For those of you old enough to remember when loading a videogame took 20 minutes and involved an audio cassette player, (that was only successful 40% of the time) the sound of 8Bit Weapon will be nostalgically familiar.
Their music is so synonymous with gaming it’s quite unusual listening to them in another environment away from the computer screen. In a car, or on headphones, walking down the street, once you get over the initial ‘where is my joystick?’ feeling, the music does something quite strange to you. You get an overwhelming desire to use a finger as a laser gun and walk around like a robot. You also get this weird muscle reflex in the face, called a smile.
I spoke to the brains behind the bytes. Michelle and Seth Sternberger.
How long have you been writing 8 bit music?
The band started by creating micromusic and remixes of Commodore 64 game music around 1998. Then the idea of doing all original micromusic/chipmusic using old computers and game consoles as the main instruments happened around 2000 when Seth got his SIDstation. The SIDstation is a midi module that controlls a S.I.D. sound chip from the Commodore 64.
Was it something you fell into by accident?
Seth: Yes, I was just discovering emulators in 1998 and found a program called SIDplay. This app allows users to play the music from c64 games without having to load/play the game. You can play each song from the game like you would on your media player. It was an amazing breakthrough for me at the time because I had missed these songs soo much.
Then I thought that it would be fun to remix these game tunes because they were already very well arranged, but needed some drums and other subtle things to round them out into pop songs. Later I felt like it would be fun to create my own original songs using the commodore 64 SID chip sounds and got the SIDstation. Then we just kept adding old gear to our arsenal. Each piece of vintage gear we found inspired new songs.
Michelle: I discovered it when I was searching for new music and local bands online in 2004. I found a local band which happened to be 8Bit Weapon and saw that he was using Commodore 64s as instruments. I had to see it for myself and went to a live show. From there I started making my own music for my band ComputeHer using the original Game Boy and LSDJ. A year later I joined Seth in 8 Bit Weapon.
Do you have write tunes the normal way and then ‘8-Bit’ them? What is the process?
We write songs in one of two ways for the most part. The first is more traditional with a midi sequencer. We can write parts for a C64 or nes sound using special midi interfaces that were built for each system.
We can play notes on a midi keyboard and it will send the note information to the device selected like a traditional sound module would. The other way, and for whatever reason more common with us, is to sequence the basic song demo on a game boy on LSDJ
What other equipment do you use?
Well the first item after the SIDstation we acquired was the Music Machine cart for Commodore 64. Music machine allows the user to play the c64 like a live instrument, as you would a piano. Then a few years alter I discovered a program for the original game boy called Little Sound DJ (or LSDJ for short.) LSDj turns your game boy “classic” into a 4 channel sound studio! After that came MIDInes, a midi controlled Nintendo Entertainment System Cartridge.
Then our long time friend Paul Slocum developed the Synth Cart for the Atari 2600 as well as the Cynth cart for the c64. Then the Mssiah midicart for c64 came out around 2008 or so. They keep developing new software for all thee fantastic old machines, it never seems to end!
We have even developed a line of digital music software with our friend MJ Majon for the Apple II series of computers. The Digital Music Synth or DMS for short allows people to play the keys of an Apple IIe, IIc, or IIGs like a piano and play back 8 bit instrument samples in realtime. We also released a new drum machine/sequencer for the apple II as well!
Do you approach melody in a different way for your style of music?
I suppose we approach the melodies the same as anyone else I suppose. We’ll hammer out a few notes and see what sticks. Sometime if we are writing from scratch using the game boy LSDJ cart it can be a little rough because you have program the notes into the tracker sequencer before you hear anything.
Otherwise we’ll play some notes on the c64 or apple II and record it in realtime. Or we’ll control the NES or C64 with our midi controller keyboard and start out q tune that way.
What do you think of ‘modern’ style video games?
We enjoy many modern games like Fallout New Vegas, Dead Space, Force Unleashed, Peggle, and others. Modern games are amazing, but they do tend to have a few common drawbacks: Loooong intro sequences that you can’t skip, and too many buttons. You usually can’t just hit play and dive into the game anymore.
That being said, many independent developers are going back to a simpler format and those games tend to be more accessible to us.
What video game has the best soundtrack?
Thare are far too many to name, but we’ll try to list a few of our favorites: Times of Lore, Ultima III-V, Adventure Construction Set, and Mainframe on the Commodore 64, Metroid, Maniac Mansion, & Castlevania II on NES, Bonk’s Advanture & Blazing Lasers for Turbo Grafx 16, and loads more.
How does the new record compare with previous albums you have done?
We wanted to do something different from all the other albums this time. The new album Bits with Byte has some of the staples of the 8Bit Weapon sound such as strong melodies and tight drum beats using our vintage computers and classic game consoles as our instruments, but now have an added element of unpredictability and/or chaos mixed in as well.
Michelle’s influence can be heard on every track, she introduced the raw, chaotic sound and elements on our new material. We also let the song structures go where they may, without conforming to our usual pop format for every song. This is also the longest album we’ve ever done, and not just a long track listing but it’s almost an hour of material!
Tracks 1-9 are the new songs while 10-18 are remixes, demos and b-sides. Times are hard for everyone and we wanted to give our fans a lot of value for what they are paying for. Also people can now name their price for our new album Bits with Byte via Bandcamp.
What do you think of all the 8bit cover versions of regular tracks?
We love them. We did a cover of Space Lab by Kraftwerk for a compilation that was put out by Astralwerks for an album called ‘8 Bit Operators’. Not to mention our free TRON Tribute ep as well!
Do you incorporate visuals into your live shows?
Yes we do! We usually have a few different options in fact. We usually bring our Apple II to use for visuals because we have special software for it that generates geometric patterns in amazing colors. Other times we may put a cryptic old DVD of old computer graphics on to project over us. Occasionally we have VJ’s do the visuals for us and that’s always fun.
Did you like the ‘King of Kong’ documentary?
Yes, we are even in the bonus features of the dvd too. We did the music for ‘A Brief History of Donkey Kong‘ and also music for the art gallery. Michelle’s solo band ‘ComputeHer‘ also contributed a song for the art gallery as well.
What are you plans for the rest of the year?
We are going to participate in one of the most important video game related events in history. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is opening ‘The Art of Video Games‘ exhibit March 16th and we are playing opening weekend!
Our Commodore 64 will be inside the exhibit and our music will be one of the first things visitors will get to experience. We’ll also be releasing a “best of” compilation album of songs from both 8 Bit weapon and ComputeHer called ‘Chiptopia’ soon.