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Music is their game

Using the innards of video games to create songs of all sorts is a DIY phenomenon. "Chip music" gets a big hearing in Philly.

Robert Joffred performs before projections by New York’s Paris Treantafeles.
Robert Joffred performs before projections by New York’s Paris Treantafeles.Read moreBEN MASON

Joey Mariano is a trained jazz guitarist.

But his instrument of choice these days is a modified Sega Genesis or an antiquated Commodore 64 - or one of three Nintendo systems or eight Game Boys.

"People give them to me," Fishtown's Mariano, 30, says a bit sheepishly. "They say they don't know what to do with them anymore."

But Mariano does. He regularly performs under the stage name Animal Style in a global subculture that merges art with gaming, programming, and a nostalgia for forgotten technologies.

Referred to alternately as "chiptunes" (for the single sound chip in original video game systems) or 8-bit (a reference to the architecture of those obsolete processors), this music scene has become a fringe phenomenon in Philadelphia thanks in large part to an all-ages monthly party called 8static.

Here at West Philadelphia's Studio 34, crowds of 50 to 150 gather to test their skills at an open mike or watch local and international chiptunes stars. The music, infused with the beep-heavy aesthetic of video game soundtracks, often resembles European dance or electronica but can be spun into sounds from country to smooth jazz or punk.

There's always dancing, sometimes crowd-surfing, and projected on the wall are jewel-toned visuals controlled by artists also working with gaming systems.

It seems that hacking video games has gone from geeky hobby to legitimate musical pursuit, says Alex Mauer, 27, of Levittown, who began making 8-bit music at age 12. Even rapper Timbaland has sampled an 8-bit song.

"When I started, no one thought there would be concerts where this music was played. It was considered a very nerdy sort of thing," Mauer says. "And now the cool kids are into it."

Yet creative programmers have been modifying their Ataris and performing coding acrobatics for decades.

In the '80s and '90s, coders would one-up each other with programs showcasing their technical and artistic prowess. It was, essentially, the IT equivalent of a rap battle.

Programmers would then distribute their work online for free, a heavy influence on today's chiptunes culture.

It's that do-it-yourself, open-source ethos that has enabled the art form to progress, says Fishtown resident Wil Lindsay, an 8-bit visualist known as VBLANK who makes and sells many of the kits that musicians and artists use to perform.

"A hobbyist along the way figured out how the Game Boy [cartridge] works, figured out how to hack it and put their own code into it. Then somebody else wrote a tool for musicians to make music on it. And then other people modified their Game Boys so that better sounds come out," says Lindsay, who teaches at Philadelphia University and 8static's initial sponsor, the Hacktory, a local "hackerspace" promoting technology in the arts through classes and events.

"So it's really this collaborative thing."

Initially, 8-bit artists had to hack into the sound and video circuits of game cartridges and reprogram them.

Now, while some still manipulate hardware and code directly, others use home-brewed composition software to transform their Game Boys and Nintendos into full-fledged synthesizers.

Still others use software that emulates old game systems on modern laptops. They then perform their creations directly from the laptops, or load them back into the game systems via newly designed cartridges that can communicate through modern devices, such as USB cables.

Because each advance was shared over the Internet, 8-bit communities sprang up simultaneously in the United States, Australia, Russia, Japan, and Sweden.

"It's unlike any other genre," Mariano says. "While grunge rock came from Seattle, chip music didn't come from anywhere. It came from the entire globe."

But it was the advent of live performances - specifically the 2006 launch of the monthly chip party Pulsewave and the annual music festival Blip, both in New York - that transformed 8-bit artists from isolated hackers to rock stars performing with a mix of gaming devices, guitars, keyboards, and drums.

Here in Philadelphia, Mariano says interest has dramatically increased, the city now claiming one of the largest chip music communities outside New York: "In 2003, I was lucky if I had one person coming out to see a show."

Part of that intrigue is sentimental, says Patrick "Bucky" Todd, 23, of South Philly, who drums with the 8-bit group Cheap Dinosaurs as well as the pop band Brown Recluse.

"People who grew up with these systems have nostalgia for the sound," he says.

But Todd - like many 8-bit enthusiasts - specializes in the commingling of retro and contemporary tech culture. He's working with friends to create an iPhone gaming app using Nintendo-based music and 8-bit-style visuals, and he maintains a popular YouTube channel loaded with soundtracks ripped from classic games.

For South Philly's Dino Lionetti, 29, a videogame fan who heads Cheap Dinosaurs, 8-bit is the ultimate way to merge two passions.

"Video games were always something personal to me," he says. "It was a universe for me to take with me anywhere. And now I can alter that universe: I'm actually creating that world."

Also inspiring, and most often cited by serious 8-bit artists, is the challenge of working under such technological constraints. It's the same impetus that drove the early bit-jockeys to create spectacular displays on sluggish Commodore 64s.

"It's really about how creative you can be on the video game system and not some athletic thing like, 'Look how fast I can flap my fingers on the guitar,' " says Mariano.

"It levels the playing field."

That's how it's possible for one of the more influential 8-bit visualists to be a 20-year-old sophomore at University of the Arts. Performing as Enso, Alex Bond infuses his pixel art with influences ranging from art nouveau illustrations to Japanese woodcuts, using a controller to interchange colors, directions, speed, and patterns.

"I actually don't know any coding," says Bond. He makes his artwork on a computer, and then runs a program to convert it into code.

At the other extreme is Don Miller, a tech whiz who performs as No Carrier. Miller, 30, of Center City, writes his own software for visual performances, and even engineered a way to produce friends' albums on Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges from the '80s. ("It's very time-consuming," says Mauer, who with Miller's help released the very first album on such a cartridge. "It's probably only worth doing if you're obsessed with the idea.")

Miller also is committed to spreading the 8-bit word through 8static, which he cofounded with Branimir Vasilic in 2008.

It seems to be working, said Vasilic, of Center City. A recent fund-raiser to replace broken amps and projectors on surpassed its $2,000 goal in just 24 hours - a testimony to community support.

"The thing I love most about the community is no one is in it for the fame or the money. Everyone is just doing it because it's something they love to do," Bond says. "It's a very creatively inspired community."

Watch and listen to chiptunes musician Ro-Bear, otherwise known as Temple University student Robert Joffred, perform with a Game Boy at Saturday's 8static event. Background visuals are by 8-bit visualist Alex Bond, who performs as Enso.