Original URL: http://www.rain.org/~rabite/mods/guide.html

RabiteMan's Guide to
Making Better Modules

The purpose of this text is to help tracking fanatics on all levels with problems that affect us all. There are plenty of other documents out there which can help you learn music theory, uses for effects, etc. Why repeat all that here? This is mainly a collection of my personal techniques.

Mostly, they address the issues of improving your style, stretching your limits, holding on to those bursts of sudden inspiration, and overcoming "trackers' block."

I'd like to think that I have contributed to the elevation of the quality of music modules in general with this page...

Build from the ground up

Did you learn to track on Impulse Tracker? If so, you might be overwhelmed by all the possibilities this tracker offers. So take a step back, and start at the bottom. The best way to do this is to trace the steps of evolution tracker programs have taken since the beginning. The musicians who have been around since the beginning have had the opportunity to grow with each advancement, while you are faced with an onslaught of commands, effects, channels, etc. With no guidance, you might just haphazardly throw unnecessary effects in simply because the are "there"... without knowing some of their purposes.

So start with the very basics. Limit yourself to four channels. Don't use any stereo control. Use only the most basic effects, such as pitch sliding, volume sliding, and maybe some vibrato. Then, through experimentation, find uses for the other effects. Perhaps some of them are useless to you -- remember, many effects are included only to preserve compatibility, and there are better ways of handling them nowadays.

Study others' work

This could be the most common and obvious trick to making good songs, though some people don't take it seriously. I'm not suggesting you learn to track by copying others. But when you download a mod, be sure to take a look at all the samples. See how they are used. Try soloing each channel while it is playing, to hear what individual channels sound like.

Take a look through the patterns, too. See how the composer approached making the song -- what part of the song is pattern 000? It's usually not the very beginning.

Stretch Your Limits

Find yourself making the same kind of music, only wishing you could make another type? Maybe you want to find the skills to be able to track any type of music, from hip-hop to classical. It's all possible, if you set your mind to it.

The most important thing is to spend time actually listening and studying the sounds of a song. Certain types of music lends itself easily to tracking, and you can sometimes even picture the patterns scrolling by as the song plays... try to identify each instrument. Break the song down into different pieces (percussion, bass, lead, chords, effects) to make it easier to approach. What makes a samba a samba? What's the difference between trance and house music?

It will be all too easy to end up with a "stereotype" or "textbook" song when you just analyze a sound for what it's worth. Your goal should be to bring something original to the genre. After all, it wouldn't be a genre if there weren't variety within it. You might say to yourself, "oh, that style all sounds the same..." Of course it does, until you are exposed to it enough. Don't hold prejudices against music styles.

Even if you end up tracking with the same style as before, you will have some new skills and special touches to bring to it. While learning how to compose various types of music, you can pick out things you like and discard things you find boring within a genre.

Grab Inspiration When You Find It

It happens all the time: you hear a snippet of a song, or come up with something in your head, and you have a great idea for a mod that you could track really fast, if only you were at your computer! I have lost many good songs because I thought I would remember them later on. Don't let this happen to you.

There are a few tricks to remembering tunes in your head. It's not easy, because sounds can't be written out on paper like words and pictures. But triggering the memory is essential to recreating the song later on, when you have the chance to work on it. (Keep in mind that remembering a tune overnight is not easy. How often do you wake up to listen to some stuff you tracked late last night, only to be surprised at what you found?)

If you come up with a melody, and think you can remember the chords to go with it (or at least infer them from the melody later on), the best trick is to try to "write" the melody down on paper. If you know musical notation, draw yourself a staff and write the notes as best as you can. It can be difficult without a keyboard to pick notes out on, but do your best. If you don't know anything about writing sheet music, you can at least draw dots to represent pitches. It might also work for you to write out tracking-style notation, like C-4, D-4, E-4, etc.

Not every inspiration we have is melodic. Sometimes we think of a great way to open a song, or a way to make patterns flow. If you can describe it in words, do so. Write it down! If drawing a picture helps, do that. The important thing is to hold on to the sound in your head at all costs.

A lot of inspiration comes from music we hear on radio, TV, and movies. It can be a great help to write down the name of the song or movie that inspired you. Even if the title doesn't bring back the sound, you can look it up later. Also you can write down the location where you heard the sound. Picturing the location in your mind may bring the sounds back to your head.

Try new samples

Often, one can become blocked and uninspired simply because one doesn't have access to the right samples, or has been using the same samples (favorites) over and over. Sure, some samples are so wonderful that they have endless uses. But they can also be overused.

Try using new sample types altogether. There are several varieties of drum samples, for example; kick drums can be anything from a reverbed bassdrum to a sharp, dry house kick. Snares have the most variety. If you find yourself using clean leads exclusively, take a break from them and try out some distortion. If you never tried putting vocals in a song, go for it. You can make your own vocals, or take them from existing songs (check out "amber poison" by necros).

You can also use familiar samples in new ways, by changing the following:

  • Reverse the sample
  • Use sustain loops in the sample or in the envelopes
  • Get wild and funky with the volume envelope
  • Try different NNA's

Build a song around a lead, and vice versa

Try laying down some rhythm and chords, then put a lead on top of it. The best way to pick out a lead is to use the instrument menu and type in keys while the pattern plays. If you have a keyboard, even better -- just play around with the notes until you find something catchy. It would help a great deal to learn some keyboard skills, especially improvisation.

The opposite approach is to start with a nice-sounding melody and find a drum track and chord structure that agrees with it. This method is pretty straightforward, but less commonly used (drums are so much fun, everyone wants to put them in first!).

Find New Ways to Introduce the Song

Often the hardest part about making a song is the intro. But sometimes, you can start with the intro, and see what kind of song develops out of it. Will it be a simple drum beat that gets increasingly complex as the song progresses? How about a simple chord progression that persists into the middle of the mod? Maybe some sort of vocal effect will work.

May the Title Come First

So you've tried everything, but still you can't think of a way to get going? Try coming up with a cool title, then building a song around it. This idea sounds backwards (which it is), but sometimes you gotta take the back door to get where you're going.

Closing Words

Above everything else, remember to have fun with tracking. When it starts to be a chore, take a break from it. Maybe go a few days without trying to track -- just listening, thinking, and waiting for inspiration. Trust me, it'll come.

Nobody starts out at the top. Don't get discouraged because your mods don't sound as good as the tracking legends... just try to find some other people in your position, and maybe start an exchange of songs (and ideas, constructive criticism, etc.).

I hope this document has been of some help to you. Ideally, somewhere back there you got a flash of inspiration, so you quit your browser and fired up the tracker. In that case, you won't even read these words... anyway, good luck to you all. =)

All comments: rabite@rain.org

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