What’s This? A Tracker?
Never let it be said that I’m one to turn down a good deal. The Polybrute and the LXR-02 are examples. And now, I have a Polyend Tracker. So, what’s up with that?
What the heck’s a Tracker?
Way back in the ’80s when home computers were in their infancy, there weren’t a lot of ways to make music on a computer. Atari ST computers had built-in MIDI ports, and became the de-facto standard for home sequencing. Commodore Amiga computers had the Paula chip, the precocious little sister of the C64 SID chip. Paula could play back four simultaneous samples, and became the darling of game developers because of the relatively high audio quality.
In 1987, a professional audio editing tool was introduced by programmer Karsten Obasrki to make it easier for game developers to create immersive soundtracks for Commodore Amiga games. That software was called The Ultimate Sound Tracker.
The program provided a relatively simple method of playing back and, to some extent, applying minimal effects to the sample files. Ultimate Sound Tracker also introduced the first versions of the MOD file format that software trackers can use to this day and the “Chiptune” sound was born.
As with most good commercial products, a number of shareware alternatives arrived on the scene, and more and more features were added to allow for more complex song structures and deliver a wider range of effects. However, the Paula chip still limited Amiga MOD files to 4 tracks and 8-bit audio.
As IBM PC clones became more mature and their processors became more powerful, trackers migrated to that platform as well. In the case of PCs, early trackers required sound cards developed for gaming, such as the SoundBlaster and similar cards that could play samples. These cards also usually included a Yamaha FM synth chip in addition to the PCM audio files. At that time, the most popular tracker for IBM PCs and clones was Screamtracker. Screamtracker featured 8 tracks and increased the effects available.
It should be noted that the “effects” parameters used by trackers are not exactly what most musicians consider effects. Instead, they’re mostly modifiers like volume, pan, glide, micro timing, arpeggiation, etc. Audio effects like reverb and delay are attached to the “instruments” or to the master section.
I never really had a lot interest in trackers back then. I already spent enough time with computers and programming, and I didn’t really want to have to program my music.
Fast forward to today. Commodore Amigas are gone, as are Atari ST computers. But PCs are still with us and more powerful than ever. Trackers have come of age as well, almost rivaling modern DAWs. A popular modern tracker that runs on Windows and Linux PCs, Macs, and even Raspberry Pi computers is Renoise. It is, in almost every way, a thoroughly modern DAW and can even use VST effects and instruments. Of course, it’s still limited to the 8 track format.
Over the past few years, a number of DIY and commercial hardware trackers have appeared. The Dirtywave M8 exists as both a DIY device and a commercially produced device. XOR has the NerdSEQ available as portable device, or a Eurorack module. Polyend released their Tracker and more recently, the Tracker Mini. And, I basically had no interest.
That changed with Polyend’s latest firmware release for the Tracker Mini (and original Tracker). For some unknown reason, I happened to watch one of the release videos describing the new and improved feature set, and came to realize that Polyend’s trackers had some pretty serious functionality, particularly with regards to sample editing an manipulation. Further, the Polyend models can be controlled via MIDI, and can even sequence external instruments. That got my attention, at least until I saw the pricing — $700 is a big ask for a device that’s limited to 8 monaural monophonic tracks.
And then, there was a sale on the Polyend Tracker for a very limited time. After a bit of research and a brief negotiation, one was ordered.
For all the fancy screens on the Polyend Trackers, the act of sequencing music on one is not altogether different from sequencing a modular synth. Sure, the sequence screen brings back memories of the MS-DOS version of Microsoft Multiplan. But the basic gist is that each sequencer track plays back one note at a time at the specified intervals. Like some more advanced modular sequencers (or other hardware sequencers), other controls can be sequenced along with the note. In fact, it’s a very similar paradigm to the sequencers in Elektron grooveboxes, with each step including note, instrument, and parameter lock data. It’s also not entirely unlike Novation’s Circuit Tracks. The difference really lies in the thoughtfulness of the user interface and the big, easy to read and navigate screen.
Of course, nothing is perfect.
Trackers don’t do chords well or easily. As I mentioned earlier, each track can play one note at a time, so a chord has to span multiple tracks. Notes in arpeggios (well, any note on a track) will get truncated when the next note plays. This is not horrible, but it needs to be considered.
Unlike Ableton Live, all of the tracks in a sequence must be the same length. That makes polyrhythmic passages harder to achieve.
Each track is monaural. So, a stereo pad sound would need to be played back with two tracks, sequenced and panned appropriately (though this could lead to some really interesting interplay between the stereo channels, since each is sequenced separately).
Tracks can either play an internal sample or send MIDI data, but not both. So, if I want to have an external synth play in unison with an internal sample, two tracks are required.
I’m sure I’ll come across more challenges. But I’m still very excited to start working with the Tracker because really, sometimes simpler is better….
Why Choose Polyend’s Tracker?
Aside from the sale, why did I choose the Polyend Tracker over other options? The Dirtywave M8, for instance, is less expensive, offers more options for sound generation, and is far more portable. And, the Polyend Tracker Mini is also a more portable option. And all offer plenty of flexibility in controlling or, to a lesser extent, being controlled by external devices.
I’ve already touched on this, but when it comes down to it, the answer lies in the user interface. I’m horrible at remembering how to make devices with minimalized control setups work. I like decent-sized screens with clearly labeled controls and logical layouts. The M8’s game-style layout is neat and tiny, but it hurts my brain. Even the Tracker Mini suffers from a lack of well-labeled controls.
The big Polyend Tracker, on the other hand, is logically laid out (to me) with all of the keys labeled. The “soft buttons” which do have multiple functions are called out logically along the bottom of the screen. Event the 12×4 array of buttons gains on-screen labels when appropriate.
And again, it was on sale.
But Wait, There’s More!
For more on the history of trackers, consider Tim Cant’s posting on Musitech.com.
And, of course, it would not be one of my gear posts if there weren’t a YouTube playlist of related videos included: