What is Chipmusic?

Modern music as we know it today is almost always recorded, stored, and distributed in the form of waveforms of audio. Whether that is a waveform recorded from a microphone, keyboard, or sampled from pre-existing audio recordings, they ultimately all get stored and distributed as a seamless wave of music. They can be stored in a digital format like MP3's and CDs, or in an analog form like the physical grooves on a vinyl record. In either case, it is a recording of audio, that when sent through your audio amplifier, tells your speaker how to move in order to reproduce the song accurately.

However, the NES, and other consoles used to make chipmusic, do not play music in such a way through audio files. In fact, many of these consoles do not have enough memory to even store a full track of audio. Instead they make sounds using an on board sound synthesizer chip. These chips are most commonly a separate chip found on the motherboard dedicated to generating audio like the SID chip in the Commodore 64 and the POKEY chip in the Atari 2600. However, in the case of the NES, the sound generator is built into the CPU chip. This synthesizer is very limited in the types of sounds its able to generate and on how many notes it is capable of playing at a time. Most of the time early computers and video game consoles could only make primitive beeps for simple melodies and white noise for sound effects in early video games. This is what gave old video game music it's distinctive sound.

In order to create music with these chips, game programmers or chipmusicians create a set of instructions that the console can understand. If you are familiar with MIDI, it is exactly the same concept. This instruction set tells the sound chip what pitches it should play, how long the notes play for, and how loud to play them. This set of instructions can be thought of as almost like a piece of sheet music, the sound chip can be imagined to be a very basic keyboard, and the NES can be thought of as a performer that reads this sheet of musical instructions, and plays the song for you in real time using the limited capabilities of it's on-board sound chip.

This is what sets chipmusic apart from other mediums of music, and it's also what I find the most charming about chipmusic. Furthermore, I personally believe that the best way to listen to chipmusic is on the actual hardware itself. This is an important reason behind my decision to make this a physical cartridge release.