Welcome back to another installment of “Straight Out of No Cash”. Despite repeated delays, death threats, acts of God, ElectroPlankton, and a laptop catching on fire, I’m finally back to give more bargain basement tips, tricks, and goodies for the Windows-centric set.

It used to be the case only 5 years ago that one had to spend money, sometimes several hundred for even the most basic DAW software. In recent years however, there has been such a large explosion in the amount of Windows freeware that it’s now gotten to the point where it’s possible to get a pretty good plug-in host sequencer without spending a single red cent. In this week’s article, I will examine four kick-ass free sequencer/plug-in hosts for Windows. Two free trackers, and then two free-while-in-beta sequencers.

Trackers (see Wikipedia, CDM) have had a long and venerable history in computer music, going all the way back to the 8-Bit era of Amiga and Atari. By far the simplest form of computer sequencer, to most modern musicians they look rather strange and alien. Despite the shift towards piano roll multi-track sequencers, many musicians to this day swear by the tracker method for its workflow and low performance overhead. Although not terribly difficult to learn, it often helps if one has a programming background, as a tracker file can look very much like a set of programming instructions. Tunestore.de has a great section for the beginning tracker, as it gives some basic concepts about what tracking is and how one can write music in such an environment.

Today’s trackers take the old tracker paradigm, and add modern features such as VST plug-in support, audio track recording, automation, and modular patching. Both Psycle and Skale Tracker are modern tracker style plug-in host sequencers with the full range of features, active development, and vibrant communities available for help and advice.

Psycle is similar in style to an older tracker program, Buzz but with integrated handling of VST-plugins (no wrappers), better handling of audio files, and active development so that when bugs do occur there is an actual chance of them being dealt with. Aside from that, they’re pretty similar in that they are modular, have a wide range of third-party native modules, machines, and plug-ins, and a fairly active user community that can be relied upon for help. The major downside is that because it’s both a tracker as well as a modular host, Psycle can be rather daunting for someone new to computer music. Be prepared to spend several days getting one’s head around many new concepts in the working environment. Also, the handling of VST plugins can be a bit wonky at times, so be prepared for the occasional bug or crash when using third party plugs. Check out the Psycle wiki for the current list of problematic VST plugins.

Skale (http://www.kvraudio.com/get/302.html) I would consider to be similar in style to that of FLStudio (“Fruity Loops”), only with a tracker sequencing interface. Like FL, it has a pleasant user-friendly look, pattern-based playlists, inclusion of an integrated sample editor, and can not only host VST plug-ins but be hosted as a plug-in in another host should the user want to take a track to a different environment. Skale’s sampler supports Soundfont, Akai S5000/6000, and Gigastudio formats which is rather nice for a free tool. Skale also comes with its own visualizer and set of games as a quick diversion

  • c64

    A worthy mention in the tracker field would be Renoise. While the demo is fully funtional the only limit is rendering the song to .wav and asio support. Pay 49,- to get that and you are set.

  • Adrian Anders

    If I was doing coverage on just straight up trackers both payware and freeware, Renoise would most def be on the top of the list (along with Aodix).

    Thanks for bringing it up.

    By the by, check this venetian snares video featuring their work in Renoise:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGK-EzEa45U&se

    It's enough to make even a hardcore piano-roller like me want to dial up a tracker once in awhile.

  • Mies van der Robot

    Mac users are actually exceptionally spoiled for audio routing, since we not only have JackOSX, but also Cycling 74 Soundflower

    Anyway, not only is REAPER venturing into this arena, there's also a Windows port of Jack underway. I'd always wondered why there wasn't one, at least for the Windows variants based on the NT architecture, since they're supposedly POSIX-compliant. Anyway, according to the Jack homepage:

    Stephane Letz at GRAME, of JackOSX and jackdmp (multi-processor jackd) fame, has been working on a Windows port of JACK (specifically, jackdmp), and reports early initial success. We apparently need a new ASIO backend, and there is much other work to be done, but the basics appear to work satisfactorily. The original author of JACK is preparing to eat hats, crow and his own left foot as payment for all the times he said it could not be done. Watch this space for more information as it happens.

    So there's something else to look forward to.

  • Cam

    Don't forget that buzz is still around, and while the scene isn't as strong as it used to be, there are still new developments coming along! http://www.buzzmachines.com

    Its the original modular tracker, which in short means its great until you want to record some audio. Then it really really sucks.

  • http://www.absurdmusic.com gurdonark

    Thanks for writing this update on the world of freeware trackers. Finding the "perfect" freeware VST host has proven a quest almost as fascinating but more frustrating than finding a grail.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Renoise is fantastic. Maybe one for Straight out of Slightly More Than No Cash, Adrian? ;)

    Cycling's Soundflower is great, but I think once there's a friendlier GUI for JACK, there will be little use for it, as JACK does much more of what people might like to do.

    And yes, I'm *eagerly* awaiting a Windows version of JACK. I didn't know if those folks wanted us to talk about it yet. ;) Rest assured, when there's a release that they want us to test, I'll have it up here on CDM.

  • Adrian Anders

    As for not covering ReNoise, the main reason I didn't go over it (aside from the whole "freeware" angle of the piece) was that I didn't want to give a proper review of the software without a full copy of it.

    Review copies are always accepted by myself (and I assume Peter as well) if developers want their products featured in a future CDM article. I of course plan on doing coverage once I've gotten a chance to play with all the features on FireBird, EnergyXT, and Drumular, all of which I've aquired in the past few weeks with my own money and effort.

    It's a question of doing a program justice. Can someone do justice to a program when reviewing a demo copy? Sometimes, but as a general rule I personally avoid doing it.

    ATA

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  • http://www.renoise.com paul

    Adrian,

    if you would really like to write a review of Renoise feel free to get in touch with us (renoise dev team). NFR Licenses / copies of Renoise are available to the press at any time.

    By the way, there are only 2 additional features for the registered users which (ASIO + WAV Rendering). I feel kinda sorry that our message "use it for free, pay whenever you start doing serious work with it" did not come through :(

    Anyway, nice article!

    Cheers!

    pulsar

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  • Blomberg

    What happened to the rest of this article?

    The article says:

    "In this week’s article, I will examine four kick-ass free sequencer/plug-in hosts for Windows. Two free trackers, and then two free-while-in-beta sequencers."

    ..yet for me it ends sort of mid-sentence after mentioning the Psycle and Skale trackers. What I'm really interested in, though, are the sequencers :/

  • Jordan Clarfield

    What about Impulse Tracker? MAN that thing was complicated but fun!!! And getting samples off the 'downoads' section of aol 6.7? Oh yeah, old school..

  • http://vixus.spheredev.org Vixus

    I too am quite interested in knowing where the rest of the article is. After using LMMS on Linux I wanted a piano-roll sequencer/workstation for Windows that I could use all my VSTs with. I can't find anything that matches LMMS features for free.

  • Robomaster

    I would highly recommend Mixcraft. While it costs $65, it is by far the best DAW out there. Try the demo!

  • pixotika

    Vst host is the best free host out. I think PSYCLE is a great tracker, I have used them all even fl studio 9. It's PSYCLE for me. It rocks.