Something that informed me about my mindset when I use trackers - since I’ve used them since forever and didn’t have a handle on relatively where I am with respect to other musicians - was a collaboration I did for a game jam with a friend who comes from more of a rock guitar and keys background. We were working in Famitracker, not Renoise, but the writing workflow ended up being a kind of blend of things:
- My friend came up with some of the core harmonic and melodic structures
- I filled in detailed arrangements, added the effects and programmed the instruments
- Where we got stuck, I had brought my trusty Casio SA-46 and we both jammed parts over it: “we could do something like this”. At the start my friend was concerned about the percussion parts since he wanted to use a Latin rhythm but wasn’t super familiar with them, and I was like, “we could just recreate one of the preset rhythms on the Casio”. We didn’t end up doing that, but a toy keyboard, I’ve found, is a morale booster as well as a tool.
But the real differences in our approach came out in the details. I tend to rush towards brute forcing the harmonic structure and piling on polyphony as an extension of rhythm, a way of directing energy and building dynamics, so I would step through row by row slowly, picking away at the note data, which my friend got annoyed by: “play it from the start of the pattern”, he would say repeatedly. He was way more calculated about this aspect.
And then there was a moment where he got up for a restroom break and I was like “oh, I could put in this delay-fx part that sounds like something out of Mega Man” so by the time he came back I had an entirely new pattern in that ignored whatever his intended structure had been - surprise! He got excited and changed around the pattern ordering to make it less jarring, and then later figured out a part for the triangle oscillator - like, we switched roles just on that pattern and he was doing the arrangement tasks. And then in the evening I got back home and was like, “I’ll do a quick rework of the whole track to have a title theme”. The end result, plus SFX and vocals, can be heard in this demo video: https://youtu.be/fSnYfmH6Tl0
And I think that experience really set me on the road towards respecting the song structure a little more, because it felt like stone soup: the starting point was theoretically solid and grounded in functional harmony but grated my ears, and then it got better from there as we went back and forth, pulling it in different directions and adding the bits that broke more rules.
The tracker is a place that’s pretty agnostic to the notes being played - automation and timbrality is presented on an equal footing with note data, and the notes may not convey anything meaningful if they are used to trigger a loop - and so I now see it as a kind of space where you can “add the magic” that makes the music sound deliberately crafted in the small. At the entry level it’s a fancy drum machine, and then it gets more elaborate from there as you start programming in a more articulated, polished sound.