There is an old corny joke: “Can you play music?” “Yeah, I play the radio.” The modern equivalent would go something like this: “I create my own music.” “Which instrument do you play?” “My computer.” More and more people are using computers to create good music, without knowing how to play a musical instrument.
I was recently setting up a computer training room with a talented guy named Jeremy. We got to talking about our hobbies and interests, and he told me that he used to write and record his own heavy metal music. “Do you play an instrument?” I asked him. “No, I just use computer software.”
I find playing musical instruments very meaningful, and sometimes very intimate. But I’m glad that today’s technology gives options for those who have musical interest and aspirations but can’t play an instrument.
Are you one of those people? Do you create music without playing a musical instrument? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments. How do you do it? What software do you use? And most importantly, how meaningful and expressive do you find the experience?
Here are three ways that you can create music without an instrument:
Loop-based music has been around a lot longer than personal computers, but computers have made it a whole lot easier. Loop-based music is made up of the combination of short recordings of music snippets which are looped together in a pattern.
Music loops were originally pieces of magnetic tape which were cut at strategic places and spliced together. Stockhausen and the Beatles were early loop pioneers, and psychedelic and avant-garde music were strongly influenced by them. Today the use of pre-recorded loops has made its way into many styles of popular music, including hip hop and techno.
The use of sampling technology and digital audio workstations has made the technique of looping pre-recorded music much easier, and the clever use of digital effects can make the loops sound radically different to the original audio source.
Five years ago, my kids loved to experiment with making their own loop-based music using the demo version of FruityLoops which they heard about from their friends at school. These days they are more likely to be arranging their music in GarageBand on their Macs. They found both programs easy to get started with, though their music was very repetitive - a result of inexperience, or just bad taste.
MIDI sequencing has been around as long as MIDI itself - the mid-80s - and is a way of recording musical events rather than audio itself. This was essential back in the days before computers were powerful enough to deal with audio directly, and remains a useful way of working with music today.
When you play back a MIDI sequence, the musical events need to trigger the sounds from somewhere. That may be an external sequencer, but more commonly it happens in software.
Software is typically entered by playing it on an external MIDI keyboard or on-screen keyboard, though this requires some basic musical skill. It can also be entered by clicking your mouse directly onto the “piano roll” view of your sequencer, though this can be tedious. It is a fairly practical way of entering drum loops, though.
Like looping sampled music, you can also get MIDI loops from the Internet. In the 90s, Twiddly Bits was a favorite source of MIDI loops with my friends. It was an easy way for them to put complex musical phrases into their sequences - more complex than they could play themselves. Twiddly Bits still sell MIDI loop libraries in many styles today, and a Google search for “MIDI loop libraries” provides many more sources.
If you’d like to get into MIDI sequencing, here are the programs you should consider:
- Ableton Live
- Apple’s GarageBand and Logic Studio
- Cakewalk’s Sonar and Project5
- Cockos’ REAPER
- Digidesign’s Pro Tools
- FL Studio
- Mackie’s Tracktion
- MOTU’s Digital Performer
- Propellerhead’s Reason
- Sony’s ACID
- Steinberg’s Cubase and Nuendo.
Though this is actually a form of MIDI sequencing, these programs use an intelligent technology that is not common to most sequencers. For quick song arrangements in the 90s I used PG Music’s Band-in-a-Box. The program still seems to be going strong today.
To put together a quick arrangement, you type in the chord progression and select a musical style and tempo. That’s it! You can enhance the arrangement by adding fills, selecting which notes anticipate the beat, and adding a melody line. I also found the program very handy for printing chord charts with melody line - it must be the easiest program I’ve used for using mouse clicks to enter the melody.
I’m not aware of any decent alternatives to Band-in-a-Box, though I’m sure they do not exist. Do you know of any? Roland’s PMA was a PDA-type hardware version of the same idea. I owned one for a few years, and found it very handy.
Now it’s over to you. How much do you rely on musical instruments? How much of your music is produced on the computer from sampled or MIDI loops? Which software do you find most helpful for computer-generated music?