Computer Music – an introduction
Most people are surprised that almost all of the music you hear today is created using computers. Computer technology has become so pervasive, affordable and powerful that almost anyone can create their own music composition in the comfort of their home.
Unfortunately, most people have never been exposed to this technology. There are hundreds of powerful programs, workstations and hardware options available on the market today, but without seeing it in action, most people wouldn’t know where to start. Thousands of people are using this technology, but they are primarily musicians, advanced hobbyists or university students.
To the general public the entire subject is either unknown or too complex to comprehend. At LandFlash Music, we have developed multiple programs to take the complexity out of learning computer music composition.
Let’s first explore why computers are such good partners in making music.
Music is really physics with a good dose of emotion
There is: pitch, which is really “frequency”. You probably have heard of “A440” on a piano. That’s the middle C note. A440 is 440 Hertz, or 440 cycles per second and that particular frequency is what creates a unique sound to your ears. (Middle C on the piano)
Then, there is “amplitude” which relates to how hard the note is hit on the piano, or how loud it sounds to your ear.
“Time” is also involved. It determines when a note is played and how long it is held before it is released. Musicians refer to this as rhythm. Without time there can be no music, otherwise how would we know when a sound started or ended?
A computer’s core architecture is defined on frequency and time. For example, we refer to computer speed as so many gigahertz, or the speed of the computer’s processor. It also manages tasks based on time (events which start and end).
Music and computers are both based on physical science.
Let’s not forget that there is a lot more to music than this. Without emotion thrown in, music would sound dull and boring. Some people say that computer music sounds clinical, dull and rigid. Well, it can sound this way in the wrong hands, but a good composer can capture every bit of emotion in their compositions using computer technology. Pioneering computer composers like Vangelis, Wendy Carlos and many others have demonstrated this.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the technology
Computers talk to digital based musical instruments with a protocol called Musical Instrument Digital Interface or (MIDI). MIDI doesn’t generate any music; it is simply the communication language between digital instruments and computers. Modern digital keyboards are really computers in disguise. Some have the ability to generate their own sound, but many don’t. A MIDI based keyboard that creates no sound of it’s own is called a “keyboard controller”. They only send MIDI instructions to other devices that can produce sound.
If you ever go to a concert and look for the keyboard player, you will likely see a rack of equipment called “sound modules” which receive MIDI data from a MIDI keyboard controller. This allows the musician to have access to many different sounds with just a couple of keyboards.
Basic MIDI data is information about what note is being played on the keyboard, at what time it is played, how hard it was hit and how long the note is held before it is released. MIDI capable keyboards actually send this data out through a port when you hit the keys. An application program on the computer can capture MIDI information and play it back. Once it is stored, you can edit the data like a word processor. We call these programs “sequencers”. A sequencer basically records and plays back MIDI information.
Digital keyboards can also talk to each other directly, allowing musicians to play multiple different sounds a the same time which we call “layering”. There is a lot more information that can be sent with MIDI, in fact the protocol is quite complex.
Think of MIDI as being like the paper roll on an old player piano. The holes in the piano roll represented the information that told the player piano what and when to play. It used air and vacuum instead of digital data but the concept is very similar to MIDI.
Many modern keyboards can do much more than just generate MIDI data. They can generate their own sounds, produce and record MIDI data and play multiple parts simultaneously. These are referred to as “Keyboard workstations”. They really don’t require a computer to compose music; they can do it all on their own. Think of them as integrating the computer and application right into the keyboard itself.
Remember multi-track tape recorders?
Later, as computers became even more powerful, musicians got rid of their tape recorders and used computers to record live instruments and vocals using microphones.
Enter the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
DAWS not only use the computer to sequence MIDI data, but can also record actual live instruments with microphones, just like multi-track tape recorders. With current computer DAW software applications, you can edit recorded audio tracks in ways engineers previously only dreamed of. No more splicing of tape or bouncing tracks. This can all be done inside the computer with no audio degradation. This is another complete subject, which entire books have been written on. Just remember that a modern DAW can handle both MIDI data and record live audio at the same time.
Other computer tricks with music
Computers can act as the “mixing” console to allow you to adjust sound levels on individual tracks. They can apply sound effects like reverb, delay, or chorus to individual parts. We can fatten up parts through “compression” or distort sounds with “effects processing”. Computers can even allow us to transpose musical keys and change instruments on the fly.
Computers can also translate MIDI data into music notation, which can be printed, so other musicians can read and play the parts you composed. A practical application for this would be transposing the key of a musical composition for a choir which needs to have it sung in a different key. A computer can do this in seconds!
Computer software can take the place of multiple musicians in a band, so you can practice playing an instrument part at your own pace and time; without needing the band members! In other words, the computer becomes the band you practice with.
Computer music software can emulate hardware that would have cost thousands of dollars a few years back for just a fraction of the cost today. Many old vintage synthesizers like the Moog, Prophet, Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos can be emulated in software on a computer today. Many of these older hardware instruments can’t easily be found, are not affordable, or aren’t working, but with today’s software, we can still emulate and play them using a computer. In fact, keyboards and sound modules are being replaced today with application plug-ins that run right in your computer, called virtual studio technology or “VST’s”. Today the computer can do it all, from handling MIDI data, to recording live sound and being the actual sound modules.
The powerful DAW computer today
Today, even entry-level laptop computers have multiple processors in them. Most computer musicians use quad, or even six or more physical processor cores in their Digital Audio Workstations. (DAWS)
There aren’t any limitations on how many parts or tracks you can have in your computer composition, or how long you can record for, as long as your computer has the available resources. Recording live Audio with your computer requires a lot more data storage and processing power than just recording MIDI information. Fortunately, huge disk drives and multi-core processors are the norm today and continue to become more affordable every day.
In summary …..You could become the next recording star!
You can be your own recording artist today, right in the comfort of your own home! Technology has made this all possible.
This a wonderful era we live in. What if Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart had this technology? Can you imagine what they could have accomplished?
We haven’t even scratched the surface of what is possible with computer music in this article, but hopefully you have a better sense for what is possible and become interested in learning more.
Author: Dave Sass, LandFlash Music LLC – All rights reserved
See the technology for yourself
All of this makes a lot more sense if you can see this technology in action. With most people, the light bulb goes on once they see the technology in a demo.
LandFlash Music gives regular Introduction to Computer Music Seminars for those interested in learning more about computer music technology.