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Nintendo Baroque

Chiptune composer Chaz Buchanan releases his new 8-bit record exclusively on handmade Nintendo cartridges

by Josh Potter on November 1, 2012 · 1 comment

“When I first told my friends I was doing this, they said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,’” says Chaz Buchanan, an electronic musician who works under the name Puzzle Boys. Buchanan is releasing a new album this week, called Duck Tails, but that’s not the “dumb” part. A “chiptune” artist, who composes exclusively on the 8-bit technology native to the original Nintendo Entertainment System and Gameboy, Buchanan is only the third musician ever to release an original record on repurposed Nintendo cartridges. You can listen to Buchanan’s music at puzzleboys.bandcamp.com but, for the full experience, you’ll need to find that NES in your parents’ basement, plug it into the TV, blow a couple times in the hacked cartridge and press “start” on the controller.

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

To call the project “niche” would be a vast understatement, but the appeal might extend further than you’d expect. For a whole generation of kids who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and logged countless hours in front of the Nintendo, the soundtracks to games like The Legend of Zelda, Mario Bros. and Castlevania have become a kind of classic rock, passively absorbed into their synapses through sheer repetition and loaded with nostalgia when recalled as adults. The chiptune genre, which has been around virtually since the advent and subsequent obsolescence of video-game technology, feeds on this nostalgia and allows DIY composers to take the distinctive synthesizer sounds in their own direction. In the anything-goes spirit of contemporary EDM, elements of chiptune have cropped up in tracks by artists as mainstream as Ke$ha.

“When I was a kid, I was really into video games,” Buchanan says, “then when I got into high school and college, I was more into music and stopped playing [games] altogether.” He taught himself to play bass, guitar and piano as he worked on a BA in English at Oneonta and worked for a time as a songwriter at Big Face studio in Rensselaer, before his material got him kicked out for being “too weird.” He’s played in local bands, like Seven Squeeze, and released a couple solo albums that integrated chiptune sounds with conventional instruments, but Duck Tails is the first project he’s undertaken exclusively through the Nintendo, and he’s tried to be as much of a purist about it as possible.

There are two sides to chiptune, Buchanan says: those who use more contemporary technology to expand upon what the original Nintendo could sonically do, and those who attempt to operate exclusively within the very tight parameters of the technology. Buchanan is of the latter camp and has a sizable role model guiding him. “I got into this guy named Alex Mauer,” he recalls of a period he spent last year, living in New York City, working at a center for kids with special needs and compulsively collecting classic video game equipment. “I downloaded the album he released on cartridge, Vegavox 2, and it blew me away. It’s only 11 minutes long and it was up there with the best albums I’ve heard in my life. . . . I was like, I gotta make one.”

Faced with a couple months of unemployment, he set into the task. The most conventional way to compose chiptune is on the Gameboy through a program called Little Sound DJ (LSDj, natch). The program has four channels—two square waves, one triangle and a noise channel (largely used for percussion effects)—displayed in vertical columns. The composer sets a note at a specific octave and with a particular effect to each channel, often creating small loops to conserve precious memory, and then plays the whole thing back like a scrolling music box or player piano. Buchanan, however, composed a number of his tunes first on the piano or guitar and then transposed the pieces to the 8-bit system. Instead of the Gameboy, though, he used a program for his PC called FamiTracker, which emulates the sounds of the Famicom, a Japanese gaming system that was released two years prior to the original Nintendo. He hoped the end result would sound like what Vegavox 3 might.

Buchanan continually praises Mauer for how “concise” his compositions are, filling 11 minutes of music with a mere 41 KB of data. In contrast, Duck Tails is 211 KB and close to 20 minutes long—epic within the genre. “Everything has purpose and place,” he says, of a form that has to work within rigid parameters. “I’m more interested in being creative within the space you have, not having that unlimited room.” Yet, he’s tried to update Mauer’s approach to play more like a proper “album experience.”

Simple technology should lend itself to simple music, but chiptune and the original Nintendo soundtracks upon which it’s based are often quite baroque, the parallel channels lending themselves to contrapuntal melodies and swift, interlocking arpeggios that trick the ear into a semblance of complexity. Buchanan names Hip Tanaka and Koji Kondo, composers of Nintendo classics from the ’80s as masters of this art, introducing elements of jazz-fusion, metal and classical music to the form. Buchanan names Metroid, Castlevania and Little Nemo as personal favorites. Mauer’s work, however, carries elements of ’70s electronica, like Kraftwerk, YMO, Suicide and Brian Eno. Buchanan has stretched the form even more, using more atonality than his predecessors and a more fractured approach to composition. This quality is also apparent in the visuals that accompany the album when played through a TV, pixilated tiles and text reconfigured into ornate abstraction through Buchanan’s toying with the graphics chip.

The process may seem cold and synthetic, but Buchanan’s approach is not unlike a musician in any other form. “The hardest part is making it sound natural,” he says. “The voicings need to have emotion and emotion is something that’s missing in electronic music today. It’s hard to project yourself because you get lost in the tracking and production.”

The last stage in the creation of Duck Tails has been the manufacture of cartridges. Buchanan specifically requires cartridges made by Rare Ware and so has been collecting trash games like Jeopardy, Iron Sword, and Solar Jet Man to solder his work into, a time-consuming process he’s enlisted Ian Primus to help in. He aims to manufacture 50 of the cartridges, assuming he can find enough “donors,” which will then be sold at local gaming shops Pastime Legends and Forgotten Freshness, as well as locations in New York City.