ to describe them? As I already said, back in the 80s/early 90s (when this music was actually composed), this explanation did not make sense, because ALL music was generated by whatever chip there was in the machine. Even mods on the Amiga can be considered ‘chiptunes’ under that definition, after all, they were played by the Paula chip in the Amiga.
      But why then would the Amiga guys bother to make the distinction between ‘chipmods’ and regular mods? Because clearly the term came from the Amiga.
      It’s because ‘chiptune’ does not mean what you think it means, and describes a specific type of compact mods with a distinct sound and style (but technically they are played exactly the same way as all other mods).

      So yes, you are very wrong. Read the article again, click the links, read them, and try to understand what I said.
      In short, I’m saying that people these days (this means you) are clueless about what chiptunes REALLY are, and apply the term to anything that sounds remotely ‘blip-bloppy’, while having nothing to do with the actual chiptune mods where the name came from.

      • From your reply, and very definition;
        “Also, you don’t get the point. Yes, the SID is a chip, as is the TIA, the AY, and whatever other chips…
        However, they all sound completely differently, so why would you possibly use a generic name such as ‘chiptune’ to describe them?”
        …would also mean that in real world music, you couldn’t label songs typically called ‘Rock’ music or ‘Pop’ music unless they are all produced with the same instruments, setups and limitations.

        It just doesn’t work that way. Chiptune music is the generic term given now to music produced by retro computers, be it the C64, Sinclair Spectrum, Atari ST, Amiga or pretty much anything else that uses a soundchip to produce music. Meanings of words change all the time in life, and trying to defend the original meaning of the word ‘chiptune’ from a website that may not even be ‘canon’ to the original meaning is pointless.

      • Scali says:

        “…would also mean that in real world music, you couldn’t label songs typically called ‘Rock’ music or ‘Pop’ music unless they are all produced with the same instruments, setups and limitations.”

        I’m not saying the music can’t or shouldn’t be labeled. I’m just saying that ‘chiptune’ originally had a different meaning, and that the commonly heard explanation of the word ‘chip’ in ‘chiptune’ is wrong.
        Aside from that, your analogy is quite poor, since indeed most rock bands have virtually the same instrumentation: Vocals, drums, guitar, bass guitar, and optionally piano/synthesizers.
        Now you could try to play rock songs with completely different instruments and vocal style, but you’ll quickly find that it doesn’t sound ‘rock’ without loud guitars and raw vocals.
        Likewise, take a song in any style, and play it with loud guitars, raw vocals and a driving beat, and people will quickly identify it as ‘rock’.

        In the original meaning on Amiga, ‘chiptunes’ were very much a style/sound of music, rather than ‘any music played by an Amiga’.
        If you name all music made on a C64 ‘chiptunes’ for example, you completely forgo the different styles of songs that have been created. There has been jazzy music on C64, rock music, synthpop, techno etc.

        “Chiptune music is the generic term given now to music produced by retro computers, be it the C64, Sinclair Spectrum, Atari ST, Amiga or pretty much anything else that uses a soundchip to produce music. Meanings of words change all the time in life, and trying to defend the original meaning of the word ‘chiptune’ from a website that may not even be ‘canon’ to the original meaning is pointless.”

        I disagree. I mean, I know there is no way you can ever change the wrong usage of the term ‘chiptune’. That is not the point, obviously. However, I don’t see it as useless to put the information out there for people who are interested.

        Aside from that, the Amiga REALLY doesn’t belong in the list of computers you just mentioned, seeing as it does NOT have a soundchip that produces music. It can only play back samples, as I already explained in my blog. So it REproduces music only, it does not generate it with a synthesizer chip.

  2. John Young says:

    Sorry, I’m not interested in where the *name* came from.

    I’m just bringing it down to brass-tacks.

    People consider *chip-tunes* to be music played via music chips.

    Are you saying that SID et’al are not chips? They played the music we all loved. They are CHIP-TUNES!.

    Blip-boppy does not mean its a chippy, but when some of us can tell you the chip that made a tune then its, well, I’m sure you can work it out.

    I understand what you mean about the Ami-Mods, but I do think the phrase belongs to the pre-16bit days. We just didn’t know about it until .mods came about with the Amiga.

    But it is still the same.

    • Scali says:

      “People consider *chip-tunes* to be music played via music chips.”

      No shit, Sherlock! That is exactly the reason why I wrote this blog in the first place!
      Just look at the title and the first line!

      “I understand what you mean about the Ami-Mods, but I do think the phrase belongs to the pre-16bit days. We just didn’t know about it until .mods came about with the Amiga.”

      Mods on Amiga came about in 1987 when Soundtracker was released. However, not all mods are chiptunes. Chiptunes arrived on the Amiga a few years later, probably around ’91 or so.
      And no, the phrase does not belong to the pre-16-bit days at all.

      • John Young says:

        What is the fixation with the Amiga?

        I know you have so much info on early 80XX, early GFX etc,

        Amazingly there were other computers before the 8088 and Amiga’s

      • Scali says:

        Not sure what you’re trying to get at here. Aren’t you contradicting yourself with early 80xx, early GFX and fixation on Amiga?

  3. Pete says:

    I always though the term ‘chip tune’ arrived around the time of sample based .mod files, to distinguish tracks that were not simply playing recorded samples – and rather producing the sound by processing, or ‘using a chip’. In the case of the Amiga, using the sound chip to loop, rather than just playback.
    The C64 is quite a late place to start, missing the joy of using the main cpu to bit-blast a speaker, or earlier still, produce TV or radio interference music.
    This is just my un-informed take on it, as someone who has been writing music on computers before they had sound chips.

    • Scali says:

      Looping is not a feature of the Amiga’s sound chip though, it is just done by restarting the sample playback at a given place (using the CPU).
      And sample looping was a common feature of even the earliest trackers, generally used to give instruments endless sustain (good for strings and brass sounds for example).

    • John Young says:

      No Scali, I’m not fixated on Amiga, but I just know that chip-tunes are considered and made on 8 bits now. Yes we get some 16bit (mainly amiga, some ST).

      But I consider chip-tunes at its basic level, it *is* a tune made by a chip, whether that is 8bit/16bit/my local fryer…..

      Chip-tunes are made by chips, not mods, not samples etc.

      • Scali says:

        Uhh, did you even read my blogpost? And bother to look at the screenshot?
        That is a chiptune (in the original sense) by mel o’dee, and the screenshot shows one of the ‘chip’ instruments in the sample editor of ProTracker. Clearly then chiptunes DO have samples, and they ARE mods.
        I can sorta understand people lumping in 8-bit music with chipmods… but you are now completely denying that the original chiptune mods on Amiga qualify as chiptunes at all! That’s beyond ridiculous!

      • John Young says:

        No, I am not saying that Amiga tunes are not chip-tunes (although I consider them not).
        Agnes, Paula, and Denise are still not chiptunes cos they work with samples…

        SID etc are. How hard is that to understand?

        Chips + Music == chipmusic!

        Whether that is TIA/SID/AY…

        The music was made in those chips, not samples!

        Simples ffs….

      • Scali says:

        There is no SID, TIA, AY or whatever in the Amiga. There’s only Paula, which can only work with samples (as I said, it’s basically 4 DACs), so by your definition, no Amiga tune can possibly be a chiptune.

        I’m simply stating the fact that the term ‘chiptune’ originated on Amiga.
        Clearly you have no idea of the history of chiptunes, and no idea about the Amiga’s audio capabilities (and lack thereof). And even when this data is presented to you, you reject it on the basis that it does not work with *your* definition of chiptunes.
        That’s about as silly as rejecting factual proof that the Earth is older than 6000 years, because that’s what it says in the Bible.

      • John Young says:

        It isn’t> does it do Attack, Sustain, Release/Decay? On Chip!?

      • Scali says:

        No, it doesn’t. All you can do is adjust the volume of each channel with the CPU.
        Any envelopes have to be completely handled in software. Paula is a REALLY dumb chip. As I said, little more than 4 DACs.
        Or well, technically you could let one channel modulate the other (so you could use a pregenerated ASDR sample), however, since that means you’d only have one channel actually playing a sound, this was never used.
        Common trackers always use CPU-controlled volume and pitch.

  4. Nice to see not everbody forgot where the term “chiptune” originally came from 🙂

  5. “Aside from that, the Amiga REALLY doesn’t belong in the list of computers you just mentioned, seeing as it does NOT have a soundchip that produces music.”

    And yet it is called a ‘sound chip’, which then has been utilized to create music through the medium of samples, resulting in the name ‘chiptunes’ – which in itself completely contradicts your statement above since it *was* used to create music.

    • …and I might add that all the other computers sound chips weren’t called music chips. Only by the programmer using the chip in a specific way would music be produced from it.

      • Scali says:

        Now you’re just making poor attempts fishing at semantics.
        I never said ‘music chips’.
        However, we were talking about chiptunes, where ‘tunes’ imply that we are talking about music.
        So the fact that it is music is already established here.
        Now the difference here is whether the sounds in this music (and by extension of that, the music itself) are being generated by the chip itself, or whether they have been recorded previously and are just played back verbatim.
        The sound chip in the Amiga merely does the latter. Most of the ‘clever stuff’ (controlling pitch, volume and various other effects) is done on the CPU by manipulating the volume and replay rate and position of the chip.

    • Scali says:

      No, it does not. ‘Producing’ as in generating the waveforms that produce the music.
      The sound chip can merely replay previously sampled waveforms. It can not generate them (unlike most other chips).
      It is more like playing a CD, where most 8-bit computers had an actual synthesizer which generated audio from scratch.
      In fact, early Amiga music basically *was* like playing a CD, since they would just sequence a number of samples together.
      That might also explain why it only had 4 channels: You could have stereo music playing on 2 channels, and have 2 more channels for sound effects.
      Soundtrackers evolved over the years, as musicians/programmers got more clever with sequencing samples together, and eventually created a sort of hybrid wavetable/softsynth on the Amiga hardware.
      But the sound chip NEVER generates the waveforms. Even with a ‘chip’ tracker like AHX, the samples are pre-rendered on the CPU, then just played back on Paula.

  6. John Young says:

    You have just contradicted yourself! The sounds were made on the chips! Which part is hard to understand?
    We put values to the SID which made music! Not like Amiga ok, but it is still CHIP!

    • Scali says:

      Contradicted myself how exactly?
      Samples are sounds that are not created on a chip. They are sampled from whatever created them, and stored for later replay.
      Amiga’s Paula merely replays.
      SID creates (and manipulates through filtering/modulation) the waveforms in realtime.

      Perhaps this analogy will help:
      A sound generating chip such as a SID is like a band playing a song live.
      Paula is like a clever DJ stringing bits of records together in a longer sequence.
      The DJ is NOT playing any of the instruments on the records. He is just re-using a recording of other musicians who played these instruments live at some point. He is just ‘sampling’ them.

      Now you’re saying that for chiptunes the ‘band is required to play live’. Which they can’t, on Amiga’s Paula chip, where the term ‘chiptune’ came from.

  7. John Young says:

    no! Attack! Sustain, Delay some , pfft

    This is my polo way!

    • k1net1cs says:

      You’re frankly an embarrassment to sound engineers and music lovers everywhere.
      Come back with a better argument once you realize the difference between ‘playing back samples’ (Paula) and ‘producing waveforms in realtime’ (SID).

      Scali’s only trying to distinguish between the origin of chiptune (which is samples played back on Paula and not music generated from sound chips) and the chiptune which most people are used to understand these days, much like trying to explain that the word ‘gay’ didn’t have the same meaning as it has now.

      • Scali says:

        Indeed, just look at the first line: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
        I just explain the origin/meaning of the word “chiptune” in a historical context. Which shows that the common explanation of “chip” meaning “sound chip in old 8-bit machines” is incorrect, seeing as the distinctive sound of chiptunes was created by using specially crafted samples, rather than generating them with a sound chip, and they were created on a 16-bit machine, rather than an 8-bit machine.

        Nowhere do I claim that nobody should be using the term for anything other than Amiga chipmods. That would obviously be an exercise in futility, and people who’ve been following this blog, know that I’m a realist and pragmatist rather than a fundamentalist.
        I just wanted to put this information out there, because I keep hearing the same argument about chiptunes from people who clearly have no idea where the term came from. John Young is an excellent example. His ‘definition’ would disqualify the original chipmods on Amiga as being chiptunes.
        Now, if you were arguing that before you read this blog… well, ignorance is bliss, I suppose…
        But if you continue to argue that AFTER reading this blog, you’re an idiot.

      • k1net1cs says:

        “I just wanted to put this information out there, because I keep hearing the same argument about chiptunes from people who clearly have no idea where the term came from.”

        Very true.
        Personally, I’ve only known its ‘definition’ from hearsay, which sounded about the same as the misconception being explained in your post, so thanks for the clarifications, Scali.
        The fact that most mainstream platforms like Steam (a games distribution platform) often pairs ‘8-bit’ with ‘chiptune soundtrack’ in most of its old-school (indie) games’ description doesn’t help either.

        @John Young :
        You seem like someone trying to be hip by attuning to something that’s ‘retro’ and then sees the world surrounding it crumbling down from the burden of historical facts that’s tearing apart what you’ve believed in, John.

        Don’t get me wrong, though.

        The term ‘chiptune’ most have come to understand these days aren’t any more wrong than its original meaning, but it’s also isn’t any more right.
        So the fact that you’re insisting “if it’s not coming from a sound chip like SID it’s not a chiptune” is rather like denials from teens in their puberty*.

        *) been there, done that.

      • Scali says:

        To expand on your example of the word ‘gay’… It has acquired a new meaning (which I assume originally started as some kind of euphemism), but that does not imply that its older meanings have become invalid. If you look it up in a dictionary, you will still see the older meanings explained as well. Likewise, the fact that people started calling ‘8-bit’ music ‘chiptunes’ does not mean that Amiga tunes would no longer qualify.
        Also, given the poor ‘definition’ as given by John Young, things like Adlib music would also qualify. However, I doubt that anyone would label Adlib-music as ‘chipmusic’ just by listening to it, because it sounds nothing like the older 8-bit computers (even though the Adlib is technically an 8-bit card, and can be used in 8-bit 8088-based PCs). People would probably classify it as ‘midi’, if anything (which is another story altogether… most midi music would not be qualified as ‘midi’ if people heard it).

        So even today’s meaning of ‘chiptunes’ is not literally about the chip generating the sound. I think a more accurate description would be: Music that *sounds* like it was generated by an early 8-bit home computer/console such as a C64, Atari, NES or GameBoy. This description would actually cover Amiga chipmods as well. Not Adlib music, but as I say, I don’t think anyone would see it as ‘chipmusic’ anyway… Or well, John Young does, but I assume that is just more ignorance on his behalf.

  8. Bob G says:

    I’m surprised by the amount of ignorant commenters claiming to know better.

    The blog post is 100% correct, the term ‘chiptune’ originates on the Amiga and it indeed refers to very small modules with distinct sound that was created by the arpeggios and very short repeating samples.

    • Scali says:

      Apparently these people come from the World of Spectrum forum… Imagine that, Speccy-fans trying to school Amigans on a term that originated on Amiga in the first place.

  9. Scali says:

    I wonder who would classify this as a chiptune:

  10. out of the ordinary says:

    I’m quite sure that the first time I heard the term “chip tune” was when my friends with Amigas (I was the local “PC lamer” then) started getting C64/SID-sounding .mod files, and they were always referring to them as “chip tunes”. However, they never spoke of this while they were C64ers. So, yes, I think I’d agree that the term originated on the Amiga scene somewhere, but it also spread back/evolved to include SID tunes also, retrospectively – and yes, you can argue if this is good or not, and how technically correct it is 🙂

  11. John Young says:

    Well, besides my ignorant ravings, after more nosing about on the net I agree Scali is mostly correct. Although I have always understood the term to be used for pre-amiga tunes. I believe the waters have been muddied over the years.

    On a more agreeable note, I like your blog, and found the multi-part blogs about pc/amiga gfx fascinating, so I expect another multi-part blog on the Amiga soon, 🙂 :p

    Interesting tricks using the blitter would be good. I spent most of the Amiga years writing Intuition apps using AmigaBasic (yeah, I know, :p ), then moved on to 68000 with Devpac, and then C with SAS/Lattice. I could never get to grips with using the copper though, even though I knew people who made it do all sorts of weird tricks.

    Anyway, keep up the good stuff in your blog, 🙂

  12. beatscribe says:

    I guess the same argument could be applied to almost any music “label”…personally, I think it has a nice ring to it and is easy to say…but people using chip in their group/artist names reminds me of when ska bands had to have the word Ska in their title…it just got old fast!

  13. Optimus says:

    Come on, even my modern PC produces sound through a soundchip and not a tiny little man inside the box playing musical instruments, should it then be called chiptunes too? 🙂

    For me this story was informative, since I wasn’t deeply into the Amiga scene back then to know when the term emerged (I did started with the Amstrad CPC however, but the term chiptune only occurred to me from the demoscene much later). Well maybe today the term has changed, I will be hearing the term chiptune associated with 8bit, personally I won’t mind but it’s good to know our history.

    • Scali says:

      I suppose ‘chiptune’ turned into a sort of retronym. Much like the term CISC for example. The term CISC simply didn’t exist yet when early CISC processors were designed. There was no need to classify these procesessors as CISC anyway, because there was nothing else.

      Likewise, as I said in the article, there was no need to classify the music of 8-bit consoles and home computers as ‘chiptunes’ or anything, because they all had a similar programmable sound generator chip, and there was no alternative. So there simply was no name for it.

      The Amiga was the first popular machine that used a completely different technology to generate sound, which meant it also sounded completely different. And when Amiga musicians started to experiment with size-optimized music, which had a sort of 8-bit sound to it (which was not necessarily the goal), that’s when a new term for this type of music was invented, to distinguish it from other types of music on the Amiga.

      Somehow the term originally used for the ‘simulated 8-bit’ music on Amiga is now retroactively used on real 8-bit platforms as well. Probably started out by lamers who didn’t understand why some Amiga mods were called chiptunes, and figured that a lot of 8-bit music sounded similar enough to just use the same name.

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