How to Make Great 8-Bit Music (Chiptune) Using Your DAW


8-bit music is an iconic music style and has given us unforgettable music masterpieces from video games like Pokémon, Zelda, Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong, etc. Basically every Nintendo title out there, it seems.

Whether you just love the music style and would love to learn how it’s done, or if you are a composer that has been given the task of making this style of music, you will hopefully find this resource helpful.

Before we begin, we need to know what exactly makes a great 8-Bit music track. These steps are what you are going to take in this post.

Table of Contents

  1. Know how 8-Bit Music originally was made
  2. Find and Install Some Great 8-Bit VSTs
  3. Identify the Typical Traits of 8-Bit Music
  4. Keep it Simple
  5. Study Other 8-Bit Composers

Also, after reading this post, you will be aware of some pitfalls and avoid making the same mistakes as I once did.

Regardless of which DAW you use, this post will hopefully be a helpful recipe over things you need to do on in order to make great 8-Bit music.

So, are you ready to level-up your 8-Bit music skills? 

Let’s get to it.

Step 1: Know how 8-Bit Music originally was made

In order to produce this music style as truthful as possible, you should first understand its roots. Because it has some pretty interesting facts!

The Sound Chip

Originally, in the 1980s, video game music was not recorded and inserted into video games such as the standard ‘record and import’ we know today. 

Remember the good old games consoles Atari and Commodore? They had 8-Bit sound processors, in which the sounds weren’t too complex.

This music was, as you probably know, not made by real instruments. It was actually made by using the chips in the 8-Bit sound processors.

But the computer chip was not anywhere close to having the realistic, full-sound of a real instrument. 

The sound chips did not have an infinite number of voices. Each sound chip from that time was highly limited and most often only able to produce one sound.  

So, as you probably already have put together now – 8-Bit music is named after these sound processors: Chiptune.

If you want to create 8-Bit music as authentic as possible, you must know the real thing’s limitations:

For example, a limited amount of sounds could play at once:

  • Most often, you could only have three notes playing simultaneously.
  • However, if a sound effect was implemented too (such as Mario jumping), that would actually affect the number of notes being played. Now, the music had only two notes available!

Step 2: Find and Install Some Great 8-Bit VSTs

The 80s were a long time ago. It does not have to be done the old way anymore, using the sound chips and all that.

Today, you can create 8-Bit-Music, or Chiptune by either:

  • Using an online chiptune maker directly in your browser (like BeepBox)
  • Using a Music Tracker on your PC (I’ll get to this)
  • Using VSTs on Your PC (what this article is about)
  • Downloading a Chiptune-maker app

Above you’ll see an infographic that I’ve put together. It shows how the creation of Chiptune music has changed over the decades.

(Can you guess what my favorite video game was by looking at the 1990s one?)

Today, we have fantastic VST plugins and equally awesome synths sounds that we can easily load up into Logic Pro, Cubase, or whatever Digital Audio Workstation your prefer. 

In case you are brand new to music production:

A VST is a plugin you use with your DAW. Reverb, delay and other effects are called VST Effect plugins. The cello sample you can load up in GarageBand, Logic Pro or Cubase is called VST Instrument. You can read more about this in this helpful article I have written.

Using VSTs is not exactly the truly authentic way to create 8-Bit Music. But it is a simpler, efficient way of emulating the sound. 

Here is a list of suggested 8-Bit VSTs for you to try out:

(remember to open the links in another tab. We are not done yet!)

Today there are two popular ways of creating 8-Bit Music. Using your DAW is one of them, but you can also use a music tracker software.

Tracker

This post is mainly about getting great 8-Bit Tracks using your Cubase, Ableton, Logic, etc. 

However, I feel that it is worth mentioning that, if you really want to test your music production skills, you can try using a tracker as well. Some of them are even fully useable DAWs too.

What’s a tracker, you say? 

Just like the DAW you have, a tracker is a music sequencer. It is able to record music, but the way it is done is way different than what you would do in Logic or Cubase.

Even though some trackers can be a fully-fledged DAW, they are not exactly the same.

With a tracker, you work with numbers, notes, samples, tracks, patterns, and orders. The music in the grid is not moving from left to right, but from top to bottom.

A music tracker’s interface is not as user-friendly as most DAWs. So, if you are a complete beginner and just want to learn the basics of 8-Bit music theory, I’d recommend that you use a regular DAW in the beginning.

So, this is not like making music in the DAWs most people use. If you really want to get into the feel of being a programmer, this is for you.

The tracker had its breakthrough in the late 80s (Amiga Commodore) and this is the music sequencer that made the iconic music for Game Boy, Nintendo, DOS and more in the 90s.

Check out these trackers if you want to try it out:

You can watch this video for more information about trackers:

Step 3: Identify the Typical Traits of 8-Bit Music

Now that you know a little about how 8-Bit originated, and hopefully have gotten yourself one or two nice 8-Bit VSTs, you have laid the foundation for creating a great track in your DAW.

But really…what’s a great track?

Here are some typical traits of a great, retro 8-Bit track, which you could implement in your music:

Tempo

8-Bit music tends to be quite fast. It often operates within the 120 BPM area. This is not so surprising, considering the arcade game era the 8-Bit music hails from.

Key 

Think of your favorite 8-Bit soundtracks. 

My guess is that they are pretty upbeat, right? The most famous 8-Bit songs are usually written in Major Key, which is looked at as the ‘happy-sounding key’.

Most often, 8-Bit music back in the day was in C Major.

They often draw inspiration from classical music

Listen to video game songs by the legendary Japanese composers, and you will soon discover that the music is actually rooted deeply in classical music, as well as ragtime and other music genres.

Make it Easy to Sing Along With

Again, because of the restrictions of the sound chips, the composers were forced to come up with pretty creative solutions.

The solution was to create easy, simple melodies, that was nearly impossible to not sing along with. And impossible to forget.

The earworm.

Even if you can sing or not – try to sing your song while you create your 8-Bit track and see how easy it is to sing along to.

Step 4: Keep it Simple

This is the part where you are going to learn from my mistakes.

In order to produce an 8-Bit track that sounds as authentic as possible – keep it simple.

In 2016, I tried to create an 8-bit song for the first time ever. It was supposed to be an authentic 8-Bit version of the Andyax Soundtrack, and it was eventually featured in a scene in the short film “The Camera Hack”.

Ah, I will just load up some synths that sound sort of like an 8-bit sound and compose music the way I usually do, right? With several instruments playing different melody parts simultaneously?

Nope.

I should have done my research first. And this is why:

  • I messed up the number of notes being played at the same time. I should have remembered that the old 8-bit tracks had limitations. But I didn’t. 
  • Also, the number of notes, each playing different melodies at the same time, made it too complex. Like I mentioned earlier, the real thing had its limitations, and that was apparent when listening to the music at that time.
  • I should have downloaded a dedicated 8-Bit VST. The sounds I used were not ‘chippy’ enough.

The result? A way too complex, extremely annoying and not authentic track that I was too embarrassed to feature in the full soundtrack when I released it.

You will actually be much more likely to create something that sounds really good and authentic if you are keeping it simple.

Composers had limitations when using the sound chips back in the day. Historically, it is the simplicity that defines the sound of a real Chiptune.

“Well, that’s too bad, but Super Mario Bros is way more complex!”, you say.

Well, even though legendary 8-Bit tracks like Super Mario Bros indeed can be quite complex pieces (you have probably heard an orchestra arrangement of it): try to really listen to how many notes are actually being played simultaneously. 

It is not that many notes playing simultaneously!

It is actually very, very easy to sing along with Super Mario Bros. Its melody is quite simple!

And that is because the programmers and the composers had to think like that. To be creative, despite the limitations of the sound.

Step 5: Study Other 8-Bit Composers

Just because we can easily load up a massive library of 8-Bit samples and export it out in a short amount of time, and getting our track to sound exactly like the retro, iconic video game music…

…does that mean that the music automatically is going to be just as awesome as the Super Mario Bros theme? Or Ocarina of Time from Zelda?

Of course not.

At the end of the day, these iconic songs are extremely well composed.

Legendary NES composers like Konji Kondo are fantastic sources if you want to learn a thing or two about how to make awesome 8-Bit songs.

Other recommended composers are Hiroshige Tonomura, Yoshihiro Sakaguchi, and my personal faovrite Junichi Masuda (for his work on the Pokémon Red and Blue games when I was a kid)

You can really tell how wonderfully intricate the seemingly simple melodies are constructed when you listen to an orchestra version or a piano cover of songs by these composers on YouTube.

Now you Know

In this post, you have hopefully gotten some new knowledge and found yourself some new, free tools for your music production.

These key takeaways are what you should take action on:

  • Be authentic. You need to know how it originally was made
  • Find and install some great free 8-Bit VSTs
  • Set a pretty high tempo (BPM)
  • Compose your 8-Bit track in a Major Key
  • Make it easy to sing along with
  • Keep it simple
  • Research and analyze the work of other legendary composers

And even though some might say that nothing beats the way this music is really supposed to be made, by utilizing these points, you can make great-sounding ‘Chiptunes’ using free VST sounds in your DAW as well.

Suggested Further Reading:

Thomas Leypoldt

Hey there! My name is Thomas and I have been a film composer for over 10 years, delivering music to feature films, documentaries, video games, and commercials. I share everything I have learned on this website, to hopefully be of help to your own development as a musician.

Recent Content