A small, otherwise unremarkable house on Congress Street in Ypsilanti has a hidden identity, which revealed itself to me in loud and energetic ways over the course of a few visits. The house, known by those in the know as “Chypsi House,” acts as HQ for a nationwide underground music movement called chiptune.
Sitting beside an old refrigerator, defunct oven, and a bed—a kitchen turned bedroom—I spoke with chiptune scenesters Rachel Viola and Garrett Boone.
“It’d be like saying, ‘I play guitar,’” Boone says, “That’s how general saying ‘I play chiptune’ is. The next question would be, ‘what style?’”
In short, chiptune music uses video game sounds generated from a variety of consoles (most traditionally, a Gameboy) to compose electronic music. However, the style is considered a medium and not simply an offshoot of EDM.
The guitar in Boone’s bedroom, a jet black Jackson KE3 guitar, is affectionately placed near the kitchen sink. The instrument represents Boone’s past musical influences and appears as unused as the oven. Boone’s two monikers, Stardriver and Dollfin, allow him to occupy two different spaces within the chiptune medium. Stardriver uses four Gameboys to make dancey and emotional chiptune music, while Dollfin (finger) taps into his metal roots, writing intricate and striking melodies that seem to mimic a 4-bit Lamb of God.
“Mostly, I chose chiptune [as a musical project] for its portability,” he said with a laugh.
21-year-old Boone composes his instrumental music entirely with a Gameboy. He writes using a program called Little Sound Disc Jockey (LSDJ)—a software that slides into the Gameboy like a gaming cartridge and pulls data from the sound bank, turning any gamer into a musician, that is, if you can get a hang of the at-times glitchy grid displayed on the compact screen. Users design electronic compositions, choosing the number of measures, tempo changes, pounding bass hits, and notes for each of the beeps and boops.
When concert time comes, the music is already written, so for the most part, the performer simply presses play. This is attractive for Boone, because he said it eliminates human error, placing his confidence in the technology.
Rachel Viola sits beside us on the floor of the kitchen-cum-bedroom, wearing one of her digitally designed t-shirts. Viola is known in the chiptune community as OHHINAIFU, and is the Andy Warhol to Boone’s Velvet Underground. When chiptune performers unleash their already-recorded instrumentals, Viola is a few yards away at her computer, summoning projected images to spin behind them. She makes pixel art, a tiresome process where she crafts images one tiny dot at a time.
“The community is extremely supportive, Rachel said. “We know pretty much everyone on a one-to-one basis, and if not, everyone knows someone in one way or another.”
Ypsi chiptune community
Boone moved to Ypsilanti from West Virginia specifically for the area’s chiptune community, and he works with Gameboys nearly every day in his customizing and modifying business, “Stardriver Services.” He solders, paints, reconfigures, and personalizes Gameboys on a commissioned basis for clients he gathers online. Boone was first exposed to chiptune at a performance in his home state, and his fascination began with nostalgia.
“I realized that the music was coming from old Nintendo Gameboys that I used to play Pokemon Red on,” Boone said. “Later, looking into the software and hardware involved in chiptune, I decided to make my own Gameboys. Little did I know that I would still be doing it almost 4 years later. And it’s a big help when paying bills.”
From stacks of clear bins, he pulls out a few Gameboys to show off what he’s currently working on—including a Zelda-themed Gameboy, another where he integrated an audio output, as well as several he’s gutted and used for parts.
“I’ve worked on so many Gameboys, I must be in the triple digits by now. Just in the last three days, I’ve gotten about five or six new commissions,” Boone said.
Boone tucked away his toys and invited us to go downstairs to play some video games, but we had to wait our turn. A housemate had already claimed the console, playing Metal Gear Solid. Boone sat on the couch with his head down, thumbs strumming the buttons of a Gameboy.