DEMOSCENE ★ Tracking Tutorial by Laidoken ★

This is my first diskmag article. Therefore it's rather chaotic. I hope you won't mind. :-)

When I think of my first attempts at tracking, I realize that I didn't pay attention to some things. That's why I'd like to give beginners a few hints which are hopefully helpful.

1. Minimalism

People new to tracking tend to create a minimalistic and, most importantly, thin sound. There are several reasons. Most of the time it's simply because the components of the song haven't been worked out well enough. For example, perhaps the drums don't have enough power in order to serve as a basis for the harmonical structure. In order to get a good basis, you have to find a good symbiosis of drums and bass. In general, the bass is the most important component for putting rhythym and harmony in a sensible context.

Due to this, you should pay attention to the lower range of frequencies of your song. Apart from the bassdrum and snare, it's not necessary that the individual lower-frequencies instruments can be clearly distinguished. What's more important is that the lower frequencies clearly convey the rhythm and perfectionize the overall sound. However, don't use too my instruments with a similar range of frequencies. This would just produce an unclear sound-mix. Actually most of the time tunes sound better if they don't have enough bass, compared to what they sound like if they have too much of it.

One suggestion how to get a good end-mix: At the beginning, don't use any instrument with its full volume (with the exception of instruments which are supposed to be clearly dominant). Otherwise you might have the problem that an instrument which is supposed to have an important role in the song doesn't have enough power, even if you use the maximum volume. If you have to make use of the same instrument several times simultaneously, this usually shows that you've done an error in mixing.

Don't worry if you have problems at the beginning: Once you've practiced enough, you'll manage to get a good mix automatically with time.

Actually a lot of instruments shouldn't be used with high volumes because a lot of players don't correctly mix such passages. (Or is it my soundcard that distorts them? Anyway, it sounds crap.)

Once you have a good basic structure for your track, you have to think how the harmonies ought to sound. Should they be in the foreground or rather in the background? There are a lot of possibilities, but you always have to keep an eye to the entire song.

If your song is very oriented towards chords, take care that the instruments carrying the harmonies cover the medium spectrum of frequencies well. Otherwise the sound will be too thin.

Now let's deal with the lead-instrument:

This instrument is supposed to create the melody. In the ideal case, the listener should be fascinated by this melody so much that it keeps repeating in his head even hours after listening to the song. Therefore it must clearly stand out of the remaining instruments. Nevertheless it's necessary that the listeners clearly notice how it interacts with the harmonies (i.e. the sequence of chords). Any lead is only interesting if it's related to the chords - if it "rubs" itself against them. Dissonances are very important; most of the time, leads are only interesting if there are tensions, which are later dissolved.

It's almost obligatory to add an echo to the lead, because this emphasizes on the superficial character of the lead-instrument and generally improves the sound very much.

In order to avoid double-sounds in echo-channels, I suggest using the offset command (Impulse Tracker: OXX).

There's still much that could be said. But that would make this text yet more unstructured... :-/

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One final point which I regard important in order to avoid a minimalistic, monotonous sound, is transistions. Before a transition occurs, show this to the listener. This can be done by many musical means, for example a drums-break. It's entirely up to your imagination how to do it. Listen to other trackers'music and analyse it, you can thus learn a real lot.

Good transitions are much more essential for songs than you might think. The next time you listen to a good song, pay attention to the transistions. In many cases it's the introductions of the individual passages of the songs which give the passages their meaning and feeling.

2. Scales and Chords

In my opinion, it's very helpful to know a bit of musical theory when you track a song. I think that every tracker ought to have at least a good book on this topic. Especially if you want to create slightly complex harmonies, there's usually no way but dealing with musical theory.

Nonetheless I'd like to give you a few hints, which might serve as an introduction to musical theory.

At the beginning of composing, you should choose a scale. Here are four scales which are especially suitable for tracked music:

1. C major: c-d-e-f-g-a-b
Sure, everybody knows this scale. If you want to track a happy song, then this is the scale of your choice.

2. A minor: a-h-c-d-e-f-g / C minor: c-d-d#-f-g-g#-a#
I guess most tracked songs use minor scales. It's a pity that the majority of composers uses almost only C minor. I'm always very happy when I notice that someone has chosen another tone as the root.

3. E Phrygian: e-f-g-a-h-c-d / C Phrygian: c-c#-d#-f-g-g#-a#
This is the scale I love. Due to the half tone after the root, it really sounds evil. Nevertheless it's possible to create wonderful chord sequences because there's a quint over the root. I recommend that you try
this scale.

4. H Hypophrygian: h-c-d-e-f-g-a / C Hypophrygian: c-c#-d#-f-f#-g#-a#
This scale really sounds terribly evils. Lots of 303 bass lines use a Hypophrygian scale. This is what makes their sound so dark and aggressive. The disadvantage of the Hypophrygian scales is that there's only a highly dissonant chord to the root. But if you don't use chords, that usually doesn't matter.

Now let's deal with the question: How to construct chords?

I've read many texts which are essentially lists of chords. That's not what I want my article to me. Let me describe you my way of construction.

First I take the scale, for example A minor:

a-b-c-d-e-f-g

In order to construct an ordinary triad, simply take the root (a), skip the next tone (b), and take the one following that (c). If you play these two tones simultaneously (a-c), you'll get a "nice" sound. This interval is called a third. You can easily construct any thirds in the same way.

Now we need the third tone for the triad. It's simple, just go up another third from the last tone (c). (Where have we now arrived? Exactly, at e.) This triad is called root chord or tonic of the A minor scale:

a-c-e

In the same way you can create any triads from the scale. For example, starting with c:

c-e-g

And now please don't say that we've switched to C major! Of course this is the tonic of the C major scale, but at the same time it's also a triad that exists in A minor. It's the root and the intervals between the
tones of the scale that determine the scale, not the tones themselves.

Just try it!

It's very easy to construct chords in this way. There are no limits but the scale you've chosen. As long as it sounds good, everything's allowed.

For more information, I recommend that you check out some of the old issues of Traxweekly (I guess they're still available somewhere at www.hornet.org). Many articles dealt with topics of music theory.
Hornet.org also hosts the Zen of Tracking. Moreover, AFAIR there are various tutorials at www.united-trackers.org as well.

That's all I want to say about music theory here. In general, music theory is more about customs than fixed rules. You're free to do anything as long as it helps you achieve your musical goals. Most of the time, however, it's useful to know what you're doing because it may be very helpful to make your tune fit the (Western) music customs.

3. Rhythm

It's not easy to give a song a good feeling. The feeling is highly dependant on rhythm. After all, rhythm is the crucial element of any song. I advise you to experiment a lot with rhythm. You can improve the overvall sound of a track a lot if you don't make the drums play a monotonous "oupther - oupther" rhythm, and if you also use less common drum sounds. (Except if you want to create typical 80s synthie music.)

By inserting bassdrum and snare at many places which aren't identical to the typical beats (the beats to which you usually dance, clap your hands or nod with your head), you can significantly improve the drum track. However, be aware not to harm the basic character of the song. A dance song is supposed to have a bass drum on any "first beat". But between two first beats, there's still enough space for additional use of the bass drum or the snare.

My recommendation is: Listen to some drum'n'bass songs and analyse them. Also listen to Mellow-D's songs from the music disk "Disk" (AFAIR, it's available at www.fm.org or ftp.scene.org/groups/fm).
BTW, IMHO his tracks are generally a very good "studying material" for trackers.

In any case beware of playing the drum samples with the same volume all the time. What's more rhythmical, is to play the percussion instruments loud in the "grave" parts of the times (the ones in which snare and bass drums are typically used almost all of the time) and to use a lower volume in the light parts on which less emphasis is put.

Another hint regarding high hats. Don't make them too loud! It's best to notice them more or less subconsciously. They do support the groove, but most of the time they're not what makes the groove. Their function in the drum track mainly is to give it a steady feeling. The groove, however, is mainly generated by the bass drum and the snare. (If I may simplify it a bit :-))

A very simple and widely used way of making the rhythm more interesting is quantisation. That means: Don't use a constant speed, but alternately use slower and faster passages. These passages have to be very short. It's easy to achieve this goal by using the speed effect (Impulse Tracker: AXX) in order to change the speed all the time. Of course you should use this effect consistenly. A very common example:

.... .. A05
.... .. A07
.... .. A05
.... .. A07
.... .. A05
.... .. A07

And so on. You may experiment with this, but also check out how other musicians make use of this technique. If you apply it incorrectly, your song might sound very strange.

The secret of this technique is: In this example, the total speed is A06, but the instruments are sometimes played a little moment earlier or later than if the song was strictly using A06. This sounds more grgroooooovy. :-)

4. Dynamics

Dynamics pose problems for many experienced as well as inexperienced trackers - including me. If all instruments are played at a constant volume, the song often sounds boring. Using different volumes in a sensible manner often vastly boosts the dramatics of a song. IMO it's not possible to give special hints. Just keep thinking of the fact that dynamics is of great importance. (This especially applies to orchestral songs.)

My personal favourite regarding dynamics is Necros'"System" disk. (It can probably be found at hornet.org or fm.org.) Listen to "Mindspring" and you'll hear what good dynamics is. Jase's "Kingdom Skys" ist another good example. (I guess it's also available at hornet.org.)

5. Song-Structures

Inexperienced musicians are rarely aware that the listeners have certain expectations from the structures of songs. These structures heavily depend on music styles. Most of the songs played in the media are constructed in a very simple manner:

Intro-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus

The intro usually gives an impression of the chorus which follows later. The bridge that follows the second chorus usually introduces something completely new, which ideally re-appears in the last chorus in some way.

Many techno songs don't have such structures. The "danceability" of such songs often depends on a certain monotony.

I know, there are a lot of music styles which I'm not paying enough attention to here. But I'd really have to deal with a lot of details in order to describe the structures correctly. Therefore I suggest that you simply listen to songs with various styles, focusing on this aspect of composition.

Okay... that's it for now.

In case you have any questions, or if you have noticed a fatal mistake, feel free to contact me.

from HUGY discmag by Laidoken, translation by Adok

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L'Amstrad CPC est une machine 8 bits à base d'un Z80 à 4MHz. Le premier de la gamme fut le CPC 464 en 1984, équipé d'un lecteur de cassettes intégré il se plaçait en concurrent  du Commodore C64 beaucoup plus compliqué à utiliser et plus cher. Ce fut un réel succès et sorti cette même années le CPC 664 équipé d'un lecteur de disquettes trois pouces intégré. Sa vie fut de courte durée puisqu'en 1985 il fut remplacé par le CPC 6128 qui était plus compact, plus soigné et surtout qui avait 128Ko de RAM au lieu de 64Ko.