JANUARY 31ST, 2001


If you didn't read last month's article, please go back and do so. It will serve as a good foundation for the points I will stress in this month's article.

Throughout this article, I am going to be making references to what I consider to be the best of the trackers, Modplug. If you don't have this program, take a trip to Modplug Home and download it. If you don't want to use Modplug, you can easily relate the data in this tutorial to your favourite tracking program.

Open the tracker. This is the main Modplug screen. In this particular tracker, note the presence of a MIDI library. We won't be dealing with that just yet, but note its presence.
Almost every tracker out there comes with one module prepackaged with it. Here, I've opened up Aryx.s3m, a nice module by Karsten Koch (a well-respected tracker from yesteryear). Note that I've turned off the Tree view (you can toggle this in the View menu, under the Toolbars option). This is the General section of the module, where you can adjust most of the non-music details of the piece. The one thing that often confuses new trackers is the difference between Speed and Tempo. Generally speaking, you can think of Speed as the overall speed that the module plays at, and Tempo almost as a fine-tuner. By default, Modplug sets a Speed of 6 and a Tempo of 125.
The pattern editor. This is where you will spend the most time, so get acquainted with it now. This is where the music is actually composed. Traditional tracking software, instead of using an actual musical keyboard, uses note values to create music. Modplug has the ability to use a MIDI keyboard, but that's beyond the scope of this introduction. Note the fields Instrument, Pattern Name, and the grid on the lower half of the window.
This is the Samples window. It's here that you'll add, remove, and tweak your samples. The type of module you use determines the options available. Note the various fields dimmed out, these are features not supported under the S3M format. If you were to convert this module to a higher format (on the General window), the options would become available. This window allows you to do minor sample editing as well, although this particular tracker does not include an actual sampler (rare is the tracker that does). Of the major four trackers, only Fast Tracker has a sampler (to my knowledge anyways). If you need an external sampler, even something as simple as Sound Recorder would work. I personally recommend Sound Forge or GoldWave as an external sampler.
The final window is the least important from a musical perspective, but trackers tend to see this as an important feature, the Comments section. Note that the abilities of the format affect how intricate the comments can be (only IT format supports the use of the Song Message field). The list on the bottom will contain all the samples in the module and the comment on each one, as well as other important data. In some modules, you'll also have an Instruments key (represented by the greyed keyboard, discussed shortly) which has its own set of comments.
Here's an option only available in XM and IT formats: the Instruments window. This is the very essence of instrument creation. You can even convert samples to instruments in this tracker, so you can gain more control over how they sound. Note the grayed fields here once again. These are options only available in the IT format (see what I meant about IT being the most powerful module format available?).

Okay, that about covers the various sections of the tracker. Time to get down to business.

Creating A New Song

Click the white document icon in the toolbar (or optionally, choose New from the File menu). The document icon will create a new 16-channel IT module (the New menu choice allows you to choose your format).

Adding Samples

Click on the Samples tab to get to the Samples window. Now you're ready to add samples. Use the Open button (the folder with the arrow atop it) to browse for a sample. This will load the chosen sample into the current sample slot. If you wish to add more slots (and you more than likely will), the first icon on this toolbar (the red document icon) will add a new sample slot, which you can use to insert another sample. You can give the sample a Name if you'd like (this will help you identify the sample in the Pattern editor) but this is not necessary.
This small toolbar to the right allows you to affect the physical data of the sample. From left to right: Play Sample (previews the sample), Normalize (makes the volume of the sample "normal", or "fluid"; raises or lowers the overall volume to just below the clipping level), Amplify (manually adjust the gain of the sample), Reverse (the sample's data is reversed and the sample plays backwards), and Silence (kills the sample data but retains its length).
This box is pretty self-descriptive. It allows you to affect how the samples sounds in its natural state (ie. unaffected by additional effects like looping and reverb). Transpose is the only one that really needs explanation; adjust Transpose to incrementally adjust Frequency. This is a more accurate way of adjusting the sample's tone, rather than trying to adjust the Frequency manually (which you can still do anyways).
Here's the rest of the available options. Note that some of these are IT-specific. Loop is the most obvious, allows the sample to loop on its own. Set the start and end values, and the loop method (XM and IT are the only formats to allow bidir looping, other formats only support forward looping). This might take some experimentation to sound proper. Sustain Loop is similar, but used for a different kind of effect, as well as Auto-vibrato (these are only available in IT modules). The details of how these effects work is beyond the scope of this introduction, but they will be covered later in the tutorial series.

Creating Patterns

Welcome to the time-consuming part. This is where you'll be spending the most time. The grid you see here is where the music editing will take place.
Select a sample or instrument from this dropdown box. Then, you can add notes to the pattern sheet.
One note is added to the sheet. Note the various data involved. You will probably not use all of this data. From left to right: Note and Octave (D 4), Instrument Number (01), Volume (v34), and Effect (DAF, in this case it means "Fine Volume Slide Up 10 places").
The computer keyboard is used to place notes into the pattern. If you don't know what key means what, you can always see a list of key mappings. In the View menu, there's an option called Setup (this option is run the first time Modplug is used as well). Click the Keyboard tab to see the current key mapping. Note the presence of Keyboard Preset: this particular tracker has mappings for Fast Tracker, Impulse Tracker, its own mapping, and it even allows you to define your own keyboard mapping. Now, back to the pattern editor.
There will come a time when you wish to add a new pattern. Just click the white document icon shown here to add a new pattern.
These keys affect the size of the pattern. The first key allows you to manually set the number of rows. The second and third keys increase and decrease the size of the pattern in increments. Using the manual size setting is the preferred method.
If you need to adjust the octave, this is the option to use. More than likely you'll be changing the octave more than once, so remember where this is. By default, Modplug starts at octave 4.

Save Your Work!

Remember to regularly save your work! It sucks to track for four hours without saving and then have the power go out or some other monstrosity of modern technology (Windows crash, brother kicking out the power cord, Windows crash, lightning storm, Windows crash, power surge, did I mention Windows crash?).

That's All For Now

Hopefully this gives you a look into the methods behind digital music. The next tutorial will take it a little further, with more detailed looks at certain functions, and of course, we'll get into effects. Until then, good luck and happy tracking.