Pixitracker and writing music: Lively Debate v1.0

28 October 2016

Within recent memory I got it in my head to try my hand again at writing music. While I grew up studying a couple of instruments (getting my teeth kicked in (literally) in middle school, and the generally poor state of my teeth until recently put the kibosh on that), and later in college I studied the piano (an instrument torpedoed by repeditive stress injury, unfortunately) I never really had the gift for taking sounds and melodies inside my head (though I didn't really recognize them as such) and turning them into actual music. Part of it was that I didn't have the mental structure to get them into a usable form. I'd always loved the music made with Amiga .mod and Screamtracker .s3m files and the way they're assembled - sampled sounds are played back at different pitches and notes are assembled into patterns, which are stacked into frames, which are... well... at the end of it you have an elegant set of patterns that make music when you play them back with the appropriate software. You would think that most of it would be techno music, and you'd be right. However, tracker music is limited by the samples you use, which means that if you wanted to you could sample an entire orchestra, or a band, or something else, and make something entirely different.

I've tried my hand time and again at learning how to use .mod trackers over the years. As far back as my BBS days, in fact. To say that the user interfaces are opaque is putting it mildly. They don't make any sense to me, and never have, and I say this as somebody who stares at hex dumps for hours on end.

About a year ago, while researching the state of music trackers for Linux once again (because, why not, I don't give up easily), I stumbled across something called Pixitracker. The thing that interested me right off the bat was the user interface; rather than the incredibly complex user interfaces of MilkyTracker or Radium I was greeted with a simple grid, where each box represents a note. Boxes are arranged into lines, which are arranged into frames. The number and length of of lines in a frame are variable, though the numbers must all be even. I don't know what the upper limit on the number of frames in a song is, but I'm pretty sure that I haven't come close to hitting the upper limit. Frames are arranged on a strip in the middle of the display, so you can assemble frames end to end to form a song. Pixitracker comes with a couple of songs right out of the box^Wtarball, and a very nice set of samples to experiment with. When playing back a Pixitracker song the software traces across each frame to show you what's playing, and it shows you which frame is playing at that time so you get a sense of how everything fits together.

Much more interestingly, each sample or instrument is represented by a little 8-bit sprite - a couple different kinds of aliens, a flower, a smiley face, a skull, a turrret, a fish, a kitty... in a bizarre fashion, this calls to my synaesthesia. By manipulating stuff that I see when I listen to music, it's made it significantly easier for me to translate what's in my head into a format which represents a song inside a computer. Even more cool, rather than flounder around figuring out how to use it Alexander Zolotov (Pixitracker's creator) has a Youtube playlist of videos that show you how to use Pixitracker. I watched them a couple of times each before I felt comfortable enough to play around with the dozen or so (a bit less, really) songs included with the software. After a lot of false starts, trashed local copies, and happy accidents I felt comfortable enough to start trying to write my own music. A few false starts later I assembled something that sounded nice; the trick I found (and this is personal, it probably will not work for you) was mapping what was going on in my own idiosyncratic sensorium to the samples in my collection, and then mapping them to the sprites in the Pixitracker user interface (or as close as I could get - there isn't a way to change the sprites though you can change the background).

One complaint about Pixitracker: It's not well suited for very large displays (Windbringer's is 3200x1800 and can't be resized easily). You can resize the window but the UI elements stay the same size, so you might find yourself leaning into the screen more than is comfortable for long periods of time.

Here is my first attempt at writing music with Pixitracker: Lively Debate v1.0