How To Make 8-Bit Music
Today’s post is all about how to make 8-bit music. Whether you love chiptunes and would like to know how it’s done, or you’re a music composer that has been given the task of making this style of music, you’ll find this complete resource helpful. You’ll learn how to create retro synth sounds, basslines, and chiptune drums.
Let’s dive right in!
Read on to learn:
- What 8-bit music is and what makes it so appealing
- What tools you need
- 8-bit sound design
- How to create authentic 8-bit music
- Chiptune characteristics
What Is 8-Bit Music?
8-bit music (also known as chiptune) is named after the 8-bit sound processors found in early games consoles like Atari 2600 and Commodore 64. Instead of using recordings of traditional instruments such as strings, guitar, and drums, each sound was synthesized using the built-in computer chips themselves.
Each chip was only capable of creating a limited number of sounds. For instance, the Commodore 64 could only manage three notes at once. If that sounds like a limitation, you should know that these three notes also included sound effects. Every time Super Mario jumped to collect a coin, composers were limited to only two additional sounds.
Speaking of composers, because of the small teams that created games in the 80s, 8-bit tracks were programmed by developers. Since they usually didn’t have a musical background, 8-bit music is fairly straightforward.
Here are some of the most iconic 8-bit soundtracks:
- Super Mario
- Final Fantasy
- The Legend of Zelda
Why 8-Bit Music Still Is So Appealing
In my opinion, chiptune music has increased in popularity over the recent years, mostly due to its limitations:
- There was often only one musical key available
- The tempo of the music had to remain constant throughout the entire track
- The dynamic of the song had to remain constant
Many would argue that nostalgia plays a big part in why 8-bit music still is loved all over the world.
What Do You Need To Make 8-Bit Music?
Using a DAW is the most common approach for composers looking to create 8-bit music. DAW stands for digital audio workstation and it’s a piece of software that lets you record live audio and virtual instruments (VSTs). It allows you to create music by playing different notes, usually with the help of a MIDI keyboard.
If you’re wondering how to make 8-bit music, you should know that the process is pretty simple and you only need a couple of tracks. The requirements of your DAW are therefore pretty low and you can compose your chiptunes on any free DAW.
There are tons of effects and instruments on the market that will help you create retro sounds. Do you need them? Nope.
Although, there is no necessity but a couple of VSTs could come in handy when you’re composing 8-bit music:
- Simple synthesizer
- Simple sampler
- Noise Generator
- Bit Crusher
- Distortion FX
8-Bit Music Makers
Although you can create all sounds you need for 8-bit music on any synthesizer, you could also use something called 8-bit music makers.
8-bit music makers are VSTs built to mimic old PSG chips (programmable sound generators) used in retro gaming consoles. All you have to do is download an 8-bit music maker and load it into your DAW. There are many 8-bit music makers available, but these are my favorites:
Music trackers had their breakthrough in the late 80s when Amiga Commodore hit the market. Trackers generally look like spreadsheets with cells, and the learning curve is pretty steep. If you have worked in DAWs, the grid is moving sideways (left to right). With trackers, the music is moving from top to bottom.
Using a tracker is not as user-friendly as a DAW. With that being said, a tracker is about as close as we can get to replicating 8-bit music without having to hack an old video game console. With trackers, we get a piece of software that emulates how retro chip music was composed in the 80s and 90s.
There are many trackers available and I recommend checking out Deflemask. This freeware includes a bunch of emulations of vintage sound chips:
- Sega Genesis/Mega Drive
- SEGA Master System
- Nintendo Game Boy
- Nintendo NES
- Commodore 64
- Arcade System (SEGA X/Y boards)
Whatever sound chip that you’re trying to emulate, you’ll find it in Deflemask. A complete goldmine for 8-bit music composers!
8-Bit Music Sound Design
8-bit music is all about simplicity. Since you don’t hear any evolving filters over time in 8-bit music, you can skip filter envelopes.
However, the amp envelope is your best friend when it comes to creating the main shape of your sound. What you need is three different shapes of envelopes as a starting point for your main sounds (percussion, melody/bass, and pad). These includes:
- Instant attack, short decay, no sustain, no release (percussion)
- Minimal attack, mid decay, low sustain, minimal release (melodic sound)
- Long attack, full decay, full sustain, low release (pad)
Creating a retro synth sound is super simple, and all you have to do is load a classic waveform like a simple square wave or a triangle wave. When you’re making 8-bit music, square waves are mainly used as lead synth and arpeggios. Since triangle waveforms are softer by nature, they are more preferable when creating 8-bit basslines.
Make sure that all your waveforms are played as monophonic. This will limit the synthesizer from playing multiple notes simultaneously (one voice at the time). You should also turn off the legato. This will remove any smooth transitions when going from one note to the next.
8-bit music doesn’t include any sound effects such as reverb, delay, or filters. It’s solely composed of simple waveforms and if you want to change the tone with the same limitations as old computer chips, you should stick with altering the pulse width on the square wave.
The drum sounds are an important element of 8-bit music and to get that classic retro video game percussion, you want to use noise generators as your waveforms.
Many synthesizers have built-in noise generators and when you add a short envelope you get that percussive sound.
Finally, shape the tone of your retro percussion sound with a filter. Depending on how hard you cut the frequencies, you can create both a kick, snare, and a hi-hat.
Composing Your 8-Bit Track
Once you’ve created your sounds, it’s time to focus on actual songwriting. Less is more when it comes to creating 8-bit music. If you listen to old chiptunes you will hear that it’s not much going on. In fact, the classic 8-bit Nintendo console only had 5 available tracks:
- Square wave for melodic leads
- Second square wave for supporting lead/arpeggio
- Triangle wave for the bassline
- Noise generator for drums or percussive sounds
- Simple sampler for game effect sounds or voices
Don’t focus on complexity – make sure your track is super simple and most importantly, make it catchy.
Chiptunes are usually pretty fast-paced. 8-bit music usually operates within 120 bpm (like modern EDM).
Most chiptunes from the early days were composed in the key of C (this was the only option available within computer chips at the time). C major has no sharps or flats and the key is widely used in today’s popular music. C major is looked at as the “happy-sounding key” and if you listen to some classic 8-bit music you’ll notice that they are based upon a happy upbeat.
The foundation of 8-bit music is the melody. The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario, and Castlevania all have catchy and memorable melodies that have been stuck in our heads for generations. A good rule of thumb is that you make sure that people hum along with them.
What else do melodies in chiptunes have in common? They are super-simple and repetitive. Melodies are usually played as phrases or patterns that repeat themselves as loops.
You could also try to add a harmonic counterpart to your main melody. The idea is to have it in sync with the melody to create interesting variations throughout the track.
Since no instruments are playing actual chords, basslines are incredibly important in 8-bit music. Unlike modern-day music, where basslines are a straight-driven pattern, basses in chiptunes are melodic and catchy.
A very common approach is that you let the bass walk up and down on the current chord notes. Also, chromatic steps are a very common approach, meaning passing notes using minor 2nds.
To create interesting rhythmics you should try adding syncopation and groove to your bassline.
Because of computer chip’s limitations in the late 80s, arpeggios have played an important role in chiptunes. Why? They allow you to play chords while using monophonic sounds.
Since you play the notes in a fast sequence, it almost sounds like actual polyphonic chords. Try experimenting with different speeds until you get the desired result.
And there you have it! The key is to keep your 8-bit track simple and catchy. Even if VSTs can speed things up, you can create chiptunes with whatever synth that you have. The basic waveforms and noise generators that you need for sound design are something that you find everywhere.
You should consider using a tracker If you want to geek out completely. It’s as close as you get to the real thing without having to hack an old gaming console from the 80s.
8-bit music makers are a great choice as they emulate old PSG chips (programmable sound generators) used in gaming consoles.
Now over to you! Put your new skills and knowledge into practice. Go and create your own 8-bit track from scratch, or try to re-create any old classic video game music track.