The roots of trackers is normally traced to the mid 1980s with Soundmonitor and Soundtracker. That was the genesis, The Root, the big bang. Boom! As if trackers appeared out of thin air. But where do we look for the precursors to what became known as trackers in the 1980s?
First of all, let’s define a tracker as a vertical step sequencer with alphanumerical symbols where positioning controls time but not pitch. They are either absolute (for soundtrackers) or referential (as in hypertrackers). Although there are other types of trackers, this covers the bulk of them (read more here and here).
Secondly, we need to distinguish between the materiality and the language of trackers.
Materially speaking, trackers work more like step sequencers than as piano rolls. Each event has a set duration in time, usually with a rather crude quantization. In piano roll sequencers the composer positions the stave to set the pitch and defines the duration, with a quantization that often has a higher resolution than trackers do.
More than 1000 years ago, persian inventors were automating the playback of music: ie, programming music. In the music box each note has a timeline where the composer inserts events, like in piano rolls. In the 20th century, player pianos built further on these ideas and became quite commercially successful. In these media there are individual timelines for each note. One timeline for C, one for D, and so on. Raymond Scott’s Circle Machine from the 1950s instead used one single timeline where the composer could set the pitch on each step. Many modern analogue sequencers use the same logic. In the 1980s, trackers brought this logic into a coded computer environment.
In a tracker, the composer can program each step to set pitch, timbre, volume or various kind of modulations. Right next to the note column there is an effects column. In Soundtrackers there are preset effects and the composer sets the intensity of the effect: 1XX for pitchbend up, 3XX to slide the note, 4XX for vibrato, AXX to fade the volume, and so on. In hypertrackers, the effects refer to a table of data elsewhere, so you can program your own effects.
This is what I mean with the language of trackers. Each step in a tracker sends instructions to the soundchip about what it should do. Tracker songs are like a list of instructions, and the palette is much bigger than in traditional notation. In the 1960s, Lejaren Hiller (almost the inventor of computer music) and a Japanese Fluxus-guy made musical instructions that looked similar to what tracker songs do today. Vertical text-mode lists of instructions to control the music, although not for computers.
In trackers (for PSG-soundchips that don’t use samples) each step can, in theory, contain any instruction that the soundchip or the computer can understand. Even non-musical instructions, like sync points to visuals (a popular trick in the demoscene). Trackers usually don’t offer this kind of freedom but the C64-tracker that I use, defMON, does something along these lines. While other trackers make a clear cut between what an instrument is and what a modulation is, defMON doesn’t discriminate. Everything is everything.
Sheet music are also a list of instructions, and could be called software. Or, with a gigantic stretch, even the more fashionable “algorithm”-term could be used. But imho, tracker music really is deserving of the software term, both materially and linguistically. A tracker song contains both the composition and the style of the performance. All the author genius, all the funk, all the style. It’s all in there. The instructions determine the performance almost completely. But it is not the performance. It is not a documentation of the performance, like recorded music is. The performance always happens in real-time as you play the file, and it will sound slightly different depending on the hardware you use.
Historically, economically and politically it has been – and still is – important to categorize music as either performance, recording or notation. Who wrote the song? Who owns the recording? Who gets the money for performing it?
I’m still fascinated by the materiality of tracker music for this reason. There is much more research to be made about the precursors to trackers, both as an interface and as a format. The history sketched above is just one suggestion, and I’m looking forward to the criticism! Be my guest to check out صفی الدین الارموی’s musical notation from 800 years ago based on numbers and letters, Braille music, ancient numbered musical notation in China, and klavarskribo which is a vertical notation sort of like Guitar Hero.