8 Bit Weapon Is Your Gaming Life Soundtrack

Jason Bennett,

September 3, 2020 9:02 AM

Chiptune duo Michelle and Seth Sternberger delve into their catalogue for a musical antidote during trying times


With the widespread social and economic disruption caused by the coronavirus, the old adage “the show must go on” has proven elusive for many in the arts. For musicians, the closure of venues for performing - both large and small - has cut off a primary avenue for connecting with fans and promoting music. When staring down this very situation themselves, the Los Angeles-based music group 8 Bit Weapon decided that the answer lay with using their newfound time off-stage to bring together a collection of tracks for the virtual stage.

Founded by Seth Sternberger in 1998, 8 Bit Weapon was a natural outgrowth of his interest in computers ranging from the IBM PC to the Commodore 64, the latter serving as his first computer where the tones of the Sound Interface Device, or SID chip made a lasting impression. Similarly, when Michelle established her band ComputeHer in 2005, it was a culmination of a life-long appreciation of computer-generated music that began with the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System and included every generation of console that followed. In 2006, Michelle teamed up with Seth to collaborate on 8 Bit Weapon.

Their respective projects and collaborations represent a style of musical composition that, insteading of performing on traditional instruments, leverages the sound-generating capabilities of 8-bit computer and video game hardware to create a genre - or what Seth calls a “sound palette” - known as chiptunes.

In bringing computer and video game technology to the stage, Michelle and Seth actively reinvent the traditional function of platforms like the Commodore 64 or Nintendo Game Boy and recast them as live instruments wielded in the same way as a musician would play at a piano or with a guitar at a live performance. To maximize these platforms for live play, retro hardware like the Game Boy can be modded with RCA audio out jacks, an over/underclocking switch, and a pitch pot. The cumulative result is a techno-soundscape that is simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic by creating original compositions with the “Computer Age” sounds of the retro consoles and computers of the late 1970s and early 80s.

Collectively, Seth and Michelle have released over a dozen albums, worked with influential artists such as electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, collaborated with entertainment and tech giants Disney, Sony, and Microsoft, and have participated in cultural events such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition “The Art of Video Games” in Washington DC featuring an original composition for occasion. Closer to home, Michelle and Seth crossed paths with Twin Galaxies years earlier -- ComputeHer performed at the inaugural International Video Game Hall of Fame event in August 2010 in Ottumwa, Iowa. 

8 Bit Weapon's latest album "Lost Bytes" offers up previously unreleased tracks [Source: 8 Bit Weapon]

Fast forward to March 2020 -- with the closures and social distancing to combat the spread of COVID-19, Seth and Michelle decided to turn their attention to neglected tracks and demos from their music catalogue. The result of their efforts was the release of Lost Bytes: 2001 - 2007 Deluxe Edition consisting of 14 tracks that spanned 16 years and 32 different projects - tracks that, given the group’s typical pre-COVID pace of life, would probably have remained hidden away.

In an email interview, Seth and Michelle shared their reflections on music and their next projects.

TG: Did your inspiration to play chip music come from using the technology, a specific game you found yourself humming to long after you were done, or both?

8 Bit Weapon: It came from loving music from the video games we grew up with. We discovered emulators to play just the music of a game. We started doing remixes of game music, then eventually got gear to make our own authentic chipmusic for each computer or console. First thing we got was a SIDstation by Sweden's Elektron, it's basically a midi controllable Sound Interface Device (sound chip) from a Commodore 64. Then we got LSDJ [Little Sound DJ] which is sound sculpting and music arrangement software for Game Boy Classic. Later we got the MIDInes for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Other music tools followed for Atari 2600, Atari 400/800/etc, and even the Apple II!

Seth (8 Bit Weapon) and Michelle (8 Bit Weapon and ComputeHer) [Source: 8 Bit Weapon]

TG: You mentioned that the album Lost Bytes came to fruition because of the pandemic. I was curious if it was a matter of the pandemic "creating time" for you to be able to sit down and pull this material together, or was it more an act of resistance to say 'despite this situation the music will continue'?

8 Bit Weapon: It was because we had extra time to dig through our archives and see what was good enough to share with fans of things we planned to "get back to one day" but never did for whatever reason. We are always making new things so there is not a lot of energy spent on digging up old stuff to see if we can finish or polish them.

TG: To borrow a Star Wars analogy, is the act of creating a custom Game Boy instrument comparable to a Jedi crafting their own lightsaber? That as much as it has utilitarian purpose, is it also a 'rite of passage' or creative declaration?

8 Bit Weapon: Yes and no, we don't physically customise our gear, however we have bought circuit bent and/or customized Game Boys from others. This is true in most cases, few customize versus the overall user base.

TG: In early August on Facebook you posted that you're working on new C64 music -  has the pandemic changed or influenced how you're approaching your music writing on this outing?

8 Bit Weapon: We are always tinkering with music, that day it was C64, which is what we like to create with most these days. We usually make music via Game Boy Classic if we are on the road. However, since we are home, C64 it is! "Safer @ Home" has had some effect on our creative cycle actually. Since we don't leave to go anywhere, we are forced to look at all avenues of home entertainment now.

TG: When you sit down to "take a break," is playing video games on the menu? If so, what are your favourite choices lately?

8 Bit Weapon: Right now for me it's our own game "Lawless Legends" being developed on the Apple II, but will be playable on PC & Mac as well!  Lawless Legends is a fantasy role playing game set in the wild west. Visit www.lawlesslegends.com for more info. Aside from that we are also playing Ori 1 for Xbox One as well as Jedi Fallen Order. We have also been playing Hot Wheels on C64 too.

TG: With COVID-19, have you recently been involved with on-line streaming concerts? Are any such events planned for the future?

8 Bit Weapon: We do plan on doing some live broadcasts, but nothing set yet. We are revamping the studio first! Stay tuned…


Music from 8 Bit Weapon and ComputeHer is available for purchase on multiple platforms or can be streamed on Apple Music, Amazon Music or Spotify. To learn more about the bands, upcoming dates, and their music catalogue, check out the following links:

https://linktr.ee/8bitweapon

https://8bitweapon.com/

https://computeher.com/

http://www.lawlesslegends.com/

Article Banner image source: La vie en photos dot net



Discussion

You need to be logged in to post a comment.

Join us