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

Some tracker reviews before 2013 is out

Posted by r on December 9, 2013

Earlier– ok, much earlier this year, I of course made a big to-do about the merits of trackers and set out on a huge review set of tracker-style applications. I had a feeling I was potentially biting off more than I could chew, and I was right.

However, in March through May, I did dig sufficiently deep into a good subset of the trackers on my list, and started writing some pretty in-depth reviews thereof. I realized pretty quickly that what I was writing would be well into tl;dr territory and, despite the absurd level of detail I was pursuing, ultimately not helpful to would-be beginner tracker users.

So here are some much shorter reviews– again, oriented toward would-be beginner users– of my basic findings on Jeskola Buzz, LGPT, OpenMPT, Psycle, Schism, and SunVox – roughly half of my original list of trackers I’d planned to take on. I will probably still go back and get a few more of the ones from my 3/13 master list later on; in particular, I’m still interested in digging into FamiTracker, Klystrack, LSDJ and Renoise.

Along with that, I’ll shortly be doing a review of a semi-recent Android app called Syntheogen, which has a lot in common with the “tracker mindset” despite appearing a bit more like a traditional graphic sequencer. Syntheogen is neat stuff and deserves its own look even at this early stage of the game.

Not-so-recommended or recommended with serious caveats: Buzz, Psycle, OpenMPT and Schism
Buzz is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing and potentially powerful tracking environments on my original list. Its greatest strength, however, turns out to also be an offputting weakness for beginners – Buzz is based on lots of plugin “machines,” many of which don’t work correctly with current versions, and has a community that has failed to fully keep up on publicly documenting any of this stuff. I kept getting the feeling that a new user interested in the modular architecture of Buzz would simply be better suited by a more traditional VST-powered sequencing environment– or perhaps a more self-contained quasi-modular tracker like SunVox.

I could say all the same for the open-source Psycle, which was intended as a Buzz clone from the get-go. Psycle was, unfortunately, much less stable than Buzz on my Win7 systems in multiple attempts to get it going (we’re talking consistent crashes within the first few entered notes, “installed” machines, etc.) and seems to be suffering from poor documentation / current overall community attrition to a even greater degree than Buzz. If you are interested in what Psycle offers, I would recommend taking a look at Buzz (or, again, maybe SunVox) instead.

I was pretty stoked about OpenMPT aka ModPlugTracker from the get-go, as it is a fairly simple / straightforward tracker app with a no-nonsense Windows interface. It can use VSTis for tone generation as well, which is nice. However, I had inspiration-killing headaches related to OpenMPT’s inconsistent usage of the QWERTY keyboard (i.e., a lot of mousing around was required even in situations where this didn’t make a lot of sense) and one-pattern-at-a-time architecture. While this is a more traditional approach to tracking, I personally prefer a simultaneous-pattern approach, and with OpenMPT’s other limitations constantly getting in my way, I didn’t get too far into my attempt to make a complete song or even a demo snippet with the thing (despite numerous aborted / frustrated attempts).

Schism Tracker has a very small if very passionate community and is largely an open-source clone of the dead / abandoned Impulse Tracker. It looks and smells like a DOS (or console Linux) app, and it’s almost entirely built around use of the QWERTY keyboard, a design factor which I like a lot. The primary maintainers seem to have disappeared as of this writing. I ran into some now-forgotten weirdness early on related to source code changes which hadn’t been implemented in current Windows builds– something I was only clued into by an SDCompo “friend” and devoted Schism user– and had to recompile myself, although the available .exes online do work.

There’s also the peculiar aspect of having to learn Schism primarily by carefully studying the original Impulse Tracker documentation – which doesn’t always apply 100% to Schism (Schism’s own documentation never having been finished, and the ancient drafts thereof having vanished / being harder to find online than IT’s docs themselves).

Schism is a standalone, purist, absolutely-no-frills sample-based tracker strictly for the hardcore. If you wanted to get into truly traditional tracking, Schism would be my strongest current recommendation… just don’t expect mastery (or even basic initial productivity) to come easy. For most modern folks with an interest in simply making music vs. “100% historically-acceptable” tracking, I hate to say it, but I would probably recommend looking at another app.

The recommended: LGPT and SunVox
Again, these are just my personal recommendations.

LGPT, affectionately known as Piggy among its users, is to some extent inspired by / based on the LSDJ tracking platform for Gameboy, but runs on quite different hardware. It was the first tracker I really gave a go, largely because I was intrigued by its intended mobile platform and what was– at the time, anyway– a fairly healthy community of users and creators. Things have seemingly slowed down a lot in the last year or so; there has been a new “ghetto build” version or two of LGPT, but the dev of this closed-source app is busy working for Ableton and has not shown much interest in bringing the app to other mobile platforms like Android, even as they take over the market from the sorts of portable gaming boxes LGPT was meant to run on.

This all aside, LGPT will run on Windows / Mac / Linux / even Raspberry Pi. If you want to run it on one of these platforms, I cannot recommend a USB gamepad or equivalent highly enough, because it’s pretty much built entirely around a gamepad-entry paradigm.

That probably sounds terrifying, and at first the interface is confusing. But you’d be surprised at how efficient this thing becomes with gradual mastery of the interface. That could likely be said of something like Schism as well, and in many ways these two trackers are similar – purely sample-based trackers, with Schism having more tracks channels / polyphony on tap as well.

But what sets Piggy apart from Schism and other more traditional one-pattern-at-a-time trackers– at least for me– is its multi-pattern architecture, which adds a lot of power and efficiency to the creation of a track. I won’t explain this in great detail nor using the Piggy parlance, but trust me, being able to transpose / transform a short pattern while another, longer pattern simultaneously plays can be a real time-saver depending on the musical application. Add this to the all-commands-at-your-thumbtips design, and Piggy can be a beautifully fast (if sometimes slightly limited) tool in the hands of a semi-experienced user.

While I have since purchased a used PSP Go for peanuts just to run LGPT (and have also tried it on a fullsize PSP and a Dingoo; I find the Go is the best balance of screen size and hold-in-your-hand comfort), I really keep hoping that LGPT, or something like it, will be ported to Android. It would be a killer app to have handy on the phone, and once you begin to dig in it’s clear that it’s good for way more than just chiptune.

SunVox is already available for Android– and a bunch of other mobile platforms besides, including PalmOS (!!!). While its playback is built around a tracker paradigm, it shares the multi-pattern power of Piggy, which is one strong reason why I can recommend it – although the way multi-pattern structures are built is kind of clunky and bizarre, albeit also very powerful / flexible.

In general, so much about SunVox can be summed up this way: “clunky and bizarre, but powerful / flexible.” Simple sample playback and oscillators are available on tap, but the semi-modular environment provided for creating instruments and effects has some serious power (if a bit limited in some regards, such as the current weak / oversimplified implementation of LFOs).

The MetaModule in SunVox, in which an entire “orchestra” / song / pattern from another SunVox file can be played as an instrument, even transposed by key or set to run at a completely separate tempo from your current project, is a tool so unique and unbelievably powerful that I desperately wish SunVox was available / controllable as a VST plugin itself. SunVox can be used in many ways that would be well beyond a “normal” tracking application.

All this said, although SunVox was meant as a mobile music-making tool (and does in fact play back surprisingly well on “slow” mobile chipsets – my SunVox song for April’s SDCompo, containing well over 60 constantly-running generator and DSP modules, had no problem playing in realtime on my Android phone and even did passably well on a ten-year-old Windows CE device!), I find it’s just too much to deal with on a small screen, at least with no hardware QWERTY board to help out with pattern entry.

Completing anything but the simplest of SunVox songs on an Android (or iOS) phone is an exercise in masochism. Yet, on a desktop platform, the developer’s interface choices– which have been steered by mobile-use considerations– can be somewhat annoying and counterproductive to deal with at times. (The sampler module is also particularly limited and bizarre in implementation, given SunVox’s clear tracker roots.)

SunVox is under active (if sporadic) development, and one really nice thing about it is the visible health of its community, possibly the healthiest community among trackers today (including even Renoise). Developer NightRadio has tons of tutorial videos on Youtube along with a SunVox group on Soundcloud, and compiles a monthly best-of list of tracks made with his app by others. These best-ofs are often 10-15 songs long every month. The average tracker compo seemingly has about 3-6 participants these days.

I can’t deny that there’s something strangely compelling and addictive about using SunVox, warts and all. Again, I just hope NightRadio will consider adding a VST / Rewire wrapper around the thing – because if there were any tracker app I’d love to be able to stuff into a REAPER track somehow, it’s SunVox. Definitely worth looking at and digging into, especially if you have an interest in mobile music (and maybe have a Bluetooth keyboard to boot).

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