8 Bit Weapon interviewed about their creative process and latest album
By Bob Gourley | Published on April 2, 2016
8 Bit Weapon are pioneers of chiptune, a form of electronic music that utilizes the sounds of vintage videos games and computer systems. Comprised of Seth and Michelle Sternberger (Michelle also has a solo project, ComputeHer), they’ve released over a dozen albums and been featured on many compilations and soundtracks. They’ve also been part of gaming-related events such as Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “The Art of Video Games.” While their music tends to be fast-paced and energetic, they’ve slowed down things a bit for their new release “Disassembly Language: Ambient Music for Deprogramming Vol. 1“. The sounds on it all come from the Commodore 64 computer’s SID sound chip and for portions of it the computer was actually allowed to ‘co-write’ by selecting the notes. In an email interview, Seth and Michelle discussed the new album and their work in general.
Could you describe how you initially got into this type of music?
8 BIT WEAPON: We both grew up playing video games on the Commodore 64, NES, Game Boy and other systems of the 80s and 90s.
SETH: By around 1998 I was rediscovering my Commodore 64 and found emulation software on the internet that allowed me to play my favorite games without the actual hardware. I also discovered there were sound chip emulators that allowed you to play just the music from your favorite computers and consoles! I then began remixing my favorite Commodore 64 game music in a program called ACID (now called SONY ACID PRO). Then I began acquiring actual hardware that allowed me to use the Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System, Atari 800 and more as MIDI modules. That’s when 8 Bit Weapon became solidified and I made original chipmusic from scratch from then on.
MICHELLE: When I discovered in 2004 that people were making original chipmusic and performing it live, it really called out to me. I initially got into chipmusic when I was looking for new and different bands in Los Angeles. I saw that there was a band playing in Hollywood that used the Commodore 64 as an instrument and that’s when I went to my first chip show and I fell in love with the whole genre! The band that I saw in Hollywood happened to be 8 Bit Weapon and that is where I met Seth. Within weeks of meeting Seth, he gave me LSDJ (Little Sound DJ) for the Game Boy and it gave me access to writing every aspect of a song on one platform. I carried my Game Boy in my purse and wrote my first album on it for my solo band which I called ComputeHer. I then joined forces with Seth and we started writing and performing together as 8 Bit Weapon shortly thereafter.
You created a sample collection, “8 Bit Weapon: A Chiptune Odyssey.” Do you feel anything gets lost when using these sounds within modern music software/hardware rather than on the original gear?
8 Bit Weapon: Not at all, music is music. The only thing we notice is that it can be the slightest bit harder to get the volume levels balanced between lo-fi (8 bit or less) sounds and traditional instruments. Other than that, we can’t really tell the difference.
On your own music, are the sounds always coming off the original equipment, or do you sample / manipulate things (beyond effects)?
8 Bit Weapon: Yes, when recording our songs from our vintage computers and classic consoles, each sound is taken right off the hardware directly to the sound editor. We even have modified Nintendo Game Boys with special stereo RCA outputs that bypass the original circuitry to reduce noise! The Commodore, Apple II, Amiga and Atari 800xl gear all have special RCA cables that we can get great quality sound directly from the boards/chips. The only tricky recording we had to do was run an Atari 2600 through the classic console RF (channel 3 or 4) adapter to the back of a VCR and then record from the VCR’s RCA output, which added noise. Other than that, we have it pretty easy since most of the vintage computer and console developers knew families owned “hi-fi” stereo systems back then. They made direct audio/video outputs for their machines in one form or another.
When using vintage video game / computer equipment, is it always with new/custom software, or do you ever utilize musical tools that originally came out for them? For example, I know there were several Commodore 64 programs back when that computer was being made.
8 Bit Weapon: We have a mix of both new and old software tools in our studio. Some machines like the NES have fairly recent software for music creation like the MIDINES CART. The Commodore 64 has a HUGE vintage library of music software we can use in addition to the many modern tools like the MSSIAH midi cart. The Game Boy requires modern software called Little Sound DJ for most people to be able to create original pieces with, but there is other software tools to find and use as well. The Atari 800 & Apple II also have legacy software to use in addition to modern tools/software to choose from. For example, we co-developed the Digital Music Synthesizer Software Series in 2010 for the Apple ii. (http://8bitweapon.com/store) Ourq DMS Series turns your Apple ii into a 1 bit keyboard and/or drum machine.
Could you describe your current musical setup, for both studio and live work? How has it perhaps changed over the years?
8 Bit Weapon: When we first started playing shows live, we used a Commodore 64 with the Commodore branded Music Maker cart and Music Maker Keyboard overlay. This allows one to play the C64 like a piano live! We also have added our Apple ii Digital Music Synth to our live set up. We also often use Game Boys, NES and the rare Commodore SX-64 which is a “portable” C64 with a built in disk drive and a mini color monitor. We have always used PC & Mac laptops to run our backing tracks. The only difference in our studio from the gear mentioned in our live set are the following: We use the SID Station which is a C64 sound chip in a MIDI controllable module, the Ensoniq Mirage Digilogue Synthesizer/Sampler which was designed by Bob Yannes who also designed the C64 SID chip, Amiga 500 and 1200, Atari 2600 and 800xl, Speak and Music, electronic drum kit, Yamaha Keyboard that uses the OPL3 FM sound chip and many others, we can go on forever…
Does using old computer / video game equipment worry you at all, in terms things breaking / potentially not being repairable in the future?
8 Bit Weapon: Absolutely, we have gone through countless Commodore 64’s, Apple II’s and Game Boys over the almost 20 years we’ve been performing. We always have a backup machine and/or traditional synth just in case! After all, the show must go on! We are always welcoming donations from people who still have their Commodore 64s, Game Boys, etc. and want them to go to a good home and not in the trash! (hint hint!)
Have you encountered any old devices that make interesting sounds but are problematic to use as musical tools?
8 Bit Weapon: Not really actually, the closest is the Atari 2600 like we mentioned earlier because of the lack of a direct sound output. Most devices always have a headphone or other format audio output after 1982.
Could you explain the inspiration and process behind the new “Disassembly Language: Ambient Music for Deprogramming Vol. 1”?
8 Bit Weapon: We have been fans of iconic artists such as Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Brian Eno and other masters of ethereal/ambient music for years. We had also been itching to do an all Commodore 64 album with no other devices. The thing that makes the Commodore 64’s sound so special is that Bob Yannes, the C64’s SID (Sound Interface Device) sound chip designer, tried to make a digital/analogue hybrid that would emulate the famous ARP synthesizer. The SID chip is the only vintage 8 bit computer or game console sound chip that allows you to synthesize like you would on a classic analogue synth. You can alter the Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release, but also apply real analogue style filters, among other innovations over other sound chips. With that in mind, we had all we needed to craft a truly immersive synth odyssey. The result was “Disassembly Language: Ambient Music for Deprogramming Vol. 1”. We crafted over 1 hour of unique original music like nothing else out there.
While “Disassembly Language” uses Commodore 64 sounds, it doesn’t necessarily bring to mind video / computer game styles. Since you do a lot of gaming-related events and projects, do you ever worry about getting typecast within that scene? (As this release in particular would likely appear to other electronic music fans as well.)
8 Bit Weapon: We aren’t concerned with being typecast. We have done work for games as well as tv projects that do not sound like chipmusic or even use chip sounds at all. We think most people can hear the music and know instantly if they like it or not, regardless of the aesthetic. Production companies across all media platforms regularly contact us and ask if we can do projects for them in many styles such as rock formats, j-pop, electronic, classical and of course chipmusic, etc. and the answer is always yes.
Having been one of the pioneers of ‘chiptune,’ what are thoughts on the way it has developed over the years?
8 BIT WEAPON: We think it’s amazing how far the chip scene has come. It was such a small group of people in the late 90’s and early 2000s. Now you can hear chiptune in top 40 music and in any musical genre you can think of: Bluegrass, Death Metal, Shoegaze, you name it, it’s there! We have also heard it on every media medium now including TV commercials and radio stingers. We have even heard our Sony Loop Library (A Chiptune Odyssey) used by electronic pioneers Information Society.
What tends to determine whether a song will have vocals or not?
8 Bit Weapon: We usually write a song and at some point we realize that it might sound best with lyrics instead of another instrument. Lyrics are so much harder than just writing a melody, you are exposing so much more of yourself with words. We tend to really hammer out lyrics because we have to feel confident enough to sing them, especially in public. Lots of scrutiny is involved. 😉
Michelle – how do you tend to divide your time between 8 Bit Weapon and ComputeHer? Beyond ComputerHer being a solo project, how you feel the creative process behind it compares? And Seth, are you involved in any other musical / creative projects?
MICHELLE: When I’m focusing on songwriting for 8 Bit Weapon, I’m totally focused on that. When the 8 Bit Weapon projects are done, I focus all my writing energy on my solo band ComputeHer. Beyond that, my writing style is very different from Seth’s. I usually have a lot of drums in my music since I have a background in drumming. I also tend to have more of an experimental sound to my music overall, which bleeds into 8 Bit Weapon. With 8 Bit Weapon Seth usually writes the outline of most of the tracks then we complete the tracks together. ComputeHer is all my writing from start to finish.
Seth: I put all of my musical ideas into 8 Bit Weapon, no other musical outlets needed. I am also now developing an 8 bit Western themed RPG for PC, Mac, and yes the Apple II called Lawless Legends. (www.lawlesslegends.com)
For those wanting to get started making Chiptune music, what would you say good starting points would be (hardware/software) for novices and those with a bit more technical expertise?
SETH: I’d say try to get some midi/audio recording/editing software like Ableton and a simple piano style controller. Ableton has many presets included to get the songwriting started. Next, think about what system do you identify most with? What did you grow up with and google what midi/sequencing options are available for it. Each computer/console has it’s own unique sound personality. Watch youtubes of different music from each system to find the sound that strikes a chord with you personally and go from there.
MICHELLE: For hardware I originally started with the Game Boy and LSDJ, both are relatively easy to acquire. I have a basic tutorial for them on my YouTube channel if you are curious. For software and for something easier, I would try using 8 bit loops like “A Chiptune Odyssey” and also Plogue’s Chipsounds softsynth.
Do you have any events / releases coming up that you’d like to mention?
MICHELLE: Aside from eventually releasing Volume 2 of Disassembly Language for 8 Bit Weapon, I have a new album coming out in the next couple of months called “The SIDuction of ComputeHer”. I have already released the first single “Software” from it and it features 7 remixes spanning across 5 different vintage computers & consoles, plus other synths! The album will feature about 9 tracks and really shows off what I can do with a Commodore 64’s SID chip.
For more info, visit 8bitweapon.com.