How I got to my first purchase and other useful definitions like, What’s a DAW? or VST? see below.
Equipment I already Owned
I started with an electric piano, a gift for our family. One with that came with hope for my little girl to start lessons and feel the beauty of music.
The keys on our Yamaha are weighted. It’s a standard piano size with 88 keys, and it feels a lot like my parents old baby grand piano.
Here is a link to Yamaha’s web site for more info on Portable Grande Piano DGX-660. If you are interested, we bought ours at Best Buy in Canada, but this model or something that suites you should available at your local music store.
My music making software was first loaded onto a Microsoft Laptop. Shortly thereafter I went to my local computer store and bought a refurbished i5 with a good amount of RAM and storage. That cost me about $450 CAD. The store I used for this buy was Canada Computers.
I strongly suggest you begin with a computer you will use for many years if you can afford that option. Changing musical software and plugins to a new computer can be a lengthy and rather frustrating process.
Simple as that.
A Friend’s Wisdom
One warm summer’s day, my friend smiled and said “Making a home studio is easy ” and I have to admit, from a beginners perspective, that statement couldn’t be less correct. (lol sorry friend, with love).
The back breaking amount of learning and research I had to do before making purchases led me to refine my approach. I now have a method of purchasing that I truly hope takes some of that load off of you. Click here to go to review that purchase method.
But let’s get back to the story.
Then my friend told me “You need a DAW”, I replied “a what?”
He then said “You need a sound card also, they usually come with a DAW” to which I replied, “ahhhum, doesn’t my computer have a sound card?”
Then he said “All you need then is a good MIDI”, which is pretty much where I had to stop learning for the day, pour myself another Gin and Soda and ask google for some answers.
Truth be told, that was all the info I needed to set sail. I will be eternally grateful for my friend’s nod in the right direction. Now that I understand how to compose music with a computer, I want to pass my knowledge on to you as your journey begins.
So let it begin.
Definition and Meaning in the simplest of terms:
DAW – Digital Audio Workstation:
Simply put, it’s a computer program for recording, mixing and editing instruments, sounds and samples.
Picture yourself recording Drums on Track 1, Guitar on Track 2 and finally Piano on Track 3. All these tracks are visualized in a computer program. As you play back the song, if you hear a mistake, each track can be individually edited right inside the computer programs interface.
Effects like reverb, distortion and equalization (and many many more) can be applied through this software as well.
A few popular DAWs include:
Digital Music Files:
Imagine recording a sample of a single violin playing the note C. What if you could attach that recorded sound to a keyboard’s key. For example, when you play Middle C on the keyboard, the sound that actually comes out is C played beautifully by a professional violinist (pre-recorded at a professional studio).
Now imagine when you press Middle C lightly, it plays one recording of the musician playing their violin lightly. When you press Middle C hard, the violin plays a separate recorded sample of the violinist playing C loudly.
What you end up with is a beautiful professional recorded sound rather than a synthesized fake sound.
Here is how it works in theory:
First, there’s a Midi Controller
Something needs to tell the computer what note to play and how. Simply put, when hooked up to the computer, your electric piano keyboard is called a MIDI controller. As an analogy, the same way a computer keypad is used to type letters for MS WORD, your electric piano keys control playing the pre-recorded sounds in your DAW.
Then there are VST’s or ‘Audio Files’
When you press a key on your MIDI Controller (Electric piano), it sends a message to your computer that tells your DAW (Cubase for example) to play a sound. Normally that sound could be a basic MIDI file that sounds like garbage.
So how do you make it sound like the crisp beautiful violin? You download a “Violin VST library” ( Pre-recorded violin sounds) into your DAW. Each violin recording gets mapped appropriately to your keyboard and when you play any of the 88 keys, you are in-effect controlling the musician on their violin.
For a very technical but excellent description of Audio Files and VST’s, check out the comment on this discussion at Spitfire Audio’s Forum.
Sooooooooo to Sum It Up
The Piano keyboard (MIDI Controller) sends a MIDI message to the Computer to say “Play this MIDI file (or musical note). Then the VST translates that basic sound into “Play this wonderful pre-recorded sound of a violin”.
A violin VST could have multiple recordings for intensity, key and other effects that musicians play in real life.
You are now controlling a real musician with your piano keys. But they tend to refer to it as controlling a “Voice”
There are multiple VST libraries for you to buy (or get for free) on the internet. Maybe even Ringo Starr playing his drums? That would be nice.
Here’s a link to the BBC Symphony Orchestra Core version, something I recently invested in.
In your learnings on how to compose music with a computer, we hope our notes here have helped.
Sound Card (Not the one that comes inside your computer):
One last thing, Those vast amounts of pre-recorded sounds (I.e. the violin) that are now attached to your computer have a play back delay. For example, you press the key Middle C, wait a bit, Grab a sandwich, and then the sound comes out of your speaker.
To remedy this, an external sound card (audio interface) helps process sample sounds faster. Its like steroids for your computer.
It is a box that simply plugs into a USB port.
Sound cards usually come with slots that you can jack a microphone into and record live guitar, drums vocals etc. without any computer processing delay.
My First real Purchase
A Sound Card (a.k.a. audio interface)
I purchased this particular sound card both for the Cubase DAW and for the excellent reviews on the hardware. For a PC, Cubase DAW is a good fit, but Apple has some great DAW options as well i.e. LogicPro etc. Read up and choose what is good for you, not what marketers tell ya.
See Steinberg UR-22c Audio Interface for pricing info. (Long and McQuade is a Canadian Music store, so prices are in CAD).
Here is a video that I named “Info overload” for the UR-22c. But it gives you an idea of the industry terms and functions of an audio interface. I usually drone out after 9 minutes watching it, but to be fair, he is super thorough and I appreciate his review.
Further info on How to Choose an Audio Interface.
Buyer beware, a lot of these video’s have a hidden agenda to try and sell you a particular product without being obvious about it. But still, I liked this video.
BUT WAIT, THERES MORE ;-0
Free with every purchase of the Steinberg Audio Interface UR-22c (Sound Card) is the Cubase AI DAW for you to play with.
Here is a link to the Steinberg Website for Cubase AI
Cubase AI is a compact version of their PRO version. But it’s really all you need to get going.
Advancing to the next version of Cubase is a decision you have to make as you grow with your music.
I currently have upgraded to Cubase Artist. It suits my needs.
Next Come Speakers
But that’s likely enough info for you to chew on today.
Go forth, learn more on how to compose music with a computer and please share your knowledge with me so I can learn more and create better music.
A Home Studio Beginners Guide
How to Compose Music with a Computer
List of Articles:
- How I began composing on a computer
- Learn what kind of equipment and software makes music?
- What speakers or headphones does a home studio need?
- What studio furniture makes sense?
- How to buy music composing tech in a world full of marketing?