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Release the Sounds

Switch It On: A Juno 106 Synthesizer
You don't have to be able to read music or have had formal music training to make your own tunes -- digital music creation tools make it simple.

Various software and hardware products are available that you can easily use to create and produce your own music. In fact, anyone with a PC or Mac at home already has the basics for a music studio.

From making your own CDs to podcasting to creating personal ringtones, industry stalwarts such as Sony , Yamaha and Casio have introduced products that make it easier to compose, record, perform and distribute your own music.

Similarly to how desktop publishing opened up the print business, digital music tools mark the dawn of individual composing.

Now a composer can use software, even without a specialized musical background -- rather than using paper and pencil to write music, the composer uses digital inputs, and can instantly hear what has been created.

If you can play a little guitar or piano (or already read music), various software and hardware can turn your ditty into a full-fledged orchestral opus. And even if all you can do is click and drag a mouse, you'll still be in the game.

A Primer

I've been a professional composer-arranger for many years, arranging and orchestrating for entertainers such as George Benson, John Denver and the "Rat Pack" (Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin) in addition to my own band.

As I've learned, if you're going to get involved in digital music, you'll need to understand a few basic concepts first.

MIDI, invented in 1983, stands for musical instrument digital interface. It is a computer communications standard that allows electronic instruments to send and receive data in real time.

What this means to musicians is that synthesizers and other instruments from different vendors can be connected together and all be played at the same time.

Pretty much every PC or Mac made today has a sound card built in; if you get serious about digital music, you'll want to buy a specialized digital audio card, such as those made by Creative or Turtle Beach .

Composition Software

A simple choice for Mac users is Apple's GarageBand program, which comes free with any new model.

A more complex and robust offering is Apple's Logic Pro , available in both $300 and $1,000 flavors.

Several companies offer music software packages for PC users: Cakewalk's Sonar Home Studio and Steinberg's Cubase are two of the most popular software packages for home studios.

Notation Software

For centuries, composers used lined manuscript paper and a pencil to write out parts for each instrument. Not all instruments play the same notes at the same time, and not all instruments are in the same key, so each part had to be written by hand.

In The Days Before Digital
Photo: Wendy Carlos

Producing a score for anything from a small band piece to a 90-piece orchestra was a painstaking chore, time-consuming and expensive.

If you can read and write music, two music notation software packages, Coda Music's Finale and an offering from the British company Sibelius , are the most popular choices; both are priced around $600. I use Sibelius for all my large orchestra scores and parts, as it's easy to transpose, add or delete instruments and print out the parts with a simple push of a button.

Recording Software

For songwriting, studio production, live performance, post-production and mixing, software has replaced the big recording studio; even the pros now often record directly into a laptop.

There are lots of music recording packages that are accessible for the beginner or hobbyist, delivering a range of features to help you to write a song and burn a CD or MP3 file.
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