On tracking

Music fans, especially those that listen to electronic music, are probably aware of a technique called sequencing, where the artist arranges notes played by a synthesizer in time. The artist often uses an interface called a “piano roll,” which mimics the traditional musical staff. Most electronic music is sequenced in this way, though some experimental musicians develop their own techniques, while others deviate entirely.

Tracking is a variant of sequencing, though it differs from the original in two principal ways. Unlike sequencers, trackers are only used to arrange and trigger the playback of samples. Secondly, trackers do not attempt to mimic the musical staff. Trackers arrange time along the vertical axis as opposed to the horizontal; they don’t separate sound sources by instrument or have a direct concept of note length. Instead, trackers trigger sample sound files and allow them to play for their lengths, and then another sample is triggered in the same channel. (Channels are represented as columns in the software, analogous to one “instrument” in the piece, though channels can also be samples.)

So why should you care? The tracking paradigm’s advantages are exactly the disadvantages of traditional sequencers — trackers are very quick and easy to use, requiring no knowledge of traditional music theory. Such ease has kept trackers out of most academic settings, but they’ve gained a following in the demoscene — a loose collection of groups making computer-based music videos rendered in real time. When working with tracked music files, it is also (comparatively) easy for musicians to write interpreters — programs that pass audio to be rendered as sound. And, as you don’t need a sequencer, you don’t have to write a synthesizer to use along with it.

But aside from demogroups, trackers are ideal for many college students. Are you a CS student looking to learn more about sequencing and sound processing? Write an interpreter for some well-known tracker format; it’s an excellent project. Are you an aspiring electronic musician? Start learning on a tracker. Lots of musicians who don’t even use trackers for final products first lay out sketches of their ideas with a tracker, because they’re so easy to use and quick to operate.

And it’s not impossible to become a well-known musician via tracking; all Venetian Snares music is tracked, for example, and there are plenty of others. From the old standby ScreamTracker III to the Impulse Tracker and FastTracker 2 (the two most popular trackers when tracking was at its peak in the late ’90s) to new hybrid software like Jeskola Buzz and Renoise, tracking is worth checking out.