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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

MP3s Damaged by Sega Genesis

In the world of 8bit music there are retro tunes and there are reanimated tunes.

Retro tunes are newly recorded pop melodies that sound like they’d been programmed toward the end of the Carter administration to provide background music to simple video games.

Reanimated tunes are punk-damaged efforts in noisy hindsight. Numerous musicians today infuse the rudimentary wave forms of early video-game music with a kind of hardcore energy and aesthetic — they take Pac-Man out of his familiar maze and stick him in a sadomasochistic dungeon from one of the Saw movies. The goofy, electroid tunes become the score to a pixelated horrorshow.

What’s remarkable about the 16 brief songs on the free EP 16 Bits from Hell is that they’re reanimated-style tunes created with nothing more than the retro equipment on which they were intended to be played — no drum’n’bass presets, no techno samples, no modern-day software effects. Working under the name Sega Death, the duo of Lucas Aldrich (sickmode.org) and Ian (dramacore.com, ehafh.com) have stumbled on a neat defect (or, to their and my ears, a sonic Easter egg worth trumpeting) in the old gaming system called Sega Genesis. (In Sega’s native Japan the system was named Mega Drive.) It turns out that if you yank a game cartridge out of the Genesis just as it starts to emit a sound, and then pop in another cartridge, the resulting music will range from unintended multiple layers to utter cacophony that could easily be mistaken for nihilistic contemporary chiptune electronica.

The 16 tracks are available as one 20-megabyte file (ZIP) and include broken beats, slurry melodies, and utterly obliterated childhood memories. The track titles are part of the fun, especially the ones that hint at Lucas and Ian’s compositional method: “99 Cartridges Later,” “We Just Sat There,” “Cheat Codes and Blunt Smoke.”

A video that Ian has posted at youtube.com shows how 16 Bits was constructed. When he says, “Me and a friend discovered something very interesting,” there’s something in his tone that’s downright conspiratorial, like he and his buddy had found shards of alien artifacts inside the nearly 20-year-old Japanese technology. In fact, what they discovered was an unintentional chaos engine. (Thanks to C. Reider of vuzhmusic.com for having directed me to this release.)

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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