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Thread: How to make half-decent computer music

  1. #1
    Senior Member Kopachris's Avatar
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    Default How to make half-decent computer music

    Disclaimer: MIDI is no substitute for a real performance, but it can certainly help with composition. But don't show off even a nicely-rendered midi piece as your final product, it'll make you appear unprofessional!

    Disclaimer 2: This guide is by no means definitive. There are many ways to skin a [insert animal], so the saying goes. This is simply the way I've found best for my own situation, and perhaps yours (no money to spend on expensive hardware/software, but a passion for computers and for classical music).

    Anywho... Due to the multitude of questions on these fora regarding "how to make computer music sound better," I'm going to stop replying to each individual thread and instead simply refer them to this place, right here.

    To begin with, if you're using a scorewriter such as Finale, or Sibelius, STOP! These programs are for creating sheet music ONLY. You need to find yourself a real midi sequencer. If you want, you can have one with notation features as well--Apple's Logic programs do very nice midi work in the same style as GarageBand as well as some notation stuff. If you want something free (and open-source), look no further than Rosegarden, which also does some notation stuff (and will even export it in LilyPond format, too), but is for Linux only. That's okay, though, because it brings me to my next point...

    Switch to Linux! All the real audio people are on Linux nowadays, anyway. But the most important reason to switch to Linux for audio work is JACK, which stands for JACK Audio Connection Kit. It's exactly what its name describes: it connects various audio sources--send this here, send that there, etc. If you have a midi keyboard and a USB adapter, you can plug your keyboard into your computer and can use JACK to link it to either any synthesizer or to Rosegarden.

    Now, midi on Linux is kind of a tricky issue, but in general, you'll need ALSA (most distributions use PulseAudio, which you DO NOT WANT for midi work), a synthesizer (FluidSynth (and it's GUI, QSynth) is a good software synthesizer, though your sound card (any Emu10kx card works well in Linux) will work, too), and JACK to connect everything. A good guide to getting midi working fully in Ubuntu can be found here. Oh, and you'll also need a good...

    SOUNDFONT. The SoundFont is just what it's name implies (this seems to be a recurring theme), it's a font for sounds. More specifically, it's a collection of samples for an instrument or a collection of instruments. The better the samples, the better the end-result will be. If you're using Ubuntu, the repositories have the excellent Fluid (R3) GM SoundFont; you can install it by doing
    Code:
    sudo apt-get install fluid-soundfont-gm
    and it'll end up in your "/usr/share/sounds/sf2" folder.

    Now that you've got your environment right, go ahead and play around with Rosegarden and get familiar with the interface. I'll post the next part to this guide (actually making the music) either later today or tomorrow morning.

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    Senior Member Kopachris's Avatar
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    Yet another disclaimer: I'm assuming you know enough about your midi sequencer by now to be able to use it without me holding your hand.

    Now that you've got your environment right, we can begin composing! Yay! Be sure that you know exactly what you want before you start, or things will get frustrating quickly. I suggest taking a few pieces of staff paper and a pen with you wherever you go so you can write down that tune that just hit you before it runs away. If you're not serious enough to do that, then you're not serious enough to follow my advice for using midi better, either. The following takes a lot more work than simply plugging all the notes in and letting the computer handle it, but the results should end up much better.

    Tip 1: Get a midi keyboard, please! Even if you can't fluently speak piano, you can probably plunk out your own melodies with practice. Connect the keyboard to your computer (and your midi sequencing software) and record one voice at a time. The subtle variations in note length and note velocity will probably be the thing that makes it sound most human. In fact, if you can play the whole piece for each voice, including tempo changes, dynamics, legatos, and ornaments, then you could probably even skip the rest of these tips!

    Tip 2: Sections. Record in sections, have each file only be a section, and render the midi a section at a time. At the very least, break it into sections for all the tempo changes, as most midi sequencers probably don't handle ritardandos and accelerandos very well; you'll probably have to do them manually.

    Tip 3: Legato and ornaments. As far as I know, midi doesn't do ornaments for you, so PLEASE be sure to "expand" them where they appear in your score. As for legato, it's a simple manner to simple extend each note in the legato so that they slightly overlap each other.

    Tip 4: Exporting and putting it all together. When you export your midi files, be sure to export them to a lossless format, like FLAC. That'll make them so much nicer to edit, even though the files are bigger. If your export them all to mp3's right off the bat, then you'll have a lossy file--some of the data will be lost each time you have to compress it again. When you put your files together, you can use a simple audio editor like Audacity. As long as you don't have any empty space at the beginnings and endings of your files, you can just drop them in one right after the other and add your effects (any unusual dynamics (e.g. sfz), some small reverb, etc.).

    Bonus tip: Be sure to set the "chorus" setting proper to each instrument in your virtual orchestra. For instance, each violin section should have about 14 violinists. Just be sure that when you break up a section for chords and polyphony and such, you change the chorus setting appropriately. The end result will be a subtle, but noticeable difference in the sound of the piece.

  3. #3
    151
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    "All the real audio people are on Linux nowadays."

    I'm not sure who told you that.

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    Senior Member Kopachris's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 151 View Post
    "All the real audio people are on Linux nowadays."

    I'm not sure who told you that.
    A good friend named Sar Chasm told me.

    (Well, a lot of film production companies, such as Industrial Light and Magic, WetaDigital, Rhythm and Hues, Dreamworks, and Pixar, have all used Linux for at least some of their movies.)
    Last edited by Kopachris; Sep-17-2010 at 04:13.

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    Re: Making half decent computer music:

    If you can afford it, use/get a weighted keyboard. Harder to make music without.

    Learn about velocity sensitivity and setting your keyboard or sequencer so that it responds in a natural fashion to the way you play.

    Sequencer should have decent resolution - probably at least 480 pulses per quarter note. Once you get much below that, it starts messing with your feel, especially at fast tempi, and musicality is lost.

    As you improve your keyboard skills, the rate at which you can create your music, at least in the recording/playback sense, will increase exponentially. It's a beautiful thing to be able to play things in with passion and emotion, even if it's only a single instrument at a time.

    You can do tempo changes just fine with a sequencer. With some sequencers it takes longer than others, but with the better ones, you can get rather fast at making them feel like music, not straight lines on a tempo map. When that becomes too problematic, forget the click and tempo track, just disregard it all and play.
    art is never finished, it is abandoned...

    http://www.weddingmusicproject.com/

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