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Development of Chiptunes

Anyone who has been gaming for the last twenty years or so will have heard a chiptune more than once – though they may not have known what it was called at the time. Chip music or ‘chiptunes’ was commonly used to create computer or video game sounds between the mid 1980s and early 1990s.

This particular type of music is different from the music used for computer and video games today, mainly because they were synthesized by a computer or video game ‘sound chip’ in realtime instead of using sample-based synthesis which is often the case today. When they were first created, these early computer sound chips could only produce very simple electronic sounds. The chips only had simplistic tone and noise generators, and so the chip music created by these sound chips was usually not very complex. When they were created, these chip tunes were at the cutting edge of technology and no game was complete without a mandatory selection of buzzes, chirps and other sounds. Some even had somewhat enjoyable background ‘tunes’. However, today most people listening to a chiptune may view it as being squeaky and unpleasant.

Shortly after sound chips were created, composers found that they struggled to find a way to better express themselves through this medium and so they started experimenting with it and coming up with some ingenious ways to develop their own electronic sounds. Soon chip designers realized that even though these sound chips used less space that other forms of sound synthesis, computer users wanted more. It wasn’t longer before newer computers began to use sample-based synthesis and dedicated synthesis chips began to be phased out. The new method of creating sound on computers allowed for more realistic sounds and a greater range of tones and pitches.

Today we have come a long way from the original sound chips used in computers. Most modern computers can make use of a variety of chiptune formats and the sound that they produce is excellent. On the other hand, gamers continue to make use of more traditional forms of the chiptune in smaller computerized items like the Nintendo Game Boy, and in newer games with a history of chiptunes like the new Tetris DS. Though chiptunes have come a long way from their rather basic start, they have certainly not become obsolete and this wonderful way of creating sounds and music has seen a massive comeback in the 21st century.

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