Making the Fix Fix Bang Bang Soundtrack #1

Hi, it’s Peter here to talk about the development of the soundtrack for Fix Fix Bang Bang.

Some of the earliest game music I loved was chiptune based – first the ragtime tunes accompanying Repton on the BBC Micro right up to the much more sophisticated compositions accompanying games like Mega Man 2 on the NES that still influences me today.

When we started Surprised Man, I chose chiptunes with FamiTracker as my chosen method of making music for a few reasons. It creates authentic NES-style tunes to the specifications of the original NES sound chip (plus extensions that sometimes were built into game cartridges  so it’s a fun, nostalgic set of limitations for me to work within. It also uses a tracker interface, and I find those very quick to work with. Indeed, the first music I ever made was with tracker software on the Amiga 1200.

I’ve used FamiTracker for all of our game jams so far and in that time I’ve learned a lot about how to make effective use of it. So I made the decision that Fix Fix Bang Bang’s soundtrack would be the culmination of everything I’ve learned so far about creating retro-style chiptunes.

Some people have taken the form to a whole new level, stretching the capabilities of those old sound chips to create some truly mind blowing work. I’ve got the greatest respect for that, but for this soundtrack I wanted to create something that really evoked the feeling of those old tunes I loved without very much embellishment. The only concession I made is that I would activate FamiTracker’s emulation of the Konami VRC6 chip, which was included on some Konami cartriges to allow three extra channels of sound on top of the 5 that the NES supports natively.

So what does a tracker screen look like? It’s something like this (I suggest right clicking the picture and opening the link in a new window if you want to follow along with the text):

Most people when they see that think it looks pretty scary, and that’s understandable. There’s a lot of letters and numbers and not much that immediately looks very much like music, but creating tunes with this is actually pretty simple.

On the main part of the screen there are 8 columns, which are the 8 types of wave that a NES with Konami VRC6 enabled will generate:

  • Two regular square waves, quite versatile for making different sounds with.
  • A triangle wave, useful for bass, cheesy sounding tom-drums and smoother sounding than square waves.
  • The noise channel, useful for creating percussion sounds.
  • The DPCM channel, for loading very low quality samples into, usually drums.
  • Two more square waves, but fancier VRC6 ones with more options.
  • Sawtooth wave, a nice meaty sounding wave for big sounds

Over on the top right, there is a list of instruments, which I can go into and change how the wave sounds, for example by making it go up and down in volume, play an arpeggio, or in the case of square waves change the shape of the wave to give the sound a different quality.

Time progresses along the rows and I use a keyboard (or use the computer’s keyboard as a virtual, uh, keyboard) to place down each note. For example, the first note on the left column reads:

F#4 00 9 300

All this means is that I’m playing F#, on the 4th octave, using instrument 00, at volume 9, with effect 3 set to level 00. That’s about as complicated as it gets as far as the main screen goes and now you will be able to interpret that whole part of the screen: Everything  is just a note that has been placed with an instrument number next to it, occasionally a volume change and a special effect. Effects I use regularly include vibrato (wobbling up and down in pitch) and portamento (bending from one note to the next).

In the example above I was setting portamento back to 00 so that the notes would stop bending. Further down, on the triangle wave, you can see 370, where I am telling the bass note to portamento between F#2 and F#3 at a speed of 70. Incidentally, the same thing is happening over on the Sawtooth wave, which I regularly use to double-up with the triangle to create a meatier bass sound.

The last thing you need to know about the tracker is how the song is structured. That’s where the top left numbers come in. When you place notes down in a tracker, it isn’t on a roll of music that potentially goes on forever, like sheet music. You are placing them into what is called a pattern, a section of music of a fixed length which you can adjust. Each of the 8 channels has its own patterns, and the table on the top left describes what pattern number to play in each channel in what order.

In this way, I can organise the music in to re-usable chunks: I don’t have to write the music out twice or copy and paste to use it again, I simply tell FamiTracker when to play it again. This is useful, for example, if I just want to repeat a drum pattern over and over with different music, or keep the same backing instruments going while the main melody develops. This block-based tune construction is very good for making the type of music that I’m going for in Fix Fix Bang Bang but can be a bit fiddlier for tunes with a more organic, changing structure.

Phew! I went on for way longer than expected, so next time I’ll talk about the soundtrack itself, but for now here’s one piece of it for you to enjoy.

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