Section 7.4. PC Music for Musicians

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:

  • Recording several simultaneous tracks . Instead of recording using just one cheap microphone, musicians want to record jams with four or more instruments simultaneouslyeach on its own separate track. After the jam, the musician sits down with editing software and mixes the tracks, changing their volume and timing, adding effects, and fixing off notes.

  • Jack size . Most musical instruments connect with 1/4-inch mono plugs rather than the PCs fragile 1/8-inch stereo plugs. Music stores sell adapters, but one swing of a guitar can leave the broken stub of an adapter's jack stuck in your sound card. Look for a sound card that offers several sturdy 1/4-inch plugs, usually offered through a little box that connects to the card.

  • Preamp . Like record players, microphones aren't loud enough to be recorded directly. You need a preamp to amplify the microphone's sound before it enters the PC for recording.

  • Microphone . PC microphones don't cut it. The popular Shure SM-57 microphones cost less than $100 apiece, and let you record stereo tracks.

  • Software . The hardest worker in a home studio, audio software lets you mix your tracks to the right volume levels, arrange snippets of music in the right order, edit out bad notes, edit MIDI information (described next ), and add effects to recorded sounds.

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 .

  • Backing tracks . MIDI files can contain complete band performances . Turn off the guitar or keyboard part, plug in your MIDI instrument, and jam along to create your own solo. Many musicians create a band in a box, playing a MIDI drum and bass track while they play guitar or pianono arguments over the tip bucket.

  • Editing . MIDI editing software lets you edit performances as easily as editing words in a word processor. Hit an off note? Drag and drop it down a bit on the scale until it sounds just right. If something plays too quickly, just slow down the pacing a bit, while keeping everything in the same key.

  • Instrument variety . Just as keyboards can create orchestras, you can quickly switch an MIDI instrument to an oboe, clarinet, saxophone , or anything that fits the mood.

  • Sharing music . Google lists zillions of sites that offer free MIDI files. Jam Online ( adds a twist by letting musicians meet to create their own MIDI files, each adding a new layer in turn until finishing the composition (or giving up in frustration). The eJamming site ( charges a monthly fee for MIDI musicians to meet and jam together simultaneously over the Internet.

  • Printing sheet music . MIDI notation programs print out MIDI files as musical scores for passing around at the next jam.

For an ironic twist on history, drop by the Roll Scanning ( 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.

PCs: The Missing Manual
ISBN: 0596100930
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 206
Authors: Andy Rathbone

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