The Amiga Overhaul Series – Updating tracker software

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In this new series I’m going to look over certain pieces of software for the Good old’ Commodore Amiga and see how they could be improved for use in the modern age. The Amiga community today is quite a vast one and the machine is still being used by a LOT of people out there.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Amiga itself in hardware terms, but most of the software is almost 30 years old, and aside from being glitchy, can also be incredibly cumbersome.

So, with hindsight lets look at some ways to tweak and improve some of the front end user programs for those of us who still love the machine, but can’t be arsed with the clunky GUIs and outdated techniques.

‘istory

Tracker software was heavily prominent on the Amiga for writing music in the machine’s native MOD format. MODs were sample based and so a range of high quality instruments with a max sample rate of 28867 Hz could be used and sequenced to taste producing some really stunning scores. Noted game composers such as David Whittaker would sample sounds from quality synths such as the Korg M1 for use in games such as Shadow Of The Beast.

Of course, people like David used custom written music production software, but for the rest of us we had to use the tools available and that was the tracker software.

There were many types of tracker software on the Amiga, but most of them did pretty much the same thing. The two most famous ones were Protracker and Octamed. Tracker music works by representing the Amiga’s four hardware sound channels as columns on a vertical timeline and in them the notes appear in the form of hex (hexadecimal) values. These hex values dictate what sample is played, which note it is, how hard it is played and other dynamic and articulation variables.

Cnut

protracker-3-15
Protracker in action

Tracker software was the biz back in the early 90s and some stunning compositions came from it. For its time it was great stuff, however, today and with a lot of hindsight it really doesn’t hold up that well. The main beef is trying to compose music using hex values and then placing them in the timeline using quite a cumbersome method.

Many say it’s just a case of getting to know all the hex values, but quite honestly, in 2017 I don’t want to get to know the hex values. I just want to be able to cleanly and efficiently be creative and write music using the Amiga. Also, being somewhat of a newcomer to the more techy and creative side of the Amiga world (I was purely a game player back in the day) I’ve been used to things like modern DAWs for nearly 20 years.

“Oh but you can’t use that as a fair basis for comparison” I hear you cry.

Well, actually you can, becasue let us not forget that Steinberg’s Cubase has been around since 1989. Obviously being an Atari ST program it never found its way on to the Amiga (most likely due to stubborn system loyalty/pride, which sadly still exists today). Steinberg did however port Pro 24 onto the Amiga which some see as the father to Cubase, but little is known about the program or if it was even suitable for composing in MOD format.

Fixxxer

So what can be done to sort the old tracker programs? Pretty simple really. Just put a piano roll sequencer in there, and that’s about it. Of course it would’t be exactly the same as a normal piano roll sequencer, simply due to the way that the Amiga and tracker programs work, but it could be similar.

Let me explain:

Traditional DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) like Cubase, Pro-Tools,  Reaper etc. usually work by allocating a track for an individual instrument. You’ll have a track for a bass and one for a piano and so forth. On the Amiga however, you have the hardware’s 4 Channels and that’s it. However, each channel is not limited to one instrument.

midi-101-cubase-piano-roll
A modern DAW piano roll sequencer. Here, notes can be stacked so that they play simultaneously.

You can place a sample for a bass note, then place a piano note right after it and they would both come out of channel 1. The same goes for all the channels, so it opens things up a little. The only downside is that the channels are based on note division and so you cannot have two samples playing at the same time through the same channel.

For example, if you have a bar of music then beat 1 can be a kick drum and beat 2 can be a bass guitar note in the same channel. They cannot however, both be on beat 1 in the same channel. It has to be one of the other. You can of course have Beat 1 on Channel 1 be a kick drum and Beat 1 on Channel 2 be a bass guitar note, and that’s usually how it works. One channel is percussion, one is bass and the other two can be divided up for lead lines and melodies. Remember, that the sample sounds can be changed at any time in the song so no one channel is stuck with any one sound. For example if you have a section of a song where the drums cut out, you could then use the channel that the drums were on to play some sort of airy choir or pad since the notes are free.

With this is mind we have to create a sequencer which will accommodate this way of working and really, it couldn’t be simpler (In theory).

To illustrate this I did a simple mockup of how the sequencer GUI would look on a tracker program below:

Proracker sequence idea
You would have your sample list at the side, which are colour coded and you could select with the mouse. Next to it would be the sequencer. This would look like any other piano roll sequencer, but it would be for whatever one of the four channels which were selected.

You could then click on whatever sample you liked from the list and then use the mouse to place it wherever you like in the sequencer and the note dot, or rectangle would appear in the sample’s allocated colour. You can then easily, cleanly and most importantly – quickly, sequence up your music, with any dynamics like velocity, etc. being done at the bottom as per usual with sequencers. Any note length grid quantising for 16ths, 32nds or triplets could be selected from a simple menu.

The only difference to a normal piano roll sequencer would be that you cannot have notes playing at the same time in the same channel, but that’s pretty much it.

The software would be doing exactly the same thing as before, but it’s just how the information is inputted and viewed which would be different. Of course there would be an option to switch back to the old vertical Hex method if desired.

Fin

I know people who genuinely love the way the old trackers work, and you know what? That’s fine. However, they are usually coming from having used the software extensively in the 90s and so are heavily accustomed to it.

I don’t have that luxury, nor do I want to have to go through some ridiculous trial by fire whereby one has to tolerate primitive software and workflow methods in order to access the Amiga’s hardware for creative use in this day and age. Similarly, the mindset of “Oh I had to do it like that, so therefore you must too” is infuriatingly backward.

The Amiga is a great machine, and testament to that is still wanting to use it for production today. However, no matter how good the software was for its time, the truth is, it’s not 1993 anymore and never will be again so I want any front end access to hardware manipulation in a workable and modern way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I can already hear the purists foaming at the mouth, but remember this – the scores of other traditional tracker software will still be out there and available. Having one which is a bit more user friendly to a modern mind wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Unfortunately I don’t have the programming skills to implement such a change to the software (I can barely use Amos Professional) and so all I can really do is give what amounts to modern user feedback and ideas. Still, everything starts with an idea, and what with the community being so strong as it is then maybe someone will read this and say “Oh, that’s a good idea. I could do that!”. However, many of the old Amiga gang are still heavily conditioned to the old ways and so any suggestion of change may be punishable by 10 years of playing Tiertex games before being burned at the Atari ST.

As stated, there’s nothing wrong with the Amiga itself, but we’ve learned a lot about workflow techniques in the last 30 years, so if the machine is still in use after all this time then lets put some of that knowledge into the software.

Thanks for reading.

 

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Author: aviewfromaskewblog

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