Chiptune Star Perfecting the NESKeytar

Three years ago I brought to your attention a chiptune artist from the UK named Greig Stewart. Chiptune music is works played through retro video-game sound equipment like the sound card on a Game Boy. Stewart was riding high on the Guitar Hero craze like everyone else at the time, but decided that instead of a guitar he would produce Theremin Hero. And by God, he did.

Since then I've kept an eye on him via Facebook, and along with local filmmaker Joe Grisaffi he serves as an occasional retro-video-game consultant for gaming articles for us. Now he's like Vanilla Ice; back with a brand new invention. Ladies and gentlemen, the next step in chiptune stagecraft: the NESKeytar.

"While watching someone play music on a Game Boy is great because there is real interactivity going on (they're not just hitting play but actually changing the music as it plays), I've been trying to figure out a way to take live performance to the next level," says Stewart via email. "NESKeytar that is capable of punching out live beats, arpeggios and 'sweet solos' all at the same time, live. And with RGB LEDs which react to every note. Definitely a crowd pleaser if I get it right!"

REWIND: Presenting... Theremin Hero!

Stewart had an extra Guitar Hero controller lying around just gathering dust, and was eager to open it up and figure out its workings. After realizing that the internals of the guitar were modular and easy to remove, he opened up an original 8-bit NES console and engineered the proper cuts in the shell that needed to be made to fit and combine the two while keeping the circuit boards intact. The guitar controller whammy bar was a perfect fit, and upon finding a cheap, £2 keyboard in a charity shop, he couldn't resist adding it to the mix.

The sound is produced entirely with the NES sound chip, controlled entirely by the accessory buttons. For the electronics, he was able to take a huge shortcut by using a special game cartridge called Chip-Maestro, a Kickstarter project that started in 2011 and is capable of receiving musical MIDI messages and translating them into the signals that the NES is able to send to its sound chip. After that was taking 13 wires from the toy keyboard, plus the output of the guitar controller chip, interpreting the data and creating MIDI data from I with a Digispark Arduino microcontroller, a Raspberry Pi, and a custom circuit of Stewart's own design.

The entire process took around two and a half months, Stewart reports. Currently he isn't working on producing any custom NESKeytars for sale to the public, but is more than willing to discuss instructions for building your own by contacting him through his Web site. Right at the moment he's teaching himself to play his repertoire using the new interface, and expected to have a full demo of its capabilities on YouTube by the end of 2013.

"Every musician I know has huge amounts of dedication when it comes to learning an instrument," Stewart says. "In my opinion it's the desire to push yourself to learn something new while having fun and experimenting the whole time that makes you a musician.

"If you present to a musician something that is expressive, fun, and has a unique sound... and then make it truly playable, I believe it can easily become widespread," he adds. "I do realize that the 8-bit sounds that come from this aren't to everyone's taste, but that's fine with me. The gamers and the chiptune lovers will still enjoy this."

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.


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