Intro To Music Tracking

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If you happen to know me from elsewhere on the internet you might be aware that every once in a while I dabble in the creative arts and bash out a tune or two for a bit of fun [obligatory cheap plug], and often people ask me what I use to write my music. When I tell them I use ModPlug Tracker though, their reaction is usually something along the lines of “buh?“. It doesn’t look like much like the type of music creation software that people are generally more familiar with – it’s less drag-and-drop, more a sort of musical spreadsheet. It’s quite a logical way of writing music and I’d say it’s probably quite appropriate for the more programmer-minded composer. It can get pretty complex when you get into the swing of things, but there’s no reason it can’t be simple enough to get the hang of it. In this article I’m going to try and explain a little about how it works and how you can get started writing a simple tune with it.

Setting Up

First of all, you’ll need a copy of ModPlug Tracker, you can grab a copy of that right here. There are alternatives, such as MadTracker, where many of the same concepts apply, the basic methods of writing music in a tracker work the same whether you use a modern tracker or one from the 80s or 90s on an Amiga or under MSDOS. In this article I’ll be working with ModPlug though, I’ve been using it for years and it’s what I’m familiar with, so if you’d like to follow along, that’s what I’d recommend you grab. Once you’ve installed ModPlug Tracker, you’ll have a “workstation” in which you can work your musical magic.

Choosing An Instrument: Samples vs Plugins

Trackers themselves usually don’t come with built-in sounds or synthesisers, you have to supply your own. There are two ways of getting sounds into modern trackers, both have their own plusses and minuses. The first is the old school method, you take samples (which are simply wave files containing a recording of a singer or an instrument) and play them back at different speeds to get differently pitched notes. It works, and it’s worked for 30 years, but it’s not what I consider to be the best option these days. It’s still useful even if you don’t use it as a primary method of making sound, you need to use samples if you have some pre-recorded audio you’d like to include in your song, perhaps a borrowed sample or sound effect you particularly like or some vocals you want to put over the tune you’ve written. If you want to use a recording of, for example, a guitar or a piano, it’s a little more complex because you need to know which note is being played in the recording and tell the tracker which note that is, otherwise everything will be horribly out of tune. Ideally, you’d want a collection of many different notes for the best quality results, a recording of every note on the particular instrument is the best option for quality, but unwieldy, somewhat harder to manage and it results in much bigger files at the end of it all. The upside to this method is that you can distribute the file as it stands, everything is self-contained, all the instruments are packed into the file. Think of it a little bit like a MIDI file, but instead of using the crap default instruments, it comes with your own (hopefully better) instruments built in. It’s also possible to take that file and modify it, sort of like open source music. Most tracks aren’t distributed with that ethos in mind though, so do avoid trawling through other peoples’ tracks ripping samples if you plan to release your own songs.

The method I generally use, however, is one I find much more flexible during the actual writing and a whole lot more fun to use, I use what are called VST plugins. They’re plugins which offer various ways of working with sound. Some of them, which we need to write an actual piece of music, are virtual instruments which aim to simulate a given instrument or sythesiser. Other types are available, such as effects, perhaps to add distortion or a bit of reverb, maybe to tweak the balance of bass and treble, but we don’t need to worry about those in this article, they’re a more advanced function than I can cover at this point. Whatever type of VST you’re working with, they work in a huge range of musical software and come in a massive range of styles and genres, some free, many very expensive, but if you can think of an instrument or effect you’d like to pull off then it’s almost certain to exist in VST form. I only use free ones and the quality can vary a great deal, you tend to get very much what you pay for, but there’s such a wide range that there’s certainly a lot of gold in them there hills, so to speak. One issue with this method is that you can’t really distribute the source file any more, unless the people you intend to use the file also have the same plugins, you have to render the track to wave, mp3 or similar, so it can no longer be tweaked and modified. For the purposes of this demo, I’m going to use a VST, this grand piano plugin named Prova, to be exact, it’s free, simple and traditional, so it’ll be easy to play along with. You can experiment with different instruments once you get the hang of how to use them, or if you feel confident enough to choose an alternative that you like the look of while reading along with this little tutorial.

Almost There

Now we have a VST instrument, we need to “install” it. Not a difficult process, though if you’ve installed ModPlug to your Program Files folder and you’d like to keep everything in the same place then you may need administrative privileges in order to install plugins. Assuming you have that, or wish to keep your plugins somewhere else, all you need to do is extract the .dll file. That’s it. Put it somewhere appropriate, it doesn’t matter where, but you’ll need to remember where you put it for later. I suggest making a folder specifically for your VST instruments just for convenience.

Let’s Make Some Noise

I know, I know, all this text and we haven’t even played a note yet. Let’s fix that, shall we? Open ModPlug Tracker, accept the default configuration, there’s nothing which needs to be changed in order for it to work, you can explore that yourself when you feel a little more comfortable with the application. Start a new project, simply click the new project icon in the top left, or swing your mouse up a tad further to File, New, then choose IT. You’ll be presented with a big ol’ slab of stuff and you’ll probably notice that the UI isn’t what most would call refined, but it’s functional if not pretty, so let’s roll with it.

Somewhere near the bottom of the page which has just popped up, there will be a Plugins section. We need to tell ModPlug that we’d like to use a plugin in our project, so click Select, then New Plugin, and browse to the .dll you saved earlier. You only need to do this part each time you get a new VST, after the first time it’ll be available in the plugin manager list.

Make sure the plugin you just added is in the list and selected, then choose “Put in FX01”. You’ve now got a plugin attached to the project. Just one more little step, and we can start deafening the neighbours. Flick over to the Instruments tab near the top, and choose “New instrument” (top left, it looks like a piece of paper with a picture on it), then in the Plugin/MIDI dropdown box a little over to the right, choose the plugin which should be in FX1.

Now we should be just about ready to make some bangin’ choonz, innit. Flip over to the Patterns tab, and you’ll see a big spreadsheet-looking thing. At this point do feel free to have a little tinkle on the ivories, or a rattle on the plastics, as it were. If you click in the very first column of the page, then type something on the keyboard, it’ll make some noises. I can’t guarantee they’ll be good ones, but there will be noises.

If you’d like to follow along a bit further, I’m going to use Yankee Doodle as an example track in this article because it’s super simple and loads of people already know it. Here’s a copy of my project file, you should do the steps above first though, otherwise you won’t have the plugin ready for the project to use. Once you load the file, hit F6 and it should play, Esc to stop it. Here’s a picture of it, open to the Patterns page with the first few bars of Yankee Doodle:

That’s the part which goes “Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony”, and written in normal music notation, it looks a lot like this (taken from here):

It looks quite different, but it’s actually pretty similar. Let’s turn that sum’bitch sideways and take another look:

For every one of those stalks with bobbles on the end, which are called quavers and crotchets, there’s a corresponding note in ModPlug. Each note is written in the form of the note, the octave and the instrument used to play it. In this case, the first note on the left-hand side (which would normally be at the top), is the note C from the 5th octave, to be played by instrument 01, or in this example, the piano. As the module (fancy word for song, in tracking lingo) plays down the page, it reads each note and plays the sample/tells the VST to sound the note, in a sort of MIDI-like fashion, roughly speaking. That’s really all there is to it, when you’re looking at it as simply as that. It might help to have a little musical theory under your belt, but it’s absolutely not necessary, most of the “work” involved is learning the application well enough to make the best of it.

Since I’m using a piano to demonstrate, there is one thing I’ll point out, you’ll notice in this demo all the notes are stuffed into one single column, or channel, which is fine, but listen to how it sounds:

Yankee Doodle 1

That’s the very same as shown in the images above. Sure, it sounds like Yankee Doodle, but does it sound like a piano? Not so much, on a real piano the notes don’t just stop dead when you play another, they sort of fade away. Compare it to this one:

Yankee Doodle 2

Much more piano-like. That’s because in the second example, I spread the notes out into their own channels, so the note C gets its own channel, D its own, E, F, etc. This allows notes that aren’t the ones you’re playing right now to fade out like a regular piano or plucked guitar might. There’s a lot of technique to making tracked music sound “real”, and that’s one of the little tricks you get to know over time. It’s so simple, but can add so much life to a track, whether it’s using samples or plugins. It looks a bit like this:

That’s just about it for the basics, really, you can keep adding instruments the same way as the first, just choosing a different FX number, you can add new patterns by pressing the page button in the top left of the Patterns tab, and you can just keep building and building. There are tricks to pick up, as I pointed out above, but it’s really just a case of slowly building up your experience and instrument collection, playing with new ideas, fiddling with settings and parameters, and you should probably give the ModPlug manual a quick glance or two as well. Here’s an example, I had a little play around with Yankee Doodle, and this is what came out:

Yankee Doodle 3

That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last decade or so, off and on, every now and then I pick it up and bash out something new, learning as I go, it’s taken me a while to really get the hang of it, but it’s certainly doable, even if you have little or no previous musical experience.

So get to it, see what you can come up with, and if you feel like you’ve made something worth sharing, stick a link in the comments or on the forum and see what everyone else thinks.

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