Viva Amiga! An Interview with a Sound Tracker

A look back at the first bedroom EDM producers

Background

While the SID chip in the Commodore 64 was a classy piece of tech, it was really complicated to program. If you were a budding musician but not a serious chip hacker, your options for instrument timbres were largely limited to the default sawtooth, triangle, pulse and noise – as such, any music you made still mosty resembled the bleep-bleep-bloop made by arcade machines in the late 1970s – not terribly cool amongst the hip kids of the mid-1980s. But there was hope!

If you had parents with deep pockets you could’ve afforded Ensoniq’s Mirage. Introduced in 1984, the Mirage was a “sampler”, a device that can record and play back digital audio at different pitches, based on the input it recieved over MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a standard for connecting electronic instruments together established in 1983.) This allowed for real-sounding acoustic instruments, such as pianos, strings or drums. Chip music? Who needs it!

But, as I said, you had to be pretty well off (or making hip-hop records) to afford that kind of gear. So, we were back to bleeps and bloops.

Never Fear, Amiga is Here!

At the 1984 Consumer Electronics Show, Commodore demonstrated its upcoming new computer, the Amiga. While it had several revolutionary features for its time, the wanna-be pop star was mostly concerned with its sound chip. Unlike the SID chip in the Commodore 64, the Amiga’s “Paula” chip supported the playback of digital samples, like the Mirage. In fact, it could play back four of them, two through each of two stereo channels. “Stereo, you say? Surely you jest!” Yes, stereo! But the Amiga world wasn’t all roses – the music software that came out early had predefined instruments and used musical notation, neither of which was ideal for our bedroom musician.

Software developers quickly came up with software that could exploit the Amiga’s impressive audio capabilities, but these were targeted towards professional musicians, and were typically expensive and complicated –those that weren’t provided very simple, stereotypical sounding instruments suitable for accompanying Grandpa singing about the “good old days”, and were not cool with the kiddies. 

Enter the Sound Tracker.

German software developer and music composer Karsten Obarski released “The Ultimate Sound Tracker” in mid-1987. It brought in a few important paradigms that would shape its successors: each “song” contains an arbitary library of samples the user can construct individually from sound files stored on disk, and the music is arranged in a “piano roll” (referring to the paper rolls used in player pianos) with four “tracks” that can each play one note at a time.

These tracks were themselves part of a numbered “pattern” that was a defined length (usually 64 notes), and these patterns were then arranged (and could be used multiple times!) to make up a song. The entire song, samples and all, was then saved to disk with the .MOD (for Sound Tracker MODule) extension, making them portable and tradeable on bulletin-board systems and on-line services such as Compuserve. You could also save the song with a built-in player, which could then be used for background music in a program, which made Sound Tracker very popular for Amiga game developers.

A side effect, though, was that these songs could be (and were) “ripped” from the games by knowledgeable individuals, and converted back into .MOD files, then distributed, marking the first on-line digital music piracy.

Room for Improvement.

The Ultimate Sound Tracker was initially a commercial product, but it didn’t get much notice from “serious” music circles, and it was buggy and crashed a lot (not a positive in any application, let alone a creative one.) Reviewers called it “illogical”, “difficult” and “temperamental”. So, it flopped. Once it was off the market it was considered “fair game”, and “demo” programmers (software developers who liked to push the limits of hardware) reverse engineered it, made changes to make it more usable and stable, and then distributed it online and through magazine disks (who often had very liberal ideas about what was considered “public domain”. Notable “updates” to SoundTracker included NoiseTracker in 1989, and ProTracker (pictured below) in 1990. Versions of ProTracker would soon appear on the Atari ST and for the IBM PC. 1991’s OctaMed expanded the number of available tracks to eight, and then PC applications such as ScreamTracker and FastTracker II quickly increased that number to 32.

Trackers would remain a popular way of making music until the early 2000s, when digital audio workstation software and MP3 encoders made trackers obsolete.

The Interview:

Jason Johannson was a member of Vancouver-based electronic music group EuphoniX in the 1990s. Paleotronic reached out to Jason to ask him about his experiences as a sound tracker.

Firstly, what made you get into tracker music?

I had some of my first tastes of “techno” in the late 80’s and quickly shifted from listening to mainly metal over to that. A little strange I know, but I really like new sounds. Part of that is why I enjoyed various metal/rock in the first place. However the synthesizer is what really tickles my mind’s ear.

To get back to the question though, some of the local BBS’s that I frequented, had download areas for .mods and allowed uploads as well. I had also noticed that some of the artists or modders (in the historical sense of the term) were also active in the forums. I rather liked what they were doing and I had no clue as to how and what they used to make mods. I was certain that I could though. So I did with varying success and failure! Eventually I was noticed and was taken into the fold.

Did you already own an Amiga? Or did you get one just because of the sound capabilities? What else did you like about the Amiga?

I did. I started off with a PET in 1979, a year later a VIC-20 then a C64. By the time I was wanting a new computer, my mother said no way! Get your own damn computer boy! Haha…

I was old enough to have a job so I saved and bought an Amiga 2000HD from Sprite Computers. It was like magic sitting on my desk. Games were important of course. =)

But so was DigiPaint as well as Imagine. The Amiga opened the door for many things for me. Like I said, magic in a box. 

What attracted you to the tracker format? What was your favourite tracker program?

It was something that I could easily understand and pick up. Especially for someone who did not know how to read or write music. I learned a lot from those days. OctaMED and later OctaMED SoundStudio Pro was my choice. I still have a paid version for the pc! And it works. Though ReNoise is a far better platform to work with now. I bounce back and forth between that and Reason.

Another reason for preferring OctaMED was it’s decent midi capabilities. Once I started using an Ensoniq ASR-10 with OctaMED, I was hurled into an entirely different arena.

I had also stopped making tracker modules after that and stuck strictly to midi.

And yet another was it’s sample editor. In fact, creating the sounds themselves was the best part. Arranging them into something someone might call music was and still is secondary to me. I spend way more time creating patches or mangling samples than actual writing.

What did you hate about the tracker format?

Too many of them. Formats that is. Each tracker had it’s own commands for some things that were not compatible with other players. Some used more bits than others depending on what you were doing to the samples. Which proved to be a problem sometimes. But I didn’t hate it as much as I had to be aware of it.

Though I will tell you that I hated being limited to only 4 channels or 2 stereo pairs. I know, I know… The limitations are what most adored and cherish. Haha. I don’t mind being limited but only 2 stereo pairs was annoying to me. I wasn’t into the chip music as much as trying to create something like we were able to only a few short years later. Sacrilege, I know…

Were you inspired by particular artists?

Of course! Sidewinder comes to mind. He remixed one of my tunes actually. Others from his same group at the time. U4ia is definitely another. Wow, it has been so long that names have escaped me. But there were definitely those who I tried to emulate or simply pick apart their work to see how they did it.

What were the ways by which you distributed your tracker files?

We were spoiled! All we had to do was prepare a text file and a great fellow named David O’Reilly took care of the rest! Heh. He always made sure everything went up on AmiNet for us. Otherwise there were a few local BBS’s that we took care of uploading to. I was never a part of the group until recently, but Mistigris in 604 picked up a few of our tunes from time to time.

Did you take part in any tracker competitions?

Actually I didn’t. I was sheltered and didn’t venture too far beyond the walls of my local BBS haunts. =) I never thought I was good enough anyway.

How did you become part of tracker group Euphonix? What was it like collaborating on tracker songs?

The way that I remember it was that Darren Grant, Jovian Francey and Tom Szymanski as well as I were all “solo” on the same BBS’s and so we decided to join together.

Jovian was the one who named our project Euphonix. It’s actually EuphoniX with a capital X. ;) Which completely changes it into something fantastic you know. Hehe…

Even after “joining” the group, we all still went on our own merry business going solo with our work. It wasn’t until we did Numbr 14 (the 14th module) that we all collaborated. It was only a short time after that, that we went midi and then we really started to collaborate as you would expect a group to.

We still did our own stuff as well but this time we would send it around to one another and when we did, we would each make our own marks on the tracks. We spent a lot of time in the studio as well and have a complete full album. Never released.

The only copy we have is on an old cassette tape but DAT’s and reels do exist and are with a friend of mine (I hope he still has them) but have not been able to get in touch with him for years. There is some really good stuff on there. Completely made using an Amiga and 16bit samplers and studio effects/compression/mixing etc. I get excited every time I think about hunting that DAT down and releasing it into the wild. =)

Those were some of the best memories I have in my youth. Lots of fun. The guys really had something going. I would love to collab with them again. Keep your ears peeled. The album will in some way shape of form, make it to a release!

Which one of your own tracker songs is your favourite? What’s your favourite tracker song in general?

I would have to say “Promise”. It was the first one I did that was remotely coherent. Haha. It is also 16 channel and featured delay effects.

You absolutely need Octamed Player to listen to it. And I am aware that most do not. So it sounds like garbage to most. Haha!

I’ve always been partial to “Madness” by 4Mat.

What are you up to today? Do you still create tracker files? Are you involved in electronic music in some other way?

Unfortunately I don’t dabble in tracker modules anymore. I stopped writing music all together for a number of years and it has only been the last 10

that I have been back into it as a hobby. mainly to just enjoy myself but also to learn as much as I can in the mixing process and mastering. I am finally comfortable with my audio engineering skills. Still amateur of course but happy.

I still use a tracker now and again though (ReNoise). But I spend most of my time in Reason. It’s a perfect environment for someone who wants to create sounds over most of the others. I spend a lot of my time looking at the rear of the rack than I do the front.

Again, creating sounds is what I love. If sound were colour, I’d be a finger painter. =)

Thanks Jason!

You can listen to some of Jason’s music at

www.reverbnation.com/theorica

or on SoundCloud at

soundcloud.com/theorica

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