Diode Milliampere holds an ancient Toshiba laptop up to the camera of a more modern laptop, so that the window of our Skype conversation fills with a flickering, constantly refreshing grid of numbers and letters. The churn of seemingly incomprehensible codes, rendered in the blocky MS-DOS system font, looks like the kind of raw data you might see flashing across a monitor on a factory floor or in a water-treatment plant, but it's actually a musical performance of a sort. The strings of cryptic alphanumeric combinations are real-time instructions that the Toshiba is feeding into its sound card, and they're producing the cheery, chirpy techno-pop tune that's streaming out of my speakers.
Milliampere, whose real name is David Cohen, was born in Buffalo Grove and lives in Chicago; he's 26 years old and graduated from Columbia College's sound engineering program in 2012. He doesn't have a straight day job at the moment—he freelances as an audio engineer and occasionally repairs or modifies electronic gear for people—but he's a rising star of a scene called chiptune, aka chip music, even though he's only been writings songs for a few months. As a genre it's built around obsolete sound modules, including the Yamaha OPL3 chip that's part of the ancient Sound Blaster sound card in Cohen's Toshiba—though the most popular rigs remain era-defining units from the 80s like the Game Boy, NES, and Commodore 64. Serious musicians, as opposed to composers of video-game music, have been working with such equipment since it was new, but the chiptune community is relatively young—it's evolved over the past decade or so, brought together by a combination of geeky nostalgia, fascination with the technology, and the deconstructionist impulses of remix culture.
It helps that the gear tends to be extremely affordable: "It's really cheap to get an old 90s computer," Cohen says, "but not necessarily cheap to build a hardware synthesizer." He insists that the obsession with obsolete tech that drives much of the chiptune community doesn't motivate him. "I think people get that impression a lot, but I'm just somewhere between broke and thrifty, I guess," he says. "I've bought $500 synthesizers, and then they become an endeavor to repair. I just wanted to buy a thing and be happy with it and have it do all the things it's supposed to do when I use it."
Chiptune sounds have been bubbling up into the mainstream for years. The Timbaland-produced 50 Cent single "Ayo Technology" (from 2007) and Kesha's 2009 hit "Tik Tok" both brought NES-style eight-bit tones to the Billboard top ten, and tracks by crossover EDM artists such as Skrillex and Deadmau5 often feature the genre's trademark burbles and beeps. For hard-core chiptune enthusiasts, though (many of whom gather in online forums, including Reddit's /r/chiptunes), the music itself isn't the main concern. It's often treated as little more than a by-product of the hackerish quest to get into a sound module and make it do what you want—extra points if what you want is something it wasn't designed for.
"I like synthesizers more than I actually like music," says Cohen, whose glasses, ponytail, and overall scruffiness make him look like an engineering grad student and D&D enthusiast from the days when the Commodore 64 was a hot new product. "Which isn't to say that I don't like music; I just realize I have extremely specific tastes. With synthesizers you can make your own sonic landscape. You can make something that has no context whatsoever, or no acoustic reference. I've been messing around with synthesizers for about five years now, and until a few months ago I'd never sat down and made a tune. I kinda just plugged stuff in and figured out how to make it work. I didn't ever really make music, so I'm still new to all of that."
- Adam Jason Cohen
In a modern computer, the sound card (a term that doesn't necessarily refer to a plug-in card anymore) works by converting digital information into an analog audio signal in basically the same way as a CD player. The Sound Blaster in Cohen's vintage laptop, on the other hand, is really a self-contained synthesizer that creates tones through a process called frequency modulation synthesis. This is the same technique used by 80s keyboards like the Yamaha DX7: the frequency of a tone-producing sine wave, usually digitally generated, is modified according to the waveforms of one or more accompanying signals. It's complicated and not especially intuitive, but in the right hands it can approximate the sound of an organ or a kick drum or pretty much any other element of a song, up to and including human speech.
"It was really neat to me to realize that you could literally create sounds that will trick the ear into thinking it's this or that," Cohen says. "Or a trope that you've heard a million times in pop music you realize is just a simple architecture of tone generators and filters and modifying the envelopes and modulators and stuff." He uses a free program called Adlib Tracker II (the one I saw, with the scrolling grids of numbers and letters) that lets him tinker directly with a chip's sine-wave generators, creating his own keyboard and drum tones from scratch, and then arrange them into multitrack compositions.
Unsurprisingly, there are simpler ways to get similar results. A variety of software synthesizers can reproduce the sounds that chiptune devotees cherish; Cohen suspects that when Skrillex drops FM-synthesis-style bleeps into his tracks, he's using one such plug-in. And many programs are far easier to use than Adlib Tracker II—though it's been around in one form or another since 2000, it didn't add basic MIDI compatibility till a couple years ago, and despite its claims to be the most user-friendly utility of its type, it's far less intuitive than any other music-composition software I've encountered. In order to use Adlib Tracker II or even play its files, you either need to find an old MS-DOS computer with the right kind of sound card (a Sound Blaster or something else with a compatible chip) or else emulate an entire MS-DOS machine, complete with virtual sound card, on a modern computer.
Emulators can only approximate the distinctive tone of a FM synthesis chip, though—specifically, the pixellated grain in the sound that's produced when a low-resolution digital device tries to produce a smooth but nuanced timbre. Cohen's setup has another interesting advantage: in addition to selling his music as MP3s, as high-quality FLAC files, and on physical media, he can make it available as Adlib Tracker II files. This format lets users open the songs in the program and mess around with them as they will—and because the files are usually just 10 to 20 kilobytes in size, Cohen can distribute them on floppy disk, which is not only champion-level retro but also pretty handy. Many people in the scene make music with outdated MS-DOS computers, which generally can't support modern Web browsers and often don't even have USB ports—floppies can be the only way of getting files from one machine to the other.
For Cohen, the primary attraction of chiptune has turned out to be its community of like-minded geeks, who understand the urge to assemble songs on obsolete technology using gruelingly complicated software. They help draw attention to his stuff (one video he posted on Reddit has racked up more than 400,000 views on YouTube), and he seems to fit into their globally dispersed online DIY scene better than any group he's found IRL. "Community is definitely the best part of chiptune," he says. "People might look down their nose at it for sounding a certain way, but I think it's funny because it's not so serious. No one's like, 'Yo, I just spent 30 hours in the lab. Check out my latest release on Beatport.' It's always just fun."
Download Adlib Tracker II
Diode Milliampere demonstrates how to launch Adlib Tracker II on a Mac running the DOSBox MS-DOS emulator in OS X. View full-screen in high resolution to see what he's typing:
A brief Adlib Tracker II tutorial:
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the correct make of Cohen's laptop.