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'Chip Tunes' strike right note

  • Story Highlights
  • 'Chip Tunes' involves re-programming old games consoles to play music
  • Consoles used include Nintendo Game Boy and the Sega Game Gear
  • Most examples released to date have been dance orientated
  • Advocates say originality, distinctive sound behind its growing popularity
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From CNN's Mark Thompson
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Forget contemporary computer games such as Air Guitar and Rock Band -- it's time to dig out Nintendo Game Boys and Sega Mega Drives from the attic thanks to a music innovation which is transforming old school consoles into musical instruments.

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Musician Pixelh8 -- AKA Mathew Applegate -- with his latest musical instrument: a Nintendo GameBoy.

The process, known as 'Chip Tunes', involves re-programming vintage computers, allowing the user to change the console's sound properties.

But don't be scared off by the techno-jargon -- many pioneers of the scene have invented easy-to-use applications such as Music Tech and Nanoloop which help to introduce new users into re-programming their favorite consoles.

One such pioneer is Pixelh8 -- AKA Mathew Applegate -- from Suffolk, England, who has toured with multi-Grammy nominated electro-pop songstress Imogen Heap, performed at Apple's iTunes Office in California and is about to release his second album made solely of Chip Tunes called "The Boy With The Digital Heart".

"There is a lot of nostalgia for the 1980s and Chip Tune music fits comfortably," Pixelh8 tells CNN. "The sounds are reminiscent of things in our childhood for a lot of people and they are normally happy memories and chip tune relies heavily upon those previous experiences".

Consoles such as the Nintendo Game Boy and Sega Game Gear are regularly used to create new and original sounds. However, the method can also be applied to more unorthodox electronic items.

"I also use Edutainment machines, children's keyboards, toys free with meals and anything I can find in a car boot sale or second hand store -- the more obscure the better," explains Pixelh8.

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"I am slowly going through every vintage computer I can afford that makes sound and transforming them into real time synthesizers."

The Chip Tune method of song writing evolved from early videogame pirates who would embed music at the beginning of the hacked software to show off their talents.

However, the 30-year-old part-time music lecturer revealed that his fascination with Chip Tunes started by accident.

"When my baby sister spilt a drink into my NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), I took it apart and it started to make funny noises as the screwdriver hit different parts of the circuit board. It was still plugged in and turned on and in hindsight was extremely dangerous.

"But what's kept me interested is the limited number of sounds the computers can physically produce and yet at the same time the sheer variance in the types of music and feelings it can convey."

Chip Tune musicians often use a technique called 'circuit bending' which involves short-circuiting electrical devices causing the machine to create a sound which is then controlled by the musician.

The original music, which comes as standard with the console, can also be manipulated and reversed to help create new sounds to add to a new and original track.

Most examples of Chip Tune music released to date have been dance orientated with artists such as Aleksi Eeben and Henry Homesweet as well as Pixelh8 proving popular. However, the method is not restricted to one genre.

"Chip Tune is not a genre in itself but the instrumentation. Almost every genre is flirting with it at the moment, hip hop to rock to hardcore to pop," explained Pixelh8.

One man who has been helping to raise Chip Tunes profile is British Broadcasting Corporation Radio One DJ Huw Stephens.

"So much music borrows from the past but here you have an innovative form taking something ordinary and literally bending it to make new noises," explained Stephens.

"It gives the music greater depth knowing that it's been made differently, and huge effort into searching for the instruments then making the music. These are inventors as well as musicians."

Stephens believes that Chip Tunes originality and distinctive sound is behind the scene's growing popularity.

"There's not your usual repetitive beat and other obvious sounds that are in other electronic music forms. Strange new sounds make it charming, interesting and warm, which a lot of dance music isn't quite often. "

Pixelh8's first big break occurred when he won a competition to support the twice Grammy nominated, London based musician, Imogen Heap on tour and the singer applauded Chip Tunes for helping the environment.

"All these left for dead old dusty friends (computer consoles), wanted, needed and loved again. Chip Tunes has revived them all. "It's very eco-friendly too in recycling, they are indeed doing they're bit for the planet".

Despite the scene being in its infancy Pixelh8 is predicting big things and claims commercial success is not far away.

"It'll be funny to see Chip Tune music in the charts, but it'll happen, I don't know when, but it will." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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