Making music is easy PC

Creating music on your PC is now within the reach of all Windows Middle East readers, let us guide you through the basics of setting up your own home studio.

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By  Andrew Picken Published  September 29, 2003

Introduction|~||~||~|The Streets, Nick Cave and the Prodigy are just three artists who have produced successful albums using only their bare wit and a computer loaded with some of the latest music making software.
During the early 80s, while the Spectrum dominated the large pixel gaming world, the Atari ST carved out cult status amongst musicians getting to grips with the new phenomenon of sequencing music on computers. This dominance only ended with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh, which then became the computer of choice for the amateur and professional musician alike. And so it remained until well into the 90s when the domination of the PC finally made music software developers sit up and take notice.

The first thing to realise is that your PC is actually a musical instrument if loaded with the appropriate software, such as a sequencer. A sequencer is to a musician what a word processor is to a writer. The sequencer is the hub of the creative process, your command centre when composing and producing music on a computer. A sequencer is where you capture musical ideas, process them, and arrange them to create a song. Put simply, a sequencer lets you create the individual sonic building blocks and put them together to make a finished piece of music.

Today's music making software is available in both Apple and PC formats, with a plethora of choice facing any budding musician. Sequencing software will always be the kernel of any PC based musical operations, with the more popular packages including Cubase VST, Cakewalk or Pro Tools. There are other packages available, such as Propellerheads Reason, that act as a complete software studio in itself with an array of virtual racks containing synths, drumboxs and effects. It is possible to get software versions of practically any musical hardware you care to think of, from synthesizers to samplers.
Trying to create music without a decent soundcard is like trying to hammer a nail with a sponge, so at all costs try not to skimp on this crucial element of your home studio. Something along the lines of the SoundBlaster Live Platinum 5.1 or M-audio Revolution 7.1 will suffice for home music production. These both weigh in around the $100 mark and are MIDI compatible, leaving the option open for adding hardware at a later date. Another audio consideration is the speakers that you will use for monitoring sound. Normal stereo speakers will try and re-create the best sound possible leaving you with an unrealistic account of the music you are creating. Monitor speakers are the best bet for authentic sound reproduction although these will set you back a fair few dollars, so if you're just starting out, it might be an idea to stick with stereo speakers and use your cash on other elements, such as the soundcard or software.
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Another important point to note is that the majority of sequencing software available on the market is resource hungry and you will need a PC with a minimum specification of at least a Pentium 2 and 128 MB of RAM. A hefty hard disk capacity is also advisable, especially as you add additional software and your songs get longer and more detailed.

The looping of sampled chunks of music has been the most popular way to create music on computers and the internet has been a godsend for sample hungry musicians. However, if you're attempting to innovate as much as possible then you could follow in the footsteps of the musician David Holmes and gather your own distinctive samples. For his second album, 'Lets Get Killed', Holmes simply wandered around the rougher parts of New York armed only with a tape recorder, sampling the locals unique take on life in the city that never sleeps.
The Middle East has not traditionally taken to making music with computers, primarily because PC penetration has remained low in parts of the region but many feel that software piracy has also played its part. Madar Sound & Light Systems has been the Middle East representative for Steinberg, developers of the popular Cubase sequencing software, for the last five years but the company insists promotion of music software in the region has been limited because of the proliferation of copied software. "The piracy issue makes it a difficult market to operate in, and also the market requires support for the software but there is no such thing in place," says Mr. Waheed Ahmed bin Hasan, managing director of Madar.

The simple addition of music making software, coupled with your creative spirit, can turn your PC into the ultimate music making tool. With this workshop we hope to guide you through the basics of creating your own recording studio on your PC, understanding the role of sequencer software and giving you some Cubase tips and tricks.
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Step 1
Part of Cubase's enduring popularity is due to its well laid out screens and easy to navigate menus. Having said this, its main competitors are learning, in some cases copying, the Cubase lead and the once mystifying world of latency and velocity engines is now easier to understand.

The menus along the top of the screen are all fairly self-explanatory, while the central control panel of a sequencer is known as the transport bar. Among other things, the transport bar lets you start, record, play back and navigate through the arrangement of your music. The bar also holds key information about tempos, beats and loops. When you're working with a sequencer, you'll be dealing predominantly with features called tracks. Each track is made up of parts and a part is a container of sorts that holds the diverse musical elements of MIDI or audio data. Usually, every track is assigned to a specific instrument or sound, to a category of sounds, or to an audio recording. The tracks are displayed in seperate layers within a central window and are easy to manipulate.

Step 2
It is perfectly possible to create your musical masterpiece using only virtual instruments but the addition of a physical keyboard, sound module or guitar can make a world of difference. Softsynths are virtual synthesisers which mimic the sounds of their hardware counterparts while software plug-ins give the effect of musical instruments. To link up your musical instrument to your PC, you will need to ensure that both devices are MIDI compatible.

MIDI is a universal standard used by countless manufacturers so that MIDI devices and music software can communicate freely with each other. When you press one of the keyboard keys, for example, something called a MIDI event is generated. This is a message that contains various information, including details of the actual key you struck. Of course, the simplest addition to your set-up would be the humble microphone. This opens up a whole new direction for your music and there are plenty of effects packages to distort your voice if you can't sing a note.
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Step 3
Sampling has played a pivotal role in the development of hip-hop and dance music over the past few decades but can now also be found in most areas of contemporary music. The basic idea is to take a segment of a song, noise or basically anything that has been previously recorded and use it within your own song. You can manipulate the samples within Cubase but for more effective editing of your samples, we advise using a separate software package, such as Cool Edit Pro, which allows you better control and use of more effects.
Cubase allows you to read the special file formats of these separate editing software programs and loads the files in two steps. First select a track, then the import format option in the file menu. Cubase should automatically adjust the different tempos and if everything went as planned, the file should appear as a new part in the Arrange window. One aspect to keep in mind when you are sampling is the various copyright laws that might be relevant depending on just where in the world your sample originates from.

Step 4
A key tenet of creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes and a crucial part of learning to make music on your PC is simple trial and error. One of the best things about making music on your PC is that anything you do, you can quickly undo with a couple of clicks. This allows you to experiment to your heart's content and it will also teach you more about your sequencing software as you go along.

Try and think about the technical constructs of music making when developing ideas. For example, if you're using samples, such as a drum loop, its tempo (measured in beats per minute) has to match the overall song's tempo. It's a good idea to try and dissect other songs that you know have been produced electronically and listen for different ideas. A lot of electronically produced music today is overly repetitive, a bad habit encouraged by the relative ease by which you can loop segments of music together using a sequencer. It is worth trying to add a bit of variety to the loops you have created by adding new parts or even trying to change the pace of the track.
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Step 5
It seems an obvious thing to highlight but arranging your song's parts in a logical sequence is crucial to achieving the best sound possible. Firstly you need to record the parts you will be arranging. Once your levels are sorted then you're ready to record. Select a MIDI or audio track and then click the record button. You'll find it in the Transport bar of the sequencer. Then you'll hear a metronome click off the tempo and recording will start. The sequencer offers a number of handy editing functions to let you rectify any mistake that might occur during the recording.

Normally, an arrangement consists of different phases, for instance, an intro that serves as your opening musical statement, followed by alternating verses and choruses. This is not, however, a hard and fast rule. The newer styles of electronica and ambient or techno music owe little to traditional arrangements. It should be noted that a lot of the tools you need for arranging will be found on the transport bar but getting to know the keyboard short-cuts is a useful exercise.

Step 6
If you say the words recording studio to anyone, possibly the first image that is conjured in one's mind is an expansive mixing desk with knobs and dials stretching off into the distance. Well, having a recording studio within your PC has made the mastering and mixing process somewhat easier and allows you to understand just what all those knobs and dials are actually for.

Part of the fun of developing your own music is the opportunity to shape and control the settings of even the most remote murmuring on your tracks. All mixing and mastering changes, no matter how subtle, leave their own mark on your song, giving it much more of its own identity. A good analogy with mixing effects is to think of them as spices. Adding effects, such as reverb, chorus and delay, will add richness to your sound, but it is important to use it wisely. Once a song is mixed, all tracks are re-recorded to a single audio file and then you are free to burn your music to the format of your choice.
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