How to Make 8bit Music
In the early history of video games, developers had to face technologic limitations in every step of the way. This left them with really simple graphics, sound effects and music. Every console was different, but quite similar in these limitations. The most famous and imitated sound is the one of the classic Game Boy. Nonetheless, they all share similar sound characteristics that will give you the classic video game aesthetics and flavour.
We could go very in depth but we will keep it simple, I will explain the basics of how to make music that sounds like 8bit, even though there is people that are real experts in this matter, and even make music with the Game Boy itself!
8 bit music uses basic sound waves, and you can find how they sound and a graphic representation below:
Also, some chips could alter the form of the square wave like in the picture before, creating what is known as a pulse wave:
They also generally used a noise oscillator, which was used for sound effects and percussion sounds. This is how it sounds and looks (more or less):
Keep in mind that they had a voice number limitation as well, maybe 4 voices (and the sound effects of the game needed to be in one of this channels!).
Well, the console’s sound chip only could use this very basic sounds, and as technology advanced they started to include more sounds and sampling, getting where we are today, a world where you can play an orchestra in your smartphone.
But they had to use only this sounds though, so composers had to imagine ways of making them sound good, using the mellow ones for basses and pads (sine and triangle waves) and the harsher ones (sawtooth and square waves) for leads and melodies. Obviously there are no rules, try everything.
Two other elements that come into play: Vibrato (for expressive vibratos in melodies or crazy effects, for example) and Volume Envelopes (to make the sounds be very percussive, to slowly smooth in or to fade away).
Now, you don’t have to program any of these in a very basic sequencer like musicians had to do decades ago. The best way to create this sounds is to open any synthesizer you have in your DAW and it will probably have these sound waves in the oscillator section. Just make sure you only use the oscillator section and the other ones are not activated. For a more authentic sound get a Bitcrusher plugin and reduce the bitrate of the sounds to 8 or 4 bits.
Also, there are a lot of techniques used to get the aesthetics of this style of music. Let me quote three of them:
Changing the pitch of the note one octave really fast: If instead of playing a quarter note you play 4 sixteenth notes, switch between the note and and its octave (above or below) you will get this “crazy vibrato” kind of sound. This reminds a lot of the classic Super Mario collecting coins sound.
Creating a fake delay / reverb: A good way to create depth is to double the melody and put the doubled one a 16th or 8th note after the other one (with less volume).
Creating risers and swooshes: If you take the noise oscillator and you make it change in pitch with an extreme Vibrato effect that makes it change in pitch dramatically (upwards or downwards) you can create very crazy experimental sounds that will complement your percussion parts and will help you change between sections in your song.
There are some plugins that can help you in your way to achieve this sound:
Magical 8bit Plug (Free): Basically a plugin that makes everything for you. It comes with the sound waves, envelopes and vibrato effect.
Chipsounds: A huge collection of the sampled sounds of a ton of sound chips in early gaming consoles. Much more complex than the Magical 8bit Plug.
The soundtrack of Shovel Knight is an perfect example of these aesthetics. Listen to the arrangements and how the risers and swooshes are very evident:
Finally, I would like to state that even this kind of music is very specific and sounds a bit harsh, with today’s technology advancement and easy access to it you can easily implement some 8bit sounds into your productions that will be reminiscent of exactly this: the moment when technology made sounds a bit weird and ancient. Like robot sounds.
And well, electronic music is the evolution of all of this, anyway.
Also check: How to Find Videogame Composer Gigs