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Something new has begun to sweep the Macintosh free-software scene. Sure, we all enjoy the freeware and shareware programs available from numerous electronic repositories, but they are usually modifications to already existing programs, free or otherwise, with only a few changes to differentiate them. Every once in a while, however, something comes around that really impresses people – a program that you can use to shock non-Mac users, such as parents, friends, or co-workers, prompting them to ask, "How does it do that?" This time, that program is Sound Tracker.

Sound Tracker came out several months ago as a freeware beta program uploaded to several Internet sites, and then to online services like America Online. Now, Sound Tracker has been released as a $30 shareware program in its "final" form, complete with source code.

Sound Tracker is a bare bones music player. You can’t record songs in it. You can’t sample songs with it. You can’t edit and re-save songs. All you can do with program is modify the volume, tone, and tempo. Despite this apparent lack of power, Sound Tracker can produce some amazing results.

Until recently, programs that included music would either plunk out tones on the Mac speaker or include a small sample. Plunking out tones wastes little disk space since a song is composed of compact instructions telling the speaker when to turn on and when to shut up and what tone and volume you want. These sort of songs sound as unimpressive as you would expect. Sampled songs sound great, but for a good sample, a couple of seconds will run you over 100K and an entire song, if you even had the space, just isn’t feasible.

Sound Tracker gives you the best of both worlds by combining sampling and programming. The end result is sampled music sound without the heavy disk or memory space requirements sampled sound files generally need. For instance, most of what a Sound Tracker file might contain are some keyboard samples, a bass, guitar, and several drums. The remainder of the file is code telling Sound Tracker when to play the bass, at which pitch and volume and so on, and before you know it, you’ve got a song. It’s basically the computer’s equivalent of sheet music, though you never see any of this going on behind the scenes. You just load the song and listen.

Although Sound Tracker doesn’t come with a sample file, songs can be downloaded from most of your favorite locations. Be sure to grab at least one when you take Sound Tracker. Quality varies of course, so you might have to snag a couple before you find the perfect one to impress your friends.

Sound Tracker gives you four tracks to which you can vary the volume, so you can turn down the bass, remove the melody, or whatever you want. There is also a master volume. The tone and tempo controls are also interesting because you can speed up a song without it sounding like the Chipmunks. Sound Tracker plays all the instruments in a shorter amount of time, giving you a fast-paced song without the high pitches. Likewise, you can raise or lower the pitches without losing any beats-per-minute.

The program also comes with a spectrum display and oscilloscope. I’d stay away from these. It seems like they update only a few times per second so it seems that Sound Tracker is always catching up. You really don’t need these features to enjoy Sound Tracker, so it’s no great loss.

Sound Tracker has a good interface, as well as a few neat features that take advantage of System 7. The controls look a bit like a CD player’s controls, and you can load songs by dropping them on Sound Tracker’s icon or by simply using Open. What’s more, you can queue up a list of songs by dropping a group on Sound Tracker’s icon and it will play through that list, optionally repeating at the end. You also have a fast forward button (no rewind) and a pause. If you change songs in the middle of a song, instead of an abrupt change, the previous song fades out first. You can now also shuffle the songs to play them in a random order.

Sound Tracker can play asynchronously in the background. Once you start playing a song, try going back to the Finder and launch an application. Start a download, type a letter, whatever. The song plays on uninterrupted. You can also load your next song while one is already playing. This backgrounding ability isn’t perfect, though. Sound Tracker has three different sampling rates for playback. While the lowest setting doesn’t sound absolutely great, you will have more control of your Mac which Sound Tracker is playing in the background. The better the playback, the slower your Mac will respond to keyclicks and incoming data (while on-line with a song playing in the background with the best sampling rate, the text comes in spurts at times). You decide what level of response you can live with.

The latest version of Sound Tracker also lets you save your settings and test how much your Mac is being slowed down by a song in the background. This may help you decide which sampling rate is the best for playing something behind Excel.

Songs — What about the songs? Sound Tracker has been available for the PC and Amiga for some time now, so there are many songs in those formats. Any song for these computers will usually have the extension .MOD. However, they will take some converting to get them into the proper format for Mac Sound Tracker. In all likelihood, you’ll have to find a Mac decompressor for either format and you will have to use ResEdit, DiskTop, or a similar utility to change each file’s creator and type to STrk.

[StuffIt Deluxe has translators for the common PC compression formats, and my limited experience with the Amiga leads me to believe that there will be tools for defunking Amiga compressed files under Unix, for those of you with access to Unix boxes. As far as changing the file creators and types, there are freeware or shareware programs that will make this a simple process for multiple files. -Adam]

Fortunately, you shouldn’t have to mess with such conversions. Many songs have already been converted and are being uploaded to the Internet and online services. America Online, for example, has about 100 songs already, with more coming all the time. This should keep you occupied for some time. Songs vary in size from 25K to 200K. The lengths, though, can be as short as few seconds of a drum solo to (as far as I’ve seen) over 5 minutes. An average download at 2400 baud will take perhaps 10 minutes.

Many of the songs I’ve seen tend to be pop/alternative. There are a couple of oldies floating around, as well as some Top 40, but the majority aren’t. [I’ve recently seem some classical music come through on the nets as well. -Adam] Some songs even have the lyrics included on one of the four tracks! When you plug your Mac into the stereo (Sound Tracker provides for this by using two tracks per channel) you can really perform some impressive things!

Be aware that some "cheaply" made songs may not sound all that good. You can put anything on a track. Some songs may have all the percussion on track one, guitars on track two, etc., and the track assignments may vary from song to song. This isn’t Sound Tracker’s fault but is merely a design decision left to the people programming in the songs. Maybe in a Mac recording version, a standard will be set.

In the future… — What about the future of Sound Tracker and the Mac? For one thing, the Amiga can record songs with various programs. The Mac should be able to, especially the newer Macs with the more sophisticated sound input circuitry, but so far can’t. All the songs you hear played through Sound Tracker were most likely created on an Amiga. It should be just a matter of time before there is another program like Sound Tracker which provides better options and recording and MIDI ability.

Why stop at being an application? Because of the non-choppy background ability, how about having a startup theme? We have pictures, sounds, movies playing at startup, why not have your Mac hammer out a song while the startup is going on? Throw this in with a song shuffling ability and your Mac may never shut up!

I love Sound Tracker and I’m hoping that it will be an inspiration to other software authors to make more programs like it. While it is an impressive program today, I suspect that someone can better it with a program that doesn’t slow down the Mac as much, has a useful spectrum analyzer and oscilloscope, and more features we haven’t even thought of yet. Still, Sound Tracker is very popular among those who have access to computer services, and songs are being traded almost like baseball cards.

Sorry Classic and older Mac owners – Sound Tracker requires a Mac with a 68020 or higher. It works under System 7, but I’m not sure about System 6. If it does work with System 6, you certainly won’t have the drag & drop feature.

On the Internet, check out the Info-Mac archives at via FTP. Songs are located in the info-mac/sounds/st directory. On America Online, search the Mac files with the keyword MOD or Sound Tracker and you’ll get a sense of what’s available.

So if you don’t already have Sound Tracker, what are you waiting for? It’s worth the $30 and sounds great! Maestro?

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