Tip & How-To about Computers & Internet
Make music with basic software
Long before Zoy Nicoles became the frontman for the popular Canadian rock band, Mudmen, the 30-year-old singer/songwriter would log countless nights in recording studios fleshing out ideas for new songs.
"I don't want to think about how much time and money I spent on studio time," recalls Nicoles. "Today, I can do virtually everything on my computer at home—and if I can learn how to do it, anyone can," adds the musician.
Nicoles is one of thousands of people around the world who have turned to computers to write, record, and edit music using one of many new software packages available today. Programs now exist for all ages and skill levels—from interactive music lessons to toying with pre-made dance loops to virtual recording studios.
Nicoles, who uses ACID Pro, says today's software packages are powerful, easy to use, and fun. For example, he says, "I can slide a bar up and down to change the beats per minute—without altering the pitch of my voice—so I can see what a fast song would sound like as a ballad."
Kids can also benefit from these music programs, says Jodi Weiner, a school teacher. "I use music as a tool for teaching—it teaches kids to express themselves; it lets them explore their personal space in a creative way," says Weiner, the mother of two-year-old twins. "Music is also ideal for shy kids or for those with low self-esteem, and for ESL [English as a Second Language] students."
Computers make music a fun, interactive, and convenient activity for students, says Weiner. "It's an accessible vehicle for kids in a medium that they understand and enjoy. With a click of the mouse, you can have kids play something on the computer and then have them write what they feel about the music."
Let's take a look at three popular PC music programs—one for beginners, one for intermediate users, and some more advanced tools for professional applications.
Beginners: Morton Subotnick's Making Music
Kids can unleash their inner composer with this fun and educational music program designed for children old enough to use a mouse effectively. For those under three, parents may opt to take control of the navigation while a child sits on their lap. Award-winning composer Morton Subotnick, a pioneer in creating interactive computer music systems, built Making Music to let children experience what it is like to compose music by using their ears and eyes.
The emphasis here is on learning through fun. For example, kids can toy around with animal "building blocks" to create unique melodies. Players can then change the pitch and rhythm by lining up birds on a wire, which resemble musical notes. In another area of the program, you can choose from 16 instruments on the screen to hear what they sound like and then create melodies and rhythms individually or together. Kids can use the mouse to "draw" music on a blank canvas and save their creations for playback at a later time.
What's more, four different computer games challenge kids to listen to hear if two or more melodies are similar or different. Correct answers reveal new puzzle pieces.
Intermediate: MAGIX Music Maker or Songsmith
Already a hit in Europe, MAGIX's music creation software helps musicians make music, regardless of their prior knowledge..
In particular, Music Maker lets users select from thousands of pre-made loops and samples from various instruments. Alternatively, it's possible to import new music clips from real instruments, CDs, or digital music files (as well as original vocal tracks). Users can preview loops and samples and then drag and drop them onto the screen. The program allows for 96 separate music tracks.
Among the features in this edition is a sophisticated drum machine, enhanced editing tools, and a vocal tuner that automatically corrects recorded vocals (and can create an entire choir from a single recorded voice). Saved performances can be played inside the program or can be exported to a file playable via Windows Media Player.
Microsoft Songsmith helps users create songs using just their voices, by choosing musical accompaniments to match whatever they sing. First, users choose a general style for a song and set a tempo. Then they sing whatever song is in their heads into a microphone, while listening to a percussive beat. When they’ve finished recording, Songsmith detects the key, selects the chords and plays the song back with accompaniment. Users can edit the score, export the music to disk and share it with others.
Advanced: Cubase or Music Creator Pro
Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP users have many choices when it comes to high-end music creation and editing software packages. Both Cubase and Cakewalk Music Creator Pro are sophisticated PC tools, each of which can be used with a PC keyboard (virtual instruments) or by attaching instruments to a compatible sound card (such as a MIDI keyboard).
These programs offer more advanced audio-mixing options compared to other products, while including more standard loop- and pattern-based arranging found elsewhere.
This latest version of Cubase adds "audio warp" effects such as real-time time stretching and pitch shifting, and support for ACID files. It is Nicoles' program of choice. "I never thought computers could be used to write and record a song, and so easily, too," he says. "It's fantastic. This is the future."
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