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.
1. TRACKING & CHIP TUNES
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..
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
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
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
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
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.
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 &
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.
1. Making C64 or Nintendo "Chip"
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
# 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
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
(sin, tri, square, noise) & defining the octave and base
note (bass, lead or combo),
- applying an envelope
= 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
- 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
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.
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
# 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"
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.
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 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
Seems to be the favorite for many people at the moment. Cross
platform - it will also create more compatible Amiga files.
(the PC tracker shown) quite a simple Win32 looking ap
with a flexible layout for big screens. It does the job OK
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.
2. PIXEL GRAPHICS
Coming at a later date.
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.