Tracker (music software)

Tracker (music software)
OpenMPT, a modern tracker with a graphical user interface

Trackers are a class of music sequencer software used to create and edit module files; they allow the user to arrange notes (pitch-shifted sound samples from the module) stepwise on a timeline across several monophonic channels.

A tracker's musical interface is traditionally numeric: both notes and parameter changes, effects and other commands are entered with the keyboard into a grid of fixed time slots as codes consisting of letters, numbers and hexadecimal digits. Separate patterns have independent timelines; a complete song consists of a master list of repeated and concatenated patterns.

Recent trackers have departed from module file limitations and advantages, adding other options both to the sound synthesis (hosting generic synthesizers and effects or MIDI output) and to the sequencing (MIDI input and recording), effectively becoming general purpose sequencers with a peculiar user interface.



There are several elements common to any tracker program: samples, notes, effects, tracks (or channels), patterns, and orders.

A sample is a small digital sound file of an instrument, voice, or other sound effect. Most trackers allow a part of the sample to be looped, simulating a sustain of a note.

A note designates the frequency at which the sample is played back. By increasing or decreasing the playback speed of a digital sample, the pitch is raised or lowered, simulating instrumental notes (e.g. C, C#, D, etc.).

An effect is a special function applied to a particular note. These effects are then applied during playback through either hardware or software. Common tracker effects include volume, portamento, vibrato, retrigger, and arpeggio.

A track (or channel) is a space where one sample is played back at a time. Whereas the original Amiga trackers only provided four tracks, the hardware limit, modern trackers can mix a virtually unlimited number of channels into one sound stream through software mixing. Tracks have a fixed number of "rows" on which notes and effects can be placed (most trackers lay out tracks in a vertical fashion). Tracks typically contain 64 rows and 16 beats, although the beats and tempo can be increased or decreased to the composer's taste.

A basic drum set could thus be arranged by putting a bass drum at rows 0, 4, 8, 12 etc. of one track and putting some hihat at rows 2, 6, 10, 14 etc. of a second track. Of course bass and hats could be interleaved on the same track, if the samples are short enough. If not, the previous sample is usually stopped when the next one begins. Some modern trackers simulate polyphony in a single track by setting the "new note action" of each instrument to cut, continue, fade out, or release, opening new mixing channels as necessary.

A pattern is a group of simultaneously played tracks that represents a full section of the song. A pattern usually represents an even number of measures of music composition.

An order is part of a sequence of patterns which defines the layout of a song. Patterns can be repeated across multiple orders to save tracking time and file space.

There are also some tracker-like programs that utilize tracker-style sequencing schemes, while using real-time sound synthesis instead of samples. Many of these programs are designed for creating music for a particular synthesizer chip such as the OPL chips of the Adlib and SoundBlaster sound cards, or the sound chips of classic home computers. These programs are also often called "trackers".[citation needed]

Tracker music is typically stored in module files where the song data and samples are encapsulated in a single file. Several module file formats are supported by popular music player programs such as Winamp or XMMS. Well-known formats include MOD, MED, S3M, XM and IT.


Screenshot of ProTracker 2.2A beta for Amiga computers
Beyond - Conspiracy - 2004 - 64k intro.jpg

Demo - Intro - Demoparty - Effects - Demogroup - Compo - Music disk - Diskmag - Module file - Tracker
Alternative demo platforms
Amiga - Apple IIGS - Atari ST - Commodore 64 - Vic-20 - Text mode - ZX Spectrum
Current: Alternative Party - Assembly - Buenzli - Evoke - The Gathering - Sundown - X
Past: Breakpoint - Mekka & Symposium - The Party
Hornet Archive - - Mod Archive - Trax in Space
ProTracker - Scream Tracker - Fast Tracker - Impulse Tracker - ModPlug - Renoise
Tracker musicians
v · d · e

The term tracker derives from Ultimate Soundtracker; the first tracker software. Ultimate Soundtracker was written by Karsten Obarski and released in 1987 by EAS Computer Technik for the Commodore Amiga.[1] Ultimate Soundtracker was a commercial product, but soon shareware clones such as NoiseTracker appeared as well. The general concept of step-sequencing samples numerically, as used in trackers, is also found in the Fairlight CMI sampling workstation of the early 1980s. Some early tracker-like programs appeared for the Commodore 64, such as Sound Monitor, but these did not feature sample playback, instead playing notes on the computer's internal synthesizer.

The first trackers supported only four channels of 8-bit PCM samples, a limitation derived from the Amiga's Paula audio chipset and the commonplace 8SVX format used to store sampled sound. However, since the notes were samples, the limitation was less important than those of synthesizing music chips.[2]

1990s and the PC
Schism Tracker with a classical ASCII based GUI, typical for trackers of the 80s and 90s, playing a module by Finnish composer Skaven

During the 1990s, tracker musicians gravitated to the PC. Although the IBM and compatibles initially lacked the hardware sound processing capabilities of the Amiga, with the advent of the Sound Blaster line from Creative, PC audio slowly began to approach CD Quality (44.1 kHz/16-bit/Stereo) with the release of the SoundBlaster 16.

Another soundcard popular on the PC tracker scene was the Gravis Ultrasound, which continued the hardware mixing tradition, with 32 internal channels and onboard memory for sample storage. For a time, it offered unparalleled sound quality and became the choice of discerning tracker musicians. Understanding that the support of the tracker/demo-scene would benefit sales, Gravis gave away some 6000 GUS cards to participants. Coupled with excellent developer documentation, this gesture quickly prompted the GUS to become an integral component of many tracking programs and demos. Inevitably, the balance was largely redressed with the introduction of the Sound Blaster AWE32 and its successors, which also featured on-board RAM and wavetable mixing.

The responsibility for audio mixing passed from hardware to software (the main CPU), which gradually enabled the use of more and more channels. From the typical 4 MOD channels of the Amiga, the limit had moved to 7 with TFMX players and 8, first with Oktalyzer and later with the vastly more popular OctaMED (all Amiga programs), 16 with ScreamTracker 3 on the PC, then 32 with FastTracker 2 and on to 64 with Impulse Tracker.

As such, hardware mixing did not last. As processors got faster and acquired special multimedia processing abilities (e.g. MMX) and companies began to push Hardware Abstraction Layers, like DirectX, the AWE and GUS range became obsolete. DirectX, WDM and, now more commonly, ASIO, deliver high-quality sampled audio irrespective of hardware brand.

ProTracker 5 alpha for PC

Tracker music could be found in computer games of the late 90s and early 00s, such as the Unreal series, Deus Ex and Hitman: Codename 47. However, the easy availability of software samplers/synthesizers and sequencers has caused some professional musicians to adopt other music software.[citation needed] Nonetheless, tracker software continues to develop. Some of the early Amiga trackers such as ProTracker, OctaMED have received various updates, mostly for porting to other platforms. ProTracker having resumed development in 2004, with plans for releasing version 5 to Windows and AmigaOS, but only version 4.0 beta 2 for AmigaOS has been released. Other cross-platform trackers include Renoise, MilkyTracker and SunVox.

Buzz, ModPlug Tracker, Renoise, Psycle, and others offer features undreamed-of back in the day (improved signal-to-noise ratios, automation, VST support, internal DSPs and multi-effects, multi I/O cards support etc.).

Current State

During 2007, Renoise and Modplug Tracker (OpenMPT) were presented in the Computer Music Magazine as professional and inexpensive alternative to other music production software.[3] In the Winter of 2008, Jeskola Buzz Modular also returned to a heavy developmental state.[citation needed]

As of year 2010, Renoise and Modplug Tracker (OpenMPT) are probably the most actively developed tracker and the most long-living project of this kind, started on years 2000 and 1997 respectively.[citation needed]

On 2011, DefleMask is released. It is a Multi-System Chipmusic Tracker, supporting SEGA Genesis, SEGA Master System, YAMAHA's SMAF, among other systems, developed by Delek.[4]

In June 2011, an on line software synthesizer based tracker called Sonant Live[5] was released. It is different from other trackers in that it runs completely in a web browser.

See also


  1. ^ Matsuoka, Claudio (2007-11-04). "Tracker History Graphing Project". Retrieved 2011-01-29. "Tracker History Graph" 
  2. ^ Commodore's SID or General Instruments' venerable AY-3-8912 and Yamaha's compatible YM2149.
  3. ^ "Top Trackers". Computer Music Magazine (Future Publishing Ltd) (113). June 2007. Retrieved 2007. "Tracker! The amazing free music software giving the big boys a run for their money." 
  4. ^ DefleMask's Website, Delek's website for his FM Tracker. DefleMask Tracker.
  5. ^ Sonant Live, an on line music tracker.

Further reading

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