The sound of 1-bit: technical constraint and musical creativity on the 48k Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Kenneth B. McAlpine

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This article explores constraint as a driver of creativity and innovation in early video game soundtracks. Using what was, perhaps, the most constrained platform of all, the 48k Sinclair ZX Spectrum, as a prism through which to examine the development of an early branch of video game music, the paper explores the creative approaches adopted by programmers to circumvent the Spectrum’s technical limitations so as to coax the hardware into performing feats of musicality that it had never been designed to achieve. These solutions were not without computational or aural cost, however, and their application often imparted a unique characteristic to the sound, which over time came to define the aesthetic of the 8-bit computer soundtrack, a sound which has been developed since as part of the emerging chiptune scene. By discussing pivotal moments in the development of ZX Spectrum music, this article will show how the application of binary impulse trains, granular synthesis, and pulse-width modulation came to shape the sound of 1-bit music.
Original languageEnglish
JournalGAME: The Italian Journal of Game Studies
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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