Music trackers for PCs have been around for decades, and I’ve personally used quite a few of them, starting with SoundTracker on the Amiga, and then various version and ProTracker, OctaMED, MadTracker and ReNoise, to name the ones I’ve used the most.
Some time ago, I came across Sonant, which is a very specialized tracker. Its main purpose is to create songs that can be used in tiny demos, where the size of the song data plus the player software must not exceed a couple of kilobytes (for comparison, an MP3 file is usually several megabytes).
Feel free to try it out!
- I already had the synth implemented – so the editor was the next natural step.
- Push the limits of current browser technology (i.e, can it be done?).
Just to be clear:
- Sonant Live is still beta (functions are missing, the user interface is not optimal, and there are bugs).
- It is a minimal synth that’s designed for production of music for minimal demos (i.e. do not expect to find a fully fledged omnipotent music studio).
The wish list
One of the goals of making this tool was to explore what can be done with current browser technologies. Throughout the work, I’ve come up with a few wishes for the future directions of browsers:
- Better optimizing JIT compilers – As pointed out by Erik Möller in a blog post, you can get a great deal of performance gain by just eliminating property accesses and common sub expressions. In fact, I roughly got a 2x performance win (on all browsers) just by pre-loading common object properties and expressions in local variables. These are well known compiler optimizations that should not have to be performed by the programmer. Now, I realize that the situation is a bit more complicated for a dynamically typed language with setters/getters, but my point is that without those compiler optimizations, bad programming practices are actually encouraged.
- Typed arrays – Life would just be so much simpler if high performance typed arrays were common place. For now, I had to resort to using the CanvasPixelArray trick, which gives me 8-bit arrays (while I’d like to use 16-bit arrays).
- More flexible web workers – The message passing paradigm may be great and fail safe and all, but it really does not cut it for passing huge amounts of data between workers (in my case, I’d like to create the multi-megabyte audio data in a worker, and pass it to the UI thread). Shared objects would be much more efficient (read only or mutex locked, etc).
- Better URL handling – I suspect that in most browsers, the internal URL handling is optimized for URL:s that are at most a few hundred characters long. For short URL:s, keeping a few duplicates around and traversing the string is cheap, but then a 50MB URL comes along… For instance, when I tried to export a WAV file from Sonant Live, Firefox 4 peaked at 1.6GB , Opera peaked at 2.8GB, and Chrome peaked at 1.1GB and puked (Chrome processes seem to have an upper memory limit of 1GB).
The future is not to see… However, some things are obvious candidates for the future of Sonant Live.
First, the GUI is far from complete. For instance, there are some missing functions (copy/paste, undo, etc), and it would be nice to make the editor usable on mobile devices too (e.g. tablets). It would also be nice to make the tool more interactive (e.g. sound playback while pressing keys on the “piano” for easier instrument tuning).
Another area of improvement is the synth. As it is now, the synth is 100% compatible with the original Sonant tool, which I consider a feature rather than a bug. However, it is quite limited, and there are several simple improvements that can make the synth more powerful (even if minimalism is to be preserved). Some ideas that I have are:
- Richer oscillators – e.g. up to 8 oscillators with different detune settings, which can give quite rich sounds (e.g. check out the Superwave P8 VSTi synth, which uses such tricks).
- Better polyphony – supporting several note columns per channel would make it easier to do things like chords.
- Effect commands – e.g. control instrument and effect parameters dynamically from the pattern.
- Distortion – cheap operation, fat sound.
- Drums – Hmmm… Something should be done to spice up drum sound generation.
These changes would not make the song data noticeably larger (at least not if you compress/deflate it, which is the typical use case), nor would it make the player routine much more complicated.
Another area of improvement would be server-side storage of songs (they are usually less than 1KB compressed, so no problem with disk quotas), so that you can easily access all your songs from anywhere, and publish them for others to enjoy, etc.
Feeling inspired? Since Sonant Live is quite minimalistic, it is a bit of a challenge to create good sounding music with it.
So, if you make your own cool song or groovy instrument, I’d like to hear it! Until I get some sort of song submission form up, you can post an URL to your song file in a comment to this post (I can grab it and delete the comment). If it’s good, I’ll include it in the song list on the front page.