Tracker is a generic term for a class of music sequencers that derive from Ultimate Soundtracker, the first of its type, written in 1987 by Karsten Obarski for the Commodore Amiga. A column by kuro5hin's reduz further explains the history and concepts behind trackers for anyone who wants to know more.
A breakbeat is a drum pattern chiefly characterized by it's syncopation and polyrhythms. Breakbeat based music traditionally samples drum sections from old funk and jazz records. Cutting one up is chiefly exemplified by the sub-genre of electronic music known as jungle / drum & bass and is the style we will attempt to emulate in this tutorial.
The breakbeat we will be cutting is "Amen, Brother" by the 60's soul band The Winstons. Nate Harrison's audio installation "Can I get an amen?" is an excellent primer on the history of this particular breakbeat and should be considered required viewing for anyone unfamiliar with jungle / drum & bass.
Even if it turns out you don't particularly enjoy this type of music or sequencer, learning to cut a breakbeat in a tracker is an excellent way for nerds to dive into creating music. No musical training is required to, literally, hack this particular breakbeat and you walk away with the fundamentals necessary for further electronic musical exploration. I'm living proof.
Step 1: Choosing a tracker.
As an OS X user my tracker of choice is Renoise. Fully functional demo versions are available for both Windows and Macintosh users but it costs 49.99 EUR to, among other things, avoid nag screens. An open source alternative for Windows is Modplug. *NIX users might want to have a go at Schism which aims to match the look and feel of the classic Impulse Tracker. There are many different trackers available, the aforementioned are but a few. The concepts presented in this tutorial are as program agnostic as possible but I've been using Renoise exclusively for a few years so I can't pretend to know the other apps. With that said, pick a tracker that jives with your platform or politics and read on.
Step 2: Loading the breakbeat into the sample bank.
When you want to compose in a tracker, you need to use an instrument. The instrument table is where all entries to your instruments reside. It consists of two parts: the instrument index and the sample index. In many trackers nowadays, an instrument index can be filled with a MIDI instrument set, a VST instrument plug-in, and samples.
For the purpose of this tutorial we will be using this Amen, Brother sample provided by MTLDNB.COM. Find your instrument table and load the sample into the first slot. In Renoise, this is the box in the upper-right. Loading a sample is accomplished as follows: Select the first slot in the Instrument Table, click the Disk Browser tab at the top-center, select the Sample radio button, browse your way to "Amen, Brother - The Winstons.wav" and double-click.
Step 3: Adjusting the tempo.
Tempo is the pace of a song. This is determined by the speed (or frequency) of the beat to which it's played. This is described by an integer followed by the abbreviation BPM, which means 'beats per minute' eg, 120 BPM is 120 beats per minute or two per second. The 'beat' is the pulse in the rhythm of the song. When you count '1-2-3-4' in time to a song, you count naturally on each beat.
Beats are the basic units of counting in music. They are what you tap your foot to if the music has an infectious rhythm. If you want to find out the tempo of a song, all you need to do is count the number of beats that occur within a minute, it's that simple!
The tempo for the Amen, Brother breakbeat is approximately 136 BPM. The tempo for jungle / drum & bass, however, fluctuates around 175 BPM. So how do we use a beat that is slower than our desired BPM? The answer is by pitching it up. In practical terms, imagine playing a vinyl record at the wrong speed. In tracking, we want to trigger the sample at a higher pitch than the basenote.
A basenote is an offset position upon which the other key-tones relate. In Renoise, the default basenote is C-4. That means if you haven't messed with the octaves you can play the Amen, Brother in unmodified form by pressing "Z" on your QWERTY keyboard. Pressing other keys on the QWERTY keyboard plays the sample at different speeds, sort of like a piano. Pressing "C" plays the sample at E-4, or 175 BPM. Try it.
Down to business. Since our goal is to cut a breakbeat in jungle / drum & bass style, we want to set the tempo of our song to 175 BPM. In Renoise, double click the number on the right side of BPM located in the upper-left of the GUI and type in 175. Set the Speed to 03 for good measure.
Step 4: Programming the sequence.
In a tracker, sequences of notes are programed in the pattern editor. A pattern can be compared to a page of sheet music. It may contain sets of notes for just one instrument, or it may contain sets for more instruments. This depends on the arrangement tastes of the composer. In this Renoise screenshot, the pattern editor is the the "spreadsheet" taking up space in the middle. The columns are known as tracks, the rows are where you type in notes, instrument numbers, and effects. A note is in the form of note-letter and octave-number such as C-4 or A#3. An instrument number identifies which instrument will be triggered from the instrument table. Like a spreadsheet you can navigate the pattern editor using tabs, page up, page down, home, end, and arrow keys. In order to program a sequence we must be in record mode. In Renoise, you toggle in and out of record mode by pressing escape.
Start by moving the cursor to the left-most track, row 0. With record mode on, press "C" in order to get E-4 to appear in the pattern editor. Move the cursor to row 32 (hexadecimal 20) and press "C" again. Turn record mode off and play the pattern. In Renoise, the play button is in the upper-left of the GUI but it's easier to use the spacebar shortcut to toggle in and out of play mode. You've just created a simple beat pattern.
Now let's try an effect, specifically the sample offset effect. By using this effect we can control from where to start a sample. It is a very valuable effect for beat cutting. In Renoise, sample offset is 09xx where xx is a hexadecimal value between sample start 00 and sample end ff.
Move your cursor into the effect column of row 32 (hexadecimal 20) in the left-most track. You are adding an effect to the note you added in the previous paragraphs. Toggle record mode to on and type in an offset value. In Renoise, 09E7 is a good result. Turn record mode off and play the pattern. Keep doing this at various places in the track with various offsets until you are happy with your beat.
Lost? Here's an example file that I made in Renoise. Load it up and play around in case you got stuck somewhere along the way. Obviously, the caliber of what we have now is just a beginning. It lacks layering, effects and mastering to say the least. Furthermore, like with most everything in computers there is more than one way to do what we just did.
For example, smaller samples make it easier and offer more precision for intricate beat slice timing. The larger your sample, the more generic the offset pointers are. Cutting up your large sample into smaller chunks and loading them one by one into the instrument table can yield interesting results.
Like I said, it's a start... don't stop!
If you would like to know more about tracking check out The Mod Archive, Nectarine Radio, and the Renosie Tutorials Wiki. If you would like to know more about jungle / drum & bass check out Drum & Bass Arena, Dogs On Acid, DNBRADIO.COM and MTLDNB.COM. Bleeding edge producers such as Enduser and Venetian Snares (who have recently admitted to using Renoise themselves) have cult followings and are also worth checking out. Insert a shameless mention of myself here, I've been doing this style since 1996.
I'll do my best to answer questions appended to this story. Happy tracking.