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Computer Based Music Studio
MIDI (Musical Instrument
If you play piano
well at all, you will want to use MIDI ("Musical Instrument Digital
Interface") to record your music into the computer. Modern personal
computers and MIDI sequencing software let you record audio over top of
the MIDI tracks, with the audio and MIDI parts synchronized. This way
you can record a MIDI synthesized backing band and then record yourself
singing or playing an acoustic instrument over top of the synthesized
orchestration. This is how almost all soundtracks for movies and TV
commercials are made these days.
What you need for a basic setup:
A synthesizer or sampler. These come in several different
You can get an
all-in-one keyboard synthesizer, which is a keyboard with a
synthesizer built in, generally called a "synth". Make sure you get one
with MIDI IN and MIDI OUT ports (MIDI THRU is nice, but not absolutely
essential). Examples are the Korg Trinity, Roland XP-10,
and even the old Yamaha DX-7.
A Sound Module.
This is the synthesizer part of a keyboard synth but without the
keyboard. Using a sound module requires a MIDI controller (see below). A
sound module will usually give you the best sound quality and
versatility. A module can be used with any MIDI controller or keyboard,
as well as with any computer-based sequencer with a MIDI interface
installed, and they're portable. Examples of popular sound modules are
the Roland SC-88 and JV-1010, the E-MU Proteus
series, and the Yamaha MU-10XG and MU-50.
A PC Sound
Card with built in MIDI. The Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy
cards have a built in SoundFont2 sampler that allows you to customize
your MIDI sounds, either by making your own patches or by uploading
ready-made sample sets (SoundFonts) into RAM. However, the latest
software samplers sound much better than a Sound Blaster's SoundFont
Sampler. These function sort of like digital recorders that only
record a few seconds of a sound (a "sample") and then map the resulting
'recordings' to MIDI note values so that the sampled sound can be played
on a MIDI keyboard or whatever. These (expensive) gadgets are for the
advanced synthesist who wants the most control he/she can get over the
musical sounds to be used. Movie scores, music for TV commercials, and
slick pop music all make extensive use of samplers.
Synthesizer or Sampler ("soft-synth").
This is a
type of program that accepts MIDI controller messages and uses the
computer to play back stored sounds. This is possible now because
computers are so fast and storage space is so cheap. It's less expensive
to load up the computer with several gigabytes of samples and make the
gigahertz-plus CPU play back the samples – and all in real time – than
it is to build these capabilities into a rack-mount enclosure. You can
use two channels of your audio interface to play back the software
synthesizer tracks while using additional channels to play back audio
tracks. But make no mistake about it: this requires a LOT of computer
horsepower. Soft-synths and soft-samplers include the Roland Super
Quartet and Orchestral synths, Propellerheads Reason, Tascam GigaStudio,
and Native Instruments B4 and Kontakt. There are many others.
A MIDI controller - Usually a piano keyboard in form, but there are
also drum controllers, guitar controllers, and even wind controllers.
The piano keyboard type is the least expensive. A keyboard synth can be
used as a controller for an external sound module, as long as it has a
MIDI Out connector. Similarly, any Digital Piano with a MIDI Out
connector can also be used as a keyboard controller.
Action - You may have heard the terms "touch sensitive" and "piano
feel" used to describe keyboards. Basically, this describes how well the
keyboard's keys mimic the "touch" and "dynamics" of a real piano
keyboard, and how that information is transmitted to the other devices
downstream of the keyboard.
- means that the actual key is merely a switch, with little if any
mechanical resistance to being pressed. This is very similar to the
action of a Hammond organ's keyboard.
Action - means that the keys have a resistance to being pressed that
is meant to mimic the feel of an actual piano keyboard. Some expensive
controllers actually use a hammer action design borrowed from pianos, so
that the feel of an acoustic piano is very convincingly reproduced.
Cheaper "piano feel" keyboards have a sort of 'spongy' feel to them. A
good weighted action helps the player convey more expressive dynamics in
performance because the keyboard allows the player to "dig in" to the
keys (for lack of a better way to describe it).
Sensitivity - describes the ability of the keyboard to transmit a
whole range of dynamic touch in MIDI data transmission. The basic idea
is that a soft touch translates to a lower MIDI velocity number, which
in turn translates to a lower volume for that note played. A harder
touch will translate to a higher velocity number (i.e. louder). Better
synthesizers change the envelope of a patch so that a higher velocity
has a more intense attack than the same note played with a lower
velocity. This can make for some very convincing sounding MIDI
- describes how some synth patches will change parameters if a key is
held down after the note is first struck. For instance, some patches
'swell' if the player presses the keys while the notes are sustaining.
A MIDI Interface - This allows your MIDI devices to talk to your
computer. These range from very inexpensive models to really fancy
things with all sorts of special features. The most important thing is
to decide what exactly you want your MIDI setup to do, and then figure
out how much you really need to spend to achieve your goal. I find that
the more features a piece of gear has, the steeper the learning curve,
and the longer it may take a beginner to write some music. But of
course, after you become a MIDI expert you can invest in all sorts of
gadgets that will allow you to do lots of exciting, tricky stuff.
What to look for in a MIDI interface:
For all MIDI
You will need to
decide if you can live with a small "one in - one out" (1x1) 16 channel
interface (for a single sound module), or if you need a multi-channel
interface for connecting a collection of keyboards and/or modules.
Having more channels available allows you to have more individual
"voices" playing in your MIDI compositions, and gives you a wider choice
of sounds to choose from. If you're into composing symphonic pieces or
other types of music that require a lot of different instruments playing
at once, go for at least a 64 (4x4) interface.
for the old Macs plugged into the modem or printer ports on the computer
('serial' ports). MIDI interfaces for the Mac have always been external.
For iMac, G3,
G4 and G5:
Macintosh computers lack the serial ports that have been standard on the
Macintosh since its introduction twenty years ago. Instead, they use the
Universal Serial Bus (USB). A new Mac will require a USB
MIDI interface. Roland, Mark of the Unicorn, Steinberg,
Emagic, Midiman and others offer MIDI interfaces for USB.
A suitable MIDI
interface will often be built into a FireWire or USB audio interface.
For instance, the M-Audio Omni Studio USB includes a built in 1x1
If you're using a
Mac "tower", A suitable MIDI interface will often be built into a PCI
card audio interface. Both the RME Hammerfall DSP and the MOTU
2408mkIII include built in MIDI interfaces.
A few years ago,
PC MIDI interfaces used to plug into an internal 'ISA' expansion slot,
which required opening up the computer's case, configuring the MIDI
interface card for the correct IRQ and port address, plugging the card
in, and installing the software drivers. Nowadays, MIDI interfaces are
external boxes that attach to the USB ports that are
standard equipment on today's PCs. Some older PC external MIDI
interfaces (like the Midiman BiPort 2x4s) can connect to a PC's
serial port (COM1 or COM2), though these are less common than the USB
External USB MIDI interfaces for PCs include the Steinberg Midex 3
and the Emagic Unitor 8.
A suitable MIDI
interface will often be built into a PCI, FireWire or USB audio
You can also use
a typical PC multimedia soundcard as your MIDI interface. Most of
today's soundcards work just fine as a simple 16-channel MIDI interface.
Serial Bus (USB) MIDI interfaces are now the standard, but
you will need a PC running Windows 98, Me, 2000 or XP to use them. USB
allows you to 'daisy chain' peripherals with the promise of true "Plug
'n Play" ease. Check out the
USB MIDI interface for example. Mark of the Unicorn, Roland,
Steinberg, Emagic and Midiman have all come out with
USB MIDI interfaces.
You have to
decide how many channels you need. A basic 16 channel interface will do
nicely for songwriting. A multi-channel interface with SMPTE will be
necessary for making soundtracks for movies, commercials, etc. SMPTE
allows you to synchronize external equipment such as tape decks or VCR's
with your MIDI gear. There are even fancier interfaces available that
can do all sorts of crazy things, from Mark of the Unicorn,
Midiman, and others.
All the current
MIDI sequencer versions allow you to record audio tracks along with (and
in sync with) your MIDI tracks.
"professional's choice" used to be
Mark of the
Digital Performer (Mac), but there's no one program that completely
rules the roost any more.
Logic Audio (Mac), and
Cubase (Mac/Win) are well-regarded, while
makes the most popular Windows sequencers, like SONAR and Home
Tracks Pro Audio (Win),
n-Track (Win) and
(Win/OS X) give you the most capabilities for the least money.