You are here


Vic Lennard looks at a tracker program with a difference — and gets a sneak preview of a GM sound module in a Falcon...

In October's Atari Notes, I looked at TrakCom, a Falcon program that tries to be more than just a tracker. On reading back my copy, it suddenly dawned on me that those of you who rarely venture outside of a MIDI sequencer on an Atari computer have probably never seen a tracker! And if it wasn't for the fact that I'm editor of an Atari magazine, that would probably include me. However, there is more to music than £1000 synths and a decent sequencing package — and you don't need bags of talent to create a half‑decent tune.

'Tracker' is simply a non‑fancy name for a sample playback system, and for once, where music is concerned, Atari computers are not responsible for the creation of these systems — hardly surprising, bearing in mind the Atari's awful sound generation circuitry! No, trackers originated on the Amiga — which was perfect with its 4‑voice sample player — and led to the appearance of thousands of .MOD files, each of which is a combination of sequencing data and sound samples. Unfortunately, the quality of MOD editing software on the ST has matched the dire sound quality... until now.

Stormin' In

Courtesy of David Oakley of ASTRAsoft, the ST and its chums finally have a decent program for creating .MOD files and playing them back. StormTracker is a sub‑£25 product that not only looks good on your screen but is eminently easy to use. In fact, it's aimed at musicians because data can be input on‑screen in terms of musical notes, and the whole shebang is pattern‑based, much like a MIDI sequencer. Any ST computer can be used — even the Falcon and TT — subject to a minimum memory requirement of 1Mb.

For starters, there's a decent GEM interface. The main screen consists of the pattern and effects control windows, a horizontal 'menu' with simple icons, and a large song creation area. This sports two clefs (treble and bass), an effect line at the top, and a drum line at the bottom.

If any of you have ever tried to work with a .MOD creator before, you'll be forgiven for being highly cynical when I state that StormTracker is an absolute doddle to use: select one of the four voices, choose a sound sample and enter a note on the stave by left‑clicking. Sharps and flats are accessed through a double‑click, and a right click deletes an entry.

StormTracker is no slouch when it comes to effects either, especially for those of you who are well‑versed in analogue synths. Amplitude effects include sliding from one value to another and setting a vibrato depth — or both together. Similar effects are available for pitch, and there's even a dedicated section for arpeggio, vibrato and tremolo, each effect being shown by a different symbol above the staves. If you consider the power of that lot put together, you certainly start to lose any misconceptions you might have had of trackers!

Sound Charmer

As a straightforward sample replay system, StormTracker has much to offer. The fact that it incorporates a built‑in sample editor is a definite bonus! Various different types of sample can be imported, including .AVR and .WAV formats. The only real restriction is the file size of 64K, although tracker programs tend to use short samples and rely on the user's ears to find a good looping point.

Facilities include the ability to change the frequency and set the loop point. Basic stuff, admittedly, but the programmer has ensured that you can mess around with the loop point in real time — and the alternative to such an editor would be to rely solely on your ears for looping. Also included is a playback spectrum analyser (possibly more for its looks than usefulness), and keyboard equivalents for almost all functions.

Does StormTracker have much to offer musicians? Most certainly. A program like this lets you work in a friendly, pattern‑based manner, including cut, copy and paste functions, and also lets you get the most from your particular computer. For instance, the Falcon's 50kHz sample replay rate is catered for, as is its 16‑bit quality. Three on‑line Help files (MIDI sequencer manufacturers please take note) and a decent 100‑page manual are all included in the £24.95 package. At this point, perhaps I should be asking the question "why do MIDI sequencers cost so much?"

Flowing Falcon

Just think about a standard Falcon's technical side for a moment: a 60 or 80Mb hard disk, 68030 processor, Digital Signal Processor (DSP) chip, 4Mb of RAM, MIDI connections and stereo digital to audio converters. Isn't that the basic technical specification for a decent sound module? In fact, it's way beyond most units, so why hasn't someone thought of a way of converting the Falcon into a GM module? They have...

System Solutions and Martin Griffiths have been working together on just such a project. Currently codenamed The Digital Sound Module or TDSM for short (a name that is guaranteed to change, I hasten to add), the program offers an on‑screen front end for the basic 128 General MIDI sounds, which are stored on hard disk and accessed as required.

TDSM adheres to the GM minimum standard of 16 dynamically allocatable voices and eight percussion voices, and currently uses 16‑bit mono samples recorded at 50kHz. My beta test version consisted of 18Mb of sample data, but the final intention is to supply TDSM on six High‑Density disks.

Martin is a programmer of some repute, having been responsible for ProTracker and the Falcon's MPEGPlay software. Consequently, it isn't surprising that some clever code has been employed — such as using the Falcon's in‑built 8‑channel DMA sound chip to handle the drums, which reduces the percussion load on the main processor to zero. This leaves the 68030 to deal with the general program, and the DSP to handle panning, pitch‑shifting, volume level, smoothing and mixing, before allowing notes to emerge into the big wide world beyond the grey case.

The synthesis side is still being finalised, but Martin will probably use a linear interpolation method to improve basic audio quality. All voices will have custom ADSR envelopes, and there should be no clicks on note release, courtesy of a very fast ramp down. If the 16‑voice limit is exceeded, there's a clever algorithm for deciding which voice to steal.

TDSM can accept input from a MIDI keyboard or play MIDI File formats 0 and 1 — and very well too. While the current test sound set is a little rough in places, the multi‑sampled standard acoustic piano is very good, and this bodes well for the final product. Each MIDI channel will have a filter set, much like the input filters on a MIDI sequencer, and sounds can be remapped to program change numbers for non‑GM uses. The price will be somewhere around £60 which, frankly, is quite incredible. I'll keep you posted on this rather unique product.


Finally, I'm going to take the liberty of mentioning Atari ST Review, of which I am editor. For most of 1994, gamesplayers have been awaiting the arrival of Obsession, a pinball game from Sweden. The Xmas issue of ST Review has an exclusive, one‑table version of Obsession on one of the cover disks, but why the plug? Because the music is quite unbelievable! Written with Octalyser, another tracker‑style program, there's four channels of music and an additional channel of sound effects. The sum result is something very special — and totally addictive. If you own an STe with 1Mb of memory or a Falcon, then check out your local WSmith...

Prices & Contacts

StormTracker £24.95.

TDSM £ to be announced.