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.

Most let you record various instrument and vocal tracks and add software-based synthesizers or effects to round out your sound.

In the pro world, Digidesign's ProTools is the defacto professional recording digital workstation hardware and software combo, and Digital Performer by MOTU is the big daddy of music recording software, used in home and professional recording studios worldwide.

Now that you have the foundation laid, it's time for the tools to use with all this software.

Keys to Creativity

The digital keyboard arena is dominated by Yamaha and Casio, with Korg and Roland also providing popular professional-level MIDI keyboard controllers.

Today's keyboards are easy to set up and play, and even the cheapest digital keyboard now has MIDI connectors to connect to your computer. Both Yamaha and Casio sell quality keyboards in the $100-$200 range, such as Casio's CTK-700 and Yamaha's PSR-293. Prices can vary widely, though, with Casio's upscale Privia PX-310 going for $800.

The piano-style keyboard controller has long-dominated the MIDI market because of its ease of use and portability. E-MU's Xboard 61 and M-Audio's Ozonic are examples of controllers that plug into the MIDI connectors on your sound card or use your computer's USB or FireWire ports, letting you play directly into your recording software.

Power Chords

Over the last several decades, the guitar has remained an purely analog device, with pickups translating string vibrations into an electric signal sent to an amplifier.

However, if you want to plug your guitar directly into your computer you'll need a preamp to boost the signal. You might get an external interface that combines a soundcard and preamp and connects to the USB port, such as the Tascam US-122 .

Or, if you need FireWire technology, get the Hercules 16/12 FW . If you already have a MIDI-compatible sound card, consider purchasing an external stand-alone preamp such as the SMPro Audio TB101 or TB202.

Of course a cool new MIDI guitar would simplify all of this, wouldn't it?

Several companies are modifying guitars to digitize the sound before sending it to the amplifier, turning the instrument into a true MIDI controller, or expanding the possibilities of altering the sounds in new and unique ways.

Line 6 Variax

California-based Line 6's Variax guitar doesn't use regular pickups; instead it has a sensor in the bridge that converts the vibrations into digital signals. Priced from $500 to $1,500, the Variax can sound like 25 different instruments, from various standard electric guitars to other stringed instruments, such as a banjo or 12-string guitar.

For around $300, the venerable Nashville-based guitar maker Gibson offers an update to its classic Les Paul guitar with a special pickup that transmits six different data streams -- one for each string. This means you can use multiple effects and amplifiers to create a cacophony of otherworldly sounds.

Brian Moore Guitars , from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., makes guitars that can plug directly into your PC, and it now has an $800 iGuitar that can connect using a USB cable.

Whatever your poison, the list of cool digital music creation tools is seemingly endless. All you need now is a desire to rock!



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Russell Dean Vines is the president and founder of The RDV Group Inc., a New York-based security consulting services firm, and a bestselling author. His most recent book is "Phishing: Cutting the Identity Theft Line," published by John S. Wiley and Sons.