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Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - Software

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This post is part of a series called Songwriting & Composing: From Inspiration to Execution.
Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - Hardware
3 Ways to Incorporate iPad into Your Composition Workflow
This post is part of a series called Beginner’s Introduction to Composing on the Computer.
Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - Hardware

When I first started out composing and producing on the computer some 12 years ago, I didn’t have the benefit of having somebody show me all that there was to know about the basic concepts of composing and producing on a computer-based system. In this second part of this two-part series, I will give you a beginners introduction to the software side of composing on the computer.

If you’re just starting out on your musical journey of composing on the computer and you need to have a basic understanding of all the hardware that you will need, I suggest you read the first part of this series, Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - Hardware, where I cover all of the core components that are required for a basic computer-based composition and production set up, as well as their functions and why they are needed.

There are hundreds if not thousands of music applications available for you to use. But to help you not get overwhelmed I will talk to you about the broader categories of these programs. Most audio and music applications that you will be using when composing on a computer-based set-up will fall into one of these broad categories:

  • DAWs, which stands for Digital Audio Workstations
  • Audio Editors, which allow you to record, edit and otherwise manipulate digital audio files
  • Audio Plug-ins, which can be sub categorized into Sound Generating and Sound Processing.

DAWs

Let’s first discuss the main piece of music creation software that you will be using called a Digital Audio Workstation, or commonly referred to as a DAW. The DAW is the main piece of software that you will use to record, compose, edit, mix, and render out your final composition.

Each DAW has their own unique features and set of tools, but they all share the common aspect of giving you a complete digital workspace to compose music.

The DAW of my choice is Logic Pro X, a full-feature music creation environment

The DAW of my choice is Logic Pro X, a full-feature music creation environment.

Some common features that most digital audio workstations will share include a virtual mixing console, an audio editor, a virtual sequencer or piano roll for use when editing and creating MIDI performances, a main arrangement area to do the actual arranging and composing of your songs and performances, as well as a host of various plug-ins and virtual instruments. I’ll talk more about plug-ins later in the tutorial.

Mixing Console

Digital Audio Workstation software will provide you with a feature-rich mixing console that mimics its real world counterpart

Digital Audio Workstation software will provide you with a feature-rich mixing console that mimics its real world counterpart.

Audio Editor

Your DAW will give you extensive tools for editing audio files

Your DAW will give you extensive tools for editing audio files.

MIDI Sequencer

A main feature of Digital Audio Workstations is the ability to create elaborate MIDI compositions using virtual instruments

A main feature or Digital Audio Workstations is the ability to create elaborate MIDI compositions using virtual instruments.

Arrangement Area

The arrangement area is where all the various parts of your composition come together to form your completed track

The arrangement area is where all the various parts of your composition come together to form your completed track.

Your digital audio workstation is the main piece of software that your audio interface and MIDI controller will talk to when composing and producing. The inputs and outputs of your audio interface will correspond to the options available inside of your DAW, allowing you to hook up microphones and instruments and record them into the software, as well as assign outputs to your speakers and other output destinations.

The audio interface you use will integrate into your DAW as the bridge between the sounds in the outside world and your computer when recording

The audio interface you use will integrate into your DAW as the bridge between the sounds in the outside world and your computer when recording.

Some of the bigger names of DAWs include Ableton Live, Propellerhead’s Reason, Apple Logic Pro X, Steinberg Cubase, PreSonus Studio One, and of course Avid ProTools. Each DAW has their own unique features and set of tools, but they all share the common aspect of giving you a digital workspace to compose music.

Some due diligence and research will be required to decide which one is right for you, but in the end remember, the software is just a tool, and each one has its own unique set of features.


Audio Editors

Next, lets discuss Audio Editors. Audio editors are applications that allow you to edit, or otherwise manipulate an audio file on your computer. this can be for corrective purposes, such as cleaning up an audio file, say for removing unwanted noise; or it can be for creative and utilitarian purpose.

iZotope RX is an example of an audio editor that can perform corrective edits to audio. Say I recorded a guitar part into my computer, but there was an unwanted hum that was recorded as well. I can open the file iZotope RX and remove the hum, without damaging the rest of the sound, in this case a guitar. While this can be accomplished using various tools inside your DAW, iZotope RX is specifically dedicated to repair audio files.

iZotope RX is an industry standard audio editor for cleaning up otherwise unusable audio files

iZotope RX is an industry standard audio editor for cleaning up otherwise unusable audio files.

ReCycle from Propellerhead is a great audio editor that would fall into the more creative and utility side. ReCycle lets you open an audio file that you want to use as a loop, then you can add tempo and bar/beat information that will allow the audio file to play back perfectly at a variety of song tempos, as well as add creative effects to the whole file or individual slices.

ReCycle, as the name suggests, is a loop creation and audio "recycler" application

ReCycle, as the name suggests, is a loop creation and audio "recycler" application.

Some stand alone audio editors will also be able to be used as plug-ins inside of your host DAW. In this case, a streamlined version of the audio program will be available directly inside of your DAW as a plug-in to process the selected audio.

iZotope RX is available as a collection of sound processing plug-ins in addition to a stand alone application

iZotope RX is available as a collection of sound processing plug-ins in addition to a stand alone application.

Plugin-ins

You may have heard the terms Plug-in or virtual instrument used when referring to music software. Plug-ins are just that, pieces of software that literally plug into your main digital audio workstation to add extra functionality. Plug-ins can be thought of in two main categories, sound generating plug-ins, and sound processing plug-ins. Once you have decided on a DAW, you will eventually want to purchase some additional plug-ins. Both sound generating and sound processing plug-ins are available from third party developers at a variety of prices.

Sound Generating Plug-ins

Sound generating plug-ins can be virtual synthesizers, sample players, drum machines, or any other type of virtual instrument that you can play or that otherwise produces sound. If you are not going to be recording in your own instruments, such as you playing the guitar and drums for example, sound generating plug-ins, also referred to as soft synths, virtual instruments, VSTs, and a list of other names, can be used when you want to add extra sounds to your compositions.

Tip: A MIDI controller comes in handy to have tactile control over playing virtual instruments. It is possible to do all your composing on-screen, but MIDI controllers speed up the process significantly by allowing you to record your performance into your DAW, but instead of recording a hard audio file, it records using the flexibility of MIDI.

Your DAW will more than likely come with a collection of sound generating plug-ins such as drum machines, synths and more

Your DAW will more than likely come with a collection of sound generating plug-ins such as drum machines, synths and more.

Sound Processing Plug-ins

Sound processing plug-ins on the other hand do not actually generate any sound, but rather they are used to shape and sculpt the sound of your virtual Instruments or your recorded performances, or give you a variety of feedback information such as pitch, tempo and more.

These sound processing plug-ins can be thought of as the virtual counterparts to all the various hardware units you see in music studios. They can range from equalizers, compressors, and creative effects such as delays, reverbs, virtual stomp boxes, virtual guitar cabs, and anything and everything else you can imagine.

Some stand alone audio applications will also be able to be used as plug-ins inside of your host DAW.

Most DAWs will ship with a collection of sound processing "insert" plug-ins that are used to shape and mold a sound source

Most DAWs will ship with a collection of sound processing "insert" plug-ins that are used to shape and mold a sound source.

Additional Software

There is going to be some overlap in these categories of audio software, and every so often a new piece of software will come out that is so unique that it can't rightly fit into any of these categories. But again, the main purpose of these applications is to in some way equip and empower you with new tools or capabilities when working with and composing music on a computer-based system.


Conclusion

In this tutorial I’ve given you a beginners introduction to the software side of composing and producing your own songs on the computer. In general, any music creation software that you use is aimed at giving you the tools and the means to create music. Software that is designed to be a Digital Audio Workstation will give you a complete music creation environment. Other more specific applications will allow you to perform specific tasks in conjunction with your main DAW.

Finally, and probably the biggest category of music creation software, are plug-ins aimed at giving you new features and capabilities in your DAW. Be it a recreation of a hardware synthesizer, or the software equivalent of a vintage compressor.

I hope this gives you a sense of understanding and helps you feel confident in moving forward with your musical ambitions.

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