What is the Demoscene?

Demoscene may be a word you have not heard before. Reading it or saying it aloud conjures different associations depending on your background or interests.

One may summon thoughts of band demos, promotional, raw versions of songs that the band may send to record labels or event co-ordinators. However, that’s not it at all. It does have something to do with music.

Are you into computers? You may be familiar with game demos, which are promotional versions of a game featuring sneak peeks or tidbits. Demoscene is, in fact, software that has been coded to produce audio-visual artworks.

Origins in Digital Graffiti

Demoscene is a genre that sprung up in the very late 1970s/early 1980s as a result of the emergence of computer technology. Coders or “crackers” would hack/crack into games to remove their copyright protection and would add their own visual presentations to the games. These began as introduction screens with plain text listing the crackers.

These were known as signatures, the way a graffiti artist may go around and tag walls with just their name/initials or symbols. It was rather a way of showing off their ability to have cracked the game. Sometimes these intros were more technically advanced than the games themselves.

Eventually coders and viewers lost interest in the games and began making their own stand-alone demos: thus Demoscene was born.

The thrill came from creating things with computers rather than simply playing games on them. Viewers went from passive audience to active creators.

Early Days

Back then, all computers had basically the same hardware, so any changes made were fully credited to the programmer rather than one computer having better hardware than the next. This bred a very competitive atmosphere, challenging coders to create better effects than their counterparts.

In the early days, demo-making was borne of disbelief at the things computer users would see on the screen. Demo-makers would then play around to show their skill at what they could do with a computer. A large motivator has always been and continues to be the quest to find new and interesting ways of rendering graphics.

It was in 1980 that Atari, Inc., caught onto this new craze and began using a demo, on loop, that gave both visual and audio effects to show off their Atari 400 & 800 computers, which were available in stores.

Five years later, they released a demo for their newest 8-bit computers, which featured a three-dimensional walking robot and flying spaceship set, of course, to music.

It was in 1986 that Demoscene was created: or at least given a name. The original demo groups were 1001 Crew and The Judges, both from Denmark.

Demoscene remains to this day largely European and male-centric. These groups competed in 1986 with highly involved and impressive demos comprised of their own graphics and music. In the late 1980’s, the demo scene began to rise, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Demoscene Today

Demoscene is largely enjoyed by coders because of its possibilities. It enables coders to follow a system or create abstract works, making it a very popular international computer art subculture. They can – and will – work to get every last bit of performance out of their computer, since they work to produce visual and audio works. They will even extract techniques and effects not intended for the original hardware. The resulting artwork is one that shows one’s ability to program, as well as the visual and musical component. This subculture has a large following online (as you may have surmised), where users share their creations.

Demoscene to this day is mostly competition based, where the artists – whether working individually or within groups – compete to show both artistic and technical skill. Everyone in the scene must follow the implicit rules such as creating entirely original content, making the effort to figure out answers rather than ask for help and to make contacts within the scene. It is subculture that prefers to stay underground without mainstream attention. It is estimated there are about 10 000 participants.

The goal of the demoscene video is to create an experience similar to watching a music video, one that provides entertaining visuals to the sound of pleasing audio music, all entirely generated by software coding. It is also common for coders to work with musicians and graphic artists to create the demo. Most demos are created by a very small number of people.

Essentially the goal is enjoyment from start to finish: coders enjoy the artistic creativity and the technical challenge, while creating a finished product that is both entertaining and pleasing to watch.

So who are these coders? They do not go by their real names so as to avoid the attention of law enforcement, but demoscene is more about self-expression than its origins in cracking copyrighted software. Therefore, their stage names are more about the theatricality than the legality. It should be known that demosceners tend toward legal activity. Individual demosceners will have their own names, and their groups with have a name, so the demosceners will be known as (illustrated example) My Name of Certain Group.

There are often voting parties where difference demos are presented to the public and then the public votes. Traditionally they would have voted for the more technical side of demos but now the emphasis is more on overall impact or mood. Of course the subjectivity of the public is not reliable and so in recent years, Scene.org Awards has gathered a jury of renowned members to vote on the best productions. The scene was more social and casual in the 1980s with demomakers meeting to create and share their software, while the competitive side emerged in the 1990s, taking focus away from illegal activity and putting it into competitions.

Demoparties

Demoparties take place typically over a weekend where demosceners can socialize and partake in competitions, where they design demos all day and then show them at night. Often the visitors bring their own computers, but the party will provide a large space with tables, internet and of course, electricity.

Demosceners typically socialize more than they work on their computers when attending demoparties. These events are most often found in Europe with nearly a party every week, while in the United States, for example, there may only be two or three demoparties per year.

The events typically gather visitors from a single country, with the average attendee list from dozens to hundreds of people. Larger international parties also take place, hosting thousands of people.

Attendees will bring gadgets and decorations to set up at their workspace for the weekend. They will sleep either under their desk or in appointed rooms on air mattresses.

Female attendance at these events makes up less than 20% of the total attendee population; they usually get in for free, which is meant to encourage their participation.

What Are Chiptunes?

what are chiptunes?

A while back I stumbled into the esoteric world of chiptune music. This is synthesized electronic music made from old sound chips from retro computers and video games. Sometimes referred to as 8-bit music or chip music, the genre or writing approach has also been more colloquially conveyed as “Nintendo music”, though this is simply a brand association, and the world of chiptunes covers much more than the NES samples.

For instance, here is an example of a chiptune, just for reference.

The term chiptune or chip music is derivative from the sound chips that were used in the programmable sound generators from these older consoles or computers. Today the term chiptune covers a broader expanse of chip-based synthesis, though the original definition views it specifically as a small tracker module, something I will delve into a couple paragraphs down.

Chiptune Origins

Chiptunes may have come about as many things do through necessity, being the mother of all invention as they say: as computers and video game systems became more affordable over the decades from the mid-1970’s onwards. 

As consumers kept trading up and up for the best and newest versions, the older systems faced obsolescence and became cheap and accessible, opening up a new world of opportunity for DIY electronic musicians to explore – one which was simultaneously affordable but also appealing to audiences due to its nostalgic reminisces of sounds from a generation past. In a larger field of electronic music where faster, newer, and more expensive often equates to “better”, chiptunes would float defiantly in its own bubble for those seeking creative and affordable ways of creating electronic music with an audience appeal.

DAWs and Music Trackers

Chiptunes can be created in a few different ways, but one of those ways is by using a type of DAW (digital audio workstation) called a music tracker. Many people who are familiar with using popular DAWs such as Ableton or Reason may not be aware that these DAWs fall into a classification called Music Sequencers. They are probably so used to seeing the left-to-right horizontal layout of the bars that that format seems the most intuitive or logical way to look at it – like looking at sheet music essentially.

Here is an example of a typical DAW that goes left to right, as we are discussing.  In this case, we’re looking at Cubase.

In comparison to these relatively more modern music sequencers (eg. Cubase, Reason, Ableton, ProTools, etc), there is a different format of DAWs called music trackers, where the music is tracked from top-to-bottom, vertically, and rather than recorded bars of music you will often see musical notes (eg: A# or G) written in text, those notes being processed with effects after the fact.

Here is an example of this top to bottom musical tracker format.

This is a different way of viewing and creating music that may feel less organic to musicians of more classical instruments, however, it is only a matter of time upon using these music trackers before they start to feel familiar, and after that, things can get really fun, as the creative process of songwriting becomes stimulated upon the very fact that you are faced with a new approach to songwriting.

Read our article, “Music Sequencers Vs. Trackers – What’s The Difference?”

As mentioned, chip music appeared as early as the 1970’s, in popular games such as Taico’s Gun Fight and Space Invaders, and in 1980, Namco’s Rally-X. 

As video game consoles were appearing more prevalently in homes throughout the 80’s, chiptunes were popularized by systems like Commodore64, Sega, and Nintendo. The history of computer music goes back even further, to the early 1950’s, the dawn of the synthesizer and also real-time musical performances by computers (the Ferranti Mark 1 and the CSIRAC in 1951, notably).

Here’s a video of the Ferranti Mark 1 in action, complete with old school proto-chiptune music.

As one idea inspires another, chiptunes have broken out of their origins from video game soundtracking and into popular electronic music albums and film soundtracks.

Chip Evolution

By the mid-80’s, frequency modulation synthesis was eventually introduced into the chiptune world, originally by Yamaha for their synths and sound chips, and the digital FM synthesis made room for more complex samples and effects. This expanded the field of possibilities and meant that warmer tones and more fluid transitions and gradients were achievable, still while using PSG (programmable sound generator) sound chips.

Some other notable musical subcultures have spawned from the chiptune culture, one being the SID music culture, based on the MOS and Commodore SID chips.

These chips are no longer manufactured and have become highly sought after as the decades have rolled on. They feature two 8-bit analog-to-digital converters, an external audio input, three different and separately programmable oscillators, four different waveforms, three ring modulators, and an envelope filter.

Using these chips, coders and musicians began writing their own original music with their own uniquely coded samples and waveforms, as far back as the mid-80’s.

Other subcultures include the demoscene, a subculture based on creating demos of self-contained programs for audio or visual presentations; or “cracktros”, which are demos created by means of software cracking – where one alters the code of video game waveforms to circumvent copyright protection and uses the newer altered code for their own creations.

There is something exciting about old things becoming new again, giving them a certain nostalgia value, which most people can relate to through seeing a favourite childhood movie remade anew, or an old favourite band of ours getting back together for another album or tour after a decade or more of inactivity.

Chiptunes bring back old fond memories, not only of the artist or artwork in question, but of that entire part of our lives through association, and in that way we can relive old moments by seeing one particular aspect of it brought back to life again. I think this is the essence of the chiptune appeal.  At the same time, there are many musicians creating chiptunes now that are pushing the envelope and creating new sounds as well.

Overall, I’d say the chiptune or retro gaming sound is a fun sound that attracts people not by flashy glamorous production but rather edgy hard notes and crushed synth effects that we can all relate to our favourite 80’s arcade games and soundtracks. Dive into the chiptune universe, and have fun!

Here’s a little chiptune playlist I made to feature some of my favourite artists of today who are making chiptunes.  Lots of good stuff here!

Best Original Rock Soundtracks in Video Games

The arrival of sampling and MIDI in the 16-bit era meant that musicians and coders could suddenly be a lot more creative over the bleeps and boops of the SID chip generation. Add in the rise of games on CD and then DVD and we now have endless space for musicians to get creative and enjoy using the instruments of their choice.

One of the benefits was the arrival of rockier soundtracks, sampling guitars and drums. Over the years, plenty of rock bands have appeared in their own games, from Iron Maiden to Motorhead, Motley Crue to KISS. There have also been that endless sludge of Guitar Band and Rock Band play-along games allowing anyone to murder a classic song.

However, this post focuses on games that took original guitar music and used them to best impact in games, from shooters to arcade racers and pixel adventures. Check out our guitar section to find the best electric, acoustic and bass instruments to bring the noise to your soundtracks.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night

The launch of PlayStation might have been all about the electronic and EDM generation with launch games like WipEout. But 1997’s Castlevania epic still showed there was a place for dark and brooding guitars in the soundtrack.

Doom

We’ve talked about Quake in a previous piece, but before all that came Doom. The 1993 game not only launched 3D gaming, first person shooters and made it acceptable to slap mature ratings on game boxes, it also took sampled guitar twiddling, thudding bass lines and buried them into a gothic-tinged soundtrack.

Valfaris

From games that are familiar to all to one that is yet to arrive on PlayStation 4. Valfaris is a sci-fi shooter, packed with bloody pixels and exotic weaponry. A sequel of sorts to Slain, which took a swords and sorcery approach, both games are laden with doomy riff-heavy soundtracks. They also show developers don’t need a massive budget to get big sounding music in their titles.

The music for both was written by Curt Victor Bryant of Celtic Frost fame and add epic amounts of atmosphere while promising violence and blood to the audience. A solo effort, Bryant talks about the creative experience in an interview, where he tried to write a mixture of riffs and rhythms that mesh and melt organically.

Halo 2

Known around the galaxy for its epic soundtrack, Bungie’s Halo 2 let lose some guitar action thanks to Steve Vai to add some much needed kick. There are various versions that soon seque into the usual chanting monks and the other choral epics that soundtrack the Halo universe, but this is one of the most popular tracks among fans of the series.

Bastion

There are plenty of games that drop in an acoustic piece or tune from time to time, often during a break in the action or the lull before a furious storm. Kudos to Bastion’s developer for taking a different route. When the character comes across a girl in the game, she plays this whole song, that the player can choose to listen to. Raw fret noises and strumming accompany the song, helping the scene of a raw, wrecked and impure world in need of repair – a true thing of beauty.

Let us know what your favorite guitar tracks are from games, the ones that raise hairs on your neck or make you want to smash things up with an ax!

Matt Gray – The Last C-64 Music Ninja

Anyone’s top 10 list of C64 game music is bound to feature a few efforts by Matt Gray, with a long and engrossing list of tracks to his name ranging from the legendary The Last Ninja 2 to the likes of Tusker and Hunter’s Moon.

Quedex

Quedex was his first published work for Thalamus’ puzzler featuring a chrome ball having to overcome a lot of tricky levels in 1987.

Coming a little later to the scene than many of the musical heroes we’ve covered, he knew the bar was set very high and aimed to top, or at least match them with a blistering mix of modern sounds.

Quedex was scratchy, fast-paced, and had an insistent hook with plenty of bass.

Driller

Gray’s follow up was the music for Driller, a 3D game with destructible scenery that helped raise the profile of polygons and set up the 16-bit generation as the must-play system.

Even so, the C-64 soundtrack was an epic that could grace any sci-fi film today, with strident tones and perfect pacing for the levels where mining was a tactical puzzle as part of the game.

Hunter Moon

With more work heading his way, based on the success of those early efforts, Hunter’s Moon was one of the next projects.

With Gray showing he was king of the loading screen and those initial pieces of music that kept gamer’s rapt as the slow but sure tape loader crept along.

Hunter’s Moon packed in plenty of depth to the track with amazing levels of fidelity for the SID chip. The shooter/puzzler lacked in-game music, but every other part of the game was an aural delight.

Treasure Island Dizzy

Most of Matt’s game music was for titles that had a darker, edgier side to them, but he was able to play to a lighter audience with the soundtrack to Treasure Island Dizzy from Codemasters.

The eggy hero has always been one of the jollier characters in gaming, and his music, still with depth and some complexity helped bring this episode of the series to life.

Rambo First Blood Part 2

A lot of Gray’s music has been remade by fans, and the man himself has always worked on remakes of other artists’ work, such as this example of Rambo First Blood Part 2, originally by Martin Galway.

This all helps keep the community alive and interest in both the games and the soundtracks that people loved.

Matt’s story ended on a sour note in the games industry, when working on the NES version of Micro Machines, he was promised a credit and royalty on sales, none of which emerged, causing him to leave the scene.

But, many years on, the man and his music is back, which brings us to the man’s latest project.

Matt Gray’s C64-Era Tunes for the Modern Age

Some musicians faded away from the gaming scene, others went on to do bigger, bolder work in different media. But, once a tune is exposed to the world through thousands or millions of sales, it never dies.

The Last Ninja

So, the musicians are remembered and, sometimes, they bring back their memories for a new listening audience. Matt Gray’s Reformation was a successful Kickstarter project, raising over $100,000 to get the tunes from The Last Ninja and more to a modern composition standard.

Check out some of the tunes on Soundcloud and hear them in a whole new light, while the originals, both his own work and those of other famous C64 music artists, will never fade these are truly something you can listen to in the car on on run without anyone looking at you in a funny way. 

David Whittaker – C64 Composer Legend

Last week we took a listen to the fantastic tunes from Rob Hubbard, surely regarded as one of gaming’s more prolific composers. This week’s British video game musician legend, David Whittaker, might not have the range, but certainly packs in the quality when it comes to memory-making chiptune and SID music.

Whittaker was a coder by heart, and started making his own games in the early eighties, before rising to prominence as a musician. Playing on a Yamaha CX5 back in the day, he coded in most of his tunes directly without the benefit of MIDI or other tools. His early works are still popular to this day, including Street Surfer, which has a bit of an Oxygene feel to it, as many of the 80’s digital musicians seemed to like to borrow from.

While he is famous for his C64 and Amiga work, David dabbled on most systems across the generations and could even make the humble Spectrum beeper produce some decent music like this ATV Simulator effort. And if you look hard enough you’ll find games on most systems with his work in the audio department.

Shadow of the Beast

Shadow of the Beast is probably his most famous work, tied to the gorgeous if tricky-to-play Amiga game from Psygnosis. With its haunting use of panpipes and sliding notes, it perfectly set the atmosphere for an alien world that made it all the way through to the recent PS4 update that brought a depth of gameplay that the original was perhaps lacking.

The developers of the new version said that “Fans of the 1989 game’s music will notice many elements and themes familiar to them have been subtly woven into the soundtrack for our modern take. Music is incredibly important to the atmosphere of Shadow of the Beast. Talented composer Ian Livingstone has produced a fantastic dynamic soundtrack specifically designed to complement our take on Shadow of the Beast’s universe.”

While he wrote music for games across many 8-bit and 16-bit formats, this really set the stage for Whittaker, and he took on future projects more sparingly to concentrate on bringing a fully fledged musical landscape. Notable hits include The Bitmap Brother’s Speedball, a futuristic world of chrome and sporting violence.

Panther is another classic, a MasterTronic game of vehicular exploration. It is a much remixed piece, with a fine building backline and commanding keyboards creating a dominating piece of music that begged to be listened to in an era of digital music.

For comparison, check out a recent remix here with a full layer of samples, voicework and more laid over. It just shows how sophisticated the original tune was and how well it stands up to modern music.

David wasn’t just a musician and also worked on sound effects for games at Psygnosis for the likes of Ballistix and Blood Money where the developer’s use of heavy metal and chrome features in the visual design of game allowed him to explore a full world of metallic audio.

Having found fame, David moved to EA and worked in a wider role covering sound effects on the likes of the NHL series, Road Rash, the multimedia epic of Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger and the likes of the PGA games when sports games were more than just a list of licensed tracks. As speech became more prominent in these games, he worked on the likes of John Madden Football, Tiger Woods Golf and others as the technology matured to help give convincing commentaries and immerse players in the games.

He continues in gaming to this day, working for Traveller’s Tales on the LEGO series of games, recently credited as Dialogue and Cutscene Co-ordinator on LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. 

Lots of fans have taken his music and remixed or remade it over the years, you can find a full hour of his tunes below.

And we may as well throw in this great remix of his Enduro Racer tune hat made the Sega racer great fun.

Check out a recent interview with David that discusses the range of his work and how risky life was as a game music writer back in the day.

Thanks for reading!  If you love this stuff, or have a story to share, leave a comment below as we always like to hear from you.

Rob Hubbard – C64 Music Legend

Rob Hubbard is pretty much synonymous with creating music on the Commodore 64. In his native England, his name is up there alongside many rockstar developers and publishing houses as favourite 8-bit memories. Those tunes are cherished and revered today, with many appearing in all-time C64 top 10 lists.

Not only a great musician, he understood the technology within Commodore 64 and its SID chip registers to enable all sorts of fast-paced changes, and even managed to cram in guitar samples and other effects into his music that few could match.

His first game was Thing on A Spring, with Rob writing the music using assembler and editing the source code.

After finding fame through his music, he went to work at Electronic Arts in America, last seen as an audio technical director and a part of the Interactive Audio Special Interest Group (IASIG).

SID and Rob, A Perfect Match

A fan of Jean-Michel Jarre, his natural leaning was toward synthesiser tunes, which matched the output of the audio hardware of the time. Even so, he could add rising and falling progressions to make a relatively simple tune feel epic and far longer than it actually was.

Check out Chimera from Firebird as a fine early example, and see if you can spot any Jarre-inspired themes within the track? The game was an early effort by Shahid Ahmad, until recently a key mover-and-shaker at Sony in the drive for indie games on PlayStation formats. He asked Rob for some fretless bass work on the track, an innovation at the time.

One of Rob’s most famous tunes belongs to International Karate by Archer MacLean, thanks to the huge sales of the System 3 beat ‘em up. His effort that captured the Japanese spirit of Karateka, with a little help from Forbidden Colours by Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylvian from which he borrowed the rhythm line…

Lightforce was an fast-paced shooter, one of endless numbers that flooded the early games machines. But Rob’s music made it stand out and is still a well-loved tune today. This along with Warhawk turned many a generic title into something more of an experience and there are people who used to buy any game with Rob’s name in the music credits, no matter how bad.

At the time, Rob composed the tune, either borrowing from the arcade original, or based on early gameplay but with no idea how the final game would turn out.

Sanxion is one of Rob’s favourite C64 tunes, with endless depth and playful bass notes zipping in and out of the main loading theme, plus break beats and so much more crammed into the tiny amount of resources he was dealing with.

You’ve heard the tunes, now hear Rob talk about his experiences from the documentary Bedrooms to Billions. This look at the scene as kids at home turned into the legends that built an industry. Definitely a must-watch for anyone interested in just how random and ad hoc things were back them.

He also recently ran a Kickstarter campaign called Project Hubbard: Rob Bounces Back. It offers remixed albums, a book and possibility of a live concert.  Rob has played some live tunes over the years, you can find online, and there are plenty of remixes of his work, or modernized versions that you might enjoy. Not bad for a guy who often had just a day or two to compose a track for a game he’d hardly seen.

California Games – C64 Music Memory Lane with Chris Grigg

california games music chris grigg

Retro games and chiptune music are very much back in vogue. Gamers rebelling against the extortion of in-app purchases and loot crates, mega-gigabyte downloads and ludicrous terms of service sometimes prefer the simpler life. Nothing tells that tale better than Epyx’s 1987 fun-in-the-sun games/sports collection California Games and its awesome set of tunes by Chris Grigg.

California Games is one of those titles that pretty much anyone into the 8-bit and 16-bit era remembers fondly. It captured an era of more relaxed summers where there was nothing better to do than play C64 games all day. Cali’s mix of surfing, BMXing, hacky sack, roller skating, skateboarding and frisbee were what today would be casual gaming delights.

The music too, helped players relax and chill. An opening track that borrows heavily from Louie Louie, by The Kingsmen is a perfect mood piece on the C64’s SID chip. Perhaps the developers remembered the tune from National Lampoon’s Animal House where it featured heavily in the chaos!

Spinning the sports

Surfing was the first game most people went for, with players trying to get up speed and throw as many 360s, 720s or higher spins as possible before wiping out. The C64 music had a hint of Wipeout to it, and spot of Jaws when the rider was consumed by the waves, the soundtrack got livelier as the judges gave their scores.

BMXing was probably the next popular sport, with a driving, tension-adding beat as every ride was just a second away from disaster thanks to an ever-present risk of ploughing into an obstacle or fluffing a landing.

Skateboarding under the Hollywood Hills sign was a fairly small game, so a chugging beat could accompany the action, as players try to grind out and handplant their way to a high score. As with every sports compendium game, there was always one hated game. Hacky sack, or Footbag, really sucked as a game, with the campest set of moves in video game history, but the “play along with me” soundtrack kept people trying to kick the ball as it resolutely stuck to the ground.

An endless summer of formats

California Games appeared on many formats, starting with the Commodore 64, moving onto the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Amiga/Atari ST but perhaps the best sound came from Atari’s Lynx handheld. For a start, the music played constantly, so added to the overall atmosphere, while on the C64 version, tracks dipped in and out, almost at random.

While that version of the game only had four sports to enjoy, the soundtrack was a summer joy. Epyx designed the original Lynx hardware, but sold it to Atari, so plenty of Epyx games were in the handheld’s early line-up. Using the Lynx’s 16-bit MOS 65C02 that featured a four-channel sound engine, with 8-bit DAC per channel, musicians, Bob Vieira and LX Ludis had more audio space to play with, and sped things up over the original to pick up the pace.

Of the other versions, the Amiga edition naturally sounds more modern and advanced, but is surprisingly flat, with annoying piano freestyle chords that interrupt the laid-back vibe. Sega went their own way on the Genesis version, with some totally new tunes that fail to set the tone for the game.

Sure, the games look better by this point, but they are struggling to maintain that identity and purity of the early editions. Naturally, today’s gamers would like a modern remake. There was one in the (half)pipe, with German outfit Magnussoft trying to keep things old-school with 16-bit graphics and chiptune audio, but it looks like game is still in development or has been abandoned.

About Chris Grigg

California Games was one of Chris Grigg’s first compositions at Epyx, which he followed up with DOS and Amiga soundtracks for the likes of Maniac Mansion, Impossible Mission and 4×4 Off Road Racing. He moved up in the world to do sound design at Pixar and now works as part of the MIDI Manufacturers’ Association on the Technical Standards Board.

Music Sequencers Vs. Trackers – What’s The Difference?

schism tracker

Digital Audio Workstations; when it comes to them, music producers are spoilt for choice. Hang on; what’s a Digital Audio Workstation? If you’re not new to this, you already know the answer so move on to the next paragraph. But if you’re a new or an aspiring music producer, a DAW is simply computer program used for editing, recording and producing music.  (see screenshot below)

reaper screenshot

If you’ve come across or heard of Ableton Live, Reaper, FL Studio, Cubase, Reason, Cakewalk Sonar, ProTools et cetera, then you’ve already interacted with these guys.

Sequencers Vs. Trackers – What’s The Difference?

Now, all DAWs achieve the same goal: making good music (They’re at least meant to). But every workman has their preferred tools of work and music production software is no different. You can classify these programs in whatever categories, but today, I’m gonna focus on sequencers versus trackers.

The simplest explanation is that trackers involve a top down approach while sequencers take in a horizontal approach. Feeling lost? Stay with me. Let’s briefly look at the differences.

How A Music Tracker Works Vs. A Sequencer

First, we have the appearance. Trackers generally look like spreadsheets with cells whereas a sequencer’s interface looks like a bunch of channels with a bar behind it, representing a score of music.

schism tracker

Secondly, the mode of entering the notes is different too. With a tracker, the notes are written down (e.g. A, G, B). Sequencers are different. They take on a graphical form, with the optional feature of having the actual note script or using the piano roll.

Finally, with a tracker (as is with a spreadsheet), you can view the content of all channels in your project all at once. Of course if your channels exceed a certain number, you’d have to scroll but generally everything can be viewed together.  Here’s a little video example of a tracker in action, complete with composition for your education / enjoyment!

Sequencers, on the other hand, only display one channel at a time, allowing you to make an edit on only one sound at a time. Here are some examples of sequencers: FL Studio, Ableton, Reason and Cubase. Commonly used trackers include Renoise, FastTracker,and OpenMPT.

Here’s a song someone made with Ableton, a sequencer.

You must be thinking, which is better then? Perhaps my personal account of the experience with both kinds will give you some more insight. The pros are probably already happily married to their DAWs with children but if you’re a newbie, hopefully I’ll pique your interest and you’ll be able to make a better decision, knowing all the options available to you.

Ableton Live

After being inspired by some very good progressive house music, I wanted to know how the EDM producers made these tunes. My research led me to Ableton’s website where I downloaded Ableton Live (I don’t remember what version). I then played around with the software, layering a few percussions with very basic melodies before deciding that this was too complex.

Watch this full tutorial of Ableton Live 9 and this should give you a full dose of what you’re in for with this music sequencer.

Check out the latest version of Ableton Live on Amazon now

FL Studio

My next stop was on Image-Line’s website where I downloaded a demo of FL Studio 9 (there are newer versions, I think they’re up to 12 now). In comparison to Ableton, the interface was different but I still couldn’t understand a lot of the stuff. I tried watching tutorials on YouTube but I still wasn’t satisfied. It was still painful and I’m not one of the most patient people. Recipe for disaster, right? But I wasn’t done. I kept looking.

BTW, here’s a video tutorial of FL9 just so you can see how it operates.

Check out the latest version of FL Studio on Amazon now

Cubase

My next action was to ‘borrow’ an illegal version of Cubase from a torrent-sharing website. Any difference? Nope. I was done within a week. Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that these programs sucked or had any kind of flaws. Hell no! In fact this was purely me and my impatience and dreams of being an overnight superstar, playing back to back (no pun intended) shows in Vegas.

Watch this tutorial of Cubase to learn the ropes of this software.

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Renoise

So the story goes on. Being an Electronic Music fan, I happened to be browsing through an EDM forum one afternoon and someone commented that they had just downloaded a DAW that approached music production differently. The notes were entered in a coding sort of way. A few screenshots attached to the post piqued my curiosity and in the next few minutes I had Renoise version 2.8.0 installed on my old PC.  Renoise looks a little something like this…

A lot of things were different but of course it was still Greek to me. I watched the first ten tutorials and got to know my way around a few things. What appealed to me most about the vertical approach was how it allowed me to see everything together. The kicks, snares, claps and everything else appeared on the same screen and there were no floating plug-ins that annoyed me in my previous encounters with music production software.

My Personal Choice of DAW – Renoise!

Upon doing more research, I found out that this was in fact nothing new. Trackers have been around for so long. I never made a point to check out any other DAWs but fast forward to today, I’m still using Renoise. For those wondering, I’m still nowhere near Las Vegas (even physically) but I’ve improved my production skills a lot and occasionally make theme music for video producers.

Like I said, I am not in any way endorsing trackers or even Renoise itself but I feel this is what works for me. In between, I tried going back to the previous DAWs I had used but I’m still in love with the tracker concept that I simply couldn’t. I tried to get my producer friends to try Renoise and they all quit it within no time saying it wasn’t for them. One friend pointed out that most trackers are mostly meant to be used with samples rather than plug-ins and this is true. This goes to show you that we are all very different. What works for me isn’t necessarily what will work for you. Despite the title, you should view this post as a comparison rather than a ‘versus’ approach. I simply meant to open you up to all the options out there. Which is better? None! The better one is whatever works for you.

So then go forth and make good music! Remember, it’s not about what software you use but the quality of music you create. Is going either the tracker way or the sequencer way a step in the wrong direction quality-wise? Hell no!