Everyone loves a cool music gadget – especially small ones that make music on the subway or train. Most music producers looking for portable solutions are drinking the Apple Kool Aid for that fix. But long before Apple there has been another company making a viable, portable solution to music on the go – Nintendo. With a serious amount of flexibility, homebrew offerings and a dedicated user community the Nintendo Game Boy, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS have all maintained cult status with producers looking for new ways to create music on the go. Nintendo has ruled the D.I.Y. and homebrew music scenes with a long history of clever applications for portable sound creation. The original GameBoy became a cult device amongst 8-bit enthusiasts and was used in recordings by Alex Empire and Aphex Twin. Nintendo has offered numerous music production apps and the Nintendo homebrew scene is still going strong today with clever new software being written all the time. In this article we investigate the history of these programs and discuss new programs that are being used by artists such as King Britt.
The first use of Nintendo’s Game Boy as a music creation device came in 1990 as a result of the open-source program called Soundtracker. This program was a tracker-based sequencer and sound editor that utilized the GameBoy’s 8-bit sound chip. The use of these sounds spawned an entire genre of music called chiptunes which took a decidedly lo-fi approach to music. Both tracker software and chip music embraced an open-source mentality and do-it-yourself ethic for creation which drove development for this underground movement. Many users of tracker-based sequencers swear by the speed and flexibility that these seemingly simple programs offer. Today the most popular tracker for the NDS is the open-source Nitrotracker which can be downloaded for free and offers some incredible integration including MIDI control. The above video shows some performance options with Nitrotracker controlling a Korg Legacy Polysix Arp in Ableton using the program’s DS MIDI.
From its inception the NDS was developed with creativity in mind by people with ideas bigger than simply making video games. The first “game” created for the NDS was Elektroplankton – an interactive music video game developed by the talented interface designer Toshio Iwai who is also known for developing Yamaha’s Tenori-On device. The program was offered only by mail order directly from Nintendo and has since become a collector’s item that fetches as much as $100 on eBay for a cartridge. The incredible user interface and creative use of sound creation make this program worth tracking down for your DS. I actually found a copy at a local GameStop for $30 and gleefully bought it immediately.
Korg has been on the bleeding-edge of technology in recent years, porting their synthesis software to many platforms including the NDS system. The popular Korg DS-10 cartridge (which was the precursor to their immensely popular iMS-20 iPad app) is a a lot of fun to play with and offers much better sound than you might expect from a Nintendo recreation of their MS-10 synthesizer. The popularity of this Nintendo application has lead to the development of the Korg M01 Music Workstation synthesizer which will be released in Japan this month. The M01 is a recreation of the original M1 and will offer “an 8-part multi-timbral synthesizer with more than 300 sounds, a fully functional 8-track sequencer, reverb or delay effect, sequence edit, mixer, and keyboard.” It will also offer the exchange of song data between the others with Nintendo DS wireless systems.
Aside from Nintendo-endorsed products there is another (larger) world of homebrew music applications for your NDS that come highly recommended by the dedicated user community that creates and uses these apps. Using one of the cartridge ports on the GBA and the DS, users can insert a shell cartridge that can be programmed to run custom applications such as Nitrotracker, Protein DS, Little Sound DJ and GlitchDS (as well as numerous others.) Above is a video of one of my favorite NDS apps – the audio manipulation software Protein DS which offers some really cool glitch and mangle effects.
The one app on my DS that seems to keep bringing me back for more sessions is the unique GlitchDS sequencer. The developer explains that GlitchDS is a “cellular automation sequencer perfect for creating IDM and Glitch style loops.” The program is a sequencer and sound glitcher based on John Conway’s Game of Life where each position in the grid can trigger one out of six samples. You can customize samples as well as many variables for sounds on each and you can save snapshots of your sequences for recall. Other features included with the latest version include: Customizable sequencer, custom sounds, save/load, BPM settings, 6 sounds per session, 32 step frequency modulation sequencer, and Global Distortion setting. The developer has also created two other programs worth checking out called CellDS and RepeaterDS.
One musician of note who is endorsing the clever GlitchDS sequencer is King Britt and his Saturn Never Sleeps project. For SNS Podcast Number 12 Britt delivered a set created and performed entirely on the Nintendo DS using the GlitchDS software. Britt explains more about the podcast: I have been into Noise/Experimental sounds for many years. Influenced by Throbbing Gristle all the way to Underground Resistance, I often venture into this realm from time to time. A Time For A Heavy Heart is a podcast performed completely live using [Glitch DS] on my Nintendo DS run through a Pioneer ESX1000 and DJM800 direct to cd. A heavy trip for those who love the darker side of sound.
One last useful app that deserves mention here is the incredibly powerful MIDI tool for portable devices called DS Midi WiFi. Using a server software on your computer this program allows you to send and receive MIDI (or OSC) signals over WiFi. The above video shows a DS running DS Midi WiFi to control Garageband.
There are many homebrew apps for the NDS system and the numbers grow all the time. For more information I suggest checking out the blog Remain Calm for a nice roundup of 24 of the best music apps for your portable Nintendo device. Below is a list of apps that they call favorites:
bliptracker – a drum machine & sequencer
dsmcu – MCU-compatible mix controller
Protein[DS] – sample looper, scratcher, glitcher
kaosDS – converts touchscreen data into midi over wifi
dstep v2 – a visual sequencer
glitchDS – a cellular automation sequencer
repeaterDS – stuttering sample player
midipad – a DS Kaoss pad clone
toypiano – a sampled piano
dstar – MIDI sequencer
monome ds – an open-source Monome emulation
soundcells – cool looking virtual synthesizer
ukulele – a virtual ukulele
dssynth – an open source DS synth
MIDI Jammer – a graphical MIDI tool
AXE – move the stylus around on the touch screen to create simplistic music
pulse dsi – a MIDI synth
FUDI Kaos DS
knobs and sliders
drum me – virtual drum kit
strum me – a virtual guitar
Michael Walsh is an audio/visual artist and journalist living in Los Angeles. Read more of his work at soundsdefygravity.com
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