Gaining Tracktion

When Mackie unveiled Tracktion in 2004, more than a few industry veterans scratched their heads in perplexity. There were already several good digital
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When Mackie unveiled Tracktion in 2004, more than a few industry veterans scratched their heads in perplexity. There were already several good digital audio sequencers for the Mac and Windows; why bring out a new one?

Sometimes industry veterans are wrong. Tracktion has been winning legions of converts thanks to its fresh, clean user interface, its surprisingly deep feature set, and its modest price. Version 2 adds important capabilities, ranging from ReWire support, track freezing, and MIDI Time Code (MTC) generation to a QuickTime movie window, loop recording of multiple takes, and a 64-bit audio mixing engine. (You'll find a full list of new features at www.mackie.com/products/tracktion2/index.html.)

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FIG. 1: The central area in Tracktion''s main window shows the rack, which contains a multitimbral synth with eight stereo outputs (four are in use). You can hide the rack and the track input and output areas to provide more room for viewing track data. Note the MIDI data close-up in track 4 and the automation envelope in track 1.

In this article I'll cover some techniques that can help you work more efficiently in Tracktion and make better music with it.

Using Multitimbral Synth Plug-ins

Tracktion normally inserts synth plug-ins (which Mackie calls filters) at the right ends of individual tracks. But what if you want to use a multitimbral synth? In fact, Tracktion's tracks can contain MIDI clips assigned to many different MIDI channels simultaneously. The clips can overlap, and they'll all play. So you could insert a multitimbral synth on one track, and then sequence all of its MIDI data on that track. But for several reasons, that would be a poor way to set up your sequence. It would be incredibly messy, for instance, to edit overlapping clips. Never fear: there's a better approach.

The first step is to click on the Racks button in the upper right corner of the main edit window. That opens an empty rack in the area below the tracks. Click on the New Rack button at the left end of this area, and select Create New Empty Rack. You'll see an area called New Rack Filter, which has audio and MIDI inputs and outputs but nothing in it. Rename it in the Properties panel. For example, I'm using Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, which is 8-channel multitimbral, so I'll rename mine “RMX Rack.”

Next, drag the New Filter icon down into the new rack, and select your multitimbral synth from the pop-up menu. When Tracktion asks if you'd like to autoconnect it, click on Yes. (The No option works, too, but it requires that you create input and output connections by hand.) The Properties panel for the rack contains a Tracktion icon that says Drag Here To Insert An Instance Of This Rack. Drag this object to as many tracks as you plan to use with the plug-in or, alternatively, drag New Filter to the desired track and choose your new rack filter from the Rack Filters folder in the menu that appears.

If you route MIDI data into a track where the rack filter is installed or record MIDI data into a track and play it back, it will reach the plug-in. But Tracktion's MIDI tracks don't have MIDI channel designations, so another step is needed to use the plug-in multitimbrally. If you're recording external MIDI data, select the desired MIDI channel for the MIDI input object when attaching it to a given track. That ensures that any data recorded into the track has the correct MIDI channel assignment. For example, set the input object to channel 1 before recording into track 1, to channel 2 before recording into track 2, and so on. (Clips can also be reassigned to other MIDI channels after recording.)

Stylus RMX is generally used by dragging MIDI files from its browser window into the host sequencer's tracks. RMX tags the MIDI notes in each MIDI file with the correct channel designation. After you select a beat for RMX's slot 3, for instance, you can drag it into any Tracktion track whose output is the RMX rack, and it will play back the expected beat. Good housekeeping, however, dictates that you drag the MIDI pattern from slot 1 into track 1, from slot 2 into track 2, and so forth.

If you play the plug-in at this point, you'll discover that its audio output is being sent simultaneously to all the tracks where the rack filter has been installed. To send the audio from each multitimbral part to a different track, which is useful for independent level and pan control, adding insert effects, and so on, several steps are needed. First, select the rack itself and click on the New Output Channel button. Assuming that you're working in stereo, create two new output channels for each track in which you plan to use the plug-in, and give them appropriate names. Attach the outputs of the synth to those channels, as shown in Fig. 1. Then select the instance of the rack filter in each track by clicking on it, and choose the desired audio outputs in the fields that say Left Output Comes From and Right Output Comes From. Presto — you have a multitimbral plug-in synth that's assigned to several tracks at once.

Crisp Time-Stretching

Tracktion gives you two methods of stretching audio clips, both of which are under Stretch in the Properties panel of the clip. One method raises or lowers the pitch but preserves the attacks of drum loops. The other method is a granular process that preserves the original pitch but smooths out attack transients. This smoothing process blurs the attacks of drum sounds, which is not usually desirable.

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FIG. 2a: This image shows the original 2-measure drum loop at 100 bpm. The song tempo is 95 bpm, so the beats visible in the waveform don''t line up with the time ruler.

If you need to change the tempo of a drum loop but also want to keep it at the original pitch and keep it crisp, there is a work-around. It's a bit time-consuming, but in many cases the results are worth the effort. The idea is to do by hand what Propellerhead ReCycle does automatically when it creates REX files: snip the loop apart into individual hits that can be aligned with Tracktion's Tempo grid.

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FIG. 2b: Using a zoomed-in view, you can easily identify the beginning of each drum hit, where the clip will be split.

First, separate the drum hits so that each is in its own clip. After inserting the original audio clip in the desired track and selecting it, switch off Enable Snapping in the Snapping menu. You can also do that by clicking on the Snap button in the transport section or by pressing the Q key. Position the play cursor near the beginning of the second drum hit, as shown in Fig. 2a, and zoom in by right-button dragging (Control-clicking on the Mac).

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FIG. 2c: The original loop has been split apart and snapped to the beats on the time ruler. It looks as if there is a bit of high-level audio at the ends of some of the clips, but that is an artifact of the way Tracktion draws zoomed-out waveforms. In fact, each clip ends with low-level audio.

Move the play cursor as close as possible to the beginning of the second hit in the clip. Use the Split Clips At Cursor Position command in the Split Clips menu to split the original clip at this point (see Fig. 2b); alternatively, you can press the Slash key (/), which does the same thing. Zoom out, move the play cursor to just before the start of the third drum hit, zoom in again, and repeat. Repeat the process until each drum hit is in its own clip.

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FIG. 2d: In this figure, you can see a subtle roughening of the waveform in the middle of the boomy kick drum where a shaker hit enters.

Position the play cursor at a zero-crossing in the waveform before you use the Split command because a waveform that starts at a non-zero-crossing will click. Doing so is not essential, however, because Tracktion gives you two ways to fix any clicks later. You can create a short fade-in on the clip, or you can slide the contents of the clip to the left or the right so that there's a zero-crossing at the start of the clip.

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FIG. 2e: The beginning of the shaker hit (right) has been split apart, and a single cycle of the kick, which can be repeated, has been isolated.

Zoom out far enough to look at the first few beats of the drum loop, which is now split into a number of clips. Switch Snapping back on, and drag each clip to the left or the right so that it snaps onto a beat. If you're slowing down the tempo, you'll drag to the right, as seen in Fig. 2c; if you're speeding up the tempo, you'll drag to the left. If you drag clips to the left, they'll overlap one another.

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FIG. 2f: Here, the shaker hit has been snapped to bar 1, beat 3, and two additional copies of the single-cycle waveform have been created by Ctrl-dragging.

Overlapped audio clips don't pose a problem in Tracktion, as they do in many other such programs. It will play all the audio, even if several clips overlap. However, you wouldn't usually want to overlap audio clips on a single track, because they'll all be processed by the same track filters. With a split-up drum beat, though, that won't matter.

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FIG. 2g: After you drag the shaker hit slightly to the left to fill in the gap, enlarge the short clips so that they overlap, and create crossfades so that they blend smoothly.

Once each clip is positioned on a beat, you can change the tempo of your sequence as needed, and the loop will stay in sync. However, you may find that you've missed some of the low-level hits, such as a hi-hat or hand-percussion hit that's layered in immediately after a big, boomy kick (see Fig. 2d). When the tempo is changed, these hits will be out of sync with the rhythm. This type of problem is not always easy to deal with, but here's an approach that sometimes works when the tempo is being slowed down:

Find the low-level hit by inspecting the waveform visually, and snip the clip at the beginning of the hit, as before. Then move slightly to the left, isolate a section of the waveform that can be repeated to fill in a gap, and snip it apart (see Fig. 2e). Turn Snapping back on and drag the low-level hit to the desired beat. Turn Snapping off, select your repeatable clip, which might be a single cycle of a wave as in Fig. 2e, and Ctrl-drag (Command-drag on the Mac) copies of it to fill in as much of the gap as you can (see Fig. 2f). Finally, drag the low-level hit back to the left if necessary so that there won't be any gap in the audio. The hit may be a little early, but it won't be nearly as early as it was before (see Web Clip 1).

If the waveform edges don't quite line up, you may hear a little crackling at the joints between short clips that have been manually looped in this way. That can be fixed with Tracktion's Clip Crossfade feature. Extend the beginnings and ends of the short fill-in clips so that they overlap slightly, and then add crossfades, as shown in Fig. 2g. A bit of fiddling may be required, but it's not hard to create a smooth sound. And if a little crackling is still audible, who's to say it's not vinyl?

MIDI Controller Edits

After selecting a MIDI clip, you can use the playback-only quantization settings in the clip's Properties panel. In Gaining Tracktion, however, this quantization will also be applied to the Control Change and Pitch Bend data in the clip, which is not usually the desired effect. Two work-arounds are available:

First, you can use destructive (data-altering) quantization. Open the MIDI clip for editing, select the Arrow tool, click on a note, press Ctrl + A (Command + A on the Mac) to select all the notes, and then click on Quantise in the note's Properties panel. The commands in this panel aren't applied to the controller data.

Second, if you want to use playback-only quantization of the notes, you can record the controller data on a separate track. In the controller track's Properties panel, select the track where your MIDI notes are located as the output for the controller track. That will merge the controller data with the notes and send them all to the same destination (which could be either a soft synth or a hardware synth).

If you've already recorded the controller data when you recorded the notes, you can accomplish the same thing by copying the clip to an empty track. Delete the controller data from one clip and the note data from the other, and then apply playback-only quantization to the clip that holds the notes.

Tracktion won't let you select a bunch of controller data and drag it to a different time location within the clip. (You might want to do this, for instance, if you've played a Pitch Bend contour that you like and you want to apply it to a different note.) But again, there's an easy way to get the desired results:

Set the play cursor just before the beginning of the data you want to move, make sure the clip is selected, and use the Split Clips At Cursor Position command. Do the same at the end of the data. Ctrl-drag the clip that you've isolated to an empty track, thus making a copy of it. Delete any notes from the copy. If your goal is to move the controller data rather than duplicate it, delete the controller data from the original clip. Then drag the clip containing only the controller data back onto its original track at a new position.

Finally, select all the relevant clips by Shift-clicking and click on the Merge MIDI Clips button. That will give you a single MIDI clip in which the controller data is in a new location.

Polyrhythmic Percussion

After importing a sampled beat into Tracktion, there are two ways to loop it so that it plays continuously throughout a section of the song: you can use Ctrl-dragging to make actual copies, or you can use the Loop This Clip command in the clip's Properties panel. (That command is available only for audio clips.) If you loop the clip, the entire loop is treated by Tracktion as a single long clip, which can be handy if you need to select or move it, or fade it in or out using the fade tools over a longer period of time than one repetition of the loop.

If the edges of the original, short clip have been moved so that it's no longer an exact number of measures long, the repetitions when it's looped will be the same odd length. This is a useful feature. After creating or importing a basic beat that's an exact number of 4/4 measures long, try importing a hand-percussion loop of some sort, put it on a new track, and change its length (perhaps to a bar of 7/8 or 5/8) using one of the hollow-end triangles. Then loop it. This will give the hand percussion a polyrhythm that crosses the bar lines against the basic beat.

The solid square handle in the middle of the clip's top bar can now be used to slide the polyrhythm back and forth against the basic beat, which will give you a variety of rhythmic textures to choose from.

Quick Tips

Running out of CPU power? Tracktion provides several solutions. First, you can select any track and use the Freeze Track or Render Track command. Alternatively, you can render your entire mix in its current state using the Export menu, and then drag-and-drop the resulting stereo file back into a new audio track in Tracktion. At this point you can right-click on the plug-in synths and effects that appear as filters in any of the source tracks and choose the Disable command. The filters will remain in the edit, ready to be reenabled should you want to edit their tracks further, but they won't use any CPU power.

If you're having trouble getting Tracktion to do something, rule number 1 is, Click on the object you're trying to work with, and then look in the Properties panel. In most cases, the commands that can be used on the object will be visible in the Properties panel as buttons.

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FIG. 3: Tracktion''s key commands are extensive and can be configured by the user.

Rule number 2 is, Keep an eye on the hint line. This line of text at the top of the screen often contains useful information. If the hints don't solve the problem, go to the Help menu and turn on Pop-up Help.

If you have a vocal track that's a little rough, or, worse, if you're trying to assemble a decent vocal from several takes that were recorded in different rooms using different mics, you may find it incredibly useful to drag a filter such as an EQ or compressor onto an individual audio clip. Each clip in a track can be processed by its own filters. This is also a good way to add distortion to a snare backbeat within a drum loop.

Tracktion's Settings page contains a Key-Mappings tab (see Fig. 3). Even if you're not planning to customize the keyboard commands, spend a few minutes reading the long list of commands. You'll probably learn about a few Tracktion features you missed in the manual, and you'll also find out how much you can accomplish without touching the mouse. And note the Save Key-Mappings and Load Key-Mappings buttons. These let you create different sets of commands for different working situations.

For a faster program launch on systems that have a lot of plug-ins, go to the Plugins tab in the Settings page and deselect Always Check For New Plugins At Startup. But make a mental note that you did this. When you later install a new plug-in, it won't show up in Tracktion until you select that item and restart the program.

If you're hearing digital distortion in a series of inserted plug-ins, try inserting an extra level meter or two at various points in the signal chain. That will help you figure out where the overload is occurring.

Using Tracktion's ability to include multiple “edits” in a single project file, you can develop several independent versions of a song, switch back and forth easily, and cut and paste clips from one to another as needed. Take advantage of the Description text field in the edit's Properties panel to make notes on each alternate version.

A Star Attracktion

Tracktion is still a young program, and Mackie is working hard to add the kinds of features that musicians have come to expect. If you're already using Tracktion as your main recording platform, get in touch with the company and tell it which enhancements are important to you. (I want a numeric readout for the loop start and end markers, but I'm one of those clueless industry veterans. Your needs may vary.)

If you're new to computer-based music making and are considering which midpriced digital audio sequencer to invest in, you may want to drop by the Mackie Web site (www.mackie.com) and download the demo. If you have little or no previous experience with this type of software, you may be pleasantly surprised by Tracktion's user interface.

Jim Aikin writes about music technology and plays electric cello. Look for a new fantasy novel from him later this year.