Bits and Pieces - Kenneth McAlpine

Chiptune is a style of lo-fi electronic music that emerged from the first generation of video game consoles and home computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Those early gaming machines, although innovative for the time, offered only limited scope for musical expression, and they imposed severe constraints on composers, particularly on timbre, polyphony and musical structure. Those constraints, however, marked out a line in the sand, a technical and creative challenge, from which there arose an explosive period of technical creativity as game programmers and musicians and often they were one and the same coaxed the hardware into performing feats that it had never been designed to achieve.

Through ingenuity and invention, these programmer-composers developed code that pushed video game music beyond the technical limitations of the hardware, but the solutions that were adopted to broaden and expand the musical capabilities of the machines were not without cost. Their application often imparted a unique characteristic to the sound, which, over time, came to define the aesthetic, if not the style, of the 8-bit computer soundtrack and it shaped both the sound and practice of writing 8-bit video game music, something that has continued currency both through the retro-gaming scene and the modern chip scene, contemporary musicians mostly too young to have been born when that first generation of hardware was already obsolete who take vintage hardware on-stage and gig with it, using the machines as lo-fi and very characterful electronic musical instruments.

This talk explores how that combination of hardware and performative coding shaped the sound of early video game music, and how it changed the way that composers conceived of and used music. By examining the hardware and the code that was written for it, we will explore the impact of first-generation video gaming on the musicians who worked there.

About the Speaker

Kenneth McAlpine

Professor Kenneth B. McAlpine is an award-winning composer, musician, and technologist. He currently works at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne as an Enterprise Fellow in Interactive Composition.

After completing a piano diploma with the London College of Music and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he completed a PhD in algorithmic music composition at the University of Glasgow, bringing together his love of music, maths and technology, and has continued to work at that interesting point where different disciplines collide: he has developed interactive soundtracks for live theatre, film and video game; produced bagpipe music for the Beijing Olympics; created a music-streaming app for newborn babies and young children for the Scottish Government and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and built a unique digital harpsichord exhibit for the National Trust in London.

Outside of work Kenny can generally be found rolling around hills on a mountain bike with a GoPro strapped to his handlebars, huffing his way round a marathon course with a GoPro strapped to his chest, or baking bread. Normally without the GoPro.


08:30 Registration
09:20 Opening
10:40 Coffee, Speedmeeting
12:30 Lunch
15:00 Coffee, Speedmeeting
17:30 Drinks/dinner
20:00 Doors Close