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Tips for Musicians

A Column by Zachary Quarles

Zach QuarlesHome Recording for the Beginning Musical Theatre Composer:
An Introduction

By Zachary Quarles

Greetings! The following article is the first in a series for the aspiring computer-based composer. In our day and age, the line between creativity and technology is continually being blurred. Oftentimes, technology can act like a springboard for creativity and vice versa. As someone that has been "in the trenches" when it comes to reaching creative-based deadlines while using current technological trends, I hope to at least somewhat clear the ever-muddening waters for the home recording aficionado.

As an introductory piece, I thought I'd do just that: an introduction. The following are some key elements to making a solid home-recording/notating PC-based studio (Macs can follow the same basic rule of thumb, however, some software options that I bring up may not be available for the Mac). There are literally hundreds of options depending on how robust you'd like your setup to be. I will go over the very basics here and with future reviews and features; I will go more in depth. Let's get started on what you need!

1) Computer: Something tells me that if you are currently reading this, you probably have a computer. Good. Number 1 "Check. J Some options you may wish to consider for your machine are as follows:

a. A powerful processor. If you are running a Pentium II 400 mhz (megahertz) machine, you're going to want to upgrade. At very minimum, you should probably invest in something like a PIII 2 ghz (gigahertz) machine. The reason is simple, current audio software packages are becoming much more complex and require more horsepower. You might as well get something that will keep you "in the game" for a little longer.

b. At least 1 gb (gigabyte) of RAM. Audio requires a lot of headroom when you begin to record and arrange "if you have several channels active at one time and not enough RAM, your system can start to experience "dropouts" and unreliability when you record.

c. Lots of hard-drive space. Audio is second only to video when it comes to hard-drive space requirements. I would recommend a hard-drive (or a couple) that rounds out at around 300 gbs (gigabytes).

d. USB 2.0 and/or Firewire interfaces.These are pretty standard on new computers, but something that you should make sure is available.

2) Midi Interface/Controller: The MIDI Interface/Controller is essentially how someone with piano/keyboard experience gets their ideas from their head/hands to the computer. It's essentially a keyboard of various sizes (anywhere from a single octave to a full 88-key piano) that plugs into your computer and is recognized by your software. There are other options for the musician that has more experience with guitars or wind instruments, but that's getting into a realm that is outside of the scope for this article. An excellent example of an introductory midi keyboard controller would be the M-Audio Oxygen 61. It's a USB controller, which basically means you plug it in and go. You don't need an outside MIDI interface to get started, as it has it all incorporated into one option.

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3) Notation/Sequencing Software: Here comes one of the more difficult decisions as it comes down to what the primary function that you actually want to achieve with your home-studio. Notation programs at the very root allow you ultimate flexibility with writing proper sheet music. This allows you to arrange proper staves, transpose parts and entire pieces, and print out scores for your players and/or conductor. The function of a notation package isn't generally for recording. That's where the sequencer comes into play. If you're wanting to record your big "demo" that is where the sequencer comes into play. It has several options to record audio as well as vast MIDI editing capabilities. I should point out that both notation and sequencing packages have rudimentary functions of both incorporated, it's just they are vastly more specialized in their respective fields.

Two notation programs that are probably the bread and butter at this time are entitled Finale MakeMusic! Finale 2007 and Sibelius Sibelius 5 Professional Edition Notation Software

Both serve their functions, so it probably comes down to aesthetic for the end-user. I would recommend downloading a trial version of each to see which one floats your respective boat(s).

As far as sequencers go, the two PC flagship titles would be Cubase and SONAR.

Again, I would recommend checking out the trial versions of each to figure out what you like best. Also, make sure you read all the help files and go through the tutorials. Nothing like learning through a trial by fire.

4) Sample-Libraries and Virtual Instruments: Gone are the days where a home-studio requires several rack-mounted hardware cases that are full of obscure synthesizers and questionable brass sample-sets. Now, one need only install a piece of software that contains thousands upon thousands of sampled instruments that were recorded in actual orchestral halls. These pieces of software are called "virtual instruments" and/or "sample-libraries" (to be fair, an actual sample-library requires a separate piece of software called a "sampler" to run, but that's for another article). Many sequencing packages come with a host of "default" instruments that you can putter around with, but oftentimes, the quality isn't remarkable. Also, a large factor in choosing a virtual-instrument is what sort of sounds you are looking for. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on a basic orchestral set with a piano option. Two libraries fit the bill here. One of them is Eastwest/Quantum Leap's Symphonic Orchestra: Silver edition (http://www.soundsonline.com/sophtml/details.phtml?sku=EW-161PROB1) and the other is the Garritan Personal Orchestra (http://www.garritan.com/GPO-features.html). This is another one of those choices where the personal aesthetic comes into play. Both libraries have a host of demos that you can listen to, the best way to make a decision would be to give them a play and see what strikes your fancy.

5) Hardware: This section is probably more geared for the crowd that plans on recording demos and mockups, not necessarily for people that will be simply writing sheet music and arrangements. If you want to record a vocal track along with an acoustic guitar on top of some sampled strings and percussion, you're going to need a basic audio interface and microphone. There are tons of options available for you, but I would probably recommend an interface that either utilizes the USB 2.0 or Firewire interface on your computer.

Companies that I would recommend to look at that supply these options would be: M-Audio, Digidesign, and Presonus.

Another element would be a microphone. I would say make sure you get something that is fairly universal to record a vocal line and/or a solo instrument. A recommendation that you will come across time after time will be the Shure SM57: [Shure SM57 Microphone and Free T-Shirt]. It's a remarkably rugged and versatile mic that has been around for quite awhile. It's a great starter mic.

While I understand that this is a wealth of information to throw at you all at once, these are the basics to get you up and running with a bare-bones composing setup. There is a lot of research that goes into finding what is the right fit for your needs and desires, but hopefully, this has helped in at least getting you started. If anything seems remarkably confusing or just plain weird, please send me an email and I can help out: zquarles@changeling-sound.com

Until next time,
-ZQ

About Zachary Quarles

Zachary Quarles is the audio director for the Chicago-based video game developer, Day 1 Studios. He received his BFA in Musical Theatre Performance from Missouri State University and has worked with clients such as: Activision Games, Raven Software, Big Idea Productions, Lucasarts, Vivendi-Universal Games, Marvel Comics, and In Actu Theatre. Zack is an active member of the Open Cage Ensemble theatre company (http://www.opencagetheatre.org) in Chicago, IL.

Books about Music Recording

Musician's Guide to Home Recording: How to Make Great Recordings at Home - released in 1994.

Musicians Guide to Home Recording Book Description: This updated edition includes advice on creating great demos, secrets to using 4-track Portasound cassette decks, tips for assembly and best use of 16-track home studios, a buyer’s guide to new and used equipment, hints from studio musicians, and more.

Guerrilla Home Recording BookGuerrilla Home Recording: How to Get Great Sound from Any Studio (no matter how weird and cheap your gear is)

Guerrilla Home Recording Book Description
This easy-to-use book details an all-new approach to the art and science of recording for musicians who didn't attend engineering school and who don't own pricey recording gear. It discusses techniques - from standard to creative and unusual - that allow musicians to create professional-quality recordings using minimal tools; teaches readers everything they need to know to produce a great-sounding CD; and exposes some common misconceptions that have frustrated recording musicians for decades.

Equipment

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To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com


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