This weekend a musical super-group--of sorts--plays in West Philadelphia.
Cheap Dinosaurs is made up of giants in the local "chip-music" scene. The small sub-genre of electronic music uses sounds generated by old video games.
They were once sounds of the future. Those bleep and bloops animating "Super Mario Land," "The Legend of Zelda," and "Tetris" were annoying to adults, and became a warm blanket of nostalgia to the younger generation.
Some of those kids grew up to figure out how to hack into their games and use those same bloops and bleeps to compose music.
"I used to tape some of the songs off the TV from the Nintendo or SEGA," said Dino Lionetti, the primary composer of Cheap Dinosaurs. "I always liked video game sounds."
Lionetti's ax is the Game Boy. Released in 1989, it was a self-contained, hand-held gaming console that required no TV. It was the touchstone toy of the 1990s.
The Game Boy's computer was only eight bits strong, so the graphics and sounds were rough, lacking nuance.
In 2000, a rogue Swedish programmer named Johan Kotlinski created a cartridge called Little Sound DJ that hacks into the Game Boy's sound circuitry. That was the key to open up those beloved bloops and bleeps to manipulation.
But they still sound rough.
"There's only three melodic channels," said Lionetti. "You can only have a three-part harmony, unless you do certain trickery."
In the most fundamental state, sound generated by the Game Boy is a single wave pulse. By varying that wave's width, frequency, and inserting regular interruptions, the Little Sound DJ can trick the ear into hearing notes that aren't really there.
The Game Boy turns into a mini-Moog that only has buttons for up, down, and sideways.
"Nowadays, we have no limitations on what kinds of sounds we can make--as long as we can think of them, they can exist," said Lionetti. "It brings a lot, but we've lost something from not having any limits. We're left with no challenges."
Lionetti starts with sounds from the Game Boy, and the rest of Cheap Dinosaurs fills it out with real instruments. The band members, the big fish in the genre's small pond, include Joey Mariano--also known as Animal Style--and Paul Weinstein, aka Chipocrite.
Chip music can be hacked out of any gaming console, but Lionetti prefers the Game Boy because it's portable. He does a lot of his sequencing while riding the subway.
"There are tons of other programs, but I feel like the Game Boy is the one that is the most like a musical instrument, the same as a guitar," said Lionetti. "Strap it on you back, take it out, and you can play. Other things mean you need to sit in front of a computer and put the programmed music on a cartridge. That doesn't have the same appeal to me."
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