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Monday, June 29, 2009

Producing Natural-Sounding MIDI Notes

When making electronically-produced music, you'll find yourself often programming notes rather than playing them. People who don't understand the medium will say that this makes the music cold, mechanical and lifeless, but they simply don't understand the amount of work and craftsmanship that goes into manually arranging notes. A composer needs to take into account very precise attributes of every note of every measure of every part they program. This can be very daunting. When I write melodies that are more complex than I can feasibly play, I'll use Cubase's piano-roll style grid to place notes, and then I'll let the computer play them. In the early days, this usually meant that the notes sounded harsh and machine-like. How do I fix this? How can I make MIDI-generated tones sound more natural to the listener?

Well, I thought, human hands are not machines. We don't hit every note on precisely the right beat, right? After placing my notes, I would nudge them just slightly out of sync with the rhythm. Hopefully this would be the subtle change needed to make the music sound more organic. Right?

As it turns out, the hands of a trained musician actually have excellent rhythm; better than you would ever expect. Once I'd learned to play piano with some moderate skill I found that my own notes pretty much hit precisely on the beat when needed. My nudging of the MIDI tracks only served to make my melodies sound amateur and unrefined.

No, the key to lifelike melodies, I found, is in the velocity of the notes played. With some exceptions, almost all of your machine-played notes can be placed in perfect sync as long as they have heavily varied velocities. Velocity, in this case, means how hard the note is played. Think of the difference between a piano being played softly and a piano being played loudly and you'll know what I mean.
I could spend several paragraphs describing the method to you, but I'll let this picture do most of the talking:

As you can see in this very generic guide, the odd-numbered notes are louder, while the even ones are quieter. You can also see that there's a more subtle pattern of general volume change: The smaller the note (8th, 16th, 32nd etc.) the more likely it will be relatively quiet when it is not on the main beats of a measure.

When making a melody, I will start with this pattern and then adjust it according to what I want it to sound like for that particular part. Following this pattern works particularly well for complex melodies with many notes.

If you simply follow that chart to the letter, your melody will still have a machine-like quality to it. It's best to arrange your velocities in this pattern and then adjust everything a little afterward, putting emphasis on certain notes for dramatic effect. This particular chart, for example, is clearly skewed towards something that emphasizes beats on 1 and 3, which you don't alway want. Try adding a little randomness too and see how it comes out. The beauty of MIDI-generated music is that if you don't like it, you can endlessly tweak it until it sounds perfect.

Do you have any cool techniques for MIDI melodies?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Weekly Music Writing - Like lifting weights made of creativity

A while back I wrote about writing music constantly in order to build your skills and flex your creativity. I've been making music for several years now and my biggest project had been a 16 track score for a tragically unreleased computer game, which I finished in about 6 months. This was a great exercise, but afterward I got somewhat lazy. I was still producing music and getting better all the time, but unfortunately at a very slow rate.

It was roughly two months ago when I had completed a song in the studio that took me about a week to make when I realized 'You know, I should really be finishing a song every week.' That's when I decided to start my project.

I call it the Jupiterman Weekly Song-A-Thon. I'm writing and producing a new piece of music every week for three months. This means by the end of it I'll have twelve tracks, and so far I've completed nine. There are no requirements in the project other than finishing each song by Friday. The songs can be any length and any genre. In the 9 songs that I've already made, I've done electronica, jazz, solo piano, cinematic, ambient, and... er, harpsichord rock (kind of a failed experiment. It was a rough week.)

Here are some things I've learned along the way so far:

1. There are ways around writer's block. Usually by Friday when I'm finishing up a new song I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to do for the next week and I may even start working on the next song immediately after finishing. This isn't always the case, however. There have been a couple of weeks when I've started without any clue what I was doing and nothing I try seems to click with me. It can be very frustrating. This is not the end, however! I've somehow managed to deliver a song every week regardless. How?

Well, one week I simply couldn't get much time to work on anything. Instead of just giving up, however, I dug around through my hard drive and dredged up an older song that I had been working on several months before. I hadn't been too happy with it, but in the few hours that I had that day I polished it up and finished it off in time to release it that afternoon. I became much more satisfied with it.

Another week was truly a case of writer's block. Friday came around and I still had nothing, despite having spent a lot of time in the studio previously that week. I didn't know what I was going to do. Then I remembered I had a piano piece that I had written as a sort of chord exercise for myself almost a year ago. I only played it on my keyboard in my bedroom and never really considered recording it. Until now, that is. Despite it starting out as an exercise, it was musically sound, had an interesting chord progression, had some real emotional power and I could play it fairly competently. Problem solved! I recorded it, tweaked it, and had it done in less than two hours.

Writer's block will most likely hit you sometimes, but there are creative ways to get around it. You can also try doing something completely off the wall, if you have no ideas left. This is how you get stuff like harpsichord rock; not the best thing ever, but something different, at least.

2. I have a style/formula and I have certain limitations.
I've always kept this idealized vision of myself as a composer who is genre-less who can write a competent piece of music in any style imaginable. This project has shown me the reality of myself as a composer. There are certain genres that I gravitate towards, like electronica, and others that I struggle with, like rock or symphonic. I really want to make another rock song after the success of Mighty Surf Wizard Battle, but I have a hard time mixing electric guitar sounds and coming up with chords to make up the verse and chorus sections. I have an easier time with symphonic works, but again, chords (my arch-nemeses) are difficult. The real problem with symphonic, however, lies in the technical limitations of my own studio.

I also have a very specific way of putting chords and, indeed, whole songs together. I tend to have chord changes occur every measure, but almost never more frequently. This can be very limiting.

None of the problems I've mentioned here are insurmountable. They are not intrinsic aspects of my or anyone's character. There more learned about music and more practice one gets, the better their work becomes.

3. Time constraints will give you perspective. Since I'm not living in a mansion built out of solid gold BMW's, I have to work at a job like everyone else. My particular job, thankfully, affords me some flexibility to work on other endeavors. Still, work, social obligations, self-education and writing for multiple websites take up a lot of my time, and I'm sure you can relate. With all of this in mind, I set aside around 8 to 16 hours of my free time each week to work on my music. This is certainly not enough time to create a masterpiece, but it is enough to put together a well-made 2 to 3 minute song.

Having such a time constraint will force you to know and understand what is most important in the music you're composing. There are many things I could tweak on each piece that I write; making sure every last drum beat and portamento swing is absolutely perfect, but I simply don't have enough time. Instead I focus on making sure it's a finished product that has some emotional weight and is produced well. When you write all the time, you get more efficient. Little technical things that you struggled with before and would take up so much of your time will eventually fade away as you become more competent at them or you find a more efficient way of doing things. You'll learn to produce quality on your first try, rather than your third, simply because you'll have no choice.

4. Forcing yourself to make music is incredibly rewarding.
This project has been great fun and I've learned a ton from doing it. It has even given me a lot of ideas for things to do after the project is over. I'm thinking of doing a pure electro-jazz album in the style of my third song in the project. I want to do some collaborations with a few of my friends. I've now proven to myself that I can make quality music quickly and efficiently, so there's no hesitation or wariness about getting started on a new project.

I urge you, fellow makeshift musician, to start your own Song-A-Thon. It doesn't matter if all you have is a guitar and a tape recorder, just give it a try. Maybe bring some other musicians in to help. By the end of it you'll have a sweet album to give away or sell. It could just be the best thing you've ever done for your music writing career.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Microphones, Cables and Everything Else in Your Studio

This is the final part of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

So, you've got your room for your studio, you've set up your computer, hooked up your audio interface and installed your recording software. What's next? Actually, a lot of stuff.


Unless you're an all-software kind of musician, you need a microphone or two. Entire books have been written on the subject of microphones and how they are used in different situations; it's a very large field. You can get specialized mics for any instrument you can think of for thousands of dollars and often they are purchased in pairs. If you're like me, though, and I know I am, you don't have those kinds of resources. I'll try to point you to some general-purpose mics instead.

AKG Perception 120 - This is the one I use in my studio. It's a good general purpose mic that has a very crisp sound. It comes in a nice case with a shock mount. It usually goes for around $120.

Shure SM57 - This is a classic mic that has been in use for something like 30 years. It generally goes for $70 to $100. It works great for guitar amps and drum kits, (just don't put it too close to the kick drum; that'll be too much for it) and if you get a decent preamp, it works pretty well for vocals too.

Wait, what is a preamp? What a great question! A good microphone needs power to sound good. Some microphones can work with very little power but they're not very sensitive, i.e. your computer microphone that comes with your webcam. The more power your microphone has, the better your overall recording quality will be. A preamp's job is to provide power to your microphone, which your mixer or audio interface may not be able to do. My M-Audio FireWire 1814 audio interface also acts as a preamp, but I'm thinking about picking up a separate one.

Don't forget to check out my article How Microphones Work.


You should get cables for each device you have. Don't scrimp here. A cable for each microphone you have, two 1/4 inch cables for each synthesizer or drum machine you have. Also, you may be tempted, as I was, to get shorter cables to save money. This really isn't a good idea. 3-foot cables are almost useless unless your device sits right on top of your audio interface. Get at least 6-foot cables for everything. You might consider getting a particularly long mic cable, as you never know how you might set up a mic and you may need some extra length to accommodate.

Everything Else

There are lots of other items you'll most likely want to round out your studio and make it more usable.

Mic stand - If you have a microphone, you want a mic stand as well. What, are you going to hire someone to hold the mic in front of the guitarist while he plays?

Stools/chairs - A musician needs to sit on something while they play, especially during long recording sessions. Simple, cheap stools or chairs do the trick.

Instrument stands - for putting guitars and such on between records. A rack could work pretty well also.

Vocal booth - If the room for your studio has a closet, this is a great opportunity to turn that into a vocal booth. You often want an intimate sound when recording vocals, and even in a padded studio room a voice can sound echoey in recordings. This is why professionals have separate recording booths. If you don't have a closet, try to find some other way to isolate a singer as best you can. Always experiment!

Mini-fridge/food - Long studio sessions can lead to hunger. Always keep musicians happy and fed.

Couch - for lounging. 'Nuff said.

Now get in there and start making some music. Let me know how it goes!

Go to part 5: What Speakers Should I Get?

>>> Go back to the index

Monday, March 30, 2009

Audio Recording Software for Your Studio

This is Part 4 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

We're now down to the last big component of your beast of a studio. To add this last piece, we need to dive into the prickly, sometimes confusing realm of software. Luckily for you, though, there are a lot of easy options to work with.

What does the software do? In the old days of recording, I'm talking, say, pre-Beatles era, audio-guys would just stick a microphone in front of a preforming band. The band would play, the mic would record onto a big reel of tape, and the audio-guy would call it a day and presumably get trashed afterward. Now, we've all listened to those old recordings and, well, they've got personality, but overall they sound pretty bad.

There's a misconception among folks that modern stuff sounds great in comparison because our space-age microphones and recording media are simply better, but that's actually only a very small part of the reason. Most engineers can't even tell the difference between a well-built microphone from the 1930's and a well built microphone just off the assembly-line.

The real reason modern recordings sound so good is because of the multitrack recording technique. Essentially multitracking allows you to record and synchronize multiple tracks at the same time, drums on one track, guitar on another and your vocals on a third, for example. You can add effects and edit each of these tracks without affecting the others or destroying or really even changing the original audio, allowing you free reign to tweak the sound until it's perfect. Since the edits you make are on top of the audio in a separate layer instead of integrated into it, if you mess up you don't need to rerecord -- you just take off the edit and you still have your pristine file. For a more in-depth explanation of how it works, read my very first article: An Introduction to Multitrack Recording. Back yet? Okay, now we can delve into software.

There are several options at your disposal and in fact some of them happen to be free of charge. Lets take a look at the free ones first.

GarageBand - If you're using an Apple computer for your studio, then, lucky you, you've already got software built-in. Professionals may scoff at it, but GarageBand is a true, honest-to-god multitrack system, that you can use to record real stuff. Like all Apple products, it's easy to use. This would be a great place to start, and it won't cost you a dime if you've already got a Mac.

Kristal - Another free bit of software, Kristal is so good they could charge $100 for it and people would be willing to pay it. 16 audio tracks, effects built in. VST support. This has everything. If you're just starting out, get this first. You can't beat free.

Those are the nice free ones, and are probably good enough for anything you might need. If you really want to go pro, however, then following is the studio software that'll take big chunks out of your wallet. Keep in mind, all these are competing with each other for your business, but really, ask any professional and they'll tell you they all do the same thing. The important thing is that you take the time to learn to use your software effectively.

DigiDesign ProTools - ProTools is usually the software choice for professionals. You can get the LE version for around $150. The high-end, HD version is much more, but seriously, you probably won't need it. The nice thing about ProTools is that there's a lot of specialized hardware, like mixing consoles and audio interfaces, that can accompany the software seamlessly. DigiDesign has built a whole, unified system around ProTools and supports it really well. I've used it some, and I believe it is geared more towards traditional studio recording, so it may have just slightly less support for purely electronic and MIDI setups.

Steinberg Cubase - This here is my software of choice. Steinberg invented the VST (Virtual Studio Technology) system, which is a platform, of sorts, for developers to create new systems that 'plug in' to Cubase, so you can add things like new effects processors or synthesizers. It has been so successful that other companies have added VST support to their systems. Anyway, Cubase is more geared towards electronic setups, but it can handle pure acoustic recording just fine, as I've used it for both. Cubase Studio 5, the current lower end version, goes for $299, which is pretty pricey.

Cakewalk Sonar - To be honest I don't know a whole lot about Cakewalk, and their product line is a little convoluted, but I know there are some artists that swear by it. The Home Studio version goes for a paltry (by comparison) $100, so it may be the most cost-effective of the bunch.

Remember to approach your software as you would an instrument: This is something you need to practice with and learn the intricacies of before you can really be effective with it. Find tutorials online and record and experiment as much as you can.

You'll most likely be overwhelmed by all the stuff onscreen when you boot up your software of choice for the first time. Here are some items to help get you oriented:

1. Find out how to get your Audio Interface talking to your Software. This is the first thing you need to do. You want to be able to hook up a microphone and start recording, so make sure it actually works when you do it. Go through the manuals for both products, and if all else fails ask the internet: search for both items in a single query on Google.

2. Figure out how to make new tracks. Also, each track has a 'recording input.' This is how it decides where it gets it's sound, be it from the microphone or the synthesizer or the bass guitar. Find out how to set this.

3. Automation. It's generally fairly simple to see how to change the volume of a track manually, but what you really want is to have the volume change throughout the song automatically, such as when an instrument fades out. This is usually called automation. Automation can cover other things too, like panning the sound left and right, or mixing effect levels.

4. Find the keyboard shortcuts. I can't emphasize this enough. Learn the keyboard commands! They will make your life easier.

5. Learn how to use Equalization and Effects. Equalization (EQ) is your best friend. You can use it to cut or boost, with great precision, any range of frequencies in your individual audio tracks. You do this so that you can fit lots of different sounds together without it all sounding like mud. Fiddle around with EQ a lot to learn how it works. Also experiment with effects as much as you can.

Go to part 3: Audio Interface, or How to Get Sound into the Computer

>>> Go to Part 5: What Speakers Should I Get?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Audio Interface, or, How to Get Sound into Your Computer

This is Part 3 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Now that you've got a computer, it's entirely possible that you're now standing in front of it with your guitar or piano or whatever, your eyes slowly moving back and forth between the two objects in a confused manner, wondering how to get sound into machine. At least, that's what I did.

You see, computers don't normally come with a usable audio interface. Sure, you've got a sound card, and it probably has a tiny microphone jack, but you're not actually thinking of using that, are you? Are you??

So what is an audio interface? It's a box that hooks up to your computer, usually through FireWire (you did remember to get a computer that has FireWire capability, right?) On this box is a number of inputs, for taking in sound, and outputs for, uh, outputting sound. I've made a little diagram to show you how it all works. This is to give you an idea of roughly how your studio should be set up:
Click on the image to see it full-size.

Now here are the different components that you want to look for in an audio interface:

Mic inputs

What can I say? These are for your microphones. If you do any acoustic stuff (guitars, drums, vocals, sound effects etc.) your audio interfac e should have at least two of these inputs on it. If you're recording a whole band, you'll want as many mic inputs as possible.

1/4-inch Line inputs

These are for bass guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, drum machines, turntables or anything electronic. If you've got a rack full of synths, you'll want more of these.

MIDI inputs

It's hard to find an audio interface that doesn't have MIDI inputs and outputs, but make sure yours has these anyway, especially if you're planning an all-software electronic setup.

With all this in mind, here are a few interfaces I found with a little digging on

PreSonus Inspire 1394 - This has two 1/4-inch inputs and two mic inputs for $200. No MIDI though.

Roland Edirol FA-66 - Now we're talkin'. 2 mic inputs, 4 1/4-inch inputs, RCA inputs (you know, those red-and-white cables on your DVD player?) MIDI in and out, this one looks pretty sweet. Not bad for $280.

Alesis iO|26 - If you've got a larger studio setup, or you just want to get fancy, this has more inputs than you'll ever need, plus you can use it to control your software. $430.

In my studio, I use an M-Audio FireWire 1814 , though these seem to be increasingly hard to find these days. It has eight 1/4-inch inputs, two mic inputs, MIDI and some other nice features. When it works, it works well, but it tends to crash a lot. Remember to do a lot of research before plunking down your cash for one of these devices. You can find reviews for just about any product by typing in the product name followed by the word 'review' on Google.

Hopefully, this can get you started with choosing an interface. What you get depends on your needs as a musician and recording artist. For example, I have more synths and workstations, so my interface has more 1/4-inch inputs. Some of you might have an all software setup, so you may only need midi inputs, in which case you'll be spending very little on hardware and spending more on software.

Speaking of software, that's our next issue to tackle. See you next week!

Go to Part 2: Get a Computer for Your Studio

>>> Go to Part 4: Audio Software

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

So you have a great band or you're a composer and you really want to make a sweet album yourself, but you don't know where to start? How does someone even record music? How does one go about putting together a studio? Don't you need to go to school for that kind of thing?

Fear not, gentle reader. Like the majestic albatross, I swoop down from the heavens and bestow upon you the greatest tool you'll ever receive, The Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio.

My article Make Your Own Recording Studio is the most popular piece on this site. I've always felt like it was a bit short and lacking, so I really wanted to make something, well, more comprehensive and valuable. I hope this guide can help you make the whole process of home recording a little less daunting and mysterious and more fun.

Remember that there are roughly 5 million different ways to build a studio, and what I'm telling you covers just one way. The studio I've built for myself is a pretty good general purpose setup that is also highly portable and easily changeable, and that's about what you'll see in this guide.