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
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
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
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.
|- Passing a project
to someone else requires them to have the same setup / plug
ins to sound same
- The GM "standard" MIDI sounds are PRESET and largely
traditional instruments... crap for electronic
- Needs mixing down. Filesize typically
- File formats incompatible unless using MIDI format
|+ Contains sample
lib so will sound almost identical on all platforms - even from
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 20k - 200k per song
+ Trackers open each others formats (usually)
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
1. The Instrument area : where you
sculpt your sounds and (for MOD) load samples, set loop points,
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
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
There are three main "stages" in the tracking family:
1. CHIP trackers - which use an onboard sound chip to create sound
- 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.
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 (see above)
# Use a native tracker or oldskool composition program on real hardware
or an emulator, such as CCS64
Either way, one of the major limitations you are going to have 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!)
At a basic level (see picture below), creating an instrument comes
back to choosing a series of waveform
(sin, tri, square), the octave (bass, lead, combo), putting an envelope
on it (attack
= how quickly the note cuts in, decay
= how long the note crescendos for, sustain
= fade out time, release
= how long it takes to fade out after note is released). There is
also a phasing-kinda effect to tweak. The rest is filters - which
on C64 will have you scratching your head going "wtf?! why
is effecting all 3 channels?!" but that is half the fun. Drums
are harder - but generally just logical. A snare is a blast of white
noise at rapidly varying volumes with a medium decay. A bass drum
is a sine wave dive in about 100ms - but you'll see all the "recipes"
in the demo tunes and you can generally "tweak." other
peoples sounds. And build up a library of your own sounds (there
are presets with GT)
So read the guides... rip apart the included demo tunes and have
fun. Oh, and once you get into it, nobody is going to understand
what you are doing and even a synth-head isn't going to understand
why combining a snare and appegiated chord into a single instrument
is so cool - which is the reason demopartys and chip compos started
in the first place!!
All I can say about chip tunes (on a personal note) is that while
I play live electronica at raves with a mountain of gear and spend
my working days in a studio 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 or tracked MOD on retro hardware. It is a raw
and real way of composing music and the tones are so mathematically
pure and simple that it is actually possible to perfect every element.
There is no reverb to hide behind, no endless list of controllers
to be daunted by, no unlimited layers to clutter things up. A chip
tune takes electronic music composition back to its purest form.
Give me the choice of a workstation with 1000 plug ins& unlimited
tracks or a C64 tracker for a weekend - I'd 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
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"
# 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...
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 48khz or 44.1khz!!!). There is a reason for this
which I'm not going to explain - just do it! They will also down
convert to 8bit when you import them which you may want to do on
export - although avoid noise shaping (aka. adding hiss to mask
quantisation noise). Once you layer multiple sounds back together
you will not notice quantisation distortion but you will notice
multiplied layers of noise shaping. Hm. Yes. Or bugger it - just
bring in 48khz samples, which as long as you bring everything in
at the same sample rate, doesn't stop you working. You might want
to use the "downsample" feature to half this rate else
the note range won't extend far enough to play the notes at the
correct speed. Or.... you could just use other peoples samples!!
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 there are
4 channels of polyphony - but you can do a ton of things to get
- Combining multiple instruments in samples - esp
for drums. Add the High Hat and Bass Drum together. Or make combo
- Pre-built chords for Minor / Major
/ Sus and use of "pads" rather than wasting multiple channels
- Drum-loops and pre-made arpeggios.Cut your drum
loops into slices (at least 4). This will give you more options
- "Ducking" samples when bass drums or
other solid instruments sound to give the illusion of a compressor
- And (as mentioned above) the old channel juggling trick
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. Then look at sequencing
(order of the patterns) then start bringing in your samples and
making custom tunes later.
There is a technical, but quite easy to understand guide to tracking
TOOLS / Downloads
I don't have time to make a comprehensive list, but:
PC tracker shown) does the job OK and it what I've used for years
away from the A500
Seems to be the favorite for many people at the moment - it will
also create more compatible Amiga files.
is the final "official" release
of the classic Amiga tracker. I think I'm still 1.3 or something
like that (!)
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 4CH. Especially
with if loops are being used. One of the down falls is the lack
of highpass and lowpass filters in the MOD format - 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.
2. PIXEL GRAPHICS
Coming Soon. Will include:
Pixeling with C64
Amiga and a note on conversion from PC.
3. CONVERSION of content to Real Hardware
How to create an ADF for Amiga (with links)
How to copy an ADF to a real floppy (with links)
How to create a D64 for C64 (with links)
How to create a real C64 floppy (with links)
How to create a PRG from an image file
How to create a PRG from a SID file