The era of 8bit music

Before the 1980’s, games had no background music apart from the beeps heard when moving from one level to another. But background music for games is undeniably thrilling for any gamer. Gradually the 8bit music developed, which finds its origin in Europe. Especially the well-known background music of Super Mario is a characteristic 8bit music.

But what exactly does 8bit music mean?

8bit music (also known as chiptunes, bitpop, or chip music) is a computer-generated music. What distinguishes this music genre from any other kind of music is the technology used to produce it. 8bit music is made using the technology of vintage video games and computer tools. There are many systems associated with 8bit music as the Amiga 500, Nintendo Entertainment System or Famicom, Commodore 64, and the Nintendo Game Boy.

History of 8bit Music

The first home computers, such as the IBM PC and Apple 2, had system speakers installed, which were directly controlled by the CPU. Thus, it was possible to produce clicks and certain tones. Therefore some very advanced sound of music could be produced this way. But the problem here was, that it required almost the entire CPU’s runtime to accomplish it. So the computer had nothing left over to do anything else. To take this load away from the CPU, a special sound chip was created. This chip became the basis of the popular 8bit music.

The very first chiptunes were simple and only involved beep sounds. However, as time progressed, the computers became more powerful and could produce different sound waves. Thus, it became possible to play a variety of different soundtracks at the same time. With time the music spread to America and Japan through sharing of sounds among the countries. From the 8bit music many Chiptune-musicians established themselves. Their sounds range from rock to pop or even dubstep.

Chiptunes in video games

By the early 1980’s computers had become cheap, and that enabled people to upgrade their machines. As such, chip music producers made use of the abandoned computers and game consoles. Especially the use of chiptunes in video games became very popular.

The first video to use chip music was Nishikado’s arcade game, Gun Fight. The first game with an opening melody was released in 1975. In 1978, Nishikado released Space Invaders, a game which had bass notes that increased pace as the invaders attacked the player. The chip music on the video game interacted with the players, and that made it more engaging as opposed to a game with no music. Rally X, another popular game, was released in 1980 by Namco, and it had uninterrupted background music throughout the play time.

Use of consoles instead of computers

Spectrum was the earliest hardware used to produce chip sounds. The device had a three channel sound, a beeper, and a 128k –AY-3-8912 chip. Later, the Commodore 64 was introduced, and it had SID chip filters instead of wave sounds. The Commodore Amiga was then developed.

This home computer originally had a four-channel sound system. The consoles were introduced as an improvement. These consoles had a five-channel sound, used 2x pulse wave, 1x triangle wave, 1x noise, and 1x low-quality sample data. With time, there have been hacks by different artists that have made the chiptunes better. For instance, Tim Follin hacked the 48k beeper to play polyphonic sounds. Chris Huelsbeck also hacked a seven-channel sound to work on a four channel Amiga.

Since the 1980’s, 8bit music in video games has made significant improvements. Artists have been coming up with better tunes, converters and trackers that can emulate the original hardware.

How to Make 8bit Music

Basic 8bit music makes use of waveforms such as Pulse, Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth and Noise. Each chiptune is formed using a specific chip sound. When you decide to follow a specific chip sound, you should stick to its requirements and waveforms to achieve the desired results. There are trackers that can help you adhere to the limitations of a specific chip sound. The trackers are used with the hardware to ensure that the sound produced is the actual sound of the hardware you are using.

When creating 8bit music, it is necessary to follow a pattern that contains several tracks playing at once to form a song. Each pattern has a particular order that determines when the songs should be played, for how long, and whether it should be looped or not.

As mentioned earlier, each waveform gives a specific chip sound:

  • The sawtooth waveform is sharp and can be used either for melodies or bass. Sawtooth is mainly supported by the Famicom Disk System but can also be used partly on NES applications.
  • Pulse waveform, on the other hand, can vary its cycle to produce either hollow or sharp sounds.
  • Sine waveform produces soft, even sounds, and it mostly sounds like an acoustic guitar. This particular waveform sounds better when used on high frequencies because it is only then that you can tell the difference between the notes.
  • The triangle waveform is typically used for the low bass notes and has  a more reedy, thin sound.

The notes adjust the chip sounds and match them to musical notes, allowing artists to come up with tunes of various complexities. Effects are also used alongside the notes because they act as commands given to the notes instructing them to play a particular sound such as pulse, sawtooth or noise.

Infografik Waveforms

Waveforms for 8bit music; Source:

Software Tools

Trackers are the primary software used in the creation of chip music. Whereas trackers are different from each other, the methodology applied in the making of chip music is practically the same on all trackers. Tracks are vertical strips onto which one constructs the music. Modern trackers can make more tracks compared to the older ones.


Karsten Obarski invented 1987 the MOD format for his Ultimate Tracker running on Amiga computers. Since then many songs, especially for the demoscene, were created. All MOD samples are stored in 8bits and the number of voices is limited to four. To have something similarly to chords, the three notes of it are repeated very fast. This makes MODs sound so freaky. One of the most popular Flash-Modplayers was 8BitBoy, an amiga modplayer for the flash9 player.


Famitracker is a free windows tracker. It works as a windows application and can help music composers come up with chip sounds without hardware. The tracker has NSF-file exporting capability that allows the sounds created to be played on real hardware or to be used in NES-applications. Famitracker produces chips similar to 2AO3 chip.

Open Modplug Tracker

Open Modplug Tracker is Another widely-used software is the Open Modplug Tracker. It is available on Windows, and it supports Virtual Studio Technology (VST) effects. Instruments supported by the Open Modplug Tracker include synthesisers and drum kits. The tracker can work with ITP, MOD and XM files.


Another software 8bit music artist’s use is the SonantLive. This one works on the browser. The software gives essential guidance on the use of patterns, waves and sequences. Most importantly, SonantLive offers details on the process of constructing patterns.


SunVox software can also be used to compose music. It has more synthesisers and effects as compared to SonantLive. The software is flexible in architecture and allows users with older versions of windows to use it. It works on mobile devices. The software is supported by both Windows and Android devices.


8bit music has evolved over the years and has continually been used by gamers as a background for various games. Currently, it is possible to produce the chiptunes using software such as SonantLive and Sonvox. The tunes are enhanced by effects that make games more engaging for the players.