The Ann Arbor District Library’s main branch has a 17-unit computer lab. That’s where I was invited to host a couple 3 hour workshops on How to Make Chip Tunes (using Famitracker). It happened many weekends back; I’ve had plenty of time to reflect.

Having done a one hour workshop at Blip Festival years ago, and a 30 minute battle demonstration at 8static, I thought I already had this thing in the bag.  This workshop, however, differed in one major way – it was interactive; all participants had a machine and headphones to follow along.  Instead of doing a presentation I was going to be instructing.  Plus, there were two sessions at 3 hours a piece all starting at some time in the morning I’m not at all used to.  :D

So, I figured I’d make some kind of handout.  I put all the famitracker effects commands on there, and info about the different voices and their instrument settings.  I also included a “musical keyboard to computer keyboard” graphic like so -

I have a hard time believing that no one has made one of these online, but I couldn’t find one.  The way that the notes map to the keyboard tends to be a huge learning curve for seasoned musicians.  After a decade of tracking, it becomes second nature.  I can play on it better than a piano.  :D

I started the class with a 20 minute crash course in sound chip history. I talked about Atari’s TIA and Pokey chips, Commodore’s VIC and SID chips, Nintendo’s 2A03, how the Gameboy’s Motorolla CPU builds the sound, and a few examples of FM chips; playing back examples from Battle of the Bits as I went.  I did my best to describe their differences and advances, making special notes about which chips could attain correct pitches and which ones were dedicated solely for audio.  Really, I would have rather had everyone watch the following video -

…but the workshop wasn’t meant to be a history lesson on chip music.  Today is another day!  Let us create in the now!

I went into this whole thing thinking it would be cake.  My other workshops were cake. But this, as I stated previously, was an interactive workshop, not a lecture or demonstration.

So, after this workshop’s history lesson, we jumped into Famitracker.  I broke down the interface, we built instruments for each of the channels, I made a pattern, and then I set them loose, pacing around, ready to answer questions.  And many questions I answered.  Next, we made a second pattern, and I showed them how multiple patterns build together into a song.  Then I set them loose again for 40 minutes or so with more pacing on my part, answering questions as they came.

For the first of the two workshop sessions, I had library staff member, Matt, and one elementary student.  It felt kind of like a practice run.  There was good dialog, trivia swapping, we didn’t get too off track. …or maybe I just didn’t feel that much pressure.

The second group contained Matt, my girlfriend, two friends from the bar, and three younger folk.  During the final hour with this group, I realized my “let ‘em loose” strategy for leading the workshop was naive.  Of the three younger folk; one was paralyzed after playing with and deleting the patterns we made together, one made a bunch of wild noises and then logged into newgrounds, and one was already familiar with Milky Tracker and felt she wasted her time.  Everyone else seemed to have a good time and entertained themselves.

I used the last 30 minutes to show everyone how to convert their song to an .mp3 by exporting to .wav and using a free online conversion service.  Then I talked about various websites they could meet other chiptune artists and/or share their music.  I was pretty exhausted after that.  :D

Milky Tracker girl left the following track on her desktop -

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When I get to do this again I’ll be a little wiser about it.  Demonstration is key.  I didn’t talk about music theory, I didn’t talk about song structure, about hard and soft changes, about holding a solid groove and layering on top, about playing in the pocket, or anything that really had anything to do with the music itself.  I only demonstrated the software itself as if everyone was already a musician ready to compose for a five piece band.  Slight error or epic fail?  I’ll know for next time.

I’d like to thank Matt Dubay for setting this event up and inviting me.  I’d also like to thank Eli Neiburger for networking Matt and I together, and a thanks to Kip DeGraaf for setting an entire Mac lab to run Famitracker on VMware.

famitracker workshop handout PDF download

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One Response to “Notes from my Famitracker Workshop at the AADL”

  1. eli says:

    Hey B-Knox, thanks for coming to do this at the library! I appreciate the thought you put into it before and after… we should talk about what to do next, I think this was a great start.

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