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The best hardware sound trackers for live performance

We break down our favorite hardware music trackers and explore why and how they are being used in modern electronic music workflows.

Richard Hogben
Cofounder of Piqued // Los Angeles
The best hardware sound trackers for live performance

Why sound trackers? It's all about the workflow

A music tracker can be defined as a type of music sequencer software that allows users to create, edit, and arrange digital music using audio samples. These samples, which can be anything from instrumental notes to drum beats or even vocal snippets, are organized into patterns and channels. This structure enables users to manipulate the sounds in various ways, such as adjusting the pitch, applying effects, or altering the volume, all within a single interface. As a result, music trackers offer an unparalleled level of control and creative freedom, making them a popular choice among both amateur and professional musicians.

My top pick for the best hardware music tracker of 2024

Polyend Tracker+

The updated Polyend Tracker+ is here with USB audio, new synth engines, and more.

$799 at Perfect Circuit

The updated Polyend Tracker+ has been released with some game-changing upgrades, and we can confidently recommend it as one of the best hardware trackers for live performance.

Likes:

  • USB audio and stereo playback
  • New exclusive synth engines
  • Enhanced drum machine capabilities
  • New synth editor for rapid patch editing
  • Expanded sequencer and song mode
  • Hardware and compatibility improvements

Dislikes:

  • Still no internal battery, but this is not uncommon among other groovebox-like devices


Where trackers came from and where they are headed

The history of music trackers can be traced back to the late 1980s, with the development of the Ultimate SoundTracker by Karsten Obarski. This groundbreaking software revolutionized the way music was created on home computers by offering a user-friendly interface and a powerful set of features. The Ultimate SoundTracker laid the foundation for a new era of digital music production, paving the way for a diverse range of tracker software to emerge in the following years. Some notable examples include the popular FastTracker, Scream Tracker, and Impulse Tracker, each with its distinct features and capabilities.

Impulse Tracker, created by Jeffrey Lim, is considered one of the best music trackers of its time. It introduced several new features, including support for more module formats, such as .IT and .S3M, alongside the classic .MOD files. This tracker was instrumental in the evolution of tracker music and served as an inspiration for many modern trackers.

Over time, music trackers have evolved to keep pace with advancements in technology and user demands, resulting in more sophisticated and versatile software tools for creating music. These trackers now offer a wide range of tools, such as plugin support, various effects, and advanced sample manipulation, making music creation more accessible and versatile.

There's versatility in going vertical

Music sequencer software and music trackers share similarities in their core functionalities; however, music trackers offer a unique approach to music creation. This approach involves arranging sound samples along a vertical timeline, providing flexibility and precision in composition, allowing users to experiment with different combinations of sounds, patterns, and effects to achieve their desired outcome. Furthermore, music trackers often support a wide range of sound formats, enabling users to incorporate various types of audio samples into their compositions.

In addition to their versatility, music trackers also offer a high level of precision and control over the music creation process. With features such as adjustable note lengths, pitch control, and customizable effects, users can fine-tune their compositions to achieve the perfect balance of sounds and textures. This level of precision is particularly valuable for creating complex arrangements and intricate melodies, as it enables users to manipulate each individual sound sample with a high degree of accuracy.

Tracker music is characterized by the use of fixed time slots and sound samples, which are organized into patterns and channels. This method allows for intricate compositions and arrangements, with each sound sample being manipulated individually to create a harmonious and cohesive piece.

The music tracker's user interface

Most music trackers share common elements in their user interfaces, such as a vertical timeline, tracks and channels, and patterns and master lists. These elements work together to create a seamless music creation experience.

Sample playback and manipulation

In tracker software, sound samples can be played back and manipulated in numerous ways, such as adjusting the pitch, volume, or applying various effects. This level of control allows users to create intricate and dynamic music compositions.

Vertical timeline, tracks, and channels

The vertical timeline in a tracker displays the progression of the song, with each row representing a fixed time slot. Tracks and channels are used to organize sound samples and effects, with each channel representing a single sound stream.

Patterns and master list

Patterns are sequences of sound samples and effects, while the master list organizes these patterns to create a complete song. This structure allows users to create intricate arrangements by combining patterns and channels.

Runners-up picks for the best hardware music trackers

Dirtywave M8 Tracker Model:02

An update to the popular M8 portable tracker sequencer and synthesizer. Powered by the Teensy microcontroller and inspired with love from the renowned Gameboy tracker Little Sound DJ.

Check prices on Reverb

Likes:

  • Upgraded Model:02 version!
  • New machined aluminum design
  • Larger 3.5" IPS TFT display
  • Improved battery
  • Built-in microphone for sampling
  • Very powerful processor (Teensy 4.0, ARM Cortex-M7 at 600 MHz)
  • Internal synths (custom waveform, FM, virtual analog, and Mutable Braids)
  • USBC (device-mode only)

Dislikes:

  • Preorders quick to sell out

The M8 from Dirtwave is a powerhouse piece of hardware that has been designed by musician Timothy Lamb (Trash80). There is a very active Discord and firmware updates are pushed often. A recent edition that came through a free firmware update was the Hypersynth:

Need I say more? ­čśä


Dirtywave M8 Tracker

M8 is a portable tracker sequencer and synthesizer. Powered by the Teensy microcontroller and inspired with love from the renowned Gameboy tracker Little Sound DJ.

Check prices on Reverb

Watch for deals on this original M8 now that the Model:02 has been released. The original shares all the power of the upgraded version minus some of the quality of life upgrades.

Likes:

  • Super portable
  • Very powerful processor (Teensy 4.0, ARM Cortex-M7 at 600 MHz)
  • Internal synths (custom waveform, FM, virtual analog, and Mutable Braids)
  • Audio over USB
  • Internal battery

Dislikes:

  • Micro USB connector

Polyend Tracker

Polyend Tracker incorporates the quintessential characteristics of a classic tracker. The vertical timeline, the powerful sequencer and the mechanical keyboard combined with a newly designed input interface enables you to make and perform your music in a new and intuitive way.

Check prices on Reverb

It's missing some of the upgrades from the Polyend Tracker+, but this is still a powerful and performative device.

Likes:

  • Huge screen
  • Grid pad buttons
  • Jog-wheel for navigation and editing

Dislikes:

  • No internal battery

Polyend Tracker Mini

Tracker Mini is a portable, standalone audio workstation with eight tracks to sequence stereo audio and MIDI, audio-over-USB functionality, a built-in battery and microphone, gamepad quality buttons and a host of sampling and sound design tools.

$699 at Perfect Circuit

Likes:

  • High capacity stereo sampling
  • Audio over USB
  • Internal microphone
  • Internal battery

Dislikes:

  • No internal synths

XOR Electronics NerdSEQ Eurorack module

The NerdSEQ is a tracker based cv and trigger sequencer module (32HP) for Eurorack systems.

$699 at Perfect Circuit

Likes:

  • Capable Eurorack format with plenty of buttons
  • Midi and CV recording to the step sequencer format
  • External modulation of internal parameters

Dislikes:

  • Midi requires an additional expander
  • Only two audio tracks in addition to the modular sequencer tracks
  • No sample recording

A creative combination

It's not uncommon to find producers performing with two hardware trackers or a combination of different devices. Two devices afford the flexibility of mixing between tracks or separating duties, for example using one device for percussion and another for voices. Watch VVLV take the "maestro of chiptune music" Analogue Pocket out for a spin with the M8 music tracker to create a quick jungle jam. Here the Pocket is running nanoloop for melodic and pad sounds while the M8 is tracking samples.


Analogue Pockets are a little hard to find, but I've included the details below if it looks interesting to you!

Analogue Pocket & Little Sound Dj

A multi-video-game-system portable handheld. A digital audio workstation with a built-in synthesizer and sequencer.

Analogue product page

Likes:

  • Modern take on a retro chiptune handheld
  • Adaptable FPGA processor
  • Internal battery

Dislikes:

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