GB Studio Music Lesson 1: Terminology and Basics of the Game Boy Sound Chip

If you want to step into the world of trackers and channels and all those other phrases that scare you in #audio-help, this is the place to start. In this series of articles, we will start with the basics of using the GB Studio tracker and slowly build a little demo song, all while learning the nuances of GB Studio and the Game Boy sound chip.

What Makes Up a Game Boy Song?

The Game Boy has some of the most distinctive chiptune music out of all the classic systems. It is definitely more versatile than the NES, and more crunchy and louder than the Sega Master system or Atari. Although the DMG-CPU can only play 4 sounds at once, a clever composer can make it feel like so much more. Its unique music is noisy and has strong stereo definition which many composers use to their advantage. 

Before we start making our own songs, let me show you how a Game Boy song breaks down. It’s best to understand the tools and terms before you start trying to use them. As previously stated, the Game Boy can make up to four sounds at once, each one comes from a separate channel. A channel is represented by the vertical columns you see in the tracker. The channels for the DMG-CPU (Game Boy sound chip) are Duty1, Duty2, Wave and Noise. We will learn what each one does in this lesson. 

Duty Channel

The two duty channels are almost the same, but Duty1 has some additional features we will learn about later. These play basic chiptune pings and bloops that you hear on any 8-bit system. They can be adjusted to have a thinner, tinny sound or a fatter rounder sound. 

Wave Channel

The wave channel is what makes the Game Boy so unique. This buzzy and loud wave generator is often used to make the bass, play a voice or drum sample, as well as other instruments. It can be made to sound as smooth as the NES’s triangle or as loud as an electric guitar. 

Noise Channel

The noise generator channel basically takes static and forms it into bursts which can sound like drums, the ocean, wind, earthquakes, and more. 

Here’s a video that shows you how each one sounds and is typically used in a song. I say typically, but this is just one possible configuration. It’s not uncommon to see the bass coming from a Duty channel and the Wave channel doing something else. It all depends on what the song needs. You can get to this view within GB Studio by selecting Music in the drop down in GB Studio.

Below is a .uge file you can download and drop in the assets/music folder of your own project to load it in the GB Studio tracker to see what you see in the video. Don’t worry about all those little letters and numbers in the grid, we will learn about them later. All we want to learn today is what channels are, and how they usually sound. 

When you open your tracker by going to the Music view in GB Studio you should see gbs-demo.uge on the left. If you do not, make sure you have the hUGEDriver selected in Settings > Music > select “UGE (hUGEDriver)”.

Click the button to switch to grid view. Some like to use the piano view as well, but for the sake of understanding the channels, the grid view is what we will use during this course. 

Terminology

Here’s some important terms you’ll need to understand as we delve into these lessons: 

.UGE

A .uge file is a song basically, it’s a special file that GB Studio Tracker, the hUGEDriver and other music trackers like hUGETracker can read and modify. 

Tick

A tiny portion of time that passes as a song plays. 

Tracker

A tracker is a special editor for making, modifying and playing back music. Like Microsoft Word can open a .docx file, trackers can open .uge files. 

Tempo

Ever heard a song that starts with someone yelling “1, 2, 3, 4”? This is the invisible clock for the song. Everything is playing at the speed of the 1, 2, 3, 4, on the numbers or on divided increments of it. 

Channel

One of the four Game Boy sound types that the sound chip can generate as explained above. 

Pattern

A set of 64 notes (numbered 0 to 63) that the four channels will play together. Think of it like the holes an old player piano reads. 

Instrument

A collection of settings for a certain channel type which produce a sound. Settings are things like the envelope, the volume level, wave form, etc. 

Envelope

Imagine that each time a note is played, an invisible hand turns the volume knob up or down on that instrument, this is the envelope. 

Attack

The start of the envelope or how fast the invisible hand turns the imaginary knob up to full.

Decay

The end of the envelope or how fast and when the invisible hand turns the imaginary knob to 0.

Effect

Special commands that change a note in some way, they change its stereo panning, bend it up or down, or change its volume. Some of them impact the entire song, like ending a pattern early or jumping back to a previous pattern.

Now that we have the basics down, we are ready to move on and make our first instrument and first sounds. Lesson 2 will cover the Noise channel and we’ll start making our demo song from scratch, starting with a simple time-keeping beat.

Other Trackers

There are other trackers you can use to create .uge files shown in these lessons. The most popular is hUGETracker. Almost everything works the same in hUGETracker vs GB Studio’s tracker, it’s just configured differently. Start with the GB Studio tracker, you can always change to one of the others if needed.

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