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GOT GAME ? | POP MUSIC

Can you feel the beep?

The micromusic scene is making a big deal of the sounds found on primitive game systems.

November 24, 2005|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

A virtual wonderland of chunky brown keyboards, green-screened monitors and a mound of aging joy sticks, Seth Sternberger's apartment would have been any kid's dream pad -- circa 1983. That's when most of the gear dearest to Sternberger was actually valued in the world.

"I'm a believer in de-evolution," said Sternberger, a.k.a. 8 Bit Weapon, a Van Nuys musician who makes songs using the decades-old digital/analog sound chips from first-generation home computers and video game consoles. "Music hasn't necessarily evolved. It's devolved. Video game music used to have a lot of imagination to it because of its simplicity. Now they just have licensed music from the Top 40."

For a lot of video game music fans, the most exciting console system isn't the new Xbox but the primitive Atari and Nintendo setups of the late '70s and early '80s. For Sternberger, it was the Commodore 64, specifically the obscure game Adventure Construction Set.

"This was the first thing I heard in my life where I went, 'That's my music!' " the 30-year-old said.

"When I was in junior high, I'd wake up in the morning, turn on my Commodore and load up the game with my favorite music on it so I could get dressed, instead of turning on the radio."

Now Sternberger is making those sorts of songs himself. And he isn't the only one. There's an entire scene of artists making this "micromusic" -- modern music made from old video game sounds. That's not to be confused with "chip tunes," which are the old video game songs themselves, or "Nintendocore" bands such as the Mini Bosses and the Advantage, who play rock versions of old-school games, such as Metroid and Double Dragon.

Before he became 8 Bit Weapon in 2001, Sternberger also fell into the Nintendocore category, playing covers and remixes of vintage video game songs. He phased those out and switched to originals in 2004, after he and former bandmate Stacey Taylor couldn't get permission from the songs' license holders to release their versions on CD.

The games were so old, he said, "when I asked some companies, they said, 'It would cost us too much money to find out if we can tell you no. We don't even know if we have the right to tell you no, so we're just going to tell you no.' "

Now a one-man show, 8 Bit Weapon just released his first full-length album, "Vaporware Soundtracks." The black CD is packaged like an old floppy disc and features fast-paced synth tracks with titles such as "Sk8 Bit," "GameBoy Rocker" and "Funk Data."

Some of Sternberger's tracks are also on the micromusic website (www.micromusic.net). The site, based in Switzerland, is a sort of glue for the international scene, allowing musicians to upload tracks and fans to download them. It even streams an online radio station that's called, appropriately, microradio.

Some of the bigger names in the scene are New York musician Nullsleep, who hacks old Nintendo cartridges; Little Sound DJ, who retools handheld GameBoys; and Paul Slocum of the Dallas-based duo Tree Wave, who made a synthesizer out of a dot-matrix printer, as well as a drum machine and bass synthesizer from an old Atari 2600.

"The machines, they were just there and easy to work with," said Slocum, 31, a software programmer who started making micromusic in the late '90s. "The equipment just doesn't sound like anything else. It makes really unique sounds. The limitations are what drives my creativity."

Though Slocum's band has more in common with groups such as Stereolab and My Bloody Valentine, micromusic runs the gamut -- from techno and house to metal, rock and hip-hop.

About the only thing they have in common is their "instruments," which are, understandably, cheap and relatively easy to find online.

That's where Sternberger found his Commodore 128 Sight and Sound, a computer keyboard overlaid with a set of piano keys.

"It's educational software for kids," Sternberger said, "and you can get it on EBay for $5."

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