personalized expeditions in music from a musician who doesn't matter


Posted by r on March 18, 2013

In coming weeks / months, I am going to be reviewing a category of music-making software in-depth. This genre of software: the obsolete, clunky, horribly documented, and ever-astonishing tracker app. Why?

I do everything backwards. In the mid-late 90s, when mortally-accessible computers were first becoming really capable of generating listenable music self-sufficiently, I started a project called the Carwax Kings. The music was meant to parody electronic / EDM genres, or so I claimed – even though of course I actually love electronic music (although I wasn’t so fond of the generic “electronica”/Astralwerks stuff clogging up the hype channels back then, and I still have basically no regard for that Chemical Brothers / Prodigy-type shit).

Ultimately, CK was what it was because I was lazy and wanted to make some music quickly and brag to everyone about how it had been made with just the computer – what foolish, arrogant, 22-year-old me considered a relatively novel concept at the time.

I was hacking together CK tunes using some tools and workflow any home recordist would consider totally primitive and counterintuitive today. There was a lot of creating of beats and things in programs like Rebirth RB-338 and even good ol’ Hammerhead, with the output from those apps usually cobbled together after the fact in a destructive editor, i.e. Sound Forge. Doing so took a lot of trial and error and chewed up a lot of time waiting for the 200MHz chips of the day to complete my requests, which I usually had to undo 75% of the time because the result sucked.

Looking back, I cannot believe I made music like this, ever. Of course, most of CK’s “output” wasn’t very interesting either. We had a couple good songs, and the rest were pure filler.

At the time, I simultaneously became aware of the so-called tracker genre of audio software. It was already a “time-honored” method of making music entirely inside a personal computer, stretching back into the 80s with computers like the Commodore 64 and Amiga.

But said genre was pretty much the exclusive domain of “scene kiddies.” Me? I was a serious trained musician using serious tools, not some basement-dwelling self-styled haxx0r. I made sure to put big “NO FUCKING TRACKERS USED” labels on all of CK’s CD artwork. It was a point of pride.

Looking back, as it is with many things I believed in my foolish early 20s, this was a totally ignorant “point of pride.” Sure, a lot of tracker music sounds like silly video game music. Sure, a lot of it from the demo scene is made by people with no musical training. But on the other hand, a lot of music written in tracker-like style for the Nintendo and the ilk, hardware that had serious limits both in terms of available timbres and available polyphony, rocks hard as hell.

The guys writing music for commercial games in the 80s were usually pretty serious dudes. They had to be – if you haven’t studied / can’t produce workable counterpoint, and you have to write music for a chip that can only produce two to three primitive-waveform pitches plus some kinda white noise at any given moment, well, you’re royally fucked.

Koji Kondo, the composer of such classics as the Super Mario Bros. and Zelda soundtracks, became one of my lesser musical heroes sometime around my mid-20s, when I had finally had enough formal musical training to realize how amazing / accomplished his compositions really were.

Apart from those guys, the amateurs making music with trackers in the 80s and particularly the 90s were not usually as successful. But sometimes they could make something that sounded at least a little nifty anyway. I didn’t discover this until much later. I was too biased / snooty to bother listening to the products of the great unwashed “scene”.

I’m not sure how this happened, but early in 2012 I stumbled across Hexawe, a “net label” devoted exclusively to tracks made in this little program called LGPT. LGPT is a tracker app by any definition of the term. It is meant to run on a portable game console – like a Gameboy. In fact, LGPT has an interface essentially based on LSDJ, a music-making program that was made to run on a Gameboy. Arrow keys, A/B, and shoulder buttons – that’s what you get to use for input.

I loved so much of the shit I was hearing from the Hexawe folks. It was glitchy, wild, not always successful or indicative of deeply musical thought… but when it worked, man, it really worked. It didn’t always sound like 80s video game music either– certainly not always like something you could produce with a handheld game thing.

I started playing with LGPT on my Windows machine. It was unforgiving at first – the interface was totally alien. Once I got a handle on the workflow, though, I started to love it. There were things LGPT could do that were extremely difficult to do on my “proper” VST plugins and MIDI sequencers. Of course, there were many other things that it could not do or could only do very primitively. But in a way, it reminded me of serious audio-mangling tools like Csound, things that were pretty much the exclusive domain of the academic electronic musician.

I slowly learned that most trackers had been capable of many of the same glitchy mangling techniques all along. And then I really started to get pissed at my 20-something self. I could have used this shit a lot earlier. A tracker never would have been my only tool, sure, but it would have been pretty useful to have in the toolbox.

So lately, I’ve been on a bender, trying out all kinds of tracking apps. There is something oddly appealing about the way a tracker forces you to put music together – it makes you work way harder to make the music. It enforces limits that you have to get around somehow. Nothing is immediate, like picking up an instrument. If you are like me and hear music in your head, the process of getting it realized by a tracker is slow and cerebral and forces reflection– especially when you run right up against one of its inherent limits in trying to realize an idea. In my old age, I like all this. I don’t know why.

I have played with a lot of trackers but I’ve only completed one song in one, which I contributed for a Hexawe “compo” last fall. It took me about 20 hours to do in LGPT. The “compo” had limits that were even more strict than those inherently imposed by the software. It’s not my favorite thing I’ve done, but I’m still proud of it, and it was tons of fun. I still have a long way to go to get up to the LGPT/LSDJ skill level of a B. Leo or an XC3N. Those guys are doing amazing things with this incredibly “primitive” software and nothing else.

One thing I’ve found is that the tracker “scene” is not very friendly, at least from a learning-curve perspective, to a new user. Figuring out which app fits the user’s compositional approach best is hard, at least from just reading about things, and every app has a steep learning curve even though the basic mechanics are often very similar.

You really need to commit to one program or another if you’re going to get good at making music in this idiom… but how do you know which one?

I’ve decided I’m going to take this on, just because I want to. I’m an old fart with a nerd streak a mile wide and an itch to compare shit to other shit, and so I’m going to take a whole bunch of trackers on semi-seriously, one by one, to see what each of them can do best and who they would best fit.

What I’m saying: Tracker reviews– many of them– coming!

…But none of them for Mac. And no, of course I’m not sorry.

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