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Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - Hardware

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This post is part of a series called Songwriting & Composing: From Inspiration to Execution.
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Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - Software
This post is part of a series called Beginner’s Introduction to Composing on the Computer.
Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - Software

I’ve been involved in audio production for well over 12 years, but just like everybody else I had to start somewhere. However, I didn’t have the benefit of having somebody show me everything there was to know for a beginner just starting out. Nor did I have the benefit of a rich content field Internet that I could use to teach myself.

In this article I'll give you the helping hand I didn’t have when I was first starting out. I'll help you understand what lies before you, as you begin composing and producing music. I hope it will be a fun and enjoyable hobby and/or career.


Starting the Journey

We’ll start at the very beginning. You've just made the decision to compose and produce your own original songs on the computer. The next logical question, and where many immediately get stumped, is “Now what?” What is the first step to take towards being able to compose and produce music on the computer? The first step in your musical journey to computer-based composing and producing is to get an understanding of the tools you’ll need.

If you’ve ever seen a music studio, you may have felt overwhelmed by the amount of audio hardware that is available. But for somebody just starting out, there is really only about five items that are required. These are the core components that you’ll need to get up and running with composing on a computer-based system.

These core components are:

  • A computer
  • Music creation software
  • An audio interface—also referred to as an external sound card
  • Studio monitors and/or headphones
  • A microphone and/or MIDI controller
Keep in mind you also need the various cables to connect the hardware devices to your computer or interface, such as a microphone cable for the mic and patch cables for the studio monitors.

The last two items may or may not be necessary depending on your musical goals. Whether you’re an aspiring singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, rapper or anything in between; with these core components you will be able to record and compose complete songs and productions on your computer in a relatively short amount of time.

Now that I've identified the core components of a computer-based music setup for composing and producing, let’s look at each one and discuss exactly what it does, and why it’s important.


Core Components of a Computer Based Composition Studio

1. A Computer

It is good to consider your computer as one of the bigger investments into your musical hobby or career.

The computer is going to be the central component of your composition studio that everything else connects to and, for the most part, is controlled by; and the main user interface that you will be dealing with when creating your compositions. You “sit at the computer” in your studio and compose and produce your music.

As the computer is the central piece of hardware that everything else revolves around, it is good to consider your computer as one of the bigger investments into your musical hobby or career.

The desktop or laptop computer is the central component of your composition studio setup

The desktop or laptop computer is the central component of your composition studio setup
Image courtesy of Apple

2. Music Creation Software

I’ll briefly mention that you will need music creation software, but we are going to dedicate a second tutorial just to focus on the software side of computer-based composing and producing. For now just keep in mind that you will need some kind of music software, and the options range from completely free to several hundred dollars.

In my next tutorial, I'll cover the types of music creation software that are available for you to use, and various terms and concepts that you will need to know when making your decisions on music creation software.

Music creation software allows you to record, edit, mix, and output your final compositions

Music creation software allows you to record, edit, mix, and output your final compositions
Images courtesy of Avid and Steinberg

3. An Audio Interface

Next is the audio interface, also sometimes referred to as a external sound card. The main purposes of an audio interface are to first give you various inputs and outputs. These include microphone inputs, audio line inputs for instruments like guitars, as well as other various audio sources. The outputs include headphone outputs as well as general outputs for speakers, and whatever else you’d like to output to.

Audio interfaces give you the means to record various sources into your computer

Audio interfaces give you the means to record various sources into your computer
Image courtesy of M-audio

Next, and very importantly, audio interfaces handle the analog to digital conversion of an incoming audio signal; usually noted as the units max bit depth and frequency. Many articles can be dedicated to this topic, but the basic idea is this: The signal from a microphone or instrument like a guitar are an analog signal, that is, electrical impulses traveling through the cable.

All computers understand only one thing, 1s and 0s. So when recording audio into a computer, a conversion from the analog signal to digital 1s and 0s that the computer can understand needs to take place. Once this digital audio file has been created, you can then use your music creation software to edit and further manipulate the audio file.

When choosing an audio interface, consider what your musical goals are and how and what you will be recording into your computer. If you are a singer-songwriter and you want to record yourself singing and your guitar, you can get away with an audio interface with two inputs; one for a microphone and one for your guitar.

This A/D conversion is where most of the quality is kept or lost in your recordings. The same is true for playback and when the digital signal is converted back to an analog signal for your speakers to play back accurately.

4. Monitors and/or Headphones

Next is a pair of studio monitors and/or headphones. These are for listening back to your composition and to be able to mix, arrange and compose your songs.

When you use the audio interface we just talked about, it is important to understand that it has now become the audio device of your computer instead of the built in audio hardware. On Windows-based computers, you may run into compatibility issues if you try to use an audio interface just for the inputs, and try to have the outputs set to the built in outputs, because Windows would technically be using two different audio devices.

Studio monitors give you an accurate representation of your audio, which is critical for proper mixing

Studio monitors give you an accurate representation of your audio, which is critical for proper mixing
Image courtesy of Dynaudio Acoustics

It is important to understand that the audio interface has now become the audio device of your computer instead of the built in audio hardware.

This is important because the speakers that are built into laptops, and the outputs on desktops, may not be available to play back the audio while using your external audio interface. The operating system will be sending the sound out of the outputs on the audio interface, and if there are no speakers or headphones hooked up to those outputs, you won’t hear any sound.

On Macs it is possible to use multiple audio devices, so this is not as big an issue but it is still good to know.

Headphones also give you a means to listen to your composition and are also good for critical listening

Headphones also give you a means to listen to your composition and are also good for critical listening
Image courtesy of Beyerdynamic

5. A Microphone and/or MIDI controller

Finally, depending on your musical goals, you may require a microphone and/or MIDI controller. If you are aspiring to be any kind of singer, you will need a way to record your singing into the computer via the audio interface. There are various options for microphones at various price levels.

You may have heard the terms dynamic and condenser used when talking about microphones. Dynamic microphones are usually used for live situations, and are the quote handheld microphones you see people using. While these can be used in a studio, they won’t give you the dynamic range that you will need to capture a great recording. More commonly, people will use a condenser microphone.

The basic differences between the two are that condenser microphones are many times more sensitive than dynamic microphones. This makes them good for a quiet studio setting when you want to capture all the details of a singers voice. If you are wanting to record your piano performances, you can also record the audio from a keyboard by using any available audio outputs on the piano, or by using a microphone to record your piano performance.

A microphone and cable are needed to record your singing and any instruments you don't hook directly into the computer such as an acoustic guitar

A microphone and cable are needed to record your singing and any instruments you don't hook directly into the computer such as an acoustic guitar
Image courtesy of M-audio

With MIDI, The computer is not recording the actual audio of your performance. It is recording the information needed to recreate your performance.

A much more flexible way to record your piano performance however, is to use a MIDI controller. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

Just like when talking about A/D conversions when recording into the computer, MIDI is a very extensive topic. But a quick way to grasp the concept is this: When recording audio, you are recording a performance that is pretty much set in stone. If you don’t like the performance or if you make a mistake, the only real options are to live with it, try and edit the audio, or re-record another performance.

With MIDI, The computer is not recording the actual audio of the performance. It is recording the information needed to recreate your performance. MIDI records what notes you play, when you play them, how hard you pressed the keys, when you released the keys, if and when you stepped on the sustain pedal and for how long, and any other information needed to perfectly recreate your performance.

The great thing is, when using MIDI, if you make a mistake, you can go back after the fact and easily edit and correct it. You can even go back and alter your performance to create a variation of it.

A MIDI controller will allow you to play your piano passages or other instruments and record them using the flexibility of MIDI

A MIDI controller will allow you to play your piano passages or other instruments and record them using the flexibility of MIDI
Image courtesy of M-audio

Conclusion

With these core components; a computer, music creation software, an audio interface, a pair of studio monitors and/or headphones, and a microphone and/or MIDI controller, you will be able to hit the ground running toward your musical goals. I hope this beginners introduction to computer-based composing gives you the understanding that you need to feel confident in pursuing your musical dreams.

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