Small world, tracker music edition

I love to hang out with online pal Cabel Sasser, founder of Portland software company Panic, whenever our paths cross in real life. But I only just realized that he was an early 90s tracker musician whose work I listened to in England as a kid, on my Commodore Amiga, decades before we met.

One of my favorite things to do on my Amiga was write music in trackers, a unique, note-by-note way to write tunes that was half-music, half-programming. ... Then, Cut to Yesterday. Rob Beschizza, out of Boing Boing, read my post about The Incident music. To summarize: not only did [a U.K.] magazine actually publish my dumb song, but a 13-year-old Beschizza remixed it, and as internet pals we had no idea until yesterday that we shared this connection.

You’re pretty cool, universe.

Cabel says his work's aged badly; bear in mind that these were free digital sampling apps hacked to run on home computers a fraction of the cost of a Fairlight. But what made his tune cool and useful to 12-year-old me is the fact that it was a simple, melody-based track with just two or three cleanly-looped instruments sampled at the same pitch.

Back in the glory days of tracker music, songmakers would hurl in every possible feature to push the low-tech hardware to its limits. Notes would be programmed to warble at as high a hertz as possible to emulate chords on a single audio channel. There'd be elaborate collections of samples in multiple keys, intricate envelopes coded into the notation, and general nerdliness throughout. The underlying code was often impenetrable--and effectively uneditable.

Cabel's track, however, sounded great, made perfect human-readable sense under the hood, and was fun to experiment with. It's no surprise at all that he's now the co-founder of an app-maker renowned for its perfectly-designed, no-nonsense creative apps.


    1. The point is that to a 12 year old beginner, tracker markup was often impenetrable because of complex effects, hacks, complex strings of samples, weirdly-pitched samples that couldn’t be replaced without rescaling the notation etc.

      1. I spent much of my spare time in the latter grades of high school playing with trackers.  They started out fairly simple with around only 15 instruments max and 15 effects.  These were easy to understand.  Once they added more complex instruments where you could use different samples for different notes, and envelopes to the instruments, and then increasing the effects as well, it did become a bit arcane.

      2. Not that impenetrable; I was 13 when I started using OctaMED, and it took me about a week to get the hang of the markup.

        Man I miss those days. Logic Pro / Pro Tools just aren’t the same.

  1. Fantastic story. I remember listening to MODs that were included on PC Format cover disks. I remember this one – I couldn’t stop playing it! It’s amazing how it almost sounds live, with the strummed guitar samples.

    1. Wow, the comments…! Amiga folks are still having the PC-vs-Amiga argument! That’s fucking tenacious.

    1. I doubt it — what I managed to save from my old stack of amiga floppies didn’t include it, and I lost some tapes I made of my tracker stuff. I’m more upset about losing the latter because that recording had me arguing with my first dog, who would not stop barking on-mic while I was trying to tape tracker music.

  2. OctaMed is fantastic. It was an amazing entry-level tool for understanding music…first by imitating, then wildly experimenting, until finally forming a unique aesthetic. My friends and I would spend days on exquisite corpse low-fi techno collaborations, full of absurd auditory left turns and in-jokes encoded into music. I still feel bad for the strangers and girlfriends who were forced to listen while we stared at them, searching for any reaction.

    I paid through the nose for imported copies of Future Music, mostly for the samples on the cover discs. I remixed a mod that Tony Horgan, one of the editors, included with an issue just for fun. I sent it to him, on a whim, through this new e-mail thing that people were using. I was kind of stunned when he actually replied and asked me about it. It was my first glimpse of the impending global connectivity that would be completely taken for granted 10 years later.

  3. Reminds me of the days when games required manuals to search for a word on page 8 line 15, and switching disks from side A to side B, and going to HAM radio swapmeets with a box of floppy disks just to have access to the latest software, and yelling at my mom for picking up the phone when I was in the middle of a download.

    Thanks BB… Making me feel old on a Thursday.

  4. I have 4 minute chunks of all the songs from Lemmings on my ipod.. recorded from an Amiga emulator.

    Those tunes somehow never get old, and it still impresses me what kind of quality they could coerce out of the hardware back then. 

  5. And here I thought I was a geek for programming Frank Zappa’s Black Page No.1 note by note on a TI 99/4a waaaay back in the day. Sure wish there had been a program for that back then!

  6. @beschizza:disqus Holy Octamed Tracker MODs blast from the past! I didn’t realize you were an old Amiga head! Only a small fraction of my old mods remain (damn floppies) but I still have most of my old DeluxePaint game graphics!

  7. A while ago, I wanted to send my friends a link to a MOD file but realized that hardly anyone would be able to listen to it as having a player software installed is quite rare these days. To overcome this limitation, I made this small experiment using the Web Audio API currently supported by Chrome and Safari:

    It plays 4-channel Amiga Protracker/Noisetracker and multichannel PC FastTracker modules. File parsing, playback and channel mixing is all implemented in Javascript, so you programmer types can easily have a peek at my horrible, mostly uncommented code. Most effects are implemented although some may not be fully accurate and Chrome seems to occasionally stutter a bit so Safari sounds currently better. It’s also possible to link directly to modules, for example:

    Anyway – have fun listening to some oldskool Amiga tunes!

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