By Richard Haugh
Matthew Applegate, aka Pixelh8, is something of a Godfather of the chiptune scene. And, like dons in any other way of life, he's keen that certain rules should be followed.
But before delving into what the guidelines are it's probably a good idea to clarify just what chiptune is. And perhaps more importantly what chiptune isn't.
"Chiptune's not really a genre, it's more about the instrumentation," says Matthew, who's based in Ipswich. "It's using vintage computers and reprogramming them to make new music."
Game Boys along with 8-bit systems such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and the Sega Master System are amongst the favourites to be tinkered with.
The machines' components are accessed and after some adaptations they become a new breed of instrument.
"Some older computers can be easily accessed and turned into an instrument, but some require knowledge of programming languages such as C and Pascal.
"The influence for my music is purely down to my early days of game playing on the Amiga 500. Each game would have MOD files which hackers could access, and each would contain crazy music.
"When PCs developed you would have these complex orchestras. I thought 'I don't want that', it's not a real orchestra so I went back to the old stuff.
"Chiptune relies heavily on the nostalgia of the 8 bit machines. It's familiar but unfamiliar."
To sample or not to sample
The sound of Mario jumping, collecting a coin or eating a mushroom are all staple samples in the chiptune world. But Pixelh8 is keen to stress that several artists are trying to break the mould by creating completely original material.
"Some artists use samples but I'm completely against that. Hundreds of kids a day sample Tetris and throw a different beat over the top.
"The main problem I had was kids were buying software where you uploaded a song and it does all the work for you. When they play live they'll stand on stage, press play on their Game Boy and then jump around without actually performing anything."
Pixelh8 admits to being a purist, but rather than being an elitist he wants others to follow his guidelines and create their own original music.
To put this in practice he developed a cartridge for unmodified Game Boys which allows people to create and perform their own music, requiring some thought and skill on behalf of the artist.
These 100 cartridges costing £30 each sold out in no time at all, so there are now a legion of chiptunists following Pixelh8's lead.
"I've been in a few people's dissertations about what a purist I am! But I don't see the point in making music on a computer and then transfering it to a NES cartridge.
"I'd go to the effort of programming the NES cartridge myself.
"When I record an album I have really strict guidelines. There's no special effects, no samples, everything's raw and created from scratch. If it can't be done using the original machines, I don't use it.
"But when I'm live I have to use some special effects, just to keep everything in time."
Byte of the big Apple
Pixelh8's music was picked up by Imogen Heap, who invited him to join her 2007 tour. As well as providing some high profile gigs, the relationship led to Pixelh8 performing at the offices of Apple in California.
Imogen Heap with Pixelh8 in Brighton
"I did a brief tour of California last year and played at the Nerdapalooza festival - where my entire audience was made up of software geeks.
"I'd mentioned this trip to Imogen Heap one day, and 20 minutes later Chris Bell, a director at Apple emailed me to say 'come by' whilst over there - which I did.
"I had all the technical staff of Apple interested in what equipment I was using. I've edited a touch screen TV used in cars so it can control my Mac - it looks like a giant Game Boy."
Pixelh8's work has been heralded by BBC Introducing supremo Huw Stephens, whose Radio One show highlights the pick of the country's new talent.
"Huw Stephens is a great guy and is very passionate about new music. He mispronounces my name a lot though - it's like when your dad says something silly but you're embarrassed to correct him.
"When I did correct him he went on to say my name about 30 more times, correctly, on that show!"
So all is going well for Pixelh8 and he admits to having big plans for the future. However, after a previous big announcement fell through, he's happy for others to wait to see what 2008 holds.
"I've learnt not to let anyone know my future plans until they're done. But what I can tell you is I'm going to be working with some American nerdcore artists.
"Nerdcore is like hip hop but they tend to rap about bad software problems."
last updated: 09/01/2009 at 10:23
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