Making Music With A Gameboy – Homebrew Chiptunes

And now for something completely different…

…making music – the geeky way!

I was always intrigued by music and admired musicians, not as a fanboy but for their artistic skills in creating something awesome of which I always thought it was not made for me. Music has always been my trusty and loyal companion in many of my own creative endeavours, always playing in the background whilst I was creating art, designing games, writing and so on. I never really tried to learn how to play an instrument, as I think my hands and brains are not made for that. Many times I was tempted to learn to play the guitar, but my fingers would not do the job properly and I was guessing that my brain – finger coordination was simply to lame and unsuited for exercising the different actions required when trying to play music on the guitar. Same goes for Piano, Flute, Bagpipe and so on!

I call a broad musical taste my own and among many other styles and types of music I always loved the funky, classic 8-bit video game tunes seen in Game Boy and NES games and since it is my strict policy to try everything that seems of interest to me at least once, I thought why not have a go on creating some 8 bit music – also known as “chiptunes” – myself. Making music in a digital synthesizer program could not be too hard for me I thought, as no swift and tricky finger combinations and brainbending would be involved and at least I have a good sense for music and a “musical ear” so to say. So it was settled – I would have a go on creating chiptunes, both inspired by these classic scores from the Gameboy and NES like the Super Mario or Zelda themes, and by “real-life” songs which I enjoy greatly, borrowing from the repertoire of, among other things, Celtic / Irish and Austrian Folk melodies.

Getting Started – Nanoloop vs LSDJ:

Years ago, when I got my GP2X Wiz handheld console which I loaded with tons of emulators and game roms, I already came across two programs that let you create this 8 bit music, these chiptunes, on your handheld of choice or even on the computer by means of gameboy emulation. These two programs are Nanoloop and LSDJ (Little Sound DJ).

Here’s what Nanoloop looks like: (Note the 16 squares where notes can be placed!)

And here a screenshot of LSDJ. (Yeah it is just a table with letters and numbers!)

I tried both Nanoloop and LSDJ on my WIZ console and finally settled for Little Sound DJ as the program of choice to create my own funky, homebrew chiptues. While Nanoloop is definitely easier to master than Little Sound Dj, and has a very intuitive user interface, the latter offers more options and features, as it is every so often with more complicated alternatives. And LSDJ is simply not very intuitive and easy to use – the learning curve is quite steep but after watching some helpful tutorial videos on good-old Youtube, I got the hang of it and soon understood the basic mechanics, discovering more advanced techniques as I went along – an investment of time that was very much worth it as I have to say in hindsight.

The decisive factor that made me go with LSDJ however was the save feature. I tried to save sounds with Nanoloop on several consoles, on my original Gameboy, on the WIZ handheld, on my hacked PSP on my Nintendo DS and on my computer and it just would not save anywhere. Later I read that supposedly you can only save sounds and songs on an “original” Nanoloop Cartridge for GB or GBA, which is very obscure, rare and hard to get. With LSDJ however, saving works perfectly on every platform I happen to own.

The Equipment – Going Original:

“If I am going to do “Game Boy Music” then I am doing it the right way!” I said to myself and started to research a bit on the web to find a flash cartridge solution for the original Game Boy, a game cartridge that is which can be connected to a computer by some means to load games and programs onto it. It did not take me long until I stumbled across the GB USB Smart Card 64M which I was able to grab off of ebay at roughly 40 Euros (50 – 60 USD). The Smart Card is a Flash Cartridge which can be connected to your home computer by just hooking it up with a standard mini-USB cable. With the software it comes with, you can load any game roms you happen to own and also homebrew games and programs like Nanoloop and LSDJ onto it so you can play them on your original Game Boy – just like the real deal!

GB USB Smart Card

On a side-note: Even if you don’t want to make chiptunes on your Game Boy, the GB USB Smart Card is perfect for people who want to play rare and obscure games on their original Game Boy. Plus it is the only way I am aware of that lets you play Game Boy Hacks, fan games that is, like Pokemon Brown for instance, on the original Nintendo unit.

What you will need to get started:

Gameboy Music Equipment

The Hardware:

  • An original Game Boy / Game Boy Pocke / Game Boy Color (I normally use my back-lit Gameboy Light – a rare specimen from Japan)
  • The GB USB Smart Card 64 M
  • A Mini USB Cable (not included with the GB USB Smart Card 64 M)
  • Earphones/Headphones (optional but recommended)
  • Power Supply – Either batteries or the original Gam Boy Battery Pack / Line Adapter I am using

The Software:

  • Little Sound DJ (has to be loaded onto your Smart Card and can be downloaded here)
  • Drivers and Transfer Program for hooking up your Computer with the GB USB Smart Card (included)
  • An Audio Editing Program – I recommend Audacity (download for free here)

Making Some Music:

If I haven’t mentioned it yet, I had zero experience with making music and did not even know how to read musical notes. I just started by watching one of the many tutorial videos found so abundantly on youtube to familiarize myself with the basic functions and features of the software. After that, I tried to apply what I had learnt in short passages I composed myself – not yet entire songs, just wee bits and sounds. When I thought I was ready for doing the first “real” song, I did the following: I looked for guitar / piano chords / tabs on the internet. I wanted to start with the classic Super Mario theme which I had grown up with and which I liked so much. Luckily, I found the chords in the form of letters, which is the same way as the sounds/notes in LSDJ are displayd. So I just copied the progression of letters I found on the web into the LSDJ interface and it did not take too long till I had my first chiptune song ready – my version of the Super Mario theme song.

Next I wanted to take it one level furhter and thought why not make Game Boy / chiptune versions of some other existing songs I liked. Traditional Austrian folk music and Celtic / Irish Folk came to my mind. Here my first two, rather feeble attempts at 8 bit chiptune songs:

Back to the Roots – Aberseer Landler going Game Boy:

First I wanted to hear what one of our great, traditional, non-commercial Austrian Folk songs would sound like when transferred to the gameboy. The first stumbling stone was the unavailability of easy chords in the form of letters as I had found for the Super Mario tune. There was no way around it, I had to at least teach myself the basics of how to read notes. So I printed the notes sheet for the Aberseer Landler from the internet. And there was the next stumbling stone. There were always two notes on top of each other in the notes sheet I had. I guessed those were simply two voices which would play simultaneously and as LSDJ has two main music channels, I just copied the lower notes in one channel and the higher notes in another channel with a different sound. It turned out that I was dead on with my assessment as the two progressions of notes went very well with each other. The result of the whole effort was astounding to say the least:

It sounded nothing like a traditional Austrian Landler, but I liked the tune and melody a lot. I was just amazed what had turned out by simply copying the notes from the sheet into LSDJ – a very unique sound and song in it’s own right.

A word of caution: The following two songs I made using LSDJ are not to be considered big art or anything. They are just my first dabbles in the realm of making music of my own. Furthermore I apologize for the crappy sound quality. I had to record this guerilla-style with my gameboy put next to my laptop’s mic. This way I tried to conservate the sound of the original gameboy speaker – I tried to transfer the songs via cable but that sounded awfully…

Here’s the result for you:


And here, for comparison’s sake, how the Aberseer Landler actually sounds. It is nothing like what I had created by simply copying the notes of the song into LSDJ as I have already noted.

Celtic / Irish Folk Chiptune:

Next, motivated by the unique sound of the Aberseer Landler on the Game Boy, I wanted to translate one of my favorite celtic / irish folk tunes to LSDJ 8 bit sound. I chose Star of the County Down because it has a great, recognizable and distinctive lead melody.

Here is the finished song:

Star of the County Down Remixed

And here the original song peformed by the great High Kings:

Well those are my first attempts at creating music myself – I do not know if it is any good but that does not really matter anyways, as this is all one huge experiment and a learning process for me. Anyways I will proceed with making more music with LSDJ on my trusty old Gameboy, exploring and learning all the time, and will most likely do a few more takes on existing songs from the huge treasury of Austrian and Irish Folk etc. In any case I will keep you posted! 🙂

If you happen to have any questions on how to make your own Game Boy music, feel free to contact me any time at!


2 thoughts on “Making Music With A Gameboy – Homebrew Chiptunes

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