Music Production at home in the 90s

What is tracker music?

I’m not fully sure how to explain it, but it’s basically music that’s sequenced in a matrix-like in the video below. The first ones had 4 channels and 8 bit sound, with more channels, sample support and 16 bit sound later on. This is what bedroom music producers were using back in the ‘90s.

Below is Elwood’s 1995 classic “Dead Lock”, in which you can see the kind of interface used. As you can see, it’s very minimalist and doesn’t have a huge amount of features like modern sequencers.

File sizes and sharing

One of the coolest things I’ve discovered about tracker music is that people used to share their project files. In fact, the project file was the only thing needed to share. Everyone could play it, and the file size only depends on the samples used. This means that you’d get lossless music with 2 or 3 digit kb file sizes! Compare that to bad quality 128 kbps mp3 files, which are measured in megabytes. That’s pretty backward!

The fact that everyone could access the project file, means that people would get a look at what’s going on behind the scenes. Every note, every sound used, etc. Nowadays, I’ve yet to come across anyone who is sharing their project files, which I think is a pity. Just look at how good Open Source projects like Wikipedia and Firefox are, not to mention the free exchange of information in science. I think it’s the same way with music. Even with my mp3 files, anyone with basic music knowledge can plagiarise me, so why not make it easier for them? Seriously though, I’m certain that most people wouldn’t steal, but rather take the opportunity to have a look at how the tracks are made, and maybe learn something.

Also, I find it funny how newer programs take up so much more resources! In the screenshot below, I’m playing my soon-to-be-uploaded composition with ~40 tracks, along with the Scotchman tune (see the end of the post) in MilkyTracker. It’s on my laptop, so the processor usage would be far lower on my desktop computer. Still, the picture speaks for itself:

Limitations and their consequence

As the video above indicates, tracker interfaces are very basic. There’s not very many sound design and editing possibilities available, which means: more focus on making music! Nowadays there seems to be so much focus on mixing, EQing, sound design, etc. And fair enough, a lot of music is incredibly well done, unlike anything before. However, from my point of view, far too many forget that music is more than you hear.

With tracker interfaces, people had to make the best of mediocre sounds. Now, people have to make the best out of the best sounds. Huge amounts of bad tunes were made back then too, but I somehow think that poor music with poor sounds is better than poor music with professional sounds. It sounds less out of place, and those with poor sounds will have to focus more on actually making a good piece of music and communicating their idea.

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