So You Wanna Make A Chiptune #3: The Big 3

- Posted December 12th, 2014 by

Hey guys! Welcome back to So You Wanna Make A Chiptune (SYWMAC for short)!
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these and, truth be told, I’d been putting this particular topic off for stupid reasons.  Last time I did a SYWMAC article I promised I’d write one about LSDJ, Nanoloop and LGPT.  For some indiscernible reason it just wasn’t happening.  I apologize for that, because this is something I wanted to write sooner, as it’s not only a big question for beginners and veterans alike.

As such, I’m going to be approaching this topic a little differently.  As opposed to my usual grading system, I’m going to instead:

(1) go into more depth about something that I consider an important contributor to the choice one will make when picking one of these three programs
(2) make recommendations based on where I am now and what I have observed as a chipartist.

Let’s not waste any more time.  Here’s my take on The Big 3 trackers that currently define chiptune.
hex loops

Nanoloop 2 for the Game Boy Advance

nanoloop 1

Our first tracker up for discussion is Nanoloop. If that name sounds familiar, it’s both because of its general popularity and the fact that I’ve discussed the mobile version in a previous article.

That said, for those who are new to chiptune, Nanoloop is a program designed by artist, musician and software developer Oliver Wittchow who created it as a study project while attending the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg.  It’s an incredibly powerful tool, one that combines ease of use with with a level of intuitive conveyance that’s both alluring and difficult to ignore.  While LSDJ and LGPT are primarily trackers in the classic sense, Nanoloop is designed with a more minimalist universality in mind.  Upon starting the program, you’ll be taken to a screen of a 16 blocks arranged in a 4×4 square with a few symbols surrounding it.  Regardless of whether you’re a veteran producer or a neophyte to composition, there’s something very natural about the way Nanoloop looks and performs.  From the idea that blocks are musical notes to the symbols being various effects such as volume, panning, lfo modulation, and pitch control, Nanoloop’s initial screen is one that’s very fun to use and rather easy for many to get into.

When things do get confusing, it’s usually due to the way song creation and saving happens in Nanoloop.  Instead of saving a full song as is, Nanoloop saves banks of individual patterns of music.  After these patterns are saved, you may then save your work as a full song.  While this confusion is eventually overcome in time, it does lead itself to the discovery of Nanoloop’s biggest limitation: its storage capacity.  Memory limitations are par for the course and also occur with LSDJ and piggy.  However, Nanoloop’s limits are something than can make or break whether it will be the instrument of choice for a budding chiptuner, as Nanoloop only has space for 60 banks; 15 for each of the 4 different kinds of instruments available on the program.  Compared to LSDJ or Piggy, this means that effectively you only have enough space for a couple of songs if you go about composing music in a traditional manner.

Furthermore, it should be noted that unlike LSDJ and LGPT, Nanoloop is the only one of these programs that doesn’t allow for sample uploading onto the cart.  What that means is that for as powerful as Nanoloop is, you are ultimately stuck with the sounds it can create. This can be troublesome for many, as while it is understood that limits are par for the course in chiptune, some may feel the limits imposed upon them in NL are too much of a hassle to deal with and hinder creativity.  Some may be bothered by the lack of sound options, others by a lack of memory for longer song creation, and even more by the fact that, because of these parameters, Nanoloop lends itself more to being used as a drum machine or loop maker in a DJ style set up than as a traditional composing space.  And while many have used this program to great effect, DJ-style playing is not for everyone.

In the end, if you decide Nanoloop is still the product for you, go for it, but know that more than any of the previously stated limits the program has, the final obstacle in your path will be the price.  Nanoloop cartridges are sturdy, powerful products because of their unique build of having the circuitry embedded into PCB instead of glued on top of the circuit board.  This means that Nanoloop carts are hand crafted products with limited runs and an even smaller second hand market.  Translated into simple terms: Nanoloop is expensive. Unless you happen to luck out with a sale from a vet chiptuner who is looking to sell stuff as much as possible “because reasons”, eventually you’re going to go to Ebay to do some shopping, and you’re going to cry when you realize that Nanoloop carts sell for anywhere between $80–$140 dollars!

Nanoloop is a great program, but while any hobby is an investment, I would strongly urge you to think twice about whether a cartridge version of Nanoloop is the way you want to go, as you can download a newer, better version of this software for a fraction of the cost.

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Little Sound DJ

lsdj 1

Up next on the chopping block is probably the most famous chiptuning program of all time: LSDJ.  It honestly needs no real introduction, as it is the AK-47 of the scene.

Developed by Johan Kotlinski, the program is a love letter of undying passion to demoscene.  Not only does he love the scene enough to perform in it, Johan himself is still very much a hands-on developer, with the latest stable build having reached v 4.7.3 as of last June!  If that’s not dedication to the craft, I don’t know what is.

Simply put: LSDJ is a program that lives up to the hype.  It’s powerful, fast, versatile, and delightful to use.  Designed with classic trackers in mind, Little Sound DJ turns a Game Boy into a full on synthesizer with a large plethora of options available to the user that far supersede any of the options available on any of the other programs discussed here.
It offers 4 channels (or instruments, if you will), a built in wave creator, sample editor, various effects for modulating sound output, and, with the right software/hardware, it is capable of midi interface.  In short: your options for song creation and playback with LSDJ are vast!

Speaking of which, it should also be noted that something that LSDJ has that Nanoloop does not is the ability to switch between “Song Mode” and “Live Mode”.  Now while it’s true individual patterns can be played back by themselves in Nanoloop, the control over shifting back an forth between patterns can admittedly feel clunky in comparison to LSDJ. In LSDJ, shifting, cuing and muting patterns is a rather intuitive and relatively quick procedure.  Combined with the fact that LSDJ is capable of holding more patterns/space than Nanoloop and can save files as full songs instead of individual patterns, LSDJ actually allows for full song composition at much longer lengths than Nanoloop can provide.  This means that with the right size cart, a producer is capable of holding up to 2 albums worth of music on a cartridge, depending on how long you make your songs and how dependent you are on samples (which take up available space).

LSDJ is a great program, but it has two major downfalls – the first is compatibility.  While it’s true not all Game Boys are built equal, it should be noted that when I first got into chiptuning Nanoloop worked consistently the first time and every time I started it up.
With LSDJ, things got weird.  Sometimes it didn’t want to play nice on my GBA, sometimes it did.  On most occasions, it would turn on fine on one of my DMGs, but then would get strangely temperamental and only work on my GBC.  LSDJ is a finicky software when it comes to what hardware you use, and regardless of what kind of device you choose to run it on, my one big piece of advice is this:


LSDJ is too much for the GBP/GBL and often times LSDJ would either mess up my GBP’s backup battery or capacitor. In one strange incident with my silver GBP it blew out the speaker, leaving the headphone out as my only way to hear playback.  There’s a reason people stick to the DMGs: they work well with LSDJ.  Stick to them.

The second major shortcoming is one that I cannot stress enough: crashing.  Whether it’s a brand new Drag’n’Derp cart with the newest build or an old Mr Flash cartridge, the biggest gripe I and many others have is memory loss through crashes.  Yes, I will admit, crashes can happen with any piece of hardware or software; it is not tied specifically to LSDJ.  I swear, though, if I had a dollar for every time I saw a post on Facebook, Twitter or cm.o about how someone lost an hour’s worth of productivity on a song they sunk their very being into by an LSDJ crash, I’d have enough money to buy Chiptunes = WIN from Hoodie [Hoodie Edit: get me a truck full of kegs of Cherry Wheat and we’ll talk :3]. Data loss due to crashes is endemic to LSDJ use, and even if you save early and save often it’s not always enough.

LSDJ is a powerful tool, and it is a road well worn for a reason in the scene: it works.  But if you’re going to use it, be advised that it isn’t perfect.  I highly suggest trying it out first with either the demo or full version ($1 via through an emulator.  From there you can determine whether or not to buy the appropriate hardware to further utilize it.

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Little GamePark Tracker (aka Piggy Tracker)

piggy tracker 1

Last up for review is Little GamePark Tracker, aka Piggy Tracker. Piggy has a very interesting history regarding its development with the South Korean game company GamePark Holdings, one entwined with the very strained socio-economic relations between South Korea and Japan.  Although it no longer exists, the demoscene owes a lot to GPH as LGPT would not exist without them.  This is because the program was originally designed as an exclusive native app for the GP2X by Marc Nostromo (aka M-.-n).  After the company went belly up, the program would eventually get ported to several other platforms and go on to become a powerful part of the scene we all participate in today.

So, what can Piggy do and what can Piggy run on?  Piggy can run on several platforms, but it runs especially well on Linux-based consoles.  GamePark systems such as the GP2X and GP32 perhaps run it best, but Piggy works just fine on the PSP, Windows, and on portable Android devices that can emulate the PSP or GP2X.

As per what Piggy can do, what’s interesting to note is that while LSDJ is very much a thank you gift to the demoscene as a whole, LGPT is very much a love note to LSDJ. Not only is the layout similar, it can also do many of the things LSDJ can but more or less all at once.  Let’s start with the more.

LGPT has eight channels available to it.  This means that one system can potentially do what you need 2 Game Boys with 2 LSDJ or Nanoloop carts to do.  I say “potentially” because, depending on what system you run Piggy on and/or what exactly you’re composing, you may still be inclined to run a second PSP or GPX and plug that into a separate channel on a mixer.  The reason for this is,  unless you’re very anal about your parameter controls (volume, effect overlap, etc), some sounds can get lost in the distortion of too many instruments playing at once and cause clipping.

The other good news about Piggy is that because it is LSDJ but bigger, it is capable of doing so many effects in program that LSDJ can’t do as well or as much of.  With space for two effects tables to run at once, two effect slots for each pattern, and instrument editing options including note length, playback type, delay effects, root note variation, groove tweaking and max volume output of up to 200%, Piggy Tracker is very much a programmer’s wet dream.  It offers a great deal of the customization of classic PC Trackers in a portable package with a very suave interface.

That said, all this power is also one of Piggy’s downfalls.  It’s an incredible piece of software (my personal weapon of choice!), but it is undoubtedly the most intimidating piece of software on this list.  With a user interface that’s largely in hexadecimal, a steep learning curve and the need to browse through menus to pull up samples to use as instruments, Piggy can be a bitch to learn off the bat.

It should also be mentioned that while Piggy is the best at handling samples of all the programs in this article (mainly due in part to the larger memory capacity of the platforms it runs on), Piggy does not have any built-in synthesizer function.  What this means is that while Piggy can mod the heck out of samples and comes with four folders of various instruments, not knowing how to navigate the screens or edit the samples accordingly to start making music means Piggy is the least beginner friendly program on this list.

Despite these weaknesses, LGPT is a powerful music program with one more outstanding factor going for it, and that’s price: Little GamePark Tracker is FREE.
You run absolutely no risk to your wallet should you choose to try it out.  Your only investment with it is the time that you put into it.

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Having used all three of the programs on this list, I have deep respect for them. That said, I have to mention the one practical factor that may influence your decision to choose: cost. The vets know this already, but for you neophytes out there who are still figuring out how you want to chip — or if chip is something you even want to do — you need to understand one thing: chiptune is an investment.

The fancy Game Boys, the mods that go into them, the cartridges needed to run programs, they are all quite expensive.  While the allure of buying a custom GB from ASM Retro, Kitschbent, or 8bit Aesthetics is strong, understand that these are not cheap purchases.  Yes, by purchasing through these websites, you support services that help the scene thrive as a whole.  However, should you choose to go the Game Boy route, you need to keep in mind that even adequate gear for performances can cost you up to $200.

If, however, all you want is to run a program like LSDJ or LGPT on a handheld platform that feels comfortable, is reliable and affordable, you can probably find a PSP with a charger and a 1GB memory stick for $45.  After that, all you need to do is download a homebrew program that will allow you to run LGPT, and you’re good to go.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with buying modded LSDJ or Nanoloop and the gear to run them, but if you’re unsure whether or not chiptune is something you’re going to pursue continuously, it’s probably not worth making a $200 purchase that will only gather dust on your shelf. Particularly not when there are cheaper, easier available alternatives at your disposal.

With that said, this wraps up this edition of SYWMAC and my thoughts on The Big 3. Ultimately, I can’t decide which method is best for you, but if I’ve at least helped you decide which path to take then this was all worth it.

Until next time, Happy Holidays, safe travels to MAGFest 13/PAX South, and don’t forget: Kuma Loves you.



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