How to: get your PC singing

From trumped-up typewriters to multi-media mega machines, the PC has come a long way since it was first created. However, many people still use their PCs only for basic purposes and have not exploited its full potential. We hope to rectify this situation bit by bit. In this feature, we take you through a step-by-step guide on how to get your PC to sing.

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By  Vijaya George Published  May 30, 2002

I|~||~||~|PCs are no longer mere word processing machines out to help us get some work done at the office. Today, they have become a significant medium for entertainment. We can play games on our PC, watch movies, listen to music, mix music and make original scores ... and a good deal of the computing experience depends heavily on how well we utilise its multi-media capcbilities. As part of our efforts to help you do this, Windows Middle East teamed up with Graphics International (for the first phase of this workshop) and Intel (for the last).
Let’s start with the basics. For one, there can be no music on your PC without a sound card.

Purchasing a sound card:

Before purchasing a sound card, there are a few factors to consider.
Do you have a good Pentium 4 machine?
Do you plan to watch the occasional DVD on your PC?
Are you an amateur musician who wants to compose a musical score, and convert it to an MP3 for friends on the other side of the ocean to listen?
Do you have gaming enthusiasts in your home?
Do your want your PC to also function as your CD player?
If your answer to any of this is yes, you might need to give some thought to the sound card you purchase. There are essentially three different kinds of sound cards to look out for.

||**||II|~||~||~|A regular PC user could go in for a basic 2.1 sound card but this has come to be so outdated that you might find yourself itching to purchase a better sound card once you hear the difference on other PCs. But if all you do with your sound card is listen to a couple of midi files occasionally, this will serve your purpose and is available in the local market for as little as $15. A 2.1 sound card comes with 3 channels, one for the speakers, one for a microphone and an auxiliary output for an external instrument such as an electric guitar or piano (if you want to record your own music).

However, most college students and gaming enthusiasts opt for the 4.1 sound card or the 5.1. Gamers don't have a choice. A game port — the 15-pin DIN socket — comes only on a 4.1 or above.

People who enjoy watching DVD movies on their PC should ideally go in for a 5.1 card. Some of the more popular 4.1 and 5.1 sound cards in the market come from Creative and Yamaha. A good sound card can be purchased for approximately $125 from your local retail store. Yamaha cards are at least 15 to 20% more expensive than Creative sound cards and the difference is quality is usually noticeable only to the professional user. As a result, sound cards from Creative seem to be the product of choice for most buyers.
For those who do not want the hassle of opening up their ATX case and inserting a sound card, one other product in the market that functions as a sound card, comes with a five-speaker system and costs as little as $125 is the Creative Extigy. This product takes a USB port. As a standard, all sound cards come with basic software such as relevant drivers and a jukebox player.

Setting up your sound card

Most motherboards usually have a minimum of 3 PCI slots and a maximum of 6. Apart from your VGA card that goes into an AGP slot, most network cards and other components are designed to go into a PCI slot. The same applies to a sound card. You should have a PCI slot on your motherboard for your sound card unless you purchase something like the Extigy that uses your USB port. Clip your sound card on to the slot and screw it in place.

Configuring your sound card

Most sound cards today come with auto-configure CDs. All you have to do is insert your CD into the CD-ROM drive and sit back while the CD runs and everything is configured.

||**||III|~||~||~|Setting up your Speakers

The average PC user usually purchases two speakers and is happy to get some sound out of it, never mind the quality. However, if you are a gamer or watch DVDs on your PC, investing a little extra money into purchasing a good speaker system will enrich your experience. The ideal combination is either two speakers and a subwoofer or four speakers and a subwoofer. For anything between $40 and $80, you can get yourself the former while the latter would cost you anything between $80 and $425. This, of course, refers to speaker systems specially designed for the PC and does not include those from companies such as Sony, Panasonic and JVC that have such products for the consumer electronics market. In the realm of the PC, there are others such as Altec and Labtec that reign supreme.

Moreover, a user needs to remember that the placement of the speakers is very crucial to getting the right sound effects. To get a good bass effect, it is recommended that the subwoofer always be placed on the ground, two speakers be placed in front of the user (on either side) and two behind (likewise).

Software

But hardware is only part of the audio solution. Software is the other important half. For music lovers, the Web provides a wealth of music that can be downloaded on to your PC and listened to. Some common formats are real audio and MP3. The real audio player can be downloaded from www.real.com. However, some people have a problem configuring the proxy settings in Real Audio after it has been downloaded. Go to Tools, Preferences, check “Use PNA Proxy” and enter in its corresponding window, proxy1.emirates.net.ae. Under Port, enter 1090. Next, check “Use RTSP proxy”, type in proxy1.emirates.net.ae. Under port, enter 554. Under HTTP options, check “Use my Web browser’s HTTP proxy”. Say Ok. Your Real Audio should be configured.

||**||IV|~||~||~|MP3 can be downloaded from various Web sites. However, there are also software like the Microsoft Media Player (6.4 version and higher), which comes with the Windows operating system that supports MP3. If you have an older version of Media player, the latest can be downloaded from www.microsoft.com. Look out for the MP4 version that is likely to come out shortly. The format will support both video as well as audio on an MP media format. Meanwhile, there is a great deal of controversy covering MP3 and the possibility of downloading music that is protected under copyright law. This issue is outside the scope of this workshop, and would probably require a magazine of its own.
While we are on the topic of MP3s, it also seems appropriate to tell readers about the availability of several different MP3 players on the market, most of which come with an internal memory of 32 MB. With this memory, you can store up to 10 songs on an average on your player given that each song will be at least six minutes long. However, smart media cards function as cassettes, in which you can store more songs. The concept is very simple. Most MP3 players fit in the palm of your hand and all come with the relevant software to help you to transfer an MP3 file from your PC to your player. A tiny cable comes with the MP3 player to connect to your PC.

This should get you through some of the simplest steps of getting music on your PC and using it effectively to listen to music. Having audio on your PC also enables you to interact with family and friends in other parts of the world. Ensure that you purchase a good headset that comes with a microphone that actually reduces crackling noises and disturbances while conversing.

But for those who already have audio on their PC and are looking for more interesting things to do with their audio, there's more for you in this workshop.

||**||V|~||~||~|How to make music on your PC

We teamed up with Dan Snyder, marketing manager, Consumer Solutions Group EMEA of Intel Corporation to learn how to go beyond listening to music to actually making music on your PC.
But first, a slight digression. Let's all go to www.405themovie.com/Home.asp and watch a short movie. The whole movie was created on PCs with the help of software like LightWave 3D, Digital Fusion, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere and Illusion. Any shooting that was done took just one weekend. The rest is all credited to the power of software and the imagination of two creative individuals.
Just like the 405 movie people, all it takes to make some music is a little imagination, the right hardware and software. So, if you want to go beyond just listening to music to making some music of your own on your PC and passing them on to friends, here's your chance. But first, you need to know that all the software discussed in this section has been specially optimised to work for a PC powered by the Pentium 4 processor. This means that Intel has worked with each of these software manufacturers to ensure that you get optimum performance when using each of these applications, which are CPU intensive.

Step 1: How to get music into your PC.

This depends on the source. If your source is a digital music file (.wav or .mp3 format), the file is typically downloaded to the PC by regular means such as the Internet or CD. (MP3 is simply a compressed .wav file, typically 10X compression, which enables a smaller file size. Wav files are the native audio files on music CDs, they are 16-bit, 44 KHz quality and typically contain 30-60 MB of data per song). People starting with digital audio files typically edit the file, remix a CD, make a compilation CD, and so on.
If the source is a vinyl LP or musical instrument such a guitar or piano or even a cassette player, the data is captured through the auxiliary port on the sound card in your PC. All you need to do is plug in your device into the sound card. Check to see that the size and shape of your connectors are correct. Most sound cards today come with optical, balanced and mini-jack inputs.

Another music input means is MIDI — an electronic music standard that represents audio information as 1s and 0s. Typically, music keyboards support MIDI, which means that the PC understands each note on the keyboard that is played as digital data and can transcribe the music in real-time.

||**||VI|~||~||~|Step 2: Recording music in real-time.

Once you get the music into your PC, the show has only just begun. You need to record it and then do something fantastic with it to have done something impressive. Most sound cards will enable you to record your music. Along with Windows also comes a Windows Sound Recorder, which will record a stereo audio input and save it for you as a .wav file. Then, there are companies like Steinberg (Cubase SX) and Sonic Foundry (Vegas, Sound Forge) that offer higher-end recording solutions with customisable EQ, faders, and multiple file format support. So, now you have an audio file recorded onto your PC.

Step 3: Edit/playback music

An audio file on your PC can be edited just as you could an image file with Adobe. You can enhance it, crop it, add filters to it and make it sound professional through the use of audio-editing programs. This final edited file can then be mixed with other audio files, songs and so on to create some special effects.

Step 4: Multiple track mixing.

This is what most musicians love to do. Take several songs and "mix" them into one final song. Popular audio mixing titles are Cubase from Steinberg again, Cakewalk's product line, Vegas from Sonic Foundry. Mixing 64 to 128 tracks with individual effects in real-time makes very heavy demands on the CPU. This is where having something like the Intel P4 helps.

Step 5: Cool applications for your final mix

When you have mixed your file to your satisfaction, you should have a thick audio file all set to be burnt on your CD. This is what the DJs would love to do.

A DJ can have a notebook loaded with MP3s and use software programs that will allow him to synchronise the beats live in a nightclub. Using Magix VideoDeluxe and Music Maker will enable you to mix cool video files with your music in real-time. Finally, applications like Sonic Foundry's ACID allow you to take any kind of audio file and "drag and drop" into a new song. This tool allows you to create new songs on the fly.

These cool steps coupled with a couple of these software programs should get you started on the road to professional music.||**||

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