Chiptune pioneer Bit Shifter discusses the Game Boy as a musical tool

Thanks to independently developed software such as Nanoloop and Little Sound DJ, the Nintendo Game Boy has turned into the instrument of choice for a growing number of electronic musicians. While the Game Boy’s 8-bit sound chip is somewhat limited, it has a warm, crunchy sound that works well when taken beyond the context of simply supplying video game soundtracks. Musically, Game Boy tracks run the gamut from energetic electronic pop to weird, often scary-sounding experimental stuff. On the more danceable end of the ‘chiptune’ spectrum is New York’s Josh Davis, aka Bit Shifter. In an email interview, Josh explained a bit about what goes into making music on a device only intended to play games. NOTE – since this article was published, Bit Shifter has released a new album, “Cloud System Blues.”

When/how did you first get into Game Boy music? What was the first program that you used?

I was pretty fascinated by the texture and mood of video game music as a kid, my favorite was the background music of the game Balloon Kid, which I recorded to cassette tape from my sister’s Game Boy, just so I could carry it around with me in my Walkman. A few years ago I found out about independent musicians making music using Game Boys and homebrew musicmaking cartridges Nanoloop and Little Sound DJ. This was really appealing to me, kind of like finding a key to the secret universe of game sounds and music. At the time both programs were available as physical cartridges, I bought one of each and really fell in love with what they could do. Technically Nanoloop was the first one I used, but Little Sound DJ arrived a few weeks later, so it was pretty much a tie.

What program do you primarily use now? Can you briefly describe how it works (in terms of how you compose on it)?

I still use both programs, probably 60/40 in favor of Little Sound DJ. Both programs run directly on the Game Boy, and both are synthesis-based, making use of the Game Boy’s onboard four-channel sound chip (as opposed to using predefined samples). Each program provides an on-screen sequencing interface, although the conceptual model behind them differs. LSDj is the more conventional and versatile of the two in terms of its setup, it’s a pattern-based sequencer where 16-note phrases can be constructed numerically and then arranged as units to build a composition. Nanoloop is more unconventional, which turns out to be really advantageous creatively. It’s pattern-based like LSDj, but instead of using standard note designations, sound characteristics are altered graphically. A sound’s amplitude and decay, for instance, are defined by the positions of a small dot and a small dash in a square region representing a particular step in a 16-step loop. Hard to really describe verbally. It’s a pretty abstract system, which to me is really a plus — it forces you into an unfamiliar mode of conceptualizing music and sound, which can lend itself really well to happy accidents and unexpected results.

Were you actually a Game Boy player before starting to use it for music?

I was a casual gamer, I’d say. I still am, although my interest in gaming has been revitalized by the recent experience dabbling in Game Boy musicmaking. I don’t buy a lot of games, but I will admit to being addicted to Gunstar Super Heroes on the Game Boy Advance.

Do you feel that it is more difficult to compose on the gameboy software than on other tools? Did you ever question whether it is really worth it, or if maybe you were attracted to it because of the ‘cool’ factor?

Actually, it’s been the opposite — the economy and efficiency of these programs’ interface design has really spoiled me. It’s at a point now where it’s difficult for me to use anything other than LSDj for songwriting and sequencing. Basic song ideas can be sketched out in minutes, and fleshing them out is a really efficient process once you get a decent understanding of how the program works.

With the limited number of buttons/controls, how well suited is it to live performance? What exactly are you doing when you perform live? (what elements are you manipulating, etc)

I still haven’t found the best way to perform with this setup, to a large extent I’m still exploring how to make it all work. Nanoloop and LSDj both have some pretty cool provisions for live use, allowing real time interaction with song structure, waveform attributes, channel muting and soloing, that kind of thing. The approach I’ve been having the most fun with lately has been to do semi-abstract, beat-driven material using two Game Boys running Nanoloop, synchronized via a GameLink cable. With this configuration I use one Game Boy to run through a predetermined sequence of loops to provide structure, and the second Game Boy for loading additional patterns and loops on the fly, creating interesting polyrhythms and unexpected collisions of sounds. It’s an exciting exercise in controlled chaos, and it’s especially fun for me because it reintroduces an element of chance and risk, which I think are crucial to the fun of live performing. Nanoloop is the program I’m doing this with at the moment, but Little Sound DJ also supports Game Boy sync, which is something I also want to start exploring.

In terms of song storage, are you limited to the memory of the cartridge? If so, how does it affect the way you work (do you need to recreate sequences for performances?), and if not, how do you go about archiving songs?

Nanoloop has 4 song banks per cartridge, and recent versions of Little Sound DJ can save up to around 8 and 10 songs directly on the cart. Song data can be transferred to a PC using third-party transfer hardware, but the gear is unlicensed and technically illegal, so it can be hard to come by. There are other options too — like the Mega Memory Card, which was a licensed, legal third-party Game Boy memory accessory designed for saving the progress in long-term games. Conveniently it can be used to save Little Sound DJ songs too, although the units are prone to failure and data loss. Song archiving is a bit of a battle in general, and I think anyone making music on Game Boys has experienced song loss, data corruption, cartridge failures, and other heartbreaking circumstances. What doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger…

What are the advantages to creating music on the Game Boy as opposed to just sampling the sounds into modern musical software or equipment?

The biggest tradeoff in doing sample-based work is that you lose the dynamics of actual real-time synthesis. There are synthesis-dependent sounds, effects, and behaviors that you’d miss out on when working with samples. So that’s one advantage to working directly on the hardware. Another is just the portability of the setup — even as portable as laptops are, they can’t really compare to the pocket size of the Game Boy. Plus the Game Boy is more roadworthy and more replaceable. Drop a Game Boy, it’ll probably be okay, and if it’s not, you might need to spend ten bucks on eBay to get another. Drop a laptop and it’s a different story.

Are particular Game Boy models better suited to music than others?

The software runs a little more smoothly and responsively on the later models, the Game Boy Color and Pocket. But the oldest “Classic” models have the best sound — better bass and lower noise. I mostly work on the old Classics.

Can you describe the equipment set-up used for Bit Shifter? (how many Game Boys, additional gear, etc).

These days I’m running three classic Game Boys through a small mixer, and that’s about it. I saw Crazy Q (an amazing chiptune musician from Sweden) play a few years back on Atari ST machines, using an outboard filter unit to do sweeps at transition points and whatnot, and it was a really effective touch. It inspired me to want to investigate outboard effects, but so far I still haven’t gotten around to doing it.

There’s certainly an element of novelty to the idea of composing/performing music on a Game Boy … what do you see as being the pros and cons of that?

I can’t think of any real pros to it actually. The cons are easier to identify, but they’re pretty mild and predictable — people misunderstanding the motive as retro-fetishism, people yelling “play Contra” from the audience. But I these obviously aren’t serious drawbacks.

For someone interested in hearing more Game Boy music, can you suggest any others musicians to check out?

There are a ton of truly amazing Game Boy musicians out there, from all over too. I’d recommend Bubblyfish, Covox, Lo-bat, Glomag, Nullsleep, K->, Random, David Sugar, Blasterhead, Trash Can Man, Chesterfield, Saitone, Snoopdroop, Sidabitball, Aonami, Herbert Weixelbaum, Handheld, Nim, Zabutom, Role Model, 6955, Huoratron, 11HzRobot, x|k, Receptors, the list is almost endless.

When can we expect a follow-up to “Life’s A Bit Shifter”? For those who’ve only heard that CD, how would you describe you more recent material?

Actually, in the time it’s taken me to respond to your interview questions, I released a 6-song EP called Information Chase on 8bitpeoples. I also had 3 kids and put the oldest one through college. The EP is a deliberate (or “shameless”) foray into melodic chiptune power-pop. I wanted to take advantage of the Game Boy’s minimal, stripped-down sound to see if I could get down to the essence of pop songwriting, to see if once instrumentation is reduced to a bare minimum and flashy (or even standard) production embellishments are stripped away, a pop song can still have an impact. Which is all just an elaborate way to try to make a power-pop release sound artistically valid.

Are you currently involved with any other musical projects?

I’m in a band called The Charm Offensive, which is more of a rock project. If you imagine the offspring of The Wedding Present and Carter USM and subtract 125 IQ points, you have a decent reference point.

For more info on Bit Shifter, check out