A Profile of SoundTracker

The following article is based on a chapter in the author's Linux Music and Sound, published by No Starch Press in October 2000.

SoundTracker is the most feature-packed of all the trackers I've used with Linux. Its interface presents all the program's tools on a single screen, making it easy to understand and a pleasure to use. As you will see, tracking with SoundTracker is a simple process and great fun.

Getting It, Building It

SoundTracker is available in full source code, as well as RPM and tarball binaries. Update patches are also available to apply against previous version source trees. The following instructions detail building SoundTracker from the full source package.

Before building the program, study the Requirements page on the SoundTracker web site and verify that you have all the necessary libraries and development tools. SoundTracker runs in the X Window System, so most of what you will need should be included with any mainstream Linux distribution. However, if you're running an older Linux distribution, you may need to acquire the most recent GNOME and GTK packages to build and utilize all of SoundTracker's features. Visit the the project web sites at http://www.gnome.org/ and http://www.gtk.org/ to pick up the latest packages. You should also install Michael Pruett's libaudiofile, available at http://www.68k.org/~michael/audiofile/. SoundTracker's installation documentation also specifies what you need to build the program, so be sure to read the INSTALL and README files for the latest instruction updates.

After you have downloaded SoundTracker and acquired the necessary support software, you're ready to begin building SoundTracker. Type ./configure -help for a list of options you can select to customize the build process, then run ./configure (with your selected options) to create the makefiles needed to compile SoundTracker. If no errors were reported by the configuration procedure, you can then type make and watch the compilation take place. If no errors were reported by the make process, become the superuser by typing su root and entering your root password, then type make install. The tracker is now ready to use; you can start it by simply typing soundtracker in an xterm window.

Some Preliminary Instructions

As of version 0.5.5, the documentation for SoundTracker consists of a single README file, but little more is needed. Trackers all follow a similar design, and the reference materials found on the United Trackers and MODPlug Central sites will help you understand the basic use of almost any tracker.

If you have never used a tracker, you might want to pick up some mods to load and play in SoundTracker. The resource listings at United Trackers and MODPlug Central will guide you to some superb mod collections. Pick some in either MOD or XM format, load them into SoundTracker, then listen, study and learn.

All sounds used in mods are sampled sounds, so you'll want to build a collection of samples that meets your compositional needs. You can rip samples from existing modules, or you can gather sounds from the various sample collection sites listed on the United Trackers and MODPlug Central web pages. SoundTracker can load any audio file type supported by libaudiofile, so you can freely mix WAV, AIFF and AU files in the same module.

SoundTracker uses only monaural samples. If you try to load a stereo sample, the program politely informs you of that fact, then gives you the option of loading either the left or right channel or a mix of the two.

Spend some time preparing your samples. Tuning and looping are basic considerations, and SoundTracker supports extensive editing of a sample's volume and panning. Although a sample editor is included in the program, you may want a more powerful sound file editor such as MiXViews, Snd or DAP for finer editing. These dedicated editors provide greater resolution, more effects processing and file conversion routines not available in the editors included with trackers.

You may find it helpful to load a number of samples into instrument locations before beginning the tracking process. SoundTracker provides 128 locations for your samples, so you can load large libraries of sounds, then scroll through the Instr number box (just above the Module Info tab) to quickly find the sound you want. You can easily test any selected sound by pressing one of the “pitched” computer keyboard keys (see below for more details).

Using SoundTracker

Figure 1. SoundTracker's Tracker Display

Figure 1 shows the basic track display from SoundTracker. I'll discuss how the data got there in a moment, but for now you only need to know that each of the six columns represents a track (also called a channel), and each of the four rows represents a beat.

Here is the breakdown of the rows in the first track in Figure 1:

Beat    Pitch   Instrument      Volume  Effect command  Effect parameters000      C-6       01             --         --                 --001      --        --             --         --                 --002      D-6       02             --         --                 --003      --        --             --         --                 --

We see that Instrument #01 (a bass drum sample) plays on the first beat with a pitch of C6, the default value for volume, and with no command information for effects processing. Instrument #02 (a snare drum sample) is played on the third beat with a pitch of D6. If we pressed the Play Pattern button, we would see the track display repeatedly scroll the columns past the rectangular cursor, and we would hear a continuously looping pattern of four beats with bass and snare drums on beats one and three.

Instrument samples are played at the indicated pitches, and the instrument numbers may be changed within the channel. Values can carry or ramp from beat to beat. The effect command and effect parameter values define the type of effect and its intensity, and effects can be dynamically controlled beyond the first instance of a sound. Note that defining varying pitches for your percussion instruments gives a more realistic sound to drum tracks.

Taken all together, the events in Figure 1 make up a single track in a pattern. Each pattern can be up to 64 beats long and can contain up to 32 tracks. Tracks and patterns can be cut, copied and pasted. By default, all tracks are set to play together. Left click on a track's oscilloscope to toggle the track's mute status, right click the scope to solo the track.

As shown in Figure 1 (SoundTracker's default display mode), the program's global organizing controls are at the top left, a bank of oscilloscopes sits at top right, and the file manager, tracking display, instrument editor and other tools are organized in a tabbed block in the bottom half of the screen. We have seen what a track looks like, now let's find out how to create one of our own.