This Is How The Chiptune Community Turns E-Waste into Music
🎶 The following feature appears in Issue 04 of Selva Beat. Grab your copy here. 🎶
Stepping out of the 14th Street subway station, I walk less than a block to address number 145. I find myself in front of the nondescript door of a brownstone sandwiched between a frame shop and a threading salon. I’ve come to Babycastles, a place where the literal and figurative underground indie game developer community connects with the broader arts community, for an event called Synchrony NYC. I ring the buzzer, show my ticket, and am ushered to a space reminiscent of a basement rec room, the kind of place where you’d play video games for hours at a time with your BFFs as a kid. I take in the neon lights, vintage arcade cabinets turned art pieces, and an array of hardware set up at the front of the room. Synchrony NYC is an annual event that kicks off with a concert of chiptune — a type of music made on the 8-bit sound chips of early gaming systems — accompanied by demos, small computer programs that output visuals.
I’m one of the first to arrive and start chatting with some of the crew and artists. I meet Nick Montfort, who will later write demos in real time to create a visual background for musician Sean Lee. Anton Marek, the sound engineer for the event, talks with me about his own experiences with chiptune music. I meet Billy Murphy and chat with them over DMs about their performance and work after the show. More people and an excited chatter begin to fill the room. The vibe is convivial and I can tell there’s camaraderie among the other attendees, like they all know each other. Someone up front cuts into the noise with an announcement that the show is about to begin, and we move closer to the tables of jumbled hardware for a better view.
During Lee’s set, Montfort programs in a language called BASIC to output visuals onto a big screen, using dual Commodore 64s. The Commodore 64 debuted in 1982 and is credited with bringing personal computing to middle income households throughout the ‘80s. Its sustained success made it the highest-selling single computer model of all time, with the number sold estimated between ten and 17 million units. Many kids were first introduced to gaming and basic computing thanks to this newly affordable hardware. But while the C64’s 8-bit microprocessor might have been state-of-the-art when introduced, today it lacks enough processing power to run any kind of modern technology. That doesn’t mean it’s a complete anachronism, though. When I ask Montfort, who is also a professor of digital media at MIT, about the benefits of using outdated equipment, he explains, “The Commodore 64 is not only good for demos, it’s also great as a way to start learning about programming, to start to explore what computing can do. When you see a great demo for the C64, you know that the people who developed it have figured out not just what the [system] can do but the principles behind its design.” That design is clearly sturdy as C64s are still widely available, if you know where to look. And the ways these hulking electronic predecessors are being creatively reused is the real reason I’ve come to Babycastles.
Worldwide, we dispose of 20 to 50 million metric tons of electronic waste each year.
Given how many electronics the average consumer speeds through and how long devices like the Commodore 64 have been around, all of us should be concerned about what happens when it’s game over for them. Worldwide, we dispose of 20 to 50 million metric tons of electronic waste each year. E-waste contains heavy metals like lead and mercury that can contaminate soil, water, and people when improperly handled, making it an enduring ecological issue. Throwing electronics away is obviously bad, although half of US states allow them to be dumped in landfills. And though we have no federal laws that require electronics to be recycled, you would think the most responsible choice would be to voluntarily recycle them — you can either take your old electronics to dedicated recyclers or to take back programs like the one brokered between Dell and Goodwill Industries.
But according to Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based nonprofit working to combat the export of toxic waste from technology, even recyclers that promise not to export overseas have learned the cheat codes for sending our e-waste to less developed countries to deal with. In 2016, BAN embedded 205 printers and monitors with GPS tracking devices and delivered them to US charities, retailers, and recyclers. They then tracked them to their endpoints and found that 34% of the 205 deployments moved offshore, with 31% of the total going to developing countries. In countries like China, India, and Ghana, there are fewer health and environmental protections in place, and workers burn, handle, and dispose of persistently toxic materials without knowing how dangerous they are. Exposure can lead to cancer, neurological and skin disorders, organ damage, and even death. Each time informal processors are shut down, the e-waste is diverted to less regulated areas. If countries don’t take full responsibility for their own disposal, the burden will be outsourced indefinitely.
The Basel Convention, an international treaty ratified by 185 states and the EU, was designed to prevent this dumping of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries — who now have their own significant domestic e-waste as well. It went into effect in 1992, but the US has yet to ratify it. The treaty wisely aims to reduce the creation of e-waste by making countries reduce, reuse, or recycle their own messes instead of greenwashing them away. To make a dent in this issue, we’ve got to rethink what we consider “waste” to begin with. First, as consumers we can reduce how many electronics we go through by spacing out upgrades (and demanding companies to design for longevity and reuse instead of planned obsolescence). We can safely recycle through BAN’s ethical recycling certification program, known as e-Stewards. Or we can get creative in reusing old electronics as the chiptune community does. Like the sound engineer at Babycastles, Anton Marek said: “In my opinion, it makes more sense to buy used/old gear considering the impact the electronics industry has on the earth. Not to mention, my iPhone has problems after three years, and my Game Boy is still kickin’ after thirty!”
The chiptune scene is loaded with artists that reuse arcane devices. Strictly speaking, chiptune or 8-bit music is made on 8-bit sound chips, like those in the Commodore 64, Atari, Sega Genesis, and older Nintendo game systems. Newer machines use more realistic sound which can’t achieve the same synthesized polyphonic characteristic required for chip music, though “fakebit” can be made with modern sound emulators. True 8-bit music modifies old technology with software called a music tracker to manipulate the channels, samples, notes, effects, patterns, and order of the sound. The most popular of these programs is Little Sound DJ (LSDJ) which can actually be stored and used on an old Game Boy cartridge. One of the artists of the night, Billy Murphy (who creates music under the moniker business pastel), makes the Nintendo Original Game Boy their device of choice. Murphy explains, “By incorporating old hardware into my live shows, I can help promote the potential of chip music, regardless of how familiar somebody is with it. Sometimes, you can find people who are taken completely aback by how you’re making music with Game Boys at all, or people will be surprised with how you can arrange songs that are intricate, despite the strict limitations.” I, for one, had no idea the same thick, grey brick I used to play Tetris on was such a tenacious little machine.
"By incorporating old hardware into my live shows, I can help promote the potential of chip music, regardless of how familiar somebody is with it."
Nintendo’s 8-bit handheld game console was released in 1989 and quickly enjoyed worldwide success. While technologically inferior, the Game Boy beat out competitors like the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx, thanks to its affordability, long battery life, and rugged hardware. When the Game Boy was released in the US, 40,000 sold on the first day and climbed to over one million units in just a few weeks. Despite a display output of just four colors, the handheld system boasted an extensive game library that kept players coming back for more. Nintendo rode this wave of success for almost ten years, actually delaying the development of a color version because of strong sales. (Imagine Apple delaying a new iPhone for ten years!) The Game Boy Color was released in 1998, and the two versions combined have sold an incredible 119 million units worldwide.
Chip music has a supportive and robust DIY community, but learning to use these devices to make music can still be a little like trying to fit together Tetris pieces. For example, Marek creates a combination of analog and software synths with a modified 1989 Dot Matrix Game Boy, LSDJ, and a new device called the USB-boy that connects the old technology to modern digital audio software. He told me, “The tracker software has a pretty sharp learning curve, but is beautiful in its limitations. I can compose entire songs in only a few hours using LSDJ after spending days working on something in a digital audio workstation (DAW) that I possibly would never have finished at all. The limitations one is faced with when composing music in a tracker almost forces creativity.”
The forced creativity of chip music is something the artists I spoke with at Babycastles repeatedly talked about, and it’s actually what drew Murphy to the scene. After discovering artists like Nullsleep, Bit Shifter, and Covox who made music exclusively on old hardware, Murphy found that “it then became apparent that the reasons for writing chip music go far beyond the sound palette. These were artists who embraced the strict limitations of outdated machinery and found ways to work around them and write music that was sonically and compositionally one-of-a-kind.”
The pioneers of the chip music sound were an electronic music band from Tokyo called Yellow Magic Orchestra. Formed in the late ‘70s, they used computer technology and synthesizers to create a distinct sonic quality rooted in Japanese culture. Their international success brought a wave of fast and bright technopop to the scene, a quality that continues via the hyperactive arpeggios of chip music today. Modern chiptune artists do not usually receive as much notoriety, but they have created a collaborative global community. The limited nature of the art form is also what makes it accessible to so many people — with just some retro equipment, a little bit of software, and a DIY attitude, anyone can create their own 8-bit music. Murphy further explains, “The barrier to entry is extremely low. Much of the software that people use to write chip music, whether it be for the NES, Sega Genesis, Game Boy, etc., is either free or very affordable.” Software like LSDJ gives anyone access to music tools without needing to learn a programming language, hardware like Game Boys are small and portable, and, most importantly, the community is willing to teach and support each other. From its origin in Japan to the underground culture in Europe to a small but tenacious group called Colectivo Chipotle in Mexico, the chiptune community is genuinely open to all cultures and people.
"I’ve never been part of a more diverse and dynamic community. The love everyone has for each other is insurmountable."
Though gaming is usually portrayed as bro-y tech culture, the scene around hacking old technology is decidedly more inclusive. Babycastles is a non-profit collective intentionally founded by Syed Salahuddin and Kunal Gupta with a culture of diversity and inclusivity at its core; according to Marek, who often runs sound at the venue, “A large number of people in the chiptune community, myself included, are LGBTQ.” The code of conduct at Babycastles states that they are committed to being a safe, respectful, and positive environment, supporting artists and guests by providing a space for free expression of all people. Marek explains, “I’ve never been part of a more diverse and dynamic community. The love everyone has for each other is insurmountable. I can just flail around on the dance floor without feeling self-conscious — something that isn’t necessarily welcome in every situation.”
That night at Babycastles, I felt the support and love Marek mentioned exuding from the audience. More than music, chiptune is a community that exists outside of a genre. It might exist as a physical space, an online community, a festival, or a hackathon, but all these iterations are in support of creative expression free from judgement. It’s not surprising to me that a community like this just happens to be doing another good deed by reusing old technology to inspire and create art. Intentional, positive change requires ingenuity, and the chiptune community is helping to power a more inclusive and sustainable future.
Words, photography, and graphic design by Elizabeth Stilwell.