Computers and Music:

 
Computers in music production are an integral piece of hardware. The computer does all the number crunching whilst it is the software that tells it what to do. Music recording and production software is available to fulfill a range of functions:
 
  • RECORDING or SEQUENCING software captures the audio files stores them on the hard drive of the computer, plays them back when required and syncronizes multiple files to play back in time. The term sequence is often used as this is a non-linear recording thus files can be repeated, looped or moved around. All programs allow you to play back pre-recorded audio files whilst recording new ones, termed over-dubbing. The degree of editing capabilities varies with programs and price points but even cheap (or free) programs will usually offer copy, cut and paste. They provide mixing facilities so that relative volume and pan levels can de adjusted. They usually also include EQ and support for plug-in effects.
  • MIDI SEQUENCING is generally also contained in the Audio Sequencer. This allows tracks to be 'recorded' as MIDI information that play through an external MIDI equipped device such as a synthesizer or to be reproduced via a Virtual Instrument. MIDI programing is widely used by composers as it can be edited much more powerfully than audio, for example MIDI data can be told to play through a piano sound and then changed to an organ sound, audio editors cannot do this to audio files.
  • SCORING or displaying music in notational form is often an inclusion in the upper range of AUDIO/MIDI sequencers, though quality varies. There are a number of dedicated programs for the composer who works with notation, these often include Virtual Instruments that offer the user audio reproduction of the selected instruments. NOTE: Data in a notational program is normally in MIDI format.
  • VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS are the fastest growing area of computer based music technology. This is the process where the computer is used not only to record and manage the audio files, it is used to create or reproduce the sounds. This can be in the form of a software synthesizer that replicates older analog electronic circuits or sample based. In the later case real instrumental performances are recorded or sampled and saved in a library. These can then be installed onto the computer's hard drive and the Virtual Instrument will play the samples back when required, for example different notes of the scale. This technology allows the computer based composer to produce very high quality sounding pieces.
  • PLUG-IN EFFECTS are usually applied to audio files, though some programs have plug-ins specifically to modify MIDI data such as an arpeggiator. Audio plug-ins are used to effect the sound and are typically: EQ, compression, delay and reverb...for more detail see the Plug-In Effects page. These are often included with the sequencing software but more specialized ones are available separately. They appear within the host application hence the term plug-in.

Apple's 24" iMacs come with 4GB of RAM or more. Prices start at $2499AUD.

Suggested addtions are:

External Hard Drive

External Audio Interface

Garrage Band is included, Logic, Cubase, ProTools Le, Digital Performer, Ableton Live and more are compatible.

Configuring your computer:

In many respects music production is the most taxing of all applications on the computer. Computers were not originally conceived to work in real time. Even with video editing, if the file renders a few milli-seconds later than it did previously this is not normally a problem. If the kick drum is out of time with the rest of the'band' this is a problem. Here are a few tips and tricks:

  • MINIMUM SPEC: Gives you minimum performance, the computer cannot be too powerful. Many software applications can potentially offer more audio tracks, Virtual Instuments and Plug-in effects than the most powerful personal computer available can handle. There will always be an upper limit to what the computer can do. So choose the fastest processor you can afford. In general try and avoid 'cheapest' parts like the motherboard.
  • OPERATING SYSTEM: The preferred O.S. for Windows based machines up to late 2009 is XP. The Windows 7 familly released in October 2009 should be the next step once hardware and software are tested or adapted. Apple Mac O.S. is often updated which sometimes makes it in-compatible with current versions of music software so turn auto-update to OFF and only update your O.S. when you know your software is supported.
  • RAM: Random Access Memory: try for 2 Gigabytes or more. Windows XP cannot address all of 4GB but it can still be installed, Vista 32 max 4GB, Vista 64 and Mac OS can address more.
  • HARD DRIVES: It is highly recommended that you use at least 2 hard drives, one for the O.S. and one as the DATA drive. This is to facilitate smooth operation, having extra drives or burning DVDs as back-ups is also a good idea.
  • VIDEO CARD: A dedicated video card is required, shared video RAM on a laptop or desktop is an absolute NO GO!
  • FIREWIRE INTERFACE: If you need a firewire interface for the computer ask for a TI or Texas Instruments chip set.

Audio Interface or Souncard:

This is the most crucial piece of additional hardware required, don't get this from a computer shop, find a specialized music technology dealer. You don't have to spend a fortune, quality units that can record 2 tracks at once with microphone pre-amps start in the $200-$300AUD price range. They often also include a MIDI interface and usually come bundled with a light or cut down version of commercial sequencing software to get you started. Of course you can spend a lot more...

Presonus AudioBox connects externally to the computer via USB. It includes MIDI and Steiberg Cubase LE4

 

The dedicated audio interface is required as it provides:

  • QUALITY: Often much higher than CD.
  • LOW LATENCY: This is an important point. Whenever the computer has to process audio such as the application of effects or to gererate the sound from a Virtual Instrument, time is required. The time between hitting a key on a MIDI controller and hearing the sound from a VI is called latency. Dedicated hardware has special drivers that minimize latency.
  • MICROPHONE INPUTS: A Microphone must be pre-amplified before it can be fed into the computer, these are often incorporated.
  • MIDI INTERFACE: They usually have a MIDI interface included.

MOTU Ultralight connects to the computer via Firewire and has multiple audio ins and outs

 

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TECH TIP

i.e. A patch or update can be dowloaded from the web that is compatible with the O.S. update.

TECH TIP

Usually with enough features to get the novice songwriter up and going.

TECH TIP

Although most controllers these days can also connect via USB.

TECH TIP

The latency amount is set by the audio buffer size, a lower setting means less latency but more work for the computer.

TECH TIP

CD audio is 16bit 44.1kHz sample rate, audio interfaces can go up to 24bit 192kHz sample rate.

TECH TIP

For example interfaces with 8 or more inputs for micing up a drum kit or a band.

TECH TIP

Many others also work, try to avoid the cheapest and consult the website of your audio interface manufacturer.

TECH TIP

Where the system RAM is shared with the video card. This causes fatal system problems with real time applications.

TECH TIP

Having song files on a separate HD is faster and more reliable. If there is a major problem it's usually with the O.S. drive.

TECH TIP

These can be internal or external connected by USB2 or Firewire.

TECH TIP

Digidesign's Pro Tools seems to suffer from this more than others.

TECH TIP

Windows Vista consumes many more resources and RAM just to load the O.S.

TECH TIP

Such as the application of video FX, crossfades etc.

TECH TIP

Video editing uses loads of computer resources and the files are often very large.

TECH TIP

VERY important: You CANNOT hear MIDI, when the data is sent to sound producing hardware or software, that's what you hear.

TECH TIP

The HOST application is the recording or sequencing software program.

TECH TIP

An arpeggiator takes MIDI data and re-arranges it in a rhythmic sequence.

TECH TIP

With orchestral sounds these may be of professional orchestras!

TECH TIP

Also called the HOST program, as other programs e.g Virtual Instruments and Plug-Ins can be called up from within the host.

TECH TIP

Termed 'virtual' because they only exist as software inside the computer. Usually within the HOST application.

TECH TIP

Termed 'virtual' because they only exist as software inside the computer. Usually within the HOST application.

TECH TIP

Try www.Sibelius.com and www.Finale.com

TECH TIP

Except for high budget movies, most orchestral scores heard on TV are produced with this technology. At least partially.

TECH TIP

Many composers only work with audio and many programmers do not use notation, see Music Sequencing section.

TECH TIP

VERY important: You CANNOT hear MIDI, when the data is sent to sound producing hardware or software, that's what you hear.

TECH TIP

MIDI: Musical Instrument Digital Interface allows MIDI equipped devices to communicate with each other.

TECH TIP

EQ or equalization is the process of changing the tone of a sound by cutting or boosting selected frequencies.

TECH TIP

PAN is where a file will play in the stereo field i.e. to the left, right or in the centre.

TECH TIP

A music sequencer is much like a word processor for text, files can be moved around, cut up into smaller files etc.

TECH TIP

As opposed to a linear recording format such as reel to reel tape.

TECH TIP

The number of inputs is limited by the audio interface, usually the software can play back many more tracks than it can record at once.

TECH TIP

This will happen ideally via the dedicated audio interface loosly termed soundcard.

TECH TIP

Any piece of physical equipment is called HARDWARE as opposed to programs, drivers etc which are SOFTWARE.

TECH TIP

It really is number crunching as all audio files etc are converted into numbers.