Is there a good Chiptunes 101/For Dummies out there?
March 16, 2010 2:33 AM   Subscribe

Is there a good chiptune tutorial out there anywhere?

I've recently become really interested in trying to compose some little chiptunes. I have some experience in music theory and playing guitar, so I'm not totally blind. My real problem is that a lot of the programs suggested to me (LCDJ, Famitracker, Masterstroke, Deathray etc.) are pretty obtuse.

Is there a good chiptune tutorial anywhere that could walk me through one or more of those programs, explore the vocabulary of waveforms and hit the 101 of composing using a tracker?

I'm just pretty lost and don't quite understand how anyone ever made heads or tails of the stuff!
posted by GilloD to Technology (5 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I'd start with a more straightforward synth app (Reason is my favorite, but probably overkill), and look at just using raw sine, triangle and square waves to get a feel for programming and the waveforms. That should go a long way to letting you make the jump to something as crazy as a tracker.
posted by CharlesV42 at 5:14 AM on March 16, 2010

Raw sine, square, etc will not sound much like chiptunes. Instead, I'd recommend two steps, in order:

1) Download Impulse Tracker or a clone of it (there are several), or ModPlug Tracker (maybe easiest to start with, if you're running Windows) and grab some chiptune MODs from one of the mod archives. Study how they work, read about the tracker interface and the effects (especially the 'J' command and the portamento commands), then try making one of your own using the samples from your 'tutorial' songs. In these trackers, you can always solo a channel (column) to better hear what's going on with that particular instrument. Reading the tracker docs will pay off a great deal, and there are some good tracker tutorials here and there on the web.

2) Download GoatTracker 1.53, and try making an actual C-64 SID chiptune. The process is quite different, since you're working directly with an (emulated) SID chip, but the sound is pretty authentic, and the interface is quite similar to other trackers. I recommend 1.53 over the 2.x series for a beginner because in 2.x they introduced a much more complicated (but more powerful) wavetable system that is IMO hard for beginners to understand and use.
posted by Maximian at 5:29 AM on March 16, 2010

I've found Milky Tracker has pretty good documentation.
For example, here's a comprehensive list of all the commands you can enter.

Definitely worth finding some tracks to look through. Once I understood roughly what each thing meant, I learnt a great deal very quickly by just stepping through a few.
posted by lucidium at 6:42 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

But that obtuseness is a large part of what gives chiptunes their sound - the tools naturally lead to composition in a particular style. Likewise, Reason may give you the tools to make the sounds of chiptunes, but the tools lend themselves to more mainstream dance music.

That said, if you're willing to expand your definition of chiptune to any sort of cheesy computer game music, my favorite MIDI sequencer is Melody Assistant. It's $30 shareware, it's very well-documented, and it does traditional staff-based notation with a wonderfully cheesy soundset.
posted by modernserf at 7:52 AM on March 16, 2010

Raw sine, square, etc will not sound much like chiptunes.

It's true that the sounds from the actual chips can have a different character from pure sine/square/saw/triangle waves... there's generally something in the output chain which colors the waves somewhat. So if you want fidelity to a sound from a specific device, trackers and emulators that try to meticulously re-create the original device's sound are the way to go. But if you're just trying to get at a generally primitive 8-bit sound, though, playing with raw waveforms in any additive/subtractive soft synth would be one good way to get started.

Here's an example put together in Reason. If that's in the ballpark of sound you're interested in, then you might find a general software/synth environment like Reason amenable and more straightforward. If you're thinking "kinda close, but it's just missing a certain audio something," then trackers are probably essential for you.
posted by weston at 1:51 PM on March 16, 2010

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