Making Music on a Computer

Making music is a dream for many people. Some want to make music because it offers the potential for fame and fortune. Others find music as a way to escape and create something beautiful.

Thanks to the powerful computers we have today, we have the opportunity to make these dreams come true in a compact and reliable way.

For example, you could score an entire movie without an orchestra. You could use your MIDI keyboard to emulate guitar, trumpet flutes, violins and many other non-piano key style instruments. All it takes is practice and information.

Most of the schools that exist for music production can teach you either engineering or music theory. You could also take a class to learn how to play specific instruments. With enough patience and perseverence, I believe you can accomplish enough of both on your own. I'm not saying that you won't benefit from specialized instruction. What I am saying is that you can move towards your goal without paying for school until you reach a point where you know if you really need it.


DAWs

Assuming you have a computer already, what else do you need to get started? At the minimum, you need a software program often referred to as a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation. The DAW is the center of the audio creation process.

Most DAWs can utilize external sounds and effects. There are two main standards to be aware of, one is for Windows and the other for Macs. Windows uses a "VST" plug-in specification and Macs use "AU". This allows you to add new sounds and effects to most DAWs on the market.

There are many DAWs out there today. Products like Cubase, Reason, FL Studio (also known as Fruity Loops), Logic, Garage Band, Sonar, Pro Tools and many others can get you started. Many of these come in a variety of versions and prices. Here's what I can tell you about a few of them:

  • Cubase - A lot of professionals use this and it is regarded as a pro level DAW. It comes in different models that have different price levels and feature sets.

  • Reason - One of the more popular DAWs for the home musician. It emulates real life gear and comes with top quality sounds. It has been used professionally but is considered a step below Cubase on the pro scale. The system is a closed system, meaning that new sounds and effects must be made specifically for Reason. it does not use the VST standard plug-ins. Runs on Mac and Windows computers.

  • FL Studio - One of the most feature-rich DAWs ever made but also one with a higher learning curve in many areas. FL Studio has been used in professional releases but is considered a step below Cubase on the pro scale. Many of the gripes about this product come from the fact it is not newbie friendly in many areas, but time invested in FL usually yields excellent results. It has many non-standard elements that confuse people initially. The relatively low price and lifetime free updates are a major selling point for many. Windows only.

  • Logic - A well respected DAW for the Mac family of computers. Considered a professional level DAW.

  • Garage Band - Comes stock with all new Macs (as of this writing) and is said to be a subset of Logic code.

  • Pro Tools - This is the defacto standard for professional (digital) recording today. It is often sold with hardware specifically created to work with it. It uses a standard known as "RTAS".

I would suggest you do a google search for the various DAWs to get a feel for how they look and their prices. Some of them also have demo versions you can download to get a sense of how the workflow in each operates. To me, the workflow is the most important part of the process. If a DAW is great in every respect but the workflow is terrible, you may not use it to it's full potential.


Sounds

Once you have a DAW, you need to use it to control sounds. Sounds can be made in 3 general ways - Samples, Virtual Instruments and Effects.

Samples are digitally recorded audio. There are four main types of samples commonly used:

  • One Shots - These are quick hits of audio like a single kick drum or snare drum. Maybe even a sound effect like a car horn or a gunshot.

  • Loops - These are recorded audio that can be repeatedly played to form a sound that seamlessly loops back to the beginning and continue to be on time.

  • Chops - Technically these can be looped or even one shot. The difference is the intention. These audio bits are usually strung together to form a new audio sequence

  • Recorded - This is a full part played or sung by a human and recorded into one sample that is arranged into your song.
Virtual instruments are added software devices that work inside the DAW to produce sound. You might have a virtual instrument that sounds like a piano or guitar for example. You can use many instruments to make a complete song.

Many DAWs come with a selection of virtual instruments to get you started but there is a huge market of third party instruments that you can choose from.

Effects or "FX" for short, are added software devices that take an incoming sound and effect it in some way producing a different sound. Some effects that are common would be Echo (delay), Equalization (EQ), Filters, Compression and Reverb.

In the case of echo for example, a sound goes in and the output is the sound plus a diminishing version of itself.

Like the virtual instruments, many DAWs come pre equipped with a selection of these. There is a large third party aftermarket for these as well.


MIDI

After you get some sounds, you need to get those sounds into a sequence. Many DAWs give you the ability to open a "piano roll" and click the notes and set the duration. This can be tedious for anything beyond drum tacks however so most people will use a plug-in hardware interface called a MIDI controller.

The most popular and widely used is the keyboard style MIDI controller. It is used to play notes into the DAW which then get routed through a virtual instrument to produce a sound. For example, you might load up a piano instrument to record a piano part and later activate a violin instrument to record a violin part as well.

The extra buttons, knobs and faders on the MIDI controller may be used to control other aspects of the program such as volume level, stop, start and record. Usually these goodies can be programmed at will depending on the active instrument or effect. You could hook a knob to control the timing of echo in a delay effect for example.

There are other types of MIDI controllers. Drum Pads, Control Surfaces (no piano keyboard), Guitars and more.

Most MIDI controllers can be used with any DAW. To be sure, you should ask the vendor of the DAW for a list of compatible devices.


Information

This is the fun part for me. There is so much information readily available on the 'net that you can get swept away. Just use Google to search for some terms you are interested in such as "Fruity Loops Tutorials" or "Scales", etc.

You can also look at other peoples project files and learn from them. My own site hosts over 600 remakes of popular songs in Fruity Loops format for you to dissect and learn from. Some more popular FL Project downloads on my site are:


I also have several articles for you to use as a starting point:



Conclusion

So thats it in a nutshell. Get a DAW, a MIDI controller, some Information and a little inspiration and you can make music on the computer!

3 comments:

God's Place said...

Very nice post Nelson, you write very well and all the links you provided should be very helpful. Nice blog too!

Musta said...

Nice post..I am also a member of Warbeats.com, the place I go everytime I need inspiration! Some good links in this post too..Thanks.

Solidus said...

Thanks for the helpful info, but how do I contact you to ask specific questions?