Gray Brick, New Tricks
November 17, 2007 — It's a blustery Saturday, and I'm in an East Village café with two musicians and a Game Boy. Jeremiah "Nullsleep" Johnson and Josh "Bit Shifter" Davis are taking a break from making final arrangements for Blip Festival, a four-day celebration of chip-based art, music, and performance, to discuss the utilitarian design of 1989's must-have portable gaming device.
Johnson and Davis, both based in New York, are part of an ever-growing international scene comprising artists who teach old gaming consoles new tricks. Versed in the two most popular programs for Game Boy music composition, Little Sound DJ and Nanoloop, they show me how both allow users to set various parameters and create original music within the full range of the Game Boy's four channels of sound.
While LSDJ and Nanoloop ingeniously maneuver the console's framework to maximize a composer's creative capabilities, the particular design of the console itself is equally crucial to the rise of this branch of the chiptune movement. It is the choices the Game Boy's designers made (without considering its possibilities as an audio composing device), coupled with the homegrown efforts of LSDJ and Nanoloop's programmers, that have made it easy to record, circulate, and amplify to 11 one's own chip-based music. And thus a thriving scene was born, each new artist striving to create more audaciously original combinations of sounds on an old, familiar toy with a limited palette.
The 3.5" x 5.8" x 1.3" gray brick that Davis pulls out of its checkered case looks spectacularly clunky at first glance. With just a directional pad and four buttons, and a thick plastic shell with rounded corners, it's an unassuming device without flourishes or pretensions. Johnson and Davis walk me through the various design features that make their weapon of choice everything from a portable music workstation to a pocket 8-bit boombox to the perfect companion onstage.
Lynette Chiu: Explain which aspects of the Game Boy allow it to be used for musical purposes.
Jeremiah Johnson: The Game Boy has a headphone jack, something which none of its predecessors had, from what I can remember.
Josh Davis: For live performances or recording, the sound comes out of the headphone jack. I also think the use of stereo sound was pretty unusual [when the Game Boy was designed]. You play the Game Boy without headphones and you don't know that the sound is stereo, but with headphones you realize that all the music and sound effects are.
JJ: It has stereo capabilities but a mono speaker, so when things are only playing in one channel they come out of the mono speaker at half the volume. I think this was their way of simulating stereo sound with only a single speaker.
So when you plug the Game Boy into a PA you get the full stereo effect.
JJ: Yes. Putting the jack on there was a pretty forward thinking move on the designers' part.
JD: They were probably giving thought to what would be useful on a portable game device, like if you're a kid on a car trip, and want to just be in your own little world and not drive your parents crazy with the music from the game.
JJ: There's also a link port on the side of the Game Boy that was originally intended for two-player games. You can connect two Game Boys up to one another and play games head to head. Sometimes I perform with a PC keyboard that's connected to the Game Boy through this link port. You can actually take a keyboard and splice its cable into a Game Boy link cable to improvise and control LSDJ in real time. And LSDJ and Nanoloop are cartridges you plug into the Game Boy, so you can compose music anywhere.
JJ: Yeah. The Game Boy was a coup for the whole portable electronic game industry because it was by nature superior to previous devices in that you could switch out games on cartridges. That's given it a pretty long life.
JD: I've been really spoiled now by making music on a Game Boy. LSDJ and Nanoloop are really incredible models of interface economy. To look at the Game Boy you'd think the limited controls would only slow you down; there's just a directional pad and four buttons. But these programs' interfaces are so well thought out that it's much faster now for me to sketch out songs on the Game Boy than on computer-based music software or any other sequencer I've used. Plus it's portable and totally self-contained — it'd be hard for me now to go back to other tools.
What else about the original Game Boy's design is noteworthy?
JD: There really isn't much; it's very basic. There's a contrast dial for the screen, since the screen is by today's standards kinda crappy. It's not backlit, so this is a fairly clever workaround to compensate for different lighting conditions. There's a volume knob and power switch. I think that [the designers] did a good job of taking a utilitarian, no-frills approach to the usefulness of the console, but with some interesting provisions.
JJ: The original Game Boy seems to have the ideal size and weight. It feels a bit more substantial and it's satisfying to perform live with it. It's just the right size for a pair of adult hands rather than the Game Boy Color, which is a bit smaller.
What would you change about the Game Boy's design as it relates to making music?
JJ: If there's one complaint about the original Game Boy, it's the lack of lighting [for the screen]. During live performances you're not always in ideal light situations, and [without a lighting solution] you find yourself bending towards whatever light you can get, which looks really awkward and uncool when you're trying to perform.
JD: Jeremiah has a cool backlight modification feature, while I rely on third-party attachments that clip on and illuminate the screen. The drawback to those is you have another device to worry about. They can be kinda top-heavy, and the one I use takes four batteries, so you can imagine the thing becomes a bit unwieldy, like it's trying to do a nosedive. The most elegant solution I've seen is what Jeremiah has. You open up the Game Boy and remove the front shell from the screen, install a light, reassemble, and add a switch to turn the light on and off.
Does the Game Boy ever slip out of your hands? Do you wear gloves onstage to prevent this from happening?
JD: There's a texture to the plastic. I don't think I've ever severely dropped a Game Boy.
JJ: I think these grooves [on the surface of the plastic] are intended to offer some sort of grip.
JD: [deadpans] Any gloves worn onstage are purely for style and serve no practical purpose.
November 30, 2007 — In the cavernous space of EYEBEAM, over 1000 people are noisily enjoying the second day of Blip Festival, the largest gathering of chiptune musicians in the world. The featured artists have re-appropriated Nintendo systems, the Commodore 64, and Atari for new artistic purposes. Huge video screens loom behind each performer, as live projections complement the musicians' aural onslaught.
Hally, a Japanese chiptune star who rarely performs in the US, invigorates the crowd while wearing a shirt that declares, "I [heart] RETRO GAME." People crowd surf, dance on stage, pump their fists, and hold up laptops, tree branches, and other carefully considered props. Davis and Johnson seem at once ecstatic, anxious, and awed by the spectacle.
The word "nostalgia" feels on the tip of my tongue, but I know from my conversation with Davis and Johnson that the appeal of this scene is not so easily explained. For one, a lot of the attendees look too young to have experienced firsthand the advent of gaming, but they're as gleeful as the older folk. As my friend and avid chiptune fan Ian quipped, "Nostalgia? I'm not nostalgic for throwing the controller across the room." Perhaps some people are here because there is something in the aesthetic that reminds them of their pasts. Others may have stumbled upon the scene because of the aesthetic's promotion to retro kitsch status. Goth types, candy ravers, and indie rockers are all enjoying these starkly simple sounds and images for reasons I imagine could read like the index to the DSM-IV.
Personally, I find something very comforting and emotive about what I'm hearing and seeing tonight. I don't know if I'm romanticizing the past, or just caught up in how energetic the crowd is, but what is clear is that I'm experiencing a community that is vibrant and refreshingly supportive (not to mention unabashedly nerdy). Immersed in a world where white squares represent stars in the galaxy, squares built on squares become ghosts, clouds, and mushrooms, and seasoned musicians and curious kids alike are pushing sonic boundaries, I think I'd like to stay awhile.