The earliest well-known music tracker software was Chris Hűlsbeck's Soundmonitor for the Commodore 64. Inspired by Soundmonitor, Karsten Obarski created 'The Ultimate Soundtracker' for the Commodore Amiga and released it in 1987. Combined with the digital sampled audio capabilities of the popular home computer, the Commodore Amiga, trackers became a phenomenon in home music production in the 1980-1990s.
When the Commodore Amiga computer was released in 1985, it was an impressive piece of hardware. A key advantage it had over other home computers of the era was that it had good 4-channel sample playback hardware included in an affordable home computer. Before the Amiga, sample playback of this quality and duration was mostly limited to expensive music computers or hardware samplers specifically designed for professional music production.
A well-known sampled based system available at the time was the Fairlight CMI, a dedicated music computer from 1979. It cost over 18,000 GBP, which corresponds to over 100,000 $ in 2018 money, corrected for inflation. It was mainly purchased by professional musicians such as Peter Gabriel and Jean-Michel Jarre, both extensive users of the CMI.
The E-mu Emulator was one of the first hardware samplers, it was available in 1981, and though still very expensive, it was more affordable than the CMI. It was around 8,000 $ (over 20,000 $ in 2018 money). The second sampler by E-mu, the Emulator II, was released in 1984, a year before the Amiga, at 8,000 $, the same as its predecessor.
However, for a home computer, the Amiga 1000 stacked up surprisingly well to a top-of-the-line sampler such as the Emulator II:
Amiga 1000 (1985) Emulator II (1984) ----------------- ------------------ 4 voices 8 voices 8-bit samples 8-bit samples 28 kHz 27.7 kHz 256 KB RAM avail. for audio 512 KB RAM 1,285 $ 8,000 $
The CMI and the E-mu had been around for a while when the Amiga came out, but were prohibitively expensive for most people.
Two years later, the Amiga 500 would have the same audio features as the Amiga 1000, except for having double the memory, and at a price of 700 $, corresponding to 1,500 $ in 2018. This corresponds roughly to the price of a new MacBook Pro, which has a similar position in the modern market as a top-of-the-line home computer for creative use. With the Amiga 500, a sample-based music computer would be something attainable for the middle-class in many countries, and would end up in the hands of millions of users.
To aspiring electronic music composers, the Amiga opened a window for sample-based music for the masses, very close to a professional instrument and a tenth of the cost.
The Amiga hardware seems well-suited for music software, and this opportunity wasn't lost on the developers of the day, and one year after the release of the first Amiga model, a bunch of music software was already available for amateur bedroom musicians to buy.
Robert Campbell developed a matrix sequencer tool called 'Instant Music', where users could select instruments, click notes into a matrix, and hear the resulting musical loop. It was published in 1986 by Electronic Arts.
Geoff Brown and John MacMillan ported Will harvey's 1984 Apple II score-based music tool 'Music Construction Set' to the Amiga, calling it 'Deluxe Music Construction Set'. Users could create a professional looking score and listen to it. It was also published by Electronic Arts in 1986.
The year after, prolific Amiga software house, Aegis Development, published Aegis Sonix, a score-based music composition tool with a built-in software synthesizer and support for samples. The soft synth featured amplitude and filter envelopes and LFOs, and phasing. Pretty neat for 1987.
David 'Talin' Joiner developed MIDI sequencer 'Music-X', published in 1988 by MicroIllusions. He describes the development in detail in an article here, and he famously appeared on US TV show 'Computer Chronicles' in 1988 (Season 5, episode 13, 'The New Amigas') to explain how his software was a professional MIDI sequencer at an affordable price.
Around 1993, Blue Ribbon SoundWorks released 'Bars & Pipes', a MIDI sequencer with a novel graph-based structure. It would have features for generating MIDI from a set of blocks that could be interconnected in 'pipes'.
However, there was one type of music software that would become the standard for demos and games in this era, and would stay relevant from the late 1980s throughout the 1990s: Trackers.
One of the most well-known Commodore 64 and Amiga composers, Chris Hűlsbeck, wrote his own music software for the Commodore 64. It was named Soundmonitor and was released in October 1986.Hűlsbeck would use his own music software to score hundreds of games, including Commodore 64 games 'The Great Giana Sisters', 'Katakis', and 'R-Type', and the entire 'Turrican' series on Amiga and other platforms, as well as many of the Nintendo 64 Star Wars games.
Soundmonitor had a unique programmer-style interface with 3 tracks listed as a series of commands. This type of music software would become known as a 'tracker', and the Amiga would be home to an abundance of different trackers.
The most well-known of all the trackers is 'The Ultimate Soundtracker', created by Karsten Obarski. The music for Amiga Arkanoid clone 'Amegas' by german developer reLINE Software was composed by Obarski in his own tool, and both 'Amegas' and Soundtracker were released for consumers in 1987.
Soundtracker used the 4 channels of 8-bit sample hardware in the Amiga to play 4 channels of sampled sound data. The Amiga could support different kinds of synthesis and music generation, but playing 4 channels of sample data directly was the the approach that would impact the Motorola MC68000 CPU the least, freeing it for game logic and rendering, which made the Soundtracker replay routine very attractive for use in games or demos (a 'replay routine' or 'replayer' is the code that would play music in a game, as opposed to the graphical interface used by the composer).
In Soundtracker and most other trackers, music is constructed using:
instruments refer to waveform data and have a few settings to go along with the data, such as default volume.
track has 64 lines which can be empty or have a command like this:
C-3 1 C20 | | |____ command C, parameter 20 (means set volume to $20) note | C3 instrument 1
When the track is played back, each line is executed in sequence, each one lasting a fraction of a second. Lines would correspond to the miminum rhythmic subdivision of the music, for example a 16-th note. A track had 64 lines, which could correspond to e.g. 4 bars.
pattern is a set of 4 tracks, one track per hardware channel. A list of patterns are sequenced into a song.
When a song is exported together with the instruments used, it is called a module. Modules contained everything needed to reproduce the composed music, and are what is loaded into memory in a game and played by a replayer.
Distributed with Ultimate Soundtracker came the sample disk ST-01, containing 126 sampled waveform instruments. These sounds will be well known to all Amiga users of a certain vintage, as they were part of many early Amiga games and demos. As such, they are an essential part of the sonic aesthetics of the Amiga.
They are recorded from a few common synthesizers and drum machines available at the time, most notably the Roland D-50 and the Yamaha DX21, both very popular synthesizers. Other sources include the Casio CZ-101 and the Roland Juno-106.
The following is based on Dan Wilson's post on modarchive.org:
Call Roland D-50 I-16 Living Calliope DigDug Yamaha DX21 G13 P1 Solid Bass (aka Lately Bass) DigiHarp Roland D-50 I-12 Metal Harp DXBass Yamaha DX21 G13 P1 Solid Bass (aka Lately Bass) DxTom Yamaha DX21 G9 P1 Electro Tom FaeryTale Casio CZ-101 Fairytail FunkBass Yamaha DX21 G13 P6 Elec Bass Heaven Roland D-50 I-61 Staccato Heaven HeavySynth Yamaha DX21 G10 P1 Heavy Synth Heifer Yamaha DX21 G9 P8 Heifer Bell Hooman Roland D-50 C-67 Choir Horns Yamaha DX21 G5 P1 Horns JahrMarkt2 Roland D-50 C-12 Metal Harp Jetes Roland D-50 I-54 Jete Strings Koto Yamaha DX21 G6 P7 Kotokoto Licks Roland D-50 I-85 Bones Mechanic1 Roland D-50 I-81 Intruder FX MetalKeys Yamaha DX21 G7 P4 Metal Keys MonoBass Yamaha DX21 G13 P4 Mono Bass MuteClav Yamaha DX21 G11 P5 Mute Clav Nice Roland Juno-106 A33 Xylophone NightMare Roland D-50 I-71 Nightmare Outlaw Roland D-50 I-21 DigitalNativeDance PingBells Roland Juno-106 B77 Pingbell Pizza Roland D-50 I-44 Pizzagogo PolySynth Roland D-50 I-55 Stereo Polysynth PopBass Yamaha DX21 G13 P1 Solid Bass RichString Yamaha DX21 G4 P6 Richstring RingPiano Roland D-50 I-78 Pianissimo Shamus Roland D-50 I-41 Shamus Theme SixTease Yamaha DX21 G3 P6 <6 Tease> SlapBass Roland D-50 I-83 Synth Bass Stabs Roland D-50 I-25 Harpsichord Stabs Steinway Yamaha DX21 G1 P1 Deep Grand Strings7 Roland D-50 I-A1 Legato Strings SynClaves Yamaha DX21 G9 P3 Breakin SyntheBass Yamaha DX21 G13 P3 Synthe Bass TineWave Roland D-50 I-56 Tine Wave Touch Roland D-50 I-16 Living Calliope Voices Roland D-50 I-17 D50 Voices
Soundtracker was cloned and modified to a crazy degree by the Amiga demoscene and game developers.
Here is a chronological list of some of the more widely used trackers. For a more extensive list, visit exotica.org.
Ultimate Soundtracker (1987)
MED / OctaMED (1989)
Future Composer (1990)
Musicline Editor (1993)
Art of Noise (1993)
There is a group of composers that started out using trackers, including Brothomstates (ScreamTracker), Deadmau5 (Impulse Tracker), Machinedrum (Impulse Tracker).
Amiga trackers such as ProTracker and OctaMED was used by members of the UK hardcore and jungle artists.
OctaMED was used by several jungle / drum 'n bass producers, such as Aphrodite, Paradox, and Omni Trio. DJ Zinc tweeted in 2010 that he wrote 'Super Sharp Shooter' in OctaMED.
A few still use trackers to this day, such as prominent Renoise user Venetian Snares.
Derivative software for other platforms includes:
DOS ("Second Generation Trackers"):
FIXME: Check Tim Wright podcast FastTracker was used by Tim Wright for the Wipeout soundtrack?
Windows ("Third Generation Trackers"):