A tracker is a type of music creation program. They're typically used on hobbyist music, because they sound extremely good considering the fact they're freeware or shareware, and can run on cheap hardware (almost any computer these days is fast enough to mix dozens of PCM tracks on software). Nothing stops people from using them for high end, though.

The trackers operate on patterns. A pattern is, simply, a fragment of note data. It's usually entered as a long list of rows (typically some power-of-two amount of rows per pattern - many trackers seem to use 64 rows by default). The rows are iterated over at constant speed. Thus, basically, trackers merely tell what instruments are played and when, but aren't specific about the lengths - no "A quarter note here", but rather "When you arrive to this row, this sound is played on this channel."

Each row has slots for number of channels. First trackers (SoundTracker, Noisetracker, Protracker etc) used 4 channels (this was just the hardware limit of early Amiga hardware), and latter trackers used 6, 8, 16, 32, and even more channels.

Each "note" on row encodes the note value (often represented as NSO where N = note, S = # mark or - depending on if the note is sharp or not, and O = octave - example: C-4 as the middle C, not to be confused with the explosive), often volume setting, and effect. There may be only an effect on the note if you only need the effect - for example, you may play a note on one row and use "slide down" effect for the next 15 rows to create a pitch bend effect.

Exact value and function of effects depends on module format, but often the effect is represented as CNN where C = command, and NN = hexadecimal numerical parameter. (Note that hex numbers are usually used for everything in trackers, except for some values like tunings...) The effects represent things like panning, pitch changes and slides, volume changes, vibratos, and even SID-style arpeggios.

Okay, now we have a pattern, on which we have note data and effects. After this, come samples. Early trackers used simple samples as instruments, but later trackers (FastTracker in DOS, at least) started using more complicated instruments - multiple samples could be assigned to single instruments for specific pitches. For example, for maximal sound quality you could sample every sound that pianos could produce and assign those to specific pitches - this sounds better than the crude pitch changes used by earlier trackers, but it understandably takes more space. =) Most tracker users seemed to use octave-grade samples. These days, some trackers are also capable of producing MIDI output.

Patterns, then, with all this instrument information, could be ordered into modules. Basically, now you have pieces of music, so it is time to arrange all that into a coherent whole. (Or so the theory goes). These modules could be then saved to disk (patterns, sounds, everything, into one file), played, or used for harassing neighbors.

Some common module formats include .mod (Amiga trackers), .s3m (ScreamTracker 3), .xm (FastTracker II) and .it (Impulse Tracker).

There are also different kinds of programs that draw their inspiration from tracking but expand the concept; Jeskola Buzz is one of such programs.

Now, don't ask me how to use these things creatively, I'm more of a sound technician rather than a musician...

A sci-fi tv show starring Adrian Paul (of the Highlander: The series fame) as Cole. Apparently there was a jailbreak in Sar-top; a prison in a far away solar system. The prisoners of course escape to Earth (specifically Chicago) and take over some human bodies. The master mind behind the jailbreak - Zin then becomes the evil boss of all of the hundreds of aliens who escape. They wreak havoc and desctruction. That is until Cole is sent down here, to capture the criminals one by one. Of course there are people that Cole befriends as he stumbles around on Earth. Mel who owns a bar (Amy-Price Francis) and her barmaid Jess (Leannie Wilson) help Cole on his adventures.

The series premiered on October 15, 2001. I just watched an episode on Space. Apart from obvious plot holes it's quite watchable.

The shows official site is www.trackertv.com; you can find a bit more info there, as well as some media.

A tracker is a piece of software used to create and play back modules, which are computer files consisting of sound samples and musical notation that make complete pieces of music. A tracker is also someone who uses such software.

The lead up to the tracker

The sampler is arguably the most versatile musical instrument there is. It can reproduce any sound fed into it, at any desired pitch.

In the early 1980s, Fairlight released the CMI, the first digital sampler capable of simultaneously playing several different sounds (technically known as being multitimbral). It also had a feature that has since been largely overlooked: a built in step sequencer.

The step sequencer is a device used to play electronic instruments in much the same way as a player piano works. It allows musicians to type in, store, and play back sequences of notes. Although it is quantised, giving the resulting music a mechanical feel that lacks personal style, it is relatively simple to use. It's also arguable that robotic precision is a style of playing in its own right, even an important part of the techno aesthetic.

A multitimbral sampler and a step sequencer to control it are a match made in heaven. More than just an interesting instrument, this combination can be considered a complete studio in its own right. Using nothing more than this single tool, a musician can create full compositions.

The Fairlight brought a completely original style of music into existence when it was embraced by artists like The Art of Noise, but its price tag of roughly £20,000 left it far out of reach of the masses. The integrated sampler and step sequencer combination only became popular in 1987, when Karsten Obarski wrote Ultimate Soundtracker for the Commodore Amiga personal computer. Although it was designed to help musicians write computer game soundtracks, its affordable price tag made it accessible to many people, from unsigned producers of electronic music to people merely toying with the idea of composing songs.

It wasn't long before other hackers improved upon Ultimate Soundtracker, and there was a flood of programs that combined a sampler and step sequencer in a single package with a similar look and feel, many of them released in the public domain. The musicians who use them, as well as the programs themselves, became known as trackers. Some of the most popular trackers include Fasttracker, ScreamTracker and Impulse Tracker, all of which run in DOS. As of writing (2006), the tracker community is still alive, with many people swapping their compositions with each other.

The mod file format

Trackers create module files, or mod files for short. These files contain both the samples of various sounds used by a piece of music, and the sequences of notes. This enables a whole composition to be conveniently contained in a single file.

For comparison, MIDI files, which were popular at about the same time, contain only the notation of music. This means that whenever someone listens to a MIDI file, they hear the same notes being played on vastly different instruments, so they don't hear what the original composer had intended. Mod files, on the other hand, let everyone hear the composition exactly as it sounded to the original composer.

Another comparison might be made to the popular MP3 format, which also offers songs in relatively small single files. However, while MP3 files let you play a song, they don't let you dissect it or tinker around with it like mods do. A mod doesn't contain the finished recording, but all the ingredients and instructions to create it from scratch, enabling anyone with the appropriate tracker software to see exactly how its effects are achieved, and hopefully admire the composer's unique style and any cunning tricks used to push the format to its limits.

The tracker community

Due to the open nature of the mod file format, and the hacker spirit, a whole community exists consisting of musicians who create, share, and listen to mods. Although it is not what it once was, it is still worth looking into.

In light of the recent attempts by the recording industry to make their songs difficult to copy, and to sue their customers for sharing them, the tracking community is a refreshing sight. The dichotomy between artists selling music and fans buying it is eschewed in favour of everyone being equal, free to build upon everyone else's work. Tracker etiquette encourages everyone to use each other's samples and study each other's compositional ideas and techniques, slowly improving the state of the art with every new piece of music.

In short, the tracking community is fully aware of how culture works: by taking existing ideas (and in this case, the sounds themselves) and building upon them. I'd encourage anyone interested in making music to look into tracking. In many ways, this amateur music community has more to offer musicians than the professional music industry - everything except the unlikely possibility of fame and fortune. If you're more interested in actually making and sharing music, it's ideal.

Track"er (?), n.

1.

One who, or that which, tracks or pursues, as a man or dog that follows game.

And of the trackers of the deer Scarce half the lessening pack was near. Sir W. Scott.

2. Mus.

In the organ, a light strip of wood connecting (in path) a key and a pallet, to communicate motion by pulling.

 

© Webster 1913.

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