If you’re between the ages of five and forty-five and haven’t spent the majority of your life in a coma, you’re familiar with Nintendo (sometimes known as 8-bit) video game music. Whether you love it, hate it, ignore it or can’t get it out of your head, everyone knows what old-school video games sound like.
We first encountered 8-bit music when the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came out in 1985. Those odd-sounding bloops and bleeps, made on incredibly simple equipment with limited musical capabilities, are instantly recognizable to a portion of us who came of age in the '80s and '90s: The Legend of Zelda theme song, the sound of losing a life on Super Mario Brothers, the peculiar tone of Megaman’s gun. This sound is undergoing a resurgence, as many artists who grew up playing Nintendo games have warmed to the benefits of writing music or creating sound effects using this limited palette. In this article we'll explore how to wrap your head around 8-bit music; tomorrow we'll explain the various tools you can use to produce these sounds.
Step One: Understand 8-bit Sound and its Limitations
When you hear something that sounds like video game music, you’re recognizing not the notes or melodies but the compositional devices used by people with limited options who were trying to make music that sounded more complex than it was. 8-bit music is also monophonic — what you hear in the left speaker is the same as in the right.
Nintendo music can sound complex, but because of the limitations of the system, this complexity is made up of extremely simple components. If you want to write 8-bit music, you have to take apart the songs you’re used to hearing to understand them. Emulating simple things is, well, pretty simple, which is why a lot of this stuff is so popular - these really basic, really pure electronic sounds are easy to grasp.
Step Two: Break Down Your Beloved Tunes
A couple of strategies exist that allow you the better understand the compositional aspects of 8-bit music. You can start by picking one of your favorite NES songs. What music did you listen to for hours as a child, trying to master a game? What tune haunted your dreams? (Tetris, we’re looking at you).
A type of sound file, called an .nsf, now becomes your best friend. NSF files are actual Nintendo sound files, constructed by copying the game’s data and stripping it of the game code and graphics. The resulting file contains only the music engine and data, which can be played back using plug-ins and stand-alone programs like emulators. One of the best ways to take apart 8-bit music is a free Winamp plugin called NotSoFatso.
When you open NSF files, you are hearing the exact same music that you would if you dug your NES out of the closet and blew ten years of dust out of a game cartridge. So: play your favorite video game music, listen to it over and over again, and then screw around with it! NotSoFatso allows you to manipulate every aspect of this music. You can change the volume or mute individual channels, allowing you to isolate and hear each thread of the composition.
Another great way to get a handle on 8-bit composition is to play with tempo. Music that at normal speed sounds like a blur of notes can - when slowed down - become easier to understand. Using NotSoFatso, slow your NSF file down to 1% of normal speed. Slowing it down that significantly lets you hear all of the fast bleepy-bloop sounds as a series of individual steps.
Step Three: Apply What You've Learned
This is how the music is made, in tiny little pieces. If you can zoom in to see what these they are, and the tricks the composers used, you can begin to understand how 8-bit music works. As you listen to NSFs, start thinking about what techniques you can utilize in your own projects. Whether you lean on the masters or strike out on your own, you should be thinking about your own unique compositions as you grow to understand theirs.