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Shane Cartledge @WritersBlock

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Curtin Uni

Perth, Australia

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8-bit/chiptune blog tutorial

Posted by WritersBlock - December 13th, 2007

Ok, this here is a tutorial to help those of you who don't know how to make decent chiptune (aka 8-bit) music. But it's going to be more to it than: here's the VST's and off you go! You need to know how to structure the song properly. Some of you (myself, included, as of not too long ago) may have thought that chiptunes are simple, any one can make them. No. You need to have some understanding of music construction, which I will mention, and which will help you when you extend into other parts of music.

But first of all are the instruments.
Chiptunes mainly use simple wave formats, such as the sine, square and triangle, and basic percussion, which sometimes is generated by basic noise. I am under the impression that the original chiptune music used only 4 channels. If you want to stay true to chiptunes in that sense, by all means, keep your songs to 4 channels, but I am not bothered with these limitations. I believe you can create a song that captures the chiptune feel while extending beyond the 4 channels.
You can use the 3Xosc VST to get your sine, square and triangle waves, but, just as handy are the Peach, Triforce, and Magical8bit VST's. Also, you can use Toad for your percussion, and a Bitcrusher if you want to downsample richer instruments, although bitcrushing is considered less traditional in terms of proper chiptunes. I prefer to use the Peach, Toad, Triforce and Magical8bit VST's to create my chiptunes, but anything mentioned above is fine.
To unleash the power of these VST's, you will require a program to plug them into. A free program is
Reaper. If you read this here, then that explains how to use VST's in reaper.

From here, I will go into detail for two different styles of composition, each with opposite styles, some which apply to both. First will be how to write the common videogame loop, with tunes from the sonic games as examples, and longer, complete songs, the layout which can be applied in more mainstream genres. I will be using my latest: Snowboard Kids: Hidden Track as an example. I will not be going into more obscure works, such as Rucklo's chiptune jingle bells, which breaks away from the videogame conventions on melodies that come across in mainstream games.

In general, chiptunes are monophonic. This means that there is no panning, what you hear in the left speaker is the same as in the right. It doesn't refer to the composition style where only one instrument has the melody and the rest have the accompaniment, but due to the limited instruments, that is most often the case.

Now, on to the actual composition.
8-bit loops:
If you have not heard the songs- Flying Battery zone Act 1 from Sonic and Knuckles or the Boss theme music from Sonic 2 for the Genesis, I highly suggest you do before reading further to understand the references properly. Both of these are 16-bit, but they represent an era of video game music at its finest, and these songs are much richer with melodies than the older sonic tunes, and have a more complex composition.

Flying Battery zone act 1: This song is in two main parts.
The first giving a snazzy melody as everything comes in. Notice how it's relatively spaced out, there's the introduction phrase (technical terms, we'll call this the "question") followed by a completing phrase (call this one the "answer"). This makes up the basis for the first phrase, the question, then the answer, the question then the answer, call and response.
The answer has a little chromatic syncopation (moving one note apart, and off the first beat). This gives an impression of jazz, unusual rhythms and occasional (slight) dissonance (notes that aren't in the key of the song). The high harmony with its rapid runs after sustained notes and accidentals give an improvisational feel, which fits in with the jazz theme. When the actual melody comes in, it plays over the question, but finishes on the first beat of the answer. This is to space out the song, waiting the appropriate time to peak (which is in part two). When the melody repeats, it is identical, except for the last note. Phrasing like this is common in music, the tune is mixed up a bit, and gives some sense of direction.
The space in the answer is ideal for setting up for the transition into part two, as you'll hear the melody for part two comes in on the last beat of the answer, which effectively ties it all in for a smooth transition.
Part two follows a different pattern to part one. The chords, for one, are moving in an upward direction (note that the third chord has the same bass note but still rises, which reiterates the jazz theme) signifying the climax of the piece. The melody is higher up, but the first time the pattern goes through, it takes several steps downward in key, to get smoothly back to the first note of the melody. This is a bit of an anti-climactic part, as the rise falls back to the melody again, but when it repeats, it provides a larger climax due to the delay. This time, the melody finishes earlier and on a high note, the climax of the piece. It then cuts away to the bass passage leading back to the start.
Note the static edge the bass has. This compensates for the lack of drums, as well as capturing the cutting edge feel of the flying battery level that isn't present in the other instruments.

Well, that covers a fair bit on phrasing, rhythms and jazz techniques.

Boss theme music: This song has a short introduction followed by a repeated melody which is the main theme. The introduction acts as a bridge holding the piece together when looped.
The introduction sets the mood of the piece right from the first note. It's punchy, it's on the beat, it's bosstime! Now, this is a condensed question and answer, with the static punchy bass followed by the contrasting sustained notes, all on the beat. When this is repeated, the answer is changed and finishes off the phrase. Unlike before, all the focus is on the answer and there is no gap to transition to the main melody, they are both separate events, but the military 2/4 beat and punchy attitude ties them together allowing for the quick change to the tune.
The main melody is built up from a contrast of short punchy notes and longer notes. The short punchy notes move mostly in steps and the longer notes are used to highlight the chords and is more likely to jump around with pitch (although usually not more than 2 notes in the scale). The short notes, passing between the long notes are known as passing notes. The ones that appear on the beat fit into the chord they're played with, but the ones between are not necessarily so, but rather they transition to the next chord. The melody is just a simple phrase, catchy and repetitive. But on the second repeat, the end is slightly altered. This was done with the last track, it's done in most good tracks, it makes them catchy. A thing to note about the end of this phrase is the short notes moving upwards. The last three notes are chromatic and the second is in between two notes of the scale. This could have been replaced with a longer note that was in the scale, but it would then lack the slight dissonance that makes the tune catchy.
This phrase is repeated four times, filling out the duration of the song before repeating. But this might get boring, so what happened was that the first time the pattern was played, it was normal, just the melody and the bass and percussion. Then an alternate harmony joined on the second playing. On the third playing, the harmony was shot up the octave and the melody was mirrored at a higher pitch, notably three tones above, giving a slick sound typical of notes moving in consecutive thirds (same direction, consistently a third apart). Then on the fourth playing, the melody was repeated yet again an octave higher, so it now dominates all major frequencies. This song lacks the climax of the previous track, but it has that constant build up, so that, even though the climax is just a dominant melody, it cuts away to the bridge/intro pattern and the build up starts again, so it's always moving towards that climax, but never really reaches it.
That's one thing to keep in mind for battle/boss themes, they've got a hard, punchy attitude and they have a constant build up of tension, as opposed to normal level tunes, which are more consistent with the previous track.

Short, catchy melodies, appropriate build up and climaxes, the right attitude, these things can make your loop a classic, or can make it just another 8-bit dud.

Also, once I go through the complete song part I'll summarize everything into dot points so it'll be more straightforward, with the songs providing examples how to use these techniques.



Now I really want to make music for the audio portal.

I could do this with some of the other sonic tunes =P but this is basically it.
But, yeah, it's not too hard to make VG stuff, but you do need to know the basics, and there's still other things that I haven't mentioned, either for not knowing, or knowing that if I start expxlaining, it'll lead to other stuff and turn out much longer than it already is, and it's unfinished, so I may just add links to stuff I don't want to explain =P

Wow, good tutorial with lots of solid advice! Thanks WritersBlock!

Cheers, man!

I'm starting to think that you know everything there is to know about music, you are GOOD!!!!
I'd like to submit stuff to the audio portal, but I was banned for submitting a recording of myself saying "Hi! I'm Omochao! I'm here to annoy your brains out!"

Lol, must have caught a mod in a bad mood.
And I don't really know EVERYTHING about music, I just finished 5 years of high school analyzing classical music and techniques and such, and I've found that it's a lot easier analyzing sonic tunes than it is with 20th century Concertos, because then it's a lot more diverse and there's a lot less conventions being followed and difficult for more people to understand.

It is fun to know that my classical learnings weren't just a waste of time, and they can apply to the music I like most.

I don't think I caught a mod in a bad mood so much as I caught Wade Fulp: Destroyer Of All in a bad mood, I probably pissed him off when I complained about how I couldn't submit stuff after the thing was blammed while under judgment (first submission to the audio portal is put under judgment by default) so he probably made it worse

Comments +1
Nice tutorial, man! I suggest adding a link to a free sequencer, like Reaper - <a href="http://reaper.fm">http://reaper.fm</a>

Yeah, sure. I'll put that in now.

uh, rig? it says you have to pay after the trial period, that does not mean free

Reaper is free. You don't have to pay after trial period is over, you just get a message saying you should pay. Everything still works fully.

rig my man, have i never told you how much i love ( backspace) appreciate you?
that magical 8bit vst is by far my favorite 8bit one. altho i will be hard pressed to find a use for it....

woops replace rig with writersblock... lol why did i type rig...

lol :D
I can't remember who gave me the link...

Thats for all the vsts links!

btw, I found that entry on google, more pageviews!

Yes, most chiptunes have four channels (Amiga modules originally had four channels, since that was all its hardware could support, but eventually that was expanded to eight channels; I think the AY chips have four channels also), but some (99% of the Commodore 64 chiptunes out there; although the SID chip technically only supports three channels of specific waveforms, similar to the adlib chip (although a lot better-sounding), there is a way to simulate a fourth channel that could play real samples (although with a very low bitrate(?) through some hardware flaw in the chip) only have three, some (eight-channel MODs) have eight, and some (most PC formats) have 64, I think.




No results found.


Although I know you were talking about console game remixes and not actual chiptunes, you should probably add some things about traditional chiptunes. If you listen to any real chiptune made by anyone who knows what they're doing, they will most likely use arpeggios, since when you only have three or four channels (SID/original MOD), you can't afford to waste three on chords, and I hear a lot of people using chords in their chiptune attempts now that they have fancy sequencers with 457963597435639475 channels.

Of course, none of that applies to adlib things (although they don't really count as chiptunes, mainly because they don't sound like them, and it's completely useless for me to add this because I don't think anyone else on Newgrounds has ever touched an adlib tracker anyway) because there are nine channels and some trackers don't even have an arpeggio effect.

Also, you might want to add a link to some real trackers (I recommend ModPlug: <a href="http://modplug.com/trackerinfo.html">http://modplug.com/trackerinfo.html</a> ) and chiptunes ( <a href="http://chiptunes.back2roots.org/">http://chiptunes.back2roots.org/</a> ).

Of course, if this is about making Sonic remixes and not chiptunes, I just wasted ten minutes of my life typing this shit that nobody will ever read.

This was a very helpful tutorial!
Thank you very much!

Very good article, even more than 2 years old!
(Specially for chiptune beginners like me :)