7.4. PC Music for Musicians
Most PC sound cards concentrate their powers on playing music, usually through as many speakers as will fit into the room. Musicians, by contrast, want sound cards that specialize in recording music. The flimsy microphone circuitry in consumer-level sound cards can't handle heavy-duty recording, so musicians skip the computer stores and head for the music shops .
There, they find hundreds of cards and software combinations costing anywhere from $100 to nearly $10,000. Products range from the USB plug-in box shown in Figure 7-7 to drop-in sound cards with accompanying bunches of cables, all aimed at turning a PC into a recording studio.
When comparing sound cards at the music store, be sure to try the bundled software before plunking down your money. The programs all do relatively the same thing, but each offers a "feel" that only you can measure. Some offer plug-in knobs for manually controlling the recording volumes , for instance, which is a nice touch compared to turning knobs with a mouse.
Figure 7-7. One of the hundreds of cards and software packages aimed at musicians, the $300 Lexicon Omega Desktop Recording Studio ranks as one of the most affordable. The box plugs into your PC's USB 2.0 port, and records up to four tracks simultaneously . The box contains built-in microphone preamps (you need to add your own microphones), connects with MIDI instruments, and includes Steinberg's Cubase LE for editing and mixing up to 48 tracks. Like most gear aimed at musicians, this box contains 1/4-inch jacks for plugging in standard electric guitars and keyboards.
Most musician-level sound cards contain the following features:
Tip: Musicians' recording gear comes with a steep learning curve. To keep from being overwhelmed and discouraged, start by buying something used or fairly simple. Once you've mastered it, move on to more advanced gear.
7.4.1. Understanding MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)
The computerized version of an old player piano roll, a MIDI program faithfully writes down every note a musician plays during a performance, as well as each note's duration and intensity. Play back the MIDI file on a synthesizer, and you hear the original performance. But MIDI's much more powerful than a mere recording device.
For instance, piano rolls only sound like, well, antique pianos, but synthesizers mimic any instrument. That lets a MIDI keyboard player frighten the neighbors with tuba or accordion solos. Layer more parts into the mix, toss in a string section, and you've created an entire orchestra. (Most thunderous orchestral scores you hear in the movie theater started with a single musician in front of a MIDI keyboard.)
Most people hear only MIDI sounds on their PCs during computer games , but if you're a musician, MIDI gives you a universal musical language for a wide range of tasks .
For an ironic twist on history, drop by the Roll Scanning (www.trachtman.org/rollscans) Web site to hear old piano rolls scanned in and saved as MIDI files. If you find any old piano rolls in your attic, send them to Mr. Trachtman for scanning and conversion, helping to preserve our nation's musical history.