Awesome Stuff: Beyond Chiptunes
from the now that's cool dept
My criteria for the projects in these posts is simple: I look for things that make me say “hey, that’s pretty awesome,” whether or not I’m entirely sure if they need to exist. But once in a while something makes me say “hey, that’s really awesome” even though it definitely doesn’t “need” to exist, and the Ming Micro 8-bit video synthesizer is one of those cases.
Chiptunes are fuelled by a kind of sonic nostalgia: the desire to take the infectious bleeps and bloops of old 8-bit game consoles and use them to create new compositions. Off in another part of the music world there’s the video DJs, using high-end live editing equipment and advanced visualization algorithms to mix and modify images alongside the music. The Ming Micro brings the two together: it’s a real-time chip graphics engine built on a compact Arduino board. What does a “chip graphics engine” do? Well, in short, it’s a visual synthesizer:
Awesome, right? The Ming Micro is entirely controlled by MIDI, the standard language used for music devices and synthesizers. It hijacks the channels normally used for bending notes and altering synth parameters and applies them to live-generated visuals which it outputs in NTSC video at 240p — the completely authentic look of retro consoles. MIDI is widespread and highly customizable, meaning the Ming can be controlled with knobs and sliders, “played” on a piano, and even integrated into a larger MIDI music workflow to interact with instruments. It even includes some basic chiptunes synthesis of its own, with a pair of square-wave generators and a noise generator.
It’s not just for producing abstract dances of garbled pixels (though it’s entirely capable of that) — it can incorporate loadable graphics packs from an SD card. The graphics can be built from scratch, even in something as simple as Notepad, since they are stored in a special ASCII-art format, and then they can even be modified and re-written live via MIDI. The possibilities are pretty much endless.
Now, in fact, the Ming Micro isn’t the first device to do this — it’s actually a successor to the Ming Mecca, which is even more powerful. But there’s a critical difference: while the Mecca clocks in at close to a thousand bucks, the Micro is a mere $200. Essentially, it’s the engine from the heart of the Mecca — rather than coming with a massive pre-designed control panel, it’s just the synthesis unit, ready to be plugged in to just about any MIDI device and/or a PC. (The “or” is worth noting: the Micro can do lots of stuff all by itself without ever touching a USB port, but the associated control app unlocks a whole lot of more advanced functions and settings). The low price point makes it available to a whole world of creators who probably weren’t in the market for a $900 Mecca, and I’m excited to see what they do with it.