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Using A PC As A Self-Contained Music Making System

Tips & Tricks By Martin Walker
Published April 1998

Even budget sequencer programs such as Cakewalk Home Studio provide a wealth of functions.Even budget sequencer programs such as Cakewalk Home Studio provide a wealth of functions.

If you're the proud owner of a new PC, and want to make music, there are plenty of ways to get started, and you may be surprised at just how good the results can be. Martin Walker makes sure your shopping list is short but sweet.

Open a copy of most newspapers and weekly magazines and you can't fail to notice just how widely PC systems are being advertised, with the result that more and more people are buying them, for games or accounts, graphics or the Internet, or even specifically for music. If you've got a PC you want to start making music with, you may now be wondering what else you need, and whether you really can turn the PC into a self‑contained system — a soundcard studio. Well, musicians are often surprised at the relatively high quality of sound you can get from even the cheapest PC soundcards, and many new owners find that you can get acceptable results without adding any additional MIDI gear at all.

The Soundcard

Making music will be far more fun using full‑sized keys, such as those on the Evolution MK149.Making music will be far more fun using full‑sized keys, such as those on the Evolution MK149.

The most important item for PC music making is the soundcard, which is a circuit board plugged into a slot inside the computer system case. A soundcard allows you to record both MIDI data and audio and play it back, and nearly all complete PC systems have one included. If there isn't one included with your PC, have a look at the February '98 issue of SOS, where a complete roundup of suitable stereo cards can be found. Bear in mind, though, that if you're a PC novice it's much safer to make sure your PC comes complete with a soundcard and sequencer software already installed, to ensure the minimum of problems.

The humble soundcard does quite a few jobs. Nearly all soundcards these days include a GM (General MIDI) compatible MIDI synth capable of 16‑channel multitimbral operation, and many are also GS or XG compatible (GS and XG are extended implementations of the General MIDI sound‑set standard, from hi‑tech manufacturers Roland and Yamaha respectively), giving you an extended set of sounds. The MIDI sounds are normally stored on the soundcard in Read Only Memory (ROM). This means that they cannot be erased accidentally, and are also always available for instant use. The big advantage of having these sounds inside your PC is that you don't need to plug in anything else to make music. Many cards also have on‑board RAM (Random Access Memory), and this is used to add your own short sounds to those of the MIDI synth (more on this later).

The other major job done by the soundcard is playback (and recording) of longer segments of sound that are stored in digital form on your hard drive. These are loaded into the main computer RAM when required, and then replayed by the soundcard. Using RAM removes any restriction on the sort of sounds that are available to you, since not only can you record things from the real world, via a microphone, but there are also loads of pre‑recorded sounds available to expand your collection, from yet more instruments to complete musical phrases and drum loops. On a PC, the most widely used format for storing these digital 'snippets' is the WAV file, and any file that contains such sounds will have a name that ends in WAV, such as GUITAR.WAV.

Recording Your Own Music

If you want to add more external MIDI sounds to your basic setup, the Yamaha MU10XG module can now be bought for just over £100.If you want to add more external MIDI sounds to your basic setup, the Yamaha MU10XG module can now be bought for just over £100.

All you need to start recording your own music is what's known as a MIDI 'sequencer' program. Some PC systems come with one already installed, but there are a large number available fairly cheaply, such as those from the Evolution stable, or from the Steinberg Cubase range. Et Cetera also distribute a wide range of music software and hardware products suitable for beginners or professionals. If you have a PC, but no soundcard, nearly all new cards are bundled with some sort of sequencer, and this can save you spending more money, although you shouldn't under‑estimate the difficulties that may occur when installing new hardware in any PC.

There are various ways to enter your music into the sequencer. Most budget programs come complete with a keyboard utility, which is a pop‑up window with a picture of a keyboard that can be used to enter music by clicking on the appropriate notes with a mouse. While this is useful if you don't already have a proper MIDI music keyboard, most people prefer to enter notes using a musical keyboard with full‑sized keys. The cheapest of these can now be bought for a little over £100, making the process far more pleasurable. You could consider the Quickshot MIDI Composer, which comes complete with the Cakewalk Home Studio sequencer package for just £120 (this was reviewed in the August 1997 issue of SOS), or the Evolution Music Creator Pro package (reviewed in the January '97 issue).

More On‑Board Sounds

Once you get a couple of MIDI synths, you'll need a small mixer to balance up the audio levels. The Mackie 1202VLZ shown here, or one of the many similar models, would be a good choice.Once you get a couple of MIDI synths, you'll need a small mixer to balance up the audio levels. The Mackie 1202VLZ shown here, or one of the many similar models, would be a good choice.

Although nearly all modern soundcards feature a GM‑compatible MIDI synth, the realism of the sounds they offer depends on the size of the ROM memory devoted to them, and the cleverness of the programmers. In many cases, solo instruments may sound a bit bland, but will probably still be fine in the context of a complete mix. However, if you want to improve on the quality and realism of these sounds, there are several avenues to explore. If your soundcard already has on‑board RAM (see your manual), you will be able to use this to store additional sounds, either in WAV file format, or using a supplied utility program to convert WAV files to any special format demanded by a particular soundcard. Creative Labs' SoundBlaster cards use SoundFonts, which can be complete collections of sounds, although it is perfectly possible to have a SoundFont with just one sound, to add a more expressive solo instrument to the GM set. SOS had a special feature on creating your own SoundFonts in the June '97 issue. Once the sounds have been loaded into the soundcard RAM, you can play them back just like any other MIDI instrument. This is often known as a Sample Synth, and sometimes the Sample Synth will be a completely separate entity, providing you with an additional multitimbral synth to the GM one in ROM, but on most cards the RAM sounds you load will replace one or more of the original ROM sounds.

Your soundcard may also feature a WaveBlaster‑compatible daughterboard socket, which allows you to plug in an additional synthesizer which adheres to the WaveBlaster standard. Various manufacturers market these, and the most famous is the DB50XG from Yamaha, which you can now buy for about £90. The instruments and effects on this card are of extremely high quality, and any piece of music is likely to sound significantly better when played back through it than when using the normal soundcard MIDI instruments.

An Out Of PC Experience

Eventually, you may find yourself running out of interesting sounds on your soundcard: the time has arrived to consider attaching an external synthesizer. Virtually all soundcards have a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) In and Out socket, although this is normally on a 15‑way D‑type connector, needing an adaptor cable to convert it to the more usual pair of 5‑pin DIN connectors used for MIDI. Many soundcards come with this lead, but if yours didn't you can buy one for about £15 from most computer shops.

One thing to watch out for is that most soundcards only have a single MIDI interface to feed both the daughterboard socket and the external MIDI sockets. If you've added a DB50XG you will probably find your external synth receiving exactly the same MIDI signals as the daughterboard, and this can cause a bit of head‑scratching. The solution is to find out if you can selectively disable certain MIDI channels on each synth, so that you can perhaps allocate eight MIDI channels to the daughterboard synth, and the other eight to the external synth. If you fancy the sounds of the DB50XG, but don't have a daughterboard socket, check out the Yamaha MU10, which is a DB50XG in an external case. This can now be bought for £115, and comes complete with Steinberg's Cubasis sequencer, which is handy if your PC didn't come with a sequencer already installed. The MU10 can also be bought as a bundle with the Fatar Studio 37 keyboard for about £170 from some SOS advertisers, giving you a comprehensive package.

Real‑World Performance

Human beings, with all their imperfections and foibles, can inject life into any piece of music, and a performance on an acoustic instrument is likely to be far more expressive than most people can manage using a MIDI keyboard. Even budget sequencers often have basic facilities for recording WAV (audio) files alongside MIDI, and this can transform a song. Many soundcards have microphone inputs (and many come complete with a budget mic as well), and you can use these to record a live performance to accompany your MIDI sounds. For many people, this will be a vocal line, or even several. The electret mics that come with some soundcards can work quite well considering how cheap they are, but most 'band'‑type mics aren't likely to have a high enough output level to be connected without using an external mixer.

Watch recording levels carefully, as overloading a digital recording sounds far worse than doing the same with a cassette recorder. If you have an audio mixer, always use the mic inputs on this if possible, as the ones on the soundcard are likely to be more noisy, adding hiss (and possibly hum) to your recordings.

Recording a couple of mono or stereo tracks alongside the MIDI ones can be done with most modern PC sequencers, but you'll need full‑duplex (simultaneous recording and playback) facilities on your soundcard if you want to listen to (monitor) the previous audio tracks when recording new ones. Once you need more than about half a dozen audio tracks you're likely to require at least a Pentium 166MHz machine, as well as a fast hard drive. If this is what you aspire to, and you have yet to buy your PC, speak to some of the specialist PC music dealers advertising in the pages of SOS. You should then be able to buy a system that has your choice of soundcard and sequencer already installed and properly configured to meet your requirements from day one.

The Final Mix

Once you finish recording your music, you probably won't want to switch on your computer every time you want to listen to it, so why not do it like the professionals — mix down to tape. Soundcards have internal mixers for setting recording and playback levels. On the output side, this will allow you to set the relative levels of MIDI synth, WAV‑file playback, and any other options that are provided, so that you can get the balance right.

If you add external synths to your setup, you will need some means of mixing together the sounds from each synth with the output of your soundcard. Mixing consoles start at about £70, and go up to tens of thousands. There are lots of reviews of small mixers in SOS, but a few models to watch out for are the Midiman Multimixer 6 (six channels for £80), the Spirit Folio Notepad (a tiny 10‑channel mixer for about £150), the Mackie 1202 (12 channels for about £260), and the Behringer MX1602 (16 channels for £180). Many SOS advertisers sell these. Once you have a mixer, you'll probably also want to start thinking about buying a multi‑effects unit (from £100 upwards) which will provide reverb, echo, and many other effects for your audio recordings, and MIDI sources as well. The more comprehensive (and expensive) the mixer, the more facilities will be provided to connect effect units, as well as microphones and synths.

When you have the song mixed so that the individual instruments have their levels balanced to taste, and any effects have been added, you're ready to record your song onto other media. Many people start out by mixing down onto the cassette deck of their hi‑fi, and this can give very acceptable results, as long as you're careful to set up suitable recording levels.

When you get more serious, there are several other formats that will give you higher quality audio results. Sony MiniDisc recorders are becoming very affordable, and will give very clean recordings, almost indistinguishable from the more expensive DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorders. The main differences are that MiniDisc offers random access (which simply means that you can get to any track instantly without having to fast‑forward past the earlier ones) and uses a form of data compression (to cram more songs into a smaller space on the disc). DAT players do not compress your audio data at all, so the sound quality is slightly better, but, just as with audio cassettes, it can take several minutes to fast wind to a song at the other end of the tape. However, DAT is a standard in professional recording studios, so this is what most musicians use.

Looking To The Future

Once you've finished a few tracks using just your PC's soundcard, you'll probably know what kind of extra sounds you'd like to add to your setup. If you're on the Internet, this can be a great resource for free sounds, and if it's hardware you're after, check out the retailer ads in SOS for often bargain‑priced gear. If you're on a budget, look out for second‑hand equipment in the retailer ads and also in our extensive Free Ads section. And keep reading: regular PC Musician articles in SOS will help with the more technical problems you're likely to have as you get more experienced and ambitious.

Hearing Aid: Better Monitoring

If you want to achieve more professional results from your PC setup, the first things to ditch are the tinny, boomy multimedia speakers that probably came with the PC. They may be fine for games, and they're handy to pop either side of the monitor screen, but they certainly won't qualify as hi‑fi, and music created with them will probably sound completely unbalanced when you listen to it on other speakers. They do, however, often have the advantage of shielded magnets, which should ensure that your screen display doesn't become distorted at the edges when they are placed nearby. You can buy more expensive multimedia speakers for 'desktop' use, and some even come with sub‑woofers, which allow a smaller pair of speakers to be placed on the desktop, while a larger one that handles bass frequencies can be put on the floor out of the way.

The obvious solution for hi‑fi quality audio playback is to use a hi‑fi. Most recording studios use nearfield monitor speakers, so called because you sit near enough to them to hear the sound without the acoustics of the room affecting things too much. Don't get monitor speakers confused with your computer monitor screen, which is something entirely different — in an audio context, monitors are the loudspeakers through which you monitor your music. If you have 'bookshelf' speakers, you can probably place these either side of your computer screen (about three or four feet apart, with the computer exactly in the middle), and this will give you a good stereo sound when mixing. Make sure that each speaker is at least a foot from the computer screen, or you may suffer picture distortion.

All the audio signals will emerge from a single socket on your soundcard (normally a stereo 3.5mm jack socket). To connect it to your hi‑fi you'll need a cable that has a stereo 3.5mm jack plug on one end, and the appropriate pair of plugs for your hi‑fi amplifier at the other (often of the phono variety). Tandy are an easy source of such converter leads, as well as extension cables if you need to create a much longer lead.