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1 Creating a Home Studio

 

Introduction to Electronic Music Production

 

A decade ago, electronic musicians needed masses of hardware in order to make music, including hardware synthesisers, samplers, rack mounted effects units, drum machines, MIDI controllers, sequencers, mixers, tape machines for recording and more. Today is now possible to get virtual equivalents of all of the above, and more, either inexpensive or completely free.  (I am referring to Shareware, Freeware and Open Source software to download, and not illegal bit torrent!)

If you a complete beginner to the world of music productions, there are several major decisions you will need to make.  Most importantly, how much money are you willing to spend on a PC, mixer, hardware Synth, VST, samples?

Minimum Hardware Requirements

The absolute minimum hardware requirements for a home studio include a PC, Audio Interface, Software Sequencer, Midi Keyboard and decent Studio Speakers.  If you are starting out, a large mixing desk, array of hardware effects processors and a multitude of Synthesisers are expensive an not particularly essential.  Once your home studio has been set up and you If you decide that music production is worth pursuing, then you can consider expanding. 

The digital/ analogue converters in most PC laptops, for example, are generally low end and will result in lots of hiss from your monitors/headphones.  Good quality soundcards/audio interfaces vary widely with regard to the number of inputs and outputs, the quality of the converters, their means of hooking up to your computer (PCI, USB, FireWire, PCMCIA etc.) An audio interface converts analogue signals from an instrument or microphone to a digital format to connect to the computer.

Budget

The cost of even the most basic Home Studio is not cheap so plan in advance and do plenty of research before spending a penny.

Minimum

Medium

Expensive

PC

£500

£1,000

£2,000

Audio Interface

£20

£100

£200

Software Sequencer

£50

£150

£300

Midi Keyboard

£30

£100

£350

Studio Speakers

£80

£200

£2,000

Samples

n/a £0

£50

£100

Mixing Desk

n/a £0

£100

£1,500

Effects Rack

n/a £0

£100

£1,000

Total

£680

£1,800

£7,450

Basic Tools for a Software Producer

Sequencer
The core element to your software studio is the sequencer, for example Rebirth, Fruity Loops, Logic, Ableton Live, and Cakewalk (more details later). Modern sequencers contain virtual representations of traditional hardware studios, such as…
-A range of Audio tracks for recording or playing Audio data.
-A range of stereo MIDI tracks.
-Controls for each track to adjust amplitude, pan, sends etc.
-MIDI editing facilities.
-Send or Bus tracks for adding common effects such as reverb, delay etc.

Fig 1: Logic Audio; Modern Sequencer with the full functionailty of a hardware studio.

Audio V’s MIDI
Sequences record and playback either Audio or MIDI data. Audio data is very large and contains the sound, e.g. 1 Minute of an Guitar Audio recording at standard CD quality 44 KHz is 10 Meg. MIDI data is small and 1 minute recording is 10 kb.

MIDI Musical Instrument Digital Interface
A MIDI Keyboard can be used to record a players performance notes over time. As the musician plays the keys, MIDI information is generated and can be recorded in a sequencer. The MIDI data can be manipulated and edited using the sequencer tools to add, remove or change a notes position and velocity.

A software sequencer will enable you to record and edit both MIDI and Audio data. The MIDI editing facility will provide you with the basic tools required to touch up a performance, e.g. add, delete, move or edit notes.

Audio Editing
To complete more detailed Audio editing, a dedicated Audio software programme is required. Soundforge, Cool Edit Pro, Weavelab and Rebirth and the most common. They will allow you to cut, copy and paste sections of audio in preparation for use in your music. Functions such as pitch shift, time shift can alter the time and pitch of a sample independently of each other. If you have a classical sample loop at 140 BPM in C minor, you can use time shift to increase the tempo to 170 BPM and maintain the key of C minor.

ReCycle
Propeller Heads Rebirth is designed to chop large audio files, for example drum loops, into smaller individual audio files. It can automatically detect where each drum hit starts or the data can be edited manually.

Fig 2: A drum beat loaded into ReCycle.

Budget Software Sequencer

For a restricted budget, start with purchasing lower end programs, e.g. Fruity Loops, Sonic Foundry Acid, or Cakewalk Music Creator 4.  They help to get a basic understanding of creating drum pattern sequences and Synth lines using a simple interface.

Fig 3: Two examples of software MIDI sequencers, Fruity Loops and Logic.

Budget Software Sequences are very easy to use, but are not particularly flexible and versatile.  They may come with only modest selection of Drum Kits that cannot be expanded and Virtual Instruments that are limited and cannot be expanded.

There are even Freeware / Open source sequencers available:

  • Ardour
  • Frinika (cross platform)
  • LMMS (cross platform)
  • MusE
  • MuseScore (cross platform)
  • Musette
  • Rosegarden
  • Seq24
  • Hydrogen (cross platform, drum machine)

Advanced Software Sequencer

If you want to expand your Software Sequencer with an almost limitless amount of Virtual Instruments, select a Sequencer that can use VSTs.  Virtual Studio Technology, developed by Steinberg, are plug ins for both Virtual Synthesisers and Virtual effects.

Fig 4: A selection of VST Synthesisers.  The sound quality of VSTs is catching up with hardware Synths.  The average clubber can’t tell the difference and probably doesn’t even know what a VST is anyway.

 

Fig 5: A selection of VST Effects.  Any hardware effect, e.g. EQ, Compression, Panner, Phaser etc has a software equivalent. (I don't know what they are claled but they look pretty, so they must be good)

 

VST Software Sequencer hosts include…

  • Ableton Live,
  • Ardour,
  • Cubase,
  • FL Studio,
  • Logic Pro,
  • REAPER
  • Sonar.

Some VSTs are quite inexpensive to purchase and other cost many hundred pounds.  Ensure that you read many reviews or download trial period VSTs before purchasing.

There are many free VST Synthesisers and VST effects to search for on the internet…

http://www.vst4free.com/

http://www.audiomastermind.com/browse-free_vst_plugins-5886988-1.html

http://www.vstplanet.com/

http://freevst.blogspot.com/

http://free-plugin-list.com/

http://www.kvraudio.com/

Samples

Another vital element to any studio, big or small, is a sample collection.  Drum Kits, vocal stabs, sound effects, trumpet stabs etc.  A vast number of professional quality sample CDs are available on the market from about £20 to £50 pound each.  They differ substantially in quality and style so listen to them before parting with your cash.

There are many free resources on the internet which provide samples of all types and sources.  Build up your own sample collection over the years or purchase a mike and some instruments and make your own.  Free samples may not match the quality and consistency of purchasing professional CDs, but they are an excellent and diverse alternative.

http://www.stonewashed.net/samples.html

http://www.free-samples-n-loops.com/free-music-downloads.html

http://www.sounddogs.com/

http://www.samplecraze.com/

http://www.bangingtunes.com/misc/royalty-free-samples/

 

Sound Fonts

SoundsFonts (trademark of E-Mu Systems) are actual samples that are mapped to notes on a keyboard to provide a limitless range of instruments.  Instruments such as the Piano and Flute which, traditionally, are very difficult to emulate by using subtractive Synthesis or physical modelling Synthesis.  Instead, they are sampled at different tones and mapped to specific notes on a midi keyboard.  This is known as Wavetable Synthesis.

Fig: Each block below the keyboard represents a sound recording of a piano at different intervals and different amplitudes.  The intricacies and variation of a note on the piano played at different volumes can be mapped to the midi keyboard.  Playing the midi keyboard softly on a touch sensitive keyboard triggers the soft sounds, and playing the keyboard loudly triggers the loud sounds.

Fig 6: Audio files are mapped to a range of notes on a MIDI keyboard and at different velocities.

Many SoundFonts are free and contain real samples of vintage and modern Synthesisers, including Novation Bass Station, Access Virus, Korg Triton and E-Mu.  It is possible to build up a vast collection of electronic and analogue drum kits, Synthesisers, orchestral instruments, and many other sounds without any additional cost.

The following websites offer  free SoundFonts.

http://www.digitalsoundfactory.com/

http://www.sf2-files.com/freesf2.php

http://www.sonivoxmi.com/freesoundfonts.asp

http://www.hammersound.net/

http://soundfonts.homemusician.net/

http://zandro.freeunixhost.com/

http://freepats.opensrc.org/sf2/

http://vincentbernay.free.fr/Guitar%20Vince.sf2

http://thepatchlab.com/

http://prosites-allmanmusic.homestead.com/jOrgan.html

http://brucemiles1.mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk/soundfonts.html

http://www.zophar.net/utilities/soundfont.html

http://sounds.resonance.org/

http://www.composition-contest.com/index.html

free soundfonts

Next Steps

Now that you have all of the tools, the next step is to gain knowledge.  The basics of Synthesis, drum sequencing, percussion, effects, chord progression are covered various chapters within this book.