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SXSW: Musician Uses Game Boy to Make 8-Bit Electronic Music

Mar 19, 2013

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Pulling the original grey and purple Game Boy out of his pocket, electronic music producer EioN (pronounced eon) states matter-of-factly: “You forget how clunky this thing is until you hold it again.”

Physically standing at the intersection of technology and music at Austin’s South by Southwest festival, EioN described how he’s tapping into both genres to create new sounds in the field of electronic music—a genre called “chiptunes.”

Chiptunes includes any music produced using vintage computers, video games, consoles, or arcade games. It originally became popular in the 80s, when consumer electronics went down in price.

By using a sequencer cartridge called Nanoloop, chiptune musicians can access four “instruments” within the Game Boy’s 4-bit sound limits to create music, while the other 4-bits are dedicated to video. “I can either design one sound at a time and record it using my Akai EIE Pro recording interface to use in a song, or I can use the Game Boy as a sequencer to add sounds while it loops the same four bars.”

EioN, a 24-year-old California native, got his hands on the device around the time when Game Boy Pocket launched. The self-described gamer talked about his love for the now iconic soundtracks: “I would play the final boss of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening every night for a week just so I could listen to the credit music to sleep,” he said.

EioN still holds onto the memory of playing games with his dad and brothers while growing up: “I don't know why, but nothing—not Eric Clapton, not Zeppelin, not the Doors, or even Nirvana—ever gave me the same emotional response that I got in those young years listening to chiptunes. The connection that I had with it was unparalleled because it wasn't just music, but a whole experience and a story that I could interact with,” he said.

Now playing clubs all over Southern California, EioN said that he often samples sounds from the device, but is nowadays much more likely to “play” the Game Boy live and incorporate its sounds into a set—making it completely acceptable to carry a Game Boy to the club.

Here are clips of EioN playing sounds made with Game Boy samples, or check out his Kickstarter page.

Check out our other SXSW coverage, including a peek at the Leap Motion gesture-based device and a Q&A with space entrepreneur Elon Musk

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Lydia Leavitt