You’re sitting in a room with a group of mates, and suddenly someone asks you, “Which instrument do you play?” What would you answer to them?
More and more people are using computers to create good music, knowing how to play a musical instrument. I find playing musical instruments very meaningful and sometimes very intimate. However, I’m glad that today’s technology gives options for those who have musical interest and aspirations but can’t play an instrument.
I have outlined three ways that you can create music without an instrument.
Loop-based music has been around a lot longer than personal computers, but computers have made it a whole lot easier. Loop-based music is made up of the combination of short recordings of music snippets which are looped together in a pattern.
Music loops have initially been pieces of magnetic tape which were cut at strategic places and spliced together. Among the early pioneers of loop music were the Beatles and now you can find it in the modern styles of popular music such as hip hop and techno.
The use of sampling technology and digital audio workstations has made the technique of looping pre-recorded music much more comfortable. It’s a clever use of digital effects that can make the loops sound radically different from the original audio source.
To use these programs for looping, you’ll need some loops! You’ll typically get a set of loops installed along with the software, or you can make your own by carefully snipping short lengths of music from other songs. You can also download loops from the Net. Here are some free sources:
MIDI sequencing has been around as long as MIDI itself – the mid-80s – and is a way of recording musical events rather than audio itself. It was essential back in the days before computers were powerful enough to deal with audio directly, and remains a useful way of working with music today.
When you playback a MIDI sequence, the musical events need to trigger the sounds from somewhere. That may be an external sequencer, but more commonly it happens in software.
The software is typically entered by playing it on an external MIDI keyboard or on-screen keyboard, though this requires some essential musical skill. It can also be opened by clicking your mouse directly onto the “piano roll” view of your sequencer, though this can be tedious. It is a relatively practical way of entering drum loops, however.
Though this is a form of MIDI sequencing, these programs use an intelligent technology that is not common to most sequencers. For quick song arrangements in the 90s, I used PG Music’s Band-in-a-Box. The program still seems to be going strong today.
To put together a quick arrangement, you type in the chord progression and select a musical style and tempo. That’s it! You can enhance the arrangement by adding fills, selecting which notes anticipate the beat, and adding a melody line. I also found the program very handy for printing chord charts with the melody line. It must be the most straightforward program I’ve used for using mouse clicks to enter the melody.
Here are a few key definitions you need to get familiar with when using a computer to make music:
A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is computer software that serves as a host for production, recording, editing and rendering audio. If you make music on your computer, after the operating system, the next most crucial thing to have is your DAW. It is the platform that holds all elements and components together while making your music.
There are many different DAWs. What they have in common is that they all enable you to record multiple elements, edit multiple recordings, and export them as a single track.
Acronym for “Virtual Studio Technology.” It’s a program that allows you to make sounds that emulate physical instruments. Using a VST eliminates the need for purchasing hardware autotune, reverb, grand piano, guitars, and other equipment and instruments, which translates to big cost savings.
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The Musical Instrument Digital Interface is a communication system for equipment that makes sounds, control sound, and the host computer. Using MIDI, pushing a key on a keyboard or synthesizer can trigger one or more sounds, push a switch, or turn a knob on your DAW. MIDI can be called the language of communication between the hardware, software, and the computer involved in digital music-making.
Computer Music Production
Thanks to the increased capacity of computers and their relative availability, music production has increasingly become accessible in recent time. Music production here includes your process of recording the various elements of the music.
This includes all instruments and vocals. It can be challenging and sometimes quite expensive to have real instruments record their parts in a song.
As an example, if you’re trying to include a strings section in a song, you need to source for some violin players, cello and double bass players. You also need brass or horns section, and you need to hire a few horns players.
With this in mind, now imagine the sort of coordination you would need to bring these many musicians to play how you need them to. There are outstanding, realistically sounding applications you can use on your computer to achieve these sounds. They are called VST Plugins. Some of them can be quite large and eat up a lot of space and working memory, but they are mostly worth the trouble. It is quite common for music makers these days to use the computer in recording their strings and brass instruments. It is cheaper when compared to the other option.
Drums in Music Production
Drums are the feature of most styles in the music industry. Drums can be quite challenging to record because of the troubles you may likely encounter in getting well-sounding drums. Sometimes you are better off using your computer to make your drum elements. There are various incredible drum plugins with marvelous sound. Even if your music does not require your drums to sound realistic, there are sample libraries that will bring you perfect and realistic sounds.
You must know that even though you use your computer to make music, you still need one or two equipment to add. To produce and make your instrumentals, you’ll need a midi controller. It could be in the form of a keyboard, an MPC, or other types of input devices.
Some midi controllers are not bulky, such as the 49-key keyboard USB MIDI controllers. It can be used to input musical information to the computer. Here’s how it works: You hook up the MIDI controller to the computer, and select the instrument you want to “play.” You play or press the MIDI device, and it gives different sound based on the chosen instruments. Record the instrument of your choice and repeat the procedure with others.
Some DAWS have samples and VSTs that come with the package as soon as you purchase them. You would have to purchase other sound packs and plugins separately.
If you think the production and recording process without the computer would be bulky, then don’t even bother trying to mix without the computer. To mix a song without a computer, you would need racks upon racks of hardware processors, an extensive mixing board to accommodate all tracks and sends, among other things.
I think computer mixing is the best thing to have happened in the music-making industry in the 21st century. When mixing with a computer, you can work with numerous channels, save your settings and presets, recall processes and resume projects as many times as possible. Imagine not being able to save a project to continue whenever. Then it would be hard.
If you are mixing with a computer, I assume you also recorded the audio on the computer. Here is another advantage; it is much easier to send information when you use computers for the major processes. You can practically save a project on one computer and continue the same project on another computer; provided both systems are equipped with the necessary apparatus. Now, what would you need to mix “in-the-box”?
Basic Hardware Equipment is Necessary
Same as with production, you would need your “Digital Audio Workstation.” You may not necessarily need a MIDI controller for mixing, but you’d definitely need a sound card and a good pair of monitors or headphones. Also, for mixing, you’ll need the right listening environment. Let’s talk about sound cards for a bit:
A sound card is a device that carries an audio signal in and out of a computer. It can be either internal or external. Sound cards are otherwise called audio interfaces. To make music on your computer, it is better you use an external sound card. The reason for this is that your computer’s internal sound card may not be powerful enough to handle the signals going in and out of the system.
It does not necessarily mean your internal sound card is inferior; it’s just that in most cases. They are only designed for everyday users to either listen to music or for video calls; they are not suitable for music production or mixing.
If you do not have much space or your room is not well built for sound reflections, you should consider using headphones rather than studio monitors. This eliminates the risk of having a bad mix because your room is messing with your sound referencing.
Referencing is the process of comparing your mix to good mixes of other songs to know your headphone’s frequency distribution. For mixing, it is better you use open-back design headphones. They mostly have better low ends.
Analog vs. Digital
Digital music production and mixing have come to stay, no doubt. However, there’s still an ongoing discussion on which is better; analog or the digital sound. The major advantage that analog heads would claim is the warm sound that analog consoles give when you use them for mixing.
Digital production technology has incorporated this sound into many mixing and mastering plugins. That said, you can make your digitally mixed and mastered music sound like it was done on an analog console.
What kind of Computers can you use to Make Music?
While we have talked about the many advantages of making music digitally, you should be aware that not all computers have the capacity for music production. At the minimum, you need at least 8GB of RAM and a fairly good processing speed; minimum is four cores with at least 2.4GHz. Some plugins are quite heavy and will not work with the minimum requirements. If you enjoy the process of making music, you must go for high-performance systems.
So, do you love making music? If the answer is yes, then you have no excuse anymore; you can now do it at the comfort of your home.