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I first became interested in computer music through playing Lemmings on an Acorn Archimedes 410/1 in 1992. As well as enjoying the gameplay, I recall noticing that the music itself was surprisingly good. However, it did not occur to me to wonder how it was created. In retrospect, a missed opportunity.
When I listen to the music in Lemmings now, (available on mobile phones) it's obvious that it is computer generated. There is a mechanical precision to the placement of the notes. Even when played rapidly, there is a tidyness that says "not played by a human". With the passing of the years, and the release of music made with more powerful computers, this is less obvious. It does, however, allow us to form a definition of what computer 'tracker' music is. It is music in which sound samples have been placed in a 'sort of' spreadsheet, the spreadsheet then being 'played' by being scanned row by row from top to bottom, the samples in the cells being played as they are encountered.
The programs that manage such spreadsheets are 'sample sequencers'. Examples from the RISC OS world are Coconizer, and Digital Symphony. A well known modern sample sequencer is Milky Tracker.
Tracker Music in Popular Culture
For examples of tracker music influencing modern popular culture, I'll first cite last year's blockbuster film, Tron: Legacy . The soundtrack was inspired by tracker music. For many critics, it was the best part of the film. As another example, the German band, Kraftwerk , have long been respected for their electronic music. Their most famous songs, such as Computer World and Showroom Dummies, have inspired many an amateur to try their hand at computer music-making.
An American DVD Reformat the Planet gives an illuminating insight into an adrenelin powered weekend festival in which musicians took turns to go on stage to make music, sometimes with nothing more than a GameBoy. As with so many things American, it's wild, over the top, and with a wonderfully crazy crowd. However, it does show that there is a lot of passion behind the making of music with all sorts of computing devices.
The Attraction of Chip Tune Music
As with all music making, writing a good tune requires skill, patience and persistance. However, part of the attraction of being a digital musician is that it's easy to study the work of the 'masters'. All tracker music files (XM, s3m, IT, MOD) contain the raw data of how a tune is constructed. Unlike an MP3, anyone can drop one of these files back into a sample sequencer. There you can investigate the samples used and their positioning in the musical spreadsheet. You can experiment with changing parts of the composition, extract the embedded samples, or add in new. Many a new tune has evolved from an existing one by this process. Whereas an MP3 is passively listened to, tracker music encourages you to get involved, to become a musician.
The Underground Tracker Scene
In spite of Tron, Kraftwerk and Reformat the Planet, the modern computer music scene is underground. You have to seek it out, rather than it presenting itself to you. This is not deliberate. It's more a case of a group of computer-musician geek-nerds being more interested in trying out their ideas and compositions on each other, rather than seeing what they do as being something to be commercialised and exploited. Long may that continue.
Such an attitude does have the disadvantage of making the chip tune world hard to enter and explore. The better music is buried amidst a multitude of experiments and tedious rehashes of over-worked themes.
Alice Green's Tracker Music Project
In March 2011 the team at MathMagical sat down to wade through thousands of sequenced music tracks. The idea was to bundle in a 'free extra' with the next release of Flicker, at the RISC OS Wakefield show in April. Alice Green oversaw the project. Her brief to the team was to seek out material that was not too extreme, but rather showcased musicianship, innovation and thought. Broadminded though we tried to be, we rejected outright certain aspects of the music on offer as being too clichéd to entertain. Helen Jones vetoed tunes with pan pipes. Peter Shawbury reacted badly to the heavy 1990s synthesiser sound. For my part, I was interested in having an album that was varied but balanced and flowed overall.
We had no trouble gathering material via websites, emails, and newsgroup announcements. We were ruthless at rejecting a track that failed to impress within twenty seconds. However, we also repeatedly played the tracks that made it onto the shortlist. Nothing got through on whim. In short, we did our very best to present some of the very best music from the chip tune world.
Tunes From The Chip
All Twelve Tracks Reviewed
Track 1 : 04:32
Alarm clock by Away/Paralaxeen
A quiet start builds up over the first minute before a 'full on', pulsating bass groove kicks in. Ragged but clever drumming adds kick and punch. It would work in a nightclub, but isn't mindless. Masterfully crafted with taste and style, Alarm clock is a powerful opening cut.
Track 2 : 02:26
Mosquitale 40 by Preston/Paralaxeen
A subtle and sublime composition, Mosquitale is unlike anything else. It manages to be calm, moody and atmospheric. "Pure artistry in music", sums up this lament.
Track 3 : 02:07
Turn turn by Ygreg/KCN
Turn turn is a pretty and delicate tune over some smart bass and drums. The instrument providing the melody has a 'human' feel that illustrates how much tracker music has moved on since the Lemmings days.
Track 4 : 02:32
Again for you by BiTL/7dUMP
Track 4 is a pop song that features a funky bass, cymbal rushes, and a soaring melody of interwoven strings and electric piano.
Track 5 : 01:24
Underwater trip by Skeleton
With rapid drumming and pumping bass, Underwater trip is carefully constructed chaos. A lot of ideas are packed into a small space. It's brisk, purposeful and features an interesting 'underwater' sound effect.
Track 6 : 02:01
Amused by D-K-MAM
Amused is a wonderfully disorganised and random-note jam of pure plink-plonk. It waxes and wanes delightfully for just over two minutes.
Track 7 : 01:30
90 seconds of... by D-K
Like the previous track, this is a techno groove of computer bleeps and bloops. It's an experiment in sound, but it does work and make sense. Full marks for this highly original and distinctive sound.
Track 8 : 03:40
Altazimuth by Icefall
This is a steady power stomp with an eastern Arabian feel. It features a bell that tolls, sad wails, and a tense zitar; a doom laden piece of morbidity.
Track 9 : 02:56
Ice in her eyes by Valeriy Kuptsov
A melancholy tune of lost love, frozen lands, and hard times. Valery Kuptsov is a Russian musical genius, doing his own thing, regardless of musical fashion. This track, like most of his material, is timeless.
Track 10 : 02:25
Living nature by Riskej
The featured accordion on Living nature evokes an image of the traditional French street musician. However, it's drum bangs and cymbal crashes that make this a great piece. It must have been tremendous fun composing this. Less so, perhaps, if you were Riskej's neighbour.
Track 11 : 01:21
Radio zha-zha by Vibe
For the penultimate track, a fast paced pop-music delight. It's frivilous, frothy and with a clever use of the classic GameBoy trill. The Gameboy sample is is not overused, more a kind nod to the music's origins.
Track 12 : 02:26
Don't Panic by Sequentor
Sequentor's track is an original and distinctive techno percussion groove. Max Headroom provides humour with his "Don't Panic". It has a clever ragged ending as the 'musicians' stop playing.
Most of this music can be found on the internet. Tracker music is generally 'free' music. Flicker wraps it all up into a nicely presented, menu driven entity; the "Tunes from The Chip" album.
Flicker costs £15.
Order from the computing section of the MathMagical website.
Flicker is for the Risc PC, Iyonix, Beagleboard, ARMini & Raspberry Pi computers. Mac and Windows users will need RISC OS emulation.
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