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    As someone who uses trackers on a daily basis, I have to say that’s a very solid write-up. Perhaps Jeskola Buzz could have been discussed a bit more, since it was pretty big in the late 90s/early 2000s. There’s also Buzztrax, which continues the legacy on Linux. Other than that, the article is pretty comrehensive though. There were some tracker-like editors before Ultimate Soundtracker, but that’s obviously out of scope for this one.

    There are a number of reasons why I prefer trackers over any other means of composing computer music.

    • The keyboard-driven workflow is just so much faster than clicking around with the mouse.
    • The minimalistic UI helps me focus.
    • Trackers are ubiquitous on 80s home computers and consoles. That’s great for a chiptune musician like me, because once you know one tracker, you can easily get started on another one. So I can turn most of my 8-bit junk into a musical instrument with very little learning effort.

    What’s interesting to me is that trackers actually make the music writing process more akin to programming. This becomes especially apparent in Chiptune, where you’re basically writing a list of instructions to be interpreted by the music player.

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      The keyboard-driven workflow is just so much faster than clicking around with the mouse.

      What about trackers versus playing a MIDI keyboard? In your opinion, does entering notes in a tracker have advantages over playing them on a MIDI keyboard?

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        Caveat, I don’t have so much experience with MIDI. For many years I was moving around a lot (aka “my home is where my laptop is”), so I never bothered carrying around a MIDI controller. Nowadays you get these really small controllers, but back in the day these things were clunky. So anyway, I’m not super qualified to answer this.

        Generally, I think the use-case is different. MIDI shines in 3 situations. a) when you have a fixed setup, eg. one DAW + a standard set of plugins that you always use. If you’re exploring many different tools and platforms, then the overhead from setting up MIDI controls is usually not worth it. b) for adding a live/human feel to an existing basic structure, ie. when you want to be less than 100% consistent/timing accurate. If you actually want to be precise, then you need to be able to play very well (which I’m not), otherwise you’re going to fiddle with correcting quantization errors a lot (unless you use your MIDI controller to enter notes/triggers on a per-step basis, in which case you might just as well use your computer’s keyboard). c) for automating sound parameters. Definitely a huge plus for “normal” computer music, for my use-case (Chiptune) it’s less relevant though.

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          I’m confused. MIDI keyboards can feed MIDI into trackers.

          Some of them do bundle a synth, but these are usually called electronic pianos, and can accept MIDI from a tracker.

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          Buzztrax

          Thanks for letting me learn about this LGPL’d tracker. Up until now, I only knew MilkyTracker.

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            There’s also Radium. Haven’t used it yet, but it looks very promising in terms of bringing trackers to the next level. Back in the day I actually used Neil Sequencer, another Buzz-inspired project. Unfortunately that one is completely dead, I can’t even build it on a current system nowadays.

            Last but not least, there’s also Schism Tracker, which is to Impulse Tracker what Milky is to Fasttracker/Protracker. The .it format is more compact than .xm, so it’s often the preferred choice for making size-restricted modules.

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              There’s also Radium.

              Which I also didn’t know, looks promising and is Open Source. Thank you!!!

              Neil Sequencer

              Seems to be GPL, but I can’t find the sources. Probably a temporal issue.

              Schism I was aware of.

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              I have a big list of FOSS trackers that I’m trying to package for NixOS here if you’re interested: https://github.com/NixOS/nixpkgs/issues/81815

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                Absolutely! Thank you.

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              I know it’s called “essential guide” but it’s a bit weird to write a history of trackers without mentioning Impulse Tracker and its descendants (Modplug, Cheesetracker, Schizm, etc).

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                Agreed, that’s quite an oversight. At least Modplug’s modern incarnation OpenMPT is mentioned in passing.

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              One benefit of trackers that has not been mentioned is that the vertical orientation of tracks allows every event to contain and display an arbitrary amount of information without visually overlapping with other events.

              This becomes interesting when events contain more info than the standard MIDI note. That, and me being a happy Buzz user, is why back in the day I developed my OSC sequencer OSCseq with a tracker style interface.

              However I made the unfortunate choice of developing it in Java, because in 2009 that seemed the only strongly typed, memory-managed language with a cross-platform-ish UI framework. Bundling Java code into easy to distribute executables was a nightmare though. So it never really got anywhere. If anyone would be interested in revitalizing the project, I’d be happy to pass on the source code.

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                I never had an Amiga, and I didn’t learn about the demoscene until sometime in the 2000s. But I still had some exposure to trackers and the demoscene aesthetic. My first computer was an Apple IIGS, and there was a group in France called the FTA (Free-Tools Association) that, IIUC, brought the European demoscene aesthetic to the IIGS. My first exposure to the FTA was through their game Bouncin’ Ferno. My understanding is that the game itself was lackluster. But the intro was impressive, at least to me at the time. Here’s the Bouncin’ Ferno intro on YouTube, though I think that video is from an emulator, and the Ensoniq 5503 sound chip in the IIGS is apparently hard to emulate faithfully. Anyway, my uncle got Bouncin’ Ferno through an American freeware/shareware distributor. A little later, we learned that the FTA had a music program called NoiseTracker (not to be confused with the Amiga tracker of the same name), and I have fond memories of playing with that as a pre-teen.

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                  I grew up with the Amiga, and experienced a good part of this.

                  OctaMED 4 is still my favored tracker.