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Music Tutorial #1
by Phobos/Samar

I was asked to write the article series explaining the basics of composing music on the C-64. So I will try to tell you what it's all about, however this knwoledge won't be served readily. When editing this chapter I was trying to present everything as clearly and simply as possible. I could have name many technical terms or just mention some complicated definitions, but I've realised it's not the most important here. If someone's interested, he might find this information in other sources. In addition to these introduction I want to say that most of musicians (talking about light music etc.) are self-taught persons and have no specific ducation. The best example is Oscar prize winner Vangelis ("Chariots of Fire" soundtrack), who even doesn't know the notes notation.

The music proffesion on the C-64 is a bit different from standard conception of a musician, who mostly plays some instrument. A C-64 musician not only has to play music (although he doesn't have to be a virtuoso) and master the techniques of tone programming, but he has to be a composer and an arranger.


* TEMPO - generally it's speed of sound reproduction. The slower tempo is the faster notes are played.

* METRE - on principle we'll only use the metre of 4/4 (length of a pattern $10 and its multiples) or 3/4 (length of a pattern $0c and its multiples). Most of zaks are just based on this metre and let it be so.

* PATTERN - it's a part of a composition - one share of a whole. There are notes edited and commands on them. The duration of a pattern depends on a tempo.

* TRANSPOSITION - means increasing specified amount of semitones in a pattern. Transpositions are splitted into relative and absolute. The previous example, it is relative transposition, as just as macros of chords. In the case of drums absolute transposition stands.

* VIBRATTO - smooth change of a base frequency of a sound (for example of a note C), up AND down, with specified speed, depth and delay.

* GLIDE (SLIDE) - smooth change of a frequency of a sound, up OR down, with specified speed.

* LEGATO - smooth (quick) transition between following notes without restarting any other parameters.

The music can't be composed in half an hour. That's true some might do it, but at first they are great musicians, at second it's rarely satisfactory result. To polish up particular elements and to smooth out the whole you need to spend a few, a dozen or so hours, even several days. Composing is not easy.


It is well known that every music bases on seven tones and five semitones, what all in all twelve sounds. They are: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B. Letters with the sign "#" are semitones. Now I should mention about one specific difference which appears in certain editors (for example "SDI" or "Hardtrack"), i.e. A# is B and B is H. Altogether they form the octave, and C-64 has got 8 octaves, in sum we have 96 different sounds at our disposal. That must be enough for the beginning, because I bet you know a little about the music. Anyway there has been written a lot of books, which should dispel your doubts. Along with all that one remark: most musicians make use of the notes notation. When composing on the C-64 you can forget it. Instead of that you have to know the basis of the hexadecimal system, so values: $0a=10, $0b=11, $0c=12, $0d=13, $0e=14 and $0f=15.

It should be mentioned that there are some other types of music notations, for example typical notation of MIDI tracks from sequential programs (pianola), or tabulatures that are frequently used by guitarist. Tracker notation is better from the other types in the sense of (for example) being able to state the exact position of switching on the vibratto for certain instrument, or how long will the exact sound last. Try to do it in some other notations...

Prospective applicant for a musician should satisfy several conditions. At first he should own certain instrument, keyboard will be best for you. Learning to play keyboard is much more easier than mastery an art of playing guitar. If you have no any instrument, worse luck but you have to satisfy the second condition. You have to own "JCH v3.06" music editor with the player "21.g6". At the moment it's the second best outfit for composing on the C-64. I'll try to add this editor to the magazine disk. All the examples in this article will refer to that editor and that player.

Apart from that every musician should have two skills: an ear for music and rhythm intuition. As ear for music is indispensable, because if you can't differentiate sound C from sound G, you can stop reading this text, it will be just a waste of time. Rhythm intuition is also important, but that's enough if you are able to knock in the rhythm of percussion.

The very first thing that should be learnt by a prospective musician is... listening to the music. The common people kind of hear each instrument that enters into the composition, but rarely follow each instrument separately, even if they do, it's very sporadic. The skill for listening to the music will be useful when listening to your own compositions. It will enable you to feel those moments, when something should be change to improve the sound of a whole tune. To test yourself turn on the readio and try to follow a certain song for each instruments - vocal, chords, bass, percussion, etc.

Another thing is music imagination. Turn off the radio and try to call to mind the song that you've just heard. And again not the whole song, but each instrument individually. I know that's not easy in the beginning, but it takes time and with time it will be easier... What is that all about? A good musician is able to imagine a fragment of a tune without playing it on an instrument. It doesn't happen too often that someone is able to imagine a bigger fragment with division of instruments into sections, not talking about the whole composition, though exceptions sometimes happen (for example Mozart). I would advise the exercise to imagine music in silence. With time it will become easier for you to build up a completely new tunes. Anyway imagination of tones of different instruments also gives good results, however it needs a bit different approach to a subject.

To be able to translate your imaginations into music language, you need general knowledge about which notes fit together, and which don't. This field of music is named harmony.

It is essential for you to acquire the knack of a music editor at satisfactory level. The best ideas are nothing if you don't know how to take them down. When it comes to music editors you can trust me - I have seen a loads of them, not only on the C-64. I advise you against most of them, because their capabilities are low. If someone has been using for example "DMC", conversion to "JCH" will be rather difficult. But if you get used to it, you'll change your opinion about "DMC".

As I mentioned before we will be using "JCH v3.06" editor. Why this version? Because it has been adapted to Glover's players. I don't quote description of "JCH" here, because it has been described many times before. Why not "SDI"? Well, version 0.98 has got a nice editor (however it can be easily broken with pressing RESTORE key), but player is really poor. You have too little control on pulse and filters, there are some errors in tempo parameters etc. I could mention a long list of (dis)advantages of "SDI", but it's not the case. We use "JCH" or you can shift for yourself with conversion of parameters. Why player "21.g6"? Because with this version we're allowed to control EVERY SID register. It can be easily verified after loading such a tune into "Music Wizard" (from third version up), then turning on SID registers scanning (left arrow). BE CAREFUL! After loading the editor the first thing to do is clearing the tables (CONTROL+C). If you don't do it, problems might occur.

I'm sure everyone will notice that edit screen in "JCH" takes in a view all three tracks. That is standard appearance of almost every music editor out of the C-64 (small and big Atari, Amiga, PC). Not every man will immediately convince himself to this way of presenting notes, but I can assure you of that is the most comfortable one. It's just much easier to create some effects (for example echo) when you can see all notes. I have no idea why someone is inventing weird styles with a single track and DUR's between notes. This sort of edition is called tracking, however in case of "JCH" it's not 100% tracking. Every channel has its own list of patterns, which takes in one track. In a typical tracker (for example "ProTracker") one pattern is for all channels, what sometimes may cause some confusion.

It's true that the way of presenting sequences and tracks is well-solved in "SDI", but "SDI" has got one more fault... Using good music editor you're allowed to treat keys as a keyboard, that means pressing "I" we get the note C, or pressing "Y" it's the note A. "SDI" breaks this rule, what causes unnecessary confusion.


Player enables very precise control of pulse and filter. Commands at notes enable to change following parameters:

- two types of vibratto
- change of macro's number for a wave/appregio, pulse, filter, tempo in a pattern
- change of wave's speed in a pattern
- assignation of a new filter's frequency without turning off a macro ("DMC v5.x" would turn off a macro!)
- change of SR for current instrument
- change of volume for a whole tune

Player contains 11 bits to control a filter. In a filter's macro you can change not only a frequency, but also resonance and filter's type. Apart from that you can freely change a tempo using two parameters, and unlike "SDI" entering two different values doesn't cause any problems with a hardstart.

There's a "SID OUT" procedure added to the player, it observes the most important SID registers: frequency and type of a filter, resonance, utilization on each channel, ADSR values for each channel and pulse level.

Now let's pass onto SID registers. It's well known that there are three channels at our disposal. Only one instrument with a filter can be used on every channel at the same time. You can also turn on a filter for all channels and control it by single channel, what sometimes gives interesting effects. SID is able to generate four types of waves:

- triangle ($11)
- saw ($21)
- rectangle ($41)
- noise ($81)

Letters in brackets means values to be typed in wave's macros. Waves can be merged, but the best results we get when merging waves $11 with $41 ($51) or $21 with $41 ($61), only noise can't be merged with other waves. For a rectangle-wave $41 (also $51 and $61) it can (in the case of $41 it's a must!) be used on more parameter - pulse. Tone-colouring of an instrument with waves $41, $51 and $61 depends on a value and modification's velocity of a pulse.

Second nibble in a wave's number is responsible for turning on a wave (1), timing (2) and modulation (4). In the case of timing and modulation it depends, which channels will the effect be applied to: 1 and 3, 2 and 1, 3 and 2. It's worth to experiment with a modulation, because effects that we're able to acquire frequently are very interesting. The best for modulation is triangle-wave. To turn on modulation with timing, you have to type following values into wave's macro:

06 00 47 ; modulation turned on
07 7f 07 ; loop

In general if you want to hear the wave, you have to set ADSR values, that means phases of attack, decay, sustain and release, for example 0089. If you want to control volume by a command at a note, keep out from phase D (decay). In "21.g6" player setting A (attack) for the value of 2 will cause turning off hardstart for this instrument, what might be useful when fast changes of notes.

SID has three types of filters:

1 - low pass (it mutes frequencies higher than assigned one)
2 - high pass (it mutes frequencies lower than assigned one)
4 - band pass (it mutes frequencies higher and lower than assigned one, and protrudes it at the same time)

Filters can be merged, for example filter 3 can mute only one frequency. Filters has 2047 levels, which are represented by values from range $00.0 to $ff.8. Value after the dot has 8 levels and it enables to set filter's frequency more precisely.

Resonance has 16 levels, it's a raiser of filter's efficiency. The higher value is the more audible is a filter.


In the instruments table we inscribe for example:

01 00 89 00 00 00 00 04 00
- AD SR 12 3 4 5 6 7

What means ADSR, it has been said earlier.

1 - length of time of a first line in a wave/frequency macro
2 - rate of next lines in a wave/frequency macro
3 - value x1 would mean it's a drum instrument, so frequency is directly entered into SID registers
4 - not used
5 - number of filter macro (value $00 shouldn't be used, because tempo is entered there), value $ff causes continuation of filter's macro that was previously used without its restart
6 - number of pulse macro, value $ff causes continuation of a previous macro without its restart
7 - number of wave/frequency macro


In "JCH" macro is different than in most editors. Frequency is entered to the first column as first one, the second one stands for wave's type. Types of waves has been described earlier in this chapter, I only want to add that the value of $7f in the first column creates a loop (to the line number that is written in the second column).

Example of a macro for rectangle wave:

00 00 41
01 7f 00

In "JCH" we don't have to turn off the wave, because if we want to extend length of a sound we use plus signs "+++". If player reaches position where plus signs end, it turn a wave onto release.

If you want to hear this instrument, it's important to set the pulse. The example of a pulse is below:

04 08 00 01 08 - first value $800 and jump to line $08
08 ff f0 e0 0c - subtraction of value $10 with rate of $20, jump to line $0c
0c 00 10 20 08 - addition of value $10 with rate of $20, jump to line $0c

Tone-colouring of an instrument depends on both: a value and a rate of subtraction/addition. It's good to experiment with a pulse.

Chords with a pulse sounds interesting, for example:

10 00 00 01 14
14 00 10 40 18
18 ff f0 c0 14

Filter's macro is more extended than in other music editors. It should be remembered that the first column is reserved for a tempo and you shouldn't enter anything else there. And now very simple example of a filter for bass instruments:

04 a0 10 00 08 - setting a resonance $a, filter's type $1 and jump to line $08
08 30 00 01 0c - first value of a filter (frequency) $30.0
0c ff 00 2c 10 - subtraction of value $01 for $2c cycles, what will give us the result of smooth transition to frequency $04.0
10 00 00 ff 10 - turning off a filter (you can also make a loop for a filter and come back to the first frequency)
10 01 00 2c 0c - addition ($2c cycles) and looping

You can do it another way, changing frequency of a filter more smoothly:

04 a0 10 00 08
08 30 00 01 0c
0c ff 06 90 10 - subtraction of value $00.2 from value $30.0 to the level of $0c.0
10 00 02 90 0c - addition of value $00.2 to value $0c.0 to the level of $30.0 and loop then

For a bass instrument with a wave's macro...

00 cf 81
01 00 41
02 7f 01 can do the following filter:

14 40 40 00 18 <- setting a resonance $4 and filter's type $4
18 ff 00 01 1c <- filter's frequency $ff.7 (for a first wave's macro, that means noise)
1c a0 10 00 20 <- setting a resonance $a and filter's type $1
20 40 00 01 24 <- frequency set to $40.0 (actually $3f.0)
24 f8 00 06 28 <- descent to the level of $0f.0
28 ff 04 10 2c <- descent to the level of $07.0
2c 00 00 ff 2c <- turning off a macro

Such an instrument will have a well-raised noise and a mellow bass. I advise you trying it.

COMMANDS (Sxx) xx:ab cd

A:0 - glide up, BCD - rate
A:1 - glide down, BCD - rate
A:2 - vibratto 1, B - rate, CD - depth
A:4 - setting a tempo (of a whole tune), CD - value 1 and 2
A:5 - change of filter's frequency, CD - a new value
A:60-7F - change of a macro's number for a sound number xx+60 (remark: for instrument $13 it will be value of $73)
A:80-9F - change of a pulse's macro number for a sound number xx+80 (remark: like above)
A:A0-BF - change of wave's macro number for a sound number xx+A0 (remark: like above)
A:C0-DF - change of wave's macro rate for a sound number xx+C0 (remark: like above)
A:Exx - volume (of a whole tune), D - value
A:F - vibratto 2, B - depth, C - rate, D - addition

Let's start with repartition of a tune into sections. The simplest and the most popular division is following: lead (melody), chords (mostly minor and major ones), bass (which is mostly the lowest sound of a component chord repeated) and percussion (packed where it's possible).

An example of the simplest background: A minor, F major, G major, E major. So what if someone doesn't know chords? What if these names don't say much to him? Well, this is a job for part of science known as harmonics. What is chord? It's a sound that consist of at least three tones. Basis of creating chords will follow later in this chapter...

Two basic chords are enough to compose loads of tunes, but they must be one major chord (cheerful) and one minor chord (tearful). Because SID is not able to play many tones at the same time, if you don't want to block the rest of channels, you have to use apreggio, this technique bases on playing succeeding tones very fast in a single channel. Major chord is in turn: first tone that stands for the name of a chord is "0", next one (4 semitones higher) is "4", next one (7 semitones higher) is "7" - "047" and such a number you enter into a wave/frequency macro in the editor. For example F major chord consists of tones F, A and C. Minor chord differs in only one position - "037", so F minor consists of tones F, G#, C.

In a wave's macro it looks like that:

00 00 41
01 03 41
02 07 41
03 7f 00

As you know these basis, you have quickly learnt harmonics, of course very simplified. If we don't want to falsify anything in our example, which is played only on white keys (except for the last chord) we should keep the rules of editing melody as close to chord's tones as possible. Chords should fit and change smoothly. You can do it by intuition or keep the rule of not changing more than two tones in a following chord. Chords should be integrated in a specified amount of patterns. It naturally depends on tune's tempo and its rhythm.

Bass can be the lowest tone of a current chord repeated. Naturally bass can sound more interesting if you sometimes add a note octave higher, or if you add interludes on the last but one position in direction of notes going down. These are only half-measures and sometimes they simply can't be used. You can also use slides up and down. It's important that bass has its own rhythm. Repeating the same notes rarely gives a good result. Ideal would be to create bass playing its own melody, which harmonizes with the main melody. It's not easy, but if you work on it, results can be really good.

The simplest metre is 4/4. This means that length of a pattern is $40 (so 64 positions). This is enough for the beginning. Now we must enter our chords on positions $00, $10, $20 and $30 on track 1. Track 2 is for bass. And here our problems begin, because we have to find a place for drums.

Mixing bass with drums is standard solution, and in the places where it's impossible, drums can be mixed with chords, or even melody if it's necessary. The simplest percussion consists of bassdrum (foot), snaredrum and some hihats (cymbals) of different length and tone. There are of course more percussion instruments, but it's really hard to simulate them on the C64, for example think about tambourine.

The simplest arrangement of percussion is a bassdrum on positions $x0 and $x8, and snaredrum on positions $x4 and $xc. Because of technical problems (filter on one channel only) bass and percussion are edited on the same track, what demands making some concessions (usually on behalf of bass), using snaredrums and hihats only.

How to edit tunes? Well, it all depends on a music you listen to and what you like. General rule is simple: make music that you always wanted to hear, music that moves your soul, music that causes you move to another world. Music should express your feelings, mood, this what you can't express by words. That's true it needs some experience, but nothing comes easy, and if so, it doesn't make you so happy like reaching the best result not so easy...

So how to start? There is also one simple rule: you should start with chords. Bass and percussion will be adjusted to them. When the background is done, it's much easier to fancy some melody. If something doesn't fit, you can also change bass or chords. When it comes to me, I usually start with chords, but it happened several times I started with melody, bass or even percussion.

How to edit music? After preparing the background you have to fancy a melody, which in fact appears somehow in your head. Of course not immediatelly, but after some practice you will realise that thinking of a melody takes less time. You can help yourself by playing music on a keyboard. I advise you this method, because it's the easiest way of listening to a melody you play this or another way, changing its rhythm or itself depending on what you just want to change in it.

There's of course another method of composing (used by some musicians), it's so called intuitive composing, which is based on notes fitting the background. In short it's about such a choice of notes that creates a melody, but you choose them without knowledge of the rest of notes, relying only on your intuition. It sometimes give nice results, however not too many musicians can indulge in this method, especially the beginners!

Talking about structure of a composition is different and difficult domain of music. I will give you a few examples without going deep into details of this problem, but I encourage you to overripen several books on this subject, this might be helpful. The most often structure is following: introduction, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, (solo), ending.

Introduction should take a listener into the melody, get him used to the structure of chords and prepare the melodic line. You can successively initiate each instrument, or just turn up volume of playing background.

Verse is a first theme. It can, but it's not a must, have its own background (chords and bass). Next verse can be slightly modified, but you should change melody only, chords only or bass only.

Chorus should be nicer than a verse, it should be an essence of each composition. Chorus can be repeated without any modification, however it's suggested to initiate new elements there, what is not that easy on the C-64 as we are able to use max. 3 tracks.

Solo - one instrument seems to be playing quite a coincidental stuff, but still connected with verse or chorus. It can be a different variant of chorus or verse, but usually it's a variation on a subject. Solo should be considered, improvisation won't give you expected effects unless you're really good in that.

Ending - this might be for example turning down volume of a solo that is still playing or another smart termination of a composition. It usually happens that tune is looped, then you can skip this part or adjust it to your own demands.

Of course you can use whichever combination you like (keeping introduction and ending or not). :) Example above assumed that background for verse and chorus is different. You are allowed to use only one background for the whole tune and build succeeding elements based on it, you can create changing main themes. A good example of such a tune is my zak called "Excalibur". You can also make use of a good trick to transpose (usually up, rarely down) succeeding themes, which are based on the same background. The example here might be "Appearances" by Wizard, where the second part of a tune is actually a very long solo with transposed background. There's no obstacle to mix mentioned elements.

And now a few words about styles. There are a lot of opinions on this subject. Some people say that composing a techno tune is very easy and you don't have to know much about music to do something in this style. Other people say that good musicians composing techno zaks simply demean themselves to the lowest level. Drax probably would be able to compose a techno tune, but would PVCF be able to compose something in Drax's style?

My opinion is a bit different. Music is a very capacious conception, it contains loads of styles and forms, some of them hardly being assigned to the music, for example how to define 15 minutes long solo on a gong...? Let everyone compose the music he likes, feels and understands. It's more interesting then. And this is not because I listen to all kind of music, it's all about if I like a certain melody. Not a few would be surprised by a range of styles.

There should be one more trifle mentioned. Mostly simple music is liked, I don't talk about sort of music, but type of composition that still rings on listener's ears, that is melodic, rhythmic or melancholic. More complicated tunes with more themes, being less rhtyhmic and less melodic will please narrow group of listeners. There exist such compositions, which aren't understood by their author and a few people... When composing on the C64 you have to turn towards some simplifications, quick and short tones sound better than long and slow ones. Please take it into consideration when composing on the C64.

Main rule of creating instruments is also simple: each instrument separately should has a pleasant sound. The more pleasant sound has a chord the better is a whole tune. It's easy to notice which musician creates good instruments, and which doesn't. For example you surely won't like the sound of a bass when filter is brought down to the level of $00.0 and then yet more, what is an obvious mistake in a filter's macro. We've got the similar situation with a pulse. Mistakes in macro of a pulse give effect similar to badly looped sample, it cracks, it wheezes, etc.

I remember when one day I was laughing for almost five minutes, when one coder (Jackobe/Oxygen) accused great musician (Wizard) of ripping instruments! The true is most of C64 instruments must be similar, what's simply caused by limited possibilities of SID. Anyway the same coder later couldn't distinguish two-framed zak from one-framed one and played it incorrectly. But that's another story...


Making covers (however some might be surprised by my words) is not easy task or preying on somebody's work. All good musicians on the C64 were making covers! It's an art to make a good cover on the C64, the best example for that is "Winners" by Mitch&Dane, also some covers by Shogoon. A beginner, who finds it hard to compose a completely new tune, should just start from making covers. Of course the main condition is to write such a tune by ear, because rewriting notes is easy task!

If someone is able to hear a certain theme, chords, bass and some additional melodic lines, he will surely become a good musician. Making covers educates, it indicates the new ways which might be followed by a beginning musician. When making a cover you can learn more by yourself than when reading books. Of course covers might be more or less complicated and it's sometimes really hard to understand one.

Another element is arrangement. Transferring a certain melody to C64 forces a musician to arrange a tune by himself, using only three tracks and making it the way it sounds properly. For some it's easy, it's hard for the others... But if you keep on trying, you'll gain necessary experience, which will be useful later when composing your own tunes.


Try to exercise composing backgrounds for your tunes (chords, bass and drums). The more tries you do the better musician you become... With every try you gain experience, which is necessary to compose a tune. You can also try to start to imagine some melodies.

The last remark in this chapter: most musicians (for example me) were firstly composing for their own fun. Doing so will keep you away from vicious comments. It's pretty sure that your music will become better and better with time.

The second part of my tutorial will concern more earthly-minded aspects of making music... But this will be presented in the next issue of this magazine.

Exclusively for "Attitude" by...

(English translation by CACTUS/OXYRON)

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