Reviving NitroTracker

I picked up a second hand DS lite after Guido showed a video of Nanoloop running on the GameBoy, which made me excited. I was never allowed to have a DS or GameBoy as a kid, and after all that time I still wanted one.

I visit older tech more often, because I want to see which things in modern tech are really better, and which things were already present in older technology or have even gotten worse with time.

I discovered that there was a little music program, a "tracker" as they're called, made in 2008 specifically for the DS. It was called NitroTracker, and the original creator hadn't touched it since 2010.

It turned out to work really well. What fascinates me about this program is that you really can make full songs in it, on dirt-cheap devices (15 euros+) that most people still have in a drawer somewhere, with 2000 times less memory than the average laptop.

But it wasn't just the technical parts that impressed me, it was also the workflow. In a normal music program, I am overwhelmed with options, and therefore with decisions. Most of these decisions, like slight tweaks to effect parameters,  don't matter as much as, say the chords and beat. But because I feel unconfident in working on those important parts, I endlessly scroll through presets.

What I'm trying to say: software with the right constraints forces you to focus on the parts that matter.

The 'fantasy console' Pico-8, in which I made the Activism game,  does the same thing: it has just 16 colors, 128x128px  resolution, so you can’t go very detailed. And the lack of detail simplifies your game to the point where you have a chance of finishing it (which is rare).



Also: working with expensive, luxurious materials and tools makes me feel that I need to live up to the quality of the tool, which makes me scared to experiment. Working with (what I perceive as) crappy cheap materials makes me more free because I have lower expectations. “It’s just a ballpoint doodle”. The only places where advanced, complex tools actually help me accomplish things better are the places where I’m already very confident in my skills, like programming.

But there were other things that made working in NitroTracker fun: it can use the DS'es built-in microphone to sample sounds or instruments. You can then play back those sounds or instruments on the keyboard on the bottom of the screen.

Because it is inviting to record your own samples over downloading someone else's, your tracks feel more personal and consistent: they were all recorded in the same environment  using the same microphone.  Even if I recorded, say a Rhodes from an electronic keyboard through the microphone, it still had that same effect.

I notice that more often: reusing someone else's assets might make you more productive, but making your own feels more personal and 'stylistically coherent', and unless you only want to earn money by 'producing', I think the second option is more satisfying. Actually: why do we use the word 'producing' when talking about music, it sounds so… prefab. Interchangeable.

And: the buttons really help. I did make music on my phone before, but it does feel like you're missing something compared to the functions you can assign to the DS's buttons.

100rabbits has a nice quote about why I think these projects are relevant:

'giving old machines a second life, or at least a second look'.

Marketing wants us to believe that our 5-year-old devices are already too slow, but how did they become that way? If something was a good product 5 years ago, shouldn't it be equally good, if not better at doing what it does today? And then they end up in a dumpster. (In fact, this is what some enthusiast communities do, it is much more accessible to make your own role-playing game for the Gameboy nowadays, than it was when it came out, for example)

I am fascinated by projects that once again show how much old hardware can still do.

And that we don't necessarily need to always run in a hamster wheel to earn enough to buy new tech that can do the same just to stay in the same place.

SO: I contacted the original creator about continuing this project, after 5 days he responded and by that time I already got everything working again and already made some improvements.

What I also like about the DS: it's replacement parts are cheap, you can get a battery for 5 euros here, even less from china, which seems reasonable.
Some videos of me using it can be found on this drive and on my instagram.