Thoughts on "Fakebit"
Recently, I’ve been witness to (and sometimes a part of) some discussions regarding music production that have left me with a strong sense of disappointment. As creators, I think we can all agree that we wish to do our very best with what we create and how we go about it, and so I think it’s good for us to challenge one another and push each other to be the best we can be. However, I think there’s a point where these intentions can become misguided and cause more harm than good. I will explain what I mean by that.
The subject of the conversations I mentioned regarded a certain type of music production known as “fakebit”. It’s a sort of catch-all term for an emulation of the heavily-compressed audio of consoles such as the NES or the GameBoy — more specifically, an imperfect or flawed emulation. This term is generally used with some level of disdain (“fakebit trash”), as chiptune “purists” tend to feel quite strongly about the authenticity of any attempts to reproduce the sound of these consoles. From these “purists”, I’ve seen more insults and generally vile behavior than I feel is warranted for such a topic.
Don’t misunderstand me, I respect authenticity. As a perfectionist myself, I believe very strongly that if you are going to set out to do something, by all means, do so to the best of your ability — and if one of those goals is to reproduce the sound of a certain console accurately, then you ought to take that task seriously. However, I think there’s a certain amount of “elitism” coming from these “chiptune purists” that I find to be ultimately unhelpful, and frankly, revolting.
I like to think of myself as a “practical perfectionist”. That is to say, I believe there’s no sense in judging the quality standards of a work beyond that which it was meant to attain. A cardboard box isn’t the most sturdy thing in the world, but it wasn’t made to sustain a storm, and to expect it to do so would be something just short of madness. A similar idea applies to creative work. Believe it or not, there are some musicians who do not wish to perfectly replicate a console’s sound when producing “fakebit”. Rather, they are simply attempting to evoke a sense similar to that which the original carried.
Recently, I produced a short jingle using the official plugin version of Roland’s SC-88 sound module (some might stop me right there for not using the hardware!). I decided I didn’t want too clean of a sound, so applied a bitcrusher to the track in order to give it a bit of an edge, and to recall images of old Nintendo games. To my surprise, when I showed it to a colleague, it was met with a sort of surprised disgust. He was shocked that I would have manually bitcrushed the audio — not because it resulted in a lo-fi sort of sound, but because the lo-fi sound in question wasn’t an accurate reproduction of the way the SNES or GBA compressed their audio. This reaction confused me, as an accurate reproduction of those sounds was never my intent.
There are two questions I’d like to pose to these “purists”: 1) Is your critique of the sound warranted? And 2) If so, is it helpful? I will go more in-depth to both of these.
Regarding the first question, one must first judge the goal of the creator whose work you are critiquing. If you find that their goal was not to perfectly emulate a certain sound, then your critique of the emulation is a waste of time. It is not applicable to their goals, and will be ignored. If they do, however, have that goal in mind, then the second question is now raised. Is your critique helpful? Simply degrading a person’s work for being inauthentic will do absolutely nothing to help the creator make something that meets your (and their attempted) standards. If you want them to be better, you must explain to them how they can achieve that goal — and do so in a kind manner, as mean-spirited talk will only drive the other person away. It is as illogical and unhelpful to your purpose as it is disgusting human behavior.
I will leave with this comment. We’re all gamers here, aren’t we? I find it absolutely hilarious when a chiptune elitist calls out an emulation for being inaccurate, when the emulation itself is based on what is also often an inaccurate emulation of real musical instruments. A violin was synthesized with rather robotic, inhuman results, and then underwent even more degradation by being compressed within a console, and you’re concerned about the emulation of that being accurate? By your own logic, you should take much more offense to nearly all video game soundtracks ever produced, the vast majority of which use synthesized or sampled instruments, which, no matter how good, will always be imperfect emulations of real, human instruments. And so I say to musicians of all types: Push each other to do your best to reach your goals. None of what I have said here is intended to discourage critique, but keep in mind that intent is of great importance, and must be taken into account when critiquing a work. And above all, be united in your goal to create.