How to make chiptune music
Chiptunes that use original hardware or replicate the sound of classic consoles are often made using music trackers, which have a steep learning curve. Using Soundation as your digital audio workstation, you essentially have an easy-to-learn online chiptune maker!
Game on: 4 classic 8-bit sounds in chip music
We’ve come a long way since the days of “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Select Start” cheat code and 8-bit music of Super Contra. Today, not only are aimbots openly up for hire, but the soundtrack to your boss fights can also be anything from a Grammy-nominated orchestra to a chart-topping hit.
Yet despite how far video games have evolved, the old-school bleepy, bloopy sounds have never really gone away. Take, for example, the rise of the chiptune scene and Game Boy’s rebirth as a pocket synth. Reliving your Super Mario Bros memories while making music has never been this easy. In this article, we’ll show you how to make classic 8-bit sounds right on Soundation.
Ready? Press start.
- NES-style chiptune
Why is it called "Chiptune"?
While modern video games have sound cards to process audio files, when Nintendo released NES in 1983, it came with a sound chip. Like a self-contained synthesizer, this sound chip generates sounds based on simple waveforms – each of which provides different types of sounds.
This is because the console can process only 8 bits of information at the same time (most computers today run on a 64-bit processor!), and synthesizing sounds take up less memory than playing back stored audio information.
Watch sound waves in action during a Super Mario Bros’ speedrun at the bottom of the video below. Notice how basic geometrical waveforms from a simple sound chip are orchestrated to make the music sounds like a full-fledged concert to the ears. Essentially, these sound waves are used as if they were instruments.
Famously, a sound chip in the NES has only five channels – each for a specific sound. Together, they create the crunchy sounds that have become the defining tunes of the Nintendo era. To replicate the music of your childhood, all you need is the right instrument on Soundation to make those iconic 8-bit sounds.
Here’s a full walkthrough.
Element 1: Square Wave
A waveform is, in a nutshell, the most fundamental character of a sound. As you can probably tell by now, its shape determines the sound’s timbre or tone, giving each waveform its distinct audio quality.
The first two channels on the NES sound chip produce square waves. The square wave is known for its artificial, piercing beep sound and is often used to make melodies or duophonic chords (2 notes only). Check out one of the most impressive uses of square waves in Crisis Force.
In Soundation, you can use a Mono Synth to make the beeps of square wave. Listen to the melodies we made with two tracks of a Mono Synth below.
- Square wave melodies
Element 2: Triangle Wave
The third channel on the NES sound chip is for triangle waves. Compared to square wave, triangle wave is softer and therefore is commonly used for a bass line. Together with square wave, you can combine it to make a soaring melodic line with warm, bassy tones like this bittersweet theme song in The Legend of Zelda.
To make the boops of triangle wave on Soundation, use a Wub Machine to get a deep bass for your chiptune.
- Triangle wave bassline
Element 3: Noise
The fourth channel on the sound chip, noise wave is commonly used in short bursts for percussive sounds. The beat in Mega Man‘s theme song is a perfect example of how noise can help add excitement to a fast-paced, action-oriented game. And yes, you heard that right — it’s 160 bpm.
To replicate the familiar static noise on Soundation, use our Noiser instrument. Adjust the attack, decay, sustain and release to get the perfect snap. Then just add a filter and degrader, and you’ve got yourselves 8-bit drums to play with.
- Noise channel drums
Element 4: Audio Sampler
The last channel in the NES sound chip is a rudimentary sampler that can play any sound. It adds a more complex sound to existing waveforms and even speech. From the classic “Player one!” to a crowd’s roar, take a listen to some examples of digitized speeches in NES games below.
On Soundation, we decided to sample an electronic drum in GM-2 and add a Degrader to crush it to bits. The drums add a density and rhythmic drive to the existing beats from noise wave.
- Sample playback
And there you have it, the four most common 8-bit sounds of old video game consoles. Download a chiptune project file or click a template so you can play with all these sounds in the studio.
We pick the presets and adjust all the settings for you, so you don’t have to! To open a downloaded file in the studio, click ‘Projects’ in the sidebar and ‘Load .sng file’. Here’s a quick look at the project:
Find out for yourself how far you can push the pixelated sounds of chiptune. Virtual power-ups for those of you who make a new song out of it!