Updated: August 21st, 2013
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Tracking 101

Back in the 1990s and even for a few years after 2000, most people's experience with music made on computers was cheesy artificial-sounding music from Nintendo games or MIDI files. But there was an alternative, one that most people never knew about: tracker music, also known as MOD music.

Tracking programs and the people who used them were capable of writing professional-quality realistic-sounding music through the clever use of samples. A sample is a digital recording of an instrument playing a single note. (Samples could also be longer and include entire musical riffs or chords, more in line with how many modern rap and hip-hop artists use samples in their songs today, but most samples used in tracking were single-note samples.) You can play a sample at a higher frequency and make it sound like that instrument is playing a higher note, or play it at a lower frequency to sound like a lower note. It's kind of like recording your voice on a tape, and then speeding up the tape to make your voice sound higher. So, a tracker file is basically a collection of samples and instructions for when to play each instrument and at what notes. To use an analogy, a tracking artist is a composer and a conductor, and the computer is his or her symphony orchestra. I tell the computer what to play, and it plays it.

Tracking caught on with a surprisingly large segment of the early online community, first on old dial-up BBSs in Europe, then in the USA, and later on the Internet as more people hooked up to the World Wide Web in the late 90s. Tracking had some nice advantages over other forms of computerized music. With the right samples and skillful enough use of them, tracker songs could sound as good as some professionally-produced music. Since all the samples were included in each song file, songs could be distributed on disks or online and sound pretty much the same no matter what computer they were played on. Yet their file size was quite small... since each sample was only one or two seconds long, the file for a full-length high-quality five-minute song might only have 20 seconds or less of actual recorded audio in it, keeping the file size small. How small? Sizes varied, but many of the best tracker songs weighed in around 100k to 200k. You very likely have text files on your computer right now that are bigger than that -- and far less entertaining. :)

There are two things you need to listen to a tracker file. The first is a sound card, which pretty much every computer has nowadays. The second is the right program, such as XMPlay, MODPlug Player or even WinAmp. (I'd suggest XMPlay, or at least MODPlug. WinAmp will do in a pinch, but it doesn't play tracker files nearly as accurately as XMPlay.)

Oh, and of course, you need some songs. ;) Tracker songs come in a variety of formats, just like all the different convenience store chains out there. Of course, just like convenience store chains, some tracker formats are more prevalent than others. The big four formats are IT, XM, S3M and MOD. A few rarer but more modern formats are MT2, SKM and RNS. (The MOD format was the very first tracker format, and as such, some people refer to all tracker tunes as "MODs." It's kind of like how some people refer to every convenience store as a "7-Eleven," even if it's actually a Circle-K or a Cumberland Farms store instead.)

Finally, if you're interested in learning how to track yourself... well... good luck. :) There's not a lot of people out there still tracking in 2013. Since moving larger files around is much easier now than it used to be, the biggest advantage of tracking -- high-quality in a small package -- is no longer important. But some people still do it out of a sense of nostalgia, or because they used to track, still know how, and don't want to learn how to use more-modern musical programs, so you won't be totally alone. During my time in the tracking scene, the two DOS-based programs Fast Tracker 2 and Impulse Tracker 2 were the most popular, but towards the end of the tracking scene they were starting to get replaced by Windows-based programs like MODPLug Tracker, Mad Tracker, Skale and Renoise before the MP3 format took over. I've saved some tracking tips from an old scene "magazine" called TraxWeekly that could help you, and I also have some tips of my own in my old Blog & Essay Archive as well.