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Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

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Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Fri Aug 10, 2018 12:10 pm

Sorry, long post below. Skip to the TL;DR if you cba. :)

My dive into Synth Obscura continues! A recent recommended video on YouTube sent me digging into the world of Chiptune— electronic music made to emulate the soundtracks from old 8/16 bit video games, particularly the Nintendo GameBoy.

As with everything else, there are two approaches to writing Chiptune; one approach is to use your DAW as normal but with limited tracks and emulation plugins or raw wave forms; the other approach is to use what is called a Tracker ... actual software in the style used by the original game composers. Trackers can export either wav files or the actual file type used by the game system. In theory you can then play your music on the actual original game system. (This has been done by some creative people in the DIY/maker community).

There is also a third branch of the Chiptune tree, called LSDJ; they use an actual GameBoy hack to make the unit itself into a tracker for writing, recording, and playing back music.

The fourth branch of Chiptune enthusiasts are non-musicians who hack old video games and use trackers to play back the music only.

And the fifth branch are similar to the fourth except they take the ripped music and then create remixes in the tracker.

I think the appeal of a Chiptune is its minimalist approach— how much can do do with how little? That really appeals to me, so I looked online for a tracker. I settled on DefleMask after watching some tutorials (plus it works for Mac).

At first it was utterly confusing, but after an hour or so I was able to start writing music on it. I chose a very simple system to practice on (NES) and started figuring out how to navigate through the vertical, pre-DAW interface. The biggest hurdle is sorting out tempo and time signatures. Since it is Base 16 and the tempo is derived from the clock frequency of the system you are using, it takes a lot of experimentation to get the precise feel and level of swing down.

Starting with the most simple waveform available, a pulse wave, you can set up a number of ‘instruments’. An Instrument is actually just an arpeggiator and amplitude envelope that your draw by hand. You can assign any individual note to any Instrument, which is how you can add expression from short to longer (or sliding) notes.

Each track can then have a certain number of ‘effects’ added like panning, overall volume, and start/stop codas. These are input by hexadecimal code, of course. :D

TL;DR
If you already have an understanding of synthesis and music production it will not take long to figure out how a tracker works and the results are surprisingly accurate! I definitely recommend trying a chiptarcker out for authentic 8-bit music reproduction.
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Martin Walker » Fri Aug 10, 2018 6:34 pm

Hi Ben,

This takes me back almost 30 years, when I was composing 8-bit computer game soundtracks and creating sound fx for them - I had over 100 commissions in total!

I always worked on the actual hardware, so I could hear exactly what the end-user would hear, and developed my own music drivers and editors.

Over the years I worked on Atari 400/800, Commodore 64, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, Sega Gamegear, NIntendo Gameboy, Nintendo SNES, Sega Megadrive and the PC itself (motherboard buzzer, Adlib soundcard, Roland LAPC-1 MIDI soundcard...)

It all seems so long ago, although I now find myself being asked to create music on the Commodore 64 all over again! 8-)

I did do some work using tracker software (notably on the Amiga), but much preferred to use my own Music editors.


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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Fri Aug 10, 2018 10:14 pm

Wow, that is super cool/interesting!

Hmm, Commodore 64 is certainly a challenge, it’s even more limited than the GameBoy! I would love to hear some of your stuff!
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Martin Walker » Sun Aug 12, 2018 1:53 pm

There's loads of it on YouTube Ben ;)

Here are some of the Commodore 64 tunes:

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_ ... walker+c64


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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Sun Aug 12, 2018 2:00 pm

Thanks, I will definitely check them out!

I found a great Chiptracker/Chiptune tutorial from 2013 on Youtube, for anyone following this thread and is curious how to get started. Just search on Youtube for "Brandon Walsh Milkytracker".

Which brings me to the subject of trackers! I started using DefleMask but think I prefer Milkytracker. It's not as slick as DefleMask but I prefer its look and workflow.
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Wed Aug 15, 2018 2:27 pm

Martin, this stuff is AWESOME!!
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Wed Aug 15, 2018 2:40 pm

A couple of quick questions, if I may, Martin?

How did you achieve that thick pwm lead sound? Did you start with a sample that had several pulse waves and then hand-drew the duty cycles so that when it was looped it would simulate pwm? Or is it done in another way? I don't see any real modulation aside from 'vibrato' in my effects choices.

Also, it sounds like some of the leads were done on two tracks and one was detuned slightly? Is that correct?

Thanks in advance!!
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby nathanscribe » Wed Aug 15, 2018 5:43 pm

As soon as anybody mentions 8-bit micro music, I think of Tim Follin, whose work I think is incredible, given the limitations of the early machines. 1-bit multitracks? No problem!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GC1dTzyb5Gs
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Wed Aug 15, 2018 5:50 pm

Thanks for posting that, interesting stuff! It also explains how to get pwm (or at least one method)! Gonna try it tonight. :)
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby nathanscribe » Wed Aug 15, 2018 6:06 pm

Nice work Martin! Didn't know you were behind some of those!

The Citadel 'scope view shows nicely how a single channel can be used to generate more than one 'simultaneous' (spoiler: not really) tone by quickly alternating between them. Handy but there's a knack in getting it right, I seem to remember!
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Wed Aug 15, 2018 6:08 pm

nathanscribe wrote:Nice work Martin! Didn't know you were behind some of those!

The Citadel 'scope view shows nicely how a single channel can be used to generate more than one 'simultaneous' (spoiler: not really) tone by quickly alternating between them. Handy but there's a knack in getting it right, I seem to remember!
I'm using Milkytracker/XM so I have the luxury of polyphony!
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Martin Walker » Thu Aug 16, 2018 4:06 pm

Ben Asaro wrote:A couple of quick questions, if I may, Martin?

How did you achieve that thick pwm lead sound? Did you start with a sample that had several pulse waves and then hand-drew the duty cycles so that when it was looped it would simulate pwm? Or is it done in another way? I don't see any real modulation aside from 'vibrato' in my effects choices.

Also, it sounds like some of the leads were done on two tracks and one was detuned slightly? Is that correct?

Thanks in advance!!

All done with pulse width modulation, which you can do by updating the pulse width 50 times a second on each of the three SID channels).


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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Martin Walker » Thu Aug 16, 2018 4:08 pm

nathanscribe wrote:Nice work Martin! Didn't know you were behind some of those!

The Citadel 'scope view shows nicely how a single channel can be used to generate more than one 'simultaneous' (spoiler: not really) tone by quickly alternating between them. Handy but there's a knack in getting it right, I seem to remember!

Thanks nathan!

Just like the PWM, the 'chords' are generated by cyclically changing the frequency every 1/50th of a second around the notes of your desired chord. I did occasionally expand on this by having multiple chords going at different rates in different channels, for that really big 'soundtrack' effect (Armalyte and Citadel both used this approach) ;)


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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Martin Walker » Thu Aug 16, 2018 4:11 pm

Oh, and here's an example of my 1-bit multitrack music

The First Samurai PC Speaker Intro, played on a motherboard buzzer :headbang:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiURTmwpX2U


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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Fri Aug 17, 2018 12:01 pm

Started working on my first mod. Will post a link when it’s done, would love feedback!
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Martin Walker » Fri Aug 17, 2018 2:12 pm

Ben Asaro wrote:Started working on my first mod. Will post a link when it’s done, would love feedback!

Good luck, and may the tracker force be with you! :thumbup:


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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Mon Aug 20, 2018 12:03 pm

Well, I've been chipping away at Milkytracker (sorry, pun) ... and I have also been listening to a lot of music made by various Chiptune artists. One thing that I find interesting is how many artists are making music using lots of high res samples ... I dunno, to me that seems like you are now making something else (not Chiptune) and making it needlessly difficult for yourself when you could much easier just use a DAW. The same goes with people using trackers to trigger analogue synths. It sounds cool, but is it Chiptune? In my opinion, no. In my estimation, Chiptune is at the complete other end of the scale from analogue synths.
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Martin Walker » Mon Aug 20, 2018 2:32 pm

Sensible analysis there Ben, and I largely agree with you. When I used trackers, it was mostly on commission for Amiga game music, and I inevitably had a small allowance of RAM for sample use, so we had to make best use of the space we had (no hi-res samples for me! ;) )

So, yes, hi-res samples with trackers does seem an odd combination to me.

I can however understand some musicians using trackers to trigger hardware synths - some have been brought up with trackers, know their strengths and limitations inside out, and want to stick with those familiarities even when trading up to hardware on the output side.

As for chiptune music, for me that simply means music made using the capabilities of computer soundchips, by whatever means (tracker or otherwise).


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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby Ben Asaro » Mon Aug 20, 2018 10:27 pm

Martin Walker wrote:
I can however understand some musicians using trackers to trigger hardware synths - some have been brought up with trackers, know their strengths and limitations inside out, and want to stick with those familiarities even when trading up to hardware on the output side.
That makes perfect sense, actually.

As for chiptune music, for me that simply means music made using the capabilities of computer soundchips, by whatever means (tracker or otherwise).
Sounds like a reasonable definition. :)
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Re: Let’s talk about CHIPTRACKERS and writing Chiptune music!

Postby BillB » Tue Aug 21, 2018 10:16 pm

Without wishing to hijack, this all reminds me of my first fateful encounter with computer music, about 1985. I pursaded my then girlfriend, now wife, that what we NEEDED was a Commodore 64, because it would be a great wordprocessor (and incidentally, it had the best sound chip on the market, so I read).

Got the C64 and a copy of a computer magazine, which promised code to turn the C64 into the ultimate synth. So my girlfriend dutifully typed in 7 pages of code, best part of a day. We expectantly ran it, NOTHING... Error.... she checked it, I checked it, a friend on a computer course checked it. We couldn’t see anything wrong, but NOTHING happening. Girlfriend not amused or impressed. It wasn’t that good a typewriter either. All technical credibility gone! And no, she would not type in any more code...

Roll on a few years and I pursuade my now wife that what we NEED is an Atari ST because it would make a great wordprocessor (and incidentally, it is the best computer for music)... and what’s more, you don’t have to type ANYTHING if you don’t want to...

Amazingly, it was a great typewriter, DTP, graphics, CAD, database and, oh yes, MUSIC computer. All loaded from floppy disks (then later a hard drive) with, as I recall, some amazing freeware, especially from very generous volks in Germany.

Phew, technical credibility restored! And she is still my wife and is still putting up with me telling her what I/we NEED.

Although I love the hardware synths of the 80’s, I wouldn’t really want to go back to the computers of the 80’s :headbang:

But good luck to you, Ben!
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