The Tracker Underground – an interview with MAZ

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on in May 1998, contributed by then Senior Editor Joel Braverman. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Many years ago, before the World Wide Web was the Big Thing, I used to be a regular visitor to a local San Francisco BBS, the SF MIDI Exchange, where shareware sequencers and other audio programs were available for download (including early demos of Cakewalk, Mastertracks Pro and others). While I was there I noticed there was a strange group of people obsessed with trading weird files called .MODs, which seemed to be a combination of samples and music.

Many years passed before I came across them again, quite by accident. I had downloaded and purchased a shareware 3D positional audio program and there was a link that said: “Rated by MAZ”

Clicking on that link brought me to the personal discovery of what may be the biggest collection of soft-synths, audio utilities and something called “trackers” that exists…

Trackers. Apparently while I was busy trying to create enough money to buy the synths I needed to make the music I wanted, those guys trading .MOD files went right on trading files and developing software to work with the equipment and computers that they already had.

I spent some time looking at links on Maz’s site, which told me a little bit about trackers, .MOD files, and what is called “the demo scene”. Maz seemed like an interesting person, and I thought our readers might be interested in knowing a bit about trackers and the surrounding groups of people (quite large apparently) who use them.

What follows is an interview with MAZ on what I think is an interesting alternate reality to the one that many of us live in:

Joel Braverman: What is a tracker, and how does it differ from a commercial package like Cakewalk, or Logic Audio?

Maz: The first big difference which comes into my mind is the price. Trackers are freeware or $20 shareware. You could describe a tracker as a “multichannel software sampler with integrated sequencer”. A song consists of patterns of variable length and order. They store the notes and effects. There’s no score view or similar view: the pattern data is clear text, comparable with the event view of a MIDI sequencer. A tracker uses samples (which support loops) as instruments. That’s what made trackers popular in the past: there are no sound limits and you don’t need expensive software or hardware – not even sample RAM on your soundcard – since everything is made by the CPU in realtime. The only thing which is done by the soundcard is the output of the 2-channel output of the final mix. Another important aspect of trackers is the songs: the sample data is included with the song. This way you can easily spread your songs among your friends and be sure they hear the same thing you created – no matter which soundcard or equipment they have.

JB: What type of system do you need (minimally) to run a tracker? Are there trackers for Win95/NT?

Maz: The two most popular trackers, FastTracker and ImpulseTracker, are DOS programs, but they run fine under Win95 too. Advantage: even a 386 mixes up to 8 channels in realtime. Disadvantage: only native supported soundcards can be used as output device. As long as the soundcard is SoundBlaster compatible or a Gravis Ultrasound this is no problem. Yes, there are some Win95 trackers too – most popular are Modplug Tracker and Octamed Studio – but they are all in alpha or beta phase, screen output is pretty slow and they are not what I would call handy or stable. At the moment I still prefer the good old FastTracker. A very interesting tool for Win95/NT is BUZZ, a modular-sequencer-multieffect-softsynth.

JB: is there a relationship (if any) between trackers and, say the Techno/Rave scene?

Maz: Due to the pattern based system, most tracker-songs are techno-ish. I’m not part of the rave scene, sorry (grins).

JB: No need to apologize for THAT! How has the tracker software evolved over the years, from its initial phase to current innovations?

Maz: The very first trackers came out about ten years ago on Commodore’s AMIGA. Since I never had an AMIGA I only can speak about the PC history.

The first step was the increase of the channels from 8 to 32 which allowed more complex songs. The major boom on PC came with FastTracker2 in summer 1995: finally support of 16 bit samples and real “instruments” as we know them from using synths and samplers. FastTracker2 supported up to 16 keymapped samples, a volume- & panning-envelope plus vibrato settings per instrument.

The next major step was the release of ImpulseTracker 2 (IT) in 1996 with its up to 64 flexible channels, “unlimited” number of samples per instrument, pitch envelopes. Now you could define the behavior of an instrument relative to a note played on the same channel while the prior note still plays – IT automatically spreads the notes on its internal 256 channels if you want. And Impulse Tracker2 was the first tracker with a real high quality WAV-output device which allows to render your song into a WAV to put it onto CD. IT was the first tracker which supported MIDI input for SB16, AWE32, GUS and Interwave cards as well as MIDI output including free definable MIDI macros which let you control everything on your synth.

The next major event came in November ’97: ImpulseTracker introduced native MMX support combined with software-based filters with definable cutoff and resonance, either via pattern data or as an envelope assigned to an instrument. On a 200MMX it’s no problem to play the full 256 notes, filtered and simultaneously. Most tracking musicians still prefer FastTracker because of its nice graphical user interface, while ImpulseTracker is the field of hardcore trackers who love the old ScreamTracker-Interface.

JB: Can you tell me a bit more about how the tracker scene evolved?

Maz: It all started on AMIGA, hand in hand with its demo scene. No, “demo” doesn’t mean a crippled version of a commercial program which can’t save and autodestroys after 10 minutes of use. “Demo” means a multimedia demonstration (all computed in realtime) of very impressive programming art, music and graphic which kicks a common PC to it’s limits. So the music is just one part of a demo, along with the visual scenes. For more details about the demo scene the #1 address is

Well, nowadays major parts of the tracker scene are separated from the demo scene, and there are lot’s of standalone tracking crews.

JB:Tell me about the upcoming Mekka/Symposium – how are you involved in it? How many years has it been going on?

Maz: Mekka/Symposium is the #1 demo party of Germany, some say of the world. I’m just a visitor and I donate my Sample CDs to the winners of the music competitions – nothing more. I’m not involved in the organizations. At a “demo party” hundreds of computer enthusiasts per square meter compete against each other in several fields: there are demo compos [compositions], 4-channel and multichannel music compos, graphic compos and several weird free wild compos where the most stupid and crazy thing wins (smiles). All those things are shown to the visitors – and the visitors are the voters. You meet all those people you meet via email. Last year it was damn funny, let’s hope the best for this year.

JB: What led to, or what prompted you to start your website?

Maz: Before I bought my own virtual domain in December ’96 the main location of this site was the server of my university. I started to create some HTML pages in spring 1995, just because writing HTML was damn cool, new and interesting (smiles). I realized that most software problems of my friends were caused by outdated program versions. So I decided to put some up-to-date info about sound and graphic shareware programs online. Since the user feedback ratio of graphic:sound was around 0:100 and music always was my main thing I closed the graphic section some weeks later. The total lack of info about tracking motivated me to do something by my own. Now here we are.

JB: There seem to be some personalities of note… you for instance, and others…known for their online laughs “ehehehe” etc… how did that trend develop, and who are the most interesting tracker-composers you know of?

Maz: That “ehehehe” and “AEHAEhaehe” comes from IRC channels, #trax for instance. My own tracker-heroes are the musicians of the “future crew” because they brought me into the scene with their songs back in 1993. Some other popular tracker crews are KosmicTokyo Dawn RecordsNOiSEmonoForce10, and The Zen of Tracking …

JB: How did you get into using trackers to create your music?

Maz: Back in 1993 when I came from ATARI ST to PC/Soundblaster16 I had to choose between MIDI/OPL3 or a cheap GM-module and those trackers which produced those nifty MODs (the tracker format which started everything). The decision wasn’t hard. To use my own soundsamples as instruments has been a dream since I listened to Depeche Mode’s “Construction Time Again” album (1983). And suddenly this dream come true – for free! Today I use the tracker since I can use it blind and know every function to it’s deepest detail (what I can’t say of MIDI-sequencers at the moment) – an important thing when it comes to doing something creative and to having fun.

JB: What kind of personality uses trackers? Not your 8-5 pm type of person right? or wrong?

Maz: Mainly people who don’t have the money to buy external synths and samplers and don’t like toys like those cheesy WAV-sequencers which don’t allow any of your own influence on the sound. The tracker offers a wide variety of functions combined with good samples. For instance my CD “mazzive injection – no.1 instruments” which contains more than 2600 samples and costs only $23 – the result is hard to distinguish from music made with $xxxx equipment. That’s what the people like. I don’t think that tracking musicians are special type of guys and girls.

JB:Could a tracker be useful to a composer of post-modern neo-classical electronic music?

Maz: Depends (smiles). Tracked songs have their own style, there are several very experimental songs which use the tracker’s functions to its limits and in slick ways. In fact I’m damn sure that working with a tracker produces a special kind of creativity. Possibly the tracker is THE way to create post-modern neo-classical electronic music (laughs).

JB: What do you see as the future of the tracker scene, how do you see it blending with or existing along side of the commercial music and music technology scene, both in a technological sense, and in a social sense?

Maz: The trackers will become more and more powerful, the user interface more user friendly, they will fully integrate MIDI I/O, complex software synthesizers, allow 3rd party plugins (VST or DirectX or …). In fact I think that even nowadays you can’t really distinguish between trackers, softsynths, sequencers (look at AXS or BUZZ, or those modular synths like Native Instruments Generator or Clavia’s Nord Modular or Creamware’s Scope) . It all will crossfade more and more. The result will be combinable “music tools” with different behavior, character and price, made for different target groups. And there will always be nice not-too-expensive tools made by some dedicated private persons or smaller companies. Maybe they won’t call it “tracker” – but who cares about names – the music counts. And there will always be this or that cult product which will cause some sort of a scene.

JB: and where do you see yourself going with

Maz: I will continue with my work of maintaining up-to-date shareware sound tools pages, helping the authors to sell their products, helping the end-users to be informed about hot new toys and with answers to their questions/problems, producing CDs with samples and sounds, maybe software, maybe doing bigger projects together with other authors, maybe distributing 3rd party products. Who knows? I’m flexible – and independent.

JB: Thanks Maz.