The past couple weeks, when it comes to gaming, I seem to have forgotten what decade I am living in. My HDTV and DualShock 4 have been swapped out for a 2-inch screen and a D-pad. This change came about because I’ve been enthralled by a Game Boy cartridge that originally came out almost 20 years ago. This cartridge never shared shelf space with the likes of Super Mario Land or Mega Man 2 because its an independently created title called nanoloop. Nanoloop is not necessarily a game, but more of a musical sequencer application created by Oliver Wittchow in the mid-1990s. Upon booting up the cartridge you’ll be greeted with a simple black and white 4×4 grid and not much else. Beneath this simple interface, you will find a bevy of tools to help you create a wonderful array of beeps and bloops. Nanoloop is a tough program to master, but ultimately an amazing piece of hardware that gives anybody the ability to create beautiful melodies and chip tunes from the simple 4-bit sound chip of a Game Boy.
Oliver Wittchow got interested in the Game Boy as a platform for music making during his study at the Hamburg Fine Arts Academy in the ’90s. At first, he was more interested in “creating an interface [using the Game Boy] than using the specific sounds.” His interest in creating an interface on the Game Boy seemed to come about because his perception of creating music at the time was more of a casual, game-like process. “You move around notes, tweak parameters while the loop keeps running and hardly ever finish a track. The Game Boy matched this approach perfectly: a portable computer, cute and robust, with controls designed for heavy use and the bare minimum of sound synthesis.”
Since I have always have had an affinity for vintage games and music equipment, I decided to try and contact Oliver about obtaining a copy of his cartridge nanoloop. I was interested in his process of creating a program for such a specific piece of hardware, as well as his thoughts on the ever-growing digital distribution market and how it has affected nanoloop’s success over the past 20 years. Now, in case you are wondering what in the heck nanoloop is, let’s take a first-hand look at the cartridge itself.
Nanoloop is a music-sequencer application that uses the Game Boy’s sound chip to create sound waves and noises in a 4-bit format. You arrange 1/16 beat notes in a 4×4 grid, 16 in total, and the sequencer cycles through all the notes continuously creating a loop. There are two rectangular waves, one custom wave, and one noise channel, each with their own individual 4×4 grid, giving you 4 separate tracks to layer together in order to create a song or melody. The rectangular and custom wave tracks definitely function best for a melody or bass line and the noise channel does a great job of nailing those classic and gritty chip tune drum lines. Don’t think you are limited to just a simple C, Am or Gb note to add to your sequencer, however; Nanoloop gives you a bevy of parameters to alter each note as well. You can change the volume, envelope, pitch, frequency, panning, delay, etc. of each note, giving you seemingly endless opportunity to create something unique and original. It’s complicated, at least at first. Nanoloop works with the limited display and buttons of the Game Boy, but with a little time and dedication you will be flipping through the pages on the program and creating 4-bit loops at ease.
Nanoloop functions on a somewhat simple analog piece of hardware and is restricted to two buttons and a D-pad. But it still boasts some pretty advanced features tucked away in its hidden menus like an arpeggiator, song and wave editor, and a great and easy save function to keep all your sweet blips and bleeps safe for future tweaking. Nanoloop is not for the faint of heart as it does feature a large learning curve, but as any musician would tell you, creating original music on any instrument or piece of hardware always requires a little time and patience.
Nanoloop has been around for over twenty years and within those twenty years some great technological advances have been made, especially when it comes to portable gaming and music creation. One look at the iOS App Store can find hundreds of applications with the sole purpose of music creation. What you will also find is a ton of shovelware designed to make a quick buck and not offering much value or depth. Nanoloop still retails for about $25-$30 and is made on a limited basis. Obviously, this is a bit more expensive than anything you might find on the App Store, but the price is easily worth the quality you are getting if chip tunes and vintage hardware interest you. If the retro style doesn’t necessarily appeal to you, but something about nanoloop still has you intrigued, I would suggest looking at the most recent addition to the nanoloop family, nanoloop for iOS. It’s only a couple of bucks and features most of the same features of the Game Boy versions, and even a few extra. I would always recommend getting one of the original cartridge versions since they actually use the true sound card of the Game Boy, but the iOS or Android versions are a great way to get started if you are at all interested in a sequencing sprogram such as nanoloop.
For those looking into getting one of the actual cartridges of nanoloop, let it be known that Oliver’s limited stock usually sells out very fast. Over the past twenty years, he has developed quite a fanbase of dedicated musicians and collectors and his product is well sought after. I asked Oliver if his recent iOS version of nanoloop was created to help with demand or because of the increased interest with iOS and Android digital distribution. His response follows:
“Of course its much more complicated and risky to make physical products than simply release an application, but it’s also more rewarding. Developing and designing the embedded-PCB nanoloop one cart was an interesting challenge, which I quite enjoyed. I think a dedicated product feels different than something you just download.
The general concept works on a touchscreen as well and extra features like file exchange and sampling are nice, so why not make a smartphone version. But buttons and d-pad are still much more immersive and fun to use than a touchscreen. I always prefer a Game Boy.”
I too always prefer a Game Boy, Oliver. Always.
To me, finding people like Oliver who have a sincere passion for music, creation and vintage games gives me such a sense of pleasure. People will always continue to buy the biggest and best when it comes to gaming or music but some people, myself included, long finding a product that revels in the joy of a somewhat simpler time – with somewhat simpler hardware. There is a beauty in the limits created by software and hardware of yesteryear and it is something I appreciate to great lengths. If you find yourself looking for some great vintage hardware and want to support a great independent creator, look no further than nanoloop.