Making 8bit Music: An Introduction To Free Chiptune Music Trackers

8bit mushroom intro   Making 8bit Music: An Introduction To Free Chiptune Music TrackersA few months ago I wrote an article highlighting some of the best resources on the web for finding 8bit music, all manner of MOD files and the software required for playback. Today I’m going to be venturing a little deeper and digging out the tools you’ll be needing in order to create some chiptune yourself.

The modern MOD-scene is a friendly, care-and-share alike community consisting of programmers producing free software, composers sharing their music for free and those who simply love the music. Thanks to software emulation, there’s no need for original hardware any more – though many do still insist on using classic technology for their musical needs.

This will be a two-part guide, with hardware, samples and VSTs coming next week.

Trackers & Making Music

A tracker is not an absolute necessity for creating 8bit, and many people get away with using digital audio solutions like FLStudio or Audacity. However, If you’re really serious about creating 8bit music then you’re going to want to learn how to use a tracker.

Whilst each tracker is different, the methodology behind making music is virtually identical on each piece of software. The most noticeable difference between standard audio software and a music tracker is the way the track is constructed – vertically, as opposed to horizontally – but there’s far more to it than that.

There are 6 main characteristics common to music trackers: tracks (channels), samples, notes, effects, patterns and orders. Tracks are the vertical strips onto which you construct the music, and whilst trackers of old only had a limited amount of available tracks the modern offerings have vastly improved on this. Samples are sound recordings that must be imported (and sometimes generated in-tracker) in order to construct  music.

Notes then adjust the pitch of the samples in order to match them to musical notes, allowing you to construct complex patterns of varying notes with only a handful of samples. Effects go hand in hand with notes, as these are commands added to the end of the note to instruct it to play arpeggio, vibrato, portamento and so on.

A pattern consists of multiple tracks playing at once to make up part of a song, whilst the order defines when each pattern plays, for how long and specifying other options like whether each pattern should be looped or not. These are the basics, and once they’re firmly implanted in your head then the only thing holding you back is your imagination and eagerness to experiment.

Software

Here are some of the best, completely free music trackers as well as relevant documentation where available.

OpenMPT (Windows) [Official Documentation]

Based on ModPlug Tracker, OpenMPT (Open ModPlug Tracker) builds on this release with a number of awesome features including support for VST effects and instruments. VST stands for virtual studio technology and allows instruments such as synthesizers and drum kits as well as a number of effects to be used in OpenMPT. This is somewhat special as I haven’t found any other free trackers that provide support.

openmpt   Making 8bit Music: An Introduction To Free Chiptune Music Trackers

OpenMPT continues the 8bit revival by supporting a number of newer file formats including Impulse Tracker (.IT/.ITP files) as well as good old fashioned (but somewhat limiting at times) .MOD and .XM files. OpenMPT is currently only designed to be used with Windows, and unfortunately I had a lot of trouble getting this to work through WINE on Linux.

One of the most complete, powerful and user-friendly trackers out there.

MilkyTracker (Windows, Mac, Linux) [Official Manual, Unofficial Tutorial]

Another much-loved tracker, MilkyTracker attempts to be a faithful recreation of the popular DOS tracker, FastTracker 2. It also aims to satiate Amiga fans, providing enhanced playback compatibility with the Amiga classic ProTracker. MilkyTracker is able to create .MOD and .XM tracks, has a unique custom user interface and supports MIDI-in.

milkytracker   Making 8bit Music: An Introduction To Free Chiptune Music Trackers

MilkyTracker has not made the leaps forward that OpenMPT has in the form of VSTs and advanced formats, and this is because it has been designed to be and remain a second generation tracker.

SunVox (Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android) [Official Manual, Video Tutorials]

SunVox aims to be a more contained workstation than Milky or OpenMPT and to achieve this there are a lot of synthesizers and effects bundled from the get-go. In addition to this the software has a particularly flexible architecture, allowing it to perform well on older machines, mobile devices and even smartphones.

sunvox   Making 8bit Music: An Introduction To Free Chiptune Music Trackers

Indeed, there are iOS and Android versions available – but they’re going to cost you. If you’re weighing up the purchase then luckily all other versions are free. If you’ve still got an old Windows Mobile or PalmOS device then you’ll be pleased to know SunVox is fully compatible, so why not try it out!

SchismTracker (Windows, Mac, Linux + more) [FAQ, Message Board]

SchismTracker is a free Impulse Tracker clone that aims to recreate the feel and functionality seen in the old DOS application. Whilst Impulse Tracker doesn’t add anything particularly new to the plate (unlike ChibiTracker above) it is very flexible in construction, and according to the author: “Schism will most likely build on any architecture supported by GCC4 (e.g. alpha, m68k, arm, etc.)”

schismtracker   Making 8bit Music: An Introduction To Free Chiptune Music Trackers

As well as Windows, Mac and a handful of Linux distributions, SchismTracker can be downloaded for the Pandora and even the Nintendo Wii (though that version is no longer supported).

SonantLive (Browser) [Instructions]

Because you want to play with a tracker and you’re too impatient to download a portable app and run it – introducing SonantLive, a music tracker than runs in your browser! Yes, it works and should give you a basic introduction to patterns, sequences, waves and of course the process behind constructing a pattern.

sonantlive   Making 8bit Music: An Introduction To Free Chiptune Music Trackers

It’s not necessarily as powerful as the other trackers on this list but then again it’s web-based, designed for fun and completely free. You can even save and load!

Conclusion

There’s simply not enough space here to go into hardware chiptune, the many free samples the web has to offer or all the gorgeous VST instruments and effects that are floating around for free. You’re going to have to wait for next week in order to enjoy those.

In the meanwhile if you’ve got any other trackers or software you rely on for your chiptune needs then don’t hesitate to add them in the comments below.

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4 Comments -

James Bruce

Oh god, you made me wanna dig up my old .mod and .s3m collection. Damn you, I think lost it! Man, the hours I used to spend listening to those, had some absolutely astounding tracks, it was amazing what could be done with those. Back before mp3s were even a possibility, I was listening to mods with a 75mhz pentium laptop and screamtracker. I think Winamp even managed to play them in the end. Thanks for a trip down memory lane!

time to do a thorough hard drive search… .

James Bruce

lost them, but found most at http://modarchive.org/ – jus this one “into my mind”, or something, was my favourite. Cant find!

Esteban

Maybe you should also have covered trackers native to (and those emulating) classic systems with capabilities of hardware sound synthesising (ie. the NES, Spectrum, C64 etc.), and thereby aren’t simply utilising samples. I’m not saying music created with them are superior in any way, but if you’re going to discuss “creating 8-bit(-like) music” I think software of that kind is vital.

Tim Brookes

Thanks for the comment. The next article on this subject will indeed feature original hardware as well as samples and VSTs for a broader look at the world of chiptune creation.
Stay tuned!