AskDefine | Define tracker

Dictionary Definition

tracker n : someone who tracks down game

User Contributed Dictionary




-er track


  1. One who, or that which, tracks or pursues, as a man or dog that follows game.
  2. In the organ, a light strip of wood connecting (in path) a key and a pallet, to communicate motion by pulling.
  3. A special type of computer software for composing music, or a musician who write such music.


One who, or that which, tracks or pursues, as a man or dog that follows game
a light strip of wood

Extensive Definition

Tracker is the generic term for a class of software music sequencers which, in their purest form, allow the user to arrange sound samples stepwise on a timeline across several monophonic channels. A tracker's interface is primarily numeric; notes are entered via the alphanumeric keys of the computer keyboard, while parameters, effects and so forth are entered in hexadecimal. A complete song consists of several small multi-channel patterns chained together via a master list.

How it works

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 is intended to represent 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" and are listed in this article.
Tracker music is typically stored in so-called 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.


The term tracker derives from Ultimate Soundtracker; the first tracker software. Ultimate Soundtracker was written by Karsten Obarski and released in 1987 by Electronic Arts for the Commodore Amiga. Ultimate Soundtracker was a commercial product, but not much later 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 late 1970s. Some early tracker-like programs appeared for the Commodore 64, such as Rock Monitor, but these did not feature sample playback, instead playing notes on the computer's internal synthesizer.
The first computer game to feature tracker music was Amegas (1987), an Arkanoid clone for Amiga. The music, which was composed by Obarski, is generally considered the first MOD music ever made and is well known by fans of "old school" computer music.
Most early tracker musicians were from the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. This may be attributable to the close relationship of the tracker to the demoscene, which grew rapidly in Scandinavian countries, and the relative affordability in the UK of computers able to run tracker software. Tracker music became something of an underground phenomenon, especially as so much contemporary chart music was then sample-based dance music (a genre relatively simple to produce with step-based sequencing). In fact, several chart-topping 1989/1990-era dance singles strongly foreshadow compositional trends in tracker music which would remain popular for many years to come; in particular, 808 State's "Pacific" and Octave One's "I Believe". Both tracks rely heavily on muted, detuned saw-wave background pads which play four-tone augmented major seventh chords in chord patterns which fit the pentatonic scale; an unsyncopated 4/4 drum beat runs underneath. Though this particular musical arrangement was scarcely heard earlier, an overwhelming number of tracker compositions in following years used the exact same pattern.
The popularity of the tracker format may also be attributable to its inclusion of both score data and samples. In the early 90s, the price of wavetable sound cards for personal use was very high, and the expressive capabilities of the cheaper FM-synthesizer sound cards were rather limited. A tracker requires neither of these sound card features.
Over the 1990s, tracker musicians gravitated to the PC. Although the IBM and compatibles initially lacked the hardware sound processing capabilities of the Amiga, the advent of the Sound Blaster line from Creative, PC audio slowly began to approach CD Quality (44.1kHz/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 6 with TFMX players and 8 with OctaMED (both Amiga), 16 with ScreamTracker 3 on the PC, then 32 with Fast Tracker 2 and on to 64 with Impulse Tracker 2.
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.

Current state

Tracker music lives on today. It can be found in modern computer games such as the Unreal series and Deus Ex, as well as a considerable number of indie games. However, the easy availability of software samplers/synthesizers and sequencers has caused most professional musicians to adopt other music software. Nonetheless, tracker software continues to develop (as of 2007). 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 have been released.
Buzz, ModPlug Tracker, MadTracker, Renoise, reViSiT, Skale, 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.).
During August 2007, of these trackers, Renoise was the most active in development . Development is resuming on Skale and reViSiT is technically a Tracker VST plugin in the spirit of Impulse Tracker, not a stand alone program.
Tracker files have also become popular in the handheld gaming community. NitroTracker is a Fast Tracker 2 style tracker that can run directly on the Nintendo DS. The Game Boy Advance has the hardware and processing power to support tracker music, which offers good quality while taking up little space compared to MP3s or other forms of audio.
The traditional tracker stigma of unwieldy, complicated programs (aimed at a predominantly technologically-minded audience) is slowly being cast off, as programs become more accessible and user friendly. As such, tracking has recently enjoyed a mild resurgence as people begin to appreciate the importance of laying down music as quickly as possible - the musical equivalent of touch typing.


External links

tracker in Czech: Tracker
tracker in German: Tracker (Musik)
tracker in Spanish: Tracker
tracker in French: Tracker (musique)
tracker in Italian: Tracker
tracker in Dutch: Tracker (muziek)
tracker in Japanese: マルチトラックレコーダー
tracker in Norwegian: Tracker
tracker in Polish: Tracker
tracker in Portuguese: Tracker
tracker in Russian: Трекер (программа)
tracker in Finnish: Tracker-musiikki
tracker in Swedish: Tracker (musikprogram)
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