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

Final pre-review preamble: Why learn a tracker at all?

Posted by r on March 23, 2013

It’s 2013. There are enough free and cheap DAWs / sequencers, to say nothing of VSTis, to achieve just about any sonic aim / complete just about any job you could imagine on the (extremely) cheap. The horizontal-sequencing genre represents a mature (now over 20 years old itself), quite flexible and well-established paradigm that quite easily understood by most musicians right out of the box. So why is a tracker or tracker-esque application– with its typically standalone nature and somewhat heavier learning curve– still of potential interest to a modern musician?

That’s something I hope to successfully address in this post, because I’m explicitly aiming this series at potential tracker newbies (like myself!), and I base all this effort on the belief that there are uses for both types of tools in the contemporary musical toolbox for lots of folks, well beyond the traditional audience for tracker apps.

There definitely aren’t many tracker evangelists out there being heard (or even making any effort to be heard) by the DAW-addicted masses; the tracking faithful are working in their own niches and are not particularly interested in the horizontally-oriented world outside. But I hope to make the case that trackers are in fact potentially useful tools regardless of the style of music you’re making, and with this post, I hope to make said case successfully in the eyes of other said newbies before I start taking on individual app reviews.

Ultimately, a tracker is perhaps best viewed as “just another tool,” and one that I find does some things better than the more widely-accepted tools in most contemporary DAWs. I definitely don’t think it’s necessary for a musician to limit themselves to working only inside a tracker, but having some basic skills in one tracker or another opens some very cool new possibilities that are harder to get to with the DAW alone. For me, those possibilities are worth the initial learning curve, and I suspect that other musicians might find the same if they’d give these apps a chance.

So, more specifically: what does a tracker potentially offer that a GUI-based DAW does not?

1) An efficient, (computer)-keyboard-driven work method. A DAW expects input from a live instrument, and a lot of error-prone mouse-driven manipulation in the editing department. A tracker is largely built around entering data from the computer keyboard, and most have an extensive set of keyboard shortcuts that make constant switching back and forth between mouse and keyboard unnecessary. It may seem difficult to get your ideas into a tracker at first, but once you learn the keyboard lay of the land for your chosen app, you’ll often be cruising along building tracks faster than you ever could in a DAW.

Did I mention that building drum patterns in a tracker through its method of step entry is about the fastest method of drum programming you could hope for? This is largely because of the inherent pattern paradigm of trackers, and all of the further options they give you for instant pattern “cloning” / quick manipulation. Yes, there are drum machine plugins for DAWs that are also pattern-based – but once you get used to programming drums in a tracker line by line, using only your keyboard, mousing around lighting up buttons in an “808 grid” will start to seem like an obnoxious, pointless timesuck by comparison.

2) An incredible, inherent / native degree of control. In a tracker, you can control little aspects of sample playback and/or synthesis on a note-by-note basis, all controlled via simple keyboard commands. Although there’s a bit of a learning curve, it’s not difficult to manipulate each note / sample in incredibly expressive ways, line by line, using the tracker’s built-in commands for playback expression. These things commonly include pitch-bending, volume, and/or basic effects application, but manipulation commands often extend well beyond this. (One of my favorite “standard” effects available in most trackers is that of retriggering – a very quick way to generate complex flams, fills, and IDM-suitable glitchery of all kinds with just a couple of keystrokes.)

Many trackers even make “macros” available to the end user – imagine a complex sequence of parameter changes that you can configure yourself in seconds, and then apply to any note you like with a single command. Or – better yet – such a macro with parameters that can be dynamically adjusted on a line-by-line basis with a just a couple of digits keyed in.

Sure, you can sort of do all this stuff in a DAW with after-the-fact editing and MIDI parameter control too. The difference is, since you’re usually applying edits graphically with a mouse after the fact, the application is not nearly as precise and almost certainly much slower to apply.

There is typically no “MIDI learn” or the like required to set up complex parameter-manipulation rigs in a tracker, either. Note-by-note control is baked right into the software at the very core of its design, not as an afterthought. Versus a typical horizontally-oriented sequencer, trackers provide a level of control more akin to something like Csound (although trackers are not nearly so difficult to use or learn).

And as a bonus: for those like me who are interested in wild rhythms, the tracker also offers a degree of somewhat hidden, but also rather astounding, control over its timebase which can lead to the relatively fast exploration of some seriously wacky rhythmic ideas and interplay.

3) On the flipside of tight control: tight control over dynamic, musically interesting lack of control. Many trackers offer control over note probabilities, which is useful for truly dynamic drum or bassline programming among other things. Other trackers offer the possibility of extensive parameter modulation and randomization, which can be easily switched on or off once again on the note-by-note level with only a few keyboard keystrokes. For those of us who believe in the power of chance (or just happen to like our music a little on the glitchy side), this is good stuff, and– again– made much more accessible and quick / flexible in its application than it is in most DAWs.

4) Often encourages economy and compositional “tightness.” This point might be a hard sell to some musicians, but not to wise musicians. Not all current trackers limit the number of voices available at one time, but traditional trackers do. Can you get your idea across successfully with only a handful of voices to play with? That’s the mark of a skilled composer. Add to it that trackers– by the nature of their architecture– force you to think about every note as you enter it, and you have an idiom that forces reflection and carefully considered construction more than any live-instrumental-input-based idiom. I ccnsider this a good thing.

5) Portability, often in multiple literal senses. The inherent “mobility” of trackers is very appealing. Working on a DAW-based project while bouncing it back and forth between two machines is a recipe for ongoing annoyance. You’ve got to make sure the two installations match in terms of installed VSTs/VSTis and keep the entire project folder updated somehow. Sure, you could work off a network server – if you know you will always have access to that server everywhere you’ll be working. Or I guess you could just work entirely off a USB flash drive, if you trust yourself not to lose said USB key before the song is completed (something I don’t trust myself to pull off for certain).

Trackers, on the other hand, tend to store everything internally within a single file that can be flipped back and forth between machines quite trivially. (This isn’t always the case, but when a tracker is an exception to this rule, it at least automatically stores all samples used in the tracker project within a predictable directory / folder without the preemptive need for path-prompting from the end user.)

The files / directories used by a tracker tend to be quite small as well, depending on what the user throws into them. And the apps themselves are small and inherently portable, often not even requiring a “standard” desktop installation procedure to get up and running.

Furthermore, this is a genre of app with a heritage extending back to the Days Before DAWs. A tracker was the only way to make outboard-hardware-free music on a mere megahertz-class processor like that found in an early Amiga, after all.

Thusly, even modern trackers often run quite well on ancient or unlikely hardware. Netbook? Thinkpad from ten years ago? No problem. You can repurpose a whole range of old, slow, incredibly obsolete gear in your closet and do real music-making on those things with a correctly-chosen tracker. Try doing that with a typical modern DAW.

Heck, several trackers on my list are so CPU-light, they are even meant to run on portable devices that aren’t full-blown computers in the conventional sense at all, although they thankfully often have desktop ports so you can work on both environments as you wish. (Yes, I know iOS and even Android music apps are blowing up big-time – and trackers are available for both of those platforms too. On Android, given a few unique quirks of that platform, trackers are actually just about the best option right now for portable music-making.)

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