tl;dr – There are two kinds of trackers: soundtrackers and hypertrackers. But it’s a combination of them that is showing the way forward. And perhaps the micro-efficient trackers are more useful than ever, with the popularity of handheld devices.
When I wrote my thesis I had some difficulties to cover the topic of trackers. Although they are old and popular programs, there’s not much scholarly research on them. I can’t remember anyone trying to categorize trackers properly, for example. If you know of any such attempts, please get in touch.
For my thesis, I ended up talking about soundtrackers and hypersequencers. They refer to two dominant families of chipmusic trackers. Soundtrackers use sampled sounds and have a user-friendly interface. Hypersequencers are more about synthetic sounds and efficiency.
I find these two categories quite useful for discussing trackers in general. But I have also found that talking about trackers as hypersequencers (originally from Phelps) doesn’t feel quite right. Instead, I suggest the term hypertracker.*
Soundtrackers are similar to sheet music, because they display notes and effects next to eachother. You can see which note is played, and also its ornamentation (vibrato, arpeggio, etc). The song is arranged in patterns, and one pattern includes one bar of all the voices. That means that all voices are locked to the same tempo, and the same arrangement structure.
Hypertrackers use more of a code logic. If soundtrackers are like sheet music with absolute values, hypersequenced music is like code that executes instructions. The note C might play a completely different note, depending on what kind of code is next to it. It enables a wild and “generative” composing style. Voices can have different tempos and sounds can be connected to eachother in a modular fashion. Hypersequenced music requires few resources (in terms of RAM, ROM, CPU) and mostly use synthetic sounds. They are “hyper” because they are referential; a letter or number usually refers to something other than itself.
Personally I find soundtrackers very convenient to use. They are straight-forward, simple and direct. Hypertrackers on the other hand, are more versatile and offer more surprises. They have more character somehow, and can lead the music in directions that the composer wasn’t aware of. Hypertrackers offer a lot of control and yet, as a composer, you can choose to hand some of that control back to the software. In soundtrackers it’s more up to the composer to take command.
Plenty of chip software doesn’t fit into these two categories. LSDj is an interesting example, since it takes inspiration from both. Obviously Mr. Kotlinski prefers hypertrackers. He even expanded the hyper-structure by adding more layers to the song arrangement, and by adding more tables. But just like one of his big sources of inspiration (MusicLine) it also incorporates some of the UI-ideas from soundtrackers. For example, you can set absolute effects next to the notes, such as pitchbend or vibrato.
This mixture of sound- and hypertracker became very popular in the chipscene. LSDj inspired LittleGPTracker, and created a new momentum. One example is Pulsar, recently created by Neil Baldwin who made 8-bit game music already in the 80’s. Even more recently, I’ve seen previews of new demoscene software that is highly inspired by LGPT.
These programs are not made for keyboards. They are designed for handheld consoles and very few buttons. Another difference from other trackers is that they can be used for live performances. Most trackers are pretty useless for live improvisations, unfortunately. A third difference: they can maximize the hardware. Trackers are normally designed to leave resources for code and graphics of demos and games, but this new generation allows you to use nearly 100% of the available resources. That is a fundamental difference, which is why chipscene Gameboy music can be more powerful than game/demo music for Gameboy.
The chipscene made chipmusic stand on its own feet, independently from the visuals, and that has affected the software too. New conventions have been developed, and it seems like future chiptrackers will follow this new path inbetween sound- and hypertrackers. It might also be used for other platforms with few buttons or low memory. Arduino and Raspberry Pi come to mind, aswell as smartphones with their complete lack of buttons.
In those situations I’d guess that “tracker” is a precise enough term. Just like Renoise is a tracker, in a world of piano rollerz. But if there should be a new term for it, I suggest acidtrackers.
* I agree with HVMEC that trackers and editors are not the same thing. Trackers are step sequencers, while editors require the user to set the duration of each note (more here). The term hypertracker excludes programs like Soundmonitor or Future Composer, because they are editors. On the other hand, I think those kinds of programs are rare today. And perhaps they share more with MCK/MML or piano roll sequencers, than with trackers?