Beginner's Guide to Making Music Using Computers

Sonar Producer 8.5This article was originally written in July of 2008.

Please note that I’ve removed all links from this article (they just led to pages of zZounds.com).


HARDWARE

The Computer:

First of all, you’re going to need a decent computer — as good of one as you can afford. It doesn’t have to be a supercomputer, but you can’t have too good of a computer; especially when you get into the more advanced applications. Nearly all aspects of the computer will factor in, including the CPU power, the amount of RAM, the speed of the hard drive(s) and how much space they can hold, the quality of the sound card, etc… For audio creation, your sound card will be one of the most important components of your computer. You should get a sound card built to be used for audio creation, preferably from a company such as Creative Labs (or even more preferably, from their “Pro”-level subsidiary company, E-MU). M-Audio also makes good sound cards for this purpose.

MIDI Control:

You’re also going to want a MIDI keyboard controller and/or some other MIDI input device (if you don’t know what MIDI is, see the terminology section). Keyboards are the most versatile for composing; you can, however, use any MIDI device to play any type of virtual instrument. For instance, you can use a MIDI keyboard to play virtual pianos, guitars, drums, violins, entire orchestral performance patches, and anything else you can imagine. MIDI keyboards and other MIDI input instruments (such as MIDI wind controllers) are not the only types of MIDI controllers, however. You can also hook up such things as MIDI mixing surfaces, so that you can use them to more easily mix your tracks within your software, which we’ll discuss in more depth later. Many MIDI keyboards also include lots of sliders and knobs on them to help in mixing. Technically, no MIDI input device is needed to compose and mix music using software. However, they do make things a lot easier.

If you’re going to be using nothing but software for your actual audio creation (which is really the best way to go these days), then stay away from MIDI devices that include built-in sounds and other functions — all you need are MIDI controllers if you want to simply use them to control the functions of the software. Keyboards, mixing surfaces, and everything else — they will all just be controlling the software. Keyboards with built-in sounds are still good, but on a price-to-performance ratio, they are not worth it. The same thing is true of mixing consoles with built-in audio processing functionality. This is because you’re paying for the added processing power built-in to the equipment — whereas if you simply use your computer, some music production software, and MIDI controllers, you’re using the processing power of your computer instead. After all, a good computer is way more powerful than a synthesizer workstation keyboard could ever hope to be. Hardware synthesizer keyboards are also much harder to work with, especially when attempting to do entirely without a computer running software. Besides, software can emulate old analog synthesizers, it can include modern synthesizers, and it can simulate real-world instruments (as well as record them via microphones and the correct interfaces). In short, software is awesome… but we’ll discuss that more later.

MIDI Keyboards:

When buying a MIDI keyboard, one important factor to think about is the “action” of the keyboard. That is to say, how the keys are built to feel when you play them. There are three different keyboard action types:

1. Weighted Hammer Action

These are keyboards that are designed to feel like a real piano. This action is usually found in 88-note keyboards. Manufacturers use various methods to create this keyboard action, whether by applying weights and springs or by adding a real hammer action for a more authentic piano feeling. These types of keyboards are best for people that are very used to the feel of a real piano, or who compose a lot of piano music. Many consider this to be the best type of action because they believe it lets the player add more expression to the piece. However, others feel that this type of action is not the best suited for playing very fast sections, as well as composing drum and percussion parts.

2. Semi-weighted Action

Also known as “semi-weighted synth action,” this action is similar to weighted hammer action, but with a somewhat springier release and less key resistance. These types of keyboards can typically be played somewhat faster than weighted hammer action keyboards, thus making them better suited for such things as composing drum and percussion parts. If I were being limited to one keyboard action type, this is the one that I would choose, because it offers the best of both worlds — it allows for a quality-feeling weighted “touch” while still having the ability to be played quite fast.

3. Synth Action

Not to be confused with “semi-weighted synth action,” synth action is the lightest action, with very little key resistance and no added weight whatsoever. The spring-loaded keys of a synth action keyboard feel much like an electronic organ; the keys return to their resting positions a lot quicker than do weighted keys. This makes the keys light and capable of being played very quickly. Synth action is best suited for playing very fast parts, as well as for people who are not used to the feeling of weighted keys or pianos in general. However, others find the feeling of synth action keyboards to seem rather insubstantial and “cheap.”

Another factor to consider is the amount of notes (or keys) found on the keyboard. Keyboards generally come in five sizes:

88-key, 76-key, 61-key, and compact sizes — 49-key and 25-key

The first three are the most popular sizes. It’s up to you how many keys you get on your keyboard, but if I were just getting one keyboard to use for composing music, I would not get one with less than 76 keys. That being said, if you’re on a really tight budget, a 61-note keyboard would still be decent, but anything below that is very compact and of even more limited use. If you can afford two keyboards, a good idea is to get a hammer weighted 88-note keyboard for playing slow parts, piano pieces, and anything requiring access to many notes, and then get a semi-weighted or synth action keyboard with 76 keys or less for use in composing faster pieces, as well as for drum and percussion parts.

Another thing you may want for your keyboard(s) are pedals, which can include expression pedals and sustain pedals. You should at the very least have a single sustain pedal. Luckily, they aren’t very expensive. Sustain pedals are very useful, especially when composing piano pieces.

Audio Interfaces and Connectivity:

Depending on what type of MIDI keyboard you get, you may need an audio interface device in order to hook up your MIDI keyboard to your PC (some keyboards have them built-in), so that it can communicate with the software. You may want to get an external sound device to use in place of a good sound card, such as an E-MU 0404 USB, or something like it. It acts as a sound card as well as an audio interface, and that way you can hook up your MIDI keyboard to it using its MIDI ports. Alternatively, look for a sound card that has MIDI inputs and outputs supported on it (some do this using cables or CD drive-sized bay devices), or simply get a MIDI keyboard that hooks up directly via a USB cable, in which case you don’t need to use MIDI ports at all. However, a word of caution: I have used MIDI keyboards connected using nothing but USB, and from my experience with them, they really don’t work as well as a connection using MIDI ports. This has just been my experience with them, of course. Luckily, most USB MIDI keyboards still have MIDI ports as well, so if you can’t get one to work well via USB, you can always switch to a MIDI connection if you have the correct cables and sound card or audio interface. Often, however, an audio interface connects to your PC via a USB cable, in which case you may think that connecting the MIDI device to the interface’s MIDI ports wouldn’t help much, but I have still found this solution to be much more stable for my MIDI keyboard. Otherwise, such glitches as “stuck” notes occur more often for me. Other MIDI devices may work perfectly fine when connected directly via USB, however.

To help you get an idea of things, here is a very simplistic flow chart regarding my current studio setup:

Computer Music Studio Flow Chart

It’s a pretty simple setup, as you can see, but it’s quite effective for composing. You could just leave out the E-MU 0404 USB audio interface and directly connect the keyboard to the computer using a USB cable (as long as this is supported by the MIDI keyboard), as previously mentioned. If you were to go the USB-only route, then you could just use your sound card’s audio output for your headphones and speakers. One problem with doing this, however, is the fact that many sound cards don’t directly support XLR or 1/4″ audio cables for outputting audio, which means you can’t easily hook up big, studio-quality monitoring speakers to your PC. However, with an audio interface like the E-MU 0404 USB, you can easily hook up such studio monitors. Of course, some sound cards do support such cables, and in any case, studio-quality monitoring speakers aren’t required to make music, especially if you’re a beginner. You could just stick with headphones or standard PC speakers, which typically hook up to your PC via the sound card using 1/8″ audio cables. In some cases, they will hook up directly to your motherboard’s on-board audio via the same types of cables. However, on-board audio is usually of poor quality, although some high-end motherboards support pretty good on-board audio. Still, a good sound card is the best choice — in fact, it’s more preferable than an external sound device, because the latency is usually better. That’s not to say that all external sound devices are bad — for most applications, they would be more than sufficient, especially if you get a high-quality one like the E-MU 0404 USB.

Where to Get Music Gear:

So, by now you may be thinking, “Where should I get my gear?” There are many retailers available online; you can choose any that you like, but my personal favorite is www.zzounds.com.

In case you were wondering, the gear shown in the above flow chart is as follows: Event ASP8 Studio Monitors, an E-MU 0404 USB Audio Interface, Ultrasone HFI-700 Professional Headphones with S-Logic™, a CME UF7 (now UF70) 76-Key Semi-Weighted Synth-Action Keyboard, and my laptop PC (I’ve also got my desktop PC, which I use when more processing power is needed).

TERMINOLOGY

Let’s go over some basic audio-related terminology here, in case all of these terms are completely foreign to you. Obviously we’ve already discussed MIDI keyboards and such, but there are many other terms that you should be familiar with.

Here we go, in alphabetical order:

Aftertouch:

Aftertouch is a type of MIDI control data generated by applying varying amounts of additional pressure on one or more keys on a MIDI keyboard after they have pressed down and are resting on the keybed. This MIDI information can be used with some audio samples in order to change how a virtual instrument or synthesizer will sound based on how much additional pressure is being applied to the keys.

Audio Effect:

Audio effects can include reverbs (to do anything from authentically simulating actual real-life acoustic environments to creating out-of-this-world effects), mastering suites, equalizers, phasers, unisons, compressors, and other things. Audio effects can be applied to nearly any track data a DAW, whether it be a virtual instrument, a single sample, or a synthesizer. You can also stack effects in order to achieve whatever sound you’re looking for. The possibilities are limitless.

Bit Depth and Bit Rate (pertaining to audio):

Without going into too much detail, bit depth, when referring to digital audio, identifies the number of bits of information recorded for each sample. It directly corresponds to the resolution of each sample within a set of digital audio data. Some common examples (as of 2008) are CD audio, which is recorded at 16 bits, and DVD audio, which is recorded at up to 24 bits. Bit rate refers to the amount of data (bits) transmitted or received per second. Beginners need not delve into all of this too much… but they should at least know that for bit depth and bit rate, higher numbers are better. These are not the only things that affect the quality of a digital audio signal — other things, including sample rate, also play a role.

DAW (Digital Audio Workstation):

This is usually the main piece of software that you’ll be using for audio creation; it is the heart of the modern-day recording studio. A DAW is a “host” application that lets you record music using both MIDI devices as well as microphones, and it lets you use plug-in software to make your library of virtual instruments, synthesizers, and audio effects larger and more capable. There are many DAW applications available, although you only really need one. A DAW not only lets you record — it also lets you mix your music and finalize it into its finished form, whether that be anything from a stereo MP3 to a high-end surround sound mix.

Loop Players and Drum Machines:

Loop players (sometimes called other things, such as REX players — REX being a common loop file format) are devices (usually in the form of software) that allow you to play “loops,” which are short recordings of an instrument or performance being repeated over and over again. These devices allow you to change the pitch of the loop being played, as well as add other audio effects to it. Sometimes, loop players have the ability to break the loop down into different “slices” which can be arranged in different ways using a sequencer and then played back. Alternatively, the loop can be used in its original form.

Drum machines, on the other hand, are software or hardware devices that allow the user to program drum patterns by using buttons. Drum samples are used to playback the drum patterns, which can usually have a few levels of velocity for each drum sample — however, if realism is the objective, programming drum performances using a keyboard and high-quality virtual instruments typically gives better results.

Mastering:

Mastering (a type of audio post-production) is the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio from a source containing the final mix to a data storage device — the master. This will be the source from which all copies will be created (via such methods as pressing or duplication). Digital masters are the most often used today, although analog masters (e.g., audio tapes) are still used by the manufacturing industry and by some engineers who specialize in analog mastering. Various actions may be done during the process of mastering in order to make the audio production sound better. This can include editing slight flaws, adding ambience, applying noise reduction to eliminate hum and hiss, adjusting stereo width, equalizing the audio, adjusting volume, applying dynamic expansion and compression, and applying peak limiting. These processes are often done during mastering in order to make the music sound as “punchy” — and often, depending on the genre, as perceivably loud — as possible.

Mastering can become very complicated, especially for those who consider themselves professionals at the process. Some even consider it an “art form,” and insist that the practice should be left only to professionals. While professional mastering can no doubt make a production sound better, one should remember that it does not directly alter the content of the production. A badly-mastered but well-composed piece of music is still better than a well-mastered but badly-composed piece of music.

MIDI:

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a protocol that allows computers, electronic musical instruments, and other devices to communicate and synchronize with each other. It allows computers, sound cards, samplers, synthesizers, MIDI controllers, and drum machines to control one another, as well as exchange data. MIDI does not directly transmit any type of audio signal. Instead, it transmits digital data messages regarding musical notes and their velocity, as well as signals for parameters such as volume, vibrato, and panning. MIDI can also include information regarding tempo, among other things. Thus, a MIDI file containing the information to playback a musical performance is very small in file size, because it does not contain any actual audio data. Instead, it simply contains commands and information that can be used along with electronic musical instruments and computers to playback the performance. A MIDI file for a musical composition can be thought of as digital sheet music, and virtual instruments and/or synthesizers are the instruments that can be used to playback the performance. Sequencers are used to record MIDI data. Since its introduction in 1983, MIDI has seen widespread adoption throughout the industry, and today it is an extremely useful electronic protocol for audio creation.

Mixing:

Audio mixing is the process of balancing the relative volume, frequency, and dynamic content of a number of individual sound sources. Some people become confused over the terms “mixing” and “mixing down,” as well as the differences between a “mix,” a “remix,” and a “CD mix.”

Mixing music — no matter whether it is being done using hardware, software, or both — and no matter whether the music tracks being mixed are of virtual instruments, synthesizers, or direct microphone recordings — is about getting the volumes of the different tracks of audio to sound the way you want them to, getting the panning of the tracks to sound the way you want them to, getting the frequency content (equalization — bass, treble, etc.) of the tracks to sound the way you want them to, and getting any audio effects inserted into the tracks to sound the way you want them to. The volumes of the tracks are controlled using faders (a.k.a. sliders), and the panning is controlled using knobs. Mixing boards also include knobs for frequency content, as well as send effects, so that you can change the amount audio effects and equalization being applied to individual tracks. Many mixing consoles today have automation capabilities so that the movement of their controls can be recorded and played back automatically. Recently, control surfaces connected to computers have become popular. This eliminates the need for a lot of the electronics in a traditional mixing console, since the actual automation work is instead done by the processing power of the computer.

When someone refers to “mixing down” the tracks, they are referring to the process of taking all of the audio tracks of a production (whether they contain music or any other type of audio) and compiling them to be a more simple audio signal, often in the form of such popular formats as MP3s or WAVs. The mixed down version usually has only two audio signals (stereo), although higher amounts of signals can be used to create such things as surround sound mixes. Whereas you have control over the volume, panning, etc., of every track before you have mixed down, this information is not present in the mixed down version. Thus, a mixed down stereo audio file only has information for the left and right signals of audio.

When a person refers to a “mix” of music, they are usually referring to how the discussed information has been set for the different tracks of audio in a production.

A “remix” is a remixing of the original mix, usually with some or many changes and additions to the composition and arrangement of the music.

When someone refers to something like a “CD mix,” they typically mean that they have simply taken their favorite tracks from various albums or works and compiled them into one custom album.

Panning:

Panning is regarding where an audio signal is “located” within a range of speakers. For instance, if you turn a knob on a mixing board for the panning of a recording of a violin being played, and the speaker system that you are listening to the recording on is a stereo system (two speakers), then the violin playback will be heard louder in one speaker or the other depending on how far left or right you turn the knob.

Sample:

A sample is typically a recording of a musical instrument, as already mentioned. However, it doesn’t have to be an instrument — you could use your sampler (the term used for a device or program that will play any sample you want it to) to play a recording of you tapping your fingers on your desk, and then you could do whatever you wanted to with that sample — you could change the pitch and/or add reverb or some other combination of audio effects. You could change the sound to be something very different from what it was originally. See sampler for more information.

Sample Rate (pertaining to audio):

The sample rate (also known as sampling rate or sampling frequency) identifies the number of samples per second (or per a different unit) taken from a continuous signal to create a discrete signal. Without going into too much detail, the higher the sample rate, the better. Sample rate for digital audio is usually measured in hertz (Hz). Some typical audio sample rates concerning music and audio production (as of 2008) are 44,100 Hz (CD quality audio), 48,000 Hz, 96,000 Hz (DVD quality audio), and 192,000 Hz (Blu-ray quality audio). For music production, 44,100 Hz and up is sufficient, although many professionals prefer to mix their music using equipment capable of the higher spectrum, such as 96,000 Hz or 192,000 Hz. Sample rate is not the only thing that affects the quality of a digital audio signal — other things, including bit depth, also play a role.

Sequencer:

A sequencer is the part of a DAW what allows you to record MIDI information. With a sequencer, you can hit record, play something on your MIDI keyboard, and then view and playback what you recorded in the sequencer. You can then make changes to your recording, move the notes around, add new ones (a MIDI device is not needed to compose within a DAW — you can add notes using just your mouse if you like), change their length, their pitch, their velocity, and switch between virtual instruments and synthesizers.

Synthesizer:

A synthesizer is not to be confused with a virtual instrument. Synthesizers do not use recorded samples to create audio. Instead, they use purely electronic methods. They usually have many different controls on them to alter the sound being produced; synthesizers are what truly allow you to create entirely new sounds. With a virtual instrument, you’re limited to what musical instruments were recorded (although you can change them a lot using effects), but with a synthesizer, you can make your own instruments. Of course, when it comes to virtually and authentically simulating real-world musical instruments, synthesizers are not nearly as useful as virtual instruments.

Velocity (pertaining to MIDI):

The velocity of a sample being played relates to how “hard” the note is being “struck.” MIDI keyboards that are velocity-sensitive mean that they support velocity-sensitive samples. Thus, if you’re using a velocity sensitive MIDI keyboard along with multi-velocity samples, the virtual instrument you are playing will sound more aggressive or less aggressive depending on how hard to strike the key(s). For instance, multi-velocity piano samples will sound quieter or louder depending on how you strike a key. Some virtual instruments and samplers may also be programmed to change playing styles depending on velocity, or even switch between musical instruments.

VST (Virtual Instrument) and/or Sampler:

A virtual instrument (also known as VST) is just what the name implies, except that they are usually a package of instruments, all contained in one plug-in. Take the plug-in “Miroslav Philharmonik” for example. This is a nicely-priced symphonic VST containing “samples” of real-world orchestral instruments that have been meticulously recorded and programmed so that they are playable from a MIDI keyboard. You don’t need microphones to record the instruments — each individual note has already been recorded — all you have to do is compose using your sequencer! Often, the individual notes of each instrument (or each drum, in the case of drum kits or percussion packages) have been recorded multiple times at different velocity levels, so that maximum realism is achieved.

A virtual instrument sometimes acts multi-purpose as a sampler, which is the term used for a device or program that will play any sample you want it to. However, not all virtual instruments are samplers, and not all samplers are virtual instruments. That is to say, not all virtual instruments can play any sample that you want them to, and not all samplers come with a read-to-use library of samples (which would make them more of a “virtual instrument”). When used with musical instrument samples, most decent samplers allow the user to change the mapping of the instrument(s) and notes on the keyboard (as well as the notes’ velocities), so that you can have different instruments mapped to different parts of the keyboard, and/or so that different instruments will play depending on how hard you strike the keys of the keyboard.

SOFTWARE

Okay, hopefully you now understand some of the basic terminology regarding computer audio creation. By now you may be asking yourself, “What software should I start out with?” That’s up to you — there is a ton of great music production software available — but for absolute beginners, a good program to start out with is something like…

Propellerheads Reason. Reason is great for beginners because it is complex enough to produce pretty high-quality audio, and yet simple enough that it doesn’t completely overwhelm beginners. It may look pretty complex at first, but once you learn how it works, you’ll find it isn’t all that difficult. It’s also still less daunting than more advanced programs. Reason includes everything you need to get started — it’s a complete, self-contained studio, containing a sequencer, mixers, samplers with real-world musical instrument samples, a library of patches for its various synthesizers and effects devices, and more, including a “combinator” device to allow you to combine instruments and synthesizers and play them together. Your library of samples within Reason can be expanded by buying Reason Refills to be used with Reason’s built-in sampler. And the great thing is that after you are ready for the more advanced DAWs, you can use Reason as a plug-in to your DAW! Reason isn’t really a DAW itself, especially since you can’t use plug-in VSTs and effects (as of the writing of this guide), but it works great as a stand-alone music production application, as well as a plug-in to an actual DAW. A high-end DAW typically costs more than Reason does, so it’s great to be able to buy just Reason and use it stand-alone while you’re still learning, and then switch over to using it as a plug-in to a DAW when you’re more experienced.

So, go head, get Reason. Of course, it’s up to you how you do things — buying a DAW first wouldn’t be a bad idea, as long as you’re motivated and capable enough to actually get through the learning curve. A good DAW is far more capable than Reason — also, most DAWs still come with plenty of virtual instruments, synths, and effects to get you started. Two of the most popular DAWs are Cakewalk SONAR (my personal favorite) and Steinberg Cubase… but if you can’t deal with Reason, then you probably can’t deal with the more advanced programs. However, if you can deal with it (which, after a few tutorials, hopefully you should be able to), then you can upgrade later and still have Reason to use as well. After all, one can never have too much software!

One final thing: depending on your level of musical experience, you may want to learn more about music theory in order to enhance your ability to create music. Although there are millions of resources out there related to this, I have found this website to be quite useful: www.musictheory.net

Well, this concludes my guide to making music using computer software. This barely even touches upon everything, including how to actually use the software… but that’s what tutorials are for. Whatever software you get, it will come with tutorials. Use them. Good luck!

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