Chip Maestro is a brand new MIDI cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), developed by Jarek Lupinski. The project has so far received an overwhelming amount of support from backers on Kickstarter. You can hear the cartridge in action in the embedded video. Jarek was kind enough to answer these questions.
Mind Equals Blown: Jarek, first of all, congratulations on the success of your Kickstarter campaign. According to the website, you’ve reached 10 times your original funding goal and sold a full run of 150 cartridges. How does it feel?
Lupinski: It feels amazing. When I was first setting the goal many months ago, I set it at a point where I thought I would have the highest chance of getting this cartridge into as many musicians’ hands as possible. I really didn’t think the demand for this would be so large, and once this batch is being used and featured, perhaps even more people will be interested.
For those unfamiliar with the Chip Maestro, could you tell us who the product is made for, and how it is to be used?
The Chip Maestro is, most simply put, a special cartridge that turns any NES into a MIDI synthesizer. The target audience is any musician who wants an easy-to-use 8-bit synthesizer that can play back authentic tones made popular by the NES back in the day. The renaissance of chiptune and 8-bit sounds is strong, and many independent artists and even professional labels are using these sounds in their tracks.
Support for the project has come from a number of members of the chipmusic community. How would you describe your relationship with that community? Were you a fan before this project?
I was a fan of chipmusic for a long time, starting back when ocremix was taking off. I listen to a few current artists in the community, such as Anamanaguchi, who have been my inspiration for this project. Throughout my 8 months of development, there have been many people who have helped me along the way, notably kevtris from the nesdev forums. Without their support this project wouldn’t be possible.
You have been taking requests for different features to be included, and have received a lot of submissions. Which have been the most requested, and how has it changed the final product?
The most requested one is pitch bending and vibrato. These sounds are popular among some chiptune sub-genres (such as cracktro-scene), and I have implemented them fully in the latest revision of the code. I am still accepting submissions, so keep the requests coming in!
The price-point you’ve set in the Kickstarter is extremely reasonable for musical equipment. Will the price remain the same after the pre-sale, and how do you keep your costs so low?
I am going to keep the price this low even after the pre-sale. Low cost has always been a priority of mine throughout the project, and by sacrificing certain features that aren’t required to make music (video, certain MIDI control messages), I was able to create a basic instrument which has the simplicity of letting anyone start playing right away, while leaving a lot of room for hackers who pick up the dev kit to fiddle around with more advanced settings and push out their own improvements. By using common chips with inexpensive components and readily available programmers, a little cost calculation and proper sourcing has led to this low price.
Do you see your project as an environmental movement, in the sense that you are giving people the tools to re-purpose game consoles forgotten by many as musical instruments?
I see this as more of a step in that direction, but not a movement in and of itself. Retro gaming and music have always gone hand in hand, and many people can still hum their favorite tune from their favorite 8-bit game. It is difficult to find NES systems for every artist who wants to use one, but hopefully once demand takes off, we’ll see a surge in people digging through their basements to bring out the NES again, and perhaps using newer versions of the NES console (like the Retro Duo) to create a different-sounding tone.
With the interest in Chip Maestro, do you have any other MIDI cartridges planned for other gaming systems like the Commodore 64 or the Sega Mega Drive? Do you plan to grow the business?
MIDI cartridges already exist for other systems, notably the MSSIAH and little-scale‘s Sega work. The NES was really the only console in need of a low-cost, available solution, so after this, it’s on to other projects for me.
Where can we follow your progress online after the Kickstarter has finished?
I have already parked www.chipmaestro.com, which should go live a little before the Kickstarter ends. Also, my other projects (including an alpha version of the Chip Maestro) can be found at www.soniktech.com.
If you would like to lend your support to Jarek’s project, there are still Chip Maestro cartridges and development kits from the first run available at Kickstarter: here.