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Musique et Hacking

Knowledge of Limitations: Hacking Practices and Creativity Ideologies in Chipmusic

Un savoir des contraintes. Hacking et idéologie de la créativité dans la chipmusic
Marilou Polymeropoulou
p. 81-99


L’objet de cet article est la chipmusic et sa scène. Nous y examinons l’influence du pratiques de hacking sur ses conventions sociales et ses pratiques culturelles. L’article porte plus précisément sur les contraintes du genre, et sur deux types connaissances que les praticiens en tirent : les connaissances pratiques et les connaissances propositionnelles. La chipmusic est un sous-genre de la musique électronique, à l’esthétique 8-bits typique, qui tire ses principes d’une subculture informatique amateure l’ayant précédée – la scène démo née dans les années 1980. Nous abordons l’éthique et les objectifs des hackers, ainsi que la manière dont ceux-ci ont été mis en œuvre au sein de la scène démo et transmis à la scène chipmusic. À l’aide de la théorie bourdieusienne de l’habitus, de la doxa et de l’hystérésis, nous analysons les résultats d’enquêtes de terrain centrées sur la fertilité créative des contraintes. Nous commençons par étudier le détournement de logiciels et les techniques de composition permettant de travailler avec les contraintes technologiques des puces sonores sur les plateformes de chipmusic. Nous analysons ensuite l’impact du piratage de hardware sur la chipmusic. Nous nous intéressons enfin à l’hystérésis en tant que pratique métaphorique du hacking, le bouleversement des conventions, des processus et des pratiques de la scène chipmusic, qui transforme son champ.

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1In October 2012 while conducting fieldwork in Manchester, a local chipmusician, Sk8bit, was introduced to me. Meeting my ethnographic role as an unfamiliar stranger I explained to him that I was interested to learn more about chipmusic as my knowledge was rather limited. His response was immediate: “you know it’s all about limitations, don’t you?” assuming I have some pre-existing knowledge on the social conventions in chipmusic-making that places limitations at the center of its creative process of making. Sk8bit re-iterated ideas that were previously communicated to me by other chipmusicians across the globe, as for example, the idea of having total control over machines and the role of technological limitations in facilitating this. He analysed aspects of practical knowledge in the chipscene, the “know-hows”, explaining, for instance, how chipmusic composition is usually done on very few audio channels and this limitation urges one to be more “creative”, using tweaks and hacks to work around technological constraints that help develop new compositional methods by making the most of the available resources. This was a familiar narrative in the chipscene, but there were certain conflicts and discrepancies that I encountered throughout the years, as, for example, the emergence of fakebit as a genre that characterises chiptunes made on contemporary computers rather than the original means of production of chipmusic. While in the field, my research interest was quickly fixed on the idea of developing knowledge through hacking limitations, as well as the ways in which social conventions and cultural practices influence and imbue ideologies on creativity.

2Previous work on hacking in social sciences and humanities argues that to hack is to differ and to create opportunities of new things appearing in any production of knowledge where information can be collected (Wark, 2004: 3-4). One of the primary aims of hacking is to change the technological determinism that characterises pre-programmed machinery, enabling it to act in specific ways (Jordan, 2008). In addition, a hack is seen as unraveling ethical dimensions that extend to a product’s free distribution as a political stance against the capitalist status quo. The process of hacking relies on empirical engagement (Jordan, 2008)—it is a hands-on, trial and error process. A hack is even reified and attributed mystical properties, particularly in the case where the hacker has limited prior technical knowledge about the platform they are altering. Furthermore, the hacker work ethic is valued on the premise of creativity and how imaginatively one can use their own abilities by making surprising, unexpected contributions in the making process (Himanen, 2001). Although the act of hacking is a political, revolutionary act against the predetermined roles and functions of technology, its process is rather meticulous and allows exploration but within limits—there are safeguards in place for the safety of the makers. For example, Nicolas Collins’ book Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking (2006) offers an extensive list of hacking rules that any prospective maker should follow to ensure a successful and safe outcome. In all, hacking and hacker practices generally aim at creating something new by exploiting a pre-existing technological entity and manipulating its limitations. Within this process, new knowledge is developed—knowledge that is to some extent unrevealed to the everyday users of these technologies, laying hidden underneath the capacities of the software and hardware of the technological devices. This knowledge is more about unraveling the unseen potential of a platform, and ultimately, sharing this knowledge with other creators, as I will demonstrate later in this paper.

3In the field of electronic music, thinking of music hacking as a legitimised creative process is relatively common, both in musical practices and scholarly literature. Hacking has been studied both as a method of experimentation and sound exploration and a culture bearing its own norms and values. Kelly (2009) argues that the process of hacking media forces them to expand beyond their original functions and their point of rupture. This creative practice gives rise to new sounds to work with as well as new ways to perform by forcing media into failure and by manipulating any mediating technologies (Kelly, 2009: 6). In addition to its creative aspect, there is a societal dimension to hacking, in which its social organisation unravels. As previously argued, hacking is a political stance and it has been analysed as such, as for example in Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto (2004) in which its culture is interpreted within a Marxist perspective, the author considering that its class ethos goes against the ruling class’s norms and values as well as market expectations. Further to this, Richards (2013) discusses the idea of community-building through hacking in electronic music and the ways in which shared experiences enrich the development of collective knowledge. Anyone from any educational, social, and cultural background can become a hacker, and there is a learning curve to it facilitated through trial and error. This suggests that hacking is closely connected to improvisation practices, which in music, can be seen as a lab of learning (Canonne, 2012: 7). Hacking offers an educational, improvisational experience, in which the concept of play is central (McAlpine, 2017). In this way, hacking offers new learning tools in music-making and this process of developing, discovering, and sharing knowledge creates communities of experts that underpin a do-it-together ideology, as Richards finds.

  • 1 Due to the scope and limitations of this paper, I will not indulge in a philosophical analysis of e (...)

4Chipmusic falls at the crossroad of computer culture and electronic music, and hacker practices are central both in its creative ideologies and music-making practices. In this paper, I employ the aforementioned theoretical framework to explore hacking practices in chipmusic with the scope to construe propositional and practical knowledge that is produced by chipmusicians and shared across the chipscene network. This is the overt aim here; there is, however, a hidden aim, that is secondary but fundamental in understanding the impact of this shared chipmusic-related knowledge that is linked to hacker culture: to analyse the social dimension of chipmusic practices and the ways in which they inform creative and aesthetic ideologies. This is done by implementing Bourdieu’s analytical perspective (Bourdieu, 1977; 1992) that is emphasised by the exploration of the field of chipmusic, its doxa—a term that Bourdieu distinguishes from simple opinion, underlying that it encompasses the social conventions and cultural practices in a field—as well as the hysteresis effect that disrupts doxa and causes a field to change. On a level, the fundamental question in this paper is epistemological: how does hacking assist in the production of knowledge in chipmusic and what does that knowledge consist of?1

Hardware limitations and software-hacking solutions in the creative process of the demoscene

5Chipmusic is a kind of electronic music characteristic of 8-bit computer sound aesthetics that has its roots in the demoscene, a computer hobbyist subculture that emerged during the 1980s. A key feature of the demoscene was the sharing of knowledge via various communication channels: locally-based groups, internet-mediated Bulletin Board Systems (BBS, the predecessors of online communities), and international gatherings called demoparties. In the 1980s early home computers, also called microcomputers, such as the Atari ST, Amiga, and Commodore 64 became an affordable commodity that offered users the opportunity to spend leisure time and develop new skills by playing videogames and learning how to create programs. The computer revolution that followed was an emergent market for computer programs and videogames. In this time, the hacker ethic was formed and communicated in ways that influenced the ideologies in the demoscene. Certain hacker groups cracked commercial releases and removed the limitations of copy protection from computer software and videogames, and distributed them freely after tagging it, by means of adding a short introductory audiovisual sequence at the crack or the program itself, where the hacker team name and date of cracking were made known, thus giving the hacker group street credibility (Tasajärvi, 2004: 12). The message was clear: “we did this first, you couldn’t do it, so we’re cool”. By the mid-1980s these sequences which were short introductions, were released as separate productions. They were called demos and were short audiovisual clips in the form of executable programs aiming at demonstrating the skills of the coder and the creative use of the computer (Reunanen, 2010: 46-47). In line with Himanen’s and Jordan’s arguments, these creative products that emerged from the manipulation of legal software limitations reflected the free and open source hacker work ethic in which creativity is valued on the basis of how imaginatively one’s own abilities were used towards an impressive contribution.

  • 2 For example, as Newman (2017) finds, the ability of the SID chip in the Commodore 64 to replay samp (...)

6Early music-making in microcomputers was done by means of coding audio sequences—based on the perceived and hidden affordances of the computer’s sound chip—that could not be played-back until they were compiled in a programme (Polymeropoulou, 2015).2 As gwEm put it:

« In the early 1980s all the original chiptuners (Rob Hubbard, etc.) wrote their music directly as a program without a tracker or any music software at all. You would need to write the music without listening to it a lot of the time. You would write some music, and then to hear what you did you would need to compile your program. […] Later trackers were written by these musicians to help making the composing process easier, but the first ones were still very limited and barely better than hand coding. At least you could listen to the music without compiling the code first (!) » (gwEm, personal communication, 2012)

7Traditionally, music had to be coded in Assembly language; for example the Sound Interface Device (SID) chip of the Commodore 64 (C64) could be manipulated through 29 8-bit registers (Newman, 2017). Videogame music composers of the time were proficient in coding music. Towards the end of the 1980s, software that allowed to manipulate the sound chips in real time emerged. The first tracker, as this software came to be called, was Soundtracker (1987) created by Karsten Obarski for the Commodore Amiga. Trackers were used both for composition and playback of music. This meant that anyone with access to a tracker and the tracker file of a chiptune could hack into the code, edit the tune, and create new samples by re-appropriating another’s code—this was mainly done on the Amiga since the MOD file format was more standardised (Carlsson, 2008). This technique was used in the demoscene to create one’s sound palette, using, manipulating, and appropriating sound samples from other videogame composers or recording artists. Following this, a demo could be shared in the digital and/or physical demoscene network. In this way, sampling and free distribution of creative works were prominent practices that embedded hacker ethic: re-using previous material, supporting open source software distribution, and passing on free, accessible, and modifiable knowledge.

8The initial aim of demosceners was to find new, impressive ways of rendering graphics, while working around technological constraints such as file size—which was often limited to 4kb—and microcomputer affordances. Demoscene was meritocratic (Carlsson, 2009) and creators were rewarded based on the quality of their work.Their social capital in the demoscene was not influenced by their socio-economic background, it was solely based on their work profile, through which credibility was gained. Meritocracy in the demoscene gave rise to structural inequalities. Hardworking demosceners who produced quality work were labelled as “elite” (also written L33T), whereas demosceners who copied others’ work were called “lamers”. This class division signified when cultural capital was at stake. Elite and lamers’ actions were distinguishably characteristic of the doxa of the demoscene field, that is, the unwritten rules of the game and the underlying practices in the field that go without saying. For example, an elite demoscener created their own samples, coded demos that were characteristic of algorithmic elegance as Menotti Gonring (2009) has suggested—this elegance was underpinned by the efficacy of the subjacent code of the demo. In contrast, a lamer would borrow other demosceners’ samples and often plagiarise them—the urge for avoiding this was voiced especially in the Amiga scene where creators would tag their MOD files with the phrase “Don’t steal my samples” (Carlsson, 2008) and this showed how ownership values had penetrated the demoscene both to protect the social status of the individual and the “legal” owner, despite the paradox that even original samples could be deconstructed samples of another’s work.

9Demosceners that focused on developing the sound aspects of demos, that were already called chiptunes, were the instigators of the chipscene. In a sense, chipmusic was an outcome of a hysteresis effect of the demoscene field. Demosceners that focused solely on music-making changed the field towards a new direction that later became a sub-field within the dominant field of the demoscene: the chipscene. Chipscene doxa, however, was founded upon the norms and values of the demoscene as the demosceners’ habitus did not change overnight. This resulted in the formation of the creative ideology that encompassed chipmusic-making. Propositional knowledge embedding hacker ethic and practices was transferred into the chipmusic-making creative process, and even expanded towards the evolution of hardware hacking.

Composing hacks and techniques: manipulating technological constrains in chipmusic

10In the history of 20th century music, control was a key concept. Some composers wanted to break the musical conventions and rules that had been going on for centuries. Edgar Varèse famously said “I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm.” This world of unsuspected sounds is somewhat explored by chipmusicians and their exigencies of inner rhythm and timbre. Early chipmusicians employed the same technological devices as the demosceners, which meant that they were already aware of sound chip affordances. They had already inherited knowledge from the demoscene on how to manipulate the limitations of the sound chips. With the emergence of the demoscene and the developments in Internet mediated communication, sharing knowledge through online chipmusic communities such as and was easier and quicker. Online communities enabled users to learn about chipmusic-making platforms and sound chip limitations, and also functioned as chipmusic places, allowing chipmusicians around the world to upload chiptunes, listen to others’ compositions, communicate with others instantly or in a discussion forum. Online communities were the places on which chipmusic culture sat; in this way, these online places became the digital hubs of chipmusic activity. Chipmusicians applied previous knowledge to their creative practices and expanded hacker practices to new platforms that were adopted in the chipscene such as the Nintendo NES and Game Boy. The aforementioned platforms were rather different to microcomputers in the sense that they were solely used for playing videogames. Composing music for these platforms can be done internally or externally to the actual hardware. First, direct composition on the platform can be realised by using specialised tracker software cartridges such as Nanoloop and Little Sound DJ that were developed by Oliver Wittchow and Johan Kotlinski respectively, two developers and musicians who hacked the Game Boy, manipulating its CPU-integrated PAPU chip, and turning the platform into a portable synth. Second, composition can be done indirectly, by using trackers such as the Famitracker on computers and then playing the completed chiptunes on the original hardware. In all cases, the sound chip is central in the making process, and all methods aim at manipulating its affordances.

11There are four kinds of technological constraints that chipmusicians attempt to expand, as Dittbrenner has found. These are divided in constraints internal to the sound chip, such as polyphony and timbre, and external to it, like processor speed rate and frame rate.

Table 1: The main chipmusic platforms and their sound chips

Table 1: The main chipmusic platforms and their sound chips

12Table 1 summarises the characteristics of microcomputers’ sound chips used in chipmusic-making. I distinguish between computer architecture (CPU) and audio resolution (bit depth of a digital signal)—when discussing “8-bit” in chipmusic, this could refer to either categories. For example, the Atari 400/800 series and its sound chip, Pokey, are based on 8-bit computer architecture and sound resolution. However, the channels in Pokey can be combined for up to 16-bits of frequency resolution. This means that the Pokey has a wide frequency range (Tomczak, 2011: 93). More bit resolution does not suggest that music is of greater quality for chipmusicians—whereas audiophiles would argue that the quality of sound is proportional to sound resolution. Sound quality in chipmusic has a different notion: the sound chip’s performance is reified and in some cases, it is attributed mystical aspects. For example, with the SID chip, every performance of the same song can sound differently due to the technological peculiarity of the chip (Kummen, 2018: 14). Although there have been different versions of the SID chip, most chipmusicians prefer the original 6581 chip due to the quirkiness of the hardware: to control the cut-off frequency, field-effect transistors (FET) were used as voltage-controlled resistors. However, the FETs varied in resistance, resulting in the variable behaviour of the filter cut-off (McAlpine, 2019: 80). This is one aspect of the SID that makes it special for chipmusicians. This argument regarding sound quality became more prominent following a hysteresis effect in the chipscene: the emergence of computer-based sound chip simulation software that allowed chiptune composition on any home computer, thus bypassing the manipulation of technological limitations as the sound chip was not present in music composition nor playback.

13Different sound chip technologies therefore affect sound properties such as timbre and this can develop social implications in the chipscene. As noted on table 1, there are two types of sound chips: Programmable Sound Generators (PSG) and Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM). PSG produce sound waves (square, triangle, sine) and noise, whereas sound chips based on PCM reproduce digital samples. In the case of the Nintendo videogame platforms the sound chip is integrated in the Central Processing Unit. All these different technical specifications result in variations of timbre. The Amiga sound chip Paula, for example, does not have any on-board oscillators. All sounds are digitally produced in four channels with the aid of the CPU with 8-bit resolution. The use of samples in Paula distinguish its sound but its aesthetics are closer to synthesizers. In the demoscene, sampling was originally a norm in the Amiga scene, as previously explained. Following cases of lamers who stole samples, the sampling technique was devalued. As chipmusic ideology transformed, purist evaluative notions affected chipmusic-making ideologies. For example, for purist chipmusicians, PCM is inferior to PSG as only in the latter one can sounds be created from scratch. While in the field, I found certain Amiga-based composers rejected the “chipmusician” label as their composing practices deviated from the purist perspective that imbued chipmusic doxa. As Tempest explained:

T: I’m not really familiar with the sound synthesis formats on Amiga (so-called real chiptunes)—I’m mostly fakebit, remember?
MP: Where do your samples come from?
T: I’ve used a lot of drum samples that originate from the Commodore 64. So they are sampled versions of chip-generated sounds. I think it’s just a big grey area. (Synchronous discussion online with Tempest, 2013)

14Tempest utilised samples when composing chiptunes on Amiga and sampling often was not considered a legitimate practice as it hindered creativity, implying that re-using and adapting others’ samples could lead to plagiarism. This evaluative perspective has its roots in the demoscene. Sampling, according to purists, did not allow the creator to compose everything from scratch; instead, the creator relied on re-using ready-made material. Fanta, a demogroup, although they pushed the C64 to the extent they doubled the available channels for music composition, were criticised by certain demosceners as two channels were for samples—some comments can still be retrieved on the C64 scene database.3 In the chipscene, similarly, sampling is not considered as an appropriate composing technique by some purists. Therefore, technological constraints can influence evaluative ideas that set chipmusic doxa, and in effect, the boundaries of chipmusic as a musical genre.

15The techniques of manipulation of the number of channels available for composition were largely influenced by videogame composers’ techniques. As table 1 shows, the number of channels in platforms varies from two to five. Early videogame music composers, such as Martin Galway and Rob Hubbard, were the first to explore the affordances of the sound chips, and their software hacks were adopted and often adapted by other music composers as composing techniques in the demoscene and the chipscene. Galway, who was inspired by Jean-Michel Jarre’s arpeggiators that utilised a series of notes played as chords, transferred this musical trope in the Commodore 64 on a single SID channel: he created an arpeggiated chord, cycling around two more more notes at 50Hz, setting them on fast tempo to create a chordal effect. The arpeggiated chord has become a central compositional technique in chipmusic (McAlpine, 2019: 100) and can be found in various chiptunes, see for example, Chipzel’s Breathless (main melodic pattern), AlexOgre’s Midnight Magic (intro), and Omodaka’s Plum song (syncopated chords played throughout). As Carlsson explains, arpeggiated chords provide rich harmonic structure in chiptunes, which can be achieved by employing one channel only, allowing other channels to be occupied by bass lines, percussion, and main melodies (Carlsson, 2010: 18). Hence, arpeggiated chords became a norm in chipmusic-making, primarily as they overcome imposed technological constraints. This is a soft hack that has significant influence on the musical style of chipmusic.

16Another compositional technique was developed by Hubbard, who coded drum-like sounds within the three chordal composition channels of the Commodore 64, thus creating the sensation that a fourth, implied percussion channel was present (see, for example, his music for the game Monty on the run). There have been further attempts to exploit the affordances of the sound chips. The Human Coding Machine and SounDemoN (Fanta team) pushed the SID chip beyond its limitations as demonstrated in X’2008 demoparty, achieving six channels on the C64: four channels of 8-bit samples (digital playback), two channels of SID synth sound, allowing the user to filter both SID channels and samples (see the relevant demo Fanta in space). The challenges posed by technology were unavoidably central in the early days of chipmusic-making out of necessity. As the demoscene and the chipscene developed, exploiting technological limitations became a reified process through which composers developed new knowledge by employing hacking skills and ideology. Thus, new compositional quirks and techniques became legitimised innovative ways to expand creativity. This technique was incorporated in the chipscene doxa as it does not oppose the ideological values of creativity. When using samples, as long as the original hardware console is utilised, this is acceptable by purist chipmusicians, which is not necessarily the case in the demoscene.

17Knowledge of compositional techniques have also been implemented in chipmusic to enable the manipulation of technological constraints. There are different techniques to tweak the sound chip to its fullest potential and to enrich the musical dimensions of a chiptune, for example, using pitchbend, portamento (see, for example, Chipzel’s Something beautiful which is characteristic of these techniques), vibrato (for example, Ultrasyd’s Chipdancers) and volume envelopes, which are used to imitate dynamics. This knowledge is shared with the chipscene, as hacker ethic would demand. There are various detailed educational guides on how to make chiptunes on the internet via online communities, and although this knowledge is open, it is expected that prospective chipmusicians will experiment with these techniques to achieve their desired outcome. These techniques have become stylistic tropes in chipmusic, creating a rich compositional palette that is imbued by the hacker ethic.

18One of the most commonly-used techniques in chiptune-making is looping. Initially, looping was used by videogame composers as a practical means to work around technological constraints. Looping involves the repetition of blocks of music. This creates various layers of rhythmic and musical patterns that are juxtaposed in a chiptune. Tempest finds that looping can sometimes challenge the flow of a chiptune:

MP: Are there any musical flaws related to melody-making?
T: Yeah, and many times to the structure of the tune. Because music made on trackers tends to be “blocky”. You polish and polish a 4 bar section. Then another one. And another. Then you try to connect these blocks. Continuity perhaps?
MP: So in first place there’s a more vertical thinking, and then, horizontal.
T: Yes! Good way to put it.
(synchronous online communication, 2013)

Image 1. Screenshot of BZE tracker playing Tempest’s Acidjazzed evening (2000)

Image 1. Screenshot of BZE tracker playing Tempest’s Acidjazzed evening (2000)

19One of the fundamental characteristics of tracked music is that it is a vertical composition. Tempest referred to the composing process as a series of connections between “blocks” of music, which is a common concept in DJ culture discours when describing sampling techniques and the building of new musical formations. Image 1 depicts in BZE tracker one of Tempest’s chiptunes, Acidjazzed Evening. This is a four-channel chiptune (modfile tracks 0-3). Every note is written in hexadecimals and represents a sound frequency translated to pitch. The line that cuts across the channels in the middle shows which lines are played at the same time–it follows tracked music in a similar manner that the playhead does in Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). However, in DAWs the playhead demonstrates playback in a linear, horizontal way, whereas in trackers it is exhibited vertically. The vertical layout of trackers often has an effect on how chipmusicians compose chiptunes. For example, one will notice that chiptunes sound “blocky”, as Tempest described, i.e. successions of 4-bar musical structures that the in-between connections are significant to support the flow of the melody. This compositional technique bears some similarities to a fugue: often chipmusic composition is contrapuntal, introducing an imitation at the beginning, which is not necessarily transposed to different pitches, advancing to a development, and finishing with the initial imitation. AcidJazzed evening is an alternation of three main music blocks; three thematic patterns. Block A is the primary melody and dominates the composition. The sequence is A/B/A/B/C/A/A-B/A. Block A uses the same rhythmic and harmonic structure with certain melodic variations. Block B functions as an ascending bridge, and C as an outro. Towards the end of the chiptune, a mashed A/B section appears, utilising harmonic structures, rhythm, and melodies from both sections. This is also found in the finale, which introduces a new harmonic structure as a variation of the main two blocks. Although music blocks are apparent in this chiptune, Tempest’s melody flows throughout the composition.

20The use of these manipulative techniques has an effect on chipmusic sound as well as the aesthetics of chipmusic. From a theoretical perspective, chorded arpeggios, music blocks, and looping as stylistic characteristics resonate with Tagg’s concept of “musemes” that he dubbed as “minimal units of expressions” in popular music (1982: 45) as well as Middleton’s “musematic” repetition (1990: 269-270). Musematic repetition is the repetition of small sound units that in popular music are usually in the form of riffs. For Middleton, the purpose of riffs is to balance “the temporal flow, challenge any ‘narrative’ functionality attaching to chord patterns and verse sequences, and ‘open up’ the syntactic field for rhythmic elements…to dominate” (1983: 253). By examining blocks and arpeggios as musemes and looping as musematic repetition, one can unravel the sound palette of chipmusic. This can be seen in Acidjazzed evening—the main melody, which is the primary riff, balances well against the structural, “blocky” movement, creating melodic flow.

21Further to this point, chipmusic timbre is often characterised as “raw” by chipmusicians. In chipmusic discourse, rawness functions as an opposition to polished sounds that characterise commercial popular music productions—the quality of sound that audiophiles would argue for. Rawness is an intrinsic value of chipmusic sound, another reified attribute of its sound. Rawness offers flexibility, options, freedom—all of which are in line with the hacker ethic and ideology. Rawness allows hackability as it is a work in progress. From a post-structural point of view, to quote Levi-Strauss’s argument on the raw and the cooked, chipmusicians are “cooks” in a metaphorical sense, ensuring that raw sounds are well-prepared before their release. The “cooking” involves the manipulation of technological constraints, the process of software and hardware hacking. If anything, rawness characterises chiptune timbre and by association evokes positive emotions to chiptune enthusiasts. This suggests that rawness of sound is appealing in the chipscene; one characteristic that attracts the audience and also that enables the listener to recognise that a certain composition is a chiptune.

22Beyond soft hacking there is also hardware hacking in the chipscene. Hardware hacking aims at expanding the abilities of the platforms and enhancing their performativity. Hardware hacking in the chipscene can be realised by means of modding and circuit-bending. Circuit-bending is a form of hardware hacking and repurposing of electronics, turning them into musical instruments. It is primarily performed on the circuit board of a platform by short-circuiting and/or adding electronic parts, and hence, physical contact is central in its practice. The circuit-bending scene and the chipscene to some extent shared an audience for the first part of the 2000s, particularly in the New York area, where two large festivals were organised: Bent Festival and Blip Festival. These meetings provided the time and place for creators and makers to collaborate, learn, and expand their creative outlooks. Modding—not to be confused with the Amiga mod scene—refers to the practice of modifying a console by altering components on its circuit board. For example, image 2 depicts a modded Game Boy that has a back-lit screen, digital output, a potentiometer to alter time signature as well as an on/off switch for this feature. The added potentiometer and the on/off switch allow the user to alter tempo manually when using LSDJ. This added function can also be executed on LSDJ, but the physical potentiometer is more accessible when performing live. In addition to this mod, a back-lit screen has been added to the Game Boy. This is particularly useful when performing in the dark, for example, in clubs, bars and streets at night. These mods aim at rendering the Game Boy in a portable musical instrument to be used on stage. Modding assumes some knowledge of how the electronic circuit-board works, and it is less exploratory than circuit-bending, which relies more on chance and trial-and-error.

Image 2. A modded Game Boy (backlit screen, tempo potentiometer and on/off switch)

Image 2. A modded Game Boy (backlit screen, tempo potentiometer and on/off switch)

23Hardware hacking also extends beyond modding. One example is the gAtari, created by cTrix. For this, he used an Atari 2600, which is one of the most limiting platforms as it is only capable of 31 pitches and two channels, running Paul Slocum’s Synthcart (sequencer software), attached to Boss effect pedals and a fretboard to be played as a guitar. Another example is Jeri Ellsworth’s C64 bass keytar, which she presented at Maker Faire. The guitar body is a C64 and a bass neck has been attached to it. Jeri added piezo sensors to act as pickups amplified via a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) which connected to the SID chip. This musical instrument can be used both as a keytar, pressing the C64’s keys, altering between four waveforms, and a bass guitar, plucking the strings whose sound is filtered through the SID chip. In all, compositional hacks and techniques aim at bypassing technological limitations but most importantly, at offering new and creative ways for the production of musical knowledge in chipmusic, exploiting the genre’ limitations. As a result, these techniques influence the sound aesthetics in chipmusic, thus informing its doxa.

Hysteresis, doxa, and the ideological framework of hacking in the chipscene

24Considering that the chipscene emerged in the late 1980s/early 1990s, in its thirty years of existence, there have been different developments that influenced doxa and chipmusic-related knowledge in the field. There are various creative ideologies that underpin the chipscene and these can be seen as three distinguished generational classes: purists, artists, and chipsters. It should be noted that the three generational classes are not defined by economic status, age, or experience. These classes are the repositories of chipmusic-making ideologies that are entirely subjective based on the internal perspective of each generation. For example, purists reckon they are the closest to the ideal, sublime creation of chipmusic, and that any lesser creations utilising samples or simulated sound chips, are of lesser quality. Artists see themselves as the instigators of the mobile revolution and the popularisation of chipmusic, thus expanding to popular music audiences. Finally, the chipsters focus on chipmusic aesthetics rather than reifying hardware platforms. In this section, I aim at analysing the ways in which hacking practices are nuanced in the three generational classes, influencing their respective ideologies on creativity. It should be noted that generational class ideologies are fluid with regards to the participation of chipmusicians as one can adhere to any ideology they wish and move freely between the different classes. This suggests that a chipmusician can begin as a purist but transcend in the second generation and vice versa.

25Previously in this paper I analysed how demosceners, videogame music composers, and chipmusicians have inspired the chiptune practices. The first generation of chipmusicians, the purists, is linked ideologically to the demoscene (Carlsson, 2008; Nova, 2014; Pasdzierny, 2012; Polymeropoulou, 2015; and Tomczak, 2011). The shared hacker ethic between first generation chipmusicians and demosceners lies in the idea of free distribution of one’s creative work as well as the practice of manipulation and exploitation of technological limitations to expand creativity; further to this, it necessarily follows that the discovery is shared with the scene. However, there were certain dissimilarities between both scenes. For example, demosceners often participated in competitions with their work and originality was a common value that suggested elite practices, i.e. not borrowing others’ samples or asking for basic coding advice (Reunanen and Silvast, 2009: 298). In contrast, in the chipscene sharing advice and learning by copying is a social convention that informs chipmusic habitus and does not have any ramifications regarding power dynamics in the field. However, copying creative work without attributing the original creator was not acceptable neither in the demoscene nor the chipscene. Acts of plagiarism were denounced and publicised in online communities, as for example the Hall of Shame in MOD archives, and The logic of practice in the chipscene, therefore, excludes acts of plagiarism, and any such attempts are publicly criticised, and perpetrators are alienated.

26Chipmusic creativity in the first generational class is entrenched in cultural understandings of authenticity that are deeply rooted in demoscene doxa. Authenticity here refers to the use of original hardware in music-making that has an effect on the value of the produced chiptune. The original hardware is of great significance for chipmusicians as it reflects the value of the technology as well as recognising the skills of its users. For purists, a chiptune composed on a modern computer lacks creativity as the absence of technological limitations renders the compositional practice mundane. Composing on the original hardware bears sacred meanings, to resonate Durkheim’s concepts, with the platform becoming a totem, a symbol of the divine process of music-making as well as one that reflects the values of the society. Thus, for the first generational class of chipmusicians, creativity is weighted by hacking principles, found at the core of the chipscene’s doxa. In this sense, the process of music-making requires the manipulation of technological limitations and the compositional techniques that aim at working around these limitations. On the other hand, the use of new technology to compose chipmusic gives rise to a new aesthetic. However, the habitus and the position in the field remains the same for purists, and as a result, the new aesthetic is a mismatch to the structure of the field.

27The artists, the second generational class of chipmusicians emerged after the 2000s following the development of tracker software for the Game Boy and appeared as the first hysteresis in the chipscene, changing rapidly the field towards a different direction to the habitus of the first generational class. Until then, chipmusic-making could not be done on the move as microcomputers were heavy to carry and needed power to work. The use of the handheld Game Boy was revolutionary in the chipscene as it enabled mobility. Thus, chipmusicians could compose music on-the-go with the battery-operated highly portable Game Boy, and this also gave them more expressive freedom in performances. Historically, the first two generations associated with different technological eras and, as a result, were familiar with different platforms. This made the second generation more attuned to the social conventions of handheld gaming which was almost alien to the first generation of chipmusicians, who were already involved in the demoscene by the mid-1980s. This historical comment serves to explain the developed aesthetic and ideology of the second generation of chipmusicians that helped underpin the habitus in the chipscene, changing the structures of the artistic field. The second generation’s habitus, then, changed in response to new expansions in the practices of chipmusic that worked around the limitation of physical stability, offering greater mobility. This similarly changed performances in the chipscene.

28Further to this, creative practices such as music production altered the scene’s social conventions. In contrast to the demoscene, chipmusicians do not participate in competitions. Instead, they upload their music online. At the beginning of the chipscene, all music was uploaded on online communities such as, 8bitcollective,, and collective. Chiptunes could be downloaded for free and there was space for exchange of comments on the music. In this sense, there was an open evaluation and discussion about the creative output, similarly to the demoscene. As the internet gradually became an everyday market and as a response to music plagiarism in the chipscene (see previous section), chipmusicians uploaded their chiptunes on online shops like Bandcamp, where the audience can download them for free or at a price. Commodifying chipmusic brought another hysteresis effect in the chipscene as it clashes with the hacker ethic shared by first and second generation of chipmusicians. This practice was seen by purists as a sell out, moving away from the intended chipmusic spirit of community and the free distribution of creativity.

29Further changes in the chipscene doxa occurred with the emergence of the third generational class of chipmusicians, the chipsters. This change signified a technological change; a shift towards modern technology that replaces the hardware but not the sound properties of chiptune. With the popularisation of chipmusic, computer software that emulated the sound chips of the original microcomputers and videogame consoles was developed. Chipmusic became a method of composition allowing composers to add the 8-bit aesthetic to their music. Sound chip emulators allowed computer users to compose chiptune without the original devices. The absence of technological manipulation contrasted the concept of “algorithmic beauty” situated at the core of the purist habitus. Therefore, any chiptune created in un-limited ways, is often devalued by the first generation of chipmusicians. Chipmusicians that did not conform to the initial doxa of the chipscene were criticised; fakebit emerged as a new purist term to describe music made on sound chip emulators. This derogatory term aimed at re-instating orthodoxy with regards to what is original, authentic, true chipmusic and what is not—a fake—and ensuring that the chipmusic genre is adequately policed. The third generation of chipmusicians, however, embraced and re-appropriated the term, continuing composing chipmusic in sound chip emulators as well as other musical instruments, creating new aesthetics in chiptunes.

Image 3. Desert Planet performing at Einbaas 9 (April 2012)

Image 3. Desert Planet performing at Einbaas 9 (April 2012)
  • 4 A brief anecdotal story for the reader: In 2011, I happened to travel from Valencia to London with (...)

30Another practice that differentiated the chipscene generations is performance. Most social gatherings of the chipscene were parties during which chipmusicians performed at a stage. Here, the logic of practice suggested that the gear would be set up on a table which would be placed centrally on a stage. The table would be the only physical barrier between the performers and the audience (see image 3). Certain times, chipmusicians would carry their platforms with them, and this was not challenging if they used Game Boys. However, when carrying C64s, Ataris, and any other early home computers, the weight was significant—as well as the complications when travelling.4 The performing style resembles a gig setting where all eyes of the audience are on the performer. As second generation of chipmusicians preferred portable technology, their performances were more dynamic, having freedom of movement and expression, often interacting with the audience. Such performances are more dramaturgical, exposing the performative chipmusic persona on the stage, which may be disguised, as Desert Planet are in the picture above, or wear a costume, as in the case of Omodaka, or even, wear nothing at all, as happened in many of Meneo’s performances.

31Due to its arbitrariness and diversity, the chipscene sees many changes in the structures of the artistic field. Some of these changes are time-dependent as they are synchronous to technological events that occur at a specific historical time, as in the case of the emergence of handheld gaming consoles. These hysteresis effects are disruptions to chipscene doxa, which is constantly reformatted and updated. With each hysteresis, it appears that a new bifurcation is created, spreading out chipmusic to a vast network of “chip sound”. On the one hand, observing the changes and the development of new knowledge is valuable to the history of chipmusic as well as the development of electronic music, both in theory and practice. On the other, the chipscene offers insights into the rich discursive patterns of a transnational and online society of music practitioners; deciphering these meanings helps shed light on digital culture formations, maintenance, communication, and change. In all, hacking is the enabler in the chipscene and its practices, a method and ideology that clearly marks territories of belonging.


32The knowledge of limitations in chipmusic encompasses different dimensions of how hacking practices affect creative ideologies. More specifically, I emphasised software hacking and tweaking of technological constraints, including hacks and techniques to explore sound chip affordances; hardware hacking through modding and circuit-bending; and ideological hacking in the form of hysteresis, to use Bourdieu’s analytical term, when examining disruptions in the chipscene habitus. This knowledge gained includes practical knowledge, i.e. how to compose chipmusic as well as propositional knowledge, i.e. what is chipmusic. It has been shown that both processes—creating and defining—are socially constructed and informed by the different social conventions and cultural practices adopted in the different chipmusic generational classes. It could be argued that the three generational classes are too deterministic; however, in practice, I have found that following the emergence of each generation, there is social mobility, and in the case of new individuals in the chipscene, there is a choice in which ideological category to belong. In addition, the creative ideologies in these generations may seem anachronistic to some individuals, who reject entirely not only the values, but also, membership in the chipscene. There are, for example, composers who do not identify as chipmusicians, but whose music is characteristic of the chiptune sound, that join electronic music assemblages and networks, shifting towards mainstream popular music worlds. Chipmusic and the chipscene offer a fruitful fieldsite of a digital culture to be explored, with several opportunities for further research with regards to its compositional techniques and performance.

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1 Due to the scope and limitations of this paper, I will not indulge in a philosophical analysis of epistemic knowledge.

2 For example, as Newman (2017) finds, the ability of the SID chip in the Commodore 64 to replay samples was a hidden affordance that was not an intended feature, rather, it was possible through the exploitation of a bug of the SID chip.

3 See, for example, the comments on the release of Fanta in Space: (accessed 14 July 2019).

4 A brief anecdotal story for the reader: In 2011, I happened to travel from Valencia to London with gwEm, who carried two Ataris. At the airport, when scanning his luggages, he was stopped and was asked to provide an explanation for the content of the luggages. Our Spanish was as limited as the officers’ English, but we heard a word resembling “terrorist” and from the non-linguistic context, we understood that we were stopped due to the electronics gwEm carried. Fortunately, the misunderstanding was quickly resolved, and we were allowed to continue.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1: The main chipmusic platforms and their sound chips
Fichier image/jpeg, 192k
Titre Image 1. Screenshot of BZE tracker playing Tempest’s Acidjazzed evening (2000)
Fichier image/jpeg, 336k
Titre Image 2. A modded Game Boy (backlit screen, tempo potentiometer and on/off switch)
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
Titre Image 3. Desert Planet performing at Einbaas 9 (April 2012)
Fichier image/jpeg, 845k
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Marilou Polymeropoulou, « Knowledge of Limitations: Hacking Practices and Creativity Ideologies in Chipmusic »Volume !, 16 : 1 | 2019, 81-99.

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Marilou Polymeropoulou, « Knowledge of Limitations: Hacking Practices and Creativity Ideologies in Chipmusic »Volume ! [En ligne], 16 : 1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Marilou Polymeropoulou

Marilou Polymeropoulou est chercheuse affiliée à la School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography à l’Université d’Oxford, membre de la Higher Education Academy ; elle enseigne la sociologie et l’anthropologie au Oxford Sixth Form College. Elle a rédigé sa thèse sur la créativité dans la chipmusic à l’Université d’Oxford en tant que titulaire de la bourse de la Greek State Scholarships Foundation. Elle a reçu plusieurs distinctions académiques (O’Reilly Media, RMA, BFE, St. Peter’s College, Hebrew and Jewish Studies Unit Management Committee) ; ses recherches ont été publiées dans des revues à comité de lecture. Elles portent essentiellement sur la chipmusic et la chipscene, qu’elle étudie à l’aide de méthodes ethnographiques et des outils de l’analyse des réseaux sociaux.

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L'auteur & les Éd. Mélanie Seteun

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