The 8-bit music era is an influential era in musical history. It was the first time that music was produced and recorded using digital technology, specifically for the world of video gaming, and it has had a lasting impact on the world of music.
From its humble beginnings in the early 1980s to its current place in the modern music scene, 8 bit music has been a major force in shaping the sound of today’s music. In this article, we’ll explore the history of 8-bit music, its influence on modern music, and the artists who have kept it alive.
The Roots of 8 Bit Music
When discussing 8-bit music, the first thing that typically comes to mind is the soundtracks of classic video game consoles. With a quick search on YouTube, you can find countless versions of songs recreated with the 8-bit timbre. Through years of research in acoustics and audio, some confusion has been found by this article’s author among audio and game enthusiasts.
This confusion can be summed up in two main questions: does a song sound like a video game soundtrack because it has 8 bits (or less) of resolution? If we record an actual 8-bit instrument will it sound like one of the Super Mario World tracks? To answer these questions, we must first understand digital audio and what bits and audio resolution mean.
Analogue V Digital
In recent decades, analogue technology has been replaced by digital media, leading to an increase in technological advancement. Music production also moved away from magnetic tapes and vinyl records to A/D converters and storage on computers or smartphones.
Before being digitized, recorded signals originate from an analogue electrical signal created by a transducer such as a microphone or electric guitar. Despite some enthusiasts who remain resistant to this change, digital media has become the norm.
Analog electric signals have an intrinsic characteristic of being continuous, containing infinite points of information along their length. Unfortunately, this would not allow a computer to store an analogue signal due to the sheer amount of data. As a result, periodic sampling is used according to the A/D converter’s sampling frequency in order to make it possible for a single song to be stored.
8 Bit Music Made Easy
The computer interprets the signal amplitude through bits. For each data sample, a corresponding bit number is assigned based on its amplitude, determined by the bit depth (number of available bits) of the A/D converter. Bits are binary numbers with two possible values: “0” or “1” and are the fundamental unit of storage for computers.
Bit sequences can represent a decimal number or a word. An example of this is that Compact Discs (CDs) have a sampling frequency of 44100 Hz, which means that in each second there are 44100 samples of data with their respective bit representation.
Even in 8-bit audio, the difference from the original may not be noticeable on basic playback devices. When going below 4 bits, however, the distortions become overwhelming and unbearable to listen to.
Ultimately, what created that classic timbre of our old consoles was due to their chiptunes being made with triangular and square wave synths; thus, there is no correlation between bit rate and sound quality as it would still sound the same if played at higher resolutions such as 16 or 24 bits.