Beginners Guide To Computer Music
This article has been updated for Learn to Play Day 2012
It used to be a tough game making music electronically. You would need a room full of gear, a degree in engineering to work out how it all fitted together and to be a member of a cult to find out how it worked. Obscure black bits of hardware used to dominate music making technology and you’d link them all together with a mess of audio and MIDI cables. ‘MIDI?’, you ask? Don’t even go there… Those in the know – and this was a time when hi-tech music making was for the cliquey, rich and knowledgeable – would whisper hushed messages to each other about controller data and routing. They’d marvel at their tunes which were, more often than not, drenched in hiss or so badly recorded onto tape that they were laughable by today’s standards.
Fortunately, everything has changed, and I mean everything, and now music making is a vibrant and thriving activity enjoyed by more people than ever before. You no longer need a huge bundle of cash to get into it, nor do you need to learn what seems like a foreign language to get the most out of it. More importantly, you also don’t need an extra bedroom in your house to put a mountain of gear in because the best news of all is that if you own a half decent computer, you are already half way to owning a top notch music making set-up.
So what else will you need?
There are some essential additions you will need to purchase in order to turn your computer into something that enables you to enter the world of music making. The first is obvious: some software! Theres a huge variety of software out there for both Macs and PCs ranging from loop-based composing software – which will enable you to arrange snippets of sounds into tunes quickly and easily – to expensive, high end applications that are aimed at composers who make music for film and TV. Between the two are a few applications synonymous with computer music making called sequencers or software studios. Steinberg’s Cubase is perhaps the most famous. Although Ableton’s Live has been the big hit of the last few years taking that loop-based composing I was talking about earlier into realms and spheres never before seen. Then there’s Reason a soft studio that some say has been used by more people than the rest put together. Cakewalk's Sonar is also big in the world of PCs and Presonus Studio One is a recent entrant which has many fans.
A lot of the software above comes with built in sound-making software and audio files to produce tunes. They might come bundled with sets of sounds called sample collections. These are drum loops and bass lines, for example, that you could easily assemble into your own rhythm sections and tunes. Other sequencers may feature software instruments which are renditions of real-world musical instruments like pianos or synths, which you can play with your mouse or with an additional keyboard. Most will have software effects like reverbs or distortion which you can add to your sounds to give them a much different character.
There is usually enough sound-making software included with these sequencers to get going to make some perfectly decent tunes, but you will eventually want to customise your set-up. Once you properly get into making music on your computer, your sequencer will become the core part of your virtual music-making set-up as you pick and choose a complete virtual studio to surround it, made up of instruments, sounds and effects, all of which are tailored to your music and all taking up no room in your house beyond your hard drive. Fortunately there are hundreds of third party developers producing these plug-in virtual instruments and effects. They range in price from free to, in rare cases, thousands of pounds but most come in at between £100 and £300.
After a long time recreating every old hardware synthesizer in software, developers have recently became far more adventurous and I don’t think I’d be lying if I said you can get pretty much every instrument ever made in software form, from virtual guitars to Tang Dynasty virtual flutes – really!
As far as effects go, software can model anything from classic hardware mixers at Abbey Road studios to famous guitar effects pedals. With a few of the simulators out there it really is possible to create close approximations of the most famous sounds in popular music history (and classical, jazz, rock… you name it).
The best part about using software is that it is quick and easy to combine all of these effects and instruments together within your sequencer. There are no wires to worry about and as soon as you start recording their outputs and adding effects, it’s simply a matter of creating a song track by track. You might want to start with some beats sampled from a famous drummer in LA and then add a bass sound played on an upright model in software. Then why not play some virtual guitar over the top of that drenched in classic distortion? The choice is yours: pick an instrument and play it in software. No skills are required beyond either using a mouse or, better still, a keyboard or software controller, which brings me neatly on to some of the extra hardware you’ll need.
Controlling your sound
Playing notes on these virtual instruments can be done with a mouse click on a virtual keyboard but, let’s face it, life’s too short. An extra keyboard is a must when it comes to producing computer music. These range from tiny keyboards designed to be portable for laptop users right up to fully-weighted piano style ones for pro players. And don’t worry if you’re not a pro player because the whole point of using software is that you can go back and easily eradicate any mistakes you have made or play notes really slowly as you record and then speed up the results later. It’s easy!
Next up come software controllers. These are hardware boxes that sometimes have keyboards attached and they enable you to control the knobs, rotaries and sliders on the software you use which is a much better solution that using that mouse. You might think this is initially bizarre as I’ve just been talking about the joys of everything being in software and now I’m saying you need hardware. The point is that you only really need one keyboard and one controller to operate with all of your different software. My studio of 15 years ago had about five keyboard and several other boxes. Now I have just one keyboard and one controller on top of the computer itself!
Audio Interfaces / Sound Cards
One extra piece of hardware that you may need is called an audio interface. This could be a simple card that plugs into your computer to allow you to route the sound out to your speakers. You’ll need one of those if your computer doesn’t already have an output or if the computer’s output is struggling with your audio signal (you’ll know that if the sound is breaking up as you play it). More sophisticated cards allow you to record audio back into your computer from the outside world so have an audio input. This is useful if you sing or play a real instrument like a guitar. You can then play or sing along with your virtual instruments and record the results.
Some cards have multiple inputs and outputs so that a whole band can be recorded and the results played back in multi-channel surround sound. At the top end of the market come interfaces that let you add effects like EQ to the sound being recorded. This is a side of the market that has boomed in recent years with some manufacturers producing complete channel strips that resemble a single strip of an old hardware mixer complete with EQ and other effects, and these simply help you achieve a better sound when recording. Most cards these days connect via USB or FireWire to your computer and, in many cases, they are ‘plug and play’ where you plug the card in and get on with the business of music making. Sometimes you might have to install some simple software but this will always be included with the card.
The speakers you play your music through are important. In this day and age where software is cheap, you really can make music for next to nothing so why not invest in some really good monitors to play it through? Monitors cannot be replicated in software (yet!) so aren’t all cheap and, generally, the more you pay the more ‘accurate’ they are. An accurate sound is important because if your monitors lack accuracy they are said to colour your mix. A cheap set of monitors may lack bass, for example. When using them to mix your music you will subconsciously (or consciously if they’re really bad!) increase the bass of the mix to make it sound good on the bad monitors. Played on anyone else’s hi-fi your music will then come across as boomy and bass heavy as you will have over compensated your bass because of your lacklustre speakers. You therefore need accurate monitors with what is called a ‘flat frequency response’. They won’t have peaks or troughs in the bass, mids, or high frequency ranges which you will unknowingly try to iron out in your mix. In all honesty I would recommend paying at least £200 for a set of good enough speakers and even then there are only a few models that really cut it. Sorry, but that’s a fact!
Finally comes power! With all of this software your computer might be struggling as audio activity is notorious for affecting PC and Mac performances. Some companies have produced hardware boxes that boost your computer power by doing some or all of the audio tasks. They contain their own computer processors and audio software (effects and synths) and sit very quietly doing their thing in the background. They are usually connected via FireWire and often add very high quality effects and synths to the proceedings. So hardware boxes with sounds and effects in them: haven’t we come full circle to the days of hardware synths and effects? Not quite!