The Tracker, an Early 90s Music Tool

Most of this post will be repeat from my post on the Discord, which was recommended to be put here by one Alias.

Now I do want to touch upon a larger music selection and better music in combat, but those already have their own Feedback/Feature Request subforum post.

Rather, what I want to do is recontextualise those ideas with something new, and I find fits a lot of the existing GZ identity given the era it takes place in, and the people the game follows in its story.

What I want to talk about… is the Tracker.

Now, a man by the name of Stewart Brown (who goes by the YT handle of Ahoy) made a fantastic video essay (as he often does) covering the subject of Trackers, their origins, and history to near present day. I’ll leave a link at the bottom for those who want a more visually appealing and well structured understanding of the subject, though I very much hope you’ll watch or listen to it, as the production quality and subject matter are both compelling reasons alone to do so.

With that said, I won’t be retreading much of what he says to save on time, and instead explain why I think Trackers have a place in GZ.

I’ll start with a brief explanation of the Tracker. It’s a form of music software with origins as far back as the Commodore Amiga family of computers, that uses a hexidecimal form of music sheet instead of contemporary music sheets to present data, specifically the note, octave, instrument, commands, and parameters. The man said it best: “Obtuse, inscrutable, but in the right hands, extremely powerful.”

Bear in mind Trackers as they started were not meant for people familiar with music theory or had a degree in music, or even played an instrument. As a matter of fact, most Tracker musicians then and today started as software programmers first, and became musicians later.

With 16-bit systems being limiting especially today, Demoscene culture (a subculture specialising in impressive graphic effects and audiovisual experiences on limited hardware space and capabilities) has repeatedly impressed many with its capacity to do more with less, and quite a few from those communities across the world found their way into the development of music for the mainstream.

The first version of Darude Sandstorm was made on a Tracker, as a notorious example, but more relevant to what I want to talk about is Trackers in mainstream gaming.

The music in Unreal, Unreal Tournament, and Deus Ex (I don’t know if you’ve heard of them… :wink: ) is all Tracker music, and even by today’s standards holds its own for what it does for those games’ respective experiences, despite an unintuitive process of making music.

Considering that the proliferation of Tracker software was high in 1988 and onward, and that all one needed to be a part of it was to obtain a floppy by hand, and own a home computer, I am honestly a little shocked that such culture is mentioned nowhere in GZ, even from a no-name side character in a mission, or piece of lore from a mission or collectable.

I mean, March of 1988, Swedish coder “Il Scuro” of the Defjam 'scene released their own version of the SoundTracker software, SoundTracker III (an improvement on the original software) for the purposes of personal distribution among members of an underground community to develop their own demoscenes and music.

August of 1989, a Swedish duo named Mahoney and Kaktus released NoiseTracker, which was a substantial step up in user friendliness and accessability. It made the process of making, playing, adjusting, and saving music much quicker and easier, and also included room for just over twice as many audio samples. The program quickly became the standard tracker at the time, and it is no surprise as to why.

So why has nobody mainstream heard of this?

I mean. Yeah. It’s underground. But so are we as fighters against FNIX. Even if it’s in a different sense.

So why bring up all of this?

Well, one thing Trackers excel at is producing early synthetic computer music, since, well, they were there. And even today Trackers are used to make impressive performances, as the music is produced live while a program generates it, as opposed to a pre-burnt playback on disc, or recording on the internet. And their capacity for synth is something I think GZ needs sorely.

Now onto the meat and potatoes. GZ was first released October 18, 2018, which makes it three years and an odd month old, and throughout most of that time I haven’t seen an update to the in-game music development.

The main title screen theme, and overall theme of GZ, you know it, you love it, but it’s old enough that it needs to evolve beyond just a title theme. It needs to become a leitmotif, a music signature that you can recognise in most of the game’s tracks.

You might not have heard the word before, but you know the sound of a leitmotif if you’ve ever heard your favorite hero’s theme in a Marvel film.

But moreover, GZ needs to improve the quantity and quality of the music we hear on a regular basis. Am I saying GZ’s music is bad? Not in a mean way. I don’t hate it, that’s unfair.

I love this game, and it’s a crime to be unconstructive by saying the music is bad and leaving it at that. It’s not. But it is lacking in recognition, because most of it is nearly identical across the combat tracks and tension tracks, or not all of the “distinctly named” or numbered tracks get a chance to play, or it could all be merged into a single super track and portioned as necessary.

But music in a game that depends heavy on combat, and the anticipation of combat needs to be more than just repetition that’s easily looped for the sake of combat done at the player’s pace. Combat and tension music is supposed to make you feel something, blood-pumping adrenaline and a surging in your heart and muscles for the former, and tense tendon drawing in your legs, a cold sweat, and hair sticking on end for the latter.

At first I felt that, when I got in. But the similarity between tracks quickly wore out their welcome since none of them incorporate the game’s most distinct theme into themselves, with the only shared traits between them would be the percussion and some light synth. It got to a point where I wished we had a heavily modified series of tracks based on the radio and boombox lures that would replace standard combat music once the shooting starts.

Like, sure, you throw down the lure, hide, it plays, and a machine comes by to check it out before getting bored once the lure wears off. The game’s music stops to play the lures’ songs, so there’s no dissonance or crowding of noise to make it unbearable.

So what would happen if instead of shooting, and then you hear the same track you confused for the other eleven (or is this one of the other eleven? Who knows), you instead BLAST into a compelling jam made from parts of the lure’s siren call, like any number of film scenes that regardless of song choice choose to drop (sometimes literally) into the scene itself to empower someone, like the music drives their very actions or gives their body energy to move in one way or another, making the visual presentation more engaging to watch, and almost makes you want to move.

That’s what music in a game should do. It should make you move, every mag slam and ka-chunk of a bolt, every dash and jump and round fired and sledge hammer swung a beat to a song that drives the battle itself, setting a tempo and you itself the living beat that beats the metaphorical crap out of every machine in your path.

It’s almost like a dance. Of death. And even if you have two left feet, and the game’s music pace isn’t one you think you can keep up with, you should be moved not because that Tank over there just got a lucky barrage on you and you got downed, but because you got back up as the music swells and gives you that funny feeling in your chest that makes you feel that you can pierce the heavens.

Or, if that sort of can-do attitude in spite of anything and everything isn’t the point of the game’s atmosphere and tone, it should make you feel more like you need to push on, or run, because you can’t stay here and let the machines kill you.

Where was I going with this? Oh. Right.

I think that whatever you want the game’s music tone to be, the game needs more music. More distinctive music that better reflects the game’s tone and themes than it does now.

And what’s more, I think that it could solidify the game’s identity with a Tracker musician, maybe even one close to home, and if you’re lucky, someone who loves the game and its atmosphere. If you find the right person, you would hear the game become more entrenched with FNIX as the sounds of computer synth rise from beneath the ground itself, making all feel impossible…

…until the resistance challenges it to a battle. Musical or not, that should be portrayed in every aspect of the game, visually (got that mostly covered) and musically.

I’ve been Mahazkei, o7

Trackers: The Sound of 16-Bit by Stewart Brown (Ahoy)


While I read some of your post and liked it, I think it is too long, try making it a bit shorter or add a TLDR

I’ve always thought the music and sound in this game are one of the strong points !

I can’t really do that. No idea how, sadly.

I’m a big fan of trackers and of the music (“mods” as the music format was called), listened to a lot of the music and played around with them myself quite a lot (Soundtracker, Noisetracker, Protracker etc.), both on the Atari ST and on the Amiga.
I loved the demoscene (still do) on all formats (C64, Amiga, PC etc.)

While it may be unknown to the “mainstream” these days, I’m pretty sure many in the gaming industry knows full well about this era.

Edit: Thanks for a great link on the subject!

I think, that if there should be more music in GZ it should not be 1990s trackers. Although the game is set in 1989, I’m really doubtful tracker music will benefit the feel of the game. On the contrary, using 16 bit music in a 21th century game like GZ feels like using pixel-art for its graphics to me.