Sunday, December 9, 2012

Introduction to Chipmusic with Invisible Robot Hands (James Winters)

James Winters isn’t your average college dude. I met him on the streets of Providence, Rhode Island where I was mesmerized while watching him play music from his 1989  original Game Boy plugged into an amp. Something else, right? That’s exactly what I thought. So after jumping up and down for a moment (you can get that footage at the bottom of this article) I, at the peak of intrigue, had to ask what was happening.  I recognized bits of sound from my brothers' video games...crossed with the electronic music genre. Sweet party/rave music is born! Not that I go to raves! But maybe I should…
Invisible Robot Hands going at it.

After James (stage name Invisible Robot Hands) stopped the Game Boy alchemy I asked how it all worked.  James introduced himself and his art as chipmusic, where “people use outdated gaming/computer hardware with (often newly written) audio software in order to synthesize sounds from the hardware’s soundchip and sequence those sounds into entire songs.” Did you get all that? Me either. And James was kind enough to go into more detail via email.  I learned that what appeared to be "video game music" or fun party music to my untrained eye is so much more...Chipmusic does incorporate old video games' "bleepy tones," but in many ways it has evolved from the simplistic tunes from Mario to a craft with more room for artistic license and creativity.
'80s Europe popularized chipmusic via the Demoscene, where the public started trying their hands at it.  Chipmusic itself was actually born by select individuals who would hack into established video games and rip the music from them, and then insert their own music and graphics as--ready? Digital graffiti.  (Kinda like a techy Banksy...) But generally, the Demoscene used old computers like the Atari ST and the Commodore 64 (Aren’t those cooler names than Apple and Windows??) rather than old Game Boys; this came later.

James' chipmusic interest really took off in the eighth grade. He had to sit out of gym class for a few months due to a broken arm and leg, couldn’t play his guitar, and so started playing around in computer lab, specifically learning about vintage computers.  He then switched gears and got into music sequencing programs through Famitracker, a music sequencing program referred to as a tracker.  Trackers require the musician to build all of the sounds themselves before sequencing the notes.  With trackers, "everything is 'tracked' one second at a time. Every step or 'tick' in a patterm is shown in a tracker, a little bit like a bar of sheet music." This is very cool because the musician has to economize when creating, because they're restricted to the capabilities of the sound chip.  However, not all music sequencing programs are built this way. 

A different family of music sequencing progarms called Digital Audio Worksations (DAWs) baby the musician in James’ opinion: "DAWs are pretty much an infinite plane of potential layers of sounds and samples, whereas chipmusic trackers demand imagination and economic thinking of the musician, because the user is often given no more than about 4 or 5 one-note-at-a-time 'channels' of sound. What's more, in some trackers, each channel is restricted to certain types of potential tones. Half the fun in the chipmusic community is seeing how much you can do with very, very little."  So James is about the raw craftsmanship of the beat. And I like that. I liken this to purchasing an object that is made well and possibly more expensive, rather than going for the 99-cent-made-in-China-cheap-fast-easy version...or even more accurately,taking the time to make the object yourself. Not for the faint of heart! There's more craftsmanship (blood/sweat/tears/skill) in it, and it adds more soul to the finished product.
James spent 2-3 years immersed in tracking programs creating music (and saving to floppy disks to feel ‘80s chic. (I loved that tidbit!)  The hobby went to the next level when James gratefully received a classic Game Boy from a classmate. He then attained the additional necessary hardware to create chip music through the Game Boy.
“From there I spent ages in my room creating covers of stuff from the ‘80s and eventually started writing my own stuff.  I got tired of showing my songs to nobody, so I bought a crappy boom box from Salvation Army as a makeshift amp to plug my Game Boy into and started playing on the street.”
The boom box amplifier also has a certain 80s charm to it (Say Anything, anyone?), but James now has a battery powered guitar amp for his performances.  Ah, the evolution of the artist...

Performing and writing his own material then led James to create 8Bit Northeast, “a collective of people from the nooks and crannies of New England who make chipmusic as well.” Right now there are about 40 members in this collective, although James tells me that membership has fluctuated quite a bit. 8Bit Northeast has even done shows locally, collaborated with Boston 8Bit, and has even recently participated in Rhode Island’s Maker’s Faire.

James covers "I Quit" by chipmusician "Chipocrite"
What do I like about this? That for Invisible Robot Hands, this is an original and extremely creative outlet.  Also, it’s sustainable to repurpose old computers and gaming hardware to produce music— that strangely has some Woodstock ethos. Finally, it’s damn well entertaining, which is the broad goal, right? Very animated and energetic. Listen to some. Go ahead, jump around in yer room.
Even deeper still, James remarks that chipmusic is not caged in by a genre, like the aformentioned rave or dance music.
"It's a medium, not a genre. This means that it has the potential to be whatever the artist wants it to be."
James likened it to a guitar: "Not every song with a guitar in it is automatically rock and roll; or rather, a guitar isn't just a tool for making rock music. It's a tool for making music, in general. It's how the individual uses it that determines it. Chipmusic can be rock, techno, hip hop, classical, new wave, ambient, jazz, polka, folk, etc. I think a good example of this is the fact that there are so many bands nowadays that fuse chipmusic with traditional instrumentation.  Examples would be "Anamanaguchi", "Graffiti Monsters", or "Awkward, Terrible", bands that use 8-bit hardware in conjunction with guitar/bass/drums/vocals to create new layers of sound."
Please check out James’ site and to find out more. I didn't even get all of the technicalities of trackers and DAWs down because it's quite hard to explain and would make this post double in length. Seeing the complexity and talent that goes into creating chipmusic is fascinating and really ushers in more respect for the chipmusician.

Thank you James, for your time and willingness to share your cool, creative, and challenging craft with me.
Now go and listen to chipmusic.



Stay tuned: Next interview features one of my very best friends, Annie Keithline on why she's walking accross the country!