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The sound of music: A celebration of Japan's chiptune heroes

Making music from gaming's 8-bit melodies...

Pop stars come and go, but for gamers of a certain age there can be no anthem greater than the infectious theme from Super Mario Bros on the NES or the plinky-plonk loop of the music from the original Tetris on Game Boy.

These are tunes from an age before sampled music, before full orchestras could be used in a game soundtrack, when games were stuffed into tiny little cartridges with scant memory and when hardware came with dedicated sound chips to play the encoded background music on the fly.

These limitations meant two things: the guys who made music for videogames had to keep things simple, using only a few types of bleeps and bloops and focusing their attention on the melody; and the tunes they did make were looped around and around to make the most of the hardware's limited memory. Simple melodies repeated over and over - it's no surprise they stuck in our minds.


Those times are gone. But thanks to an ever-growing group of musicians, the spirit of those memorable melodies lives on as chiptune, a genre of music designed to resemble those classic tunes, as the background music for an altogether more physical type of game: dancing. Yes, real dancing - not the sort that involves contorting yourself on an arrow-covered mat for the sake of a high score.

If you go back far enough, it was Japan that kick-started the chiptune scene - and bizarrely, this happened before those Mario and Tetris classics had even been written. The very first band to sample game music on a song was pioneering Japanese electro trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, whose 1978 single 'Computer Game' featured snatches of Space Invaders and Circus, which at the time were brand new titles. In 1984, Yellow Magic Orchestra member Haruomi Hosono went on to release the world's first album of videogame music, called, erm, 'Video Game Music', which featured sounds provided by Namco. And then Super Mario Bros came bouncing along in 1985.

"I like the way that even though they use a simple and very cold waveform, 8-bit tones sound so thick and so warm," says Takeshi Yokemura, the main man in Tokyo chiptune three-piece YMCK, who are part of a global reboot of the genre that's been going on for the last few years. Yokemura and his band not only release albums of game-influenced music, they also make their own software plugins and iPhone apps so that anyone can make their own 8-bit music (and as you'll see from the picture above, their app even looks suitably 8-bit, too).

While YMCK riff off those nostalgic 'piko-piko' sounds made by games on the NES (or Famicom, as it was called in Japan), they add their own twists that make them stand out from the chiptune crowd. The most obvious departure is the vocals, sung by Midori Kurihara in an unbearably adorable cutesy voice that makes every song sound like it's been painted in kitschy shades of pink. "I thought, 'I wonder what would happen if I ignored the fact that videogame music was originally all instrumental and set some vocals to it? Would it sound natural?'," recalls Yokemura. "I found that having vocals gave an extra type of sound outside of the limited 8-bit palette, plus you also have the advantage of having interesting lyrics to hook people with."


Also, while many 8-bit aficionados aim to make their songs sound like they were ripped straight from a game, YMCK add a jazzy bent that makes them sound more like pop songs. This makes albums such as 'Family Cooking' and 'Family Racing' way more listenable as a CD rather than as background music in a game.

Another thing that makes YMCK so absolutely amazing is their visual style. The band members rarely appear in photographs. Instead, their likenesses are rendered in 8-bit and 16-bit-style artwork. Also, whenever the band perform live, they run game-style videos on a screen to complete the experience.

Another musician doing interesting things with chiptune sounds and warped visuals is Omodaka, a one-man unit who makes warm electronic music that's triggered partly by a collection of handheld consoles.

"When I play live, I perform with a Game Boy Color, a PSP, a DS Lite, a Kaossilator handheld synth, a MacBook running Ableton Live and an LCD display," says Tokyo solo act Omodaka (Soichi Terada to his mum). "In the studio I use Logic Studio software to record, because it's more convenient to make the music. But handheld games consoles are like my band members." In fact, just like the singer of a rock band might introduce the guitarist, bassist and drummer during a gig, Omodaka always introduces his Game Boy and friends to the audience.


And there's another sort of band member too: Akiko Kanazawa, a veteran singer of Japanese folk and enka (oldies) music, sings on many of Omodaka's tracks, her earthy, traditional voice at intriguing unease with his 8-bit tones. On stage, Kanazawa's Geisha-like face appears life-size on a portable LCD screen and Omodaka holds a mic in front of it to give the illusion that she's singing live, while sometimes moving the screen around the stage so he and the virtual Kanazawa can dance together.

And then there's Professor Sakamoto, another one-man act who plays covers of classic game music on piano. While we're not too sure about the authenticity of his doctorly credentials, there's no doubting the Professor's endless knowledge of videogame tunes.

Sakamoto performs live with a real Famicom stuck on top of his head. He lays out a wide selection of game cartridges and invites the audience to select one and stick it in to the slot on his head-mounted console, and then plays a rendition of one of the songs from that game on piano. It's such an ingenious and geeky idea, it's amazing we didn't think of it first.

"People in Japan are mad about the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest RPGs, so those series' music is the most popular by far," says Sakamoto, when asked which carts are slotted most frequently into his head. "And of course, songs from first-party Nintendo productions such as Mario and Zelda are dead popular."

Like the singer of a rock band might introduce the guitarists, Omodaka always introduces his Game Boy to the audience

Sakamoto plays three or four shows a month in Tokyo, from small clubs in front of a few hundred people to big summer festivals with an audience of thousands. He says he gets invited to play lots of anime- and game-friendly events and sometimes performs alongside famous Japanese bands. He also appeared on TV in Japan, playing an 8-bit-style piano interpretation of a song by super-huge emo-tinged speed-rock band 9mm Parabellum Bullet.


"All sorts of people come to my shows, from teens to fortysomethings, and an equal number of men and women," explains Sakamoto. "I get a lot of game and anime otaku [obsessives] at my shows, but I also get a surprising amount of normal, cute girls!"

Sakamoto has also released two albums of his own original music, 'Insert' and 'SKMT'. 'SKMT' and a track from it simultaneously topped the electronic album and singles charts on iTunes' Japan store, proving that the audience for chiptune in Japan is pretty sizeable.

"I also wrote some music for an anime on Nippon TV and aside from that I do other song-writing work as well," says Sakamoto. So he's not just a games and music nerd, then, but a professional games and music nerd. What a hero.

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