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

  • Tim Bedard

    Trackers are my favorite style of sequencing interface and Renoise is the best of them by far. I’ve been using Renoise for nearly a decade, and I don’t plan on switching away from it any time soon.

  • Gnüzel Püzel

    Ahhh Player Pro… brings back nice memories 🙂 Crazy how fast things have evolved since… I remember how entousiastic I was back then, telling my buddies that all that was needed to make fun electro tracks was a mac and some free downloaded sample packs, and how they laughed at me saying nothing’s worth an emu sampler… they were equally sceptical when i was showing them those early Vsts in cubase a few years later… feels good to know i’ve been ahead of my time at least once on my life 😊 Missing the amazing Carracho audio community ever since….

  • Jm Jones

    Wow, Im amazed because I started doing music in the 00s, but with Renoise, and its cool that 2 of my favourite musicians use trackers, John Frusciante electronic musics is made with Renoise, and now this! a video of my favourite Aphex song made with a tracker!!!

  • beatsystem

    Thanks for posting this, fascinating stuff, however your intro definition of “white label” is completely wrong.

    Yes some folks did cover their labels to hide the identity of their tracks back in the day, but those were never called “white labels”. Have you ever tried to rip a record label off? Good luck with that.

    White labels were, and still are simply test pressings or unlabeled copies from a pressing plant, usually for promotional purposes, and very occassionally were used to allow a producer or artist to hide their identity.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      And in fact, quite a few “white labels” were still stamped or hand-written with track name + artist, even before they got to the recipient.

    • DJ Malala

      yeah, what i thought too when i read it. i had read that some djs used some soap and water to losen the label glue, but that covering the labels was more common to hide tracks.

      i’d have expected the writer to know his history on this.

  • I came to Renoise a few years ago from Ableton and have really come to appreciate the workflow of it. Once you grok some basic tools, you can work SO QUICKLY and really get songs done faster than I’ve experienced in any other DAW.

    Of course the learning curve is significant, but it’s rewarding, too. I have learned a lot of the basics of synthesis that I never got in Ableton — I went from flitting between free VST instruments to actually building my own virtual synths and digging into the fundamental tools that electronic musicians have been using all this time — oscillators, LFOs, filters, samples, etc.

    Additionally, I love the fact that the user community is so friendly and active. There are a lot of free, community-sourced sound modules and extensions that people make and share. I’ve been able to download a free bank of EVERY DRUM MACHINE EVER MADE in Renoise instrument format, so I can dial up vintage gear by name (which, to me, is the holy grail).

    I wish it had better time stretching, beat mapping, pitch shifting — the really fun stuff from Ableton. However, the fact that it’s like $500 cheaper than Ableton helps a lot.

    I just imagine Renoise as a more-visual version of an MPC or a Roland GrooveBox, and remind myself that all the music I grew up listening to was created on simpler tools than that! It puts it into perspective that you don’t need the biggest, most expensive DAW to make great music.

  • Philip Kaulfuss

    White labels didn’t originate from DJs peeling their record’s labels off – they usually covered them up if they wanted to keep their secret weapons secret.
    Plain white labels were usually used for test pressings and promo copies of records. This eventually became common practice with bootlegs and unofficial/unsigned releases in the dance music underground. They were cheaper to make and bootleggers usually wanted to remain anonymous. “White label” became the umbrella term for these sort of records.

    • FS

      exactly. and a very common practice in the hip-hop world was if a record was made with a sample that couldn’t be cleared it would often be released as a white label and if legal issues arose the artist could just say the track got leaked and bootlegged.

  • jsd

    The term “white label” has nothing to do with ripping off the existing label to reveal the white residue. All DJs I know would put masking tape over the label if they wanted to hide the name of the record.

    White labels are just records that don’t have custom labels. Test pressings, short runs, etc. They are real labels but just plain white, often stamped with the label catalog number.

  • Tekknovator

    I always thought whitelabels where the tons of vinyl labels used to send to our doors for promo. White label, white sleve, just a bit of marker or stylo with the title or the release number. Usually we used the rest of the space to mark them with BPM (in case it was not already on there from the label…)

  • TeamOth

    Just want to let people know about Sunvox (those that don’t already know). It’s a fantastic tracker that is truly multi-platform. It’s free on Windows/Mac/Linux, cheap on iOS and Android. I’m not familiar with Renoise, so can’t make a comparison, but I really rate Sunvox.

    • Eisenhower303

      Sunvox is really great. I like that it has it’s own synths, unlike many other trackers

  • Jm Jones

    somebody knows if PlayerPro uses some other sequencers besides the main tracker interface? because in the aphex video in the left corner I can see something like a weird piano roll

    • Eisenhower303

      yeah there is also a piano-roll type editor, a music notation editor, and a wave editor.

  • Chris Busch

    Very cool, but why all the zooming and editing? Quite annoying.

  • Dubby Labby

    Trackers so good memories… that I don’t want to remember as workflow.
    Let me live with Blocswave and Launchpad apps and get all the trackers for you @Peter!
    😉

  • xonox

    I got midi equipment first but then discovered back in the days Impulse Tracker. The interface seemed a bit crude but it was really powerful. I use Schism Tracker nowadays. It’s a modern remake of Impulse Tracker and works so well.

    It might be upsetting for some people because it has no effects but there’s so many tricks and things you can do. I probably feel the same way towards this software that some feel towards an MPC 3000 for example. Sunvox also looks really cool but i did not spend enough time with it. Same for Renoise which is incredibly powerful but i didn’t spend enough time with it either.

    Sidenote : before netlabels were a thing, there were modgroups. Lots of good music was made with limited means.

  • Andrei

    I just realized that my most favorite music was made in trackers… wow…

  • My first album (circa 2002) is 95% Impulse Tracker. Yes, for DOS. I still have all .IT files to prove it.
    https://geradorzero.bandcamp.com/album/gerador-zero-boomboxes

  • Stéphane Picher

    And also, that thing about the white labels…

  • Dank Phaser

    How is this a “90’s classic” when it was released in late 2001?

    • Mafgar

      he prolly wrote it in the 90s tho

  • djhokey

    I remember geeking out to Jeskola Buzz back in the early 2000s

    • Tekknovator

      That was the one software that made me neglect my Grooveboxes in 98 or so. Still love it, but these days I am concentrating on HALion 6 as main weapon of choice. Buzz is under development though, after a few open source reverse engineering based clones such as the amazing Buzé Oskari Tamelin has revived the Project. He has implemented great features such as Generator/Effectmodule drag and drop download on demand from Buzzmachines.com etc. It lives.

  • Daniel

    One of my favorite mod songs from the Amiga era:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGpqAiPbpyg

  • The “something that flipped” was the WATMM community funding the ripping and reselling tracks of a limited test pressing (which could be called a white label it was for sale in stores as many have pointed out) of Caustic Window LP that went up for sale on Discogs where 1/3 to a charity, the rest went to RDJ and maybe Refelx? http://www.factmag.com/2014/04/08/an-alleged-test-pressing-of-aphex-twins-unreleased-caustic-window-album-is-on-discogs/ Anyway, this showed RDJ that many people were still very passionate about his music. This triggered either him to reach out to Warp or the other way around and thus Syro and everything after started coming out.

  • Foosnark

    I tried to get into trackers but I just find it too slow and obtuse. Serious respect to those who make amazing music with them though!

    • xonox

      Props to you for having tried trackers. They can be intimidating! I think it’s a question of what is your preferred way of working. I never could find something faster than Impulse Tracker / Schism tracker in my case. It’s a matter of tastes 🙂

  • Did we use trackers? Hell… a special love has to go to Protracker 2.3D . I’m very glad it has very good Windows clone 🙂

  • Aki Kivirinta

    Hah. Used Protracker 2.3a on Amiga around 1993-1997 and then Jeskola Buzz on PC. I still have those tracks on my computer.

  • sublunar

    Those tracker interfaces look like an instant migraine. If anyone can work in that environment and be inspired more power to them. If I’m ever unemployed for a week or more then maybe I’ll try downloading Renoise and living in the basement until I can bend it to my will. Maybe..

    • Eisenhower303

      It’s not that confusing. It’s basically a piano roll that goes vertical and shows the note start/off.

  • Great to have a thread discussing trackers! I was very much embedded within ScreamTracker 3 during the mid 90s and made a lot of music with it in a pretty short period. For some reason I’ve never managed to get to the same productivity with more modern machines and tools, and yet when I dig out a tracker these days I can’t get into the flow.

    Also loved the idea of Jeskola Buzz for a while but never really managed to make tracks with it.

    Looking at releasing some of my tracker tunes this year for fun, and would love to hear other tracker-produced work – get your archaeology on!

  • Joe M

    Talking about trackers is really bringing me back… I started out in the 90’s on various DOS trackers like ST3 and FT2, and even started a little record label that pretty much exclusively released music made on trackers. Had a lot of fun doing shows with trackers, doing a bit of live tracking and/or remixing tracks on the spot. We couldn’t afford laptops then, so me and some friends would lug desktops and CRT monitors to perform on…… Ah, good times, good memories! (though I don’t want to do that again!)

  • Able_

    SunVox is a very good tracker, it also comes for iOS for couple of dollars and all other platforms for free. You will also spend few hours to learn it, but I found it to be more fun to learn then Renoise.

  • AntoxaGray

    Ha! I always wanted to learn tracker. Now I have a a little more motivation. Maybe some day Reaktor too.