The tools and knowledge you need to get started writing chiptune music
Learning how to make 8-bit music is a journey into a magical realm of retro video games and electronic media. First you must understand what 8-bit music is. If you've ever played an NES video game console, you've heard it, but too few people have actually thought about how to make 8-bit music, let alone actually try it. Back when they were making the first widely commercialized video games, they didn't have the music creation technology that we do today. No FL Studio. No Garage Band. Nothing except a little computer chip in the console that could process 8 bits of information at a time. And so, the sound engineers of the day had very strict limitations on what they could and could not create using only 4 channels of sound, two of which were devoted to treble voices, one to bass, and the sole purpose of the fourth was to make gritty sounding noises.
Now that we have the technology to create higher quality music and not nearly as many restrictions on the instrumentation, why would anyone want to limit themselves in that way? Believe it or not, There are a lot of games still being made that use 8-bit music, also called "chiptunes" in reference to the computer chip that originally contrived them. It may be the nostalgia for a simpler time, or it may be that some just prefer the sound and style, but whatever the reason, some games today are even being created entirely for the purpose of experimenting with 8-bit music.
Note: This tutorial delves into a number of subjects surrounding 8-bit music, but focuses on how to create it as authentically as possible with modern software. If you came here looking for a plugin for your DAW, I'd recommend YMCK's Magical 8bit Plugin. However, you should still give this page a read-through. You might learn something cool ;)
Introduction to Soundwaves
No, we're not going to the beach. I'm talking about how sound ripples through the air. Understanding the basic forms of soundwaves is the first major step towards learning how to make 8-bit music.
If you've ever even played around with any sort of recording software, you've probably seen them. They are a visual representation of the velocity and pitch at which sound is traveling. Seeing recorded sound waves may look a little complicated, but we're talking about computer emulation, so hopefully it will be a little easier to understand.
In 8-bit music there are four basic types of sound waves: Sine, Saw, Square, and Triangle.
Each one produces a different type of sound, and they are all malleable to conform to whatever effects like tremolo or delays that the composer wishes to produce.
You may remember seeing these in physics class in high school or if you took any trigonometry or calculus courses. This wave shows as a perfect curve that runs up and down like a rollercoaster.
As can be expected, the sound is sweet and smooth, almost like a flute.
These types of waves are a bit gritty. They are also referred to as "sawtooth", because the waveforms look like the teeth of a saw, sharply falling and slowly rising. These types of waves are very commonly used for melodies or counter melodies in 8-bit music. They can be thought of as the alto of the chiptune choir.
Saw waves sound dirty and have a bit of a buzz to them (go figure).
This is my favorite kind of wave. It represents a good blend between the sine wave and the saw. It's a bit buzzy, but maintains a smoothness at the same time. This is also commonly used for lead voices in 8-bit music, especially the main melody.
This wave is very malleable and lends itself well to effects and alterations.
This sound is about as smooth as the sine wave. It moves steadily up and down with single points as peaks and valleys instead of curves, creating a shape that looks like a bunch of triangles.
This sound wave does not work well with sound effects, so it does not fill the role of lead very effectively. It is frequently used for bass lines. Since it can reach low pitches easily without creating any buzzing or feedback effects, it is well suited to low ranges.
How Soundwaves Are Made
8-Bit Sound Channels
Because of the limitations of technology back in the NES era, there could only be four tracks, or "channels," of sound at any given time. This means that the composers and designers of NES games had to get creative with whatever they wanted to convey with the music, often relying more heavily on strong melodies and effects like vibrato that could be carried out by one or two channels in order to free up space for other things. If you go back and play one of your favorite NES games, you'll notice that whenever a sound effect is heard (like the warning beeps of low health in Zelda or the charged up shooter of MegaMan) one of the channels drops out in order to free up a channel for the sound effect to be played through.
Channel 1 - Treble
The first channel to be discussed is almost always used for treble melody lines. It is usually produced as either a square or saw wave, although sine would work well too. This channel should be paid the most attention to detail. Effects like tremolo, vibrato, and delay can really shine. so when creating your main lead, treat it with the love and affection that it deserves. After all, it can be the tune that people walk away humming for days, or it can be the main reason that people turned the game off in the first place.
Channel 2 - Mid-Range
This channel is usually the backup to the melody. I like to think of it as the alto to channel 1's soprano. The line should be somewhat simple, but the main job of this channel is to fill out the harmony. With channel 1 singing the melody, and channel 3 pumping out bass notes, this channel has to pick up the harmonization left between.
Good waves to use for this are sine and saw, although square can be used as well. Some good effects to use on this channel are arpeggios and delays. In 8-bit music, the arpeggio effect creates rapidly played broken chords, perfect for filling out the harmony.
Channel 3 - Bass
Although we can't make it thump like Dubstep, we can still make a sweet bassline to complement any song. The best wave for this channel is the triangle. The nice thing here is that the triangle is very similar to a sine wave, so it can dip into the upper registers without impedance. This is great if you just need a couple more notes to create a tight rich sound up top.
Since this line does not stand out to the average gamer's ear as much as the melody voices, it is a good opportunity to emphasize the rhythm. Bass does not have to be intricate or overly complicated. It can be perfectly content to pluck out some syncopated root notes.
Channel 4 - Noise
While you were playing your favorite NES games, you may have noticed that those percussion sounds you were hearing were really just noises. This channel can't make any of the waves we've talked about, but it can make scraping sounds, pops, clicks, and other noisy effects at different pitches and velocities. You can still add effects to this channel, but they will react differently than on the others, so it may take some playing around with it to get the desired effect.
Extra Channel - DPCM
This channel can be used to import sound files. It will however play them at a much lower quality than they originally were, so don't expect to get some awesome voice-overs for your next NES style game. It's not used very often, so you shouldn't have to worry about it to much. If you're curious or intent on using it however, there's a great explanation of it in FamiTracker's Help files. Just click Help > Help Topics or press F1. The expand the folder that says "Interface" on the left, and click DPCM Editor at the bottom of the list.
8-Bit Music Makers
Now that you know all the basics behind how chiptune tracks work, it's time to start making your own. FamiTracker is one of the best tools out there for creating 8-bit music. Basic knowledge of how to play the piano is a plus, because it is designed to use your computer keyboard to enter notes corresponding to the keys on a piano. But don't worry, there's no need to go out and get lessons if you don't know how to play. You'll pick up the program soon enough.
The beauty about trackers is that they can export to NSF format. That means that you can actually use them in creating the music an NES cartridge game. "Do they even still make those?" you ask? Why, yes they do! If you don't believe me, just check out Battle Kid.
- FamiTracker is free and open source. My personal choice for creating chiptune tracks, and what we'll be using for the rest of this tutorial.
- If you don't think FamiTracker is quite your thing, you can also try MilkyTracker. This program is also free and open source.
- If you're looking for a retro sounding plugin for your DAW (e.g. Reason, FL Studio, etc.), YMCK's Magical 8bit Plugin is pretty darn good.
- If you're just looking for some quick 8-bit sound effects without all the hassle of learning one of the above programs, or if you just want some quick inspiration to get started writing your own chiptune track, you might want to try out SFXR. It is free, open source 8-bit music creation software designed to help developers who are trying to quickly make a retro game.
Setting up FamiTracker
Since this is my program of choice, I'm going to show you the basics of it, including setting up, entering notes, and adding effects.
When you first start the program, you will be shown the blank slate of a new song. Notice that the different channels are already set to certain waveforms. Channels 1 and 2 are set to "Square," channel 3 is set to "Triangle," channel 4 is set to "Noise," and there's an extra channel set to "DPCM." The large area in which all these are laid out is the Pattern Editor.
At the top left you will see a small box with a bunch of zeroes. This is the Pattern Selector. Next to that are the Song Settings and Song Information although those are pretty simple to figure out.
Editing an Instrument
[Video] Editing an Instrument
Creating a Melody
Making and editing a new instrument
Maybe you've already written a song and you'd just like to make it 8-bit. If you haven't, you should at least go write a main tune right now or pick your favorite song from an NES soundtrack to replicate.
Once you have a good melody figured out, it's time to punch it in. First, we must create a new instrument, so we can edit the sound and effects. To do this, click on the leftmost icon in the row underneath the top left black box. After you do that, something should pop up in the black box that says "00 - New Instrument." Double click those words or click the rightmost icon in the same row.
A new dialog box will appear with several options. Check the box next to volume to turn it on. Now click the plus sign a few times where it says "Size." You can now click within the large lined area to edit the volume of this instrument as it plays each note. As you click, notice the numbers that pop up underneath the size editor. These tell what effect each line will have. For instance, if you have a sequence of numbers that read "10, 8, 6, 4, 2" whenever this instrument plays a note, the volume will start out at a rather loud 10 and work its way down to a gentle 2 where it will stay until the next note is played.
The effects other than volume can be useful too, but are a bit less rare for a melody line. Feel free to play around with the other effects. You can always easily undo anything if you add something unintentional.
The Keyboard Keyboard
To start adding notes for our new instrument to play, first you must press "Space." This makes the program go into edit mode. Now you can start playing your keyboard as if it were a piano. The diagram above shows how the bottom two rows of keys correspond to the notes on the piano. It works the same for the top two rows as well, but those will enter notes that sound an octave higher. So at any given point, you have two full octaves to work with. You can change your range at any time by selecting an octave from the dropdown list in the top left of the program.
Think of each dashed row as a sixteenth beat, so every highlighted row represents a quarter beat. If for some reason you need to use thirty-second notes, just mentally halve the value of each line, so the highlighted rows will represent an eight beat. As you are entering notes, if you run out of space to work with, just press the plus sign next "Frames" under Song Settings.
[Video] Entering Notes
There are several effects you can add or take away from any instrument at any time. Each effect is assigned a number or letter that you need to enter followed by two numbers that serve as parameters. First however, let's discuss a little more about layout of the note entering area.
You will notice that in each channel's column has a whole bunch of dots in it. Look closer and you will see that some of the dots are grouped together into columns of their own. The leftmost column has a group of three dots. When you click on these and enter notes, the dots will show what note, a dash, and what octave. If you entered notes, you'll also see the next column over with a group of two dots will say "00." These numbers represent which instrument is set to play the notes. If you had multiple instruments, whichever one was selected would play the notes. This is useful if you want to have different instruments with differing effects such as volume arpeggios, which can easily be edited in the instrument editor.
The next column contains a single dot. This is for the volume. Most everything in this program works based on hex. So the value for the volume could be anywhere from 0 to F. In case you're not familiar, basically it's like having everything set on a scale of 16. 0 is the quietest. As the value increases, so do the numbers until you get to 9. After that you start with the letter A and keep going until you have the highest value F.
(0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F)
This is one of the easiest and most useful effects you can use in FamiTracker. At any point through your song, you can change the value in the volume column, whether a note is being played at the same time or not. This is how we can create a delay effect. If you have the volume when a note is played set to F, you can drop it by a few degrees at a time, then spike it, and drop it again. For example, F, B, 7, 3, D, 8, 4, 1.
In addition to being able to change the volume on each line of the song, you can do the same to many other effects. The last column of dots is grouped in three. Here you can add and edit almost any effect you desire. The first dot tells what effect will be applied. The next two are for parameters that vary depending on the effect. We'll try adding tremolo here. So, pick a line and on the first dot of the effects column, type "7." In this case the next dot will represent speed. The third dot represents depth. If you're not sure what those mean, try playing around with them to see the changes they make.
In my example "Chippy" below, I entered "777" at first, "755" a little later, and "733" after that. If you try this, you will hear a great difference between the three.
As mentioned, there are many other effects you can add in. To many to talk about here in fact. To see the full list of effects and what to enter for them, click Help > Effect Table.
[Video] Adding Effects
Continue Making Glorious Chiptunes!
That's about all you need to know to get started making 8-bit music. Just repeat all the steps we just did for the other channels, and before long you'll have a fully fledged 8-bit song to show off to your friends!
Whenever you're done, FamiTracker's so nice it will let you export your song as either NSF or WAV. You've probably heard of WAV before, and that's the format you'll want to choose if you want to spread your creation around the internet, but if you really want to be authentic, you can save it as an NSF file. Then you can only play it in emulators and other such programs.
Mega Man X - Boomer Kawanger
Final Fantasy 7 - JENOVA
Journey - Don't Stop Believing
diodebro on June 09, 2015:
Thanks a lot for this. I love chiptune music and wanted to experiment with making it myself and this is a great kick start to learn the more advanced stuff for myself eventually.