So You Wanna Make A Chiptune #2: Computer Trackers

- Posted August 7th, 2014 by

Welcome back to SYWMAC, guys and gals!  It’s great to have you joining me again.  Now last time I posted an article, I focused on showing the highs and lows of tone matrix apps, got some positive feedback, and also received some insightful criticism that I’d like to reflect on a bit before beginning this article in earnest.

An artist said to me that my differentiating between apps and grading them, even decrying some as garbage, was nonsense because there was only “understanding” to be had from each tool used.  While I understand his sentiment, his feelings don’t reflect the reality of what I seek to address in these articles.  When I wrote my last article, I purposely discussed three of many tone matrix types apps available on the android market that were of a wide variety of quality and functionality for a reason.  While they don’t represent the end all be all of all apps in that category worth using or ignoring, they do accurately represent the issues faced in trying to find a quality program for use on an Android product very well.  Often times when an application is put on the market, it is placed with very little governing or evaluation on Google’s end, and becomes one of many products in a market that is over saturated with nonsense.  It’s a situation similar to going on Steam and finding one good game like Braidfor every 10 survival horror BS Titles like Slender: The Eight Pages.  The point I’m trying to make is that such an over saturated market that gives preference to apps that either use spam bots to boost positive comments, or use corporate funding to lure you in with a cheap, free download, only to either inundate your phone with memory consuming advertisements or demand microtransactions for the features you actually need, like saving instrument preferences or exporting a song as a wav file so you can master it on your PC.  It’s important to know what’s worth getting and what’s worth passing up.

It’s with that understanding in mind that I’d like to say that this article reflects the sentiment this artist felt more accurately, because these programs are in a market that’s not only not heavily saturated, but have the added bonus of history and context to them.  These are programs that have not only withstood the test of time, but have been utilized successfully by many icons of yesteryear in the demoscene and are still heavily used today, and while I do have a clear preference for one of them, it is an honor to say that these tools are worth their salt, and that understanding can be gained by using all of them, should one choose to.  So, without further ado, I’d like you to join me as I take the time to analyze the most classic of instruments available to us, the reason we all are able to do that which we love the most: computer trackers.

tracker banner

Trackers are tools that have existed since the late 80s and the term comes from a computer program for the Amiga called Ultimate Soundtracker (Soundtracker for short), which was created by a German composer and software designer Karsten Obarski.  The program had four channels, labeled as Melody, Accompany, Bass, and Percussion, and while it was able to handle samples, it was considered clunky, bizarre and its UI was filled with typos when it first came out.  It didn’t save instruments and songs in the same file, it didn’t allow for pattern following in song playback mode, and it’s hexadecimal input system was considered unintuitive by many at the time.  Truth be told, tracker programs are still considered by many to be off-putting, cumbersome, intimidating platforms that focus to heavily on trying to create via what is essentially programming.

Despite this still persisting perception, Soundtracker gained a cult following.  Its sound not only became what was considered the definitive standard for Amiga game music soundtracks, and would become the progenitor of new platforms that led to what we use in chiptune now.

While we’ve come a long way from grandpa US, it’s important to understand that trackers still retain traits, both vestigial and purposeful, that link them together and back to their predecessor.  The good news about that is that it allows for basic understanding across almost all tracker platforms, meaning if you know how to use one, the learning curve for wielding another becomes much lower!  The bad news is that while all trackers borrow in some way from Ultimate Soundtracker, some cling to it’s clunkier, complicated design much more than others, and while anything new can be intimidating, it’ll become clear that there’s a stronger choice for beginners or those looking to cross platforms to use than others.


Schism Tracker

schism trackerThe first of the four trackers we’ll be looking at today is Schism Tracker.  Schism Tracker is an amazing tool that is a reimplementation of a very popular 90s tracker called Impulse.  Both take heavy inspiration from US aesthetically, especially in the form of it’s GUI, but look past the surface and what you get is a fully evolved creature that’s entirely different beast altogether!  Boasting a massive 64 channels of instrumental output, support for up to 99 samples per track, active song scrolling and vastly smoother sound output thanks to REAL sound stereo output, Schism Tracker was a monster for it’s time and is still a solid choice now.  With an active community behind it that features users creating new builds for anything from Windows, Linux and Mac to even Raspberry Pi and WiiU, the coolest part about Schism might be just about how universal it’s use across platforms can be.  As long as whatever platform you want it on supports SDL, you can probably find (or if you’re eager enough, build) a port of Schism to work on said medium of choice.  However, despite the active community behind it, Schism Tracker is not without it’s faults.

Schism’s community is fairly active, but it’s community is small compared to that of some of the more popular choices out there.  Dive into the boards and other problems begin to reveal themselves.  Trouble handling certain sample types/sizes, the inability to draw samples, and perhaps most importantly: module incompatibility.  This last problem can be something of a downer to people looking to switch platforms as module files (.mods) is a very popular file type for trackers.  Having a tracker that hiccups or seizes upon playback of these files can be disheartening, as it takes away one of the best aspects of the scene in general: sharing for the sake of learning and critiquing.  This isn’t to say it’s a common problem, or that it can’t happen to other trackers, as well.  As I mentioned before, although small, Schism has an active community behind it that works regularly to try to debug issues as they arrive and are reported, but when even a quick glance through a forum reveals that this is the most frequently reported problem, it is worth noting that this may be an issue you encounter upon choosing this program.

That said, Schism is a great tool, one full of history and tradition, and while trackers are daunting to learn as is, it’s a good starting choice for a lot of people in the scene because of it’s relatively uncomplicated interface, smooth sound output, and surprising amount of power for such a seemingly simple program.  If you feel it’s the program for you, check out the tutorials made by Psylent Buddhi and Volt 44 on Youtube and get started making something wonderful.

Breakdown:
Functions & Features: 4 / 5
UI: 4 / 5
Bang For Buck: 5 / 5
Reusability: 4 / 5
Reliability: 4 / 5
Overall: 4.25 / 5


MilkyTracker

MilkytrackerScreenshot

Next up on our list is MilkyTracker, a program that has not only enjoyed seemingly more popularity than Schism, but has a history deeply tied into it, as well.  While all trackers share a common progenitor in Ultimate Soundtracker, Milky’s most direct ancestor is a program that was a rival to it called ProTracker.  ProTracker came out a good 2-3 years after US was released for the Amiga, and while US was still a highly popular tool at the time, ProTracker was embraced immediately due to it having proper playback rates for both NTSC and PAL formats, as well as in-program sample editing.  Fast forward a few years, and Ultimate Sountracker has a descendant in the form of Impulse Tracker, which boasted a traditional interface that was entirely keyboard based, where as ProTracker would help give birth conceptually to what was FastTracker 2, a program that not only looked like an updated ProTracker, but allowed for more patterns than Impulse did and featured an interface that could be tinkered with using a mouse, as well.  Combined with the fact that FastTracker 2 was the product of a two very popular, fast rising demoscene stars named Frederik “Mr H” Huss and Magnus “Vogue” Hogdahl (a duo collectively known as Triton who would go on to form Starbreeze Studios), and what soon “erupted” was a demoscene war known as “FT2 vs IT”.

So, now that the roadwork for MilkyTracker has been laid, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.  MilkyTracker is to FastTracker 2 what Schism Tracker is to Impulse Tracker.  What does this mean?  Well, while both have similarities to one another in terms of platforms they’re available on, what file types they can handle and playback, and a sense of tradition and longevity in the scene, it should also be noted the things that made IT and FT2 vastly different from one another still apply, as well.  While Schism does have mouse interactivity now (because it would be strange if after all these years it somehow didn’t) Schism lacks the ability to draw, create and/or edit samples to the extent that Milky Tracker can.

MilkyTracker also has considerably more support for midi input devices that Schism.  This not only allows for not insertion through a midi device, but also allows for multi instrument midi playback option via sectioned keyboard playback (i.e. one octave of notes on a midi keyboard controls one instrument/channel, another higher/lower octave controls a different instrument).  Combine this with the fact that MilkyTracker has a live mode for performing and the ability to use the program in either Milky Tracker’s default mode or in Fast Tracker 2 mode (to heavily replicate the feel of using FT2 in the mid-late 90s), Milky proves why FT2 became such a popular choice back in the day.  Milky is a solid platform, one with fewer drawbacks than Schism, but ones that should be made clear none the less.

First off, Milky, while a sleeker looking program, is also a more complicated program, both in appearance and implementation.  For as cool as Milky looks, I remember just dying inside thinking I’d never get the hang of using it.  Of all the trackers I tried, Milky has been the most daunting and has the sharpest learning curve of the all.  Hell, I’ve spoken to more experienced chiptuners than myself such as AutoRemi-PK and even he’s admitted that compared to what he’s used to using, MilkyTracker was just something that made his head explode every single time.  It may be stylish, but I will admit for first timers, it is easier to wrap your brain around Schism than Milky, with or without help from a video tutorial.  Furthermore, it’s easy to overwrite samples when moving from one sample to the next, as this was something I did frequently when first using it and is something that still happens on the rare occasion I use Milky.  That said, these are the two major drawbacks I constantly encountered with Milky.  The program, as a whole, has a lot going for it.  If you feel you’re up to the task of learning a 2nd Gen tracker program that has an admittedly steeper learning curve than the other trackers on this list, download Milky and check out Brandon Walsh’s video tutorial series on Youtube for getting started.  It’s a great resource and I will admit because of it’s popularity as a program, it does have a wider range of resources available for getting started, so if you don’t like his style, there are plenty of other MilkyTracker vids to choose from.

Breakdown:
Functions and Features: 4.5 / 5
UI: 3.8 / 5
Bang For Buck: 5 / 5
Reusability: 4 / 5
Reliability: 4.2 / 5
Overall: 4.3 / 5


FamiTracker

famitracker

Breaking away from the classic demoscene, to an extent, is FamiTracker.  While it’s true FamiTracker is based on another popular 2nd generation tracker created by Yannick Delwiche called MadTracker (one which separated itself from the competition by allowing support for VSTs) FamiTracker is a far cry from its parent program.  Instead of being something that dances on the borderline of tracker and a DAW, FamiTracker takes the simplistic, easy to navigate layout of Madtracker, modifies it, and does one thing no other tracker does: it allows you to compose, play, and create sounds not only meant for use on the NES/Famicom, but it lets you play them back on them, as well.  What that means is that all those albums you see being sold on ebay that are somehow on NES carts were all made using Famitracker.  No, not that Fort Atlantic bullshit with a USB cable coming out of it.  I mean dem sweet and sexy Vegavox carts by Alex Mauer!

While it is true that, compared to programs like Milky and Schism, that Famitracker can’t boast channels in the upper double digit range or support midi import, it still has a lot of options available to aspiring producers.  Sample editting?  Check. Waveform illustration?  Check.  Indirect support from Trent Reznor via his approval of Inverse Phase’s cover album?  Oooh lawd yes!   So while these are all great programs, if it’s a classic sound you love and know that you’re looking for, and are looking for something simple, tried and true, and perhaps less alien than something that has it’s roots in the Amiga, FamiTracker is an excellent, relatively inviting program to get down with.  Start with 8bitDanoonct’s videos and move on from there.  If you’re feeling competent enough after that, check out stuff by Beatscribe.  He’s got a video or two up on advanced techniques in the program that are worth checking out.

Breakdown:
Functions and Features: 4 / 5
UI: 4.5 / 5
Bang for Buck: 5 / 5
Reusability: 4.5 / 5
Reliability:  4.25 / 5
Overall: 4.25 / 5


Sunvox

sunvox28

A lot of you may not know this because you may be new to the blog, but I have a weakness for synth Russians.  I dunno what it is exactly about them, but if you tell me you got some sweet jams from C-Jeff or Streifig, my body gets all sorts of ready.  It’s partially because of this, combined with personal experience, that I’m very happy to talk about the last entry in this article.

Sunvox is a program designed by Alexander Zolotov (aka NightRadio), a maestro of programming, composing and visual arts who not only creates amazing programs, but believes that music and art should be accessible.  More importantly, he believes that the means to create music and visual art should be affordable and easy to use.  As such, Alexander created a tracker that not only combines aspects of many of the other trackers that came before it, but does it in a way that’s similar an older program called BuzzTrax in that it not only allows one to work with Sunvox as a traditional tracker, but lets one work with it as a DAW, as well.  This allows for not only considerably more options when it comes to composition, but also allows for multiple ways to interact with the program, as well.  It takes mod and xm files, has numerous built in synths, supports samples, allows for wave drawing and sample editing, comes with dozens of effects off the bat for creating unique sounds, supports midi import/export, has built in theremin support, and has the widest range of platform availability of all the programs mentioned here!  And while I am focusing primarily on Sunvox as a PC program, you need to understand that when I say Sunvox can be used on virtually any platform, I mean Alexander Zolotov even has versions of Sunvox that will work on Palm Pilots.  Yeah…fucking Palm Pilots.

But what does all this power mean to you?  What do all these features mean to someone who’s new to chiptune?  Trackers are still daunting to use, so what do all these frills mean to you in the long run?  What makes Sunvox the best choice for you?  The answer lies in Sunvox’s GUI.  Take a moment to look over and compare the screen shots of each of the trackers to Sunvox and what do you notice right away about it that’s different from Fami, Milky and Schism?  If the first two things you noticed were the small, colorful rectangles in the middle combined with the long white blocks in the bottom third of the screen, you’ve found your answer.  Those boxes are your instruments & effects and pattern timeline, respectively, and they are the best example of why Sunvox should be your tracker of choice.

While the previously mentioned trackers still stick to the idea that trackers, despite some mouse involvement, should be predominantly keyboard based in terms of interactivity, Sunvox moves in the opposite direction in a way that far supercedes what FastTracker 2 did when it first came onto the scene in the mid 90s.  Instead of clinging to a design that is incredibly unfriendly and lends itself to remaining a tool of creative IT folk, Alexander Zolotov realized the what made BuzzTrax so unique and friendly was that in while most trackers were predominantly stuck in the days of DOS and keyboard-only controls, BuzzTrax decided to be relevant by making a design that focuses heavily on the use of a mouse in a world dominated by computers that work with programs that open in windows and have visual aids to coincide with what’s happening on screen!  NightRadio took away what used to be shown with numbers and letters and utilized this idea in a way that not only was a natural progression from Buzztrax’s almost DAW like presentation, but he did it with a flair that was all his own!  Want to increase the number of channels in a song?  Simply right click in the top part of the screen where the channels are located, go through the menu and increase the number!  Want to make a new pattern?  Right click in the bottom part of the screen, choose new pattern, and choose what size you want it to be.  Bam!  You have a new pattern that not only has a uniquely generated symbol that can be edited to your liking using a draw function built into the program, but you can easily see the length of the pattern because the pattern is represented by a rectangle that’s proportionately long to the number of steps within it!

These little, intuitive, modern quirks are what make Sunvox worth learning.  This means that you not only have a behemoth of a program at your disposal, but, regardless of experience using trackers or even making music, with a little curiosity and computer savvy, Sunvox is the one program on this list that you can easily start making music with without the aid of a video tutorial series.  This hands down puts it miles ahead of the competition because while it’s true that the same kind of sounds are technically possible in all these trackers, none of them may have the staying power or support this program has or will have going into the future.

Furthermore, it should be noted that while Sunvox can definitely be used to craft chiptune that sounds like something made on a tracker of yesteryear, trackers of yesteryear cannot make music that sounds like Sunvox.  Sunvox’s unique synth modules, drum machines and spectravoice instruments, combined with it’s plethora of customization options via it’s effect nodes give the program an edge in creative scope, meaning that if you ever choose to venture beyond chiptune or anything that doesn’t sound strictly demoscene, Sunvox is a program that will grow up with you and can adapt to suit your needs.  Milky, Schism and Fami are all trackers decidedly stuck in their time.  Now I’m all for respecting out roots and traditions.  Chiptune, Modscene, and the Demoscene as a whole are about pushing technology to it’s limits.  They are communities that embody Gunpei Yukoi’s philosophy behind the Game Boy: Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology.  I’m grateful to be a part of this scene that embraces this idea and for the path that Schism, Milky and Fami have paved for those of us active in the scene right now.  However, when even Sean Booth of Autechre openly admits to using and enjoying Sunvox, it’s time to take a step back and seriously consider what’s truly worth using.

If you feel Sunvox is the program for you, I highly recommend getting started with the assistance of SolarLune’s video tutorial series (a tutorial series rivaled in quality only by Brandon Walsh’s MilkyTracker videos).  While skills learned in any tracker can be applied to virtually any other tracker, I didn’t get trackers until I got Sunvox.  Trackers are powerful tools, but regardless of how relatively simple they are to me now, when I first started, they were terrifying.  Trackers were simultaneously too advanced, too old and too futuristic for me to ever learn.  They were alien to me.  Hexadecimal effect editing, small buttons, heavy keyboard shortcut use.  Using them just didn’t click.  Sunvox was the program that turned that all around.  It made trackers terrestrial and familiar.  I’m not saying it’s the end all, be all decision for every beginner, but between it’s highly visual display, mouse heavy interactivity, and that damn good tutorial series by SolarLune (btw, why aren’t you following SolarLune on Soundcloud or Facebook yet?  Get on that!), Sunvox is a weapon worthy of your use.  Even if you feel it may not be the choice for you, I implore you to give it a shot because Sunvox is damn near perfect.

Breakdown:
Functions and Features: 4.8 / 5
UI: 5 / 5
Bang for Buck: 5 / 5
Reusability: 4.8 / 5
Reliability: 4.8 / 5
Overall: 4.9 / 5


Well that’s it for this edition of SYWMAC.  Thanks for tuning in and don’t forget to check out the links to the musicians and video tutorials mentioned above.  Links to the programs and support for them are down below, as always.  And tune in next time where I take the time to talk about something that’s sure to get people pissed off at me.  That’s right: next time, I’m discussing the Big 3!  LSDJ, LGPT and Nanoloop!  You’ll be surprised by what I have to say on the subject.

Love & Peace,

\m| (=^(t)^=) |m/

Relevant Links:

Schism Tracker:
Homepage | Forum | Facebook | Download Page | Best Tutorial on Youtube

MilkyTracker:
Homepage | Forum | Facebook | Download Page | Best Tutorial on Youtube

FamiTracker:
Homepage | Forum | Facebook | Download Page | Best Tutorial on Youtube

Sunvox:
Homepage | Forum | Facebook | Download Page | Best Tutorial on Youtube

Vol.2 logo (250x250 png)

 

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