How to Chart

Technical & JumpStream Charts, the best for destroying your hands properly.

[Last Update: 21 October 2023]

/A [French Version] and a [Spanish Version] are available/

Hello my dear Steplayers!

In this document, I will explain the basics of file creation on ArrowVortex for StepMania/Etterna/OutFox game engines from my own experience and perception.


Warning


However, I must inform you that I am making this document from my own knowledge acquired over 11 years of stepfile creation. I do not have the infused knowledge and I am not the ‘’best creator’’ of the StepMania-Sphere.
The information I am going to give you here is subjective.
Except for a few points where you absolutely must be assiduous, especially in the year we are at, to avoid repeating the same mistakes as before.
So, the topics I’m talking about in this page that have this (*) in their titles,
means that they are very important to know and to be use.
No matter what type of file you are going to make.
Let’s get into the big topic by starting with the basics:


The most used terms


Here are the terms you will see often and their quick definitions.
Chart: Represents what you create. The arrangement and positioning of the arrows.
On other rhythm games, the term “Maps” is also used and refers to the same concept.
However, the terminology ”Chart” is preferable for StepMania.
KB: Keyboard / Contraction of the word Keyboard
4K: Playable 4 arrow layout
CDTITLE: Logo that represents your project /or person
Terms used to designate types of charts.
Jack Oriented: A jack is usually two arrows of the same direction that are “almost” stuck together.
Often quite difficult to play for neophytes and new players.
Stream: These Charts have few jumps or triples and focus heavily on “somewhat” fast single arrow arrangements.
Many of the charts with this designation have a lot of ghost notes (i.e. not connected with a backward sound)
which can lead to a mock dumpstream.

Jumpstream: Stream, but with doubles and triples like ”no tomorrow”.
Technical: These charts often have several styles mixed into one.
Making charts in this style requires a lot of compromise and consistency in the way it is done
since the addition of hold and long hold is often very present in this style.

Dumpfile: These charts have a lot of arrows that are not always linked to a specific sound.
If they do, its greatly accentuate the sounds (if there is a rigorous charting process)
of a music to make it very difficult to chart.

There are several subtypes of Dumpfile and it strongly depends on what the author of this chart bases it on.
Pad: These charts were made especially for those who have the Dance Pad / DDR
(The majority of this community can be found on NotITG and Outfox)


The game engines


You have several programs available to play and test your charts.
I will list some of them as the number of game engines is quite large.
I will also tell you (roughly) the community these one reaches as of today.


StepMania 5


StepMania 5 is the basis for most of the other game engines below.
Often played for nostalgia, the vast majority have migrated to those below.


Etterna


Etterna is mainly focused on multiplayer by recording your scores on leaderboards
for each music and each chart played (if they are “ranked”)

At the level of players, it reaches mainly people who want to play files in 4k layout without advanced ”sorting” of packs. ”To play for fun”
There are some that have more layout in terms of number of arrow lines (i.e. 5-6-7-8 and more).
But the most represented is on a 4K layout.
To have your own packs on Etterna,
you don’t really have any precise request to respect other than the classical one…
(No virus, Well compressed, Not too heavy)

The most popular content on Etterna revolves around the Dumpfile.


Project OutFox


Project Outfox is mainly focused on a wide range of game types.
(Osumania, Guitar Hero, Beatmania etc)
And have more support for audio and video codecs.
Especially in MP4 H265 and FLAC.
The StepMania related community here is much more focused on the Pad
and Arcade side than on the keyboard competition.

There is no (currently) multiplayer system.
Personally, I use it for a small part of their editors as well as to play with the maximum quality that my packs can offer.


NotITG


NotITG is very much focused on the “high effect” charts as well as the Arcade and Pad side.
I won’t talk about “mod-chart” in this document, as I never did.
But the concept is to apply effects on the whole chart following the music you follow and these effects.
If you search for ”Undertale – Stepmania”, you have the typical example of a ”mod-chart” pushed to its paroxysm.


FlashFlashRevolution [FFR]


FFR is focused on the competitive side as well as demanding in 4K format with tournaments from time to time.
They have judges who sort and verify the charts/contents they receive
They have quite strong guidelines (accept a lot less than Etterna)
And asks that you have the author’s permission before sharing it.


Installation & File Management*


The installation of the packs is usually done in the folder ”Songs”.
And must be in this format –
Songs/Name of the Pack/Music name/Files (with the supported extensions below)
(.sm & .ssc/.mp3, .ogg, .wav/.jpg, .png/.avi, .mp4)


The types of files you can use*


The file types supported by a game engine can differ greatly
Here is a quick condensed explanation of these formats.
JPG: Lossy compressed image
PNG: Uncompressed lossless image / Can have a transparent background
MP3: Lossy compressed audio format
OGG: Lossy compressed audio format with a ”very small” advantage over MP3 in similar quality.
If you opt for 500kbps, the OGG extension largely exceeds MP3.

It is also open source.
FLAC: Lossless (and reversible) compressed audio format (quite heavy)
WAV: Uncompressed audio formation (Lossless and very heavy)
MPEG: Old Video Codec, Grandfather of the AVI format / Great loss of quality
AVI: Old Video Codec, Successor of MPEG / A lot of loss in quality except if the bit-rate is very high.
MP4: A moderately recent codec that allows a relatively good quality depending on the parameters chosen during encoding. The most commonly used type of MP4 is in the H264 format. H265 is more recent and allows a better quality with a weight of about 35-50% smaller than H264 with a higher cost of CPU usage.

Most of the game engines support most of these formats except for these:
FLAC, (WAV – 64Bits), MP4.
These formats are supported by Project Outfox.
It is recommended to use the MPEG format if you want to explicitly offer your files on very old game engines like Stepmania 3.95.

There are also questions about the resolutions for your background image (BG).
Here is a list:
640×480 [4:3] (Used on older game engines)
1280×720 (Still used by some)
1920×1080 (Basic quality offered) (*)
2560×1440 [2K] (Little used)
3840×2160 [4K] (Very little used)

When it comes to the experience you want to offer, you’ll have to make choices.
If you want “the smallest” in terms of final weight without “too much damage”.
720pJPG + OGG192Kbps + SM/SSC
If you want smaller but without sacrificing picture and audio quality.
1080pJPG + OGG300(or)500kbps + SM/SSC should be the most good choice.
Note that if you want to put a CDTITLE, it must always be in PNG
If you want to offer much more, you can.
There is nothing to stop you from doing different “quality” on a pack
As many have different setups and different requirements. (I personally do)

At the level of the dimensions of the banners and CDTITLE,
Here are the basics you need to know:
Banner (BN): (You can double the number, as long as the proportion is similar)
512×160 (or 1024×320)
CDTITLES (Always a square, you can put more or less)
150×150 (or 300×300)

To simplify your task,
you can name your file BG (for the background) and BN (for the banners)
to facilitate the management of your files.


Get the best of what you can get*


You should always strive for the best audio quality you are able to get. A rhythm game is based on music.
So it should be flawless.
Unless it is not available in good quality or you have financial problems.
The places where you have to look are numerous. If you like a music on YouTube.
The last thing you need to do is to download your audio from it…
You could check in the description if there are not links to download or buy the music.
And if so, choose the one that will offer you the best.

Here are some platforms that offer .wav :
Bandcamp, Beatport and sometimes a direct link offered by the artist.
If they are only available on ITunes, you should buy it on this platform as
it have twice as good in audio quality as YouTube.

But you will need a software to re-encode the audio to OGG or MP3.
However, I warn you, ITunes files store many of your personal information in the .m4a format.
You will have to get rid of them to avoid problems with them.


The audio equipment and computer you need


In terms of the headset you should have or get,
you need to have a headset that costs about $100 to have a proper sound output at 1ms max delay.

Corsair and Razer are companies with gaming headsets.
For my part, I had a Sony MDR-1AM2 (About $400) that was able to get a lot of the sounds you need to hear well when playing music. It is still 4x more expensive than a Gaming headset that would do just as well to start.
Now I have an MDR-Z7M2 (About $1000) which will seek even more subtleties and clarity in the sound.
As for the computer, I advise you to have at least a mid-range one.
It will be able to play most games with Medium-High settings.
You don’t need a war machine to chart.


The software you need + Project setup*


Let’s start in order to present these programs.
First of all, you need a software to be able to modify the images.
I would recommend ”Paint.net” if you want to do more ”basic” without too many tricks.
Or else, you’ll have to get Photoshop and get your hands on it.
On the audio side, you should have a studio software (optional) if you want to do EQ Management.
For sound management. Some artists don’t do it (or do it badly), which makes many music too loud at a certain point.
This can create (without you wanting it) an ear-rape if the preview of it is bad.

If we talk about encoding, I suggest XMedia Recode / Version 3.5.3.7
It allows you to juggle with many formats and is also quite good at video encoding (for neophytes)
I STRONGLY recommend using .OGG in most cases if you need to convert to higher quality.
It will allow you to juggle several formats (FLAC, WAV), while MP3 will always require a modification of the chart offset.

You should always check the metadata of your file.
The software MediaInfo allows you to see quickly the information of a media.
With this, you can quickly know if you need to remove information.

About the Video.
You must always encode them WITHOUT AUDIO. And preferably in AVI with the same resolution as your background image unless you are focusing your project on Outfox, which gives you the possibility of MP4.

Next, you will need to install ArrowVortex.
(Note that there is also DDreamStudio, as I do not use it, I will not elaborate on its use)
You will also need to install Etterna (or Outfox) to be able to test your files as well as check some things that will be specified at the end.


Full explanation of ArrowVortex*


This section will give a quick overview of the features you will need to know when creating your charts.
Note that the ArrowVortex files can be modified in its source folder if you want to have your own Noteskin, Clap, etc.
We’ll start from the left and work our way to the right.
/File/
Open – Open a chart /SM, SSC
Recent File – Shows a list of recently opened charts.
Close – Close the currently open chart
Save – Save the chart
Save as – Save the chart with another extension.
(I personally recommend to always base your primary backup on .ssc and save it as a duplicate .sm)
Properties – Shows the information you will need to fill in (Music name, artist, credit, preview etc)
Exit – Quit ArrowVortex – The ALT-F4 does the same job
/Edit/
Undo – Go back
Redo – Redo what you have undone
Cut – Cutting
Paste – Paste
Delete – Delete
Select All – Select the entire current chart
Select Region – Select a part of the current chart. (TAB)
Enable undo/redo Jump & Enable Time Based Copy – Not used, Always enabled
/Chart/
Chart List… – Shows the list of charts contained in the file.
Properties… – Shows the global information of the current chart.
Dance Bot – Shows a PAD, to visualize the patterns you want to make for that medium. (Not useful for Etterna (wink))
New Chart – Create a new chart
Previous Chart – Do what it say
Next Chart – Do what it say
Convert – Rarely useful.
Delete Chart – Delete a chart (Insert sad songs)
/Notes/
Select – Select specific arrows and/or quantizations.
Convert – Convert a specific arrow type to another
Mirror – The selected part will be mirrored
Expand – Extend the width of the current chart
Compress – Reduce the width of the current chart
Generate – (wink easy chart mod)
/Tempo/
Sync Mode (The forgotten one)
Adjust Sync (Your best friend)
Adjust Tempo – Change the BPM and create stop segments where your center line is.
Is very useful if you come across music with a variable BPM.

If this is the case, you will have to modify this one about the 4th, 8th
Adjust Tempo S5 – Not used
Tempo Breackdown – Not used
/Audio/
Volume – Turn up the sound of the music (Shift + Up or Down)
Speed – Speed up or slow down the sound of the music (Very useful for hearing very subtle sounds) (Shift + Left or Right)
Beat Tick – Activates a sound at each 4th
Note Tick – Activates sound at each note. (Useful to see if your arrows follow the music correctly)
Convert to OGG – Not used.
/View/
Show Waveform – Allows you to show the waveform of the music backwards. (Extremely important to have.) *
Show Beat lines – Show 4TH lines
Show Tempo Boxes – Not used
Show Tempo Help – Not used
Show Notes – Show arrows
Reverse Scroll – The arrows will scroll down.
Time-Based (C-Mod) – To be activated to see the waveform correctly
Row-Based (X-Mod) – Do not use it or the Waveform will not be visible (For weird reason)
Waveform – Waveform settings can be changed here. (The color, how it looks, etc.)
Noteskin – You can change the Noteskin here. You can also create one yourself and put it in the folder ”noteskins”.
I recommend that you check out what the basic noteskins look like.
This may require you to change the proportions or the layout of the one you would like to add in Arrowvortex.

Minimap – Not used
Background – Background image setting
Zoom – Zoom parameter
Mini – Rarely used
Snap – Rarely used
Cursor – Rarely used
Status – Several options related to the one already explained. See if these interest you.
/Help/
Shortcuts – See the list of shortcuts.
Message Log – Rarely used
Debug Log – Rarely used
About – Information about the people who worked on this project and the date of the build.
Donate – You can support the creator of this project.


Find a BPM and make a good SYNC**


To find a BPM, you must open ”Adjust Sync” and click on Find BPM.
Generally, at 85% of the time, the BPM is good.
The music that has been recorded live is usually with a variable BPM
which will force you to play with a different BPM at each 4TH (or 8TH).

When this is good, you click on APPLY BPM.
This will automatically set the selected BPM and a predefined OFFSET.
I recommend you to set ”Music OFFSET” to 0.
And walk through the music to find key cues that will allow you to choose a good offset.
Generally, this one must follow a kick or clap the most present.
The OFFSETS can be around 0.100/0.350
When you have found the sound you think is right.
You must bring the lines completely to the beginning of the chosen sound wave.

You can play with the up/down arrows of the music offset option until you get the right result.
You should not 100% rely on your headset to set the right ”SYNC” but on the image you see on your Waveform screen.
If you have a headset with a long delay, it may distort your sync.
You should NOT chart on a “bad sync” because a X game engine has a known delay.
This should be set when you have finished your chart.

When you have synced your music, you can finally start to ”Charting” properly.


Charting arrow placement*


To place arrows you must click on ”Chart”, New Chart.
I would advise you to put Challenge without changing the number after.
If you already have several under your belt,
you will be able to judge the difficulty you want to put into numbers before you even start Charting.

You must then click on Create.
And now you’ve created your first playground.
You can already start to check around and start to section your work.
Each music has a “section”.
Which can be determined by the manner in which they were made.
And many of these are “similar” or even the same in form.
It’s up to you if you want to keep some consistency in the way you put it together.
This concept will be explained more in the next point.

When you have sectioned off some of the music, you need to check that your BPM will meet your needs.
It is common to DOUBLE the BPM of a music if you judge that it contains too much ”yellow” arrow or in 16TH.
Current does not mean systematic.
If your chart is entirely in 16TH and this, without ”ghost note” (Arrow which is not connected to a sound) in addition to containing sections in ”Orange” 32nd. The BPM should be doubled to facilitate the ”reading” of the eyes of the player.
*It is recommended to choose the preview of the music manually with ArrowVortex (in the Property Option, Preview – Set Region (with Tab))
From here, you have the keys to make the “base of the base” of a charting process.
An average part of the available packs do not go further than that in their processes.
Here is a more complete part that will make you stand out from the standardized content.


Charting (Advanced)


This part will require you to invest even more of your time in creating charts
As well as being diligent in order to avoid making certain mistakes.
________________________________________
Your own Guide
First, I would advise you to write yourself a guide on what you really want to do.
And identify what is what.

Is a kick a double? Triple?
Clap, double? Triple?
What are the trade-offs you feel you are not adding an arrow to keep consistency in what you are doing? / Triple, Quads
Generally, the use of a quad implies a VERY LOUD sound.
And the Triple can be the lead kick.
At what BPM do you find that you ABANDON triples and quads?
________________________________________
Layering stuff
After the concept of cutting your chart by section.
Working in layers can be very beneficial if you want to focus on the core of the music and not get mixed up.
Generally, the procedure to follow is to start with the Pitch Relevancy (PR) which will be explained to you afterwards, which is the most present “Lead” “Harmonic” of the music.
Here is my own list:
1 – Lead Harmonic Principal (PR)
2 – Secondary Harmonic Lead (PR2)
3 – Kick & Clap
4 – Snare (+The other sounds around)
5 – Work on the voice (PR3?) / Mine
If you absolutely want to emphasize the voice, it can be moved to Lead Harmonic.
But you will have to make some concessions as to how you will rethink this section if it has 3 different Harmonic Leads. (This will be discussed in “Compromise and Consistency”)

________________________________________
Pitch relevancy works
The Pitch Relevancy Work is an easy to understand concept
But complicated to implement in a 100% faithful way.
Basically, you have to put on the 4 lines,
the arrows of your harmonic lead (with the sound you want to represent)
from the lowest to the highest pitch

1/2/3/4
+Low/-Low/High/+High
You will have to compare the sounds of the instrument you want to represent the most to define
what is your lowest and highest sound. So you can represent it on the 4 lines.

You must represent these sounds always at the ”same place” that you have already placed
depending on its tone on the entire work.

It is possible to do “multi-PR”, but I would advise you to start by doing the most “present”
and try to do the second one when you feel comfortable.

________________________________________
Compromise and Consistency
Let’s separate these two concepts:

Compromise
As the 4k format is quite compressed, you will have to make choices.
Choices that can be double-edged especially if you want to use long notes or holds.
With each line, you need to ask yourself if what you represent there is really what it should be.

Consistency
Your chart must always have a coherent background both in the way you are going to do it and in the way the music tries to bring you possibilities.
Example: You can’t have two different charted part of a music if the sound structure of the song is not different.
This is also true in reverse:
Example: If you use ghost notes or try to show really subtle sounds
You have to keep it from A-Z unless the first point gets in the way.
________________________________________
The limitation of the human body (Hands and eyes)
Like the feet, the hands have technical limitations that you must take into consideration if you want to make charts that are quite difficult. (Because it can lead to hands injury in high level)
The more difficult (and fast) a piece of music is, the more it will require you to take drastic measures about compromise and your possibilities.
Jacks are often one of the most important things to watch for when charting.
If they have no “reason” to be there, they should be avoided.
Unless you want to focus your content on that particular style.
Tripples and quads on all lines can also be very demanding but give less value to the music played back.
Long notes make it harder to read and can damage your hands if you focus on them alone.
Similar about Mines. This one should not be followed or after a Jack.
________________________________________
Be different (in your own way)
Being different is beautiful but complicated. (And can be a double-edge choice.)
Already applying the above points will place you out of the standard content but it takes time and investment.
If you want to do more, you can always ask yourself what you could add or change in what you do to make yourself “unique”.
Use of Fakes? Mines? Hold? Long Note? Grace Note?
A lot of choice are available.
It’s up to you to grab the one that will make you replay your own projects over and over again.
________________________________________

The number assigned to the difficulties of the Charts
For the estimation of the difficulty figures you could rely on the “MSD”
that Etterna proposes as a figure or you can create your own “rating”.

If you do this, I advise you not to change it, since players are able to identify
in your numbers which ones they are able to play or not.


Multiple Difficulties (Easy to Challenge)


Doing multiple difficulties will require you to create a new guide for
what you will remove in each difficulty to make the gameplay more accessible.

The community is sorely lacking in multi difficulty charts.
The advantage is that the players can get used to your chart-style which may lead them one day to play your hardest chart and propel them further (stories about my old packs)

Idea of what can be removed:
Reduction of bursts, reduction of tripples and quads, reduction of the use of long notes


Check, recheck and have other players try it*


You should always check and double-check what you have created line by line
to make sure you didn’t have a minutes of inattention.

And ultimately, if you are receptive to getting help.
You can ask for them.
THAT BEING SAID, you should not ask for help if you feel you will take it the wrong way and/or
you don’t have the time or inclination to implement it.

You should always take the feedback,
remove what you think is not good on them and keep what you think is reasonable and make the change.

On the other hand, there are several points that are non-negotiable.
And this is all the sections you saw with a *.
Instead of saying you don’t have time, ask how it should be done.


I’m done, so?


You have completed your project.
It’s time to decide what you want to do with it.
Was this a personal project?
If so, your journey ends here.

If not,
You need to determine how it will be shared, what quality you will use and if you want to include a video in the pack.


Encode a video for a X game engines


This section is for those who want to share videos behind their chart.
The basics will be explained briefly without going into too much detail.
I propose you the software I use for this process. It’s up to you to see if these interest you.
If you have audio that comes out separately from the video,
you’ll need to compare them in an editing program to see if your audio should start later, or earlier.

Here is the process:
1 – You must have the best visual quality of the video you want to use.
And know if it needs to be cut.
To know the timestamp you will need, Aegisub is a subtitling software that will allow you to get these numbers.
2 – You must download X-Media-Recode.
3 – You must choose the most versatile format if you don’t want to make 20 different versions.
If we start with this observation, the AVI format is the best choice.
You must click on ”Video” only.
In the Video section, you must choose these parameters:
Codec: MPEG4 AVC/H264
Framerate: The number of frames per second of your video.
At the level of the ABR, I recommend you to download ” Mediainfo” and apply the number of bitrate in average that you see in the info of the video you have in hand.
The “Preset” must be set to “Placebo”.
Then, if you need to ”cut” your video with the timestamps you have recovered with Aegisub,
you can put them in ”Filters/Preview”.

At the ”Start Time” + The end.
Then you can click on ”Queue” and the + (Add to Queue)
Then you can click on Encode.
And that’s pretty much the basics of rendering in AVI.
Then you have to add it to the game engine.
With a video, your offset of your chart should ALWAYS be in the positive.
If your offset is not 0, you must download Outfox (or Stepmania).
Go to the editor mode.
Determine the place where your music starts from the value of the ”Current Second” which starts in negation. You have to get the 0.000. And apply the ”Current Beat” as a delay in the SM and SSC file. (Here is the formula of a video by the way)
#BGCHANGES:0.000=*Nameofthevideofile.AVI=1.000=0=0=1,
99999.000=-nosongbg-=1.000=0=0=0=StretchNoLoop====;


Pre-sharing process*


You need to know what type of community your content will reach.
Start writing a text to be able to share your project and have it tested
and ultimately make a pack of all your projects in one.


Process after sharing


Start thinking about your next project (wink)


Revisiting old projects


It is often wise to go back to old projects (especially those that are 1 year old)
and recheck the content to see if it still represents what you are doing.

If you still haven’t released a pack, it would be a good idea to fix partially some of it.
EXCEPT if you think it would take too much time (like starting from 0)


END


Thank you very much for reading this page.
I hope it will help you in your future projects.
Do not hesitate to contact me if you see any typos or missing concepts.


(Here is a surprise picture about my mascot, but in an alternative Chibi version)