TV Guide Interview with Steve O

Music Software: Hitting a Moving Target

May 6, 2002

Since Les Paul first insisted on running the tape through the recorder twice, initiating the use of overdubbing, technology has played a major role in music.

Today, in fact, music and technology are linked: In every recording studio and major concert venue, computers monitor nearly everything - from sound mixing to lighting and effects - even the screen that flashes lyrics so Elton John doesn't forget the words to "Tiny Dancer." Run by trained engineers, computers now allow control of what formerly took an army of stagehands to handle.

But technology doesn't just aid the music made by million-selling artists. Start-up musicians, perhaps like yourself, in tiny apartments across the world regularly use hardware and software to do everything from keep time to record albums - much of it easily acquired.

"There's shareware and freeware that you can download from the Web that can do all kinds of stuff," says Steve Oppenheimer, editor-in-chief of Electronic Musician magazine. "There are so many possibilities - it really depends on what you are trying to do."

So, say you want to record some music or sound effects at home. Where to begin? For starters, figure out what your needs are. "Are you trying to record CDs? Are you trying to do QuickTime movies and put some music or speech over it? Are you trying to design sounds on synthesizers, maybe for games or something like that? Are you trying to do sound for a website?" asks Oppenheimer. Each requirement has different demands - too numerous to get into here - but let's talk basics.

Tools are as varied as the sounds they can create. And you don't need to have a PC or Mac to get started, though it helps. "The trick to recording digitally isn't necessarily hooking up to a computer, because that's only one way of doing digital recording," says Oppenheimer. For instance, there are now all-in-one devices called portable digital studios. Made by such music-biz mainstays as Roland (VS 1824, 2420) and Korg (D12, D1600), a PDS is essentially a hard disk recorder with a built-in mixer and effects processor. "Other than microphones and speakers... if you have a guitar, you just plug in and go."

For PC or Mac users, though, there are many software or hardware/software solutions available. If you want to learn serious recording, Digidesign has a terrific array of products that can take you from beginner to pro. In fact, their flagship software, Pro Tools, is the de facto standard in most recording studios. But you don't need to pick up the $10,000 system to record at home: On its website, Digidesign offers a downloadable limited version of Pro Tools for free that's usable with either Windows 98/Me or Mac OS 9, as well as PDF files that explain how to use it. But this simplified version may only work for beginners; others may want to go straight to the next step up.

For about $500, Digidesign's new Mbox unit works exclusively with USB-compatible Macintoshes, and features 24 audio tracks, MIDI sequencing, mixing, editing and processing, as well as DigiStudio support, which is a system for collaborating on music with others via the Internet. Also in the under-$1000 range is Digi 001 (Windows or Mac), which boasts 18 simultaneous input/output ports. Lastly, Digidesign offers training (some free, others for a fee) and an online 'zine to help you learn and connect with the wider recording world.

In fact, according to Oppenheimer, "Most of the companies have entry-level versions of their professional programs," so you can learn to use many of the more advanced professional systems either for free or relatively cheaply. Therefore, high-tech sound editing software like eMagic's Logic can be tried out with their scaled-down version, MicroLogic AV; Steinberg's Cubase offers the simplified Cubasis; and users of Cakewalk's Sonar can learn the ropes on Cakewalk Home Studio.

But making music is really more about being crazy and inventing new sounds and beats. Many programs aid that wild streak with their abilities to harness and manipulate sound.

For the more adventurous, the hottest trend nowadays is something called loop sequencing. "It's really popular with the dance music crowd," explains Oppenheimer. Essentially it's a way of making music without actually playing an instrument. "You take a little clip of audio, which you can record into [the sequencer], or you can take from a WAV file somewhere, and you can then loop it so it repeats. You can then manipulate it a lot of different ways, and layer a bunch of loops." One popular and powerful program is Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro 3.0 ($400). Like Pro Tools, SF offer a free, limited version called Acid Express (also downloadable) as well as a tutorial and a way to purchase premade loops.

Another hot trend are software synthesizers like Propellerhead's Reason ($400), which is basically a collection of different synthesizers with which you can layer and design sounds. Besides analog synth, Reason offers a sampler, drum machine, loop player, mixer, effects, pattern sequencer and more.

Whether you're a pro or a weekender, before you go and download any of these programs, make sure you have a fairly fast, sturdy processor with lots of RAM and a big hard drive - even more than you'd need with graphics. "If you think it's a big job importing Photoshop [images], you ain't seen nothing!" warns Oppenheimer. "Music software is more complex in many ways than anything having to do with graphics because... audio has to happen in time."

He compares it to hitting a moving target. "The events have to happen on a timeline that has to be exactly right. You don't have that with graphics, [cause] it's just sitting still." And no one wants music that doesn't move.

This interview appeared in TV Guide and is copyright 2002 TV Guide Magazine Group, Inc.

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