Videogames are not only inspired by art, they do inspire art on their own. The unique hardware and sound architecture of early computer and videogame hardware did not only produce characteristic soundtracks for videogames but even gave birth to a music genre: Chipmusic! One of the most acclaimed duos in this area is 8 Bit Weapon, the band project from Michelle and Seth Sternberger based on Los Angeles. Since 2006, they are delivering a unique sound, evoking videogames and eletronic tunes from the 70s and 80s. Using vintage videogame hardware as live performance instruments, Michelle and Seth did produce over 20 albums, worked with artists such as Kraftwerk and Information Society and companies such as Apple, Disney, Microsoft or Sony. Michelle Sternberger also has another chipmusic solo project with ComputHer.
We’ve been talking to Seth and Michelle from 8 Bit Weapon about their approach to music based on the technology behind classic videogames and computer hardware.
Michelle & Seth Sternberger
Wall Jump: Michelle, today’s electronical music offers plenty of opportunities. Why do you limit yourself and your music to computer technology of the 80s?
Michelle Sternberger: We don’t really limit ourselves. We also incorporate conventional synths as well as live instruments like drums & guitars when appropriate. We just tend to gravitate to the sounds generated by the Commodore 64 SID Chips not to mention gameboy, Apple II, Atari 2600, NES, and others. Each system has its own unique sound signature/pallet that we enjoy tapping into and exploring for each song.
Wall Jump: What was your first touching point with videogames?
Michelle Sternberger: I grew up around game consoles and computers. My family had Commodore 64’s, Amiga’s, plus the Atari, NES and almost every console for each generation after. I have been very fortunate to be part of a family that has played video games together for my entire life.
Seth Sternberger: My dad had introduced me to early IBM computers and then a TI99 early on, but my first computer that I could call my own was a Commodore 64. I could play NES and other consoles like Atari 2600 at friend’s houses, but didn’t own either until the mid 2000’s for the first time.
Wall Jump: When did music in games get special for you and why did you decide on experimenting with it by yourself.
Michelle Sternberger: The music in games was always a part of the gaming experience for me. So early on when I first started playing games I always noticed the music. Outside of gaming I have always been into music and I have been playing with all kinds of different instruments. I play the drums and I know a few things on the guitar and making chipmusic was just another avenue I picked up in 2005 when I created my band ComputeHer and then joined Seth in 8 Bit Weapon in 2006 and it has been fun and inspiring to do since that time.
Seth Sternberger: It was when I was at my buddy OB’s house (my neighbor at the time) and he was loading up Electronic Art’s “Adventure Construction Set.” The title screen theme is still amazing and dynamic, even to this day against modern music. I fell in love with the Commodore 64 and music as a whole that day. Eventually I became a synth musician and rediscovered the C64 sound via early emulators in the late 1990’s, so I started remixing SID tunes. In 2000 I got my SIDstation which is a midi controllable SID chip synth module, then I began making my own SID based tunes. Before then I made computer sounding songs like our track, “Robot Kindergarten” circa 1998, which sounds like chipmusic, but it’s just synths.
The affordability of a $10 gameboy and the (at the time) $40 price of an lsdj cart spread like wildfire across the globe.Seth Sternberger
Wall Jump: You’re making music since the end of the 90s. Back then, how did it come that the Chiptune-sound became relevant again with musicians, music followers and the music industry
Seth Sternberger: Probably because of emulators like SIDplay which allows the user to just play back the game music without having to play the game to hear each composition. Now there are chiptune playback apps for every system made for users to enjoy. SIDplay and Meridian (the NES/Gameboy music app) were my ipod of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. In 2002 I got my first copy of LSDJ for the gameboy that allows you to compose your own chiptunes in 4 channels in tracker format. This is likely the most popular way people make chipmusic these days, as it was 10+ years ago as well. The affordability of a $10 gameboy and the (at the time) $40 price of an lsdj cart spread like wildfire across the globe. The music industry followed soon after: Information Society, DEVO, Trent Reznor/Nine inch Nails, Beck, Britney Spears, and others have all since appropriated chip instruments into their music in one way of another over the last decade.
Wall Jump: How would you define the chiptune genre itself?
Seth Sternberger: It’s a sound pallet more than a genre. It’s like saying how do you define guitar music itself, you know? There is a genre of chip for every single genre of music. If you like a specific genre of music, there is probably a Chip version of that genre out there.
Wall Jump: While the Chiptune genre produces artists, there are only few musicians who made a name of themselves by providing music for games, such as Chris Huelsbeck with the Turrican OST. Is there any artist or game soundtrack which significantly influenced your music?
I really love the Maniac Mansion for NES soundtrack.Michelle Sternberger
Michelle Sternberger: I don’t often think about game music when i’m writing my own music, but I do have favorite soundtracks to games. I really love the Maniac Mansion for NES soundtrack.
Seth Sternberger: There are almost too many to list, but here are my core favorites: Adventure Construction set for C64, Metroid for NES, plus Kings Quest IV & Space Quest III fro PC (Soundblaster not mt-32).
Wall Jump: Did you ever consider adding live instruments to your music?
Seth Sternberger: Yes, we have live drums on some of our tracks already, we may have been the first to have live acoustic drums over chipmusic on an album. We also have used guitar on tracks, but we’re definitely not the first! Haha. Also let’s not forget we do play the C64 live like a piano on albums as well using special music carts.
Michelle Sternberger: I consider the Game Boy and Commodore 64 as my live instruments since I’m playing them live at our shows. They may not be conventional instruments, but they are nonetheless what I use to make my music. I have also played traditional instruments live at shows like a classic keyboard and an electronic drum kit.
Wall Jump: Do you believe that the chiptune genre influenced current (popular) electronic music acts?
Seth Sternberger: For sure, as we mentioned before there are countless popular bands that have adopted chip sounds into their arsenal. We have worked with both Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO and Paul Robb of Information Society in the past and they have both since added chip to their albums. In fact, Mark mentioned via his article in Artforum International magazine that an EP of ours was in his top 10 favorites from 2011!
Wall Jump: From the very beginning, computers and videogame systems were suitable instruments to you, even if they had a different purpose. Would you in some way you consider yourself to be a music pioneer, using computers for music?
Michelle Sternberger: I think we can find a few pioneering moments in our history, definitely! We have had a number of firsts (as far as we know) for a chipband, here are a few of them: We were first to perform with an actual Commodore 64 as a live instrument at shows in 2001. Our first ep & following album both had live acoustic drums with chipmusic in 2005. We were the first chipband to get national tv coverage in 2001 on Techtv (usa). We were the first chip band to perform chipmusic on live TV using c64 & acoustic drums for G4tv(usa) in 2005. In 2006 we were the first to perform with an Apple II as a live instrument/drum set, no pre-programmed patterns. 2009 Released a loop library with Sony Creative Software of sounds from the Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 2600, NES , and Game Boy. 2010 Released our own Apple II synth software that plays 8 bit samples through a 1 bit window of audio on the platform with help from legendary programmer MJ Mahon.
Wall Jump: Would you be interested in licencing music to commercial games, composing original music for games or even develop a game based on your music?
Michelle Sternberger: We have been doing music for video games as well as tv, film, and more for over a decade now. We have done music for Nokia, Microsoft, Sony, Cartoon Network, Disney, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and more. We have also released a game called SIlo 64 for the Commodore 64 which has an accompanying cd soundtrack to play while you enjoy the game.
Wall Jump Michelle, Seth, thank you so much for your time!
The artist collective 8 Bit Weapon was founded in 1999 by Seth Sternberger. Together with Michelle Sternberger, who also made a name for herself in the chiptune scene with her solo project ComputHer, 8 Bit Weapon has released 20 albums to date. In 2001 8 Bit Weapon was the first band to perform with a Commodore 64 as a live instrument. In 2006 the artist collective was the first to use an Apple II as a live instrument without pre-programmed patterns. With the help of legendary programmer MJ Mahon, Seth and Michelle Sternberger released a loop library with Sony Creative Software in 2009, which combined sounds from Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 2600, NES and Game Boy. In addition to appearances on E3 and on American television, 8 Bit Weapon 2012 composed the soundtrack and the anthem of the “The Art of Video Games” exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
An abbreviated version of this interview was originally published in issue 6 of the German gaming book magazine WASD.
This post is also available in: German