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Mod love
------With their ears, their computers and a little code,
-----"mod trackers" build their own worlds of sound.

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By Andrew Leonard

April 29, 1999 | Mister-X will never forget the day he became a mod tracker. It happened shortly after his brother first showed him "Scream Tracker" -- a music-making program created by the legendary Finnish "demo group" Future Crew.

"It was love at first sight," says Mister-X, who now operates a major Web site devoted to mod tracking. "I knew that computers could be used to create music, but I had no idea that they could create this level of quality. I had been using computers like the TI 99/4A, and the Tandy 1000EX, and was used to the 'dinkety-dink' type of music that these computers produced."

Goodbye to dinkety-dink. After becoming a mod tracker, Mister-X could use his personal computer to create music with sophisticated production values, without having to invest in expensive musical equipment or recording hardware. All he needed was a PC with a sound card and a few shareware or freeware software programs.

A tracker is a program that allows would-be composers to create mod files. The word "mod" is short for "module" -- a digital music file constructed out of samples, along with the encoding information that determines how those samples sound (pitch, tone, special effects). The samples can be taken from anything -- from a snare drum to an answering machine message. They can even be "ripped" right from a commercial CD or from an already existing mod, although tracker veterans generally frown on such practices. Unlike the MP3 scene, tracking is focused primarily on creating original music, rather than the distribution of already recorded music.

Straddled right across the intersection of the art of music composition and the science of computer programming, mod tracking is hailed by its small but thriving band of practitioners as the digital embodiment of the idea of accessibility. Free to all comers, facilitated by the growth of the Internet, mod tracking offers a gateway into the world of professional-quality music production that anyone can pass through. And even though mod tracking is no magic wand -- it won't automatically transform musical dunces into sublime songwriters -- it does remove key obstacles along the road to self-expression.

"The thing that scares many people off from becoming musicians is the economics of being a modern musician," says Dan Nicholson, aka "Maelcum," the founder of the tracker group Kosmic Free Music Foundation: "$1,000 for a keyboard, $5,000 in samplers and synth modules! It's a shame -- who knows, the [next] Beethoven, John Lennon or Orbital might be out there, and we may never get to hear their great music. Tracking breaks down this barrier -- I got started on a hand-me-down PC, and current software runs just fine on a $300-400 non-state of the art PC. It gives anyone the tools they need to make great music, and it's practically free."

But the tools aren't just those that remove financial barriers. By allowing composers to "see the music" -- to take apart a module and understand exactly how a particular sound is created -- mod tracking puts the techniques behind creativity into plain view. The age of the hacker musician is at hand.

"The ability to see the music, to know how an author succeeded in creating this and that sound," says tracker Jesper Petersen, "is how we learn stuff in the end. There is a great portion of trackers that have no musical background whatsoever and that still do amazing stuff when they're put in charge of a tracker. Of course talent plays a huge role, but it is also very much a simple matter of watching and learning. And being persistent as hell -- no one makes a decent first track; we all suck to start out with."

"A typical talented 15-year-old can now explode his imagination into a song, and not waste his time in front of a TV observing an input others have control over," says Michael Lazarev, aka "Kosmos," the founder of the tracking clearinghouse United Trackers. "I heard a track written by a 13-year-old once, and it was a hundred times better then the garbage they play on the radio. The scene is great. No one has to know anyone to be in it. No one needs connections, and no strings need to be pulled. You want to make your music, and have the world hear it? You got it! Need support? You got it! No money? No problem! ... It's all about love for music, and not its commercial aspect."

 Next page | Is mod tracking the open-source movement's musical cousin?



 

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