E3 2013

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8 Bit Weapon

11 - 13 June 2013 | Written by Maxxum

In 1981, the SID or "Sound Interface Device" was developed by the Commodore Semiconductor Group (now MOS Technology), and badged the 'SID 6581' for use in the Commodore 64 - this was the standard for gaming audio in the early 80's:

However, in the hands of modern SID bands, the same programmable sound generator is capable of this:

8 Bit Weapon started in 2000, and is currently the duo Seth and Michelle Sternberger. I spoke with them between performances in the Videogame History Museum section at E3:

What got you started with classic gaming and music?

Seth: We both grew up during the golden age of computers and videogames, so even though we grew up obviously separately, we both had the same interests. Your [Michelle's] family background...

Michelle: Oh, yeah my whole family grew up playing classic games, and all the way up until to the modern games today, we all still play games. It's always been part of my life growing up.

I've talked to other people about classic gaming [chiptunes] as well, and there's usually something special about the older game consoles that caused them to hold onto them. What was it for you?

Michelle: Well, these days we use them for our instruments. But, we also do play a lot of games on them too.

Seth: Yeah, we still use them. In fact, my neighbor had kept a lot of my Commodore stuff, I don't know how they wound up with it, but I was visiting an old neighbor from the 80's and he said "Hey, we still have a box of your stuff in our rafters and we need the space". He took out this big box of all my Commodore 64 games and my friend's games, and were like "Here, take 'em".

You do music and engineering, when did you start doing the music, and when did you start engineering where you were using the console to make your own sound?

Seth: Well, I'd been making music since probably '93, and Michelle has always been a musician. She's been playing drums, and banjo and all kinds of different things. But, I think in '98, '99 I started to get back into using the Commodore - I discovered emulators. And, there's also emulators just for the music in the games. So, you can play the music, and you don't have to play the game, you can play any levels of music that you like, and it kind of became my iPod, so that's how I got back involved with videogames music, and then began creating my own music using the old machines.

How did the two of you meet?

Michelle: Actually, I discovered chipmusic in 2005 and it was actually 8 Bit Weapon. I had heard that they had a Commodore in their band, y'know I was like I have to go see...

Seth: It's like a band member! [laughs]

Michelle: I have to go see this band, so that's how we got to talking.

Seth: I used to run a club called "Club Microwave" which was a mostly chipmusic based... most people called it "micromusic" back then, but it's chipmusic based. And, actually we just relaunched it this year at the CAA in North Hollywood, so it's the first chipmusic monthly or weekly venue that was ever in the United States was Club Microwave.

30 years ago, all these consoles were new, in 30 years are you going to take a Sony PlayStation and maybe turn that into something that can make chiptune music as well, or I guess at that point it'd be 64-bit music.

Seth: Well, it's really not the bit-rate, it's the sound-chip, and nobody uses the sound-chip in the same way anymore, everybody is playing back audio, or synthesizing audio through the software - they don't have a dedicated chip that does all the music and sound effects like the old machines used to. So, that's what we use to create instruments; each sound-chip from each device, the Atari 2600, the NES, the Gameboy, they all have unique sound features to themselves. None of the other machines sound like each other. So, that's what we kind of create, an orchestra with all these different chips. Today, they don't have a dedicated sound-chip. It's audio playback from a recording studio or...

Michelle: Yeah, it's like drums, guitar...

Seth: It's a totally different process, and you'll never see that again for the most part.

How many chips can you use at once?

Seth: There's no limit, you could literally do a thousand different chips playing together if you wanted to.

Like a chiptune symphony orchestra?

Seth: Yeah, yeah, you could do that. It depends on what the song we're working on calls for, but...

Michelle: It also depends how much programming of the song you want to do [laughs]

Seth: Yeah, some of the devices you literally have to program the sounds, but most of the items we use have software developed for them either back in the day, or recently that allows it to be controlled a lot easier - like the Commodore 64 MISSIAH cart which is a MIDI interface and synthesizer workstation. So, you just buy a Commodore 64, this cart and you've got a MIDI 64 basically.

How long do you see yourself doing this?

Seth: Forever.

Michelle: Yeah, I don't see an end really.

Seth: I don't see any reason to stop.

Michelle: We just keep evolving.

Where do you want to take your music? If you're going to be evolving, how do you do that from the chips, how do you bring in something new?

Seth: The chips themselves obviously aren't going to evolve, but what we do with them, and where we take our music still evolves today.

Michelle: We're still coming up with new sounds that we haven't created before...

Seth: Each album sounds unique from prior albums, and all the songs on each album have their own uniqueness versus all the other tracks in the album.

Journalist Comments:

8 Bit Weapon has a new album you can see here. Also, checkout Michelle's solo act, "ComputeHer".

Photos by Maxxum