Soundtrackers – The Secret Sauce Behind Aphex Twin, IDM and Glitch Music
Anyone using a DAW nowadays should be familiar with MIDI instruments and the Piano Roll (#blessed). Before the Piano Roll became a staple in music production, explorers in electronic music relied on step-sequencers of all types. The earliest analog step-sequencers were used in player pianos which were fed rolls of paper with holes punched into it to tell a piano which notes to play, hence the ‘Piano Roll’. Software step-sequencers were developed for and have been used in computer music since the 1950’s, allowing for composition, playback, and sound synthesis. In the 1980’s we saw the invention of Soundtrackers which were some of the first software step-sequencers to allow for complex music production.
In [all] soundtrackers the idea is you can easily arrange/edit your sounds and effects step-by-step whereas in traditional DAWs you must arrange music on a horizontal timeline. Musical phrases are arranged on grids which make up a Pattern, and a series of Patterns make a song. Composers can create complex polyrhythms, automate effects on-tempo, and can specify the number of steps in a pattern to easily arrange in odd time meters. DAWs like Ableton Live and FL Studio offer similar workflows, where using a predefined grid makes it easy to quickly swap out and add different sounds/effects to your arrangement.
Soundtrackers are advanced versions of step-sequencers, so in addition to simply choosing notes to be played in succession on one instrument, you could assign and automate effects independently on multiple tracks at the same time. As processing power grew so did the possibilities with sequencing; more tracks could be added, more effects could be used, and it could all be done faster. As tracking software evolved in the early 1990’s IDM artists like Squarepusher, Venetian Snares, and Aphex Twin emerged utilizing and mastering the software. Seen below is a DAW called Renoise which features a side-by-side soundtracker and sequencer, in addition to effects-chain, sample-editor, and mixer sections.
With his official return to music in 2013, Aphex Twin also released a screencast video of the soundtracker he used to produce the track, “Vordhosbn,” from Druqks. The soundtracker he uses is called PlayerPro, and it looks vaguely similar to modern DAWs’ interfaces – there are pop-up boxes to control effects spread out over the screen; a mixer is pushed to the back center; taking up the majority of space is the step-sequencer, displayed vertically as opposed to horizontally [which is seen in most applications today].
What’s fun about this video, aside from its wholly Aphex Twin vibes, is seeing recognizable features of a DAW used by an artist known for his DIY approach to production and recording. His music has always been shrouded in mystery and applauded for its complexity, seeing his process behind the curtain reveals a method not so different from most electronic musicians.
Soundtrackers have stood the test of time due to their roots in step-sequencing, and stayed relevant by inspiring Glitchhop, Dubstep, Bass, and other new genres that emerge each year. If you want to try out a free soundtracker, have a go with SunVox.