Percussa micro super signal processor

Aphex Twin’s “Vordhosbn” just got a surprising video reveal, showing how the track was made. So let’s revisit trackers and 90s underground music culture.

You’re probably familiar with the term “white label,” but where did that term originate?”? Back in the early days of DJing, DJs were very territorial about their crate digging. Sometimes, in order to avoid rival DJs looking at their decks to ID their selections (this is way before the days of Shazam, remember), DJs would rip off the labels of a particularly rare record, leaving the white label residue with no identifying information.

Similarly, the 90s were an interesting time for music production. With the advent of computer sequencers, music became more complex – and in the wild west days before YouTube tutorials, concert phone vids, and everyone using Ableton Live, there was legitimate mystery behind how some of the most complex electronic music was made. Max? SuperCollider? Some homebrew software unavailable to the plebs?

If mystery in electronic music production was a game in the 90s, then Richard D. James was its undisputed winner. As Aphex Twin and a host of other pseudonyms, he created mind-bending sequences. As an interview subject, he was equal parts prankster and cagey. Sure, there was an idea of what the IDM greats were up to – Autechre and Plaid used Max, Squarepusher used Reaktor, Aphex used…something? The mystery has always been part of James’ appeal – here is a man who has claimed to sleep only four hours a night, or to have built or heavily modified all of his hardware, or to be sitting on hundreds if not thousands of unreleased tracks, among other tall tales.

Around 2014, something flipped with Richard D. James. After releasing Syro, his first album in 13 years as Aphex Twin, he unleashed the floodgates with a massive hard drive dump onto SoundCloud – seems he wasn’t lying about all those tracks after all. Following up with this, today you can see the debut of a custom Bleep store for Aphex Twin, including loads of unreleased bonus tracks to go with his albums.

Of most interest to the nerds, however, has got to be this seemingly innocuous video, in which we get a trollingly-effected screencast video of Drukqs track “Vordhosbn”, playing out in the vintage tracker PlayerPro. James had previously identified PlayerPro as his main environment for making Drukqs – now we have video of it in action:

So, there we have it. A classic Aphex Twin track with the curtain drawn up. What can we learn from this video? A few things:

  • PlayerPro’s tracks were all monophonic, so the chords in “Vordhosbn” had to be made using multiple tracks
  • As expected with a tracker, it’s largely built from samples – likely from James’ substantial hardware collection
  • Hey, those oscilloscopes and spectral displays are fun

Perhaps what’s best about this video is that it shows an Aphex classic for what it is – a track, composed in much the same way as any other electronic musician might do it. It doesn’t detract from the special qualities of Aphex’s music, but it does show us what was really going on behind all the mystery – music-making.

Keep Track of It

It’s worth spending a moment to celebrate trackers. Long before the days of piano rolls, trackers were the best way to make intricate sequences using a computer. YouTube is riddled with classic jungle tracks from the mid-90s using software like OctaMed:

For a dedicated community, trackers are still the way to go. And there’s no better tracker around now than Renoise – whose developers have done a fantastic job bringing the tracker workflow into the 21st century. Check out this video of Venetian Snares’ “Vache” done in Renoise:

Like most trackers, Renoise has something of a steep learning curve to get all the key commands right; once you’re there, however, you’ll find it to be a very nimble environment for wild micro-edits and crazy sequences. There’s definitely a reason why it remains a tool of choice for breakcore producers!

Do you use a tracker? What do you think of the workflow? What’s the best way for someone to get started with a tracker? Let us know in the comments!

Ed.: PlayerPro is available as free software for Mac, Windows, Linux … and yes, even FreeBSD.

https://sourceforge.net/projects/playerpro/

Returning CDM contributor David Abravanel is a marketer, musician, and technologist living in New York. He loves that shiny digital crunch. Follow him at http://dhla.me