FatNicK Reviews Stuff: Bits and Pieces A History of Chiptunes

I’m pretty surprised that its taken me so long to get round to reading this book myself, to be honest, but here it is: A quick review at Kenneth McAlpine’s scholarly examination of the history of chiptunes.

I suppose the first thing that needs to be said about this book is a word of caution: though you may think that the worlds of chiptune and video game music are essentially entwined, this book is NOT a history of video game music. Though video games were of course a key driver in the development of the sound hardware used to create chiptunes, the two rapidly became distinct and very separate entities – a fact reflected in the structure of the text reflects. Though the book contains some fantastically detailed examples and lively anecdotes from the early days of Video game music, If you’re looking for an exclusive and fully comprehensive history of video game music, this is not quite the book for you.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I can say that if you are looking to understand the world of chiptunes – from the technical and musical techniques deployed in their creation right through to the subcultures that have sprung up around the “8-bit” sound – then this is an absolutely tremendous place to start.

Though it is a scholarly text (i.e. its helpfully packed with notes and references,) McAlpine’s writing style is friendly and engaging – his opening anecdote about chiptunes and the Cbeebies show Hey Dugee feels almost like it was aimed at me personally – which makes the the book an incredibly easy one to read.

Indeed, on top of just writing well, McAlpine is incredibly gifted when describing mechanical details – both musical and technological. It’s impressive that McAlpine seems every bit as comfortable when describing the the speaker inertia that makes complex 1-bit compositions possible as he does when drawing parallels between Super Mario Bros’ Over World Theme and Debussy’s first Arabesque. Consequently he’s able to easily break down potentially complicated subject matter, finishing up with a book that’s readily comprehensible to a more mainstream audience than you would perhaps expect.

The book is about much more than the technical details, however. With the second half of the book dedicated to the wider developments of the culture around chiptunes – the transformation from the cracker scenen to a Demoscene, the arrival of artists armed with Gameboys packing LSDJ carts etc – McAlpine undertakes a full exploration of the various communities that have sprung up around the Chiptune concept. This exploration is rendered all the more colourfully thanks to the inclusions of quotes from key scene figures like Mark ‘TDK’ Knight and C64audio.com owner Chris Abbot.

Personally I found both aspects of the book completely fascinating. Though I’d definitely say the knowledge I had going into the book probably gave me a head start on your average Joe (my latest Zx Spectrum Chiptune release IS a couple of weeks away from going live…), nonetheless I still feel like i took a lot away from it to. Not only do I feel all the better for having been introduced to Japanese duo Kplecraft, but McAlpine’s well-informed pondering on the issues surrounding authenticity Vs “fakebit” led me to ponder my own music making practices. Not that I’ll be packing my Japanese Megadrive up anytime soon, mind you.

Overall then, it’s much to McAlpine’s credit that it’s quicker to say who I wouldn’t recommend the book to than to who I would. As we already covered who I wouldn’t in the disclaimer, I would say that if you have any other interest in Video games, technology, unorthodox music writing or musical notation, transgressive subcultures or hacking, there’s definitely something in this book for you.