The original goal of the synthesizer was to imitate or even replace existing Instruments, but it didn’t take long for a new culture and sound language to develop around synths which could be informed by acoustic instruments, but also cover new territory of it’s own accord. Not only did new sounds appear in their droves, but something unexpected happened – the synthetic versions of pre-existing instruments became valid in their own right, as abstractions of the physical ideal.
A synthetic version of an instrument is essentially a simpler version of that sound, created procedurally out of static sound elements processed in various ways. What it loses in realism it can often gain in becoming an exaggeration, caricature or extreme version of it’s more nuanced point of origin. That is their appeal and why sometimes, composers and arrangers choose synth brass over real brass sounds, for example.
This reduced realism reminds me of the appeal of comic-style art, and other art styles that sacrifice realism for new avenues of expression. A Trumpet is a trumpet – a sample of a trumpet is akin to a photograph of a trumpet – and a synth trumpet is a comic book version, a vividly coloured trumpet, with unnatural shading and it’s own language of expression. Trumpet.
What then of the Chip Music aesthetic? This is essentially taking the analogy a step further. The resources available to those working with sound chips are in many ways a subset of the world of synthesis – now you have simple, repeating waveforms but very little in the way of things to do with them. Yes, you can create complex sounds, with a lot of creativity, but due to factors such as limited voicing (three or four voices was standard for the golden age of chip music) and limited computer horsepower, these came with trade-offs which had to be worked around, often informing the arrangement in the music, providing a context for the sounds and arrangement to interact in new ways.
If synth versions of real instruments are comic-book renditions, their chiptune equivalents are even more abstract and barebones. It’s almost wireframe. Since only a certain amount of detail can be added to such instruments, factors such as pitch bend, vibrato, portamento, volume and waveform variations must be exploited to the hilt, to both impart musicality onto the static waveform (which is in lay-listeners’ terms a buzzing sound) and to impart the character of the instrument you are trying to describe or imitate in the chip music realm.
This is why, to me, good chip music is so revealing about the world of music. It’s stripped to the bare bones, every detail has been economised, and small details matter in a big way. It’s like looking at the atoms of music, or experiencing music at it’s most abstract level.
This is best exemplified by my comparison to acoustic or traditional instrumentation, but it applies to a lesser extent to all sounds, regardless of their intent to represent some real-world equivalent. Good chip music is, to me, the beating heart of all music, regardless of style or taste.