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Oliver Wittchow Interview pt2

nanoloop This is the second part of our interview with Nanoloop creator Oliver Wittchow. We posted the first part earlier this week, you can find it here.

LB – You started selling the cartridge in 1999, how did you go about producing the hardware?

OW – First I simply bought flash carts and put Nanoloop on them but that was of course rather expensive. From version 1.0 to 1.2, Nanoloop came on custom ROM carts, initially produced by the same Hong Kong based supplier as the flash carts. Later I had to change suppliers a couple of times because the companies often suddenly disappeared, behaved strangely or just stopped communicating. At some point it got all too annoying and I decided to design a custom PCB optimized for the needs of Nanoloop. The carts are now produced in Germany. This is somewhat more expensive but not having to deal with Chinese game piracy companies anymore and having a constant supply of hardware saves me a lot of stress.

LB – Do you have any idea if Nintendo have heard of Nanoloop? If so, what did they say?

OW – I once wrote an email to Nintendo of America but got no reply. There is no space for niche products like Nanoloop in the Nintendo business model. Since their model is still extremely successful, I understand why they have no motivation to change it. I guess their policy is not to care about non-licensed carts as long as they are not in mass production. Since I’m not ripping-off or copying anything, I think they could not do much about it anyway. And after all, Nanoloop and the whole Game Boy music thing are excellent advertising for Nintendo. It reaches an audience marketing people can only dream of.

LB – I noticed a few shops sell Nanoloop, one in Kyoto, one in Hamburg, and one in Vienna. I was a little surprised as two of the shops seem to be record stores rather than game/music stores. How did they come to sell Nanoloop?

OW – The guy who runs Rekord in Hamburg is a friend of mine. Meditations sell not just records but also other stuff such as bee’s wax candles.

LB – I also saw, Meditations have T-Shirts. Were they official? Did you ever think of selling some through your site?

OW – They were/are official. I considered selling them too but then I thought I should keep Nanoloop and the website/shop as pure as possible and leave merchandising to others.

LB – NL seems to have a pretty big Japanese following, do you know why it caught on there?

OW – Maybe because they like style and minimalism there. They also like noise and of course they like their Game Boy. And then there’s Mr. Shiota from Meditations who made Nanoloop available within Japan and provides Japanese support. Japanese people seem reluctant to buy thing from overseas via the internet. But since Nanoloop is available in Kyoto, a big portion of Nanoloop sales go to Japan. About two years ago it was almost half of the entire production.

LB – Do you know how many copies of NL you have sold? Roughly how popular (in sales terms) is the 1.x series compared to the 2.x series?

OW – Overall sales are >10k. The 1.x/2.x ratio used to be equal until the recession came, now people prefer 1.5.

LB – How did the idea for the Nanoloop 1.0 CD compilation come about and how did you recruit all the people?

OW – It was the idea of Disco Bruit’s Marc Richter. I provided a number of Nanoloop carts and he sent them out to the artists he wanted to have on-board.

LB – I have only been able to track down the above release and the 8-Bit Operators CD that have your work on. Aside from a few demos on the NL page and a track or two on Last.FM are there any other releases or songs we can listen to? Do you plan to write any more tunes in the future? What I have heard so far is really good.

OW – Actually I rarely finish a track on Nanoloop. My theory is that using a tool for music also means emancipation from its intended purpose somehow – which I obviously can’t achieve with my own tool. Besides the plain functionality, some degree of obscurity within which you can explore glitches and where interesting accidents can happen is important, at least for this kind of application. I know every single bit of the GameBoy and Nanoloop, so this platform is a deterministic world for me with nothing to discover. Thus is lacks some of the playsome fun it holds for others. That does not explain why I haven’t finished anything in Logic yet though, which certainly holds plenty of secrets for me. However, with a newborn child I now have a very plausible and cute excuse for that and just about everything.

LB – Each release of NL seems to be slightly different to all the others. For example 1.2/1.3/1.5 all seem to have their own unique features and 1.5 doesn’t include all the features of the previous releases. Is this because of memory limitations or something you chose to do?

OW – It’s mainly due to memory limitations (32k) but I also rejected some function such as the counter-intuitive “copy mode” of 1.2.

LB – Could you talk a little about Nanovoice. Why did it become a separate program rather than part of the 1.x/2.x series?

OW – Nanovoice was inspired by “the vOICe” (hence the name), a program which reads images as spectrograms and plays the resulting sound in a loop. It also allows the user to draw pixels in the spectrogram and use it like a sequencer (a little like Metasynth but much more primitive). I like the program because it’s extremely simple and blurs the border between sequencer and synthesizer. Though it can’t do much in either field, I spent hours of meditative playing and experimenting with javOICe (the browser-version of the vOICe). I ported it to the Game Boy partly to demonstrate digital audio playback without using the wave channel, only via amplitude modulation of the rectangular waves.

LB – I read a really great post in your forum where you touch on the “Nanoloop concept” a couple of times with regards to the 2.2/2.3 direction change. Could you define or explain what drives the “NL concept”?

OW – “The NL concept”. Sounds so… conceptual.

Typically, mobile music apps are either audiovisual toys (Electroplankton) or feature programs (LSDJ). With Nanoloop, I try to leave these categories. While the interface looks like an arty toy, it does not come with the usual smooth sounds and pentatonic scales that make the arty toy apps sound so arbitrary. Instead, it provides access to the raw and rough GameBoy sound in a very casual way. I think the ability to create odd tones and noise is a key element for a tool to be perceived as an instrument rather than a cheesy toy, no matter how toy-ish it looks or how limited functionality is. Another difference to the toy type app is that Nanoloop is not audiovisual in the sense that sound is coupled with graphic parameters (like pitch vs. color etc). Although it is a visual tool with carefully designed graphics, it respects the invisibility of music. I think direct graphical representations of sound would actually just be in the way and distract from the music itself.

Like the feature-programs, Nanoloop provides a solid set of functions, but I don’t see the benefit of accumulating more and more features. The GameBoy is so popular as a music platform, not because it has so many functions but because the possibilities are so limited. It’s the lack of features that leads to the more interesting questions. With Nanoloop, I try not to hide these limitations but sort of cultivate them. That does not mean I restrict functions on purpose, I just keep the interface complexity within a tight limit and then optimize functionality within that. Feature-programs often implement existing concepts of hardware (DS-10, countless 303 and 808 clones) and desktop software (trackers). When developing Nanoloop, I noticed that many of the ideas found in the existing tools were not appropriate for the type of music I had in mind. So I got rid of them and consequently only implemented what seemed the minimum configuration for repetitive electronic music.

LB – How did the LSDJ Sync feature happen? Was it driven by LSDJ users or the NL crew?

OW – It was added to LSDJ by Johan. The Nanoloop sync scheme is fairly simple, so it was probably easy to do.

LB – Which artists have done something with NL which really surprised you?

OW – I am surprised how some people integrate Nanoloop into their setting as an instrument and create their very own style, often with just a few tones. I once saw a stunning performance by Irene Grabherr (gameboymusicclub, Vienna) who used Nanoloop to play some minimal harmonies and combined this just with her singing. I was impressed by how she didn’t care about most of Nanoloop’s functions, yet still totally controlled the software.

LB – How do you think the Nanoloop user base differs from those of other music software?

OW – I think more than other chip music programs, Nanoloop is used by people who do not consider themselves chip-musicians, part of a scene or even musicians at all. For example tomorrow* it will be used by an artist who holds a workshop for kids at school. The portion of female users is way below 10% but still unusually high for a tool in this category.

LB – Do you have any projected plans for NL 1.6/2.4 (5?)

OW – I currently have no plans for further 1.x versions. When the audio-data adaptor is available (which also allows users to download software updates for 2.3), I may modify the 2.3 sound a little. I think the noise is a bit too harsh for example, I’ll try to change the algorithm so that it sounds more like the dry but warm noise of the DMG.

LB – Are you surprised by how far NL has come in the last ten years? Did you have any expectations of what might happen with the software back at that first gig at the Liquid Sky Club?

OW – At that first performance it was obvious that the software was worth some additional work to make it available publicly. I did not expect that demand would constantly grow for ten years though. It took me a while to realize that Game Boy music is not just part of a short term retro trend but the Game Boy actually is timeless in a way.

*This response arrived 2009/03/30

That wraps up our third interview. I would just like to thank Oliver once again for taking the time to give the in depth, interesting answers he did and wish him the best of luck with his new projects.

Nanoloop – http://www.nanoloop.de/

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