New software for hand-held devices lets you get your music making fix on the move. Danny Allen sounds out some highlights.
If you want to scratch your creative itches when they hit, but you're not into lugging your laptop everywhere, then stop! Don't hand down your old Game Boy to your little brother just yet. Despite its diminutive size, there's still enough life in the little beast for knocking out bleepy beats for years to come. Even if you don't have a Game Boy, there's also software available for other hand-held devices, including mobile phones and Pocket PC or PalmOS-based PDAs, allowing you to act on inspiration - any time, anywhere.
Not just a toy
Later this year Nintendo's Game Boy DS and Sony's PSP will battle it out for the hearts and minds of a new generation of hand-held gamers. What portable music making possibilities will also stem from each remains exciting but unclear. However, as I've already mentioned, existing Game Boys will do the trick.
The original 1989 Game Boy had 8-bit graphics, and was endowed with a surprisingly powerful, for the time, 4-bit stereo audio chip. Capable of characteristically unique game music and sound effects, this chip remained in use in the slimmed down Game Boy Pocket and GameBoy Color, in addition to serving as the design base for the new 16-bit chip used in the more recent Game Boy Advance / SP models.
Thanks in part to the software listed below, geeky retro-inspired "chip tunes" (including those made with the Commodore 64's ahead-of-its-time MOS 6581/SID audio chip and more) have slowly but surely risen in popularity.
Maybe it's geek chic or a desire to refocus on melody instead of repetition. Maybe it's the (re)evolution of the DJ, or maybe it's just a gimmicky fad. Whatever the case, dance parties dedicated to this type of music are happening in the US, Europe and even Australia.
Bands such as the Gameboyzz Orchestra Project use only Game Boys for their electronic sound and the Nanoloop 1.0 compilation features world-renowned experimental electronic musicians such as Vladislav Delay, Merzbow and Hrvatski.
The most popular portable music making software for the Game Boy platform are Nanoloop and Little Sound DJ (aka LSDj). Now at version 2.0 and designed for the Game Boy Advance, Nanoloop comes as a cartridge, which is quite convenient. It features a basic interface that belies its tricky depths. It gives you loop-based step sequencing (eight tracks and up to 16 steps) and eight voice synthesis tools. You can save up to 256 tracks and 16 different songs (songs have their own tracks) or, of course, use your PC to record your results. Although the Game Boy Advance's audio output is relatively quiet, older Game Boys might need the optional filter cable which cancels out some of the high frequency hiss. Interestingly, a MIDI sync cable is also available, so Nanoloop can be controlled by your MIDI gear such as a keyboard or PC sequencing software.
Pricing for the new version wasn't available at press time, but Nanoloop has previously sold for Euro 80, so it's reasonable to expect it to retail around this price.
Alternatively, LSDj sells for $US39 and also has a MIDI option available. Unfortunately, actual cartridges aren't planned until late 2005 so you'll need to download the program and copy it over to a Game Boy backup cartridge using third party devices such as E-merger, Transferer, Xchanger or PC-linker - search Google for more information. LSDj is designed for the Game Boy and Game Boy Color and features a sequencer, synthesis abilities and samples (including 59 phonemes for programmable speech). Finally, you can also start making Game Boy music on your PC today with emulator software such as Boy Scout (see "Sites and Sounds").
SITES AND SOUNDSArcade64 - Australia's only chip music dance party http://analogik.com/arcade_64.asp
Boy Scout Game Boy music creation for PC www.pidelipom.com/boyscout
Electronic Music Makers co-op (great source for chip music info) www.em411.com
Nanoloop 2.0 www.nanoloop.com
Little Sound Dj (LSDj) www.littlesounddj.com
Gameboyzz Orchestra Project http://gameboyzz.com
Nanoloop 1.0 compilation www.disco-bruit.de
PERSONAL MUSIC ASSISTANTS
So your Game Boy days are long behind you and you've upgraded to a new toy (sorry, I meant to say serious business productivity tool) in the form of a PDA. The competition in PDA hardware is fierce at present and as such, new devices are being launched every other month with excellent audio capabilities. There are myriad PDA music-makers out there, but arguably the most popular for Pocket PC users is a program called Griff and you can download a fully functional (but save-disabled) demo of it from www.planetgriff.com/demo.php. The full version retails for £39.99 and features a pattern-based sequencer and piano roll note editor, plus a selection of real-time samples, software instruments and effects. When you're done, you can save your song as a CD-quality WAV file or export the MIDI information. Another new interesting Pocket PC program turns your PDA into a portable effects machine. It's called PocketMC (www.coyoteflux.nl) and costs just $US11.95. There's also a lot of great music making software for PalmOS PDAs out there, too. For a rundown, see www.palmsource.com/interests/music.
With smart mobile phones becoming increasingly more powerful, it's little wonder that all sorts of software developers are closely watching this space. Operating systems already include Symbian (www.symbian.com) and Windows Mobile (www.windowsmobile). Plus there are various uses of Linux and Java technologies. The latter two, in particular, open up the door for mobile phone ports of existing music software.
The most interesting advancement at present is the recently launched $US20 Syntrax (www.klaar.com) software for Symbian phones and Pocket PCs. It includes a sequencer, sound synthesis, sample editor, MIDI support and real time effects, all in your pocket! Oh, and by the way, there's a free Windows XP version available for download.
Interestingly, audio "big gun" Steinberg has also got in on the action by bundling its Steinberg Cubasis Mobile Synthesiser software with select Siemens mobile phones, allowing you to compose melodies and use variations of drum, bass, chord and melody tracks.