Reprogramming the hardware

The Glowing Stars want you to make chiptune music, too.

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Modified gamers: Lizzie Cuevas and Matt Payne of the Glowing Stars
PHOTO BY ERIC HOOTEN

MUSIC Technology can be so existentially mystifying. One minute you're a kid in the back seat of your parents' car with thumbs aimed and eyes glued to the screen of your modern handheld gaming console, the next you're on stage with blinding lights and an audience, smashing into a modified old-school Gameboy on a snare drum. One second you're doubled over in bed with the stomach flu, the next you're in a box on Google+, simultaneously interviewing two band members from their respective Bay Area cities.

It's enough to melt your mind, and we haven't even begun to discuss those Gameboy modifications. Chiptune or 8-bit music is nothing new — nerded out musicians have been tinkering with the sounds on gaming consoles since the products hit the shelves in the 1980s — but now the music has the distinction of being both technologically advanced by some standards, and vintage, given its nostalgic sound.

Plus, in these financially-strapped times, it's an economical way of creating music. "You don't need anything fancy to make it," says drummer-synth programmer Matt Payne. "The equipment is dirt cheap and it's so accessible."

Chiptune community outreach is big for him, Payne adds from his home in Oakland, holding up a mutant Gameboy with a blinking fuzzed out screen. He and musician-@GAMER magazine associate editor Lizzie Cuevas make up Bay Area-based 8-bit band the Glowing Stars. Cuevas, joining us in the Google+ video chatroom from her office in Daly City, agrees that once people see a live chiptune band, they're usually inspired to try out the technology themselves. "We always have people who come up at shows and ask, 'how do you do it?'"

The duo has demonstrated just how they do that at the Maker Faire and Pulse Wave SF — a friendly monthly gathering for chiptune bands. Up next, they play the free CONVERGENCE International Alternative Music and Arts Festival at the Japantown Peace Plaza.

Cuevas and Payne met in 2005, each playing in different punk bands. Payne joined Cuevas' band (Sputterdoll), which broke up a few years ago. "We knew we wanted to do something video game related, we just didn't know exactly what," says Cuevas.

Payne had futzed with a program called LSDJ (LittleSound DJ) when it first came out, but hadn't been serious about it initially, he says. "There's a learning curve, it's one of those easy to learn, difficult to master things." With the new band starting up in 2010, he began gathering Gameboys and filling them with his own sounds. Given Cuevas' affinity for early Weezer, the music they make is poppy, but it also has that nostalgic synthesized MIDI sound.

"There's a misconception about it, that we're using samples from video game somehow or that we're doing something using actual songs from video games," says Payne. "But what we're actually doing is basically stripping down the console to a little sound making computer and getting it to play back our music."

The process works like this: Cuevas writes the first skeleton of a song on guitar then sends it to Payne. He then programs it using LSDJ and loads it onto the Gameboy for that 8-bit transformation. They ping it back and forth, adding layers to the song. Payne also just started making music with a Sega Genesis — you can make chiptune on any console — so that might come into play soon.

Live, Cuevas sings and play distorted guitar, and sometimes taps a fresh Gameboy, like in the song "Bounce Bounce" where she solos over the final instrumental part. Payne plays drums and, occasionally, picks up the keytar. He also keeps his modded Gameboy on his snare, which has only once caused significant damage.

"I hit it with the drum stick — it made a loud, awful noise," he says.

Cuevas smiles and replies, "I think you lost a chunk of your Gameboy."

 

CONVERGENCE FESTIVAL

Comments

These guys are new to the scene, why are you writing an article about them??? There are so many amazing artist from the bay who have been around so much longer than them! Yea they've been plying music for awhile but COME ON! There are so many chiptune artist. Why would you just focus on these guys, you can barely hear it in their music.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 31, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

"These guys" got written about even though they're "new to the scene" because they're fun, interesting and cute. I mean, look at 'em! They wear matching outfits! They're polite and funny! They're good-looking! They've taken several musical genres and blended them into a style all their own! They're....THE BEATLES!!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 31, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

they may be new, but there's probably a good reason that they've blown up so fast. they're good! maybe not the best, but i've been following them for a while and was at their first show where they opened for anamanaguchi. that's a huge deal for a first show, and they're really cute and fun live. being a talented musician is one thing (sure, maybe there are other talented chip musicians but where are they and where are their shows?), but knowing how to market yourself is another, and i think they're just pulling out all the right cards. kudos to them. you just sound like a jealous dick.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 03, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

they may be new, but there's probably a good reason that they've blown up so fast. they're good! maybe not the best, but i've been following them for a while and was at their first show where they opened for anamanaguchi. that's a huge deal for a first show, and they're really cute and fun live. being a talented musician is one thing (sure, maybe there are other talented chip musicians but where are they and where are their shows?), but knowing how to market yourself is another, and i think they're just pulling out all the right cards. kudos to them. you just sound like a jealous prick

Posted by Guest on Sep. 03, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

This is a great informational article on a new buzzworthy band that is making waves in the indie music scene. We love The Glowing Stars! <3

Posted by Guest on Aug. 31, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

Because they're hot.

Posted by Guest2 on Aug. 31, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

They're one of the few 8-bit musicians out there that use vocals at all and they're fully awesome in every. way. THAT'S WHY. Keep up the awesome music, TGS.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 31, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

lighten up ... anything that swings the spotlight towards the chiptune/micromusic scene benefits all of us. to me one of the best things about the scene is that we're held together by a passionate nerding out over the tools of the trade ... but everyone sounds so different! name another genre which blends together so many styles under one banner?

Posted by starPAUSE on Sep. 01, 2011 @ 10:10 am

they may be new, but there's probably a good reason that they've blown up so fast. they're good! maybe not the best, but i've been following them for a while and was at their first show where they opened for anamanaguchi. that's a huge deal for a first show, and they're really cute and fun live. being a talented musician is one thing (sure, maybe there are other talented chip musicians but where are they and where are their shows?), but knowing how to market yourself is another, and i think they're just pulling out all the right cards. kudos to them. you just sound like a jealous prick

Posted by Guest on Sep. 03, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

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