Wired News has just stumbled onto 8-bit music a la vintage computers and Game Boys. Christopher Null compiles a terrific set of links in there, including Alexei Shulgin, who covers rock standards on a 386DX. (Via the always-excellent LSDJ mailing list, for users of that Game Boy cartridge — though Nanoloop lovers show up, too.)

Mr. Null then makes calls to academic “experts” — and the sparks start flying. Nicholas Collins from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (improperly credited in Wired as the museum, not the school) says dismissively, “To imitate the wave forms of these older computers would take like 20 minutes of work.” He suggests a new Mac would cost about the same as a new machine — and there, I have to agree, though I wonder why he was asked about 386DX and not the Game Boy musicians. Got a new Mac or PC that fits in your pocket and costs $20? Didn’t think so.

Then there’s René T.A. Lysloff, professor of music at the University of California at Riverside and co-editor of the book Music and Technoculture. First he says MIDI is “nothing special.” Fine. I’m sure he’s transmitting OSC messages from his brain or something — most of us use MIDI every day but don’t have to love it. He goes on to say “the relative low-tech angle … wears thin very quickly. It just all sounds rather flaccid.” He adds, “It certainly isn’t techno. I might even add that it isn’t even very good.” That brings us to the question, what, exactly, is “it”? All 8-bit music?

Now, I’m certainly not saying all 8-bit music is great — it’s not. (Neither is “all accordion music” or “all Eagles covers played on bagpipes.”) But if you want to hear some of the best players, be sure to hear the International Chiptune Resistance Friday if you’re in NYC . . . or Google some of those artists. You’ll find something you like. Unless you’re Professor Lysloff.

Updated: A reader thinks that Prof. Lysloff’s quote sounds out of character; see comments. That may be — it’s not clear from the article what context either of these comments are. General opinion on the LSDJ list is that it’s just a lousy article. So come on, fellow academics, think we can shatter our image as being sour about new music? (And maybe get ourselves better quotes in Wired?) -PK

  • Guest

    I love how every time new instrument technologies come around the old guard descends to definitively declare that the sounds emerging from them are (a) not music, (b) awful, and/or (c) a passing fad. The electric guitar, hardware synths, turntables, soft synths and other computer-based production tools, 8-bit…the story is the same.

    Someone should design a MIDI-enabled, double-neck lute / lyre just to piss 'em off.

  • Symbiotic

    …and not musicians. Their whole reason for existence is to expound on the virtues of their own method of thinking and playing and to attempt to impress the world with their vast knowledge and understanding of music and culture. Fortunately for the rest of us, we aren't forced to read their writings or listen to their music – there's certainly no threat of them ever reaching the top 10 (or top 100 for that matter). Unfortunately for them it simply shows how truly out of touch they are with what is happening in the music underground.

    Remember – it starts underground, grows into grassroots, and somehow always ends up on the Billboard charts. πŸ™‚

  • cstarrett

    I'm thinking either "Academics" or the acceptance of 8-bit music is a hot button for you, Peter. I think your ire would be better aimed at either Mr. Null or his editors rather than the "academics" who are poorly quoted.

    What I find interesting in your post is that you ask the right questions such as, "I wonder why he was asked about 386DX" and "what, exactly, is "it"?" Yet somehow you blame the academics for having their quotes plucked out without sufficient context for them to be meaningful. If you have ever given or conducted an interview you know how much power the interviewer has with the subject's words. Clearly there were specific questions asked, but we will never know what they are. Whether this is an oversight by Mr. Null or the result of some ham-handed editing we will never know, but it's a little harsh of you to lay all the blame on the "academics."

    I also may be the only one of your regular readers who has met Prof. Lysloff but I would be surprised if he was quoted accurately by Mr. Null. I realize academics are a favorite punching bag, but there are those out there, and Prof. Lysloff is one of them, who are trying to educate students on the vastness of music here and around the globe. I think some of your readers may have had a teacher like that once who introduced something new to them and affected their music in a positive way.

    I know there are a lot of self-important gas bags out there, but believe it or not, that doesn't apply to all of them. Teacher are your friends, even academic teachers. πŸ˜‰

  • admin

    For the record:

    First, the LAST thing I would do is use everyone in academia as a punching bag, especially as a PhD student and someone with a teaching resume. (Well, actually, on second thought, those usually ARE the people you hear complaining about academia, but . . . not me. You'll just have to take my word for it.)

    Second, most of my own music is of the decidedly not-8-bit variety.

    So I wasn't getting down on academics or being defensive about 8-bit music. Frankly, if you want to say "boy, I really can't stand" some kind of specific music, that's your perogative. But I'm highly suspicious of anyone who makes blanket statements about kinds of music. Of course, it's possible Prof. Lysloff was indeed misquoted here. I'd be very cautious about calling anything "flaccid" to a reporter, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    I still think it's unfortunate that the experts do get represented in this way. There was a similar rebuttal in an MIT journal regarding circuit bending (looking for the reference there). So, yeah, if you constantly have the academicians there to debunk whatever experimental music you present, that's unfortunate.

    As you say, though, a more intelligent quote requires TWO people — both a person to say it, and a reporter to quote it accurately. Not sure which broke down here.

  • Guest


    Your angst-on-academia is out of order. What I took from the comments of the professors is that 8-bit tech as an exciting "new" tool for creating music is overrated. And I agree. Some of it is listenable, like the extended Depeche Mode remix that's made the rounds, but it's more proof-of-concept rather than enjoyable craft. If 8-bit artists were working with slim means, and were using the ONLY tools available to them to produce the music, I'd have more respect. But these appear to be well-rounded technophiles we're talking about with loads of computer goodies at their disposal _ and a bunch of free time. They are the haves of the digital age, not the have nots. Nearly every 8-bit artist I've learned about online appears to have an advanced college degree, a Mac or two in the corner, and a bunch of high-end computer/music tools laying around that they got bored with. Pardon me if I'm unimpressed that they can hack the tone generator out of a GameBoy and play "Half A Person."

  • admin

    I think it's entirely within the rights of any musician to choose to intentionally limit their compositional means. And that's what this is about — you're right, a lot of these folks do have a computer in the corner. They choose to focus on a simpler, more primitive (and in many cases, more portable) tool instead. There's a long tradition of that, and I think it's a perfectly noble goal. That's nothing against those of us (like me) using more tools — I just respect their choice. The fact that it's spreading so fast and that people are spending so much time on it says to me it's not just novelty; it really means something to some people.

    I just worked with one of the major Game Boy artists, Bubblyfish, who does her own compositions and not covers of tunes or "bad techno." We had a great five-way improv with her and violin, piano, and two computers. And that's the point — we were playing different instruments. I wouldn't go over to the violin player and tell them it's easier to learn the piano.

    So is this just superficial novelty? 8-bit musicians get ink because of their choice of instrument, sure — but I might as well write an article saying, "look, here's someone playing a banjo made of rubber bands using only their teeth." Nothing wrong with that. The crime is if someone says "Playing a rubber band banjo with your teeth is just novelty. I could easily produce the same sound using a computer. Tooth banjo music isn't very good, anyway."

    Judge the music itself, not the medium. (And then it's ENTIRELY fair to say, boy, that "Half a Person" cover wasn't very impressive at all!) πŸ˜‰


  • cstarrett


    Thank you for the clarification. Maybe I was feeling touchy because you also dissed bagpipes in there and I'm a PhD student doing a dissertation on bagpipe music. (Yes, I know you were joking about the bagpipes, but no, I'm *not* joking about my dissertation topic! See my vanity page, http://www.cstarrett.com, for corroboration.)

    One thing I know for sure, if I ever get enough publications to my name to merit a call from Wired, I'm going to say, "Thanks, but no thanks."

    And as for the topic, I've logged enough hours with funky electronic instruments in analog studios and good old-fashioned acoustic instruments to know that the hardware *does* matter to the person making the music. The interface is one of the mystery variables in the creative equation. And like you said, the point is the music that comes out at the end.

    Que es mas macho staircase or smoke rings?


  • Guest

    They need to get out more often.

  • Guest

    at least – not anymore… so any kind of cachet that comes from that angle is now moot… and lets face it – journalists dont write about anything thats truly "underground", thats the very definition of it

    i'd have to say that most 8-bit music is quite lame, unfortunately – although that is my personal opinion, which is also akin to my aversion for most experimental electronic and/or "noise" acts… simply due to the fact that anyone can break sh!t or fiddle with a bunch of sliders and come up with nasty sounds – its exceptionally easy, in fact

    thats not to say that all experimental electronic music is talentless uninspired garbage – just the majority of it

    for those of us skilled in the use of synthesizers and software, (especially Reaktor) – aleatoric music is the epitome of "easy"

    on the 8bit front, you are working with limited tools – so you will get limited results… at the same time some of those chips produce tonal qualities not found anywhere else, so you have that going for you.. for example i own a synth called the "Sidstation" which is made from the sound chip of a C64 computer…

    but in my case, the sounds serve my music – the focus is on composition and structure… for many experimental musicians, the sound IS the music – and the focus is on randomness, chance or pure noise

    the problem with purely 8-bit music is that even if the song is really good and the sounds are all well done – its still limited to that tonal quality alone.. and that can get boring really quick unless the artist is amazingly good at programming diverse sounds or possibly has a bunch of various different 8-bit sound sources

  • Guest

    To the editors, my name is Rene T.A. Lysloff and I am the ethnomusicologist quoted in the Wired.com article on 8-bit composition. I

    I want to clarify a couple of points regarding the quoted passages of my comments found in a recent Wired.com article. First, I was discussing a specific recording, a compilation of "covers" of past rock tunes done in 8-bit midi style using text to speech software (sounding much like Windows .mid files) . I was not impressed with the compilation nor did I believe that "it" (the compilation) reflected an exciting new trend in contemporary digital music. Second, using 8-bit sound is obviously a legitimate compositional technique in new digital music. I used it myself when I was creating MODs (Digital Music Modules) in the 1990s. However, just because one uses 8-bit sound does not mean the composer is freed from being creative and interesting in making music. "It" (the compilation I was asked to comment on) was not, in my opinion, very interesting nor particularly skillful, neither in the way it was conceived nor in the way the way any of the pieces were executed. I know that there is far better 8-bit music out there. Third, I differentiate between midi music (those old Windows .mid files using GM) and true MIDI based music, and I made that clear to the writer. He chose to ignore that part of my comments. Since the late 1990s, I have moved on to MIDI based music myself, using Emagic Logic (now, unfortunately, owned by Apple) and Abelton Live, working with Reaktor and other soft synths as well as various hardware synthesizers. For me using 8-bit sounds, or scratchy old vinyl recordings, is a legitimate (and even fascinating) compositional technique. But, the idea is to use these techniques skillfully and innovatively. There's nothing more lame, in my opinion, than a bad piece of music hiding behind the latest trend or radical idea. To all those digital composers out there: by all means, use 8-bit sounds, use text to voice software, dust off that old 386 (or 286) in your garage, go low-tech, go retro–but do something interesting and do it well. I'd advise anyone interested in 8-bit compositions to check out the old MODs by composers such as Purple Motion, Awesome, or Skaven (go to http://www.united-trackers.org or http://www.maz-sound.com for info).


    Rene T.A. Lysloff

  • k9d

    Lysloff, good to hear your reply. i'm from minneapolis and almost had to make a trip down to straighen you out :roll πŸ˜‰

    really cool to hear you've got mod scene roots … along with the names you mentioned i have to drop: 4MAT … his work on the amiga is stunning, and he's often pointed at as the start of chip-style wav-tracking (looping very small chunks to get osc shapes) after most of the scene had moved on from c64 and st synth-hacking.

    "8-bit music isnt underground" is obviously naive to write off noise and 8bit genres (what genre doesn't have a few stars on a pile of crap unlistenable to everyone but total affectionados) … and dude, take your head out of your a$s along with that sidstation. "skilled in the use of synthesizers and software, (especially Reaktor)" … you seriously think reaktor is heavy? try again.

    i've used a lot of expensive software and big daws (lots of friends going to school to be music techs), but i feel most at home relaxing with a gameboy, exploring the tight control LSDj gives of those four monophonic syntheziers. and let me tell you: i am "amazingly good at programming diverse sounds" … i've had releases writen up in the german print rag de:bug, all about techno 8) :p :roll

    it's funny hearing people outside the scene speculate as to why someone would decide to make 8bit sh!t … i haven't seen CRAFT mentioned. if you're familiar with a platform like the gameboy, sid, etc, it's really interesting to listen to a pure chip tune and be able to pick apart what another composer has done. it's actually quite academic :zzz

    i hope this sounded pissed :roll

    for those still wondering, there is a forum all about chip you can check out!

  • Guest

    Why so much hate spread here?
    I make 8 bit music too, feel bored of playing other instruments (not all the time) and have no degree or further computer programming skills ( I wish I had) Well, bagpipe is some of my favourite tones in my casio SA-1, violins are also interesting to hear in movie soundtracks or see played live. I mean, we use 8 bit instuments (like gameboy of C64) because we love it's unique sounds, and it's cultural background (80s nostalgia?) We do cover versions because we love music, and some of us also love bad techno and why not bad ass rock or bon jovi to cover and gameboy rocking too πŸ™‚

    I dont want to spread hours here writting nonsense in my bad english. If someone is interested take a look at the netlabel I'm in.
    I guess there you can find enough reasons to understand lo-bit music, if you are prepared to receive something from anyones soul. I think music is not about just hate and intolerance. Am I so wrong?

    I don't know if Dr Lysoff article deserves so hard critics. I would like to say just, thanks for the hype πŸ™‚ We, 8 bit musicians deserves, ok, will it be a new fashion? Blame consumism but not musicians. Thank you.

    I also agree about thant on minimalist aproach and experimentation. How much monkeys will understand? I really don't care much about that… Is art for everybody?

  • Guest

    pleaz braz

  • Guest

    oh, electronic music isnt real music anyway.

  • kokorozashi

    The problem is the question, not the answers. With all due respect to the work that academics do, the market — and by this I mean the market of musicians as well as their audiences — is prefectly capable of deciding for itself whether an 8-bit system is a worthwhile musical pursuit. The writer is just following some ritualized need to present two sides to every story. The right thing to do in such situations is ignore the writer.

  • Guest

    yea I don't think there's enough controversy in the first place to fire up a drama.
    all music should be judged by musical value like lysloff says.
    and 8bit-music too.. saying it's usually not good as music (which I also think being an enthusiast myself) doesn't mean to say the enthusiasts are wrong in their interest in the 8bit platform.. that's reading too much into it.
    one should not assume there's lack of understanding before it really proves itself.
    ..eheh.. or something.