Software for music creation and performance
This page is pretty general. Music software is such a fast-moving
field that there would be little chance of me keeping up with it, even if I felt
like it (which I don't). But if you are new to all this you might find some useful
If you desperately want to hear my first attempt at electronic music, my
(cough) masterpiece can be found
The first commercially available Moog® synthesizer, 1964 (pic from
Wikipedia). I cut my e-music teeth on one of these (I'm not telling
Missing from the picture are the about 100 patch chords
that usually snaked all over the surface.
Music creation has been transformed in the last 40
years or so by handful of developments. The first was the development of
electronic music. The 19th century had see the development of electronic
transmission of sound and the ability to generate sound electronically.
This industry continued to develop through the first half of the 20th c.
and by the 1950s electronic organs were becoming compact and light
enough to be regular traveling band instruments. The late 1970s brought
communication between electronic music devices, although on a strictly
manufacturer by manufacturer basis. In 1983 Dave Smith and Chet Wood
designed an interface, which permitted communication between equipment
from different companies. The major manufacturers got together and
agreed on a standard for inter-device instructions. The result was the
Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI standard. This allowed
you, for example, to control one music synthesizer from another.
As the microcomputer industry developed, that format was converted into
a storable language so that music could be stored on computers, and sent
back to control synthesizers. As the computers got more powerful, it
became possible to include the entire music-producing portion of the
synth inside your computer. Of course, you still need a keyboard or some
other device to input the music, although if you are patient enough, you
can also enter the necessary information directly from your computer
Nowadays, music software programs fall into a few major
The first is the simplest, and the least interesting. These are programs
intended to emulate some musical instrument. Keyboards are the most
common, although others are possible. Of course the process of playing
them can be odd.
There are also support programs. The most common are tuning tools and
electronic metronomes. Some are on-line apps, others need to be
downloaded and run locally. Obviously, the level of complexity
determines this last feature, to some extent.2
My Guitar Learning Helps page has
links to a couple of these (bottom of the first page). Of course,
many others exist on the web.
MIDI, however, allows you to create and store the kind of music we have
been talking about so far directly on your computer. Programs that do
this are called sequencers, and there are a group that are designed to
allow entry of traditional musical symbols, and then will also play them
back, or create transmittable MIDI files which you can use to control
your synthesizer devices (e-pianos, etc.). I highly recommend you obtain
one from this category for use while you are going through these
lessons. These are programs that will allow you to enter music score
directly into the computer (or a MIDI instrument connected to your
computer) and save just as you would a text file.
There are two front line commercial offerings in this field: Avid’s
'Sibeleus,' and Make
Music’s 'Finale.' Both of these programs are now marketed by
large software corporations, and only cost a little less than your car.
They are both excellent programs; I have used both. My experience is
that Finale is a little harder to learn, but not by much. It is also
slightly less buggy. If you are going to go with one of these 'big
hitters,' I highly recommend finding someone you can call when you are
confused, and pick whichever program s/he is using!
There are other options however. 'Notion' by Pre-Sonus
makes a less expensive alternative, but I have never used it, so I can
neither recommend nor disparage it. If you are just getting started, or
even you are an intermediate user, I would draw your attention to 'MuseScore', which is free. It is a
little clunkier; the graphics are not as clean, and the built-in sounds
are clearly not as nice. However, its basic note entry methods are
somewhat more intuitive, and did I mention that it is free?
The kind of inter-corporate cooperation that made MIDI possible
has never emerged in the score production world. Saved files are not
readable by other programs, and no standard interchange format has
emerged. I suspect this will change, but to date it has not. Until there
is a clear interchange format, there is also not going to be any
standard for display of this kind of data on the web. There is a UNICODE
standard for musical symbols, but nothing for displaying them as
anything but text, which obviously will not work. Some of the
manufactures have developed internet formats, but in order to use them,
you have to get the add-on from the manufacturer, and your friend who
uses a competing product will not be able post.
All of these score programs can read and write MIDI, but although that
will get you the notes, you may find the results are kind of ugly.
The other significant contribution that the software industry has
provided us is in the area of recording software (digital audio workstations—DAWs) These programs are not
normally designed to aid in the writing process, but one you want to
record something live, there is no longer any need to go out and buy a
multi-track tape recorder. The offerings in this area are vast, and
although I have used several, the learning curve for one of the more
sophisticated packages is sufficiently steep, that you will not want to
put the time into too many. Pick one and go with it.
The oldest and still the high end in recording software is called Pro Tools
(also an Avid product). It is not the high-end by much though, and once
again, if your buddy uses a competing product, and is willing to be your
go-to when you inevitably have questions, that is probably the best way
There are a few quite acceptable entry-level products in this field, and
several are freeware or shareware. On Macs, GarageBand will take
you well into home recording without needing to spend a bunch of money.
For PCs, I like
Cakewalk (now free). 'Audacity' is free and available cross-platform, which is always been a
good feature in my mind, in case you find yourself changing computers,
or your experienced friend is on the other side of the great OS divide (Even Linux!).
It is also open source, if that sort of thing excites you.
If you are aching to go pro, do your research. Any link I put here will
be out of date in a month. The big players are always playing leap-frog
and buying good ratings on review sites. Watch for reviews that compare
a few companies' high-end products to the competitions low end
offerings. Surprise! Their favorite product wins.
Not surprisingly, though, there is no cross program
compatibility here either (some products are cross-platform, though,
but there are some work-arounds if you find
you have to trade tracks with someone in another digital universe. Most,
if not all, programs output their individual tracks in a standard
format. WAV or AIFF are the most common. These are usually
interchangeable, with a couple of caveats. Since most of these programs
will allow you to make up a track from multiple unconnected fragments,
if you just save the fragments, you will have a devil of a time
recreating the complete track in the other software. Use the software's
built-in ability to combine all your fragments into a single track, save
that track, and you will have a file that can usually be imported as a
single track in the other software. But keep the fragmented version in
your original in case you decide to do something different with it. You
will have to do this independently for each track.
(BTW, this includes .zips and .rlls. I couldn't tell you the number
of times I have lost valuable files because I trusted the compression
plug-ins are often not portable either, but their settings are similar
from package to package. Write them down. You may actually have to use
pen and paper! (What?!?!).
Finally, don't keep anything important
in a compressed (lousy) format like mp3. I listen to mp3s all the time,
but I wouldn't store anything important that way.3
I do have a couple of thoughts that the reviewers might have overlooked,
though. What I said above about Audacity applies even more forcefully to
high-end software: Look for products that are available cross-platform.
Don't get me wrong. There are some very good programs that are targeted
for only one system (more often, the Mac), but you don't know what
computer you will be using 10 years down the road. You may even find
yourself working with someone else who, uh, swings the other way! Invest
Unfortunately, what I just said about cross-platform is becoming no
longer true of Pro Tools. They are abandoning Windows, and becoming
a Mac-only program. Their last Windows version is still good, and
still available, but as time marches on Windows-PT users will have to
choose whether they want to migrate DAWs or OSs.
your time in software that can move wherever you go.
Second, if you are hoping that somewhere in your life's musical journey,
you will be working in a studio or other professional sound environment,
fork out the extra money and go with Pro Tools. I am not going to say it
is the best—that would be way too subjective—but it is
the industry standard.4
Arrange by numbers
One development in all this is the emergence of
pre-recorded, and stretchable, sound clips. You need a background
strumming guitar? Why worry about mics and getting in tune, you simply
select the strumming style you are looking for, plug in your chord
progression, and the program puts the part together for you. Piano,
bass, lead guitar-all are available at your fingertips. Band-in-a-box
offers the chance do whole arrangements, with a large variety of
available styles. Their demo video is impressive, however I personally
found it both limiting and difficult to use. This may tell you more
about me than anything else, though. It doesn't really want to play
anything that is not in ⁴, and it kept deciding
for me what I wanted, making it difficult to do anything else.
Never-the-less, it provides a lot of options. I have little doubt that
you could use it to put together a hit-worthy demo. Of course, it won't
provide your vocals, although it will compose an array of standard
harmonies for you.
This pulls together ideas that have been available in other recording
packages for a while, however. High-end recording software often comes
with pre-recorded samples which can freely be used with their software.
These are often stretchable (you can lengthen or shrink them, change
tones/chords, and, of course, loop them to your heart's content.
You have been able to do this for a long time with instruments that lend
themselves nicely to MIDI (keyboard instruments, most single note
instruments, percussion, etc.) so all you really need is a means of
entering the data, and a good sample based synthesizer for rendering it.
More sophisticated performances on any of these instruments usually
require a human touch. Lead samples and things like that can fill in
that gap. Keep in mind that other people's ideas are not really yours,
but then if you ask your friend to come lay down a sax part on your
song, that part is hers. Still not yours.
If from a MIDI device, you will need an interface to connect
it to your computer.
If your computer does not have an audio in, you will need
to get an audio input card (or a different laptop). You will
most likely need a jack converter, though. If the computer has
one, it is a stereo mini-plug and your mic or instrument probably
isn't. This is true even if you are using a mixer; thier outs are
generally either full-size phono jacks or RCA type.
or different mics on the same instrument, particularly the drums.
Well, if you only have two signals, you can probably use the computer's built-in
stereo input. Furthermore, virtually all mixers these days support separated stereo
This page has been about software, so talking about mixers doesn't
really fit in, but I will do so briefly. The first and obvious question
is, ‘Do you need one?’ Of course, if you are not actually
recording anything (other than from a synth or with notation software),
probably not!5 However, if you are singing, or playing any other kind of instrument, you
will have to either use a microphone or plug it into your computer somehow.
You're computer probably has an audio-in plug (although many computer manufacturers
are leaving them off now-days). Assuming it does, you can plug in
directly,6 but you will get better control with a mixer between your
instrument/voice and the computer.
If you are going for the mixer, how much of one depends on what kind of recording
you are doing. If you never record more than one voice or instrument at a time,
you don't need a big one. The minute your buds come over, though, and you want to
record your cool jam, you are likely to be wishing you got a bigger one, and here
is where the rubber starts to meet the road.
Beginner Guitar HQ has a fuller
discussion of mixers than I have any inclination to do (their discussion doesn't just apply to
guitars), but I will make a few comments.
All of the software we have talked
about on this page have built in software mixers of some variety that allow you
to make sure, for example, that the drums are not overpowering the kazoo.
However, the original function of hardware mixers was to mix various real inputs
down into a single (mono or stereo) output. When you are recording, this is
usually not what you want. You want the different instruments/voices7 to come
into different channels in your software—as separated as possible.
To do this, you will not only need a mixer that is able to not, in fact, mix the signals (allowing
them, instead, to come straight through as separate channels), but you will need a special card
on your computer which will accommodate multiple inputs.8
Some external mixers will also interface with your software such that you can
mix you software output on the hardware mixer. This is cool, and makes final
mixing faster, but not completely necessary.
Always back up your work
Always backup your work. And don't forget to save regularly. Also, get in the habit of writing your stuff out to disk.
Some programs have autosave features—make sure yours is turned on, but
you might have to cleanup the backups directory periodically so you
don't run out of disk space.
I can't tell you how many times
everything was looking good, and just before saving, the program froze
(I lost everything since my last save)9. Big programs are very hard to
keep bug-free (even small ones), and you don't want to be their
In the next section we will be plunging into music
theory proper, talking about pitch,
notes, and scales. See you there.