From the full-on screeching audio assault of his former electronic noise-punk group, Atari Teenage Riot, to the varied arrangements of his solo work, German musician Alec Empire is well versed in the power of utilizing the sounds and aesthetic of videogames in his music. For close to two decades, his music and politics have been hard-edged, unforgiving and nothing short of revolutionary.
One of the revolutions he inspired fits in the palm of your hand. Empire was among the earlier artists to adopt what has now become the audio weapon of choice in the digital underground: a Nintendo Game Boy.
“It was obvious to me. When I started Atari Teenage Riot I loved the idea of using a tool which is supposed to be a videogame only. Of course the Atari back then was a proper little computer like Amiga,” says Empire.
Made largely possible by a few DIY programmers’ effort, a growing number of musicians continue to find ways to incorporate 8-bit sounds into their art.
Perhaps unwittingly, Nintendo laid the groundwork for the coming revolution when it released the Game Boy Camera accessory in 1998. A limited sound sequencing program was built into the device. To access the program users have to play a space shooter game and blast down a particular ship, which unlocks the sequencer.
“When Nintendo released the music program I just had to get it,” says Empire. He went on to create a 75-minute double album using the simple three-channel sound program.
We Punk Einheit
Empire recalls having Game Boy “Out” parties in Berlin, back in 1998. DJs were called “body snatchers,” and the events featured videogame music interspersed with No Wave and bizarre Japanese art records.
“I was so bored with the British music press praising The Beatles on and on. At those parties we wanted to draw a line once and for all and reject the old tradition of music making, which is still stopping or slowing down the evolution of music,” he says. “I grew up in Berlin. The artists in Germany made a fresh start after the Hitler regime. They thought that if a society that evil came out from the art created before it, then we must invent a new way of thinking and creating.”
The 26-song album of Game Boy music he released the following year documents the vibe of that time, just a decade after the Berlin wall came down.
Under the moniker Nintendo Teenage Robots, Empire released We Punk Einheit on his label, Digital Hardcore Recordings, in 1999.
Most songs on the album are simultaneously exciting and painful to listen to. The music is mainly looping blips and beeps, merged with digitized blasts from the noise channel. At times the music undulates, almost danceable; other times it degenerates into chaos. Listening to the whole album blasted at high volume feels like having your brain hard-wired into a classic console.
“The feedback that I got from people was ‘How on Earth did you come up with that on this little machine?'” says Empire.
Devised at the pace of about a song a day, Empire likens the process of composing songs on the Game Boy to reaching a high level in a videogame. In early arcade games the difficulty often ramps up significantly after the first or second level, making it nearly impossible to proceed without an extreme level of manual dexterity and unflinching concentration. The composition process for the record lent itself more to subconscious intuition and quick finger reflexes rather than preconceived song structures. “Everything goes fast, and you react quickly. It’s exciting, thrilling. Your body releases adrenaline. That’s how it felt; very similar to how I record music in general.”
He says making the album was like creating a small world reminiscent of Space Invaders or House of Terror. When he was a kid these were the worlds he dreamed about. “To me these were quite nihilistic games, because you could only lose. The aliens would always take over. I loved that when I was a kid. The music and sounds that came with it were very cold, like an unstoppable machine which destroys you, the player. You can be sure about that when you start the game.”
Now You Are Playing With Power
The Game Boy’s hardware limitations, along with its lack of composition programs, have become part of the device’s allure as a music-making tool. The variety of old-school sounds one can make with it is appealing; never mind that picking up an iconic piece of ’90s pop culture and manipulating it, for good or evil, is just plain cool.
As Nintendo releases newer hand-held gaming devices, fans still turn to the original Game Boy to make music because they claim the aging hardware’s unique sound can’t be beat. The work of two independent software programmers has played a large part in device’s popularity.
In early 1998, German art student Oliver Wittchow gave the first public demonstration of his new program called Nanoloop, a 16-step pattern music sequencer designed for the Game Boy, during a “lo-fi contest” at the Liquid Sky Club in Cologne. “Though [the] sound was really awful, the audience’s feedback was very euphoric and I realized I should continue development and release this to the public,” Wittchow says of Nanoloop’s public debut.
Wittchow began producing a new version of the software the following year and distributed the program by hand to a limited group of people. Nanoloop’s minimalist 4×4 interface allows the user to play a pattern of 16 notes in a loop. Notes can be set and edited on the fly, which makes the program popular for live, improvisational performances. Two Game Boys running Nanoloop can be linked together and synced with a cable.
Several versions of the program were released until 2004, when Wittchow’s Chinese manufacturer suddenly stopped producing the blank Game Boy cartridges he needed for the program. At the time, cartridges were still in production for the newer Game Boy Advance system, and Wittchow developed a GBA version of Nanoloop (v2.1) as a result. Version 2.1 took advantage of the GBA sound chip with a completely redesigned sound engine.
“Despite the popularity of 2.1, there was a continuous demand for the unique, rough sound of the old Game Boy models and the simplicity of the old Nanoloop versions,” he says. In order to meet this demand, Wittchow recently developed his own printed circuit boards for Game Boy Color/Classic cartridges and used them to release a new Nanoloop for the older hardware.
“It was always a certain financial risk because I had to order and pay in advance large quantities from various obscure, unreliable suppliers in Hong Kong,” Wittchow says. “However, though these guys acted really strange and rather scared me sometimes, they always delivered in the end.”
Nanoloop is available for purchase through Wittchow’s website.
Swedish musician and programmer Johan Kotlinski created the Game Boy’s most versatile music-making program. Operating under the name Role Model, Kotlinski began making electronic music on an Amiga in the mid-’90s. Eventually the Game Boy caught his eye, and Kotlinski set out to program a more robust sound creation program for the system.
“For a long time, I had some ideas about how nice it would be to have some kind of musical notepad to put down ideas on while being away from home. It was mostly a coincidence that I started working on the Game Boy platform,” Kotlinski says.
Months of work on a prototype yielded version 1.0 of Little Sound DJ (LSDJ) in January 2001. LSDJ allows users to create their own modulations in 4-bit sound using the Game Boy’s two square channels, a waveform channel and a noise channel. Instead of creating sounds in a constant loop, patterns can be arranged and modified in many different ways to create entire songs with the software. And users could save their songs directly onto LSDJ’s cartridge.
Later versions of the program included a set of 59 phonemes, which can be used to program speech. Additionally, LSDJ features 14 sampled drum kits, including the TR-606, TR-707, TR-727, TR-808, TR-909, CR-8000, KR-55, DR-110 Drumulator, RythmAce, Sequential Circuits TOM and LinnDrum.
Much like Wittchow, Kotlinski embraced the do-it-yourself ethic and took to producing the cartridges by hand. He purchased empty cartridges from Hong Kong in small batches and loaded the program onto them himself. Despite high buy-in cost, the project quickly became profitable for Kotlinski. After several years, however, Kotlinski opted to stop producing LSDJ. “It was very time-consuming work, so eventually I felt forced to quit the business for my own good,” he says. “Also, it’s very hard to find cheap reprogrammable cartridges for the original Game Boy now that new models have arrived.”
New users are still finding their way to the program, either by finding reprogrammable cartridges and making their own personal copies or downloading the LSDJ ROM file and using it with computer Game Boy emulators.
Feel the Fist of Game Boy
After first using the Game Boy Camera to generate the chaotic blips in We Punk Einheit, Empire picked up Nanoloop and began incorporating the Game Boy into all of his live solo electronic shows. He uses different generations of Game Boy models, since each produces different sounds and frequencies.
“I have never used other videogame hardware live mainly because the Game Boy sounds really good,” says Empire. “I realized how powerful the machine really is when heard over a big PA.”
It’s easy to call the Game Boy’s music a gimmick, but Empire sees the device as an instrument; something to be respected, like a guitar or a piano. He keeps a Game Boy sitting in his studio next to other instruments. I think people should stop treating it as a ‘fun’ tool and get serious with it.”
Nathan Meunier is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.