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
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.
- 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
- Micro USB connector
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? :)
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
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.
- Huge screen
- Grid pad buttons
- Jog-wheel for navigation and editing
- 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.
- High capacity stereo sampling
- Audio over USB
- Internal microphone
- Internal battery
- No internal synths
XOR Electronics NerdSEQ Eurorack module
The NerdSEQ is a tracker based cv and trigger sequencer module (32HP) for Eurorack systems.
- Capable Eurorack format with plenty of buttons
- Midi and CV recording to the step sequencer format
- External modulation of internal parameters
- 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.
- Modern take on a retro chiptune handheld
- Adaptable FPGA processor
- Internal battery