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Introduction to Tracking, Pixeling and Conversion to oldskool hardware:

Welcome to our world! We have created this guide and links page in response to a few questions regarding where to start. Especially if you want to try and make music for C64, Amiga or ultra small PC music. There is also a section for those who want to know more about the process of getting emulated content across to the "real" Hardware. This includes dealing with SIDs, MODs, PRG's and image files.

..// Quick Links (some incomplete)

>>> 1. Tracking & Chip Tunes - Tools and Tips

>>> 2. Pixeling - Tools and Tips

>>> 3. Conversion to the "Real" Hardware

(this will be extended / fixed over time. Hopefully this helps you get into it! CHIP MUSIC WOOO! -cTrix)

What is tracking?

The term "tracker" refers a specific style of notation entry which first appeared on the Amiga in the 80's. It is similar in some ways to the "events list" found in some MIDI programs but in a grid style format. Whilst it may look like a badly formatted spreadsheet on first glance, it is actually just a condensed list of notes, instruments and controllers such as volume, pitch bend, or panning. Pressing PLAY obviously reveals a lot more than pictures do..

Protracker on the Amiga 500.
2 notes are being triggered.. a low C and a middle C
"C2A" and "C15" are simply setting the volume.
Ninja Tracker on the C64
Trk 1-3 list is referencing patts & playing them in order.
Pattern 1 is a list of notes using a "harp" sound

The tracking phenomenon became THE way of scoring music and sharing tracks pre-internet days when we used to send 880k floppy's to each other via mail. Early BBS sites used to overflow with tracker based music. It is still used today by 1000's of users because of the ultra small file sizes, portability between programs and compatibility with oldskool hardware. Almost all "retro" computers (C64, Atari, Gameboy, Amiga...) all have freeware tracking software available for them and once you learn the tracking process - it all makes sense.

The "tracker formats" are very different to a WAV or MP3 but can be of
similar quality, a fraction of the filesize and potentially allow the end user to open the file and look at its notation, instruments and sequence.

Unlike an MP3 file, which arrives as a "Mixdown", a tracker file (such as a MOD or IT) is mixed on-the-fly by the computer.

Surprisingly (but not for coders) this can actually result in a much lower CPU usage as an MP3 or MP4 files require huge amounts of complex maths to decompress them (not to mention patents) Tracker samples are almost always uncompressed or lossless, so mixing 4 - 16 channels is nothing. Note "uncompressed" - aka. none of those wishy-washy compression artifacts of MP3 but often 10 - 20 times smaller.

Almost all tracker formats are open source and most composition software is free and open each others formats. Players like WINAMP can play almost all the tracker formats and players are available for almost every OS.

Tracking vs. MIDI

Some of you may be familiar with packages such as Cubase, Cakewalk, Logic, Reason or other packages which are largely reliant on storing just the MIDI or notation data. As you will know, you can't hand over your Reason file or Logic project to your friend and expect them to play the file back trouble free. They would require the same software with the same plug-ins in order to play back the file. Plus any associated audio files or sample libraries. You would usually do a "mixdown" and make it an MP3 or suchlike right? This is where tracking is different.

MIDI Based
- Passing a project to someone else requires them to have the same setup / plugins / VSTi to sound the same

- The GM "standard" MIDI sounds are PRESET and largely traditional instruments... crap for electronic.

- Need mixing down for public distribution. Filesize huge unless lossy compression is used. Boo.

- File formats between aps incompatible unless using MID
+ Contains a sample lib so will sound almost identical on all platforms - even back to 1986 (for MOD)

+ No presets. All sounds are custom samples and can be as wild as you wish. 1000's available

+ Mix on-fly. Filesize typically 16k - 300k per song

+ Trackers will open each others formats (usually)

+ Free and opensource format specs.

It is worth noting that the tracker formats are more suited to writing electronic music rather than orchestral scores. Artists such as The Prodigy, Rogue Traders, KLF, BT and many more all started on early tracker-based programs.

The Approach

A Tracker program is almost always broken into three main areas / stages:

1. The Instrument
area : where you sculpt your sounds and (for tracker formats) load samples, set loop points, etc
2. The Pattern area : where you write 4 - 16 bar "phrases" of music using the instruments
3. The Sequence area : where you order the patterns. (order Verses / Choruses / Variations)

It is a simple approach to making music, but one that is surprisingly effective and very efficient. Why would you copy and paste the same 4 bar phrase when you can simply loop it? Then change it globally without re pasting? It also makes juggling the order of a tune around quite simple.

You could (of course) just write a ton of patterns and put them in order in the sequencer. This is generally what happens if you try to import a MIDI file into a tracker (like ModPlug). It will work, but be a bit confusing hence it is much better to track from scratch. Technically you could bring a 3ch MIDI into ModPlug, pull a 3ch MOD from MODplug into Goat tracker then just re-assign the instruments... but uh.. yeah... it'd be messy and trust me - when you are working with real sounds on playback it is way more exciting.

The Formats & The Programs

There are three main "stages" in the tracking family:

1. CHIP trackers - which use the onboard sound chip to create sound - much like a synth. Eg. the SID chip in the C64
2. Amiga trackers - which use a library of 8-bit mono digital samples. Polyphony is usually limited to 4 channels.
3. Nuskool trackers - which use libraries. of 16-bit samples incorporating envelopes + more. Huge polyphony.
4. Emulated Chip Trackers - which run on newer platforms but emulate (to some degree) an oldskool chip.

ReNoise Tracker (= nuskool)
Ultimate control using the same principle. (getting a bit complex here)
It is actually easier to start on an older more simple program like.
Goat Tracker (Chip tracker for Win XP)
Pattern Area on Left (list of notes & instruments)
Sequence area and Instrument builder on Right.

1. Making C64 or Nintendo
"Chip" style Tunes

If you want to create
authentic oldskool tunes for "retro" platforms such as C64 or Gameboy - then you should aim to make them playable on the real hardware. Imagine being able to put a real floppy into a C64, type the load command and hear your tune screaming out of the real deal. That is what this is all about :-]. It is an experience that is unexplainable and exceedingly satisfying.

There are two ways of (easily) creating chip music.

# Create the tune on a modern day "chip" tracker for PC/Linux/Mac then port it across to the real hardware (see above)
# Use a native tracker or oldskool composition program on real hardware or an emulator

Either way, one of the major limitations you are going to face as a composer is the limited polyphony. In the case of the C64 this is 3 channels (officially anyway!). While this may sound limiting, it is a great challenge and very humbling as you are reduced to thinking about composition at a root level.

Typically this is a bass (tonic note), chord (usually the major or minor third), percussion, melody. oh wait - that's 4 notes! This is where all the classic tricks come out:

- Rapid arpeggios (a defining "chip" sound!) You can do this at a note level or pre-program "chords"
- Combining a notes and percussive sounds into one instrument (especially good for bass drums)
- Using syncopation as such that your drums land at separate times to chord or bass

- Channel "juggling". Not "reserving" one channel for one instrument. Toggle between 'em :-)

While this may sound "too hard" it is actually quite easy. You have 3 channels and that is it. These three channels are always at your finger tips so quick experimentation is simple. It isn't like modern day programs where you have to open up plug ins and access separate parts and windows - eeek! Everything is on one screen at once and once you've worked it out the rest is twiddling. Most cool stuff happens by mistake <-- quote me on that!

The way I learnt to track Chip tunes - and would recommend - is to open up a demo file and play around. First - look at pattern sequencing and note entry. Then look at sequencing (order of the patterns) at which point you've probably written half of your first track. Finally, look at the instrument programming : this is the hardest thing to get your head around and requires reading of instructions. While it is easy to bring in a sample on an Amiga, something like a C64 requires the instruments to be programmed like an old analogue synth. Or like many analogue VST plug ins (if that helps) so you will need some basic knowledge about generators and ADSR.

At a basic level (see picture below), creating an instrument comes back to:

- choosing a series of
waveform flavors (sin, tri, square, noise) & defining the octave and base note (bass, lead or combo),
- applying an
envelope (attack = speed the note fades in, decay = time the note crescendos for, sustain = fade out time, release = fade time after note release)
- Applying a pulse width and speed (optional) best described as a phasing effect but SID purests will give you a more technical explanation
- Applying a filter (optional) which on C64 will have you scratching your head going "wtf?! why is this effecting all 3 channels?!". But that is half the fun of figure it out.

Drums require a bit of brain power - but it is mainly just a logical breakdown of what a sound is. A snare is a blast of noise at rapidly varying volumes with a medium decay. A bass drum could be a sine wave dive in about 100ms. A hihat a high pass filtered short blast of noise. You will find all the "recipes" in the demo tunes provided with the tracker you download and these can generally be "tweaked" to make sounds when you start out.

Ninja Tracker (bottom half) has a similar style of Instrument designer with a more "raw" feel.
Typical C64 Instrument programming. Remember it is HEX so values are 0 to F where F = 16
You don't have to use all these... one wave flavor with Attack / Decay / Sustain makes sound.
Note also that this is an older release of Goat Tracker.

So read the guide that comes with your tracker, rip apart the included demo tunes and have some chipping fun. Oh, and once you get into it, very few people outside of the chipscene are going to understand what you are actually doing and why you are even bothering. Even a synth-head won't understand why combining a snare and arpeggiated chord into a single instrument is such an achievement - which is the reason demopartys and chip compos started in the first place! It is an artform very few people (certainly in Australia) are still persuing.

All I can say about chip tunes (on a personal note) is that while I play live electronica at gigs with a mountain of gear with more I/O's than I know what to do with - nothing comes close the the buzz of hearing a freshly composed chip tune playing on retro hardware. It is a raw and real way of composing music because the tones are so mathematically pure and simple. Due to the limited channels it is actually possible to perfect a tune to your liking. There is no reverb to hide behind, no endless list of controllers to be daunted by, no unlimited layers and channels to clutter things up. A chip tune takes electronic music composition back to its purest form - a combination of frequencies and texture.

Give me the choice of a workstation with 1000 plugs & unlimited tracks vs. C64 tracker for a weekend - I'll take the C64 any day.

TOOLS / Downloads

I don't have time to make a comprehensive list, but for Goat Tracker (the PC tracker shown) or NinjaTracker on a real C64 of emulator will get you started.

2 . Making Amiga MODs

Making a MOD tune is actually very similar to tracking a Chip tune except you are working with samples and (generally) a prettier interface with easier copy and paste options, etc. Again - it comes back to the method above:

# 1. Instrument area : You have up to 31 allocations for samples. Each sample has a loop in / out function and you can tune it.

# 2. Pattern area: You have 64 "positions" to enter notes on 4 channels. Default tempo is around 120BPM and each "position" a 1/16

# 3. Sequencer area: You can order your patterns. Patt 1 might be the intro which plays twice, then 2 patts which make up verse 1... etc

If you want to create
authentic oldskool Amiga tunes, check out the "ST" disk sets. These were the original Sample Tracker discs that heaps of ppl used to make music in the early days because no one could afford a decent sound capture device and probably didn't have anything to sample in the first place! "ST-01" to "ST-06" are well worth having a look at. (just change disk number of the address to access the others). The other way of getting instruments is to open other peoples MOD files and "save sample" from their sample libs. Just be sure to credit them in the file name :-) It's polite.

Of course, if you are super "leet" you can make your own samples. Creating seamless loops in tiny samples is actually quite easy if you time the loop point to a "cycle". This is harder than it sounds but the advantage is that you can use your pre-existing wave editor (like Audition or Audacity) to do this. You will also be able to source sounds, like classic 909 sounds or 303 sample packs, from the web or your VST programs. Just make sure that you Normalize your samples ... even use a bit of the old Maximiser to get them nice and compressed and loud. Solid chunky waveforms = good.

cTrix Tip on Samples : crank the f*ck out of them with a maximiser or hard limiter. Especially on drums. It hides the fact it is 8 bit and generally sounds chunkier... (many will dissagree!)
MODPlug in action (with PT style theme)
4 CH MOD is an Amiga format. If in doubt, open an existing MOD and erase everything to get a compatible file. F04 sets the tempo to 160BPM.

Don't worry if samples are a bit crushed or compressed - you don't have EQ or compressors anyway so pre-compression (especially on drums) is generally a good idea. You should also pitch your musical samples to C and export them at a custom sample rate of 16726Hz or 33452 hz (not at 48khz or 44.1khz!!!). This is the standard tuning point for Amiga. They will also down convert to 8bit when you import them - so you may want to do this inside your wave editor although avoid noise shaping (aka. adding hiss to mask quantisation noise). I've never seen the logic in noise shaping 8-bit sounds because once you layer multiple sounds back together you will not notice the quantisation distortion but you will notice multiplied layers of noise shaping. Hm.

Or bugger it - if you don't understand any of the above, just bring in bog standard 22.050khz samples. Just bring everything in at the same samplerate it should sound ok. You could just use other peoples samples - but make sure you make a note of where you takes samples from.

There are two ways of (easily) creating MOD music for Amiga

# Create the tune on a modern day tracker for PC/Linux/Mac then port it across to the real hardware (generally much easier)
# Use a native tracker or oldskool composition program on real hardware or an emulator such as WinUAE*

* The problem you will face with WinUAE emulator is that you will not be supploed the A500 ROM file required to boot. You actually need to "purchase" these ROM files as they are still under licence by Amiga... arg. They don't actually cost that much if you do decide to be legal you will get all the variants of most ROMs - which is very handy. You will also need an ADF "virtual disk" version of Protracker or whatever you choose to track with. It is generally easier just to use a nuskool tracker in an oldskool mode.

WinUAE... Lots of Config options although you will need to learn which chipsets belong to which series of computers. The slowest is fine for Tracking.
Protracker for Amiga. It's easier just to use a PC / MAC / LINUX tracker rather than work from an emulator.

The same limitations will face you as for a chiptune : limited polyphony and limited sample time. In the case of the MOD format (limited it's self by the Amiga sound hardware) there are 4 channels of polyphony. But 4 notes is plenty to work with and you can do a ton of things to get around this.

- Combining multiple instruments in samples -
esp for drums. Add a High Hat and Bass Drum together, make combo samples or use short drum loops.
- Pre-built chords
for Minor / Major / Sus and use of "pads" rather than wasting multiple channels on chords.
- Drum-loops and pre-made arpeggios. cTrix Tip: Cut your drum loops into slices (at least 4). This will give you more options for variations.
- "Ducking" volume on other instruments when bass drums or other solid instruments play will give the illusion of a multiband compressor / limiter
- Channel juggling - you don't need to keep just one instrument on one track. Generally drums and bass are solo, but everything else shares.

If you have read the section on Chip Tunes (above) then follow the same procedure - open up some demo files and play around. First - look at pattern programming and note entry and make a tune using someone else samples. Then look at sequencing (the order of the patterns) to build a tune, then go back and start bringing in your samples to make something fresh.

There is a technical, but quite easy to understand guide to tracking at: http://www.modplug.com/mods/handbook/handbook.htm

TOOLS / Downloads

I don't have time to make a comprehensive list, but a few are:

MilkyTracker Seems to be the favorite for many people at the moment. Cross platform - it will also create more compatible Amiga files.
MODPlug (the PC tracker shown) quite a simple Win32 looking ap with a flexible layout for big screens. It does the job OK for me.
ProTracker V2.3d is the final "official" release of the classic Amiga tracker. I think I'm still 1.3 or something like that. The MOD format is back compat

You can make surprisingly decent sounding tunes with just a handful of samples and some clever juggling of parts. If you listen to commercial drum 'n' bass, industrial or electro tracks you will notice that these tracks are often quite minimal and can be represented quite successfully with 4 channels. Especially if a few loops are being used. The biggest problem with MOD is the lack of highpass and lowpass filters - although you can actually create a "long" sample which sweeps from pass to no-pass and just use the "sample offset" command to trigger from different positions in the sample.

Have fun, and of course, just come earlier in the day to Syntax Party (with your machine) if you want any advice or ideas from other trackin' crew.


Coming at a later date
. Will include:

Pixeling with C64
Amiga and a note on conversion from PC.

3. CONVERSION of content to Real Hardware

To learn more about any of this:

- How to create an ADF for Amiga
- How to copy an ADF to a real floppy
- How to create a D64 for C64
- How to create a real C64 floppy
- How to create a PRG from an image file
- How to create a PRG from a SID file which will usually play without a problem...

Just come to Syntax Party with your computer & files and one of us will be more than happy to show you the conversion process. Between us, we have all the cables, etc. You might want to bring a 5.25" or 3.5" floppy to copy your files to.