Mod love

With their ears, their computers and a little code, "mod trackers" build their own worlds of sound.

Published April 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Mister-X will never forget the day he became a mod tracker. It happened
shortly after his brother first showed him "Scream Tracker" -- a music-making program created by the legendary Finnish "demo group" Future Crew.

"It was love at first sight," says Mister-X, who now operates a major Web
devoted to mod tracking. "I knew that computers could be used to create music, but I
had no idea that they could create this level of quality. I had been using
computers like the TI 99/4A, and the Tandy 1000EX, and was used to the
'dinkety-dink' type of music that these computers produced."

Goodbye to dinkety-dink. After becoming a mod tracker, Mister-X could use
his personal computer to create music with sophisticated production values,
without having to invest in expensive musical equipment or recording
hardware. All he needed was a PC with a sound card and a few shareware or
freeware software programs.

A tracker is a program that allows would-be composers to create mod files.
The word "mod" is short for "module" -- a digital music file constructed
out of samples, along with the encoding information that determines how
those samples sound (pitch, tone, special effects). The samples can be
taken from anything -- from a snare drum to an answering machine message.
They can even be "ripped" right from a commercial CD or from an already
existing mod, although tracker veterans generally frown on such practices. Unlike the MP3 scene, tracking is focused primarily on
creating original music, rather than the distribution of already recorded

Straddled right across the intersection of the art of music composition and
the science of computer programming, mod tracking is hailed by its small
but thriving band of practitioners as the digital embodiment of the idea of
accessibility. Free to all comers, facilitated by the growth of the
Internet, mod tracking offers a gateway into the world of
professional-quality music production that anyone can pass through. And even
though mod tracking is no magic wand -- it won't automatically transform
musical dunces into sublime songwriters -- it does remove key obstacles
along the road to self-expression.

"The thing that scares many people off from becoming musicians is the
economics of being a modern musician," says Dan Nicholson, aka "Maelcum,"
the founder of the tracker group Kosmic Free Music Foundation:
"$1,000 for a keyboard, $5,000 in samplers and synth modules! It's a shame --
who knows, the [next] Beethoven, John Lennon or Orbital might be out there,
and we may never get to hear their great music. Tracking breaks down this
barrier -- I got started on a hand-me-down PC, and current software runs just
fine on a $300-400 non-state of the art PC. It gives anyone the tools they
need to make great music, and it's practically free."

But the tools aren't just those that remove financial barriers. By
allowing composers to "see the music" -- to take apart a module and
understand exactly how a particular sound is created -- mod tracking puts
the techniques behind creativity into plain view. The age of the hacker
musician is at hand.

"The ability to see the music, to know how an author succeeded in
creating this and that sound," says tracker Jesper Petersen, "is how we
learn stuff in the end. There is a great portion of trackers that have no
musical background whatsoever and that still do amazing stuff when they're
put in charge of a tracker. Of course talent plays a huge role, but it is
also very much a simple matter of watching and learning. And being
persistent as hell -- no one makes a decent first track; we all suck to start
out with."

"A typical talented 15-year-old can now explode his imagination into a song,
and not waste his time in front of a TV observing an input others have
control over," says Michael Lazarev, aka "Kosmos," the founder of the
tracking clearinghouse United Trackers. "I heard a track
written by a 13-year-old once, and it was a hundred times better then
the garbage they play on the radio. The scene is great. No one has to know
anyone to be in it. No one needs connections, and no strings need to be
pulled. You want to make your music, and have the world hear it? You got it!
Need support? You got it! No money? No problem! ... It's all about love for
music, and not its commercial aspect."

Tracking is an evolutionary outgrowth of the once-thriving Commodore Amiga
"demo scene." In the late '80s and very early '90s, the superior
sound and graphics production qualities of the Amiga computer encouraged the
growth of an underground subculture devoted to the creation of "demos" --
homegrown 3D graphics productions that emphasized clever coding. The Amiga
was one of the first computers with digital audio capability, and the first tracking programs allowed Amiga users to sequence samples on the
Amiga's four digital audio channels.

During the early '90s, most demo scene activity occurred in Europe. But
the death of the Amiga, the emergence of more powerful personal computers and, most
importantly, the explosion of the Internet spread mod tracking around the
world. The Internet, with its native ability to connect like-minded people, has long been a friend to subcultures of all kinds. But when the subculture is one built around digital
software, the Net's influence is especially dramatic. Most observers and veterans of the tracker scene say the number of people
creating and listening to mods has surged dramatically over the past few years.

Future Crew may have disbanded, and Scream Tracker may have given way to
newer, more powerful tracking tools -- such as FastTracker II and Impulse Tracker -- but most trackers assert that the scene is still suffused with the same sense of joyful creativity
that the early demo scenesters exhibited as their calling card. Fueling that
creativity is the potent merging of two sensibilities: the desire
to become a musician and the passion to fiddle with something that looks a
lot like code.

In one sense, a mod is the code for a musical composition, as well as
the composition itself. It's as if a pop song you might hear on the radio
came in a package that included its sheet music and guitar tablature.

"[A tracked] piece is not a recording," says Gene Hsi Wie, an an undergraduate computer science student at the University of California at Irvine, and a longtime chronicler
of the tracker scene in the now extinct zine TraxWeekly. "Rather it is
like the 'code' for a piece that is interpreted by a player for output. When
listening to a tracked piece, many players have a display that shows the
parsing of the piece line by line, vertically by track, showing the
progression of the piece as the line-by-line reader translates the numbers
and effects into notes and music."

Some trackers argue that the coding analogy is overdone. Andrew Sega, a
now-retired tracking star (under the nom de tracker plume of "Necros"), says it's not as if trackers need to know how to hack C++.

"In a tracker you manipulate the sequenced data in a very basic form -- you
specify exactly when notes will trigger, what 'effects' will be applied,
etc.," says Sega. "It is however a bit of a myth that tracking is like
'coding' per se. Most current trackers force you to work in the raw data
format of the .MOD. You'll enter a sequence of data such as this: 'C-4 05
040 D0F,' which sounds very complicated and technical until you know what it
actually is: Play a middle C, with instrument number 5, at full volume, and
ramp the volume down quickly after it's played. It's more a problem of most
trackers not having good user interfaces. However for the little 'hacker
musician' kids, it's perfect."

Sega provides a perfect example of how tracking technology can help bootstrap
a tracker up onto bigger and better things. He describes himself
as someone who "didn't have the big professional tools and opportunity to
express themselves musically. [But] if used correctly, you can coax a tracker
into producing some very professional-sounding output, comparable to stuff
that you would hear on CD."

After making a name for himself in the
tracking world, Sega started producing music for computer games, most
recently as part of the team that created the music for Unreal, the first-person shooter computer game.

"Tracking, at least at least for a while, was a very attractive way to get
high-quality music into computer games," says Sega, who now works as a 3D-graphics programmer for Digital Anvil. "It used far less memory
than the typical CD-audio soundtrack, sounded better than MIDI, and allowed
simple interactivity -- by changing patterns around. This may no longer be
the case, now that fast MP3 decoders exist, but it did serve to link the
tracking and computer game worlds."

Whether or not tracking requires programming chops, some trackers still see
an affinity between the "seeing the music" aspect of tracking and the code
accessibility of open-source software.

Says Steve Gilmore, a tracker and the most recent maintainer of the
frequently asked questions file: "When I look around today it absolutely defies the imagination how big it's grown, while still maintaining a lot of the
original ethos -- i.e., free music, free software, free advice. I think
it's a close cousin of the Linux scene. The parallels are striking."

"The 'open source' analogy is pretty much on the money," says Sega. "You get
to see exactly how the song was put together: what samples were used, how
they were played, what instruments worked together to create certain
sections. One would think that this would lead to a rash of 'imitation'
music -- where people change out a few notes or samples here and there, and
redistribute it as their own -- but that really hasn't happened. The scene
very much frowns on rippers, copycats and the like. I've learned a lot
about how certain styles of music work by looking at other people's tracked

Is Sega the musician of tomorrow? Dan Nicholson says that the emergence of
what he calls "zero equipment musicians" -- people who do all their musical
composition on the computer -- is a sign that the electronic music business now has a level playing field.

"There are people at the top of the industry doing almost everything in the
PC or Mac," says Nicholson. "The radical thing is that unlike the garage
band vs. 'big producer in a loaded studio' concept, these people all have
access to virtually the same tools when it's all software."

In that sense, the growth of the PC into a truly powerful audio platform is
having the same effect on music production that it has already had on the
graphics business -- it's eliminating the advantage held by people who have
access to top-of-the-line equipment. Ultimately, however, there's one
advantage that tracking can't eliminate, and that's the upper hand held by
people who have actual talent -- however one measures it.

"Newer software has made it a lot easier to get a better-sounding
result," says Jeffrey Lim, the author of the popular Impulse Tracker
program. "But in the end, it is the composer that will make the difference."

"This is not the market for people who own a toy such as a Roland MC-303
Groovebox," says Lazarev. "Nothing is pre-programmed for you. You can't
select a stored arpeggio and simply sit there and tweak the knobs, thinking
that you're producing music. This is actual composing. And everything
has to come from within you."

But if you've got it, tracking allows you to flaunt it, more easily than ever

"One of the greatest things about tracking is that it gives people with
little or no music training the ability to output decent-sounding tunes,"
says Gene Hsi Wie. "The world is filled with people who probably will never
realize the incredible symphonies that they hear in their heads because ... the complex theories surrounding music notation and
harmonic structure are not in their educational background. Tracking lets us
'compose by ear' and produces instant results, letting us know if a
particular idea sounds good or bad to our own personal standards."

Does every one of us have an incredible symphony, all our own, reverberating inside our heads? Perhaps -- perhaps not. But for anyone who does, and wants to bring that music forth into the world, the tools are out there.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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