Back in the late 1980s and eary 90s, before the rise of the modern DAW, a generation of musicians and producers equipped with home computers (most notably the Commodore Amiga 500) embraced Music Tracker software to make their tracks.
Despite falling out of fashion, the unique workflow Music Trackers offer mean they continue to be embraced by a certain kind of music producer and if you’ve never used one before they could be the alternative to your current DAW you never knew you needed.
What is a music tracker?
Music trackers are software with roots in the late 1980s and early 1990s home computer scene. At a basic level trackers allow music to be made very quickly using only a computer and various sound samples. These sound samples are then played back at varying pitches and with various effects so as to produce music.
Key to the tracker way of working is the fact that musical data used to describe how to play each note is arranged in a list like form.
This “old school” tracker way of making music can initially prove to be unfathomable for many people who are used to working in a DAW in which songs are typically created by laying out sounds and MIDI data from left to right along a timeline.
What is a tracker MOD?
Tracker songs are stored in file formats called modules (abbreviated to MOD). The term MOD originally applied to SoundTracker modules, but it has become a generic term for any type of music tracker module. MODs contain sequencing information as well as the instruments (samples) that are used for playback.
If you have an interest in computer music then one of the fascinating things about using a tracker is downloading old MODs from various online MOD archives and seeing how tracks were put together.
Best contemporary music trackers:
Below I have written an overview of seven of the best trackers you can use to make music today (at the time of writing in 2022).
I have ordered this list of the best music trackers in terms of which music trackers I think are the best in when it comes to features, workflow and software support. Renoise tops my list as in my opinion it is the most professional, approachable and feature rich of the tracker software you can download today.
Renoise is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) which lets you record, compose, edit, process and render production-quality audio using a tracker-based approach.
In Renoise your music runs from top to bottom in a grid known as a pattern. Several patterns arranged in a certain order make up your complete track.
Renoise lends itself well to a fast and immediate workflow and boasts a wide range of modern features including dozens of built-in audio processors, support for all commonly used virtual instrument and effect plug-in formats, scripting and support for MIDI and OSC controllers.
The Renoise Pattern Matrix offers a fast overview of all the individual patterns and tracks in your song. Patterns and tracks are divided into blocks and they can be moved, copied and pasted, enabling you to manage the flow of the music quickly and easily.
Renoise comes with 26 native effects – all the essentials you need to tackle any production: reverb, delay, filters, compressors, EQ, distortion, flanger, phaser and more.
Once you have the basics of Renoise down you can deep dive into the Renoise pool and take advantage of the large number of add-on tools created by the Renoise community. There are tools for everything from giving Renoise a step-sequencer style interface to advanced sample synthesis and algorithmic composition.
It is without doubt the most powerful tracker in existence, with an impressive roster of well- implemented, often unique features.MusicRadar
- Multi-platform support: Renoise runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
- Plugin support: Renoise supports VST, AU, LADSPA and DSSI.
- Rewire support: Connect and synchronize Renoise with other ReWire-capable audio applications.
- Pattern Matrix for quick pattern editing and song arrangement.
- Edit and audition samples with the Sample Editor.
- Graphical automation envelopes
- Turn synthesizer plugins into CPU-friendly multi-sample instruments with the Plugin Grabber.
- Almost everything can be controlled from the keyboard.
- Automatic Plugin Delay Compensation technology
- MIDI support – connect Renoise to hardware synths or plug-in instruments, to send and receive notes and controller changes.
- Regular updates.
- Active community, comprehensive manual and video tutorials.
- May prove to be overwhelming for beginners (at first).
Read more and download Renoise from the official Renoise site: www.renoise.com
OpenMPT is a free Windows based music tracker.
OpenMPT started life in 1997 as ModPlug Tracker and can be used as a “classic” sample-based tracker to edit and play your favorite tracked music, but also as a modern DAW with VST plugin support and ASIO output.
OpenMPT has built up a loyal following over the years and the active OpenMPT community is a great resource of advice and tips for beginners and some fantastic music too.
- Free software.
- Support for a wide variety of module formats.
- VST plugins support.
- No installation needed, fully portable.
- Active community.
- No Mac support.
Read more and download OpenMPT from the official OpenMPT website.
MilkyTracker is a free, open source, multi-platform music application for creating .MOD and .XM module files. It attempts to recreate the module replay and user experience of the popular DOS program Fasttracker II, with special playback modes available for improved Amiga ProTracker 2/3 compatibility.
- Support for 30+ module formats and ProTracker 2/3 playback modes for playing and editing .MOD files.
- Various resampler options including emulated Amiga 500/1200 sound output.
- Powerful sample editor.
- Still in active development .
Read more and download MilkyTracker from the official MilkyTracker website.
MadTracker is inspired by classic “old school” tracker and its developer boasts that it’s “the composition tool that creates the shortest path between imagination and music”. MadTracker provides a clean and intuitive interface for a powerful and efficient approach to making music.
MadTracker comes packed with a dozen VST plugins, 8 built-in effects, more than 70 high quality samples, and various demo-songs to get you started right away.
MadTracker offers full VST, ASIO and ReWire™ support so you can hook it up inside any ReWire host, and use MadTracker as an expansion with your current musical projects.
- Fully supports VST effect and instrument plugins.
- Supports ASIO.
- Classic music tracker approach and feel.
- No longer in active development.
- Windows only.
Read more and download MadTracker from the official MadTracker website.
5. Jeskola Buzz
Jeskola Buzz is a closed source freeware modular software music studio environment centered around a modular plugin-based machine view and a multiple pattern sequencer tracker (as opposed to a single pattern sequencer tracker).
Buzz introduces the concept of a ‘Machine’. Machines in Buzz either create or modify sound. A Machine is the equivalent of a single piece of gear in a traditional music studio or a plugin in a DAW. Machines may be a synthesizer, a sampler, a dsp effect, a mixing board, or any other piece of gear that exists in a studio. Every piece has the same editable parameters and functions you would expect to find in the studio you know and love.
Jeskola Buzz Pros:
- Library featuring a wide range of ‘Machines’ (instruments and effects).
- Powerful pattern editing.
- Full VST support.
- Midi support.
- Plug-in delay compensation.
- Built in wave editor.
- Active community.
Jeskola Buzz Cons:
- Requires time to get to grips with.
- Some buggy Machines.
- No Mac support.
Read more and download Jeskola Buzz from the official Buzz website.
A labor of love for developer Alexander Zolotov, SunVox has been up a cult following. It’s a small, fast and powerful modular synthesizer with a pattern-based sequencer (tracker). SunVox is a unique music creation tool designed for those musicians and producers who like to compose music wherever they are, whenever they wish – any device, any system! Best of all SunVox is 100% free for most systems (except Android and iOS).
SunVox projects consist of the following parts: modules which generate the sounds. Patterns which control the modules (sending them notes and other commands) and a timeline which determines the order of the patterns.
- Runs on a wide range of platforms including portable devices.
- Lots of built-in modules (synths and effects) to play with.
- DrumSynth with 120 unique synthetic drum sounds.
- XM (FastTracker) and MOD (ProTracker, OctaMED) import.
- Real-time sample recording.
- Active community.
- In active development.
- Learning curve might prove too much for some.
Read more and download SunVox from the official SunVox website.
Psycle is a free, Open-Source, music creation program that offers an easy to create your own music, fast.
Psycle uses a classical tracker interface coupled with modularity (plugins) that allow you to
extend the sounds that you can get from it.
Notes are entered in Psycle’s patterns, where you can use commands (plugin specific, or global) and automation. Patterns are then organized in a linear sequence, which becomes the
- Authentic “old school” tracker feel and workflow.
- 64 Tracks Pattern Editor, with up to 1024 lines.
- 70+ Native Plugins (generators & effects).
- VST support.
- No longer in active development.
- Website looks neglected.
- Renoise is a better bet and likely to be around a lot longer (but is not free).
- Windows only.
Read more and download Pscyle from the official Psycle website.
Why you should try using a music tracker to create music?
If you’ve never used a tracker before you might be tempted to give up on them before you’ve even started – they can certainly look overwhelming and confusing to beginners.
There are several reasons you might like to consider creating music with trackers however. Firstly, if you’re feeling stuck with your current DAW/hardware workflow a tracker could be just the thing you need to reboot your creativity.
If you’re stuck in 4 bar loop hell, try breaking free from the tyranny of your DAW’s left to right timeline and loading up a tracker.
Once you’ve grasped the key concepts behind trackers they offer a really fast and intuitive way to create music.
With most of your peers probably using one of the big name DAWs, trackers can help you stand out from the crowd.
Trackers are a great way to create electronic music that harks back to a bygone era so if you’re wanting to create retro sounding beats from samples, chiptunes, drum and bass, rave, jungle, synthwave or 16-bit era video game music then trackers can get you in the zone pretty quickly.
And when you’re need in inspiration you can load up some old MOD files from the archives and see how incredibly talented electronic musicians and composers were creating tracks back in the late 1980s and 1990s when the home computer revolution, video gaming and underground dance music scenes all collided to lay the foundations of the music and culture we enjoy today.
Music Tracker documentary:
Curious to learn more about making music with trackers and the history of trackers? Check out my article: Music Trakers Explained.
Useful Tracker and Demoscene links: