With the right software and a few plug-in instruments, anyone (really, anyone) can be a rock star in his own home.
Consider it another marvel of the digital age – or the latest evidence that the beautifully difficult, soul-taxing art of music creation has irretrievably slid into the hands of talentless idiots. Either way, with the help of a computer, a few peripherals, a variety of entry-level software and two weekends’ worth of struggle, I have produced my first single.
It’s hardly a secret that musical production has been striding boldly into the digital age over the past three decades. Software that enables instruments to interface directly with PCs was pioneered in the 1980s, and current programs pack all the goodness of a full production studio into a laptop, with virtualised instruments, amps, effects, mixing boards and multitrack recording machines all onscreen. This has had a profound effect on the music industry – lowering the barrier to entry to the point where a small band with a computer, a microphone and a few instruments can produce studioquality recordings.
Instruments have changed, too. Much of the computational heavy lifting that used to be done by circuitry inside digital keyboards and drum pads has been offloaded to PC-based software. By turning instruments that used to play independently into computer-connected USB peripherals, manufacturers have reduced the cost of some of these devices to within reach of the musical dabbler. That’s where I come in.
My last formal musical instruction was in high school. I took a year of piano and drum lessons, and I have since forgotten far more than I ever learned. But the basics of drum rolls and chord progressions remained in the stickier regions of my subconscious, and I can generally noodle around with such instruments so long as no sheet music is involved.
I started by picking up KeyStudio 49, a software-hardware combo recently launched by M-Audio. For around R4 000, the kit comes with a 49-key MIDI USB keyboard and a mini-USB audio interface, as well as the company’s entry-level Pro Tools M-Powered Essential software. The software comes with more than 60 virtual instruments, hundreds of loops and templated recording sessions. As a basic launchpad into digital music production, it’s a darn good deal; the keyboard alone is worth the money, since it can be used with multiple music programs.
Digital music-production software can be a bit overwhelming if you’ve never worked with it before. Much of it caters to the obsessive audio engineers who populate the music industry. M-Powered Essential is pitched as a “streamlined” version of parent company M-Audio’s industry standard Digidesign Pro Tools suite of software. The advantage to this approach (as opposed to software such as Apple’s GarageBand, which was designed from the ground up for newbies) is that, once you’ve learned how it works, you are well on your way to learning how professional music is made. The disadvantage is that, if you’re like me, you don’t give a damn how professional music is made, and you may end up grinding off several layers of tooth enamel trying to weed through all of the menus and submenus that don’t apply to you before finding the stuff that does.
Regardless of what software you pick, there are a few basic concepts that are common to all digital music-production software. Understanding these basics will help you focus your use of the software on what’s relevant.
This is a carryover process from the days of analogue tape, when producers would record elements of a song on different tape tracks, edit them separately, then combine everything into a cohesive whole. Computers have simplified this process immensely. “New Track” is one of the easier-to-find menu items in most programs – so building a song is like layering ingredients on a sandwich. I started with a percussion line, then added a bass line on a separate track, then another for rhythm instruments, another track for piano, then vocals and so on. And, I was free to tinker with individual tracks without altering everything at once.
Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI)
MIDI is a standardised language that helps instruments digitally communicate with computers over interfaces such as USB or FireWire. Instead of sending actual sound to a PC, a MIDI controller – usually a keyboard or drum pad – sends data about pitch and intensity of notes, and the computer translates that info into sound. That allows a MIDI device such as my KeyStudio piano to function as any one of thousands of virtual (sometimes called synth) instruments – these vary from the general (grand piano) to the highly specific (Modular Moog 3C). Each virtual instrument has software controls that adjust variables such as sustain, attack, delay and reverb.
In digital-music parlance, the production program that you use to record and edit your songs is called the host software. Users can supplement that program with additional software elements such as virtual instruments and effects, known as plug-ins. Most host software comes with a variety of virtual instruments, effects and loops, but users can add to that with third-party plug-ins. This adds a lot of flexibility to the host software, but can also complicate and confuse things a bit. Plug-ins tend to be host-specific (for instance, plug-ins that worked with my M-Powered Essential software would also work with other Pro Tools software, but not with Cakewalk’s competing Sonar software), but some work with multiple hosts. In general, the more plug-ins you get, the more tied to a particular host platform you become.
All music-production host software will come with a stockpile of pre-arranged loops in a variety of categories, and they vastly simplify the process of music creation. By using loops, you can quickly arrange a background melody by making tracks of simple loop arrangements. I, for instance, can (sort of) play piano and (kind of) play drums, but I don’t know the first thing about brass or wind instruments. So, by browsing my host software and looking online at places such as vstplanet.com and audiomastermind.com, I was able to grab a few different loops of trumpets and clarinets and oboes or an entire orchestra, then stitch them together to add another dimension to my song. If you can’t find exactly what you want, some software lets you clip a sample from an existing song and use it as a custom loop. In fact, there are musical genres in which songs are formed entirely of arranged loops.
Putting it all together
Digital pianos and drum pads get the most obvious benefits from a computer interface, but electric guitars can also get a performance boost. There are a few high-tech MIDI guitars that can interface directly with computers, but you can plug an ordinary guitar into a PC via a USB audio interface. Audio interfaces can get sophisticated and expensive, but a basic model, such as the Cakewalk UA-1G, can be acquired on a real-world budget. With the computer interface, you can bypass a conventional amp, letting the software create a virtual amp and effects pedals. Guitarists (admittedly, I’m not one of them) can get pretty geeky about the sound characteristics of certain legendary amps, and software engineers are just as geeky about faithfully reproducing them. Want to play your Gibson Les Paul guitar through an ’85 Mesa/Boogie Mark IIc+? There’s a plug-in for that.
I had far more fun with the digital tricks that can be applied to vocals. Most of the same audio interfaces that work with guitars also work with microphones, and there are a variety of effects that can change the character of the voice or other acoustic instruments. Reverb, echo and specialised effects – my favourites were “mouse voice” and “helium breath” – can add character (or comedy) to your performance.
I was able to piece together a workable song (well, depending on your standards – my 11-month-old son seemed to like it) with M-Powered Essential. However, as a newbie, the experience was frustrating. There’s very little hand-holding for beginners unfamiliar with the logic of the program; instruments and effects are buried in submenus that are not always clearly labelled. And some elements are positively annoying – the software won’t even start unless you have the USB audio interface plugged in, and scattered throughout the menus are items that don’t actually work but instead launch pop-up windows that try to up-sell you on higher-end versions of M-Powered in which those features are actually functional.
After a weekend of working with M-Powered Essential, I decided to try again with software that is actually aimed at beginners. Apple’s GarageBand, first launched in 2004 and now in its fifth generation, comes installed on all new Macs. GarageBand was obviously designed to walk you right into the process of music creation. It instantly recognised the M-Audio MIDI keyboard. Tracks are easy to arrange, instruments are organised logically – and assigning virtual instruments to the keyboard was a snap.
For those who just want to jam with a backing band, GarageBand Jam instantly gives you a multi-instrument rhythm section in whatever musical style you select. And if you don’t know the first thing about music, you can follow instructions on the basics of piano or guitar, or download (for about R40) Artist Lessons from famous musicians. Sting, for instance, will teach you to play “Roxanne”.
There is no direct analogue to GarageBand for the PC, which is a pity, since most people still use Windows PCs, but there are some programs that come close. Sonar Music Creator is well-priced and has a clean interface that is simple to use, as is Acoustica Mixcraft – and both programs use the popular DirectX and VST plug-in formats.
So after tinkering with multiple programs, I finally got a song I’m satisfied with – at the very least, it has a discernible beginning, middle and end. I’ve exported it to an MP3 file, and it’s currently sitting on my iPod, where only I can listen to it – for now, the rest of the world is safe.
Three devices = infinite instruments
This basic setup will plug you in to a wide world of synth instruments and digital audio effects.
1. Drum pad
Most music-production software will come with a variety of “drum kits”—sampled percussion instruments that vary by genre (rock, salsa, dance, etc). While you can play these on a MIDI piano or even a qwerty keyboard, a drum pad or digital drum set lets you break out the sticks. Available from Roland, Alesis and Yamaha; expect to pay between R1120 to R32 000 for a full set.
2. Audio Interface
To choose a USB audio interface, first determine what you want to plug in to your computer. Most have basic analog-to-digital audio converters inside to capture vocals and analogue instruments through a microphone. Others integrate MIDI inputs and have built-in dials for manual adjustment of input levels. Available from Cakewalk, M-Audio and Behringer.
3. Midi keyboard
The most flexible digital music device you can buy—a MIDI keyboard can be made to imitate any instrument imaginable. More expensive models have manual controls and settings—some have onboard audio processing and can play independent of a PC. Available from M-Audio, Yamaha, Roland and Korg.